ACT opts for honesty and incest.

The good people of Epsom have probably grown accustomed to the circus operating out of their leafy suburb. From dead babies passports and factional knifings to… well… John Banks. They’ve put up with a lot. And now it seems they will be asked to again hold their noses and vote for an incest fan, since Jamie Whyte has been outed as an incest advocate. 

I’m grossly distorting Jamie Whyte’s position here, and that’s my point. ACT should have seen this coming. Of course his writings would be pored over and misrepresented. Anyone with half brain (or a rational utility maximiser model of behaviour) would have seen that Whyte’s work as a philosopher and commentator would be used against him. 

To be fair, Whyte’s response was excellent. It was carefully phrased, ideologically consistent, and well-reasoned. But that is his problem. It’s the old debate between categorical and consequential, between means and ends. And in politics, that battle is all but over. Convictions are prisons, and honesty basically has no place in politics. Mr Whyte will have to learn to start petty point scoring and pitching his messages at the voters of Epsom. And I doubt they care much for incest.  



7 things that Greens and Conservatives have in common

I’m currently doing research on the overlaps between Green thought and conservatism, and how such overlaps are evident in the 2011 election policies of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand. Below is an excerpt from my dissertation. I’m chiefly concerned with ‘traditional’ paternalist conservatism here (not the more market-friendly ‘New Right’ conservatism), but for the sake of brevity I use the term ‘conservatism’. Also, I’m mostly concerned with environmentalist green thought (rather than more the radical ecologist thought), but for brevity I use the term ‘green thought’.

blue and green seem far apart, but they can fit together well

blue and green seem far apart, but they can fit together well

The words ‘conservative’ and ‘conservationist’ share a common etymological root- ‘conservare’, which means to “keep watch or maintain”. The two schools of thought share a fundamental desire to conserve that plays out in different arenas. While this impulse is largely restricted to environmental issues in green thought, and social and political arenas in conservatism, a surprising amount of agreement exists. Conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has even gone as far as saying the two are “aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources”.[2] Political theorist Bruce Pilbeam detailed these overlaps in his article Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship between Conservatism and Environmentalism. These include; respect for natural limits, scepticism of the supremacy of industrialisation, scepticism of unfettered capitalism, the belief that nature holds a moral value that can trump material values, preference for community over individualism, the belief that authority and regulation are necessary, and concern for (and obligation to) future generations.[3] This post addresses each of these briefly.

Firstly, Pilbeam argues the most obvious overlap is a shared fundamental desire to conserve and respect natural limits. In green thought this manifests as the ‘precautionary principle’, which effectively argues it is better to err on the side of caution in questions of environmental degradation.[4] In conservatism, this manifests as an appreciation of natural limits and the belief that the results of going beyond such limits are not fully knowable.[5]

Secondly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a marked scepticism of industrialisation and unfettered technological progress. In the case of green thought, Pilbeam draws on the work of Jonathon Porritt, who has argued that “the super-ideology of industrialism”, and not capitalism itself, is the core danger facing the environment.[6] This suspicion is shared by many conservatives, who are often sceptical of the “alienating and dehumanizing effects of industrialization.”[7]

Thirdly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought are, to an extent, sceptical about relatively unfettered capitalism. In green thought this is articulated in ideas of resource finitude and conceptions of a ‘zero-growth’ economy. Indeed, capitalist growth is often taken to be the core mechanism of ecological harm.[8] Similarly, conservatism holds concerns regarding the moral and social harm caused by the unsettling and change required by a dynamic market system. Conservatives often favour a paternalist role for the state in order to mitigate harm and guarantee certain moral goods.[9]

Fourthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a belief that nature holds moral value that can trump material values. Green thought and conservatism both disagree with the morality of liberal consumer capitalism, and sections of both schools ascribe a spiritual value to the environment.[10] In the former case, this stems from monist and new age beliefs, while in the latter it stems from a custodial role decreed by God.[11] However, the two schools of thought differ in the scale of their concern, For conservatism, concern is largely local, and often for specific sites, whereas green thought is concerned with both local and global scales.[12]

Fifthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share a preference for community over individualism. Similar to the overlaps above, this is in part a reaction against liberal individualism.[13] Elements of both schools hold community to be an undervalued political unit, and advocate returning it to prominence.

