The problem with Liberals

On these pages I have often described myself as a Social Democrat and not a Liberal. These two political doctrines to the outsider appear quite close, yet I feel there is fundamental difference between the two. This difference is why I have a problem with liberalism.

Social democracy and Liberalism share some common world views. Perhaps most importantly that society should work for everyone, it is worth repeating, everyone; black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. However the two doctrines differ in how this society is to be realised. Social Democracy advocates working out what the centrist position is from first principles, whereas Liberalism finds the centrist position more relatively, based on prevailing public opinion. This relativistic stance is to me the weakness of Liberalism.

However, as human beings we are relativistic creatures, how we think, how we behave and what we value is determined socially. This social determination is guided by our families, our social peers and the communities we grow up in. The views of the world we hear around us, shape us. There is natural desire to compromise with prevailing views in a society, to ‘fit in’ and find our own space. To be able to compromise, you have to be able to understand and be prepared to be persuaded by arguments if you test them and find them convincing.

In many ways Social Democracy is the tougher discipline as it prescribes picking apart all this social fabric to get to the fundamental issue. Social Democracy is thus a cold discipline, relying on logic and reason,  can seem devoid of feeling. Yet it isn’t cold as the aim is to provide something for everyone. This criticism also applies to Liberalism, whilst the Liberal will listen, they may lack empathy as they are trying to work out where the centre is, rather than understand each individual.

Both the Liberal and the Social Democrat are a little jealous of those away from the centre on the left and right wings, the Socialists and Conservatives. Jealous, because the wings don’t have to think so much. To the wings political positions come easily, certain arguments just fit naturally with how they think and the opposite arguments seem alien and incomprehensible. Centrists often run into this problem that they don’t always get a reasoned argument for something. So often an argument will rest on an appeal to a common sense that runs true with how they think. The problem with such rhetoric is that is doesn’t extend beyond like minded people, to the centre or the ‘other’ wing. There seems to be this rise in division and the recent development of Nationalism in Europe and North America that raises serious concerns. I blame the Liberals.

Partly it is because the Liberals have moved from the centre, where us Social Democrats still are, towards the right as it has appeared that society has moved to the right. Electoral success has been the reward of this drift. Tony Blair, was essentially a Liberal, as were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Here in the UK, the Liberal Democrats found themselves in a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, for the good reason of providing stable government. However, the Liberal Democrats failed to do their job as a coalition partner and went native with the Conservatives, to the horror of Social Democrats and Socialists, the ‘Liberals’ had let us down, again. It was not unexpected, Liberals, with their mode of drifting to the centre ground, working everyday with predominantly right wing Conservatives would lead you to shift your perception of the centre quite far rightwards, which is what happened.

Liberalism may he partly the cause of the recent rise of Nationalism, of Brexit and Donald Trump. Once you start drifting in a certain direction currents often speed you on in that direction, because nationalism is very good at subverting human nature.

<Slight tangent in case anyone is getting confused, I am supporter of Welsh independence, or “Welsh Nationalism” as some like to call it. We are not “Nationalists”, it’s just not the same thing, ok? (maybe I’ll expand on this next time!)>

The problem with Nationalism is that the worldviews and opinions of the people who surround in our lives, in our communities, our desire to fit in and to work to make things better are essentially positive. For social animals everyone doing their thing and working with the people around us to improve society is simply a good thing.

However, the sly fox of Nationalism achieves it’s end of replacing the ‘good of the community’ with the ‘good of the nation’. So instead of being inspired to improve our communities, we are inspired to work to improve our nation. This is not the same thing. Nations are somewhat artificial constructs and do not seek to help people, they have a life of their own and play around with our notions of self and community. Nationalism when it arises, often has a scapegoat, a group to blame for the nation not being as mighty as it could be, be it the Jew in 1930s Germany, the Socialist, the immigrant or the Muslim in recent times. This right wing nationalism, relishes competition, which is actually bullying as it slowly works it way through society, the narrative subtly changes until you find yourself in a totalitarian state, like in George Orwell’s ‘1984’. The Liberal just adapts in this environment, the Liberal remains in the social centre, even though this social centre is now way off balance. For the Conservatives, they don’t notice the true horror as to them at last society  is  chiming with their own worldview, they feel as though they have won something and even the Socialist may be happy as it appears that society is at last demonstrably ‘improving’. But, to those able to be Social Democrats and to those on the outside, it is a nightmare.

