Thought for the day – on political unintended consequences

‘It was, after all, Greeks who pioneered the writing of history as what it has so largely remained, an exercise in political ironics—an intelligible story of how men’s actions produce results other than those they intended.’ – J G A Pocock

Pocock was a New Zealander. Not born here, but brought up here and the first ever head of the Canterbury University political science department.

I don’t normally link to Wikipedia, but just this once: there’s more on him here.

I came across this line in a book on the Kennedys, but it seems apt right now. Sadly and worryingly apt.

Diversion on Brexit, disclaimers, holiday reading, etc 

Kudos to whoever wrote this headline, in the Times Literary Supplement.

It also contains the most subtly double-edged disclaimers I’ve ever read, by reviewer James O’Brien about one of the authors under review: 

‘To declare an interest, we once shared desk space on the Daily Express, but he gave little indication then of possessing the powers of diplomacy and affability necessary to enjoy the trust of all the furiously warring factions within both sides of two even more furiously warring armies.’

Talking on the wireless again

Matthew Hooton is visiting the Americas,  I gather from the Twitter, to make a close study of the current nervous breakdown convulsing the United States’ body politic.

Personally, I rekkin Prozac is at the heart of the problem. Around 15% of Americans are on some form of anti-depressant and I think they’ve been overdosing.

Lescreen-shot-2016-12-28-at-3-45-28-pmad pipes were blamed for the fall of the Roman Empire. The elites all got lead poisoning and went bonkers, started making their horses into zodiacs, masturbating while the city burned, that sort of thing.

In centuries to come, I suspect, historians will recall anti-depressants had a similar role in the collapse of the American hegemony. Certainly, according to legend, the water supply over there is full of the stuff.

All that is by way of aside.

The immediate issue is that Matthew’s departure to the heart, and spleen, of the 21st Century Roman Empire has left a gap in National Radio’s programming.

So it was that late last week, from deep within the labyrinth of Radio New Zealand House , the call rang out, ‘Send for Hosking NO NOT THAT ONE.’

Anyway, I shall be on Nine to Noon this morning, shortly after 11am, discussing the state of the political world.

If anyone wants to hear me more regularly, I’m at NBR Radio here.

UPDATE: you can hear the audio here. http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/ninetonoon/audio/201821190/political-commentators-stephen-mills-and-rob-hosking

 

Brit Power

So, the British political class is demonstrating what happens when your entire cadre of politicos loses touch with the rest of the population and its small spherical glass toys at roughly the same juncture.

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is like the crazed last bloke in a row of tenement houses overdue for demolition. Everyone else has gone, the cranes are waiting but he’s barricaded himself in with enough water and tins of spam and beans to last for months.

If anyone comes for him he’s got a surprise for them.

Oh yes.

Meanwhile, on the Conservative side….Boris Johnson is like a character in an episode of Midsomer Murders. The slightly dodgy rich bloke, favoured son of a troubled family who you probably have pegged as the main suspect when people start turning up dead. Then he is found, about half way through the episode, in Cawston Woods, naked beside his Volvo and with a cryptic note pinned to his chest by an old regimental dagger.

It generally turns out that while he didn’t kill anyone, his follies and weaknesses led to the murderer doing what he/she did.

Michael Gove, to switch analogies completely, is the slightly creepy but bright kid in the class who seems basically harmless until he is found one day supergluing razorblades to the bottom of the waterslide.

Stephen Crabb, the Welsh guy with the weird attempt at a beard, has dropped out early. He’s the bloke who believes homosexuality can be cured, which doomed him on two counts, one being a lot of Conservatives know damn well it can’t be and the other because anyone using the word ‘cured’ in a party still  – just – led by David Cameron is guilty of bringing up painful memories.

That leaves the two finalists. Andrea Leadsom seems to have imbibed the aspirational principles of the Spice Girls at a formative stage of her intellectual development.

That leaves Theresa May. Too socially illiberal for my tastes, but she’s sensible and a bit boring and at this rather worrying stage in world political affairs sensible and a bit boring is a pretty good thing to be.

And, mentioning the Spice Girls, as I did, above, somewhat to my own surprise… It’s 20 years since they released ‘Wannabe’ and, rather like when Kennedy was taken out by the Atlantans, most of us can remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the song. (I was on a tramping trip to the Tararuas & it came on in the bus. Everyone else had heard it before).

The Spice Girls are remembered as capturing the hopes and dreams of a generation and changing the face of music forever. Remember fondly as ‘The One Who Married Beckham’, ‘The One Who Left’,  and ‘Uumm the Other Three’, their music was emulated by many, lesser, artists.

 

 

‘Sister Europe’ -and Brexit

Can’t muster much m0re than bewilderment and concern on this. I could see the appeal of the vote to leave – in fact I thought the Brits would vote to leave, and was rash enough to post this on the Twitter before the vote. 

It seemed to me that if the polls were that close the Brexit-eers would get over the line – that there would be a similar ‘shy Tory’ effect seen in the UK polls at their last general election. 

