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The Great Meritocracy?

Theresa May has promised in “her” manifesto (others in her party seem to be bystanders) that the UK is to become “the world’s Great Meritocracy” (her capitals). What does that mean? I think it is meant to mean that family money should not determine a person’s chances in life. But it has always been better to be born rich and influential than poor and without influence. There are no proposals to change any of the factors which make it so. Indeed, it is hard to think how such an outcome could be avoided. People can be given chances to improve their lot, but they don’t all start from the same place and it is doubtful Mrs May would be so radical as to insist they should.  Nor would any sane person.

But there is a more sinister side to the idea of meritocracy. It suggests that everyone will get what they deserve, what they merit. Merit, in this equation, equals something like talent plus application. That might be fine if talent or application (itself arguably a talent) were optional, but surely they are not. You either have them or you don’t, it’s broadly a matter of chance, or luck – a bit like being born rich. By all means let us nurture talent and financial reward is a good nurturer but why is it meritorious to be lucky enough to be talented? Why do I “deserve” more (Of what? Everything?) if I am talented? I’m fine with the idea that the talented will probably get more, but “deserve” more? It might be more tolerable if the rewards for different talents reflected some idea of their social value, not just their market value, so that for example we valued those who care for others. As it stands it is just homespun neoliberalism, the same free market rhetoric which promotes public austerity to make the rich richer. 

What, after all, will be the test of merit? Why, success, what else?! Presumably then billionaires are more meritorious that millionaires, who are more meritorious than the rest. We get what we deserve and we deserve what we get. So this proposal, far from being an assurance that everyone will have a good chance in life, is in fact an assurance that anyone who lacks talent or good luck deserves little. It is the same thinking that promotes grammar schools, forgetting that to do so is to promote the injustice of secondary moderns. It is the same thinking that led one of Mr. Trump’s cabinet secretaries (Dr. Carson) to declare that “poverty is a state of mind”. Blame the poor, it’s their own fault they are poor – not just in occasional cases, but in most or even all. And since talents are unequal, inequality is inevitable and greater inequality must be better.

A society which allowed everyone to express and develop their talents would be great. And sure, why should people not enjoy their good luck? But shouldn’t we remember it is just good luck? Those who lack whatever talents the market values or perhaps just feel obliged to do other things should also have a chance to live satisfying lives. Poverty should not be allowed to go unchallenged. But that requires sharing in some form and only a democratic state in which the very rich did not control opinions could attempt such a thing.

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If the motive was not terror, why call it terrorism?

