Archive for April, 2010

The state we may be in

April 30, 2010 19 comments

I’ve lost track of the times I’ve seen, in the leftwing blogosphere, the following kind of sentiment:

‘Labour has betrayed its core constituency, has no value system, is only in it for the power and not for the people.  I/we shouldn’t vote Labour, and it’s not our fault if the Tories get in, and anyway they can’t be any worse.’

And that, in the end, is an abdication of responsibility, on two counts.

First, it is in part the Left’s fault that the Labour party has developed the way it has.  It takes two to tango.

Second, and more pertinent to the coming days, if the Tories get in it will be at least in part because people on the Left didn’t vote and/or didn’t encourage people to vote against them getting in.  It is effective voting that decides elections, not principles and protest votes.

So let’s just try to make this clear.  Labour may have done bad things, but a next Labour government will not be ANYWHERE NEAR AS REMOTELY DAMAGING to us all, and especially to the working class, as a Tory government.

You don’t have to support Labour’s track record to support Labour at this election.  It’s enough to want to keep the Tories out, and the way to do that is generally to vote Labour (I accept there is a tactical voting issue in some places).  Voting for TUSC, or RESPECT, or the Greens, will not keep the Tories out.  It’s not rocket science.

To aid thinking on this not-rocket science, here are my personal ‘top 5 things that the Tories are planning to do if they came to power which a Labour government will not do’:

1.  They will enter into a Faustian pact with the international bond markets and credit agencies, whereby their reputation and political survival will become fundamentally dependent on bowing to the whim of the markets at whatever social cost is necessary and howeever economically irrational the demands made are.  The bond markets and credit agencies will become ever more demanding of a compliant state, knowing that that state has left itself no choice but to comply.

2.   They will introduce legislation specifically designed to put the dismantling of 70 years of universal welfare state provision and services in the hands of local authorities, and constitutionally beyond the grip of parliament.

3.  They will introduce a compulsory system of  ‘community organisers’ designed to create thousands of little local surveillance states, where ‘community spirit” becomes synonymous with ‘doing what you’re told’, and where anyone different becomes the enemy.  They will do this by extracting from the charitable sector as much money per year as is currently spent on all arts and culture in the UK.

4. They will corrupt the giving of international humanitarian and development aid and link it inextricably to foreign ‘realpolitik’, and they will hive off significant amounts of the 0.7% of GDP they have ‘ringfenced ‘ for aid and give it to the military.  They will also run X-Factor style beauty contests for aid money and humiliate people in poor countries in a way which smacks of rank colonialism.

5.  They will unabashedly play dog whistle politics with immigration in a way which Labour, even though it has caved in to the right wing press on this policy area to a very significant extent, have never quite been willing to do.  Any sense that immigration may have an economically useful role to play, and any sense that immigrants are anything other than criminals intent on stealing our jobs, houses, wives and our British way of life, will be lost, perhaps irrevocably.

Labour will do none of these things.  That’s enough reason to vote Labour.

Categories: Terrible Tories

I am not voting Green in Canterbury

April 29, 2010 2 comments

I’m thoroughly in love with the Democracy Club website, backed by the people at They Work For You, who are extending the principle of recording how MPs vote to what positions candidates take. Some people have used it in really sneaky ways too – like asking about policies they’d hate (e.g. more police on the beat) to see which candidates give knee jerk reactions.

Reading over the results of the first survey, however, any inclination I had to vote Green in Canterbury rather than Labour – and I was seriously thinking about it – has absolutely vanished. Below, snippets from the survey, all of which can be found by entering a Canterbury postcode into the TWFY site, are selected to show precisely why I’m not voting Green and how they’ve confirmed for me every possible stereotype.

Issue one: Many people think taxes will have to rise in the next parliament to cut Britain’s budget deficit. If they do, any increases should disproportionately be paid by higher earners.

Response by Green PPC, G. Meaden: Agree. Statement: “But this does rather depend on whether the proportionality is measured in actual money or in a percentage of their earnings”

Issue two
: The British government interferes too much with business.

Response by Green PPC: Neutral. Statement: “Though I tend rather towards ‘agree'”

Issue three: It would be a big problem if Britain became more economically unequal over the next 5 years.

