After spending a long time yesterday evening wrestling with a tortuous and pretty pointless post, I think the time has come to hang up my keyboard (which actually has a few keys that don’t work anymore anyway).  Too long have I gazed at the navel of the world and micturated in the wind of change.  I am putting this blog on hiatus, for the time being.  My reasons are that I —

  • am spending too much time on it, on lots of other blogs, and on Twitter
  • am hopelessly addicted to politics and news, to the exclusion of other intellectual pursuits such as making a dent in my enormous ‘to read’ pile
  • have failed to market it properly (and was never really prepared to post often enough and quickly enough anyway) so have failed to get beyond more than a handful of readers
  • have a book to try to get published, and a second to make a start on, which I feel is a better use of my monumental writing ability
  • am now on my local community council, which is a better outlet for my petty gripes
  • am weary of holding the weight of a heavy world on my shoulders, and am keen to separate the political and the personal a bit more
  • started the blog as a showcase of writing for potential future employers, but (a) have a great job on the good old PSGT for the foreseeable future and (b) cannot hold to that mission and still write with any honesty
  • sense that I am, worst of all, starting to repeat myself

I may make an embarrassing comeback in due course.  Unlike every other blogger ever, I don’t imagine I know everything, and hope I have instead posed some interesting questions.  Looking back, the posts I’m happiest with are those in which I’ve not got bogged down in policy or ideas and have let loose lyrically, whether on architecture or popular culture or whatever.  So, if I do make a comeback, I expect it will be more in that vein.  In the mean time, I can sum up the main themes thus far thusly —

  • the liberal left and the libertarians are mostly well meaning, but mostly misguided
  • lots of people believe in God but not religion; more and more I believe the reverse
  • just as each generation has to relearn civilisation and not take it for granted, so Britain cannot feel entitled to our hitherto privileged position in the world
  • elitism is damaging and divisive, so the nascent direct democracy and blue Labour movements are to be encouraged
  • economically we should probably be somewhere in the middle

This can all be summed up as:

  • the natural lot of man is extreme liberty, extreme inequality and extreme misery, and postmodern nihilism can only take us back to this natural order — some constraints on both economic and social behaviour are necessary if we want a happier, more equal and more unified society

Thanks to all of you who’ve read and commented over the past couple of years.  For now, lonely reader, as ignorant armies clash by night, not with a bang but a whimper do I exhort you to cast off your mind-forg’d manacles and, forever surprising a hunger in yourself to be more serious, follow knowledge like a sinking star, beyond the utmost bound of human thought.  And as the lone and level sands stretch far away, remember that those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible.

And that is that.  The end.

A friend of mine mentioned the other day that he couldn’t disapprove of hip hop because he couldn’t make out the words.  I can’t remember any of the conversation that led up to that line, but I suggested, in return, that perhaps he just didn’t enjoy it enough to disapprove of it.  Secret, shameful pleasure often seems a key component of disapproval; on the other side of the cultural divide, perhaps the more liberal minded are (in ways that make them nice people to be around) less in touch with what Stephen King called “the dark fuckery of the human heart”, and so are less aware of how thin is the film between civilisation and its alternatives.  This is captured to hilarious effect by the absurd, medievalist character of Ignatius J. Reilly in John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces, who takes great pleasure in regular trips to the cinema to simultaneously denounce and get off on what he sees:

“Filth!” Ignatius shouted, spewing wet popcorn over several rows. “How dare she pretend to be virgin. Look at her degenerate face. Rape her!”

(The same phenomenon was also recently captured in a dubious story in the Daily Mail about the effects of porn, illustrated by a photo of a man looking at actual porn.)

I’ve only been to one rap gig (are they even called gigs? probably not) but it was one of the best I’ve been to; the energy, lyrical dexterity and interactivity of Skinnyman and Killa Kela were such a refreshing change from the mumbling, shoegazing, tedious indie bands I usually went to see in those days.  Skinnyman’s theme tune was about his shooting a crackhead paedophile, so his music at least had a sort of spaghetti western morality to it, rather than the usual gangsta rap bravado.