The police have reported, after extensive although still incomplete enquiries, that the motives of the Westminster attacker may never be known and that there is no currently traceable link to anyone else, let alone a terrorist organisation. Yet newspapers and broadcasters continue to churn out columns and op-eds, sometimes thinly disguised as news, about the implications of “terror” being unleashed at the gates of Parliament. 
Simon Jenkins wisely pointed out on Newsnight that terrorism depends to a large extent on people reacting with terror, so that media reactions which treat any horrific crime as an act of terrorism in effect aid and abet terrorism. Others have pointed out that when the IRA was bombing London we did not react with blanket suspicion of their co-nationals or co-religionists but understood that a specific minority organisation was responsible. But now it seems any violent crime committed by a Moslem wins automatic promotion to terrorism, with the characteristic reaction of extended media coverage mingled with self congratulation that we are bravely unmoved by such a violation.
This is just ignorance. Nothing can of course detract from the awfulness of the murders and in particular the genuine horror of their seemingly random nature. The police are absolutely right to explore every possibility of collusion or conspiracy. But the media and the public are not. By creating and promoting fear and suspicion where none are justified by any evidence this reaction hands an unlooked for victory to real terrorists. We should not forget that the object of terrorism is only partly to disrupt everyday life, it is as much about causing suspicion and doubt in the target society, so that different groups turn on each other. But yet we seem to be willing to do that job ourselves.
Here’s what we know. The Westminster murderer was nominally a Moslem. He was definitely not an immigrant or a foreign national. He deliberately killed at least four people, we don’t know why or even whether he thought he would survive the incident. His motive might have had some misguided roots in religion, it might have been another sort of political protest, it might have been a bid for the celebrity of infamy, it might have been the result of mental unbalance however caused, or something else – we don’t know.
Separately of course we know that there are some religious believers who interpret their religion as requiring them to commit murder. But after extensive police enquiries this murderer was not one of them as far as we know. If he had been nominally a Christian or a Hindu would we assume that he belonged to a radical violent splinter group of Christians or Hindus? There have been some belated comments from the police that he was “interested” in jihad – despite there being no obvious connection with jihadist groups, as if someone were concerned that they should not let go of the theme. He was a man with a history of criminal violence who committed a violent crime.
Armed police defending Parliament reacted quickly and properly and the attacker died. If he had been captured, what would have the charge? If the atrocity on the bridge had not been followed by the murder of a policeman the killer might have been charged with nothing worse than causing death by dangerous driving as in other examples of deadly kerb mounting. This emphasises a fault in our laws rather than offering any excuse for the killer, for surely the deaths on the bridge were murderous is every meaningful sense. But this is not a fault involving a gap in anti-terrorist measures or requiring more surveillance or curtailment of everyday freedoms.
Terrorism is a real threat, but one which has been with us for centuries. Despite media hyperbole it does not threaten our way of life because it never approaches that scale but certainly it threatens individuals’ safety from random and cowardly attacks. It poses the most danger however when it is seized on as an excuse for violent political reaction, as in the Sarajevo assassination which sparked the First World War. Provoking political and popular reaction against the innocent in the hope of polarising and splitting society is indeed one of the objectives of terrorism. 
But even genuine terrorism need not be accepted as an excuse for mass hysteria, for media and political scare-mongering masquerading as sober reflection on real tragedy or for any kind of religious, ideological or racial witch hunt. If we allow it to be used as such an excuse, we are the authors of our own terror. Worse, if we treat every instance of random violence as terror, we will end up as slaves, not to those who commit acts of terror but to governments which exploit our fears.

Fundamentalism and the EU “four freedoms”.

The single market of the EU is founded on four freedoms, the freedoms of movement of goods, services, capital and people. This is a wonderful piece of political branding, for who could possibly be against freedoms? Only a fool or a Brexiteer, if there is a difference in EU eyes. But in fact the package is one of several mechanisms (the Euro being the most notorious) by which a programme of market fundamentalism has been imposed on the people of Europe.

Market fundamentalism is a view which although under attack is still the dominant political ideology of our times, that markets know best. Markets decide and the rest of the social fabric must lie as it falls. And accordingly, the main effect of the treaty obligations by which the members have bound themselves is to reduce the power of governments to intervene in their own economies.

No wonder there is such contempt for democracy in the institutional arrangements of the EU and such horror when people are allowed to express a view. Democracy and market fundamentalism are incompatible, radically opposing views of how society should be shaped. Democracy implies that people can not only have aims not presented to them by the market, but make viable choices outside the market. To fundamentalists this is dangerous nonsense.

Looking at the freedoms themselves, it is not surprising that free movement of capital will largely benefit its owners, although predictable that capital will seek the cheapest sources of labour. But freedom of movement of goods sounds thoroughly benign – who wants their goods priced up by tariffs or held up by obstructive officials? Besides, trade in goods benefits everyone, comparative advantage providing both more guns and more butter as every schoolchild knows. But as always, it depends where you start. Just as every developing economy which has emerged in the last half century (ever?) has built up its industry from fragile beginnings behind the protection of tariff walls, so mature and even declining industries might need similar protection, if only to give people time to adjust. The tide perhaps cannot be held back, but sometimes a wall to keep out the worst storms is useful.

