Nov 032010

I didn’t start blogging until well after the 2008 US presidential election, so I haven’t got the documentary evidence to prove this, but I was one of the many who said at the time:

‘Well, y’know, Obama… I wish him well, I really do. It would be great if he got the nation back on its feet. Hell, it would be great if he could really do even half the shit he says he’s gonna do. But I’m sorry, this is total fantasy. The president has nothing like that kind of power, and it’s just not going to work.’

The number of people who popped up, then and later, to tell me I misunderstood the structure of my native body politic was staggering.

In fairness, Gary Younge wasn’t one of those. But it seems that Apollo has been startlingly generous toward me and those who shared my views, because Gary Younge is now saying the exact same thing.

Their mistake was to believe that transformational change was something you could impart to a higher power – the president – and then witness on CNN. The problem was not that many set their hopes too high but that rather than claim those hopes as their own they invested them in a single person – Obama – and in an utterly corrupted political culture.

The difference, of course, is that Younge attributes this ‘corrupt political culture’ to something rather different than what I was thinking. His analysis isn’t wrong, by any means, but…

A winner-takes-all voting system where both main parties are sustained by corporate financing, the congressional districts are openly gerrymandered and 40% of the upper chamber can block anything, is never going to be a benign vehicle for radical reform. Virtually every enduring progressive development in US politics since the war has been sparked either by massive mobilisations outside of electoral politics that have forced politicians to respond, or through the courts.

…are all of those really such bad things? I mean, bribing candidates electoral financing is a criminal clusterfuck, and gerry-mandering is so endemic its practically become an American trope. No argument from me that those are serious problems—not because they hinder radical change, but because they systematically and deliberately seek to reduce the human right of individual self governance.

But the fact that 40% of the American Senate can filibuster* a bill? There’s kind of a reason for that. It’s so that radical reformers can’t trample over the rights of the minority. I’m not going to say something here along the lines of ‘Surely Younge can’t think that’s a bad thing?’ because that would be a cheap rhetorical device. Of course he thinks that’s a bad thing, provided that minority disagrees with him.

And so we arrive, inevitably, at the ‘oh, poor Obama’ bit. Yes, Younge says the whole sordid business is partly Obama’s fault. Yes, his criticisms of Obama are all actually veiled compliments. Because y’see, President Obama is embedded in a sclerotic system that refuses to let him shine his light.

Strangely, when I make that same argument to my boss, he’s not impressed.

Oh, and P.S. Younge doesn’t forget the obligatory dig at the Tea Party, who while Obama ‘imitated radicalism,’ have managed to snow the American public by ‘affect[ing] anti-corporate populism.’

Blah fucking blah.

Truly, y’all, while it is certainly true that the pressures of work leave little energy for blogging, there is another reason my posting has fallen off: I’m sick to death of this ridiculous charade we all perpetrate on ourselves, that government and politics matter.

My god, the significance and gravitas with which politicians and their apologists invest their every fart, their every random, ‘radical’ idea for making us all better people! And with what lame naivete people lap that shit up.

Recently I was engaged in a debate via email with a good friend of mine, a committed left-winger with a bizarre hard-on for Margaret Thatcher. It was the kind of debate you have over and over with friends of the opposite political persuasion: it’s all been said before, you know you don’t agree, but nevertheless one party or the other believes that somehow, this time, someone’s mind is going to change. Here is what he said (quoted entirely without permission and with punctuation and spelling corrected):

Any political, social or religious value system that doesn’t have at its heart a concept of what a “good person” is and how to help people achieve it is pointless. People can disagree about what being a good person is, or that it’s wrong to coerce people to follow a particular lifestyle, but not to engage in the debate, or to say that you are somehow morally neutral while supporting policies that would totally impoverish millions of people and deny them real freedom of choice in their lives (except to either follow the ethical codes set down for them by the rich or starve) is simply hypocrisy. Also, you are interested in being a “good person,” you just don’t agree with [Monbiot’s] definition of what that is. Only sociopaths have no interest in being a “good person”.

Have you ever heard such tiresome bollocks? Notice, first of all, the conflation of political with religious value systems. From an avowed atheist, that’s an interesting tactic. Second, observe the clear admission that there is no universal concept of what a good person is. Finally, witness the neat tactic of suggesting that, since only sociopaths share my view, and I am clearly not a sociopath, I cannot possibly mean it when I say I have no interest in being a ‘good person.’ (I do wish people had less of a tendency to engage in armchair psychology.)