It seems odd that a song about shooting a crackhead paedophile could be made to seem quaint and innocent, but this guy manages it.  The Guardian won’t stop writing about him, so I feel compelled to do the same.  His shtick seems to be rapping about rape and calling everyone a faggot.  Naturally the Guardian divides into two camps: the nihilists, who think words don’t mean anything so we shouldn’t take them seriously and should just relax and enjoy the music; and the moralists — in this case gay and women’s rights lobbyists, as those who are primarily troubled by the glamorisation of young black men shooting other young black men have long since been sidelined — who disagree.  As Ken Clarke’s rapegate showed, feminists and gay people are now the foremost moralists in our society.  My sympathies are with them, but maybe I’m just jealous because the band I was in at his age had equally depraved lyrics, but it never made us rich.

I don’t want to get too far into assomeonewhoery, but as someone who makes a living out of correcting other people’s grammar, I of course think language is important and has social and political consequences.  Context is of paramount importance.  You and I can see that the cheeky chap in question isn’t really a rapist, and very probably isn’t really even a homophobe, and that he’s merely trying to shock a largely unshockable postmodern culture by challenging some of its last taboos; I suspect there would be much more of an outcry if someone clearly devoid of irony — 50 Cent, say — were to mine this seam instead.  No doubt going to a concert of his full of other irony-drenched Guardianistas in their late 20s would be very entertaining.  But I would be troubled to find myself at such a show surrounded by impressionable 13-year-olds, who may not yet have developed an advanced capacity for irony and so may take the words at face value.  Does this make me sound hypocritical?  Perhaps, but hypocrisy gets a worse press than it deserves.  Were you, cynical and worldly wise reader, honestly not more impressionable, more open to peer pressure, when you were 13 than you are now?  I think you were.  Hypocrisy (in the sense of one rule for me, another for others) is often a sensible alternative to irresponsibility.  I don’t imagine that most or even many people of that age will immediately hear gangsta rap, or rape rap, and go out and start shooting or raping people, but very few of us are quite as insusceptible to cultural influences — to the vast sums spent very effectively but more prosaically on advertising, marketing and branding, for instance — as we suppose, and some of us have minds so open our brains have fallen out completely.  To quote my favourite socially conservative anarchist: all art is propaganda.

So, the extent to which artists (or, more realistically, those who sell their work) are obliged to exercise moral responsibility really depends on their hinterland.  In the case of Lars von Trier, for example, his audience entirely consists of sophisticated intellectuals dripping with irony and thus with emotional immunity to anything they might rationally be able to see as morally dubious.  He is therefore freed of the same responsibilities that should lie with those shaping young and impressionable minds, which is why I can’t believe anyone could really be shocked by anything he does, whether making an outrageously misogynistic (but brilliantly done and impossible to take seriously) film like Antichrist, or this week pretending to be a Nazi.  He is a professional provocateur and should be enjoyed as such, whereas because of the different context I can’t quite share the nihilists’ sanguinity about the rapey rapper.  Honestly, though, I defy you to read the transcript of Lars von Trier’s gaffe and not lol.

Anyway, here’s a slice of hip hop we can all enjoy —

Their first effort wasn’t bad either, though it should be pointed out that the people behind the videos are big Hayekians, which explains his underdog treatment —

Who’s right?  No idea.  I have a lot of time for the idea that the Second World War and its highly ordered, heavily mobilised aftermath was the closest Britain ever came to being an equal and unified society.  Keynes’ theories have clearly not withered with the winding down of wartime production, but in times of peace, freedom and openness Hayek’s epistemological scepticism seems more appealing and more relevant.  My sense is that both are somewhat misrepresented in today’s debates (and in these videos, however entertaining) and that there is perhaps more common ground than meets the eye.  I read The Road to Serfdom recently, and didn’t recognise the libertarian bible it’s held up to be at all.  He argues that, while the government should practise economic liberalism (in the old sense of the word), it should also use taxes to fund a social safety net for those left behind, and should intervene in the market to prevent the growth of monopolies.  This seems much more like a small-c centre-right agenda than a minimalist one.  Ayn Rand, the Mrs Rochester of the American right, recognised this and thought him a despicable traitor (another big point in his favour for me).  As for Keynes, his contemporary supporters seem too happy to overlook the bit about reducing deficits during booms — but should we expect governments to do this, any more than we should expect them to follow Hayek’s advice and put interest rates up?