I don’t like the appeal to naked racism the Brexiteers engaged in.  I think you could make an economic and political argument for exit without going there – in fact I think the case for leaving, if this were a more normal time globally, is stronger than Remain, without raising the flag of xenophobia or racism.. 

But the timing of this is all wrong.  This is going to be destabilising at a time not just the UK but the world economy doesn’t need any more destabilising influences. 

If I’d been in the UK, I’d have voted remain for that reason. It would have been a reluctant vote, a very reluctant one. 

Anyway, here’s the Psychedelic Furs’ “Sister Europe”.  Seems apt. 

Buy a car and watch it rust

Sister see them fall to dust

They fall around

In another crowded room

Paint me like the shirt I’m in

Honestly

A riposte to Danyl Mclauchlan

Novelist, blogger and Twitter recusant Danyl McLauchlan has been reading about Trotsky. More fool him, I say, although I will confess to having read the book he cites, the Isaac Deutscher biography, back when I did a Russian history paper and I picked up that and Deutscher’s companion book on Stalin, in battered second-hand editions, at Dominion Books.

He ponders the power of Marxism in the first half of the 20th Century and how it has run into the political sand in recent years:

 

There are various critiques of contemporary capitalism out there. … But there’s no modern central unifying theory or writer or thinker or even group of thinkers or philosophy (that I can think of) that really articulates what the left is trying to do, and why. Alternatively:

  • There is and I’m oblivious to it
  • The failure of Marxism demonstrates the danger of totalising systems, so such a unifying theory would be undesirable.
  • There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values (This is probably closest to my current viewpoint)
  • To paraphrase Keynes, the failures of capitalism are not moral (or philosophical) but rather a series of separate technical challenges to be solved=

 

My own views here are probably closest to his second option. There is a great exchange in letters between David Hume and Adam Smith, which is somewhere in one of my books but I can’t find the damn thing right now, where they talk about opposing ‘systems’  and the idea anyone can come up with an all-encompassing theory for society. They may have been discussing Edmund Burke’s writings. 

(And in my own, personal, pantheon of philosophers, a nexus of Hume, Smith and Burke, the three sceptical Celts, is as close to philosophical heaven as is possible in an imperfect and ultimately unknowable universe).

The notion human beings to come up with a ‘central unifying theory’ which explains everything strikes me as being foolish at best and totalitarian at worst. I don’t think it is possible to do this for society or humanity as a whole.

The other false premise is that capitalism is a theory which manages to actually do this.

Capitalism isn’t an ‘ism’. It isn’t a unified theory, arguably it isn’t a theory at all. And calling it a ‘system’ as both defenders and attackers sometimes do, seems to me to be stretching things a bit.

Remember that capitalism, as a concept, was defined not by people who would be considered capitalists, but by people who were opposing what was going on  – in that case, the industrial revolution – and were seeking to find a unified theory to encompass what they saw and did not like.

What we have come to call capitalism wasn’t devised in advance as a theory to make society better. Therefore it wasn’t a theory which people had to be made – say, at the point of a gun – to fit. 

And nor should ‘capitalism’ be turned into something like this (cf Chile under Pinochet).

What we’ve come to call capitalism evolved out of people doing what comes naturally. As such, it represents all the ingenuity and orneriness, all that is admirable and all that is reprehensible, in the human spirit.

It wasn’t, like Marxism and its Leninist and Trotskyist and Stalinist and Maoist descendants, worked out by some weird social misfits with a grudge against society, as a way of making people better. 

There are two notable characterises of unified theories of everything: one is they all too often end up butchering people to make systems and societies fit those theories.

Perhaps the best, most accessible novelist on this is Terry Pratchett in some of the later, darker, Discworld novels. Pratchett’s satire on theocracies, ‘Small Gods’ has torturers, along with the philosopher Didactylos who is a magnificnet enscapulation of the glories of doubt and uncertainty, scepticism and humanity. 

Amongst other shafts of wisdom from Didactylos is the pithy ‘We are here and this is now. After that, everything tends towards guesswork.’ This is *real* humility and humanity, I think. 

The second characteristic is the religious nature of such unified theories of everything. It is no coincidence, I think, that the rise of these ideologies came at a time the sea of Christian faith was receding rather rapidly, and the desperate hammering to cobble together new, unified theories to explain life and society rose to a crescendo to drown out the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar of retreating certainties.

Oh, and since the starting point of this was a blog post by Danyl McL, let me recommend his latest novel.

I have just started reading it. It looks good.

 

 

Book Recommendations – The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield
strange death

 

 

‘Along that row of distinguished and original faces there would pass from time to time, as lightly as a shadow upon the waters, an alarming, an alien, spirit. It invaded and effaced the dignified construction of Mr Asquith’s features, it crept about the corners of Mr Lloyd George’s eyes, with imponderable fingers it ruined that noble forehead which was Mr Winston Churchill’s, it reduced the hatchet lines of Mr McKenna’s face to the lesser proportions of a ladylike paper-knife.. a spirit dangerous and indefinite, animula vagula blandula, the Spirit of Whimsy, which only afflicts Englishmen in their weakness.’