The timing of the EU single market could in this respect not have been worse. Industries already reeling from cheaper goods and lower labour costs outside Europe have had to face additional competition from within Europe. Whole cities and communities in the UK have been hollowed out as a result of the dual onslaught – I think of once prosperous Loughborough and Leicester near where I live, now shadows of what they used to be. In response the mantras of market fundamentalism are hypnotically repeated: markets are sovereign, governments cannot intervene and must step aside. But stepping aside is not a neutral act.

Besides accepting that markets are more important than people, inaction disproportionately benefits the multinational corporations within which something like two thirds of all international trade takes place. These corporations ARE the market – in other words most trade is a sort of fiction. These corporations are the same as show such aversion to paying taxes in countries where they operate, but this aside they might claim it is up to governments to look after their own people, while multinationals attend to their earnings. But even that saving balance has been lost.

Fundamentalist governments are gripped by the sense that all prosperity requires is to shrink the state and let markets provide. Gone, dismissed as leftist nonsense, is any sense that governments might have any duties of trusteeship towards their people. So the externalities of trade, the hollowing out which destroys communities in the old world and the pollution which destroys the environment in the new, are left unattended. Corporations inherit a scorched earth.

Then we have the free movement of people. This controversial freedom can be made to sound as if it restores the power of the worker – if firms in one country are not congenial, the workers will flow to those of another, onwards and upwards. Maybe this is true for a very small proportion of highly sought-after workers. But for most the reality is that any successful economy will be flooded with cheap labour. There will be consequent strains on public spending as public services are oversubscribed, reinforcing or excusing the fundamentalist view that shrinking the state is the only way forward.

But think what desperation anyway might cause a worker to uproot family, abandon home and possessions and travel thousands of miles to a country of different culture and language in the hope of work. Just as with the great emigrations of the nineteenth century, and indeed the economic refugees of today, the “free” movement of people is a cruel symbol of failure or abdication of responsibility by governments.

For indigenous workers, free movement of people acts only to depress pay, preventing them from sharing in any gains from trade and filling them with such rage and despair they will turn to whomever promises revenge. It is a freedom which comes with a heavy price. This is no liberal regret, for the greatest irony is how severely free movement attacks the basis of traditional conservatism, that attachment to place, tradition and evolved culture which at its best gives people roots and nurtures values.

So the four freedoms are not gifts to the people of Europe, they are pillars of market fundamentalism. Is it too late to think again? Certainly the damage done to older industries is probably irreversible. But we might stop compounding the damage with further economic vandalism. We could reflect on what might matter more in our lives than the profits of multinationals. We might even consider whether there might after all be such a thing as society, whether competition is really the only model for how we live together. Or we could carry on until the anger of the newly dispossessed elects more demagogues and dictators.

President Trump

Why did people vote for Trump? There are several reasons, some of which are regrettable, all are important to learn from. But apart perhaps from the dubious intervention of the FBI, his victory is not a perversion of democracy as some would like to claim. And his supporters may have been duped, but they are not fools.

First, it has to be admitted that Trump judged his audience to perfection and played relentlessly to their prejudices and fears, in a way few “professional” (read “cautious”) politicians could, or indeed did. It may be highly regrettable that so many white American voters like guns and dislike immigrants, Muslims, foreigners , ethnic minorities etc. and that is something to ponder and try to change. But that was the reality and that was one of the feelings he connected with. You don’t choose your electorate.

Second, he allowed and licensed people to feel the anger they already felt. He made it OK to be angry. This is the truly dangerous aspect of his success, the way populist agitators from either end of the traditional political spectrum nearly always work their mischief. Professional politicains are again cautious about doing this because they know anger is hard to control and the mob can turn on its heroes. They may yet turn on Trump. But it is no use telling angry folk that they should calm down and learn acceptance. The best way to combat anger may be not to create it in the first place, but next best is to acknowledge it and promise to do something about it – certainly not to deny it.

