Thursday, 28 July 2011

False Meritocracy

In January the Telegraph reported that 20% of new graduates were out of work 6 months after graduating, at a 15 year high, whilst the Guardian and BBC show similar trends. Stories are abound of graduates from all types of institution and degree struggling to find work, amid talk of a 'lost generation'. It is all too easy to question these grievances, as surely in a meritocracy such as the UK, those that fail to succeed simply are not working hard enough, or maybe the education system is over saturated with too many students. However, in my opinion, this would be a highly incorrect conclusion, as we do not live in a meritocracy at all.

A true meritocracy would undoubtedly be the fairest way to run a society where those that work hardest would get the most rewards regardless of their backgrounds, innate abilities and other factors that cannot be controlled by the individual. Our system is an intricately designed labyrinth of falsehoods created almost, it seems, to resemble a meritocracy, but lacking several key elements needed for such a creation to function as it should. This is defended by the 'elite' who have most benefited from it, as well as the odd recipient of good fortune, so that their children and kin may do the same. It is embedded, woven into the very fabric of our society.

We will start at the top. Dishearteningly, few people seem to know how the Prime Minister ever got his job, or the rest of the government for that matter. Boris Johnson is often portrayed as the typical 'Tory toff' when ironically, he worked hard at university politics to fight his way up the party ladder. In contrast Cameron showed little regard for politics having landed a Public Relations posting. Deciding one day that the people deserved a man like him, Cameron used his royal connections (fifth cousin twice removed of the Queen, reports the Times) to gain a foothold in the party as well as a safe seat in rural Oxfordshire, getting ahead of his old Bullingdon comrade Boris, without any of the hard work shown by Johnson. The Daily Mail describes this as a phone call from the Palace to Tory HQ on the eve of Cameron's first party job interview; "I understand you are to see David Cameron. I've tried everything I can to dissuade him from wasting his time on politics but I have failed. I am ringing to tell you that you are about to meet a truly remarkable young man." And yet here is a man who talks of fairness, when his entire position, if not his life, had been defined by the privileges of birth upon which no human has any say. There is nothing 'truly remarkable' about Cameron in terms of hard work or aptitude, only his birth. The left in this country is guilty of many gross hypocrisies but nothing compares to the sheer audacity of David Cameron to somehow argue for 'fairness' when all he has known is the wind from the beating of the stork's wings, blowing him into Downing Street.

What you probably will know of Cameron is that he enjoyed the classic establishment combination of private school then Oxbridge that has helped so many of our recent political figures, from all parties. Tony Blair went to Fettes then Oxford, George Osborne from St Paul's then Oxford, while both Nick Clegg and Anthony Benn went to Westminster School, where Big Ben is used to tell the time, and then to Cambridge and Oxford respectively. There is a painful correlation here. Private school pupils get into the top universities as, in exchange for funds that are 1/3 of the average UK salary (average private school fees per annum are around £11,000 whilst average salary is around £30,000), they get smaller class sizes and are given better methods of teaching than those at state schools. On top of this they are trained in the mystical ways of a successful Oxbridge application. Meanwhile the average state schooled adolescent is deceived into thinking that any subject choice will do, only to lose out when applying to the top jobs and institutions.

What message does that send to the youth of Britain? That we live in a fair society, a meritocracy? Of course it does not. Private schooling is not meritocratic. Just because one's parents have worked hard to gain the necessary funds does not mean that their offspring are entitled to an easy ride. It is no epiphany to say that generally, Black Britons are poorer than the rest. To reverse the previous correlation this means we should have very few Oxbridge alumni from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds. This is confirmed by the disquieting data from The Guardian showing that Blacks have only a 1 in 5 chance of getting into Oxford against 1 in 3 for Caucasians. Why is this? Is it because these people are weak? Do they not work as hard or are they less intelligent? Of course not. Had they the same privileges as the leaders of this land than they would achieve just as much. To quote Neil Kinnock; There is simply no platform upon which they can stand.

After university, the privileged get the cushy internships, work experience and contacts, all from the residue of their conception, and all sweeping them into well paid, rewarding careers. This accounts for many industries and institutions, banking, accountancy, politics and even journalism- indeed 20 leading Guardian journalists went to private schools despite their liberal hand wringing over the 'poor'. In contrast those who worked just as hard, or often harder, little remains with record levels of graduate unemployment. This is not subject related, contrary to the government's suggestions, recent studies by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) shows that English has a 9.0% graduate unemployment level versus 11.7% for the apparently untouchable field of Physics. Yet those who complain are accused of being idle or lazy, such is the irony of this false meritocracy.