 

I have been thinking of this book a lot lately and I’ve recommended it to several people.  It was one of those “formative books” – a book one reads as an impressionable age and has a powerful influence on the outlook.

I’m a firm believer that styles and methods of thought are more important – much more important in fact – than the actual content of those thoughts. Habits of mind are often unconscious, stem from a mix of influences and innate character, and serve to form thoughts and beliefs.

So although, in the case of this book, I didn’t agree with everything in it at the time, and probably do so even less now, Dangerfield’s  attitude to the world of public affairs, and those who conduct it, had, now I re-read it, quite an effect.

I can even remember where and when I bought it – shortly after moving to Auckland in 1985, at the David Thomas second-hand bookshop in Lorne St, which was part of a small oasis of slightly disheveled civilisation in the downtown CBD at the time. There were four along the O’Connell-High-Lorne St zone at the time – Rare Books, Jasons, and Bloomsbury, as well as this one. Five, if you count the library.

Nice and handy, too, to the Dominos and Just Desserts cafes.

Enough nostalgia.

‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ is one of the few books I’d nominate for genuine classic status. It tells a great story – the kind of collective mental breakdown which swept over the British [ok, mostly English, and David Lloyd George] classes in the four years before the outbreak of World War One.

It is superbly written, generally with a dry ironic touch, but underneath this cool carapace some heated moral indignation bubbles and it occasionally bursts through.

It was about the breakup of a consensus, of assumptions about how their country – and, given the size of the British Empire of the time, the world  – ought to be governed. The future of Ireland, Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” and the House of Lords’ self-defeating obduracy, votes for women, and the rise of the Labour Party dominate and served to break up that consensus.

As Dangerfield put it,

‘Whatever his political convictions may have been, the  Englishman of the ‘7os and ‘8os was something of a liberal  at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and  the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in Reform. He was strongly in favour of peace – that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance, and, if possible, in the  name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.’

And he shows how widespread this worldview was, usually with a neat and deftly humorous touch, starting one section with,

‘In 1903, when Joseph Chamberlain, who had proved how insubstantial were party differences by being a Unitarian, a Radical, and a Conservative at one and the same time…’

It is character sketches like this which really make the book dance, because they are not just sketches of individual characters, they are used to show the spirit of the age. Here is Dangerfield on Arthur Balfour, the Conservative Party leader between 1902 and 1911: for Balfour, he writes,

 

‘…politics was little more than a serious game. He played it with the faintly supercilious finesse which belongs to a bachelor of breeding, and with a bitterly polite sarcasm which was quite his own. He had entered Parliament originally from that mixture of duty and idleness which made an English politician of the old school :in other words, because he could neither fight, preach, nor plead.  …He had become one of the more eminent of English philosophers at a time when English philosophy was at a low ebbb…

‘In his youth he had been known as ” pretty Fanny ” and indeed in those far days he looked rather like an attenuated gazelle. But with advancing age his face came more and more to resemble an engaging, even a handsome, skull : it carried into drawing-rooms and debates a special property of hollow mockery, its eternal memento mori which, since Mr Balfour was always affable and lively, gave him an air of mystery and even of enchantment.’

Any writer who can come up with the phrase ‘attenuated gazelle’ is someone I have to tip my hat in homage to.

Here he is on  Liberal prime minister Henry Asquith:

‘..ingenious but not subtle, he could improvise quite brilliantly on somebody else’s theme. He was moderately imperialist, moderately progressive, moderately

humorous, and, being the most fastidious of Liberal politicians, only moderately evasive. If he can be accused of excess it was in the matter of his personal standards, which were extremely high.’

My own copy of the book fell apart several years ago, I’ve since got ahold of some online excerpts and have ordered a new one from Abebooks.

It is, as those excerpts quoted above show, a joy to read if you have love history and good writing and possess a sense of humour.

It is also – because it was written in the 1930s – great to read a thoughtful book which considers Winston Churchill as just another politician, albeit a particularly colourful one, before the public monument he became post-World War Two.

Local parallels? I frequently found myself pondering this book during Helen Clark’s prime ministership. It seemed to me then quite possible we were looking at an endgame for the New Zealand Labour Party and its world view, mostly because of the inherently defensive approach to almost all policy issues.

Oh, and because Clark and Cullen at times reminded me of the Asquith-Lloyd George combination, albeit without Cullen wanting the top job.

But Clark’s cool rationality had a whiff of Asquith, and Cullen definitely had a touch of the Lloyd George at times, especially in his way with the wittily destructive phrase.

The travails which have befallen Labour since then have confirmed those thoughts from a decade ago.

And we may, now, be seeing a wider, world wide break up, with the rise of Trump-ism in the United States and the sentiment of ressentiment which that appeals to taking other forms elsewhere.

But more on that in my real job.

For now, fellow well-written-history-buffs: this book is a true classic.

That rare combination: a thought-provoking joy to read.