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.