Third, the election was fought with a breathtaking disregard for truth. It did not matter whether charges levelled at other candidates at different stages were true or false. All that mattered was to provide a story that people could invest in, as if the whole thing was a movie – or a reality show? Drama mattered, truth did not, which is perhaps why revelations which would have felled any professional politician slid harmlessly off candidate Trump. As with the flawed hero of a detective story or a thriller, people just shrugged and said, “Yes, but will he get the bad guys?”

So we come to the most important aspect of the election. The story being sold by Trump at every stage was that professional politicians lie and cannot be trusted. Whatever else was said or not said, this was something they could relate to, in fact something they believed passionately and not without foundation. 

People have been assured for years that more free trade, more globalisation, lower taxes for the rich, less regulation of business and capital, more trust in the power of markets would lead to greater prosperity for everyone. It was all lies. It doesn’t, it hasn’t. People know this from their own joblessness or deskilled, menial employment or at best their stagnating living standards. But politicians assure them that they must be mistaken, that if they are worse off the fault is in some way theirs. So people are frustrated, angry, bewildered, feel patronised. They want things to be as they were, for “America to be great again” which for them is judged first by their own living standards.

It’s not just a question of theory not working out in practice, as if comparative advantage had an unsuspected flaw. It is more that a fundamental economic change has taken place and is continuing to unfold. The high relative wealth of the developed world is slowly levelling off with that of the rest of the planet, helped by the free movement of goods and capital which allows corporations to manufacture where labour is cheapest. The result is cheaper goods and higher profits, but fewer higher paid manufacturing jobs and greater personal indebtedness in the traditional manufacturing countries. Indeed, everyone wants cheap goods but few understand the real price. The elite international class, the Davos class as Naomi Klein aptly calls them, understand although they may care little about cheap goods anyway. Indeed it is not a secret although like bad news in families it is not much discussed. But the Davos class are insulated from the effects. The blue collar workers of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are not.

There is thus a disconnection between the patriotism which people still feel towards their nation state and the reality of a globalised economy in which the price of labour, not its location, is all that matters to producers. People may be patriotic, firms and markets are not. It is a recipe for disillusion, anger and frustration. President-elect Trump is himself one of the elite and is as unlikely to solve the problem as any other politician, so his voters are highly likely to be disappointed. Neither would Sanders have succeeded, the only Democratic candidate to recognise the anger of the people and thus the only candidate likely to have beaten Trump had the Davos Democratic establishment not been so scared of his outdated socialism as to bend the rules against him.

It is the most dangerous conflict of expectations we face. Desperate people may again turn as they did in the nineteen thirties, indeed may already have done in this election, to the promise of “strong leadership”, trading their political freedom unwittingly for the promise of returned prosperity. The social contract of recent decades, if there ever was one, is broken. The “-isms” of the twentieth century are all discredited except for opportunism. A new covenant between states, people and capital is needed. And there may not be much time.

America’s last election?

Could November see the last presidential election in the US? If Donald Trump were to win, the possibility could not be discounted.

Consider Trump’s utterances and style and his fundamental belief that the US is under a diffuse threat which only he recognises and which is broadly speaking the fault of foreigners and outsiders. These are the hallmarks of a would-be fascist leader – fascist not in any stereotypical left-right sense but in the simple and original sense that he believes in leadership by a single strong personality who alone has all the answers and who alone can put the country or the world to rights. It goes without saying that he also believes he himself is that personality.

Add to that his clearly and repeatedly stated belief that elections are rigged if he does not win them. Add also his almost maniacal sensitivity to criticism, which prevents him from staying silent when anyone refuses to acknowledge his greatness, let alone makes a point against him.