The question I would ask any Keynesians who might be reading is this: if everyone as a whole, i.e. the market left to its own devices, is incapable of organising the economy efficiently, why should it be the case that a far smaller group of people, i.e. the government, should be able to do any better?  The dispersal of information seems to warrant the dispersal of power, which is why I support more direct democracy.  The paradox of this, of course, is that a completely democratic society would never vote for a completely unfettered market.

After the defeat of AV, expect the next epic battle (and the next poisoned wooden spoon Cameron hands the Lib Dems) to be House of Lords reform.  At this point I’d better declare an interest as having worked there (as an erstwhile Hansard reporter).  Despite knowing the institution more intimately than I do any other, I don’t think I’ve written much about it before; this is because I find it quite difficult to make up my mind about what to do about the damn place.

Walter Bagehot famously quipped that “the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it”.  Having sat through several postprandial hours of a debate on ‘the benefits of the Segway personal transporter’, it’s hard to disagree.  It’s also hard, on the other hand, to keep one’s rational faculties clear when in the building and not be seduced by the awful, artificial and amusing work of Augustus Pugin and Charles Barry and its supremely confident Gothic (that is, explicitly non-Roman) assertion of British exceptionalism.  I find it takes a great effort, and I can’t be alone in this, to disregard the indisputable aesthetic and technical accomplishments of the age of empire when weighing up its social, economic and moral pros and cons; too easy, in other words, to use beauty as a proxy for truth, justice, virtue.  The whole place is a spectacular triumph of Victorian propaganda: the Soviet Union had its stirring anthem and its heroic art, the US has its sexy movies, and we had the Tudor rose and the portcullis.  In the little reporters’ corner of the chamber, with some anonymous lifer suggesting to half a dozen of his fellows how to decide the makeup of a committee to determine the composition of a working group to investigate the regulation of the makeup of the committee, the eyes are inevitably drawn by the carved lions and unicorns, by the heraldic oak panels of the four patron saints, and eventually by the dazzling gilded ceiling whose ornaments and chandeliers seem to melt off it like stalactites, and your distracted reporter, overcome by a sort of reactionary Stendhal syndrome, finds himself transported to his own Burkean Ambrosia.  (The Commons is much less ornate and perhaps cosier for it, but the most profound sensation to be had in the estate is to be alone at night in Westminster Hall, gazing up at the hammerbeam angels still keeping watch nine centuries on, and only dimly aware of the restless metropolis beyond the buttressed walls: on such occasions I always find myself communing with Bede and his sparrow.)  So perhaps Bagehot would have been more accurate to say that the cure is to go and listen to it, while keeping your eyes shut.

I digress.  The question is: what use does the place serve now, and how could it be improved?  Here the traditionalist and the radical democrat in me clash (a problem Orwell had all the time).  A few perceptions about the noble and not-so-noble Lords persist that are no longer quite accurate.  Only 88 of the old hereditaries — Wilde’s old unspeakables — remain.  The vast majority of the rest are life peers, appointed by various prime ministers; a few bishops are left (and are we really about to see a Conservative prime minister eject them?), and the law Lords have moved across the road to the Supreme Court.  A lot of these are former or failed politicians, but a great many are also those who’ve excelled in various non-political fields: the arts, law, media, sport, business, academia, war.  In this sense, at least, they could be considered more diverse than the Commons, which with every election becomes more and more the preserve of PPE Oxonians in their mid-40s from north London who have only ever worked in politics.  The Lords, unlike the Commons, still has plenty of endearingly amateurish speakers (whom I always hope to avoid having to report on) and endearingly unsmooth operators.  And despite Cameron’s additions, Labour still has more peers than the Tories.

The balance that needs to be struck is to combine the resilient independence of the incumbent Lords (who stood up to the previous government on, among other things, the chilling effects of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act) with a greater (that is, any) popular mandate.

