Big society and Thatcher revised

Big society is characterised only by what it is not; that being “top-down, top-heavy, controlling” government.

There are plans to give people more say in how local money is spent, but guarantee that you will be listened to will probably be as likely as it is now.

You can get a group of people to lobby this or that and you have every bit of chance to be heard; big society might just be a name to this, but the option to gather a group of people to either demand spending on a school, to stop the closure of a post office, or oppose the building of nuclear generator outside your house exists today.

Is it possible that what was meant to be a rejection of Thatcher’s famous comment that there is no society is a return by other means; since big society is empty and vacuous and is predicated in the negative (that is, by what it is not and not what it is) perhaps there is no such thing as big society.

David Cameron insists that big society will be something like the following:

a broad agenda of decentralising power, expanding the voluntary sector and encouraging people to take more responsibility for their lives and neighbourhood.

I’ll say it’s broad: state cut back, working for free and “responsibility” – a word used as if created anew. But it has been uttered before of course.

Margaret Thatcher, in that speech, which big society is supposedly a rejection of, said:

There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.

Exactly the same; a game of guesses and fingers crossed that better off people will help the lesser off under the guise of self-responsibility; in other words Victorian philanthropy.

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Epistemic Closure and the End of Conservatism

David Cameron had his chance last night to show why he would be a good prime minister for this country; to show that in the four and a half years he has been leader of opposition he has the intellectual pounce, the stomach to lead and to tackle the oncoming stresses and strains that this country will have to cope with in the coming years.

And again he fluffed it.

The immediate polls put him in the lead by a two points (and I’m not simply being partisan when I say I really cannot see how he came off best) but he was unable to answer many of the questions put to him (particularly on the question of tax cuts for the richest 3,000 estates), he was unable to swipe away criticism from both the Labour and liberal camp, and constantly appealed to “the last 13 years” as an answer in-itself, to score political points against Gordon Brown’s substantial and perceptive analysis of what has been good in the last few years under a Labour government, and what can be done to ensure nobody needlessly suffers in the future on the frontline.

It is still quite amazing that the Conservative party has not been able to secure the kind of punch that one would naturally assume after 13 years of being out of office – after all this is the safest place to play politics, criticising the incumbent. Cameron’s appeal to “the last 13 years” is obviously his weapon of choice, but he surely ought to be asking himself about the last (nearly) five years on the other side; it ought to be remembered that the most trustworthy polls put Cameron on at 34% – as the Mirror puts it: “almost exactly the vote for the deeply unpopular Michael Howard at the last general election.”

In America at the moment a current turn of phrase, “epistemic closure”, is trending by conservatives to describe the debasing of modern conservatism’s glorious legacy, first used in this context by libertarian writer and Economist blogger Julian Sanchez as short-hand for “ideological intolerance and misinformation”. The idea is to show that conservatism has hit a wall and is appealing to low, base politics of xenophobia or ad hominem attack, as opposed to its rich, great tradition.

British conservatism has had a fair deal of “epistemic closure” in recent years also, and it’s something for the left to consider when we vent our criticisms on the right wing. When we think of conservatism today we might erroneously think of Thatcher and Major – but they were merely leaders of the conservative party. For those that believe the lie of neo-liberal capitalism (that it opens up a space for us all to become a little bit rich, and turns the fixed triangle shaped class system into a flexible circle of freedoms) in the conservative camp would’ve surely hated what Thatcher was doing by listening to those woolly Austrian and Chicago-school libertarians.

We know now they had little to worry about.

But the Thatcher/Major legacy, truth be told, will be less seen in the scheme of things as expressions of conservatism, and seen more as a new and epochal means to counter working class empowerment and intolerance of the foreign other.