And finally, see how he assumes that the point of it all is to make people good! All politics, all governance, all ideology, should have this aim! And it is a weighty aim, so all enterprise engaged in pursuing this aim is weighty enterprise, and not the pathetic game-playing of a bunch of meddling control-freaks who honestly, genuinely believe there is a desperate need for the ‘service’ they provide.

Bitch, please.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a libertarian and a historian, because nothing I know of in human history suggests we will ever not have government. At first we lacked it, but then we built it, because there was always some overpowering reason why a couple of dudes had to be in charge of shit. Whether it was coordinating the defence of the village or making sure people didn’t go to hell, there was always some realm of human activity that simply couldn’t be looked after by the voluntary, individual acts of the people concerned.

At least back in the day, those couple of dudes were honest about it: ‘I’m the best fighter, peasant, and if you don’t do what I say, I’ll do you.’

Now, the justifications are a lot more spurious. On the one hand, you have the politician, who starts with ‘I’ve consulted and studied and learned and listened, so vote for me,’ then moves to ‘Lots of people voted for me, so STFU,’ and ends with ‘I’ve got the bombs, motherfucker.’ Are any of these legitimate?

On the other hand, you’ve got the Chris Dillows of the world, who know an awful lot of stuff about human behaviour and this bias and that bias and that other bias also, but whose basic argument seems to boil down to ‘Rational action is imperfect, so the role of government is to insulate people from their own and others’ crappy choices.’

Well, you know what? That sucks. If we’re all irrational actors, what hope is there, even if we were governed by philosopher-kings? What’s going to protect me from their irrational actions?

And so, I say to you, my predictions about Obama have come true. This fact brings me little pleasure. Instead it deepens my cynicism. I don’t claim expertise in everything—in almost nothing, truth be told—but at least against all fucking odds I’ve acquired enough wisdom to know the virtue of humility, especially when it comes to telling other people how to live their lives and feeling massively important in doing so.

To all people like Gary Younge, Obama, every politician on earth, and everyone who helps embiggen their heads, I say with Jacopo Belbo, ma gavte la nata. Pull out your corks, you buffoons.

*No, they do not actually have to filibuster. It’s more of a ‘let’s not and say we did’ tactical deployment. A degraded holdover from the Roman Senate, which recognised the right of a speaker to speak until he was finished, and could not sit later than sunset. Cue Cato Uticensis, famous for being able to harangue the house in filibuster from early afternoon until the Senate was obliged to dissolve for the day. If Senators actually still had to do this, I predict we’d see a lot fewer filibusters.

Feb 172010

The epilogue to Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty leaves me very sad. Published in 1978, it expresses his optimistic view that the cause of libertarianism was rapidly gaining ground, and true liberty would soon be in sight. He says:

The case for libertarian optimism can be made in a series of what might be called concentric circles, beginning with the broadest and longest-run considerations and moving to the sharpest focus on short-term trends. In the broadest and longest-run sense, libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of man and of the world. Only liberty can achieve man’s prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually win out.

I’m not sure Rothbard expected that, because of the climate change movement, prosperity, fulfilment, and happiness would take a backseat to eradicating atmospheric carbon dioxide at any and all costs on the basis of what looks increasingly to be at best very imprecise and at worst mostly contrived science. Meanwhile, he goes on:

But the long run is now here. We do not have to prophesy the ruinous effects of statism; they are here at every hand. Lord Keynes once scoffed at criticisms by free-market economists that his inflationist policies would be ruinous in the long run; in his famous reply, he chortled that “in the long run we are all dead.” But now Keynes is dead and we are alive, living in his long run. The statist chickens have come home to roost.

Again, an unfortunate assumption on Rothbard’s part that once Keynesian economics had been shown to fail, or at least to cause as many problems as it solved, people would reject it as a solution to fluctuations in the economy. To the contrary, Keynesian economics has been shown to fail on numerous occasions, and to intensify some of the problems it purports to solve, and yet thirty years after Rothbard believed it dead, here we are again employing Keynesian solutions for problems Keynesian economics has never been able to fix.