It seems inevitable, with the defeat of the AV referendum, that the Lords will become proportionately elected before the Commons ever does.  There is one serious objection to this: that, by picking who appears on the lists and in what order, the party managers would retain or even strengthen control over this occasionally rebellious House.  The Lords aren’t so easily whipped now, but their replacement senators (most of them presumably seeking re-election) could well be.  Might the coalition, then, use this opportunity to strengthen the executive relative to parliament?  That would surely be the opposite of what we should hope for.

So the extent to which we should welcome reform really depends on what sort of PR is on offer.  If Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have complete control over the party lists, then what comes next might if anything be worse than what we have now.  But if the government is actually willing to give power away — perhaps in the form of multi-member STV wards, or even open primaries, as are now used to pick some Commons candidates — then the public will have more say than the politicians, and the reformed chamber will have more legitimacy than the one it replaces.  There is a great opportunity for something better, but we will have to wait and see whether we are given another stitchup instead.

Our zeal for reform shouldn’t lead us to assume that what is done in its name will necessarily be more truly democratic, rather than a pale imitation of the deeply dysfunctional Commons; instead, we have to hold the coalition to account and insist that the upper House becomes as democratic as it possibly can, and that it gives power away from politicians, both elected and appointed: on this occasion, we have to keep our eyes wide open.

A couple of quick points about the elections: while I’m disappointed by the AV result (made inevitable by a campaign run by liberal leftists who took the ‘progressive majority’ as axiomatic and spoke only to other liberal leftists who were going to vote for it anyway), I am pleased about three things in particular.  First: the overdue collapse of the arrogant, cynical Tammany Hall machine that was the Scottish Labour Party.  Second: the failure of George Galloway to get elected (which has gone a long way towards restoring my faith in my home town).  Third: the collapse, even greater than the Lib Dems’, of the BNP in English local authorities.  Would it be opportunistic to suggest this is a welcome result of Cameron’s more populist stance on immigration and multiculturalism?

Naturally, if perhaps hypocritically, I will celebrate all of the above by stocking up on cheap booze while I still can.  That is one issue on which I hope moral conservatism will eventually trump big business conservatism.

I turn rather awkwardly to an unrelated issue which sort of fits that description: graffiti and its role in contemporary art.  Before I do so, have a read of these two pieces in City Journal which skewer a cruel form of decadence very eloquently.

The articles remind me of Orwell’s piece pondering why ‘if you threw dead donkeys at people, they threw money back’.  The difference is that rich people can throw whatever expensive crap they want at each other, but this new form of ‘art’ is an obviously hypocritical celebration of a destructive selfishness that exclusively harms the non-rich.

I have to confess to being slightly pleased that the Greens’ Martha Wardrop failed to get herself elected to the Scottish Parliament: purely because, as a councillor (see blogs passim on why multi-member single transferable voting is so great) she has been helpful and responsive in pestering the Council to clean up our own various neighbourhood works of low art, as well as other quotidia like litter.

What is it about graffiti that annoys me?  Perhaps the same things that make decadent people enjoy it: that it is a rejection of the rule of law.  A moment’s thought — and clearly the graffiti artists and their novelty-seeking propagandists have wasted very few moments on thinking — shows why this is a bad thing.  Leave aside the debate over the broken windows theory, and the practical problems of having street signs and public information notices covered in writing or paint.  The graffitist explicitly says: I don’t care about your private property, therefore I don’t care about your economic wellbeing.  From this it seems logical to infer that he is also saying, more subtly: I don’t care about your physical wellbeing, your safety or your health either.  In sum, the graffiti artist says: I don’t care about other people.

I make one or two exceptions for warranted and clever political statements: the enormous ‘ONE NATION UNDER CCTV’ painted on the side of a tall building in central London was impressive; but for every one example like this (and for every community mural, which are a far better use of young people’s artistic talent and of which there are several good examples, like the one beside Kelvinbridge Underground) there are a million annoying and disfiguring tags and scrawls.

I say private property, but more often than not the vandalism targets public property (usually postboxes, bins, etc) and has to be cleaned up at public expense, if it is at all.  Am I autistically out-of-touch, or do other people find it as incredible as I do that it needs to be explained to otherwise intelligent and educated people — the mainstream of the contemporary art world — why destruction of both public space and private property, and a general disrespect towards other people, and especially towards people in more deprived communities, is bad?