Whether we are truly caught in the  Nationalism trap in the UK and USA, is perhaps too early to say, but all the very worrying signs are there: There is stoking of fear of ‘foreigners’, the scapegoating of  minorities in particular Muslims, There have been elections won by populist extremists and possibly more to come in France and the Netherlands. and when we are told that these people win, so we now must conform to whatever they want to do, to be good “patriots”…

It just seems like that many people have forgotten the warning from history about Nationalism, that Orwell wrote about in ‘1984’. Even in Germany, the country that most painfully learnt the lessons of the perils of Nationalism, some 80 years ago, is seeing the rise of Nationalism. Remember ‘Ignorance is Strength’ & ‘We are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia’.

 

 

 

 

 

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Referendum

Things have progressed since my earlier post on the subject of the UK EU referendum. Out and about in the pubs and cafés people are discussing this issue, Really there is nothing like actually having a say in an issue to provoke debate. Opinions are flailing around quite madly in such a complex issue, I know people who were decided but are now not so sure.

I was in Scotland during the run up to the recent Scottish independence referendum, aside from the distortions, lies and silliness of the media campaigns, yet normal people were discussing the issue. I met a number of Scots whom whilst aware of the whole Scottish independence thing, had never given the issue any serious consideration as a possibility themselves. What was interesting, is how many people, having thought about it decided on independence. The opinion polls suggested this with the ‘YES’ percentage steadily rising up to polling day. In the end it took a dramatic last minute gesture from the UK establishment, which may have swayed a few doubters enough to give the ‘No’ vote the edge.

So, it seems this is now happening across the UK: In Wales politics is now an everyday issue: there are the Welsh government elections coming up in May, the steel crisis causing major concerns, the UK government determined to enact a range of controversial and unpopular reforms early in the UK parliamentary term, the elephant in the room  of international treaties like TTIP & CETA, not to mention continued concerns about the European migrant crisis and an increasingly unstable world. All of these things could influence the EU vote, which aren’t really about the fundamental question of whether the UK should remain a member of the EU or leave.

What many of the discussions concerning the EU, often get around to is the subject of democracy. I am an advocate of democracy. The idea of the population making collective decisions about the direction and rules of society as a whole, rather than a political elite wielding all the power, makes a lot of sense, it seems a fair system. The ancient Greeks, invented democracy, and started with citizens each having an equal vote on every issue of the day. Essentially this is what referenda are, giving everyone a choice over a single issue. I believe it would be healthy for democracy to have referenda regularly, on every major change in policy. These days, it should be fairly easy and inexpensive to enable this, through public libraries hosting the ballot.

Political establishments don’t like referenda as they involve the establishments giving up a little bit of power to the people. Even this government, in giving this referendum did so for political, rather than democratic reasons, they have refused to have referenda on other important issues. So, why do democratic political parties, when in power not really like democracy? I think the answer is partly that democracy prevents them from enacting from their own ideological agenda, whereas the people, the democratic body as a whole are not ideological and will make decisions based on more pragmatic criteria. The ‘people’ generally distrust the political class and generally view them as doing a rather poor job. Given this lack of true democracy, there is perhaps a tendency to vote for more democracy.

It may be generally true that at referenda people will vote for more democracy. The strong performance of the Scottish independence question was fundamentally about more democratic accountability. The Greek Eurozone bailout referendum was about more democracy for Greece. so, this brings me to what I find really odd about the Brexit campaign.

Often the Brexit campaigners put forward fine words about the merits of democracy. On this they are right, in principle, the UK leaving the EU should increase democratic accountability to the people, if we leave aside economic arguments and just look at democracy. My point in my previous post is that the UK isn’t very democratic either. So surely for the Brexit campaign to win, all it has to do is commit to increasing UK democracy, whether through finally implementing some proportionality into our voting system, or a genuine move to make the UK more federal. If this was promised, I would then be strongly tempted to support Brexit. However, that the Brexit campaigners are not supporting electoral reform, this causes me to doubt their intentions. It seems the question is not about democracy but increasing the power of the UK establishment, rather than the EU establishment. To the rest of us humble subjects, it makes no difference if our ruling regime is UK based or EU based.

