Sunday, 25 January 2009
The books and shows reflect interests that have spanned three decades. They began around the time that I was doing my O levels (what became GSCEs) and developed while studying history and politics at A level. There was one writer who was not on the curriculum but made a huge impact on my thinking anyway: Alvin Toffler.
Toffler was a popular predictor of the future. He has advised American Presidents and been ignored by academics. His key ideas are that societies, economies and political arrangements are determined by the means of production: agrarian production does not need mass manufacturing or centralised education while industrial production does.
Within each 'wave' of production we do have choices to make over the allocation of resources and power but they are determined by how we get our food, clothes etc. Each change in the basis of production causes violent shocks. As Britain entered the Industrial Revolution there were protests and confusion about the new ways of doing things. Toffler argued in the eighties that we would see the same thing as we leave the industrial economy behind and enter the post-industrial age.
Some of his predictions appeared fanciful. Would consumers really be able to design their own clothes and then ask the manufacturer to make them? Would we be able to create buildings that could easily be reshaped? Would the personal computer revolutionise how we work and play? At the time most people thought all this was science fiction, now it seems absurd that it wasn't all possible.
One of the hallmarks of the post-industrial age, or information age, is the diffusion of power and decision-making. Organisations that are hierarchical and centralised will be battling against a means of production that requires a very different approach. The distinction between producer and consumer may well go. After all, it is a relatively late concept in the history of human beings.
Toffler's books led me to two conclusions. I broadly agreed with his premise and thought that it would be better to have governments that had policies that meant the information age could flourish. The governments that fought against it or simply didn't understand what was going on would fail in their policies but cause many problems along the way.
My political choice of party to vote for was partly based on this. 20 years later all three political parties are still grappling with these changes. To a large extent they have all recognised what is going on.
One interesting sidebar to all this is the debates over producer dominance and championing the consumer. There are those in all three parties who believe that putting the consumer in control is key. This is seen as crucial to the new post-industrial society. The point they are missing is that the distinction between producer and consumer may soon be gone.
At the age of 17 or 18, I was reading about the founding of America and a new way of communicating and producing. Perhaps it is a sad reflection but I am still reading about those things now.
The Age of Reason or the Enlightenment was about many things: embracing change, a belief in progress, a belief in the human spirit, the birth of modern politics and a commitment to liberty. Scholars have recorded what happened next. We know that not all the promises of the Enlightenment were met. We know that at times the dark side of humanity was in the ascendancy. We know how the rationalism that was meant to liberate us all was perverted by leaders and movements who thought they knew what was best for people. The triumph of collectivism; whether communist or its cousin fascism, led to appalling human suffering and contempt for the individual.
The Wire may be about the death of America but it is also about our inability to organise ourselves. The programme shows us very clearly that the 'war on drugs' is doomed to fail because our power structures keep it going despite themselves.
Toffler's world, the world of Jeff Howe's 'crowdsourcing' is not a panacea to our problems. It is a new way of doing things. It will involve bottom-up decision-making not top-down. It will involve new ways of making money in a free and open market. It will involve new ways of developing policies to tackle problems. And it will involve new ways of enjoying life and being free.
My interest in the Enlightenment and Toffler was no coincidence. I saw then the connection between the two: that technology could bring the aspirations of the Enlightenment to the crowd. My renewed interest in it all is not a coincidence either. Since the 1990s, a new Enlightenment has been taking place.
I want to stress that this is not a utopia. It is something different with many challenges and vast opportunities. Political parties will, by their nature, play catch-up with all this. And as always, America is ahead of us. As Jeff Howe has said, Obama ran a crowdsourcing election campaign. If the newly elected President can find a way of running a crowdsourced administration, we will begin to see the political process match what has been happening with how business is being done and lives are being led.
Sunday, 18 January 2009
Every new presidency is historic, so how does one describe the election and inauguration of Obama? Perhaps as Maya Angelou says of Michelle Obama, this is the real deal.
The expectations of Americans, and the world, are high. There are many challenges for the new President and questions about what he will do once in office.
We can assume that Obama will be setting the tone of his Presidency in his inaugural address. The reprise of the Lincoln journey is the beginning of that. He is positioning himself as a President for all of America, a leader focused on union not discord and on an American political tradition that has become mangled over the decades.
Whatever one's political views this is an exciting time.
Sunday, 11 January 2009
It looks fine. Time will tell if it draws in a community in the way the other party sites have. The conventional view has been that it is easier for parties in opposition to maximise the potential of the web and social media. There is already a LabourHome which could find itself competing for contributors and readership with its fellow party site.