Now suppose that he were to win and therefore have at his disposal the full executive power of the most powerful country in the world. He would still be restrained by the rule of law, you might say, but other holders of that office have been tempted to trifle with the boundaries set by law and Donald Trump is not a man to trifle. Voicing criticism of President Trump need not become a criminal offence, but critics might find themselves suddenly accused of other crimes, or harassed by agencies of the executive. Sedition would suddenly be everywhere, often self confessed in plea bargains by anyone who crossed the executive, as we see in China. Simplistic ethnic or creed based explanations for any setback the country might experience would be commonplace, as they already are in the candidate’s speeches, but how easily could that turn to suggestions of a “final solution”?

Yes, the language is deliberate, these terrible outcomes could rival those of 1930’s Italy and Germany. But beyond that, why would a President convinced of his own popularity and essential rightness submit himself to the uncertainties of another election? After all, elections as we have been told are rigged unless they give the right result, so perhaps there would be a state of emergency postponing the next election, or more likely there would be large scale disqualifications from voting affecting people who – perhaps for no better reason than their ethnicity or religion – could not be counted on to make the right choice.

Americans are rightly proud of the strength of their constitution and might dismiss such fears as fanciful. We should all hope they are right, but history suggests such an outcome is not impossible.

On grammar schools

A very long time ago when I was at school there was a process of selection – the 11+ exam – which sorted children into either the grammar school (pass) or secondary modern (fail). No doubt there were poor grammar schools and excellent secondary modern schools but broadly a pass in the exam meant access to a better, certainly more academic, education and generally better opportunities for the rest of your life. Since the majority of children failed (and were thus disadvantaged for the rest of their lives) this system was wasteful and unfair and it came increasingly under attack until within a decade of my leaving school the system had changed. The exam was abolished, grammar schools were abolished and “comprehensive education” became the established model.

Of course the comprehensive system had its own disadvantages, not least that it required exceptional management and leadership to organise the nurturing of the complete range of abilities and temperaments now housed within a single, often very large, school. Such exceptional leadership was always, well, exceptional. There were always political and parental mutterings against the “wilful destruction” of some very good grammar schools, many of which joined the private sector if they could. The gap between the private, fee charging sector and the state sector widened and it became more difficult for the clever children of uneducated parents to reach the levels required for further education, until the latter was massively expanded to the point where state financial support for further education had to be slashed, turning education into a luxury commodity.

Now the new UK government is proposing that grammar schools should be revived to increase educational opportunities for the brightest (or at least best coached) pupils. This may indeed produce better opportunities for some children, although the suspicion must be that they will not be from the most disadvantaged backgrounds because successful grammar schools will have a significant impact on local house prices. Also, the almost unavoidable effect is that in areas in which such schools exist the existing comprehensive schools will become, in effect, secondary moderns. The current fashion for league tables based on exam results will reinforce the idea that the comprehensives are sinks of underperformance, because whatever they do their percentage pass rates will be lower than selective schools.

But is this policy anyway not a sad failure of political and educational imagination? Sure, there were good things about grammar schools, very good things for those (like me) who were lucky enough to get in. But there were also incredibly negative things about a system which sorted children into winners and losers for life on the basis of a single exam at the age of 11. It may be, even on this policy’s own terms, that the perfect exam will find the brightest and most academically gifted children. But it could also be that in most cases the exam simply selects for people who are good at passing that exam, maybe because they have been intensively coached to do just that regardless of other abilities. Again, there were good ideas behind comprehensive education, alongside many dogmas and mistaken notions about both process and the needs of children with different aptitudes. But if the academic needs of the brightest children were not met, the system was (is) flawed and let down those children while robbing society of their contribution.

The real challenge now is the same as it ever was, to get the best for every child, the best being not some arbitrary or abstract standard but making the best of that child’s abilities, be they academic, technical, creative, athletic or not very distinguished at all. It is an incredibly difficult challenge, of course, as difficult now as it ever was. Surely, though, the right approach is to look very hard and without political prejudice at what structures and institutions can address that challenge today, not to hark back to a myth of a golden age when education was more “proper”.

