Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Binary Politics: The Deadly Addiction And How To Counter It

Every day online I end up in a discussion with someone about politics in which I'm pretty much expected to join them or forever hold my peace, style of thing. Mise?¹ Not a chance! I'm having none of it because I insist on thinking for myself. Why choose either side of a bad coin? Get another coin, I say. Here's how.

As the neoliberal policies being implemented by Our Glorious Leaders begin to bite, our society at home, in the EU, globally, and online is fracturing along fault lines determined by those who would balkanise us to draw away followers and gain what power they can. Like medieval warlords, they want to raise armies, wage wars, and take up residence in huge castles filled with loyal followers. The tried-and-tested divide and conquer tactic has always been effective, but that depends on what you're aiming for. These days people tend to be more loyal to an idea than a person, and while power may be centralised, it's more for a particular group of special interest groups than for one all-powerful king. Those who would rule over us have remembered the rules but have forgotten what the object of the game is. Result: a more mobile multiplicity of on and offline barons using the exact same tactics to break us into ever-shrinking identity groups and convincing us to follow them, only to fall prey to this themselves. I see it all the time. Binary black-or-white thinking is the problem so if we truly want to push back against unhealthy influences we're going to have to identify the tricks these people use and call them out to warn everyone else.

The moral high ground

One of the most obnoxious aspects of neoliberalism and its bastard libertarian offspring is the way it presents itself as a bastion of morality. This manifests as protecting property rights, rewarding labour, and guaranteeing freedom.

Property rights

Some degree of freedom does not qualify as capitalism, which is “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights (including property rights) in which all property is privately owned.” - Capitalist Magazine

To that end, they've co-opted the meaning of property to be "that which we have gained control over." I'm not even joking, ideas are property, tunes are property, words are property, stories are property, and pictures are property. Even jobs are property (since the company, etc., the employees work for are the property of the proprietor, etc.) but somehow labour is not. Now they want to make images of public places property (as copyright fanboy Andrew Orlowski deftly explains in this cognitively dissonant hit piece in The Register) so you'll have to ask the clueless person at reception in the Town Hall for permission to take a picture of you and your family outside it, in case you want to put it up on Facebook, or something. Don't be surprised if they laugh you out of the building, then some time later you get hit with a bill.

The point of owning property, of course, is that you have power over it, and by "power" I mean "the ability to extract rent and value." If you've ever played Monopoly, the idea is to Own All The Things! You know how owning Park Lane and Mayfair allows you to charge rent off the other players if they happen to land on it in the course of the game? And if you have houses and hotels on those properties you can charge them even more? Same idea. Now imagine you're the proud owner of a public landmark such as the Hilton Hotel. In addition to charging rent for rooms you can also charge tourists for taking selfies outside the front door, assuming this mad suggestion of MEP Jean-Marie Cavada's gets made into law. Neoliberals love this kind of thing, it "proves" they're right when they say that people can become rich if they want to.

Of course the idea that you're giving customers what they want assumes a) a level playing field with equal entry and b) the customer has a say in the matter. That's not true when you're getting fined for tweeting your holiday snaps. It's the same with drugs and other essentials; the way they see it, you're "taking" from others because you've had some bad luck and feel entitled to support you might not otherwise have received from voluntary donations. And since everything is now property, money is property too. Funnily enough, while they claim you can vote with your wallet if you're not happy with certain services, etc., they're quick enough to take advantage of state largesse when they require it themselves.

Social Security is not voluntary. Your participation is forced through payroll taxes, with no choice to opt out even if you think the program harmful to your interests. If you consider such forced “participation” unjust, as Rand does, the harm inflicted on you would only be compounded if your announcement of the program’s injustice precludes you from collecting Social Security.

This being said, your moral integrity does require that you view the funds only as (partial) restitution for all that has been taken from you by such welfare schemes and that you continue, sincerely, to oppose the welfare state. - Objectivism, the myth about Ayn Rand and Social Security

Yes indeed, you can take welfare without blushing IF you have the decency to feel bad about it and/or pretend you're reappropriating monies owed you by Dick Turpin the state.