The LabourList site is clearly there to attack its opponents. The site has a lists of links. The 'A' list are all Labour, the 'Z' list are Conservatives. No Lib Dems in sight. While ConservativeHome and Lib Dem Voice don't link to anyone, a choice LabourList could have taken, most political blogs, including LabourHome, do link to writers across the party spectrum.
Sunday, 4 January 2009
Saturday, 3 January 2009
I have never gone into great detail about why I believe this. With only weeks before the inauguration it seemed like a good time to set out the case.
First off, why not simply say Obama is a liberal? In the US, the Republicans have framed the Democrats as liberals and equate the word with socialism. To European ears we hear something more like social democratic: tax and spending and belief in big government. Of course, some would argue that the British liberals are similar.
British liberalism takes in a wide spectrum of thinkers and activists: Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes, John Locke to John Stuart Mill, Tom Paine to the Suffragettes, David Lloyd George to William Beveridge and many more. It is essentially a value system that believes in individual freedom, justice, equality before the law, the rule of law, property rights and that people should progress not go backwards. It doesn't have a systematic view of how society should function and certainly isn't Utopian although it is idealistic. Very importantly, it is suspicious of centres of power wherever they arise: hence embracing democracy but being wary of the tyranny of the majority.
It began with the Whigs and their commitment to freedom of the individual, free trade and open markets. John Stuart Mill and Keynes never abandoned their support for the market even though both have been described as socialists. It is true that Mill was happy to be seen within a coalition that included socialists, he began supporting the Independent Labour party later in life and combined liberal free market ideas with a belief that companies should be co-operatives. His major concern was whether capitalism in its late Victorian form was diminishing the individual and like Keynes was determined to make sure the system worked better.
Both men argued for government intervention when it was appropriate. But this was never a blank cheque for statist control of markets.
This is not to say all its advocates got everything right. Central to Mill's beliefs was that one needs to constantly review what you think and have your opponents analyse it thoroughly. However, taking this brief description of a political tradition that has been around for over three hundred years one can see certain trends: making sure people have control over their lives, a realistic approach to running things, government power checked but used to check the power of others and a government that is active and smart in what it does. To make this work one requires markets to be as open as possible but to operate within a legal system, government regulation to stop monopoly, a universal education system and policies to tackle injustice. Underpinning it all are the liberal values that help prevent excess of power or the breakdown of the rule of law. Without those values it is very easy to slip into policies that undermine the very things they are attempting to uphold.
Mill's educational policies provide a good example of the difference between liberalism and a statist social democrat approach. Mill believed that for a liberal society to thrive universal education was imperative. This would ensure an educated population who would be able to make decisions over their lives and engage in parliamentary democracy. To achieve this Mill was quite comfortable with the State meeting the cost of education but not being the sole provider. In fact, it might not provide any at all, simply pay the fees and legislate for minimum standards. This system would be paid for by taxes but like Gladstone and Hayek, Mill wasn't overly keen on income tax.
From classical liberalism to Keynes, poverty has been a major concern for those under the liberal banner. Even Hayek, a classical liberal, argued for a safety net. Hayek makes it clear that he abhorred the fact that people lived in deprivation and believed the State had a duty to step in. The liberalism government of Lloyd George was also disgusted by what poverty did to the human condition. Additionally, it saw poverty as something that gets in the way of people being able to control their lives. This does not mean that the philosophy is egalitarian. It isn't. But it can have an element of redistribution especially in a democratic society where there is a demand for such action. And here part of liberalism's pragmatism comes into play. If you want a liberal society to be successful, for markets and democracy to function you need people to be relatively well-off. People who are very poor can't buy things and are unlikely to vote.
Before we look at Obama, it is worth remembering that the Founding Fathers imported British Whig or liberal ideas to America. The revolution was not simply about throwing off the monarchy; it was about establishing a system of government based on liberal principles. This is very important in understanding American politics. The DNA of both political parties stems from a small l liberal approach to government and economics. This is why for all the accusations of socialism that the Republicans throw at the Democrats, there is something hollow about it. The Democrats are pursuing the American Dream just like the GOP, the difference is they believe government action can ensure more people get a shot at it.
So however distributionist and statist the Democrats are, they are still essentially a party committed to the free market. It is true they have tended towards a more social democratic position in the past but they have never had to go through a Clause 4 moment in the way that the British Labour party has.
Despite committing his administration to a big push from government to stimulate the economy and tackle the environmental challenges, Obama appears less statist than some. Here is why.
He has peppered his speeches with references to Lincoln, the man who led a liberal Republican party. He has said that he believes in smart government not big government. He has talked about things the State can't do. He has talked about things that people can do.