Anyway, I still think the result will be close and too clouded by current issues to actually represent a decisive consensus. however whether yes or no ‘wins’ may make quite a lot of difference both for the countries of the UK and the countries of the EU.

TTIP and the Threat to Democracy

Currently discussions are taking place between the EU and the United States to ‘agree’ a trade treaty (TTIP), along side a similar treaty with Canada (CETA).  The issue is that such trade agreements are going too far and making the world a less reasonable and less democratic place. These treaties are not about opening up international trade, they aim to restrict it, though removing control over laws and regulations from the democratic control of people. Laws and regulations are the oil that keeps society running. They are vital to industrial and post-industrial economies.

A pre-industrial economy is largely based on self sufficient communities where almost all goods and services are produced locally by the community for the community. Excess production is then traded with other communities for luxuries. In such a society there is no real need for laws and regulations, the community polices itself, it is essentially an anarchy.

With industrialisation, comes specialisation, a community specialises its production, increasing efficiency and quantity of production, it then trades almost of of its production to fund buying in its other needs. With such a system , laws and regulations are needed as there is no longer a community based based system ensuring standards, rules are required to ensure trade is fair. A community is generally happy with this arrangement as the overall quality of life improves.

Furthermore, it becomes more efficient to standardise, the apply the same regulations and standards across wider economic areas, to include more and more communities. Often the best standards aren’t adopted, but there is nonetheless a net benefit to every participating community. The gain from adopting the standard is greater than the benefit of maintaining a local standard. Such a system works because it is consensual, a community voluntarily gives up some of its local decision making for a net benefit, it accepts and adapts to the new standards. Rules also ensure the environment is protected, that communities have such things as safe water to drink and access to facilities.

The problem with international trade agreements, such as GATT, TTIP and CETA is that communities have no say, no opt out in the standards set by such arrangements. There is no democratic control if  changes in rules or standards start to lead to the net detriment of a community. Essentially there is a trust that standards are acceptable to a community. However if an outside body, or the effect of a trade arrangement, changes the standards in a way unacceptable to a community, the community is left in a difficult position. Accept the changes to standards, but resort to local production to maintain the standards the community wants, effectively decreasing the production capacity of the community. Its a step backwards in the world economy. The standards, the regulations, the laws are no longer the oil that keeps society going, but something every individual has waste time and thus productivity finding ways to  work around the rules, in effect the standards become worse than having standards in the first place.

Then there is ISDS, a system of international courts where corporations can sue governments if it enacts rules that can be established as being detrimental to access to markets for international corporations. for a government to adapt regulations to suit a changing world, it may have to pay a fine to the corporation, so governments will tend not to change regulations. The result being that the regulations become meaningless.

Historically ISDS clauses were placed in international trade agreements to prevent governments exploiting a foreign companies investment by ceasing assets or changes the terms of an agreement. This justification does not apply to the EU, Canada or the US, which already have domestic court systems to prevent such arbitrary decisions. ISDS in TTIP or CETA can only work against democracy, or the will of people in communities.

For example, food regulations, to a large degree regulations exist to ensure that any food you buy is safe to eat, or has a label to tell you that the product is Kosher, Halal, GM-free, free-range, etc informing you that you can eat such a labelled product. So, if this trust in regulations is lost, people will no longer be happy to buy food (or indeed any product) from all over the world, but individually seek to find producers they can trust locally. Its just a massive retrograde step. It’s creating an anarchy on a global scale, without the benefit of policing by the community of the world.

What is especially worrying is that these problems are well known, especially the lack of democratic accountability, but the political establishment has done nothing to address these concerns. Democracy has to work from the bottom (the people who live in communities) upwards, with law making powers given to the centralised establishment rather than the other way around. rather than be imposed from a centralised establishment, a top-down approach is profoundly undemocratic, it’s essentially the feudal system the world had thought it had seen the last of. All the gains that society has made on the last two centuries will be lost unless these arrangements are halted and power returned to the people, democracy.