Perhaps the best response — an explicitly petty-bourgeois Marxist one — to the barbaric-decadent underclass-overclass axis, buggering those of us in between who still aspire to something better, would be to graffiti-bomb the museum, or the homes of its directors, and see how they like it.  I think it would be legitimate, in the spirit and tradition of situationist direct action against powerful elites, to call such an action a subversive work of art in itself.

It’s tempting to blame the excuse-making, poverty-blaming, bed-wetting liberal left for this, or perhaps that section of the left (these days best represented by Laurie Penny, who may or may not be a rightwing satirist) that romanticises violence and disorder on the streets (the right generally only romanticise violence in or against other countries).  But I suspect the egoism, and denial of delayed gratification, inherent in consumerism also have quite a lot to do with it.  The confluence of the two, I suggest, is at the heart of our modern anomie; hence my sympathy for the emerging Blue Labour school of thought that addresses both.

If the new SNP majority government can give minor offenders (eg those who do graffiti) community sentences that actually involve their removing this damage, that will probably be a better bet than sending them to prison.  Whether these community sentences actually do that, or become like ASBOs a laughable and easily ignored stunt, remains to be seen.

Finally, you may have noticed a while ago that, while Brown presented Obama with “an ornamental pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet” (and got a set of region 1 DVDs in return!), Cameron, when it was his turn, gave Obama “a painting by a graffiti artist with three convictions for criminal damage”.  This suggests to me, unfortunately, that our prime minister has rather more in common with the curators of the LA Museum of Contemporary Art than with most of the rest of us.

“I remarked again how much the comfortable circumstance that we still had a King made for the reputation of England in this world of Asia.  Ancient and artificial societies like this of the Sherifs and feudal chieftains of Arabia found a sense of honourable security when dealing with us in such proof that the highest place in our state was not a prize for merit or ambition.” — T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom

That “the highest place in our state was not a prize for merit or ambition” seems to me a point still in constitutional monarchy’s favour.  I think the monarchy’s probably the only issue I’ve never really changed my mind about, even as my faith in the union of the parliaments has waned.  A ceremonial head of state of some other sort would be one thing (though in practice this would likely be an ex-politician of some sort, so hardly a unifying figure), but to have a political one would be frightening.  Look no further than George W. Bush’s presidency, for instance, to see the perils of allowing an individual to merge the political powers of the nation-state with all of its semiotics and paraphernalia.  This dangerous combination made it so much easier for him to question his political opponents’ patriotism at a time of national crisis, to skew the debate and to accumulate more powers for himself.  Our consitution of course allows the prime minister too many similar powers, but that is an argument for strengthening parliament, not for dusting off the guillotine.  No argument yet put forward by republicans in this country has convinced me that abolition would be worth the risks inherent with a politicised head of state, or worth the bother of a non-politicised one.

As for the wedding itself, and given the ill fortune some of his male relatives have had in this department, I can do no better than offer Prince William this quote from Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra… “Careful have I found all buyers, and all of them have astute eyes. But even the astutest of them buyeth his wife in a sack.”

I can’t add much to Ed West’s account of the new NUS president’s views of higher education — that equality and widening access must be prioritised “at the expense of quality if necessary” — except to put his quote in the context of these figures and this OECD chart of English schoolpupils’ cognitive abilities compared to their exam results.  The most interesting thing about Liam Burns’ views is that he admits there is a trade-off between quality and equality, rather than trying to have it both ways as most politicians do.  It’s the most naked admission I’ve seen yet of the contemporary left’s preference for equality over meritocracy, which I have argued delivers neither.