His opponents will dismiss this as empty rhetoric or worse: a man hiding behind words and planning on some grand central command and control State. We will only begin to know who is right when he gets into office. But aside from the speeches there has also been plenty of policy discussions.
Obama has said he will cut taxes for those on middle and incomes. He has recently talked of keeping the tax cuts for the rich until they expire. And when he begins to spend money to prevent a recession becoming a depression, he is talking of a statutory commitment to a 'pay-go' system to help restore fiscal responsibility. He is already talking to Republicans and listening to blue dog Democrats (fiscal conservatives). You can read all this in an article on the Washington Post's website.
As a parenthesis, if you compare key Obama policies on tax and the environment with the British Liberal Democrats, they are remarkably similar.
The Administration is going to embark on a fiscal stimulus and begin work on universal health care. As the past architects of both, Keynes and Beveridge, were liberals it will be fascinating to see how an American administration handles these policies. We should not forgot that in Britain we have only had Labour and Conservative governments implement these ideas. If one reads the Beveridge report it is quite clear that he was not proposing the type of Welfare State the UK became. Can an American government, with some Whig DNA still running through its veins, and a President who admires Lincoln do something different and dare one say it, more liberal?
Certainly, Obama is not suggesting the statist solution to health care that his new Secretary of State was proposing when her husband was President.
Then there is the environment. Whigs and liberals have always been keen on scientific discovery. Both Joseph Priestley and Mill expressed concerns about the environment and how we treat it. There is also a scepticism that runs through liberalism; a questioning of conventional wisdom. The libertarian right tend to dismiss climate change as a conspiracy designed to let in big government by the backdoor. Obama has made it clear he is on the side of the, at present, scientific majority. But will he bring a liberal scepticism to how the problem is tackled and harness the market in ways that the Republicans talked about but never appeared to do?
Of course, things might turn out differently. The social democrats might win out, events may cause a change in policies and Obama may prove to be less liberal than his speeches make out. There is one non-liberal policy that should be mentioned. Obama has flirted with protectionism and it is still unclear how much of a free trader he will be.
But if Obama goes some way to living up to the promise of those speeches, if he is more of a liberal than a big government tax and spender, then we may see a reawakening of a brand of liberalism that has been dormant for quite a while.
Steven Johnson's follow up to The Ghost Map is a tour de force of science, politics and religion.
The Invention of Air centres on Joseph Priestley, while taking in the founding of America, the development of environmental science and the renewal of a friendship torn apart by political difference.
Johnson offers the reader a way of understanding events: a way that could replace the Hegelian view that everything depends on individuals and the Marxist dialectic that change is about the clash of the classes as they struggle through different periods of production. This way of looking at the world matches how Joseph Priestley worked.
As Johnson says:
"But for Priestley, these three domains were not separate compartments, but rather a kind of continuum, with new developments in each domain reinforcing and intensifying the others. When Lindsey opened his Unitarian Church, Priestley defended the move against critics who claimed it would undermine the existing religious authorities by invoking the very same principles that governed his scientific research: expose as many ideas as possible to as many minds as possible, and the system will ultimately gravitate towards truth and consensus."
This multi-disciplinary approach that says to understand one thing one has to understand many is how scientists are now looking at the ecosystem. They start from the basis that to understand what is happening one needs to factor in not just physics or meteorology but many subjects that impact on the way the earth works.
It might seem an irony that Priestley's identification of photosynthesis led to ecosystem science but perhaps there was an inevitability about it.
As well as working out how plants function, Priestley was one of the scientists who discovered oxygen. He was, as one French writer said of him, the 'founder of chemistry'. All the while he related his discoveries to the London-based club of Honest Whigs, including one Benjamin Franklin and later the Lunar Men.
Priestley's political and religious activity led him to John Adams, the second US President, and Thomas Jefferson, the third. Eventually, it would lead him to America.
Priestley was a radical Whig and his approach to truth would be a theme developed by John Stuart Mill who would set out the principles of free speech in On Liberty: that all opinions must be considered in order to help find the truth. Mill also rather liked borrowing ideas from other political movements: he listened to conservatives and socialists refining his liberalism as he went on.
Johnson provides a sweeping narrative of Priestley's life all the time putting into context how his actions came about. Johnson approaches the story as if it were an ecosystem making sure he explains all the elements that matter.
At the heart of all this is the importance of the network. Priestley gained much from his involvement with the Honest Whigs and later the Lunar Men. Very importantly, he shared his findings with interested parties, thus helping their work. Both groups shared too allowing Priestley to develop ideas and go back to his experiments. This 'crowdsourcing' method is only now coming into its own as the technology of the World Wide Web allows all of us to share ideas and experience.