Sixthly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share the belief that authority and regulation are necessary.[14] Similarly, both schools are sceptical of the neoliberal view of the small state model of self-regulating entrepreneurs, and argue state intervention is required to bring about growth and the ‘good’ life.[15] As such, both conservatism and green thought favour state involvement in the economy in areas concerning moral goods and employment. However, the two schools disagree on the pace and scope of change, with conservatives wary of radical, abrupt change.

Seventhly, Pilbeam argues both schools of thought share concern for (and obligation to) future generations. Both schools of thought take a “multi-generational” perspective, with green thought concerned with the long-term health of the planet. Similarly, the conservative worldview is often described in Burkean terms as “a partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”.[16] This similarity is particularly striking considering the two schools’ views on issues relating to the family are generally considered to be different. Green thought is often associated with socially progressive politics, while conservatism distrusts changes to family structure. Despite these fundamental difference, the two schools agree that society has an obligation to future generations.

Other overlaps exist, but those stated are sufficiently illustrative. Perhaps the spirit of these overlaps is best summarised by Scruton, who claims both groups are chiefly concerned with “defend[ing] a shared but threatened legacy from predation by its current trustees.”[17]

[2] Roger Scruton, “Conservatism,” in Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge, ed. Andrew Dobson and Robyn Eckersley (Cambridge: Cambridge Universty Press, 2006), 8.
[3] Bruce Pilbeam, “Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship Between Conservatism and Environmentalism,” Political Review 51(2003): 493-500.
[4] Ibid., 493.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 494.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 496.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Scruton, “Conservatism.”
[13] Pilbeam, “Natural Allies? Mapping the Relationship Between Conservatism and Environmentalism,” 499.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid., 500.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Scruton, “Conservatism,” 13.

Should I fight poverty by going hungry?

As you may or may not be aware, Live Below the Line has just finished. For those of you who don’t know what it is, it’s a recent food-related way to raise money for development, where people volunteer to live below the poverty line, by spending less than NZ$2.25 per day on food. It’s in the tradition of World Vision‘s ‘40 hour Famine‘. I’ve always felt a little uneasy about this kind of fundraiser, but never asked why. So I did a bit of research and gave the matter some thought.

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I have lived and volunteered for about a year each in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. I feel like many of the subsistence farmers I met would’ve been a little baffled that people who have easy access to nutritious and delicious food would voluntarily go hungry. Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has an interesting observation on this. He claims this kind action basically stems from liberal consumerist guilt, and that we like our guilt because if we are guilty, then we have the power to change. That is, we have the power. Also, in doing so we give ourselves an ethical ‘pass’ for not radically challenging an inequitable system.

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1- The inevitable contrast
It supports a simplistic monolithic view of developing countries. Firstly, food-centred fundraisers inevitably invites contrast with hunger. Historically, Live Below the Line is influenced by the 40 Hour Famine, which stems from the Ethiopian famine. The famine shaped our views on development, but also a generation’s views on Africa and Africans. It seared Africa in western consciousness as ‘the starving continent’, a hellish monolith of helplessness and hunger that exists in contrast to the powerful and comfortable (and wasteful) West. It’s like Edward Said’s Orientalism- we make sense of ourselves as a culture by comparing ourselves to an ‘Other’. We create our ideas of this Other to feel better about ourselves. In this case, we create a contrast where we are powerful, generous, good-hearted and successful.

2- It’s all western
Secondly, both of these food-related events are fund-raising for western organisations. These organisations are based in the west, largely staffed by westerners, and are repositories of western values. Globally, development best practice now tends towards local ownership for a number of very good reasons. A couple worth mentioning are; local ownership is sustainable (because the project continues after the donors/volunteers leave), local ownership is more effective (because locals know what is applicable, appropriate and achievable within the culture), and local ownership is empowering (because it’s not western experts bringing the answers). Where are the NGOs from developing countries in these fundraisers? I know from experience that there are plenty of great NGOs based in developing countries. They know the culture, they know the problems, they know the people.