Rewarding labour

When neoliberals pretend to be business-friendly or promote IPR, they generally say it's about rewarding labour and ensuring that the hard-working artist or creator is properly remunerated for their work. See Jean-Marie Cavada defending his odious anti-panorama amendment to the Reda Report:

The commercial use of reproducing works in the public space leads to abuse of which artists – and sometimes the users – are the victims. Wikimedia would like to exploit these works for commercial use and not just for educational purposes without compensating the authors. Facebook dispenses of the need to compensate the author for each commercial use of photos uploaded to its network by making its users responsible through its terms of service. - Debate: should the freedom of panorama be introduced all over the EU? - European Parliament News blog

Let's get this straight: a statue, etc., in a publicly-accessible area has already been paid for since it's been commissioned by a patron who then paid the artist to carry out the work. The artist has received the fee due, it's over. Move on. But no, per Mr. Cavada, they must be paid for over and over again, particularly if they're being used on a platform designed to make money. This blog, On t'Internet, has ads on. If I go to France and take a picture of the Eiffel Tower at night, they've got copyright on the light display and will bill me if I post it here. Remember how this guy got laughed at for pointing out where we are headed? He's right, we're being asked to pay rent on All The Things over and over and over again because the artists are starving, or something. It's one of those things that only works in your head if you don't question it.

This is how neoliberals and their Libertarian bretheren actually feel about rewarding labour:

At the Days Inn, the general manager, Herry Patel, says he opposed the minimum wage increase.
“[The referendum] was bad,” he said. “Bad for Arkansas. Everybody wants free money in Pine Bluff.” -  The 25-cent raise: What life is like after a minimum wage increase, Washington Post 

See? They're not in the least bit interested in rewarding labour. Libertarians are actually opposed to rewarding labour on a fixed basis, e.g. a set minimum wage, relying instead on the (rigged) market to determine what a worker's wage should be:

Repeal the minimum wage and let people work for $.02 per hour. Let, not make, of course. This claim does not rest on some ludicrous assumption that anyone can “survive” on that nominal wage. Indeed, one reason that Solman was incredulous at my suggestion lay in his failure to understand why it sometimes makes sense for workers to take a low or nominal wage, namely, in order to improve their ability to earn more money a year later. - Richard Epstein, "Middle-Out" Economics? - The Hoover Institution

Yes indeed, the idea is you earn sod all now in order to improve your earning power down the line because you're now experienced in... being exploited. Unpaid internships work on this principle. In practice...

The most enthusiastic employers of unpaid interns are those that generate a lot of menial work, and are glamorous enough to get people to do it for nothing.- Generation I - The Economist

Libertarianism is based on a blue-sky scenario in which human nature is denied and everyone behaves as expected, remember. That internships can and do lead to better things is great but they don't work out for everyone and if yours is one of those donkey-work ones you may find yourself padding your CV in an effort to make stacking shelves for several months sound more like window-dressing. As I said, they are not in the least bit interested in paying people for their work so don't let their moralistic rhetoric fool you.

Guaranteeing freedom

Neoliberals and their ideological allies are funny. They claim that unfettered capitalism can solve all your problems.

Neoliberals present the image of a smiling shopkeeper behind his counter ready to reach up to the high shelf to get you that item you want but capitalism doesn't work like that all the time for everyone. What it usually does is steamroll over the little guy. We're all seeing how barely-regulated capitalism is working; one million people in Britain alone are using food banks because the smiling shopkeeper who owns huge chains of super-stores is more interested in keeping share prices up than paying his staff enough to live on. Is that freedom?

Their disgusting habit of claiming property rights over "All The Things!", including patents, copyright, trademarks, market sectors, and jobs creates a balkanised social and economic environment in which we must tread carefully to avoid falling foul of the rent-collectors. And make no mistake, they're working on expanding copyright and patents as far as they can; one German MEP is trying to sneak ancillary copyright (charges for linking and snippets) back into the Reda Report. Is that freedom? I think not!

Make no mistake, neoliberalism is not about freedom for little people like us, it's for the rich and the powerful. They're even making it harder to protest, calling dissidents terrorists and locking people up for making off-colour comments online. What freedom? Economic freedom? Not while wages are frozen or kept at or near the minimum and our jobs are being outsourced.

On the other side

One of the most enduring myths of neoliberalism and its associated philosophies is the American Dream theory; if you work hard enough you will become rich and successful in the end. While this is indeed true for a select few, we can't all be chiefs, we must needs have indians to turn the wheels of industry. Neoliberals position themselves and their ideology as a purveyors and providers of opportunity via promises of job creation and of innovation. These are, of course, lies. To reinforce those lies they've created a boogeyman and offer to protect us from them. The Red Scare nonsense, so prevalent in the USA, is being trotted out by the European Parliament's EPP (conservative) group, which, correct me if I'm wrong, is populated by particularly stupid moustache-twirling villains. These are the people driving opposition to the Reda Report so they're in my bad books at the moment, but look at this. Just look at it!