Response by Green PPC: Agree. Statement: “Which it will do if any of the three main parties get into power”

Issue four: Despite the recession, Britain should increase spending on public sector services.

Response by Green PPC: Neutral. Statement: “Depends on which sectors”

Issue five:  A married, heterosexual couple provide the best environment in which to raise a family.

Response by Green PPC: Agree. Statement: none.

Some of these are obviously open to interpretation or the “I didn’t type what I meant” response. Such as, on the question of taxation, issue one, it seems like the Green PPC is saying that everyone should pay the same percentage of what they earn but that because the wealthy earn more, they’ll pay more. On this issue, Labour candidate Jean Samuel came out swinging with a “strongly agree”.

However, on some issues, the response of the PPC is unforgiveable and I’d destroy my ballot rather than vote for him – for example issue five, and the (rather cowardly, I thought) lack of justification for agreeing that a heterosexual, nuclear family is best. Again, Jean Samuel came out swinging, “A stable loving couple or single parents provide the best environment. It is the love and stability that matter.”

Even on regulation of business, Jean, who owns her own business and might therefore be considered suspect, disagreed that the government interfered too much with business. Not to say that Labour’s candidate is perfect. There are lacklustre answers on things like immigration and the local issue of the Scrine Foundation – which Jean said “is too late for discussion now” just as we know Tories are gearing up for their real attacks.

But even in terms of emphasis, Labour still takes the cake in Canterbury. Geoff Meaden’s strongest agreement was on tackling climate change ‘even if energy bills go up’ (though, to be fair, there were some good anti-war answers, which Labour either matched or fell a little short of) and on the issue of the Canterbury Museums and Westgate Hall, rather than on equality, taxation of the wealthy or regulation of business.

This is important and it spills over into issues like climate change. Without the willingness to tax the wealthy and to hold down prices for consumers even while forcing energy companies and other polluters to pay for environmentally friendly production and policies (like the ones which suppress demand), ordinary people are saddled with the cost of protecting an environment that large numbers are pretty careful about not destroying, if they can help it.

Taken all together, this is why I’m not voting Green. As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that the Tories are worse than any other party at saying what they stand for – Geoff Meaden of the Greens, even though I disagree with him, at least had the courage to give his view. Julian Brazier, and hordes of other Tories, have simply refused to engage with new media and voter. Could it be because their policies are all crap?

Stay tuned tomorrow or Saturday for my take on UKIP’s election leaflet for Canterbury – about as apolitical as one can get.

Greece and Gordon Brown’s Gaffe

April 28, 2010 16 comments

Two stories dominated the news tonight – Brown’s gaffe and the Greek financial crisis. Both linked by a common thread – the economic consequences of a neo-liberal agenda for European unity.

The voter that Brown called a bigot was concerned about the combination of unemployment and the free movement of labour across the continent. From Brown’s standpoint, from the economic strategy that New Labour has followed, her views would have appeared as bigoted. Once New Labour had given up any socialist ambitions, the sole progressive pole open to it was a humanism based on liberal internationalism. The liberal internationalism of the market economy based on free movement of labour and capital.

For some years it appeared to have paid off. His successes during the ‘no-more boom and bust’ years were built on the easy availability of international credit and imported labour.

UK government policy towards Europe has, throughout the New Labour years been consistently neo-liberal. Successors to Thatcher, they built on the greatest foreign policy success of her and Regan : the dismantling of the social democratic economies of Eastern Europe. The resulting mass unemployment in Poland, created an external reserve army of labour for British capital. Almost alone in Europe, Britain insisted on immediate implementation of free labour migration from the East. The freedom that neo-liberalism brought to Europe was the freedom of primitive accumulation – the creation of a labour pool that was free of any existing means of livelihood, freed from their homes, free to serve business on demand.

For all Brown’s professed adherence to ‘post neoclassical endogenous growth models’, New Labour actually followed a policy that made good sense in terms of Marx or Solow : keep the labour supply growing as fast or faster than the growth of capital in order to maintain the rate of profit. In this context, spontaneous working class objections to increased competition in the labour market, are just bigoted objections to liberal progress.