For this reason I had some respect for Respublica and Phillip Blond. Aside from all bloated, first year philosophy course, flower eating nonsense that he talks about on virtue and politicians (see Mr. Sagar’s cutting analysis), what Blond did succeed in doing was to show that conservatism in this country was not the sum of the Thatcher/Major epistemic closure, but something that could be committed to community and civic participation, and not simply at the beck and call of the markets (which is rightly seen as a perversion of conservatism of the type Disraeli would have aligned himself to).

Cameron was keen to pal-up with Blond in the early days, with that timeless gag about voting blue was to go green though with Blond to vote blue was to go red. With Blond’s hat-tipping to one nation conservatism, and Cameron’s “progressivism” (by which has always meant an emotional relationship with the NHS, and therefore informing the decision to keep it) the Tories had the chance to sweep up the centre ground and remain Europhobic enough to keep the right from joining the UK Independence party. In short, drop the nasty party image.  Cameron had five years to do that – and he failed. He now sits at same lonely table as the unpopular Michael Howard who may or may not be thinking what we’re all thinking.

If I was interested in politics to score points then I, as a Labour supporter and socialist, would not care a hoot about conservatism. But this is not the case. Conservatism is not the sum total of xenophobia, big business and nastiness; this is its own expression of epistemic closure. But what almost five years of David Cameron as leader of the opposition and leader of the Conservative party has shown is that the return to real conservatism has botched. And this does not bade well considering the conditions in which that project was tested – 13 years out of office, a melee of leaders of all shapes and sizes, a global recession, and still they couldn’t exploit this enough – to think everyone in their camp assumed it would be a walkover.

Cameron himself is the embodiment of conservative closure; and if he is allowed anywhere near office after May 6th, we can only expect stagnancy and immaturity.

Theses on Progressive Conservatism

I

Republicanism, communitarianism, John Lewis, EasyCouncils, co-operatives, mutuals, the ethic of engagement, the reinvention of the firm, motivation and productivity in employee ownership and a market economy based on common ownership. Suggestive of the fact that from both the left and right a convergence will soon take place that seeks to undermine the legacy of Thatcher, or an effort from both the left and right to pretend to the electorate that they have their interests at heart? Maybe something else, but it is all rather indicative that what is fashionable in British politics today is the return to community – this will have large cultural effects as well – and the surpassing of current modes of government and market structure.

II

Progressive conservatism, a project by Demos and led by Max Wind-Cowie, rolls with this contingent, and like the Red tory Philip Blond, is avowedly anti-Thatcherite with regards to an embrace of greed and yuppie idolatry. There is a wider reason other than to change the course of politics for this emergence, and time has a lot to do with it, namely that 13 years have passed of a New Labour government, poverty gaps are still rather large – perhaps larger than in the eighties, and even before the recession took place – and the Tories are an electable force to be reckoned with in the North now.

Furthermore, industrial plants are closing down, there are massive job losses, like with the current events in Middlesbrough with the Corus steel factory, with little that Labour can do about it – even if Peter Mandelson, First Secretary of State,Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, had acted a little sooner – and by disavowing Thatcher (whose image is synonymous with factory closures) a new generation of Tories seek to throw off their nasty party image.

III

Despite what some on the right have called Cameron’s lefty language on community empowerment, there is nothing inherently different in the new emergence of co-operative theory and capitalism, in fact even the LRC document cited above on common ownership actively endorses competition among worker owned industries so as to increase ingenuity and innovation. Perhaps it is less that the right are moving to the left, and that the left are moving to a new capitalism.

Progressive conservatism most definitely seeks to save capitalism, but on the way hopes to replace what it sees as a crippling (and basically laziness promoting) benefits system with a recapitalisation programme – with the idea that if capitalism – in a slight modification of those famous words by Winston Churchill – is the worst form of economic system, except for all the others, should the poor be destined to poverty in the duration?