As for solutions; the current cabinet has 23/29 millionaires and Cameron's refusal to crack down on internships suggests a British Spring is needed in Westminster and Whitehall, to truly solve these issues. I would like to see the abolition of all selective schools and a pool of internees who, having reached a meritocratic minimum of qualification, are randomly chosen for intern work at a company, who must pay them reasonably (at least the minimum wage) for their participation. By getting rid of private schools, we will defeat this gross inequality of opportunity that fractures our nation. Though this may undermine certain qualities in the system, it will be beneficial in the long term. If we claim to live in a society where all are treated equally and live together in spite of race, religion et al, then we must educate them in the same environment. Otherwise, class, ethnic and other divisions continue to bloom. Waterloo was not won on the playing fields of Eton, it was won on the streets of Manchester, Amsterdam and Berlin, in the unbreakable spirit of the Coalition army as a collective entity rather than its individual commanders.

Our leaders have created a system where we can in theory succeed, but in reality where very many cannot. They do this to protect their own ambitions and comforts and to massage their own egos. It is time to fix our meritocracy, so that all our talents and efforts are valued equally, that we may be judged, not for what we are but what we could be. Then that, my friends, will be 'fairness'.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Future of the Left

What is most interesting about the current debt crises in Portugal, Greece and Spain, is that they all involve centre-left governments implementing neo-liberal austerity measures and facing damning poll ratings against conservative or 'popular' opponents. This reflects a wider crisis of confidence in Europe's left, that despite an economic recession caused by weak economic regulation, something often associated with the right, social democrats and similar groups are losing out throughout the continent. In March David Miliband spoke of how the European left was 'fragmenting' under this pressure, while the Economist has shown that only 5/27 of EU member states governments now consist of centre left parties. Rather than leading to a resurgence in interventionist economics and left wing ideals to protect the economy, the recession has merely lead to a further entrenchment of the ideals of the centre right, who have used the opportunity to go beyond merely meeting deficits to undermine their bugbears, such as the NHS in Britain or abortion funding in the US.

Despite leading the polls in select nations, come election time it is hardly guaranteed the centre left will win. Moreover, even if Labour or the French socialists returned to power, it is likely they would be tied down by the much more active conservatives and govern in a meek manner, fearful of backlashes from the rightist press for anything too 'socialist'. Little would be achieved, as with Labour's, in my opinion, wasted years in power wherein they essentially kept the seat warm for the right, with two wars, deregulation (or at least inactive regulation), runaway bonuses and authoritarian stances on law and order, all of which would have been done had they never been elected.

Trying to recycle the ideas of the centre right, in my view, did not work. Take the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) in Britain for example. This was implemented to try to show that Labour had shed its socialism and was willing to compromise. In the short term this seemed a good PR ploy but it is now obvious this was a failure. The guarantees to private companies that public funds would never be cut means that in a era of austerity and cuts, £267 billion is wasted on paying these companies, so that other, more important areas are cut further and faster by the Conservative-led government. Hence, this only strengthens the hand of the right accusing the left of wasteful spending, allows them to make more ideologically inspired cuts and producing less efficient public services. In all PFI did far more damage to the cause. The same could be said of university fees which undermined our argument for there being a right to education or the missed opportunities regarding freedom of information or constitutional reform.

Continuing the push to the centre is not the solution. In the short term it may win votes, but ultimately it loses supporters, the base of a political organisation. This is because the mainstream left cannot offer an alternative to ignite the electorate, if it is essentially trying to copy its opponents. In this sense the idea of making the centre left socially conservative to balance a traditional mixed economy, called 'Blue Labour' in the UK, will also fail as those that truly value social conservatism are always more likely to choose an organisation that specialises in it rather than one which has tried to mix and match. Furthermore it will alienate ethnic minorities, LGBT groups and generally liberal minded people, who are very much potential allies of the left. No, instead the future of the left lies in both new ideas and the revival of those long lost.

Key to this struggle to reclaim the notion of liberty. For too long, Thatcherites, Libertarians, etc have seen liberty purely as a product of a unfair free market, and equated any state action with tyranny. Instead we must argue the case of Berlin's "positive liberty" where enlightened state action elevates the condition of the people, giving them education, basic utilities and facilities, giving them the freedom to act beyond their natural limitations. The right's view of liberty is a paradox; because of natural advantage, the most able and rich restrict the liberty of everyone else. In the past the state was seen as a liberator rather than an tyrant and such views must be revived;

"The ultimate aim of government is not to rule, or restrain, by fear, nor to exact obedience, but contrariwise, to free every man from fear, that he may live in all possible security; in other words, to strengthen his natural right to exist and work without injury to himself or others. No, the object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled; neither showing hatred, anger, or deceit, nor watched with the eyes of jealousy and injustice. In fact, the true aim of government is liberty." (Baruch Spinoza, "Theological-Political Treatise" (1670))

Currently many different groups lose out under the system; LGBT groups, ethnic minorities, young people, environmentalists and any one with a questioning mind. These groups will only become more numerate in the future and so appealing to them will create a new base of support for the left. A progressive alliance, a federation of questioning minds is within our grasp. Thus leftist organisations must put aside their differences and work together to secure common goals. In so doing we will offer a true alternative, a different vision for the future. If we continue to offer the same compromises today, how will we answer inevitably different questions and challenges of tomorrow. 