At the same time they set their face against any transformation of the EU that would have strengthened the tax raising and spending powers of the European Parliament. The crisis in Greece, and shortly in Portugal, stems ultimately from this. The Eurozone is a monetary federation without the federal government tax and spend powers that have been essential to the functioning of earlier monetary federations like Germany or the USA. If the EU parliament had the power to levy income and property taxes across the Union, the current crisis in Greece would not be happening. A large part of the expenditure now met by the Greek Government would be being met by the Union out of general Union taxation: defence, pensions, perhaps medical costs.

Union taxes would, as in any other federal state act as a means of redistributing income between richer and poorer areas. Within the UK, Northern Ireland, being a relatively impoverished area, receives a greater per-capita share of central taxes.

But all this would have run counter to the neo-liberal agenda. Social democratic politics having been exorcised at the national level, could not be allowed to return at the Union level. Thus there was no question of the Union having the tax raising powers necessary to provide for example common EU pensions or an EU health service free at the point of need across the continent. Now workers at national level are refusing to let go of the few concessions they have won, and national opposition to EU-wide social democracy is causing problems because there’s no EU-wide capital safety net either.

Campaign moments and Brown’s bigotry

April 28, 2010 18 comments

I don’t know how to describe the transition between open fury and weary resignation that Gordon Brown calling a woman a bigot sent me through today. It did, however, provoke a lighter moment.

Tory Shadow Chancellor George Osbourne came off with this gem:

“That’s the thing about general elections, they do reveal the truth about people.”

Which is exactly why CCHQ have kept you hidden under the bed, you utter pillock.

Once again, however, the Dear Leader of the Labour Party has made the job of Labour activists across the country that bit harder. Just as Labour were getting traction, with every indication that the Tories are nowhere near where they should be – bearing in mind how deeply unpopular this government is with the chattering classes – Brown puts his foot in it.

And how! Is there a better way to highlight the chasm that separates political leaders from real people than by calling someone bigoted for raising an objection to Eastern European immigration? It proves the remove between the political class and ordinary people, that having any objection to immigration is simple bigotry and not, perhaps, the result of squeezed services or the other real problems immigration causes.

Or simpler still, could it not be the result of bad information? Which it may well have been, judging by the woman’s decision (prior to the remarks about her bigotry being made public) to vote for Labour.

Reading over Twitter, there seems to have been a mix of reactions – some have defended the actions of Brown on the grounds that they too have come away from the door step and been thoroughly irritated with the people who they’ve talked to – as my blograde Paul Cotterill has, picked up by Miljenko over at 21st Century Fix.

I don’t sympathise however. I have problems keeping my temper under control at the best of times, and this blog has often been my soapbox for long and humourless rants against Brown, or Cruddas, or other bloggers. Yet I don’t think there’s any excuse for slagging off people whose doors you’ve just knocked on, or who have come to hear you speak.

At the risk of sounding thoroughly holier-than-thou, on the doorstep I’ve met BNP voters, voters angry with Labour to the point of shouting, I’ve met religious homophobes and I’ve had my fair number of doors slammed in my face – and I don’t recall ever waiting to get out of earshot before I let my real opinions be heard.

This woman comes near none of the above (video here), and seemed perfectly willing to discuss her problem.

The result is that Gordon Brown’s subsequent words depict him as upset that someone didn’t kowtow by serving up a soft-ball question, of the sort he’s used to fielding at Question Time from Labour MPs. Apart from making it harder to get the few decent Labour MPs re-elected, it also plays into the right-wing narrative that any discussion of immigration gets shouted down by the Left as racism, or bigotry.

Fuck Gordon Brown and the horse he rode in on. And if you want to talk about real bigotry, talk about Yarl’s Wood immigrant detention facility, happening under Labour’s watch.

Blog theme tunes?

April 28, 2010 11 comments

Phil at AVPS has been tagged with a rather neat idea, that we should pick a song that fits the blog. I won’t presume to speak for the rest, but I have picked two for me. As it was “Paul, Dave and family” who were tagged, everyone else should have a bash at this sort of fun.

My first is Michael Penn’s ‘Walter Reed’, from the classic 2005 album ‘Mr. Hollywood Jr., 1947’. Artistically I think the video is superb – and the melancholy tune, the lyrics and the video blend so well.

My second is Fatboy Slim’s Bird of Prey. Again, the artistry, the elation, the history, it’s all so appealing. As Phil has demurred from rather conceitedly telling everyone what the connection between tunes and blog are, so will I.