3- It’s self-interested
Another criticism can be made from a ‘rational choice’ perspective. People working at NGOs (such as World Vision) know that jobs of that kind are scarce, and that their jobs require fundraising. Thus this kind of fundraising is, to a degree, self-serving. That is, the challenges faced by some of the world’s poorest are being used to keep westerners in feel-good jobs that confer moral superiority.
Institutionally speaking, NGOs also have a strategic interest in placing themselves at the centre of development efforts, instead of developing country governments. I know grass-roots alternative development is all the rage, but enormous power to enact change in developing countries resides in the hands of national governments.  The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (signed by the OECD and developing countries) requires that ownership is handed over to aid recipient countries in a meaningful manner. Ideally, this takes the form of Budget Support, where funds are transferred directly to recipient governments.

4- It’s a bit narcissistic
At the individual level, it’s also a little narcissistic. The centre of focus is the person doing the famine/living below the line. It places their voluntary experience of hardship at the centre of the hardship-alleviation efforts. Definite ‘white martyr’ tones here.

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5- Hunger is not good
Ethically, There is a good argument to be made that we should not lionise hunger. Also, the famine and live below the line give a false impression of hunger and poverty, where one can claim ‘it was hard, but it was do-able’. The practice of ‘visiting poverty’, whether it’s in developing countries or the west, misses a crucial point: the desperation and crushing weight of hopelessness. The experience of waking up and feeling like ‘this is my life and there is probably no escape’ cannot be simulated, and this is one of the devastating effects of hunger and poverty. You are trapped, and so are your children.

I’m not saying no good comes from these fundraisers. Nor am I saying that being problematic means they are useless. As usual, I’m short on solutions. Generally, I think developing country leadership is the way, and that the role of development workers is to put ourselves out of a job. As such, capacity building and empowerment are a must. But since that is an enormous topic, I’ll have to save it for another blog.

I guess the relevant question is whether or not these fundraisers are; 1) making things better or worse in terms of development outcomes, and; 2) taking scarce resources away from more effective efforts. In regards to the first question, it seems likely these efforts are, on balance, doing good. Regarding the second question, I think it’s unlikely they are taking scarce funds from other efforts, due to the fact that most donations come via personal networks, and are supporting the person as much as the cause. So what am I saying, then? I guess it’s a typical post-modern argument: we need to be aware of the nested power-relations in our efforts. I know that’s a weak conclusion and a total anti-climax.

Welcome to development.

The Left will return to Marxism. Eventually.

DISCLAIMER: what follows is wild, unhinged speculation.

DISCLAIMER: what follows is wild, unhinged speculation.

I’m going to go on the record and predict that, unless the Left formulates an new alternative to capitalism, it will eventually return to Marxism. This may take a few generations, but barring the creation of a new left economic alternative, Marx is coming back. ‘Why?’ you ask. The answer is simple. Once the memory of Soviet communism is gone and the low hanging fruit of identity politics is picked, the Left will still want an alternative to capitalism, and will need to appeal to the general public. And that’s only the dynamic on the left. I won’t even discussing the problems facing the right.

Forgetting Soviet Communism
I believe the left is still mourning the collapse of the legitimacy of state socialism, and floundering for a lack of an economic alternative. I think that Marx will remain tainted as long as Soviet communism is in living memory for middle aged people. However, as these people move on, new generations will emerge for whom Marxism is academic and untainted by Stalin and bread-lines. It will lose it’s stigma, and will be re-evaluated for current times, perhaps under a different name. It will be explicitly concerned with equality, not just poverty. It will seek equality of outcome.