The enormous success of Karl Marx and Marxism has been due not to the validity of his ideas – all of which, indeed, are fallacious – but to the fact that he dared to weave socialist theory into a mighty system. Liberty cannot succeed without an equivalent and contrasting systematic theory; and until the last few years, despite our great heritage of economic and political thought and practice, we have not had a fully integrated and consistent theory of liberty. We now have that systematic theory; we come, fully armed with our knowledge, prepared to bring our message and to capture the imagination of all groups and strands in the population. All other theories and systems have clearly failed: socialism is in retreat everywhere, and notably in Eastern Europe; [American-style] liberalism has bogged us down in a host of insoluble problems; conservatism has nothing to offer but sterile defense of the status quo.

All true, and yet the so-called ‘failure’ of statism has certainly not resulted in either less statism or more liberty. In fact, few people are now admitting that it ever failed at all. The continued popularity in some quarters of the Labour government in this country, along with the high levels of approval the statist President Obama enjoys, suggest that, in fact, more people than ever in the West think statism is the right idea.

As always, liberty has few devotees but many fair-weather friends. People are happy to agitate for liberty when control is costing them dearly, and this is good; on the other hand, the very same people are happy to agitate for control when they perceive the costs of liberty. For too many individuals, liberty is a utilitarian construct rather than an abstract value, and principle that is good when its consequences are favourable to them and bad when its consequences are unfavourable. Freedom is the first principle to be sacrificed in the face of any kind of need, be it financial, material, environmental – freedom is viewed as a luxury to be enjoyed only when we have supplied the physical wants of all people everywhere. One man’s right not to be coerced is not even to be considered in the same class of importance as another man’s need for food.

Frankly, it’s a wonder we lock up thieves at all, given this near-universal acceptance that a person’s need gives him the right to another person’s property.

I’m not sure Rothbard was considering these trends as he looked into the future so confidently and saw great gains for liberty being made in the near future. It’s now thirty years since he wrote For a New Liberty, and not only has the state everywhere only grown, more and more people have invited it with open arms, happily trading their own liberty for the security the state offers, which can only be guaranteed by its monopoly on theft, backed by the metaphorical point of a gun.

Sep 162009

In fan-fiction parlance, the Gary Stu is the male equivalent of a Mary Sue, a fictional character who acts as a place-holder for the wish fulfilment fantasies of the author.

This morning, in a shameful moment of weakness and curiosity (brought on, no doubt, by not having had my coffee yet), I picked up Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol, sequel to the magnificently awful The Da Vinci Code. With my evening free because the Devil is reaping souls in Wales, I began to read, and on page 8, came across this piece of hilarity:

‘I hate to embarrass you, Professor,’ the woman said, sounding sheepish, ‘but you are the Robert Langdon who writes books about symbols and religion, aren’t you?’

Langdon hesitated and then nodded.

‘I thought so!’ she said, beaming. ‘My book group read your book about the sacred feminine and the church! What a delicious scandal that one caused! You do enjoy putting the fox in the henhouse!’

Langdon smiled. ‘Scandal wasn’t really my intention.’

If that weren’t enough proof, further down the same page:

Langdon glanced down at his attire. He was wearing his usual charcoal turtleneck, Harris Tweed jacket, khakis, and collegiate cordovan loafers…his standard attire for the classroom, lecture circuit, author photos, and social events.

And so I turn to the author photo of Dan Brown on the back flap of the jacket, and lo and behold – he is wearing a tweed jacket, khakis, and the irritatingly smug grin of a very poor writer who has become very rich indeed. He probably has on loafers, but the picture doesn’t show his feet. Although I suppose it’s entirely possible he’s still got on his gravity boots.

Still – for a book with a retail price of £18.99, WH Smith was very kind to charge me only £5. (And yes, I put down the book, having only reached page 8, to write this blog post. For the curious among you, it has not yet turned out to be a page-turner.)

Aug 072009

Not too many weeks ago, I ran across a blog, the name of which I cannot now remember, in which the author posted a hypothetical government ban on books – not because of their literary content, but because as old books decay, they could release fibres and other toxins which might be inhaled by the reader, thus damaging the reader’s health. He was using it to illustrate, if I remember correctly, the way the government wishes to restrict or ban anything which gives us pleasure and justifies doing so on rather spurious ‘health’ grounds.

If anybody knows the blogger I mean, do let me know, because I’d like to give him a head’s-up:

Congress to ban sale of children’s books printed before 1985

Why? Because they are hazardous to the health.

UPDATE: Yes, it was Frank Davis.

Mar 152009

Atlas Shrugged is all over the blogs and the news recently, and with good reason. The authoritarians, statists, and socialists among us appear to clutch at every possible opportunity to ridicule the novel, and Rand herself, with the sort of viciousness that suggests they derive pleasure from being overtly nasty about a dead woman and her philosophy.