For the term 'left wing' does not describe a slavish attachment to the same ideas and institutions, as cynics have alleged, but rather those French revolutionaries who saw the need for further change. Radicals, who challenge established truths to reveal the moral rot of their foundations. At the moment the only radicalism is seen to come from animal rights fascists or narrow-minded libertarians. We cannot allow them to steal our natural position. We are the radicals, we are the left.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Illiberal Hegemony

In spite of their government status, the Liberal Democrats are possibly weaker than they were before 2010, as they are trapped between a Conservative dominated government and terrifying poll figures. If they stand up for themselves they will create an election which would only serve to greatly damage their cause, and, for me, the prospect of a solely Liberal Democrat government in the next few years is just as improbable as a Green Party government. Regardless, Britain's mainstream liberal party cannot be described as dominant in any way so liberalism may appear to many observers, the least obvious source of current political dominance. Yet, paradoxically, we are said to be in a long-standing era of 'liberal hegemony', where liberalism not only dominates political thought but governs almost every element of our lives.

This is a result of a gradual 'liberalisation' or 'moderation' of the other leading ideologies in the West, namely conservatism and social democracy. In the name of electoral appeal, these groups diluted their ideals with a selection of liberal values that were appealing to the general public while keeping several of their own ideas. In the UK this began in the 1980s, as the Tories fully adopted economically liberal ideas of deregulation and privatisation, concepts that had been on and off the various Conservative manifestos since the Corn Laws era, while Kinnock's Labour reforms favoured the 'red rose' of moderate social democrats on the Continent, over the more socialistic red flag, symbolic of the expulsion of its militant elements, whilst slowly abolishing commitments to high taxes and the like. At the same time, both parties mixed the new intake with traditional parts of their ideologies, illustrated by the infamous Section 28 and Labour's continued support for state owned services. In this way both doctrines gained new support whilst taking the ground from under the yellow sandals of the liberals. However, the problem with this 'moderation' was that once begun it could not be stopped, each party had to catch up with the other as they raced to that abyss of empty philosophy and meaningless ideas, known to some as the political centre. Thus New Labour tried to outwit the Tories on the electoral battlefield by abolishing the shibboleth of Clause IV (this was cleverly done by removing any meaning to the words whilst calling Labour as 'democratic socialist' party, so the leaders could gut the rich traditions of internal party dissent and democracy), and playing to the populist demands for action on 'hoodies' and 'benefit cheats', thereby entering a strange world where the anecdotal replaces the statistical, perhaps the greatest symptom of populism.

New Labour also copied Tory approaches to economic policy by refusing to reverse privatisation or to tackle the excesses and tax avoidance of the City, so that there was very little between the two, save for their imagery, which was rectified by David Cameron's 2006 election as Tory leader, changing party rhetoric on 'nasty' issues such as perceived homophobia and elitism, partly by dropping Section 28 (interestingly Cameron replaced Shaun Woodward as Witney MP, who had resigned over refusing to oppose the abolition of Section 28, thus Cameron was elected as MP for homophobic reasons and made several speeches supporting the clause) and cringe-worthy rhetoric characterised by the press as the 'hug a hoodie' approach.

As a result both Britain's mainstream parties became all but the same in rhetoric and policy, having gutted themselves of nearly all their philosophical character. Labour's leaders would not dare contemplate any major tax rises just as the Conservative HQ would commit suicide if they went anywhere near the benevolent elitism of Benjamin Disraeli, upon which the party was once founded. Hence, a liberal hegemony is created, where, on the whole, liberal policy is generally pursued regardless of who wins the election, and heavily supported by media rulers (see my post on “Britain's Microcosmic Media” for more). This is often praised as having protected the rights of the individual and secured continual prosperity. The likes of Ronald Reagan (see the 1964 speech; “A Time for Choosing”) or Niall Ferguson (author of 'Civilisation; The West versus the Rest') have even gone so far as to claim that its existence is what separates the developed West from the poorer East. However, I challenge this hegemony on multiple grounds.