I will tag Paul S, the ever musical Bob from Brockley, Ten Percent, Carl and LeftOutside.

Categories: General Politics

Smoking gun

April 28, 2010 13 comments

Lord Hanningfield: Tory leader in the fight against the poor

Regular readers will know that I am pretty obsessed with the Tories’ plans to introduce a Powers of General Competence Act if they come into power, and how this will be used quite deliberately by councils up and down the country to slash services and remove much needed welfare provision from the most vulnerable.

I have, I will admit, been quite frustrated that senior Labour people have not picked up on what the Tories are up to, despite my personal appeals to them.  I’ve not even had the courtesy of a reply from the minister to my two letters.

However, I do accept that much of the problem I’ve had in setting out my case is that I’ve not had any hard evidence to support my assertions about the pernicious way in which the legislation will be used. 

All I’ve been able to do is point at the relative secrecy with which it’s been developed within the Tory-dominated Local Government Association, the way in which it removes parliamentary control over local authorities actions in a manner which is beyond the actual requirements of what the legislation is supposedly for, and how it fits with the overall Tory agenda of ‘EasyJet councils’. 

I’ve known I’m right – I’ve been combatting Tories in local government long enough to know what their intentions are – but I’ve not had the proof.

Until now.

The proof lies, strangely, in another slightly obscure piece of legislation, the Sustainable Communities Act (2007) which allows local authorities to put forward proposals to the Minister for Local Government (currently John Denham) around greater flexibility of their actions as they relate to central government functions.  

There are currently 193 such proposals shortlisted by the LGA for the minister, and a decision on these will, I assume be made after the election.  Note that, unlike the proposed Power of General Competence, the minister on behalf of parliament has the final say on what flexibility local authorities can enjoy.  The full list of all 300 proposals submitted in 2009 is here.

The important submission is from Essex County Council, led until recently by the now disgraced Lord Hanningfield, and one of the leading lights in the new ‘radical’ Tory councils, as shown by its recent mass outsourcing of services and jobs to IBM UK Ltd.  These people are right wingers, make no mistake about it.

The submission needs to read in full to get a sense of what they’re about:

Proposal theme: Worklessness, unemployment and skills: The duty to set the eligibility criteria and amounts payable for all working age benefits for all claimants in Essex be devolved from central government to ECC.

The last few months of difficult economic circumstances have highlighted a number of major problems within the existing structure of the labour market in the UK. This proposal seeks to tackle one of these, specifically the problem of market distortion caused by working age benefits. It is generally accepted that any level of benefit payments will have a distorting effect, but more recently it has become apparent that a single, nationally set system has an unduly large influence on certain areas when analysed at a local level.

ECC has already put a significant amount of resources into analysing the state of the labour market in Essex as a part of its programmes to help people in the county back to work. It has become apparent that the labour market situation in Essex is sufficiently distinct to the rest of the country that it would greatly benefit from a tailored set of employment and benefit policies.

Any set of benefit rules must provide a decent standard of living for all while also providing, wherever possible, an incentive for the recipient to find work. However, there is an intrinsic problem with any nationally set rules in that huge local variations exist in what can be classified as a ‘decent standard of living’ and ‘an incentive to find work’. The failure by the existing benefits system to take this into account causes adverse effects on both the economic and social sustainability of local communities.

We therefore propose that the duty to set the eligibility criteria and amounts payable for all working age benefits for all claimants in Essex be devolved from central government to ECC.

As this proposal seeks to tackle worklessness it will be essential that control over the eligibility criteria and payment rates for Job Seekers Allowance, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance be transferred to ECC. This would put us in a powerful position to tailor the most important work-related benefits to local market conditions and ECC skills and training programmes.

Alongside this, it may become necessary to alter other, related benefits. For example, recipients of Income Support are automatically eligible for Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit. Should we decide to change eligibility to Income Support for certain groups, we could ensure that other benefits were maintained. Therefore in order to ensure a unified approach and ensure that the system remains fair to all residents, we propose that criteria and rates for all working age benefits are transferred to ECC.

Our aim in using these powers would be to join up benefits with other programmes to fit better with the needs of the people of Essex, the Essex economy and the work, training and skills programmes ECC are already running. This would greatly strengthen the impact of other initiatives designed to help people back to work and thus help to improve local economic sustainability.