We can disagree with Burns without endorsing the market fundamentalism that would make higher education the preserve of the mediocre wealthy and a handful of brilliant scholar boys.  I would suggest that, if savings must be made, universities should cut places rather than treble tuition fees.  A glance at the dropout rates for Scottish universities suggests that there are a lot of people at university wasting their time (even if many of those, as Burns plausibly suggests, would stay on if grants were restored, which could also become possible if we cut places).  We are also wasting their time by telling them this is their best, or only, option.  I don’t know quite how, when and why the idea that it was better to do something academic than something technical came about — it seems such a perversion of so much of what the Victorians achieved — but the government and schools should now do all they can to equalise the two (as in Germany, which uncoincidentally has retained a high-value manufacturing base).  Bear in mind also that foreign students, attracted by the prestige of British universities, are heavily subsidising native ones.  If Johnny Chinaman decides that our universities are being devalued for some obscure domestic political reason, he will happily decamp to another European, American or Australian one and take his tens of thousands of pounds a year with him.

By limiting places (while also making radical changes to schools) instead of raising fees, we could preserve high academic standards and promote vocational alternatives, without forcing unrich, academically gifted but debt-wary potential students away from the idea of university.

Blue ops

Daniel Hannan used a nice phrase on his blog the other day: deformation professionelle, or, ‘a tendency to look at things from the point of view of one’s own profession rather than from a broader perspective’, as Wikipedia has it.  I thought of this tendency as I listened to an interesting programme on Radio 4 last week on the ‘blue Labour’ movement, which holds that previous incarnations of the Labour leadership have, over recent decades, slowly abandoned the concerns of the working classes in favour of the chatterings’; abandoned Humberside for Hampstead, if you like.

Roy Hattersley, liberal elitist and professional deformer, argues against the idea that Labour should again concentrate on the anxieties of the working classes.  But have a listen to the example he gives: gay rights.  This is perhaps the only issue which is not a zero-sum game between the liberal middle classes and the socially conservative working classes.  In fact, gay rights are clearly in everyone’s interest, since homosexuality is hardly the preserve of the middle classes.  Traditional Labour voters may (I don’t know) have antiquated views on homosexuality, but I doubt many would describe it as one of their core concerns, up there with immigration, housing or crime.  On these issues Hattersley is typically disingenuous in his silence.

The liberal left wrings its hands over its failure to sell immigration, multiculturalism and globalisation to the C2s, Ds and Es.  What they never admit is that none of these changes, even if they are positive overall, are universally in everyone’s interest.  For the middle classes, they provide public sector jobs, allow us to own holiday homes in sunny climes, and give us a handy source of cheap labour: a “21st century incomes policy” as blue Labourite Jon Cruddas puts it.  But for the non-immigrant working classes, their relatively privileged position (relative to their peers in poorer countries) disappears as the manufacturing jobs, council housing and much else that was once part of our social settlement becomes unavailable.  Immigrants don’t “steal our jobs” as the BNP would have you believe, but on a big enough scale the process can keep wages at the bottom under control: this is good for inflation, but less good for equality.  And while there may not be a lump of labour, there is certainly a lump of land.

Ultimately the liberal left will have to choose between equality and diversity.  Can you, thoughtful reader, think of many countries that truly have both?  A quick glance at Russia (the world’s most diverse country, and increasingly its most unequal, though this is entirely the fault of its proto-fascist elite), the US, Brazil, Japan and Scandinavia suggests an inverse link between the two, and between levels of immigration and the extent to which the state is able or willing to protect its citizens from the caprices of the free market.  Personally I wouldn’t want us to end the free movement of people (or for that matter goods and services) around Europe: but we have to be honest about what this means for wages, for inequality (the growth of which may be inevitable but should still worry us) and for the welfare state.  The boom years allowed us to paper over the cracks inherent in trying to have it both ways and (to mix my metaphors a bit further) to sweep too many of our own underclass under the carpet: the undercarpetclass, to coin a phrase.

The blue Labour movement is at least making an honest attempt to solve this conundrum, but it seems doomed to be a romantic minority pursuit, especially since the Guardian readers will flock back to Labour from the treacherous Lib Dems.  But it is just possible, thanks to those same Lib Dems, that fewer young working class people will become exposed to the left-liberal groupthink of our universities, and will no longer buy into the dubious idea that a degree will guarantee them entry to a middle class career and lifestyle, and so will no longer buy into the liberal middle class weltanschauung.  If this aspirational false consciousness erodes at the same rate as our living standards, then… who knows?


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