Firstly, it is a massive contradiction. Its near total control is the exact opposite of liberalism, pushing aside and disregarding all but the most similar ideas, when liberals are meant to support a plurality of opinions. Thus Ed Miliband, becomes castigated as 'Red Ed' for even thinking about maintaining a 50p tax rate, while greater regulation of the banks by Vince Cable lead to incredulous comparisons to communism. Question the government in a discussion and often you will be facing a torrent of criticism of Labour's legacy. I dont care, I dont support Labour. Yet then you will be mocked as naiive or insulted for having 'dangerous' views, for simply supporting an alternative vision. That cannot be liberal. Despite 13 years of neo-liberal economics, and a devastating recession, the new government continues to pull the same line, as the old. TINA is not a liberal.(TINA=There is No Alternative, a Thatcherite slogan)

That Cable himself is a liberal highlights my second contention to the hegemony in that it is a selective interpretation of liberalism based on 'negative' liberty, the freedom from interference, rather than 'positive' liberty, where restraints are broken by government and popular action, liberating us from the restrictions caused by the freedoms of the rich and powerful which are more easily exercised. I acknowledge that there is great potential for the tax system to be abused regressively, yet surely certain measures are worthy of tax rises as they will help society as a whole. Scientific projects, better public services, superior transportation among others. Moreover, while the taxation burdens on ordinary people may be high enough, the taxes of the wealthy are rarely paid ( A truly 'liberal' hegemony would not allow such a disparity to arise.

Thirdly, by mixing the remnants of old ideology with the liberal adaptations, an ideological impasse is reached and no progress made. Little new ideas have come from either left or right in recent times, with Blond's 'Red Toryism' or Glausman's 'Blue Labour' essentially extended the race to the bottom. Thus a dull stagnation occurs where Space Exploration is seen as taxing and unnecessary (see recent end to NASA's space programme) and 'redevelopment' amounts to the creation of new shopping centres, vacuous altars to the immortal placebo of modernity; short term consumption. Our society is now based on short term rewards, idolisation of the 'weekend', as if it is insane to enjoy one's job. Humanities subjects are constantly mocked and slowly undermined in terms of both funding and general approaches. The likes of Classics or History, once seen as a necessary grounding for top Civil Service jobs are now attacked as 'pointless' and 'too costly', or perhaps most outrageously as 'elitist'. This is done by the hegemony to prevent anyone questioning the direction of society and to shackle us onto the conveyor belt that will eventually see us not as citizens or even human beings, but merely economic units. Of course the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects are vital to our civilisation, but to encourage only these fields will not secure further progress. The Scientists of the world can only show us where the future might be, everyone else must plot the course.

Overall then, the 'liberal hegemony' is false, it is an 'illiberal hegemony', that grew from coincidence and threatens to undermine our democracy. For how can we meet the inevitability of new challenges without the inception of new ideals and solutions?

A way in which Cameron was definitely the 'heir to Blair' was their mutual rejection of ideology, Blair proclaiming that 'Ideology is dead' to the French parliament and Cameron outlining his lack of belief in 'isms'.This implies that their policies are transcendent of ideology and relate to 'practical' solutions. Clearly, this is false. Much of neo-liberalism is based on ideology and theory, very little is empirical.

We must all reject the hegemony so that our politics can be sparked anew with innovative ideas and creative policies. That we may object to our narrowly defined existence rather than be subjected to it. We need ideology. It is guilty of terrible crimes but without it, there can be no future, no direction for our species. Fukuyama is wrong, history is not over. It has only just begun.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Britain's Microcosmic Media

One of the many ways to judge a modern society is via its media, be it newspapers, television or even the internet. For instance totalitarian societies have always had illiberal approaches to expression and thus the Soviet and Nazi publications, though promoting different ideals, were greatly akin in how they suppressed alternate fashions of opinion and maintained a dull oneness in practically every realm of information. In contrast, the USA, founded by classical liberals, has always enjoyed one of the most heterogeneous appetites for opinion within its media, in line with its love of democracy, with over 500,000 elected posts nationwide. A nation's media, as a pool of ideas and opinions, can thus be seen to reflect, at least partially, the values and norms of the citizens that interact with it. Therefore, it seems that the ongoing débâcle concerning the alleged misdeeds of certain News International journalists is but a microcosm of a wider malaise that raises crucial questions about the very state of our media as a whole, including all newspaper owners, if not the nation itself. Beyond debates over what constitutes correct media practice and ethical standards, one feels that the ways we perceive information, along with the philosophies that guide such attitudes are rendered increasingly uncertain. When we look into the by now muddied puddle of tabloid or red-top journalism, the pride of our intellects is drowned in the stark realisation that we can only see ourselves.