Their viciousness also suggests fear, or at the very least resentment, that Atlas Shrugged exposes the flaws in their ideology. Why else would they need to insult its author, misrepresent its message, and claim that it is poorly written? (Because, let’s face it – it’s not poorly written. Have these people ever cast a judgmental eye over, for example, Dan Brown? Jesus.)

The Guardian leapt upon the stick-pins-in-the-effigy-of-Rand bandwagon yesterday:

Of all the scary things you can get a graph to show, surely the most terrifying is a surge in sales of Ayn Rand novels.

Could this be because Rand’s wordy masterwork foretells the collapse of capitalism? That is indeed what happens in the book: machines break, production dwindles, society collapses into riot. And the novel knows exactly where to point the finger: it’s all the fault of big government, which is choking the free market under layers of anti-business law. Rand’s novel is also clear as to who can save us. Its hero, John Galt, is handsome and virile, a brilliant inventor, and the leader of a revolutionary vanguard composed of all the world’s great talents in industry and science, finance and the arts; eventually he will be joined by the beautiful Dagny Taggart, her body “slender”, her daddy’s railroad the biggest the world has ever known. Soon, more and more of these “superior minds” abandon the “second-handers” – also known as “mediocrities”, “parasites” and “mindless hordes” – to join Galt in his mountain hideaway. When Galt and Dagny at long last get together, the sign of the almighty dollar is traced upon the earth.

Ha! That crazy Rand and her anti-government paranoia. We all know that big-government regulation is what saves us from the collapse of society – I mean, if there had been more regulation, we wouldn’t be in this banking crisis right now… And good grief, her characters? Handsome, beautiful, brilliant? Physical beauty is an accident of birth, and brilliance and success are the products of society, of course. Or one’s daddy. How dare such people withdraw their productive genius from the very society, however composed of mediocrities, to which it is owed?

(I begin to believe that Jenny Turner has not, in fact, read the novel.)

Crazy and, it seems, the recipient of her just desserts:

Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s fourth and final novel. After it, she devoted herself to what her fans consider her “philosophy”, and to building the movement she called objectivism, which was, briefly, a presence in 50s American culture before imploding in feuds. Rand was, at her height, quite a figure – bob-haired, Russian-accented, dressed in a cape with a dollar-sign brooch, smoking a cigarette in a long holder – “When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

Since Rand’s death in 1982 – from lung cancer – her heirs have carried the movement forward, with a growing presence in academia…

You see, not only was her ‘philosophy’ not a real philosophy (thus the derisive quotation marks around it), she was also one of those icky smokers. Ugh.

According to Noam Chomsky, Rand was “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history”. But this is surely an overstatement, given that during Rand’s lifetime, personal muddle and inherent ridiculousness limited her capacity to do harm. Slavoj Zizek gets closer to it when he writes that, though artistically “worthless”, her work has a lastingly “subversive dimension”. By taking “capitalist ideology” to extreme conclusions, Rand shows up its “fantasmatic kernel” – the babyish fantasies of power without consequence that, one could argue, caused the banks to sink themselves in the sub-prime mess in the first place.

The question, then, isn’t so much why Rand now? It’s more whether Randianism can have a long-term future, now that capitalism no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself.

Aha, yes – I thought we’d get around to this. Unbridled free markets of the sort Rand advocated have failed; capitalism has made a fool of itself; her ideas are inherently ridiculous.

Would somebody mind please explaining to me why, after the disasters that were Soviet Russia and Maoist China, and the on-going jokes that are Cuba and Venezuela, people refuse to admit that the unfree, centrally planned market is ‘inherently ridiculous’ and ‘no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself’? Why do criticisms of failure apply to free markets at the merest hint of an economic downturn, but not to bizarre socialist experiments that result in actual, devastating economic collapse?

Here’s the odd thing: the Guardian published an article about Atlas Shrugged last Tuesday as well. A very different article indeed, entitled ‘Greed is good: a guide to radical individualism‘:

Rand and her books were the embodiment of right-wing libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism, which advocated the complete deregulation of business and finance and opposed any form of state welfare. She described her philosophy as “objectivism” or “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.