IV

However, of course, problems arise from within the progressive conservative programme. Firstly, a charge that Wind-Cowie has on the way our benefits system is operated is that the state decides what money one deserves, and by this way decides what that individual or household should do with the money (in the form of housing benefit, for example). This won’t do for progressive conservatism. The poor, on their way to being recapitalised, should be given vouchers to ‘save and to accrue assets’ (p.21). But this can only work if the state promotes an ideal for what people do with their income support. Now, I’m sure that Wind-Cowie isn’t against people who need a sum of money be provided for their living arrangement, what his main anxiety is that the state too much decides what income support is to go towards, but I’d say this is thoroughly a better tailored system than assets – cynically I’d say there is little difference in the two other than the fact that one has to hope their assets grow in order that that person be able to pay the gas that month.

V

Another problem is the problem of choice – in the same vein as thesis iv. The document states

It is wrong that money that is designated for individuals’ use – because of need, illness or entitlement – is spent at the discretion of the state and not of the person.
(p. 58)

This is in a part of the document that seeks to revolutionise housing benefit for the better, saying that the government  should not be subsidising landlords. A noble sounding, real progressive element, right? But this as a mode of choice falls well short. The option, when the state no longer subsidises housing benefit in the way we know now, is for the government to instead give the individual the choice – which is to subsidise the landlord! It would seem on reflection that the best that the progressive conservatives can do is not give straight to the landlord himself, but give you the choice of whether to pay him or not, which if you want to keep your house or flat, you will have to. No choice there then. Which is not directly the Tories’ fault – but it does nullify their claim to change.

VI

The progressive conservatives will not change the system, they will only trivialise it. Futile attempts to promote the Singaporean system in the UK (p. 34 – though we know this is a false analogy), the illusion of choice in housing benefits, and the option of assets instead of a tailored benefits system – without the underlying patronisation that runs throughout, suggesting that benefits are for, and only promote, laziness – are all part of their master plan. Aren’t we in trouble.

VII

Even anti-Thatcher Tories patronise benefits claimants (else why bother with poverty recapitalisation – I fail to see a difference for the individual) – is this the best they have to woo the North, who have been hit with recent job losses?

The Unlucky Twitterings of Nadine Dorries

Though I’ve been following Nadine Dorries on twitter for a while, I rarely catch her tweets as they stream my page (mainly owing to my following of proper news places like Huff Post which constantly posts). Today I had the rare opportunity to catch one of her tweets:

70% of women don’t want to be an MP. My view on ConHome http://bit.ly/3pcutA about 1 hour ago from TwitterBerry

It caught my eye to say the least, I read her ConHome entry and was not convinced, so I took a quick look at her other tweets.

Finished for the day. 6am start. Could this be the reason why 70% of sensible women, who may also be wives and mothers dont want to be MPs?about 9 hours ago from web

That time was about twelve last night, a long day, but as for the message, why are men more willing? Are these not sensible men, or are women not sensible for working this long. To be fair, nobody is sensible for working this long, but why the gender difference? Do Fathers not mind missing their children’s doings? Wives?? Mothers we can understand, which Mother doesn’t want to be without their offspring, it’s probably a similar number to the amount of Father’s. But wives, do we not detect Dorries’ opinion on how wives should be? It’s explicit isn’t it.

Another mention of Cameron’s new decision:

Every morning as I walk into westminster, I feel proud and humbled to be here. If I had been elected via an all woman shortlist I wouldn’t […] be able to hold my head up as I would know the men I work with would be here on merit but that I had needed a hand. That’s not equality.about 19 hours ago from TwitterBerry

She’d be right if this was the way in which quotas were met. But it’s not an arbitrary list of women to choose from, it’s women who have deserved to be in that place. If you are in that selection process, you should feel proud and humbled, it’s a measure that has not been taken because women need a leg up, but rather it is to denigrate the all-male bias of governments in the past, and to try and right wrongs. Of course it wouldn’t be fair to select a female where a more capable male would suffice, but this measure is not there to do that, it was to try and rectify capable females from falling through the cracks.