Additionally, by targeting the known affects of worklessness on individuals and their communities, these proposals could have an important role in promoting social sustainability within the county as well.

It’s pretty clear what these weasel words mean. 

Being “in a powerful position to tailor the most important work-related benefits to local market conditions” is policy speak for reducing benefits to such an extent that people will take any job, anywhere, in any conditions.

“[T]here is an intrinsic problem with any nationally set rules in that huge local variations exist in what can be classified as a ‘decent standard of living’ and ‘an incentive to find work'” is a plan to starve people into submission.

“Should we decide to change eligibility to Income Support for certain groups” means they do intend to cut the benefits of the sick, for example.

Simple as.

These people are ruthless anti-working class bastards who know exactly what they’re about, and are desperate to get on with out Purnelling Purnell.  The guy must seem like Nye Bevan to them.

Now, as I’ve said, the final decision on this proposal for local authority control over central government spending lies with the Minister. 

That’s why it’s important that there isn’t a Tory government, and the prospect of a Tory local government minister on May 7th.  For the good of the unemployed in Essex, we need to keep the Tories out by whichever which way.   On this, I even half agree with Toynbee:

Urging a tactical vote to keep the Tories out is not a tribal game – I am one of Brown’s fiercest critics. It is a reminder that profoundly different choices will be made by centre-left and centre-right.

But this is only the half of it, for finally we back get to what the Powers of General Competence are really all about.

Here’s our corrupt friend Hanningfield, pontificating on Conservative Home in the weeks before he was found out:

Should the Conservatives win the next election, Essex County Council looks forward to using the power of general competence the recent [Tory]decentralisation paper promises. In the meantime, however, local government has been given the opportunity – through the Sustainable Communities Act to make proposals to government on powers it would like to exercise.

I will be outlining on Conservative Home our six proposals which we believe offer real, practical localism – tackling local economic, social and environmental issues in Essex (my emphasis)

One of these six proposals is the very one I refer to above – the deliberately vicious plan to slash benefits for the most vulnerable people in Essex.

But Hanningfield lets the cat out of the bag on his Tory home turf; he’s not really interested in the Labour legislation; this is just a practice run for the real legislative deal, when he and his Essex cronies get to do whatever the fuck they want to the poor.

This time, though, there’ll be no ministerial oversight, no minimum standards, no checks and balances. 

With the Powers of General Competence in place, no one can touch the corrupt Hanningfield’s successors, for the (draft) law explicitly allows their actions primacy over parliamentary legislation.  If you don’t believe me, read it again, especially para 3.1.

and this is just the start.  Remember that Hanningfield is (or was) a top Tory insider, with direct links to the other ‘radical’ councils like Barnet, Southampton, and Hammersmith. 

This is a plot to undermine 60 years of the welfare state, and to legislate so that the destruction they wreak cannot be easily reversed.  This is the second wave of Thatcherism that not even Thatcher dared dream of.  This is real. It’d start with the working class of Essex, but it’d soon catch on.

Now will someone bloody well listen to me?

Musings on Stephen Hawking, E.T., celebrity and blogging

April 27, 2010 9 comments

I. Stephen Hawking and the aliens
I have heard mentioned in the past that Stephen Hawking is one of that motley crew of believers in extra-terrestrials. And it was confirmed for me this morning, on BBC radio 4, that he has made a documentary in which he speculates not merely that alien lifeforms exist, but that they may be dangerous and we should steer clear. This got me thinking.

Obviously Prof. Hawking is an extremely able, gifted man – and his work in attempting to popularise physics is something to respect. I would not presume to challenge him, nor the other eminent scientists like Prof. Brian Cox, that alien life may indeed exist – that it may be microbial etc.

But where does the science come into speculating as to how dangerous it might be?

Even assuming one surpasses the problem of relativistic physics when it comes to the sheer distances involved between two near stars, never mind distant ones, there’s the question of time. Human civilisation has existed for, say, ten thousand years but that’s only ~ 7.3e-7% of the time that the universe has existed, during which entire solar systems have been wiped out.

So, mathematically speaking, not only is the problem simply one of a vast number of planets where eventually variables like distance from sun, the right type of sun, the size of planet etc come into line, but where we have to be in the right time-frame as well – and bearing in mind the age of the universe, that’s not an easy thing.

