Reading today: We can’t keep the bad guys out; the turn against Marxism; the maintenance of civilisation

Rosa Brooks for Foreign Policy writes on how we can’t keep the terrorists out.

Cressida Heyes for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy discusses the retreat of radical left politics into the American academy as a possible motivator for its focus on identity rather than class issues.

Sam Harris and Douglas Murray discuss migrants, terrorism, Anglicanism and Jack Monroe (podcast, 1:56).


Reading today: overproduction of US elites, the ‘global Calais’, scientific motherhood

Peter Turchin, writing in Bloomberg View, blames rich, overeducated elites for the modern fraying of American society.

Pankaj Mishra argues in The Guardian that ISIS is less an ideology competing with Enlightenment values than a byproduct of the thwarted global desire for convergence with the peace and material comfort visible in the West.

Graeme Wood in The Atlantic writes on what ISIS really wants.

Charlotte Faircloth writes in Sociological Research on the scientisation of motherhood and the use of ‘The Science’ as an accountability strategy for mothers.

Jihadi Jez

Following Jeremy Corbyn’s widely criticised equivocations on the killing of Jihadi John and, more recently, of shoot-to-kill policies when faced with violent terrorism, the hashtag #JihadiJez has been inexplicably popular on Twitter and was even picked up by Sky, prompting a furious backlash from Corbynists. What has been missed by many both on the offense and defence sides of this debate, though, is the fact that tacit support for ISIS is entirely consistent with a hard-left viewpoint.

When the Berlin Wall fell, any serious ambitions by Marxists in the West for the realisation of their communist dream in Europe fell with it. Many commentators rather short-sightedly declared that Marxism was dead and social democracy had decisively won. They were wrong, as Nick Cohen argued recently.

Defeated on the political field, Marxian critiques of ideology, power and empire retrenched in the academy, becoming the dominant mode of thought within humanities subjects from literature through history to the many flavours of cultural studies that have spawned today’s corrosive identity politics. Within that comfortably insulated environment, funded academics could critique the hegemonic power of capitalism even as they sucked at its teat.

This worldview sees capitalism as the enemy, pitting groups against one another and spreading insidious lies through the status quo in order to gull the lumpenproletariat into meekly accepting its pyramid of oppression. Shorn by the fall of Soviet Communism of the prime source of opposition to this cancerous social Ponzi scheme, adherents of the Marxian mindset have found themselves allied with any regime or ideology that offers any critique of the horrors of capitalism. The resulting coalition is, as Cohen observes, paradoxical to say the least:

Opposition to the West is the first, last and only foreign policy priority of many on the Left. It accounts for its disorientating alliances with movements any 20th-century socialist would have no trouble in labelling as extreme right-wing.

Not just Corbyn and his supporters but much of the liberal Left announce their political correctness and seize on the smallest sexist or racist “gaffe” of their opponents. Without pausing for breath, they move on to defend radical Islamist movements which believe in the subjugation of women and the murder of homosexuals. They will denounce the anti-Semitism of white neo-Nazis, but justify Islamist anti-Semites who actually murder Jews in Copenhagen and Paris.

But it is only paradoxical insofar as it fails to grasp the underlying paradigm. As Chris Manby points out, there is a hierarchy of oppression, in which rich white people are at the top and, essentially deserve what’s coming to them, the bastards. Within that paradigm, pace our late friend political Communism, anyone who is with us against the lifestyles and ideology of rich white people is ipso facto on the side of the light. However fond they may be of enslaving prepubescent girls for sex or throwing gay people off buildings. It’s perfectly logical, and morally contemptible.

The science of finger-wagging

Not long ago, a relative of mine asked to see me and my husband to discuss ‘a concern’. Somewhat bemused, we agreed; it transpired that what he wanted to raise with us was his worries about what he perceived to be our excessive consumption of alcohol while trying to conceive a child. In essence his message was that we should stop drinking or the result would be a child with behavioural problems and/or special needs.

