Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bad Ideas

Over at opendemocracy.net, I read:

The world is full of conformism masquerading as profundity, says Fred Halliday, who explodes twelve global falsehoods.
Entertaining stuff, to begin with:
Number twelve: Human behaviour can be predicted

[it can't]

Number eleven: The world is speeding up

[it isn't]

Number ten: We have no need for history

[we do]
Then a touch of dogmatism creeps in:
Number nine: We live in a "post-feminist" epoch

The implication of this claim, supposedly analogous to such terms as "post-industrial", is that we have no more need for feminism, in politics, law, everyday life, because the major goals of that movement, articulated in the 1970s and 1980s, have been achieved. On all counts, this is a false claim: the "post-feminist" label serves not to register achievement of reforming goals, but the delegitimation of those goals themselves.
Yes-ish. The term is used to delegitimise the goals of 70s and 80s feminism by some people, but that isn't to say these goals haven't been at least partially achieved. Halliday is striking a false note with the phrase I have highlighted in bold. But then he goes off the rails:
Number eight: Markets are a "natural" phenomenon which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences

Markets are not "natural" but are the product of particular societies, value systems and patterns of state relation to the economy. They are not efficient allocators of goods, since they ignore the large area of human activity and need that is not covered by monetary values - from education and the provision of public works, to human happiness and fulfillment. In any case the pure market is a fantasy; the examples of the two most traded commodities in the contemporary world, oil and drugs, show how political, social and cartel factors override and distort the workings of supply and demand.
This has nothing to do with the most persuasive arguments for a free market, one of which was best expressed by Sir John Cowperthwaite, who introduced his 1961 budget in Hong Kong as follows:
….in the long run the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralized decisions of a government; and, certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster.
I'm not sure what would count as "natural" by Halliday's definition. Even sexuality is influenced by society and value systems. This is as convincing as the argument that homosexuality is wrong because it is unnatural, in that it cannot lead to reproduction. In other words, it is not convincing. That something is not natural is hardly an argument against it, even if such a remark can be meaningful (which I doubt).

Halliday's two remaining points are just silly. The idea that education and public works have no monetary value is absurd, and human happiness and fulfilment are aspired to along routes that require money - money, or (perhaps more accurately) price, being nothing more than a measurement of the value we are willing to place on any given commodity - including a beach, clean air, and a National Park. State funding, financed from tax revenues, involves money; at least, my local tax inspector seems to think so.

Nobody in their right mind suggests markets don't get distorted. Here's Milton Friedman:
With some notable exceptions, businessmen favor free enterprise in general but are opposed to it when it comes to themselves.
o Lecture "The Suicidal Impulse of the Business Community" (1983); cited in Filters Against Folly (1985) by Garrett Hardin ISBN 067080410X
Galbraith said as much in The Affluent Society. This is not obscure, nor contentious, nor partisan, but it seems to have passed Halliday by.

What is it about the idea of the free market that makes otherwise intelligent people lose their marbles? Whatever the daemon is, it leaves Halliday briefly, for this:
Number seven: Religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life

From the evangelicals of the United States, to the followers of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, to the Islamists of the middle east, the claim about the benefits of religion is one of the great, and all too little challenged, impostures of our time. For centuries, those aspiring to freedom and democracy, be it in Europe or the middle east, fought to push back the influence of religion on public life. Secularism cannot guarantee freedom, but, against the claims of tradition and superstition, and the uses to which religion is put in modern political life, from California to Kuwait, it is an essential bulwark.
But he hasn't quite recovered:
Number six: In the modern world, we do not need utopias

Dreaming, the aspiration to a better world and the imagination thereof, is a necessary part of the human condition.
Utopianism - a disease of the left we are by now entitled to suspect afflicts Halliday - is not some kind of dreamy aspiration to a better world. It is Communism, Fascism, Islamism. It is what drives people to slaughter in the name of a paradise not to be postponed.

Cultural self-loathing permeates the non sequitur of the next entrant:
Number five: We should welcome the spread of English as a world language

It is obviously of practical benefit that there is one common, functional, language of trade, air traffic control etc, but the actual domination of English in today's world has been accompanied by a tide of cultural arrogance that is itself debasing: a downgrading and neglect of other languages and cultures across the world, the general compounding of Anglo-Saxon political and social arrogance, and the introverted collapse of interest within English-speaking countries themselves in other peoples and languages, in sum, a triumph of banality over diversity. One small but universal example: the imposition on hotel staff across the world, with all its wonderful diversity of nomenclature, of name tags denoting the bearer as "Mike", "Johnny" and "Steve".
Reading the question, one might expect the argument that follows to be against the development of a world language. But no, with the exception of the "triumph of banality over diversity" phrase, it's against the fact that the language in question is English. Halliday might reflect on the reasons why English has done this, and on what would be better as an alternative. On second thoughts, that sort of relection seems unlikely.