We must forget communism before we can remember Marx

The world needs to forget communism before Left parties can revive Marxism

Low Hanging fruit
In the mean time, we work with identity politics. Identity politics has provided orientation for the left in recent decades, and made great strides in addressing very real, lived oppression. But the tendency of identity politics is from formal/legal discrimination to trickier cultural questions of meaning and values, and from larger groups to smaller oppressed identities.

Essentially, the legal/formal discriminations are low hanging fruit. There is no ethical or just case to be made for such discrimination against minority identities, and we leftists will eventually knock these off. The campaign for marriage equality has been a great success here in New Zealand (and in other places), and next legal/institutional fight is for those groups that don’t fit the simplistic binary of ‘men born with penises, women born with vaginas’.

We will succeed in ending formal legal and institutional discrimination against trans people, intersex people, and people not identifying as one of the two largest gender groups (forgive me if I’ve left groups out here). These fights are clear and easy to rally behind. Legal and institutional discrimination is easy to identify, and can be addressed through existing political channels. In political science terms, the ‘negative’ freedoms are easier to secure than the ‘positive’ freedoms. And we will win these freedoms with the largest oppressed identities first, and then proceed to the numerically smaller groups (eg. from women to ethnic minorities to sexual minorities to gender minorities).

Higher fruit is just as important, but it's more difficult

Higher fruit is important, but it’s more difficult

Appealing to the general public
But as these fights are won we are left with complex, nuanced and difficult cultural battles concerning meaning and values. These are harder for the general public to engage with, as they are not simply about ‘rules being fair’. This is not to say such battles are unworthy; they are definitely worthy. They are just not as easy to win. They require understanding concepts like legitimation and discourse; something new and unfamiliar for much of the general public. This is where I see the shift back to a politics of equality, due to political necessity. Once the low hanging fruit is picked and some of the urgency taken from pursuing identity politics via electoral means, leaders on the left will return to where the votes are; the poor. The collapse of the legitimacy of neoliberalism, identity politics successes, and the desire for new thinking will drive us to more urgently seek Left alternatives.

Inequality will still exist, and still resonate

Inequality will still exist, and will still resonate

A Left alternative
Inevitably, electoral rationality will rear its head and require Left leaders to engage with issues that the general public can relate to and rally behind. The pain suffered by marginalised groups is real, but I suspect focusing more and more on fewer and fewer people will not be a huge vote winner. As we delve deeper into identity oppression, we become decreasingly relevant to the general public. Complex cultural battles are not won at the ballot box. In contrast, economic inequality will still be very material, hurting the majority, easily quantifiable, and amenable to government action. Economic inequality will still be a problem, and Marx will still be the Left’s best/only alternative to capitalism.

However, identity politics (particularly feminism) won’t necessarily be killed by this shift back to Marx. There are few oppressed majorities in the west; women are one, non-whites another, the poor are another. Feminism will remain a powerful driver of thought and political action by virtue of its mass appeal and its powerful insights, many of which are still filtering through to the public consciousness. Any Neo-Marxism will have to account for discrimination AND poverty, and do so in a way that is understandable to the apolitical. In doing so, it becomes appealing to the general public, and the Left alternative to capitalism.

Let me be clear: I do not predict the end of identity politics, nor do I predict the return to Lenin or Mao. I predict identity politics will become relatively less central to left-wing politics. I predict the reinvention of, and return to, Marxism. Although maybe we need to return to Hegel, as Zizek says. But that can be the subject of another blog. I think I’ve been presumptuous enough for one day.

10 Shades of Gray: The many faces of political non-allegiance

Much is made of political allegiances, and with good reason. Allegiance is what wins elections, and shifts in allegiance can be examined a macro-level and a micro-level. A person can change preferences based on events in the world around them, or due to changes in their personal views (or a combination of the two). Both are highly interesting subjects, and worthy of study. But little is said about political non-allegiance, particularly ‘outsider’ views. And since my own political story is one of outsider non-allegiance, I thought I’d do a blog on the subject. Political people are often a little harsh on the unaffiliated. We’re treated as either uninformed, apathetic, or easily persuaded. I thought it was worth noting some of the main non-affiliated positions that I can think of. Obviously, there is a bit of overlap between some of these views.