Needless to say, I ripped into them for posting such nonsense. More lies here:

Capitalism is not a system advantaging the wealthy. It is a system of competition, innovation, and wealth creation which leads to win-win outcomes and flourishing for all. - Jaana Woiceshyn, Capitalism Benefits Everyone - Capitalism Magazine

If you challenge Jaana, she will no doubt say we're not living in a "pure capitalist" society. And while she lauds charities as the be-all and end-all for dealing with poverty, etc., she condemns altruism as immoral. You really have to read this to believe it:

When the people we help or the causes to which we contribute are values to us and we can afford to help, there is no self-sacrifice... Altruism means self-sacrifice and is destructive. All forms and amounts of it, even “a little bit,” should be rejected. - Jaana Woiceshyn, Altruism Means Self-Sacrifice, not Benevolence - Capitalism Magazine

Thus she repudiates charity as the solution to poverty because her idea of a "moral" charity is entirely conditional and based on subjective values. If you're not "a value" to a potential benefactor, you're on your own. Enjoy dumpster-diving. This is the world we live in now, people. I'm with Dawn Foster on this one:
Honestly, it's people like Jaana who drive me into the arms of the Left. They're more compassionate and caring than these cold-hearted sociopaths. However, I've got issues with Socialists and Liberals, too. These include authoritarianism, woolly-minded wishful thinking as policy, and ideological lock-in.


I get so annoyed with authoritarians when they start their paternalistic nonsense! I hate being told what to do or how to think by people who don't care about me, particularly when they're coming at me from an ideologically-driven perspective. I don't give a rat's about their ideology and treating me like a little brat is not going to get me on board. I also get annoyed with those militant atheists who seem utterly determined to lock out anyone who might agree with them because they have a faith. Fun fact: as much as authoritarians would love to bring all of us under their control, they tend to run into the same problem over and over again: they're not the only kids on the block. Other authoritarians exist and also really, really want to be in charge. Result: identity politics balkanising people by presenting an all-or-nothing proposition and threatening hell to pay over butthurt. Okay, I'm the baddie, I'm not joining in, okay? Now build a bridge and get over it.

Wishful thinking

I got into an argument with a fellow Pirate yesterday over his Brady Bunch vision of the EU. My pragmatic realism stops me seeing it as anything other than a Franco-German hegemony dominating the member nations by setting and enforcing economic policy. You can see it playing out in the way they're handling the Greek crisis. I actually see this on both sides of the aisle; once the cognitive dissonance kicks in they can only go quiet when the evidence contradicts their point of view. They can't or won't admit to being wrong because they've emotionally invested in their opinions. Protip: don't. If we can't engage honestly with the issues, we can't deal with them effectively.

Ideological lock-in

This is as stupid as it is dangerous. Again, the Greek crisis demonstrates the folly of filtering your thinking through ideology instead of actually engaging with events as they are.

"Anglo-Saxon* economists are guided by the utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill or Jeremy Bentham, asking merely if a policy works," The Economist recently wrote. "Germans side with Immanuel Kant, believing that nothing works except through law, and are horrified when the [European Central Bank] strays from its narrow mandate." - A hilarious Monty Python sketch helps explain why Greece is in a huge crisis - Max Ehrenfreund, Sydney Morning Herald


Why take sides?

We are being made to choose between harsh, uncaring, money-first neoliberalism (and variants thereof) on one side and woolly-minded fluffy liberalism/flat cap socialism on the other. Well who says we have to choose either of them? Neither is a good choice, though socialism generally hurts less if you're in the lower-income bracket. The trouble with neoliberalism is that it's so damn appealing via the moral arguments it makes, it even creeps into the thinking on the left because it sounds business-friendly. Needless to say, once this creeping trend becomes apparent people start to balkanise because the logical end of neoliberalism is to trust communities and the market to attend to the needs of the vulnerable while pretending that the game isn't rigged and most of us are too clever to fall for it. And it's at that moment, when you realise what rubbish neoliberalism is, that you go looking for people you agree with enough to get stuff done, only to realise you're not too comfortable with them either. So why take sides in the first place?

What we can do

As the opposition groups fracture into ever-smaller groups of people following a leader or a trend, the neoliberals, etc., who feel less of a need to depend on others due to their shark-like mentality, are running riot. We need to get our act together, and I think this is what we need to do:

  • Stop bickering over philosophical dogmas and ideologies, it's counter-productive
  • Stop excluding people we disagree with. Even Europhiles or Euro-skeptics!
  • Stop labelling people. I'm conservative and can't stand neoliberalism. I'm with anyone else who also hates it
  • Work together as much as possible on projects we agree on. We need to unite
  • Be consistent in your message
  • Take an evidence-first approach, ideology be damned

It's the best I can come up with. What do you think?

¹I'm Irish.²

²Pronounced "Misha."³

³You're welcome.

⁴Erm, the Angles and Saxons were German tribes.

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