On a lighter note, Dorries has tended to be around the barfgeoisie for an unreasonable amount of time of late:

Great, the vomiting train, again 😦10:59 PM Oct 13th from TwitterBerry

On train from Parliament to Bedford. Bloke opposite me vomiting. Everyone on train wasted. Love my journey home.10:48 PM Oct 12th from TwitterBerry

Of course no one should like to pull ones hair out, but this position is gender neutral.

The Tories and Progressivism: Those Oxymorons

Politics is very exciting at the moment: real thinking is taking place, words are being articulated and debated, and ideas are the bedrock of policy once more. Take the example of Roger Helmer MEP, his stupidity on the subject of homophobia had a brief moment of genius, it was an analysis of the subject of etymology in that it focused on whether meanings of words stack up to public attitudes, and also how certain attitudes may be perceived from the outside. Deeply philosophical stuff. Only it was magnificently wrong. Despite Iain Dale’s totemistic, scant reflection.

Another revival of etymology in politics surrounds the word progressivism. George Osborne hyperbolically asserting that the Tories are the only progressive force in UK politics today, and Peter Mandelson riposting back that for Osborne to think this is categorically erroneous.

Indeed for these two former yachting buddies, as one blogger puts it correctly, it is a battle of ideas, and how to put those ideas into practice, which as cat-and-mouse as it might appear, makes for interesting reading. Mandy is right to say that what Osborne thinks he means by progressive is whatever it is that the Tories stand for “this month”. It certainly feels like that anyway, that Osborne figures that if a compassionate grin emerges from his po-face as he pours over public spending reform, this will sideline what lies behind the rhetoric.

This, too, goes for inheritance tax, which isn’t thoroughly progressive.

But, for the left, is there not a sense of satisfaction in that our historically right-wing party have found solace in entertaining ‘radical’ sentiment. Firstly it was Cameron’s call for a ‘day of reckoning’ back in January, saying that the nation’s modest earners – “nurses and cleaners and [sic] teachers” – should not have to fund the “multi-billion pound taxpayer bail-out of the banks” adding “[t]here cannot be one law for the rich and another for everyone else.”

Agreed. But this, given the circumstances, would have to imply a tax raise, and I’d like to think this was the case, but it will most certainly not be, so Hopi Sen accounts.

Then this notion of Red Toryism, or Conservative communitarianism, that amounts to replacing welfare with investment vouchers, or rather, a regulated system with a rearticulation of dog-eat-dog capitalism.

Progressivism is a system of formulating change, and the Tories at the moment are engaging in an exciting game of new words that would have once been oxymoronic such as progressive conservatism, but in actual fact it seems that its all talk. The Right inside the Labour camp are short-circuiting, and a shift to the left is imminent. A host of leftist elements are waiting in line, anticipating the death blow to New Labour. Why that blow has had to receive electoral punch from null Tory sentiment is beyond me, but to be sure, even if New Labour is hardly a progressive force worth defending lock stock and barrel, the Tories version of progressivism is a simple veil. Its a pity the traditional Labour base can not hold Mandy up as one of their own, in the battle of words in the new (possibly brief) epoch of political etymology.

Using Zizek against Red Toryism

Early in 2008, philosopher Slavoj Žižek published a book entitled Violence: Six Sideways Reflections in which he aims to describe the differences between the violence we might see on the news in the form of thuggery and the violence incurred by the workings of the rogue bankers tweaking the economy. The difference, for Žižek, is the difference between “subjective” and “objective” violence. That is to say, “subjective” violence is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict” whereas “objective” violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the “symbolic” (bound in language and its forms), or the “systemic” (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.

Žižek readily points to the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros as figureheads of a new type of business ethic that implicitly incorporates objective violence. They create a philanthropic standard for themselves at which they desire to be perceived, when in fact the more appropriate standard to which one should perceive them is at the concealed level of their function in the economy, an economy that determines the fate of individuals and whole nations. For instance when their philanthropy is contrasted to a street robber it might seem obvious who the violent criminal is, but when we start to analyse that which may not be readily perceptible – objective violence – , we start to understand their violence at another level, which the philanthropy has been used to camouflage.