At its heart is a mystery story: about why so many of the world’s most brilliant brains are disappearing and about who invented a new kind of motor. It tells the tale of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, and their struggles as society collapses at the hands of an oppressive government and its parasitical bureaucrats. In the book, the best minds in terms of business, science and the arts are, in effect, on strike – the book was originally called The Strike. It espoused the essential Rand philosophy of “rational self-interest”.

Throughout her writing life, she promoted the idea expressed in the book: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.”

That is a vastly more realistic summary. Anybody have phone numbers for Jenny Turner and Duncan Campbell? Perhaps we should introduce them to one another.

Maybe the discrepancy is more to do with the section of the paper in which they are writing. Campbell’s article is filed under News->World News->United States, while Turner’s appears in Culture->Books->The week in books. And as we all know, Rand’s novel as a piece of literature is ‘artistically worthless’. Why, even ‘very distinguished old butch dykes‘ who teach literature in the universities don’t acknowledge it! And so, because literature students, those paragons of intellect and utility, have not read it, it must be a fad.

Rand never pretended that her beliefs were easy ones to swallow; much of the novel revolves around the difficulty the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, have accepting it. They fight until they last possible second to succeed in a world which punishes them for their success, which demands the products of their success whilst at the same time requiring their self-sacrifice and destruction.

And to many people, I think, that is what the world seems to want these days. People rabbit on about social responsibility, reducing inequality, and eradicating poverty without ever acknowledging that the productivity and profit-motive they condemn are the very things which make global prosperity possible. And that’s not even taking into account those occasional types who seem to loathe the idea of prosperity! The human race has spent the last three thousand years fighting its way out of the filth and misery into which it was born to reach a state of being in which literally anything is possible. We had the minds to do it three thousand years ago; what we didn’t have, until the last couple of centuries, was the leisure to think. And people condemn thinking as bad, and progress as evil, because it leaves others behind. Sacrifice is preferable to gain; a low quality of life for all is preferable to a shitty quality of life for some.

And because ambition cannot be stopped – because the Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens of the world have not yet learned to withdraw their sanction – it must be stifled, through regulation and legislation, and everyone must be made to believe that freedom and movement and reckless, momentous change are frightening.

Left-leaning friends of mine have often asked how, as a Christian, I can approve of selfishness and dislike the concept of sacrifice. Did not Christ sacrifice himself? Did he not say that, if you have two coats, you should give one to the man who has none?

I could embark here upon an exegesis of how I interpret Christian philosophy, but I’m not going to, because it’s not necessary. Even Christ, whose understanding of economics was pretty meagre, never demanded sacrifice without the promise of reward. The right acts and charity he advocated are, in one way, their own reward, because performing them makes us feel good. But he also promised the reward of paradise which, if you believe in such a thing, is a pretty good incentive, no?

What these socialist murderers of their own posterity desire is for us all to sacrifice without reward, metaphorically to throw ourselves in front of a bus because it might save a stranger, to produce without incentive and achieve without reward, to see the good of our fellow man as better than and separate from our own good, to give without enjoyment and receive without gratitude, and to continue doing so until we reach the only possible state of equality that exists: death.

And in a way, Atlas Shrugged is the most depressing book ever written, because we will all keep fighting – none of us can withdraw sanction – and there is no Galt’s Gulch. And so we struggle on and watch as human achievement collapses around our ears, and on every side the blame is entirely our own.

‘If the things I said are true, who is the guiltiest man in this room tonight?’
‘I suppose–James Taggart?’
‘No, Mr Rearden, it is not James Taggart. But you must define the guilt and choose the man for yourself.’

Feb 032009

Via the Libertarian Alliance blog, a spot-on comment piece by Simon Heffer.

[David Cameron] complains about the “absence of a moral framework” from capitalism. It shows his profound misunderstanding of the term “capitalism”; it echoes the misunderstanding that he and his decerebrated shadow chancellor have had of this crisis ever since it began to develop.

I agree. And ‘decerebrated’ is my new favourite word.

But what is this?

Given his lack of intellectualism, Mr Cameron may not have read Atlas Shrugged, the epic novel by the American philosopher Ayn Rand in which a man discovers the secret of perpetual motion and becomes excessively rich by putting many of his less intelligent competitors out of business. The newly poor – poor because they failed to give the public what they wanted at a price they were prepared to pay – demand a Fair Shares Law, whereby they are compensated for their lack of brains and risk-taking by the enterprises who do make money.

Not sure that’s how I’d summarise Atlas Shrugged. He leaves out the really important bit. You know the one I mean.

Maybe he was just trying to avoid spoilers.