The book is best seen as part of a body of work by Johnson. Once again he explores networks, science, how we organise ourselves and how we live. And once again he does it brilliantly and seemingly with ease.
The Industrial Revolution would no doubt of happened without Priestley but Johnson shows he certainly helped shape it. Industrialisation led to specialisation, mass production and closed groups. Only now, in the information age, are we seeing a new open-source culture where individuals can be in control of their work. As a radical Whig who believed in progress, Priestley would be proud.
Thursday, 1 January 2009
First though, a brief description of its two architects: Hayek and Marx.
Friedrich von Hayek was an Austrian liberal who came to Britain in the 1930s and then after World War Two taught in the United States. In The Constitution of Liberty he describes himself as a Whig rather than a liberal. While he clashed with Keynes, he did concede that at times it might be necessary for government intervention in the economy. His economic opposition to Keynes was in what shape that intervention should take, his political opposition was what one should be attempting to achieve. In later life, he also clashed with the monetarists.
Hayek was clearly part of the Whig/liberal tradition. In his two most famous political books, The Road to Serfdom and The Constitution of Liberty, he argues for the rule of law, freedom of the individual and checks and balances on the power of the State.
At the end of the latter book he makes a powerful plea for liberty so that human spontaneity and creativity can flourish and progress. Hayek makes clear he is not a conservative although he argues for an alliance with Conservative parties in order to stop the spread of the rational-socialist tendency that planned solutions for the mass of the population on the basis that it knew what was rightfor them on a collective basis.
At this point, the reader may be asking how one can combine Hayek with Marx? While it is true that Marx argued for the eventual withering away of the state, he was not much interested in the rule of law or spontaneity. He was far more concerned in laying out a clear rational path to a utopia in which humanity would simply have to fit into.
So the two are, clearly, incompatible if the reader assumed that the Marx being referred to was Karl. However, if one thinks of Groucho and his brothers then things begin to make more sense.
The Marx Brothers never set out a political agenda. So one can only assess their worldview from the canon: Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers, Monkey Business, Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.
The Marx Brothers were anti-authority, they enjoyed chaos, were certainly spontaneous and rather anarchic. If one seeks a Marxian manifesto it is probably best summed up by the lyrics of one of Groucho's songs: whatever it is, I'm against it.
The energy of the brothers, their scepticism about power, their sheer enthusiasm for life and mischievousness could be said to be perfect expressions of the sort of society Hayek thought desirable. When Groucho ever gains power he goes out of his way to diminish it. As Groucho once said: I don't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member. Even if something apparently liberal is set up, the Hayekian Marxist would be questioning it and making sure it doesn't become accepted wisdom: individual creativity should flourish and find something new. It should be noted that Hayek was very sceptical about government initiatives and preferred things to develop through human actions over time. But for Groucho even these can be flawed.
One of the tensions within liberalism is the belief in individual autonomy with an idealistic view of how human beings should behave. John Stuart Mill alludes to it and his liberalism wins out. He would rather people were free and able to decide how to live than be controlled by a group, be it the State, the majority view or big business.
Mill hoped that people would then focus on the 'higher passions' and that would make them better people but if they weren't so be it. But this urge to see people improved can get the better of anyone who is liberally minded. It is then that we start to see policies to encourage better behaviour and that gives the green light for non-liberals to be far more interventionist and regulatory. This problem is set out by the authors of a book that was a sensation for a few months: Nudge. It seeks to produce policy ideas for libertarian paternalists.
The logic of Mill's argument, and what is implicit in Hayek's view of the world is that people, if free, will not always do things that everyone approves of or that is even good for them.
Accepting this, even celebrating it, is very difficult. This is particularly true in a globalised world where actions anywhere can affect the whole world. And in countries where public service provision is so strong and behaviour can incur costs for the taxpayer, stopping governments from encouraging better behaviour seems a dereliction of duty if not downright perverse.
Hayekian Marxism acts as a riposte to this. The Marx Brothers show that it is not the outcomes that matter, it is the doing that does. A spontaneous act becomes more important than the result. And in the swirl of energy, chaos and good humour, Hayek would hope that human beings discover liberty. Then they will make their own decisions: sometimes good ones and sometimes bad. But it will be the individual who makes the decision. Their happiness will derive primarily from that action. A decision leading to more happiness will be simply a bonus.
Of course, in the complex world we live in makes this difficult to pull off. Hayek recognised that it would take a long time to get back on the road to Whig liberty. As for Groucho, if he were told there was a political movement that had been inspired by him he would immediately attempt to undermine it.