Then we read:
Number four: The world is divided into incomparable moral blocs, or civilisations

This view has been aptly termed (by Ernest Gellner) as "liberalism for the liberals, cannibalism for the cannibals". But a set of common values is indeed shared across the world: from democracy and human rights to the defence of national sovereignty and belief in the benefits of economic development. The implantation of these values is disputed, in all countries, but not the values themselves. Most states in the world, whatever their cultural or religious character, have signed the universalist United Nations declarations on human rights, starting with the 1948 universal declaration.
If observation of the 1948 declaration were as widespread as its signature list, Halliday might be on to something here. But it isn't, and nor is he. The "conflict of civilisations" argument is indeed simplistic but we learn nothing of why that is the case in the above.

There is then a lurch into partial good sense:
Number three: Diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics

The notion that emigrant or diaspora communities have a special insight into the problems of their homeland, or a special moral or political status in regard to them, is wholly unfounded. Emigrant ethnic communities play almost always a negative, backward, at once hysterical and obstructive, role in resolving the conflicts of their countries of origin: Armenians and Turks, Jews and Arabs, various strands of Irish, are prime examples on the inter-ethnic front, as are exiles in the United States in regard to resolving the problems of Cuba, or policymaking on Iran. English emigrants are less noted for any such political role, though their spasms of collective inebriation and conformist ghettoised lifestyles abroad do little to enhance the reputation of their home country.
Except... except... In the case of Iran, Halliday is perhaps thinking of contemporary emigrees, but the Iranian diaspora of the 1970s is now in power in that country. One suspects that Halliday dislikes Florida-based anti-Castro Cubans so much he overlooks their entirely warranted strength of feeling against a totalitarian government that persecuted them, restricted them, or that they just hated, so much they were driven to take extraordinary risks, often, to escape. Perhaps this whole entry is just here so he cvan have another pop at the English.

A return to form next:
Number two: The only thing "they" understand is force

This has been the guiding illusion of hegemonic and colonial thinking for several centuries. Oppressed peoples do not accept the imposition of solutions by force: they revolt. It is the oppressors who, in the end, have to accept the verdict of force, as European empires did in Latin America, Africa and Asia and as the United States is doing in Iraq today. The hubris of "mission accomplished" in May 2003 has been followed by ignominy.
Iraq was motivated by the idea that "the only thing they understand is force"? What??? WTF??? Not even Galloway suggests that. By Halliday's argument, the British withdrawal from Empire following the Second World War was a military defeat - the acceptance of "the verdict of force". That isn't even right enough to be wrong. I refer Halliday to his own point number 10 (see above).

The final item - top of the pop parade - is this:
Number one: The world's population problems, and the spread of Aids, can be solved without the use of condoms

This is not only the most dangerous, but also the most criminal, error of the modern world. Millions of people will suffer, and die premature and humiliating deaths, as a result of the policies pursued in this regard through the United Nations and related aid and public-health programmes. Indeed, there is no need to ask where the first mass murderers of the 21st century are; we already know, and their addresses besides: the Lateran Palace, Vatican City, Rome, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. Timely arrest and indictment would save many lives.
Nothing at all is said in the argument here about population, just in the question. Slipping in a point like this then ignoring it is a base debating tactic. Equally, the idea that condoms will solve the world's population problem is wrong. This requires women to gain the ability to control their own fertility, which only involves condoms in ideal circumstances. In other, more common, situations we are talking about abortion and the pill. And that's right - abortion as a means of post-conception birth control. That's what has happened, rightly or wrongly, in countries with low birth rates.

Note the unhinged ending, though. A moral, if imbecilic, objection to birth control and promiscuity warrants arrest and indictment as the 21st century's first mass murderers. I hear a distant echo of maniacal laughter. Is it echoing from the direction of Khartoum? Or perhaps it's coming from Fred Halliday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...the introverted collapse of interest within English-speaking countries themselves in other peoples and languages...

He just pulled that gibberish out of his ass. The present considerable Anglophone interest in other cultures is in part driven and enabled by the fact that they're all talking to us in English.

His nonsense about markets is a mass of non sequiturs and worse. Is he suggesting that love and happiness can be efficiently provided by any economy? That if we put an unelected bureaucrat's unaccountable brother-in-law in charge of all shoe production, and imprison any desperate criminals who make shoes in their basements and sell them privately at market rates, that this will help me find romance? He's a fucking moron.