Wednesday, 21 February 2018


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/12 December 2016 14:49

"The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction": by Mark Lilla
The New York Review of Books Inc (Oct 2016)
Soft cover, 176 pages

To call 2016 a catastrophic year for the worldwide Left would be an understatement. Britain's self-harming Brexit referendum and the USA's toxic (possibly Putinised) presidential election were only the most spectacular of the setbacks, with genocidal civil wars and anti-immigrant activism on the rise all over. Contrast with that period of hubristic optimism before the 2003 Iraq Invasion could hardly be more stark. George Bush's Caring Conservatives and Tony Blair's New Labour thought that together they could fix the Post-Cold-War world permanently for democracy and free markets, but those free markets (plus the immense war costs) lead directly to the financial crash of 2008, which lead to the austerity of 2010, which lead to the great "revolt of the left-behind" that Brexit and Trump represent. It turns out that a majority, admittedly narrow, of European and US populations now reject the cosmopolitanism and liberalism espoused by their political leaders and celebrity role-models.

To make headway against this tide of reaction, the Left needs to understand this mind-set rather than merely excoriating it as racist, sexist, homophobic and whatever. Such tutting and finger-wagging contributed significantly to the current ideological rout. Few scholars are better equipped to provide such understanding than Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University New York. A political scientist and historian of ideas, Lilla has contributed many articles to the New York Review of Books analysing anti-Enlightenment and anti-Modern thought in religion and politics, and his latest volume "The Shipwrecked Mind" is built from expanded versions of several of these.

This reviewer first came across Lilla via his 1998 NYRB essay "A Tale of Two Reactions", while researching my book on the legacy of the '60s counter-culture. Lilla pondered the two revolutions that transformed post-war America, the 1960s "counter-cultural revolution" and Ronald Reagan's neoliberal economic revolution of the 1980s. He characterised both sides as "reactionary" in the strict sense of that term: the Right reacts ineffectually against the moral laxity of popular culture, while the Left reacts ineffectually against privatisation and market forces. But he also observed that young Americans appeared to have no difficulty reconciling the two positions by "holding down day jobs in the unfettered global economy while spending weekends immersed in a moral and cultural universe shaped by the Sixties". That remains largely true in Trump's America, except that those day jobs are harder to come by...

In "The Shipwrecked Mind" Lilla further dissects the reactionary impulse as displayed in the work of several 20th-century thinkers, some famous, others less so, most ignored by intellectual historians who find revolutionaries more interesting and sympathetic. Though his book was written well before Trump's victory, Lilla had already sensed the way the tide was running, that the media, internet and social networks were turning public opinion toward the right. He begins by clarifying an important point:
Reactionaries are not conservatives... They are, in their way, just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings... The revolutionary sees the radiant future invisible to others and it electrifies him. The reactionary, immune to modern lies, sees the past in all its splendor and he too is electrified... His story begins with a happy, well-ordered state where people who know their place live in harmony and submit to tradition and their God. Then alien ideas promoted by intellectuals - writers, journalists, professors - challenge this harmony and the will to maintain order weakens at the top. (The betrayal of elites is the linchpin of every reactionary story)... Today political Islamists, European nationalists, and the American Right tell their ideological children essentially the same tale. The reactionary mind is a shipwrecked mind.
In his first section, "Thinkers", Lilla tackles three 20th-century philosophers: Franz Rosenzweig, Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss. Rosenzweig was a scholar first of Hegel, then of Judaism, who rebelled against Hegelian reason and the "disenchantment of the world" in favour of religious revival. He called for a “battle for religion in the twentieth-century sense” in terms, ironically enough, very similar to those of his contemporary, the anti-semitic Martin Heidegger. Voegelin was German-born but raised and studied philosophy in Vienna. A 1924 fellowship in New York exposed him to the teaching of John Dewey at Columbia, and imbued him with a hatred of racism and totalitarianism that proved embarassing on his return to Austria: in 1938 he had to flee Nazi arrest back to the USA. His major works "The Political Religions" and "The New Science of Politics" attacked fascism, communism and nationalism, but blamed Western secularism for their rise and defended the utility of religion for keeping social order. This makes him popular with the US religious Right, though Lilla argues that they misunderstand him (he also blamed Christianity for the American Revolution!)