I wish I could even outline an answer! I can’t, I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge and the experience. I understand too that politicians have always to pretend that they have the answer to whatever problem they face. But the better approach is surely just to search diligently, to learn from what worked and what didn’t work in the past, what works and doesn’t work elsewhere, what conditions we now face and so on. Then try to take a step forward in what seems to be the right direction. Leadership is not just about driving or cajoling people towards a simple goal, it is also about being responsible and judicious in setting the goals themselves. If the problem is complicated, the solution probably is as well. It is unlikely to be something whose flaws have already been fully exposed.

Baggini and representative democracy

I read two articles this week by the philosopher/journalist Julian Baggini brandishing the idea of representative democracy to decry in one case the result of the Brexit referendum and in the other Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to abandon the mandate his membership gave him because his Parliamentary colleagues don’t like him being leader.
Democracy is such an important idea in our society that confusion about it is always interesting.We tend to assume that the idea needs no examination. In fact, if philosophy has any purpose at all it is to examine precisely those ideas we take for granted but put great weight on.
It is probably true that difficult decisions are best taken by those able to understand the implications of various courses. Leaders with a certain level of intelligence are a good thing, although they need many other qualities. This is not the same and should not be confused with the probably false idea that government is best left to experts or technocrats. Experts need to provide the known facts but all difficult decsions go beyond known facts and need some judgement about factual uncertainties and more importantly, values.
Moreover it is never obvious or even determinable in advance who will make what will turn out to be happy decisions. Complexity rules out government by continual plebiscite (technologically enhanced Athenian democracy) not because the people are too ignorant or too easily misled to know what is good for them but because the questions are too difficult to frame for a binary (yes/no) answer, not to mention the sheer number of decisions great and small which need to be taken. But this has nothing to do with a certain elite class or even elite individuals knowing better what is good for us collectively. The philosopher kings that Plato wished for do not and never will exist. In that sense, democracy is a process of eternal disappointment, but the alternative is to believe that someone has privileged access to the answers, which is the meaning of fascism (and what it has in common with theocracy).
So we select rulers as best we can, from a limited choice offered to us and bounded by whatever artificial constraints our particular voting system places on the method of choosing. The best ruler we can hope for is capable of understanding and taking into account the expert advice but not being dominated by it, best illustrated perhaps by the political command of a country’s armed forces. Even though we nearly always end up disappointed, we can at least reject those who have tried and failed and those we feel should not be allowed to try. And as long as we can all participate in this process in whatever way our system allows and most importantly revise our choice at suitable intervals, we are protected from at least some of the worst abuses of power. This is the value of democracy, it offers no miracles but a measure of protection well worth the two cheers Forster proposed.
Returning to Baggini’s two targets, it is certainly arguable that we should never have referendums and instead leave all major decisions to our elected rulers. With hindsight, our ex-PM might agree! But the argument, such as it is, is just about our constitutional arrangements, not about the intellectual capacity of the electorate. It is particularly weak in the case of Brexit because we have had several referendums on major constitutional questions before and even a referendum on the EU. An alternative view is that since we choose leaders within a given constitutional framework, major changes to the framework itself should not be taken by those leaders but put to the governed. In that view the referendum came rather late.
(Remainers, of which I think Baggini is one, seem always to assume that Leavers can only have been misled or stupid, but people voted Leave for many reasons, some good and some bad just like Remainers. Not least, although many supported a free trade area they simply did not see the point of a federal Europe, which is the goal and lodestar of the EU institutions and many of the member governments but for which interestingly no one argued a positive case.)
As for Mr Corbyn, it is hard to see why any idea of representative democracy even touches his decision not to stand down as leader of his party. A party, after all, is just a group of people hoping to convince the electorate at large to allow it to rule. That group can make its own internal governance arrangements but there is absolutely no reason why it should mirror those of the state. It could choose to privilege the opinions of those it has succeeded in getting elected into Parliament, but it need not and it has not. So, whether Mr Corbyn is right or wrong to stay as leader of his party against the wishes of his MPs just has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a representative democracy.