His concern was, he told us, born of his ‘studies in biology’. He came armed with helpful print-outs of articles from the internet, one for me and one for my husband. He even had notes about ‘the science’.

Never mind the accuracy of his perception that either of us is a raving alcoholic (we’re not) or indeed the validity of the ‘science’ he wanted to share with us (debatable) or indeed the appropriateness of a not particularly close family member attempting an intervention in such a profoundly intimate area of our married life (extremely debatable). The point of relating this distasteful episode in our family life is to exemplify a general trend that has only become apparent to me since notions of parenthood appeared on my radar: namely the co-option of ‘science’ to deliver what are, essentially, moral precepts.

Two things collide here. The first is the general injunction in modern society to avoid being ‘judgemental’, for fear of the cruelties this will supposedly inflict on anyone experiencing moral censure. (Theodore Dalrymple writes beautifully on this subject here, arguing in essence that while the backlash against moral censure is in some ways a justified reaction against past cruelties, determined refusal to apply moral judgement to individuals can result in far worse cruelties especially when institutionalised in the mechanisms of the social state.)

The second is the ebbing away of any source of authority except science. Religions are increasingly perceived as sources less of moral authority than of bigotry; received opinion is ignorant until proven enlightened; we no longer listen to what our mothers told us about childrearing, preferring to rely on ‘guidelines’ issued by bodies such as the WHO. This is by no means confined to child-rearing but assumes particular force  when applied to the sensitive subjects of bringing new humans into the world and their subsequent nurture.

The result is a situation in which moral precepts (women should not drink, at all) piggyback on sensible advice (don’t neck a bottle of vodka a day while pregnant or it will harm your baby) and are delivered in a supposedly ‘non-judgemental’ way via ‘scientific’ studies of dubious validity. The advice they offer is that because it cannot be proven that any level of alcohol consumption in or around pregnancy is 100% safe, it should be avoided entirely. The fact that the same could be said of any number of substances is neither here nor there; the motivation for choosing to focus on alcohol is obscured and the finger-wagging can proceed.

Emily Oster’s delightfully nerdy book Expecting Better provides solid meta-analysis of many of these studies, offering anxious modern mothers a route through the anxious discourse of pseudoscientific finger-wagging. What it has less room for, though, is a critique of the culture within which science is thus weaponised. Frank Furedi notes on this subject that

If science is turned into a moralising project, its ability to develop human knowledge will be compromised. It will also distract people from developing a properly moral understanding of the problems that face humanity in the twenty-first century. Those who insist on treating science as a new form of revealed truth should remember Pascal’s words: ‘We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.’

It is no surprise that this is evident nowhere more than in discourses around childrearing: all societies feel, justifiably, that they have a vested interest in the processes whereby new members are created and socialised. No area straddles the public and private sphere more delicately. There can surely be few areas where taking a moral stance is more understandable, and the obfuscation of such stances behind pseudoscience is disingenuous at best, if not downright destructive both to meaningful science but also to our shared understanding of right and wrong.

With all this in mind I would have preferred my relative to come right out with the moral stance. I would have disabused him of his mistaken perception of my lifestyle and all would have been well. As it is, the cloaking of morality in science has left an uneasy sense of a misperception impossible to rectify because cloaked, an insulting criticism impossible to challenge because disavowed, and an unhappy rift in my family circle.

The refugee crisis looks quite different if you’re not a beneficiary of globalisation

I’m watching with interest the disparity between the way the migrant/refugee crisis is reported in mainstream media, and the way it’s reported online.

TV and papers shows the volumes of people moving, and depending on which paper you read either huge-eyed children and frail old people or else menacing-looking clusters of young men. The narrative is about resources, political debates within the EU about how to handle the crisis, or about which East European nation is the latest to close its borders.

The internet shows videos of rubbish-strewn campgrounds, refugees torching their tents in anger (say the memes) at being denied this or that, riots in German towns and furious meetings of villagers who have just learned that hundreds of strangers are about to be billeted on them.