 

Supporting Data

All too often relationships falter at the alter of misunderstanding. People become upset by perceptions of malice. By allowing the feelings of anger and sorrow to linger, people allow themselves opinions to become bias. This is partly the problem of nature of ‘supporting data’.

When people misunderstand  one another, a misinterpretation of intention is experienced. There is often a sense of unwillingness to be open and clear up the misunderstanding, partly because this is time consuming, requires careful thought and exposes any individual to a lot of individual personality history and quirks. Until, if ever, this occurs there is a period of upset.

So, as individuals we learn to deal with this period of upset. A simple solution is sass, to disassociate the self from the incident and not allow it to affect yourself. Otherwise as the individual doesn’t have access to all the data, or the other side of the story, they may suffer from the mortification that they have done something terribly immoral and begin to overly question themselves.

The support of friends is often sought, if affected. This requires a re-telling of the story. The friend will hear an account of how their friend has been mistreated by someone. It is not the whole story as the only data available is one side of the story. Nonetheless, the story, sounds like their friend has been mistreated. In any case, the other data is unavailable, what is important is to help their friend, to support them and reassure them that there isn’t anything wrong that they have done. Often, by implication, the other party is to blame. What often happens is that people are blamed without access to all the information.

This can be a problem as it can quickly occur that peoples labels outside the group can empirically seem to belong to a ‘bad lot’. Young men and women will often blame the other gender for social problems for example.

My concern is that this process is increasingly occurring in the media and indeed social media. Every day I become more exposed to bias data and less authoritative balanced accounts. It requires effort to ensure that you keep exposing yourself to a wide range of sources of opinions, to protect yourself from adopting the biases of groups to which you belong. Social media is particularly bad for this, for example on twitter, you tend to follow people who share your interests and general opinions, reinforcing your own bias.

My uncle, took a right wing newspaper (In the UK most mass media is right wing), he did this because he wanted to know ‘what the enemy was thinking’. As a younger man, I assumed that this was why most people read the newspapers they did, rather than one which reflected more closely their own position. Perhaps because, we are all insecure, we seek reassurance that what we think is all-right by reading/hearing similar opinions reflected back to us.

This is very dangerous. For example, the great lesson of the rise of Nazism in the twentieth century. A small minority of any population, tries to buck the system and commits crimes. The criminals will come from every religious, racial or social group. However if the dominant media only report , for example, the crimes of Jews and neglect to report those of other people, then the impression created is that Jews commit most of the crimes, when this has no statistical basis. This view became pervasive in Nazi Germany and was one of the causes of the terrible rise of Naziism. So it worries me now, that Muslims are now placed in a similar position in contemporary Western Society.

It is easier for people to feel that someone else is to blame and that it isn’t their fault, really because there isn’t enough data readily available to assess whether as an individual you are part of the problem or not. not readily available as it harder to locate data sources outside of your culture/ social group. Whilst difficult and non-commercial (the data sources will not be marketed at you), it is important that everyone does this, to spend a little time thinking outside of the generalisations we require to get by and stay positive.

People are distracted by the trivial, the serious is often mentally tiring and disturbing. Art is a great stimulus to the intellect and source of positive feelings. What makes something a rewarding piece of art is interesting, so often people seek the background to the art. As a starting point, one may seek to discover the artists background or biography. Beyond that people may become interested in gossip of the artist as celebrity (here beginning to concern the trivial). The ardent fan may seek personal information beyond, that required to understand the art, to feel a sense of personal connection to the artist. The bulk of popular media responds to this  by generally providing trivial data, at the expense of balance. Again, we become accustomed to this torrent of trivia and instead of vigilently questioning it, begin to accept these trivial opinions as truths, after all they are only trivial truths.