1- Ignorance: I don’t know.
Pretty self-explanatory. In this perspective a person simply doesn’t know enough to have an opinion. (Note: This assumes a level of intellectual honesty that is often absent in educated people). It is basically an honest and valid perspective. Not everyone has had the opportunity or the reason to learn what fiscal policy is, or what equity means. This view holds that allegiance cannot be justified due to lack of knowledge.

2- Apathy: I don’t care.
In this view, a person knows enough, but doesn’t care enough, to have an opinion on politics. This is also a legitimate position to hold. A lot of people are happy as long as the basic services that they are entitled are there. They see no reason to get involved in the dirty world of politics. This view holds that allegiance, like political interest, is not worth the effort.

3- Swing voting (uninformed): I’ll vote for whoever sounds good.
In this view, a person is engaged enough to vote, but has no loyalty to a party or ideology. These people decide elections. Their reasons for voting a given way vary, and I don’t feel informed enough to go into them. But I suspect pocketbook issues, leader ‘likeability’, the media, and the views of peers play a large role here. This view holds that present preferences are more important than lasting allegiance.

4- Swing voting (informed): I’ll vote for whoever is best.
This view is held by people who are politically informed, and vote according to the issues of the day, policy proposals, and whoever they believe is most capable. I think this is a great position. These people keep campaigns and parties on their toes, and prevent them slipping further into hacky point-scoring. This view holds that issues, not allegiance, should decide voting.

5- Centrism: They are all unreliable or extreme.
This view is wary of the extremes of politics, and holds that we need to come together and compromise a lot more. It’s almost a framing of ‘centre vs extremes’, rather than ‘left vs right’, and as such holds no loyalty to a given party since any party can be dragged away from the centre by internal factions. This view claims centrists and moderates from both sides of the spectrum have more in common with each other than with their respective extremes and, moreover, represent a greater swathe of the electorate. Therefore, allegiance to a single party is not justified.

6- Principled Individualism: They can’t ever represent me.
People who hold this view believe that parties cannot adequately represent them. This is often because parties require subservience to function effectively. Therefore, the principled individualist holds the party to be a fundamentally inadequate political unit for their views. Thus, no allegiance is justified.

7- Civility: I don’t like their behaviour.
This view bemoans the lack of civility in politics from all sides. It believes more could be achieved if people would abandon their tribalism and engage with each other in good faith. It holds that since no party is able to behave civilly, then no affiliation is justified.

8- Anti-partisanship: I don’t like their tribalism.
This view is a little harsher than the civility view. Where the civility outsider holds that the way parties behave is the problem, the anti-partisan holds that the partisan norms of the parties are the problem. This view is hostile to the hacky and arbitrary support/against a party’s policies, such as the view that the opposition is always wrong, even when it does something you like. The anti-partisan holds that since all parties are partisan, allegiance to any party is unjustified.

9- Antipathy (parties): I don’t like any of them.
This view is harsher still. It holds that partisanship of the parties is not the problem, but the parties themselves. This can be because of the perception that parties are morally bankrupt and packed with self-serving elitists, concerns about partisanship, disdain at party structures, or a disgust at politicians in general. Therefore, no allegiance is justified.

10- Antipathy (system): I don’t like the system. 
This is the harshest view. The political system itself is considered so flawed that support for the players in the system is unjustified. Reasons for holding this view vary greatly, and can be held by reformists or revolutionaries. But all agree that the system at present is so bad that it needs serious change. This view holds that supporting any party is implicitly supporting the system, or is pointless because the parties are products of a poor system. As such, no political allegiance is justified.

A bad way to start.

“Punditry is fundamentally useless” -Nate Silver.

“The cultural critic is society’s salaried and honoured nuisance” -Theodor Adorno (paraphrase).

“Punditry is what we might call The Dismal Art” -Thomas Carlyle (paraphrase).

With these observations, let the useless, dismal nuisancery begin.