I’m not linking to articles or posts because my aim here isn’t to join one side or the other, but to think a bit about what the disparity between them means. The elites – and by that I mean the wealthy, well-travelled, well-educated, internationalist net beneficiaries of globalisation – see  the refugee crisis as an issue of resources and, perhaps, of an ethical stance. A huge influx of people from a non-European culture is seen as a matter of resources and, in the long run, as a benefit to a Europe where birthrates are declining. They will work, earn, pay taxes – what’s the issue? There is also, perhaps more tacitly, a feeling among many that this influx will benefit those recalcitrant patches that still cling stubbornly to cultural homogeneity.

But globalisation has losers as well as winners. Ordinary people, getting by in ordinary jobs, some of which have been outsourced or offshored or rendered obsolete by robots, and for whom ‘a long way away’ is four hours’ drive, not four hours’ flight. The people who see their national flag as a source of pride, and whose identity is found in family, cultural traditions, belonging to a place, and not – as with the winners – a smorgasbord of international tastes, traditions, cultures and practices from which one can pick and choose while flicking through the FT in the BA lounge on the way to the next meeting.

I’m being a bit reductive here, but you get the idea. The former thinks globalisation is great, and isn’t that bothered about the refugee crisis except as a humanitarian disaster about which ‘we should do more’. The latter, when it thinks about globalisation at all, thinks it’s all out of their hands and all the money is going to the billionaires so we’ll just keep getting by, won’t we? And when presented with the outcome of the refugee crisis, namely large numbers of people arriving in their neighbourhoods who look and sound very different, the reaction of this second group is less humanitarian than outraged. Because these new arrivals might be the victims of war and privation and months of misery trudging through Eastern Europe, but now they’re in our town they’re competing with us for resources, funding, space and ownership of the local cultural norms. And we were here first! goes the cry.

Globalisation produces winners and losers. To the winners, the refugee crisis is about logistics, about doing the right thing, perhaps about loosening the bonds of cultural homogeneity. To the losers, it’s about being swamped. And neither side is able to see the others’ perspective with any empathy. It’s either ‘those self-righteous wankers who live in white neighbourhoods and don’t see them raping our women’ or else it’s ‘those knuckle-dragging racists who bring shame on my country with their vile hatred and backward xenophobia’. And meanwhile, the cold, hungry, miserable – and unmistakeably very, very foreign – refugees keep pouring into Central Europe.

To quote Creedence Clearwater, I see a bad moon rising.

A handy guide to nEUspeak

I’ve long been a fan of Private Eye’s EU-Phemisms, perhaps because they are only about 5% satire. The language used by the EU is riddled with phrases that mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. I think EU-phemisms isn’t really strong enough for the mendaciousness of many of these phrases, so with thanks to Orwell’s Newspeak here is my handy guide to nEUspeak.

Greater influence on the world stage: nEUspeak for ‘one-twenty-eighth of a seat at the WTO table, and we’re going to supplant the UK’s seat at the IMF too’.

Single market: nEUspeak for ‘German trade surplus, powered by permanent austerity in Southern Europe’.

Economic convergence: nEUspeak for ‘intractable 50% youth unemployment in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy’.

Populism: nEUspeak for ‘democracy’ (a bad thing).

Democratic mandate: nEUspeak for ‘unelected’, unless the election was ‘populist’, in which case it’s nEUspeak for ‘obstacle that needs to be removed’.

Referendum: nEUspeak for ‘question we will keep asking until you give us the right answer’.

Europe (usually meaning the 50-nation continent): nEUspeak for ‘the EU, a 28-nation customs union with superstate pretensions’.

Eur0pean solidarity: nEUspeak for ‘Do as Merkel tells you’.

Renegotiation: nEUspeak for ‘elaborate charade including stage-managed fights that will culminate in an offer of second-tier membership that we’ve already agreed on’.

I’ll add more nEUspeak as I come across it.