But, it affects democracy too. The idealised British democratic system is based upon politicians taking advice and data from a range of people, generally experts in the field, academics and captains of industry. Ideally, all this data is then rigorously discussed amongst politicians of a range of types, and compromises reached and policy enacted to improve the general situation. Whether the UK ever had this ideal is a matter for debate, however it is clear that this ideal is no longer the case. Today politicians only seem to take data from favoured (and hence bias) sources, there is little scrutiny. As I’ve said before, policy occurs to placate those identified as being important to appeal to for re-election and maintain relationships with favoured sources, rather than best policy.

So, having access to all data, not just from those that support us, is necessary for getting a balanced overview of anything. It is understandable not to do this all the time, as people need to live positively. Rather than question every hiccup, be aware that it is a way of dealing with incomplete data. People should remain aware of the risks of the explosion of data the internet exposes us too and the bias implied.

Literalism and Authority

The recent tragic death of Leelah Acorn, and her suicide note plea, published on tumblr to ‘fix society’, is something for us, as human beings to reflect upon.

I am not a parent, but I know that parenting is a tough challenge as someone is brought into this world for whom you have unconditional love, but that someone is their own person. Parents are people who are in a position of authority over their children. Children have an insatiable curiosity about the world and themselves and often, especially with younger children the role of the parent is often to curtail the childs freedom to explore, to prevent them getting into danger, for example keeping knives and matches away and telling children not to play with them.

As children grow decisions about what behaviour to restrict become more complicated as young people become capable of making their own decisions. One of the hardest lessons to teach children concerns authority.

The lesson being to respect authority, whilst developing a healthy disrespect for authority itself. This seeming contradiction is a challenge as parents are an authority figure themselves. It is important to distinguish that authorities do make the wrong decisions, but that such poor decisions are not a reason to completely reject the authority entirely. The territory of grey areas and compromise is a difficult arena for developing people to appreciate.

As adults we live in countries with systems of laws created by governments. Most people are aware that governments generally don’t make the best decisions. Government decisions should be the result of compromises and the production of laws that are at least an improvement on previous laws. As citizens we have to obey/ respect the law of the land even when we know some laws are unjust, that our economic systems are imperfect. As individuals we learn to accept the imperfection of laws. For example, when homosexuality was illegal and homosexuals had to respect this law by not expressing their sexuality publicly.

I have a disdain for those who take a fundamentalist literal interpretation of the Bible. This is overly simplistic and restricts the ability of the individual to interpret Gods love for themselves. For example the creation story of Genesis that the world was created in seven days whilst containing truth, is not literally true, it seems that some people, the ‘creationists’, have difficulty with this distinction. There is immortality for good souls in Heaven, but Heaven is not a realm where souls have corporeal existence, there is no sense in attempting to define literally what heaven is as a single concept. The concept of heaven is not a literal one but a spiritual one. As a scientist, I am aware of the distinction between the scientific method of testing of theories in a logical manner and the personal subjective view of existence. The teachings of Christianity are not about a dogmatic adherance to a set of rules, but provide the means for accessing the tools with which to help make decisions.

Generally there seems to be too much literalism in the world. For example the pop star,Charli XCX has recently released a track with the lyric: “I don’t wanna go to school I just want to break the rules”. Some of the YouTube comments of the video suggest that the singer is being irresponsible in encouraging young people not to go to school. Such comments demonstrate how pervasive literalism is, for the message of the song is not discouraging people from attending school, but rather an expression of the importance of questioning authority. This is very similar to Pink Floyds “we don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”, the members of Pink Floyd, themselves University educated.

Parents wish their children’s lives to be perfect and for their children not to suffer from issues that they themselves struggled with as young people. It could be argued that people spend their teenage years and 20’s in getting over their parents, to continue to love and respect their parents for trying to be good parents whilst acknowledging their parents imperfections and mistakes. The struggles an individual person has growing up to realise themselves and find a workable compromise with various ‘authorities’ will be different to the individual experiences of their parents. Sometimes parents need to take the time to reflect that their children are different, that society has changed and whatever the rules are, they are in a continuing state of flux.

Basically, as humanity we need to be less literal, appreciate the fussiness that there are no absolute authorities for individual experience in the real world outside of scientific laws and learn to love and respect each individual person for who they are, especially as everyone continues to better define and be more at ease with themselves through reflection and interaction with other voices. For all authorities to be open and honest about their limitations.