If we change the word philanthropy with compassion we will have some idea of the tools the Tories are playing with at the moment. We’ve had hug-a-hoodie, we’ve had Cameron talk about white-collar crime, George Osborne has called for regulation of the financial system and section 28 has been apologised for. We have the choice, we can either accept that (unsurprisingly) a fairer system for all people regardless of class, race and sexuality does win votes and so the Tories are appealing to this, or the Tories really have changed.

For me, it’s a bit of both. The Tories have always wanted to hone in on some of the better ideas of the Labour party which is why they elected a meek and mild, soft Tory like Cameron to front them. He is at once electable and hasn’t got all the belligerence of previous leaders (such as Michael Howard). But what lurks around the corner with the Tories? They insist on lowering taxes for the rich, they still insist Britain is broken due to a lack in marriage, and they’ve decided to group themselves with fascists and Nazi apologists in Europe who would’ve seen section 28 as nothing short of pink propaganda.

The most intriguing expression to come out conservatism in Britain in the ‘compassionate’ period is Red Toryism. Ideas like it have been circulating for a while, but its British proponent is Philip Blond, a former theologian and director of the Progressive Conservatism Project at Demos. The idea has a faint whiff of libertarianism, in that it wants to curb welfare dependence while encouraging those on lower incomes to invest in enterprise with investment vouchers, creating an investment pool. These all sound rather like the ideas of one commentator who, on the subject of the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, justified the myth that the public services aren’t creating capital and thus should have its funding from tax taken away.

All in all, it seems more of the same, that the bottom end are sold “opportunities” in order that money can be taken away from the welfare state – which is not, contrary to our crap right-wing media’s opinion, a haven for the lazy – and they enter into another dog-eat-dog lottery that simply rearticulates the concentration of wealth in this country, and others that are dominated by the markets (see this from Don Paskini explaining how Red Toryism is more of the same). And all this is gathered under the collective term communitarianism – meaning civic groups should replace governmental functions where possible.

Sunny Hundal has spotted a strategic problem for the left since the initiative vindicates elements of people power that the left have always fought for. The version that the left has championed, however, was not underlined with a plan to promote lower income or unemployment as a source of investment opportunities – at best it outright fails to iron out the problems that make these societal injustices occur at all, at worst it ignores or absolves them.

So the way in which Blond has supported his communitarianism is by utilising more of the same expressions of false hope provided by the dog-eat-dog world of the markets. But this standard has been obfuscated by a standard of compassionate camouflage. Exactly the sort of camouflage Zizek was talking about that Soros and Gates use.

So now is the chance for the left to pounce, to promote its own communitarianism based on dialogues between people and public services – like the type used by Ed Balls and his idea that education can get stronger through dialogue between parent, teachers and authority over the internet – and overcome the hidden motives by the Tories.

Tories now embarrassingly led by bigots in Europe

The newly composed group of anti-federalists in Europe, which the Conservatives abandoned the European Peoples Party (EPP) to join – despite the influence of the latter grouping composed of top European conservatives – is now to be led by Polish MEP Michal Kaminski of the Law and Justice Party.

Edward McMillan-Scott, who rightly accused the party of being ‘racist and homophobic’, caused an embarrassing political row after standing against Kaminski for leadership, causing Timothy Kirkhope, the Tory leader in the chamber in Strasbourg, to surrender the leadership battle.

Recently there were great debates over who was more gay friendly, the Tories or Labour, and David Cameron apologised about section 28, but as Nick Clegg recently pondered (on LabourList: Where Labour Minded People [and the Liberal Democrat leader, clearly] Come Together) “while the Conservatives try to appear gay-friendly in the UK, they [are now led in Europe by] bigots who have banned gay marches and declared homosexuality a pathology.”