Between ‘hate-filled benefit bashers’ and ‘something for nothing culture’

To kick off, then. In the light of Osborne’s controversial cuts to working tax credits, measures which even Fraser Nelson at The Spectator thinks are a bad idea, some thoughts on the deeper history of where we are. Both left and right are fond of namechecking the 70s, in a very partial way, to suit their arguments; it’s either ‘back to the militant unions’ or ‘back to that meanypants Thatcher’. And both left and right talk as if the difficulties we have in the UK with low pay, poor productivity and an intractably unemployed underclass are 100% the fault of the other side.

But digging into that history for a moment, let’s not forget that Thatcher’s admittedly brutal approach to the unions was felt by many at the time to be necessary as a result of the greed and intransigence of those same unions during the 1970s. Explicitly socialist 70s policies brought the UK to its knees, sent entire industries to the wall due to lack of competitiveness / innovation and forced our country to call in the IMF.

UK industrial policy since WWII has overall been badly-judged, by governments as well as by unions. And I don’t think Thatcher was some kind of saint, of course not; the human cost of closing the mines was appalling, and most former mining communities have never recovered.But it’s a total lie to blame it all on Thatcher, as though she just destroyed the industrial proletariat for a laugh, or out of some kind of casual sadism. The militant unions of the ’70s should (and never do) take a share of the blame for pulling up the drawbridge against globalisation, insisting on a protectionism that destroyed competitiveness in our industries, and pushing for the rolling strikes that brought the confrontation about in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, that ancient history is still alive and well in contemporary Labour/Tory debates. Much of the argument about the welfare state, and about ‘generations who have never worked’ dates back to the collapse of Britain’s industrial proletariat, which in my view was in large part a catastrophic clusterfuck created by the irresistible force of unions’ militancy meeting the immovable object of Thatcher’s determination to defang them. This, combined with wider forces of globalisation driving manufacturing to countries with cheaper labour, and a shipping industry increasingly capable of transporting the output of same cheaply and efficiently.

The same has happened in most developed economies. My late father-in-law was one of the last generation of factory fitters in Liverpool, and spent time overseas in Detroit fitting the last generation of automotive factories there, factories that have recently closed down as the companies that built them leave or fold. A quarter of Detroit has now been or is scheduled to be bulldozed.

One of the most intractable questions for any government in a developed economy is what to do with the social class which previously formed the industrial proletariat. It’s awful and dehumanising to just leave a whole class of people on the shelf, but there aren’t enough industrial jobs in the UK any more. For the UK, that whole question is tied up in grief, anger and bitterness about the 1970s, when the whole edifice collapsed and left millions in destitution.

So what do you do? All attempts so far to find a solution have had unintended consequences. Thatcher pissed our North Sea oil and gas bonanza up the wall paying unemployed miners and factory workers hush money in the form of ‘sickness benefits’ to stay off the dole so as to massage employment figures. All that did was kick the can down the road. Blair tried to turn the same people, or their children, all into middle managers by expanding university attendance to 50%, but just created grade inflation instead and made it ever harder for poor kids to get good jobs because you need a Masters now where you used to be fine with A levels. And now Cameron and IDS are trying to force their children’s children back to work, any work, however shitty, in the service economy we now have in the absence of manufacturing, by taking away their tax credits. Meanwhile I’ve yet to see a plausible solution from Labour’s current incarnation, which doesn’t seem to have any alternative to welfare dependency.

Clearly I don’t have a solution to this, or maybe I’d be in politics. But it’s my observation that 1) whatever you do has unintended consequences, 2) the roots of our current situation actually go way, way back and a proper analysis needs to look at both sides of the story and 3) whatever path we take has to think seriously about what real, meaningful participation the UK as a country can meaningfully offer the former industrial proletariat in the political and economic life of our nation. Otherwise we’re going to be stuck forever in an argy-bargy between ‘hate-filled benefit bashers’ and ‘the something for nothing brigade’.