On the basis of such calculations it seems a bit sensationalist to speculate that aliens may be dangerous. We may never know. Reading one rather fascinating approach, bearing in mind the geophysical forces which shape our planet, 250 million years from now, when Pangaea re-forms, there may not even be a trace of humans left on Earth’s surface.

II. Media and authority
All of this is where the newspapers step in, of course. “Don’t talk to aliens, warns Stephen Hawking” is the Times title. “Stephen Hawking warns over making contact with aliens” says the BBC. No doubt the Sun’s page 3 will have quote Rebecca, 19, from Bournemouth, who finds the thought of aliens arriving on earth just so exciting.

These are the realms into which we are taken by a lot of television – the realms of celebrity. A well-known face is sponsored to feature in a programme that is by and large well meaning, but if it concentrated on those things which can be empirically verified by science, would be thought to bore the socks off the average punter.

Thus we have Stephen Hawking talking about, of all things, aliens.

It reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s objections to a great deal of scientific discovery – evolution, germ theory and vaccination, for example, and the attention this was given at the time. Now Shaw was not a scientist and spoke from no scientific authority. In point of fact, many of his anti-scientific rants, usefully available in his Collected Prefaces, railed against scientists rather than abstract theory – but the theory caught it hot from GBS’ pen too.

National newspapers reported this stuff all the time, not just as the rants of an eccentric but as if a blow had been struck by one side in a debate against the other. As with Stephen Hawking, this was a departure from the world of science, towards the world of celebrity. Well-known figures expostulating on things they can’t possibly know.

III. Media and celebrity
These days we have Ross Kemp running round battlefields pretending to have a clue. For current affairs programming, Christine Bleakley on the One Show is a happy-clappy joke (I haven’t seen Chris Evans’ slot so I’ll hold judgment). And so on through any number of people who are complete twits, evident non-specialists in the field they are speaking about, and who are elevated by a centralised media to semi-stardom.

There was the blissful moment when nauseating ex-teen, Daniel Radcliffe, was asked about his opinion on the leadership debates, combining pre-existent celebrity, non-specialism and complete gormlessness in one package. All featured in the Sun, unsurprisingly.

Even for specialists the dangers are the same. Watch literally anything presented by ‘historian’ Bettany Hughes, a graduate of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Certain people are elevated over the rest of us to educate us, and not through any great learning but simply because of the nature of a centralised media. There must be sources of authority to ask about things, otherwise newspapers aren’t reporting the opinions of a celebrated personage – merely the opinion of the much less illustrious opinion of a staff writer, and that doesn’t really count as news, apparently.

Even where those sources of authority can reasonably be expected to hazard an educated guess about the stuff they’re presenting, the danger can lie in the method of presentation – speculation independent of a balancing fact, or independent of a sense of proportion. Like aliens being dangerous.

As an avid sci-fi fan, I’m as curious as anyone else about the principles and technologies that would shape a human-alien first contact – and with Stephen Hawking it may be just as honest. We should be aware, however, that this frivolity, like the rantings of George Bernard Shaw, exists in a great pool of pseudo-science, mysticism and other views that serve different social functions.

To take a topical example, the conspiracy theory in the Arab world that Israeli Mossad was responsible for the 9/11 attacks finds its voices of authority in engineers who’ll speculate that aeroplanes alone couldn’t bring down the towers and serves the social function of relieving people from having to challenge the Islamist demons on their shoulder.

Compared to this, of course, the examples of Christine Bleakley and co are less spectacular. I doubt she’ll ever feed a conspiracy theory. But neither are we likely to get piercing analysis. So people can sit back and consider themselves informed, without ever having to actually be informed, one of the most important personal responsibilities in a democracy.

This great pool, as I have called it, is fed into by what GBS would have called ‘vested interests’ – e.g. the corporations who sponsor the cultural programmes of the religious right. We all know just how anti-scientific those are. These interests simply utilise the same form as more mainstream media – hence Christian broadcasting like the 700 Club. While more secular versions may deal with ‘facts’, that’s not to say that it’s better in principle.