Of course the individuals in question deserve blame, if proved guilty of wrongdoing, but more widely, I cannot escape the thought that everyone is somehow linked to this concoction of immorality welling up from the corridors of power, that have essentially been found for many years, not in Westminster or Whitehall but in Wapping. Indeed these problems relate to both the irregular methodology of selected journalists at the sacrificed News of the World and the general approach to reportage adopted by the Murdoch Empire, as well as the excess concentrations of political capital and power in the hands of the News International cabal.

The reason I feel this is an issue that affects everyone is that which I argued in the opening paragraph, media is reflective of social values regardless of how much we may wish to blind ourselves to these reflections. All UK newspapers are private enterprises, as should be in a democracy, and so all have to sell themselves by appealing to the popular interest of their targeted audience. Ergo one cannot purely show disdain towards the irregular lengths some tabloids will go to acquire stories on public figures and celebrities, as they are merely surviving the fickle waves of the economy by publishing what the average Briton is interested in; tits, gossip, reality shows etc. As the national majority becomes more and more addicted to this type of news its sources dry up, as public figures close off their private lives, yet the continual demand pressurises these publications to seek increasingly questionable solutions. No doubt that some of those mourning Princess Diana's death would have been the ones devouring pictures of her, had she survived and the press photographers got their images. Consequently the solution to this must lie not in external regulation of the media, which would be detrimental when combined with our outdated libel laws, but a new-found maturity in terms of the information we seek to consume. I am not saying that I know what information people should consume, but that if we our discontented with the current state of affairs, as recent outrage suggests most people are, the pursuit of resolution solely against the press, would be an exercise in mass hypocrisy and vanity.

We can also see links between the descent of tabloid writing and the slow creep of power into the arsenal of 'Murdocracy'. The national obsession with celebrity and gossip stories masked a political ignorance. Obviously, not everyone finds politics interesting, but in a successful democracy, a minimum of political awareness, far above that, in my opinion, of the average UK citizen, is required. It is no coincidence, for example, that only the more elitist Guardian newspaper has given the News International scandals the attention they deserve or that the issue of super-injunctions as an affront to liberty were not popularised by the affairs of Carter Ruck and Trafigura but the affair of a famous footballer. As a result as a nation we are collectively numbed to politics, especially as the newspaper barons, eager to promote a pro-business electoral ideology try to portray politics as an irrelevant and corrupt art, as well as hindering the progress selected by the Murdochs of this world. Such an opinion is correct in many ways but one must contest the idea that all politics is malign and that the way of the economic weathermen is the only alternative. Haplessly, politicians were forced to see the views of the popular press and the electorate as one and the same and governed to suit the News International agenda. But mere months ago, the Labour leadership, now trying to champion themselves as the noble knights to slay the Murdoch dragon, chose to attack Vince Cable for daring to even consider clipping its wings.
In this way tabloid rulers shifted the political agenda not to the left or the right but to themselves. By this I mean that they supported policy to further their own ends, on a selfish basis rather than for ideological or technocratic reasons, so that it is regardless what political doctrine such policy is usually associated with, because ultimately political classifications should be based on ends not means. It is grossly wrong and childish for us to say that the tabloids somehow deceived people into voting for the 'wrong' party. Nonetheless, the scarce amounts of political coverage in the News International tabloids and similar examples, were highly selective. I shall not offend the general electorate by doubting their capacity to decide who to vote for, but rather the bias atmospheres in which many voters made these decisions. People can control what they think, but the media, increasingly, controls what we think about, and he who chooses the battlefield often wins the day.

A vicious circle forms where public disregard for politics feeds the growth of political power for certain media oligarchs, who in turn encourage said apathy. The steely irony here is thus; the readers who care least for politics indirectly affect it to a much greater extent than the keener spectators.
As the next generation we must, all of us, revive a wider interest in politics and a diversity of opinion. In this way our democracy will be enriched as opinions are given a wider basis, and Britain can enter a Spring of superior compromise and consensus.

Thus I'd advocate the following practical measures;
-Greater limits on press ownership and control, say only one entity can control one paper at a time. This is not fascistic as some have said as true democracy challenges all forms of power, not just government power.
-Compulsory voting but with a 'None of the above option', to add a greater say to public opinion and validate conclusions.
- Relaxation of libel laws on a case by case basis, so only issues deemed by a Judge to be in the public interest were forced into public domain.
-Stronger freedom of information measures, leading to greater discussion and accountability. 

To paraphrase Einstein; these irregularities have not created new problems but only increased the need to solve existing ones.