When the debate is focused around secular issues, say MMR vaccines, animal testing or immigration, we get the same thing. In one corner a speaker from Immigration Watch or whatever the preposterous anti-science anti-vivisection group of the hour is, and in the other corner, some academic, commentator, journalist or politician. And this is presented as a method for reasoned exposition of key issues that afflict us – which it need not be.

Regardless of ‘fairness’ or ‘popularity’, some of those present may simply not have a clue what they are talking about. And, conversely, there may be issues that go un-discussed as a result.

IV. Arguments to authority and the blogosphere
Elevation by celebrity is deadly, just as much when we are too respectful of genuine specialists as when we permit interlopers of other specialisms and none to take over that role. We can let ourselves be guided by what is being said, especially when presented to us in a shiny format, or from such an august personage. This is despite the fact that both pretenders and personages can very often be full of it.

One only has to read Polly Toynbee columns over an extended period to realise her political expertise is the greatest exercise in political charlatanry since the Divine Right of Kings. It’s little different for the pretenders, hoping through sheer dint of effort to one day be regarded as a specialist in their chosen field. This is often what Tory blogger Iain Dale is accused of – self publicising etc. Well, he’s no better or worse than anyone else.

This danger of an appeal to authority, argumentum ad verecundiam, was eloquently rejected by John Locke in Concerning Human Understanding*, and it is completely undemocratic.

When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from [the opinion of men of established authority], and question the authority of men who are in possession of it.

This is apt to be censured, as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others: and it is looked upon as insolence, for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer.

Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities, thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. (Book 4, XVII.19.i)

From the point of view of the Marxist, there also exists the clear danger that Capital, having control of celebrated institutions, also controls and disseminates ‘expert’ opinion to suit itself. Recently, this process was documented by David Harvey when it came to things like the Powell Memo or the sea-change in acadaemia from a preference for ’embedded liberalism’, which even included a strong Marxist Left flank, to ‘neoliberalism’.

One of the key successes of the blogosphere, in my view, has been the ability to rubbish appeals to authority by challenging the very basis of that authority. Now that many of us can write and opine, the narrow group that do it professionally seem a little less important. Not to denigrate the very real differences between the two – professional journalism is read far more widely than blogging, no doubt, and given much more weight to.

Nor would I challenge the view that quality control is important on blogs, and is sometimes neglected or made irrelevant, the latter in the case of blogs with more than one purpose – e.g. personal musical tastes and politics, where one element is based on argumentation and the other on simply showcasing a preference. Yet overall, I think our contribution is still a net positive.

V. And back to Stephen Hawking…
Beyond the self-congratulatory aspect to all this, there is a wider point. I am not qualified to comment upon Hawking Radiation for example, and this I’ll freely admit. I could pretend to be, but in the absence of any formal qualifications in quantum physics, my views would likely only gain currency if they fulfilled some social function, e.g. as ideology. Yet this doesn’t mean that nobody is qualified to comment, even if they lack formal qualifications.

While above I rail against those who have little or no background in what they talk about, it’s mostly from seeing the effects of this lack of background rather than being because they lack such a background. It would be a mistake to extrapolate from this that only those formally qualified are worthy of having an opinion. I have only qualifications in ancient history but I feel myself quite qualified to talk about politics, music, the arts and so on.

Even if I’m not.

If celebrity elevates people – irrespective of their learning – to preside over us, that is bad. Yet it is equally bad to suppress others simply because they lack formal qualifications that denote learning. What I look forward to is the day when there is some equivalent of the blogosphere for all media – a genuine participatory journalism in which ‘experts’ jockey with amateurs who have access to the same range of experimental data or learned journals.

Which, today, we don’t, nor would we have the time to use them if we did. If the realm of freedom begins after the realm of necessity ends, to speak undialectically for a moment, for most of us, that’s still nowhere near enough free time to establish hobbies that might prove to be intellectually fruitful not just for us but for the entire human race.** Even deprived of such time, however, the contribution of the average moron is still the equal of any expert.

It can be just as tainted with conceits or humility, it can be just as frankly expressed or couched in terms more amenable to socially acceptable proposals and ideals. It can be complete tosh or not. And there’s no reason under the sun such people shouldn’t have the right to be heard, why on matters like aliens, Stephen Hawking’s voice should be heard above the din, or on matters like evolution, GBS’ voice, but others should be condemned to obscurity.

Celebrity is what we call this exclusion and it is toxic.

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