The best-known of the three is Leo Strauss, another gifted European philosopher who emigrated to America before WWII. Throughout the 1950s and '60s at the University of Chicago he mentored a whole generation of neo-conservatives in the art of political dissembling. We have him to thank, in part, for US foreign policy under Reagan and both Bushes. His muscular strain of Platonism emphasised the need for a two-level philosophy: a softened, highly-edited version of the world to placate the masses, and a hard, cold (and secret) true picture for their masters. The current furore over online False News might be seen as a Straussian legacy.

The second half of the book covers contemporary reactionary thinkers on both Right and Left. Brad Gregory's "The Unintended Reformation" is an exercise in counterfactual history, where he suggests that had the Pope's side won the 30 Years War, capitalism might have developed in a different, more humane direction, with less consumerism and moral relativism. Er, yes, perhaps... Lilla goes on to skilfully dissect the Swiss Talmud scholar Jacob Taubes, who started the cult of admiration for Nazi lawyer Carl Schmitt's work among European Left thinkers, then proceeds to Alain Badiou, who further exemplified such extraordinary intellectual gymnastics by moving seamlessly from Mao Tse Tung to St Paul as his preferred model of revolutionary fervour.

Lilla's last chapter analyses the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015 and their effect on French public opinion, through works by journalist Eric Zemmour and novelist Michel Houellebecq. A few months before the Paris attacks Zemmour published "Le Suicide Français", a tirade against the decline of France that became the second-best-selling book of 2014: not a simple racist of the Le Pen sort, Zemmour blames not just appeasement of Muslims but also the outsourcing, wage-cutting business classes and bankers. Houellebecq, perhaps France’s most important contemporary novelist, used to take a jaundiced, sub-situationist view of French consumer society, but his latest novel "Submission" changes tack with a plot about an Islamic political party coming to power in France in the near future and achieving popular support, thanks to a general decline of moral fibre wrought by secular consumerism. By a macabre coincidence it was published the morning of the Charlie Hebdo murders.

Following World War II social-democratic ideas enjoyed a certain hegemony on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to the experience of collective wartime effort. (That even included "wet" Tory governments and the pre-Tea Party GOP to some degree). The 1960s counter-culture dented this hegemony through unrealistic and anachronistic revolutionary posturing, and so it was that on achieving office Margaret Thatcher could denounce the hegemony as "the ratchet of socialism". Between them the Thatcher and Reagan administrations inaugurated a devastatingly effective counter-attack, by playing on popular emotions, the prejudices and fears caused by rapid social change, and by ridiculing the moralising "political correctness" of the New Left. The ideas Mark Lilla examines in this book all contributed to this gradual, drip-by-drip process of undermining the post-war progressive mindset. As he puts it "for an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become instead a vaguer general outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has matured when every event, present and past, is taken as confirmation of it". That's where we appear now to be with Brexit and Trump.


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/The Knowledge Corrupters/13 May 2016 10:19

"The Knowledge Corrupters: Hidden Consequences of the Financial Takeover of Public Life" by Colin Crouch
Polity Press (Cambridge 2015)
Soft cover, 182 pages
ISBN 9780745669854"

"The Knowledge Corrupters" opens with an example of a truly perverse incentive – the 2014 revelation that the NHS was paying doctors £55 for every patient they diagnosed as suffering from dementia. Inadequate diagnosis of dementia had become a political hot potato, hence this modern solution: pay 'em to find more. Colin Crouch observes that this should surprise no-one because "That as much of life as possible should be reduced to market exchanges, and therefore to money values, is one of the main messages of the most influential political and economic ideology of today's world, neoliberalism."

That very word is currently site of a skirmish in the civil war for the soul of the Labour Party. A December 2015 editorial in the Blairite magazine Progress condemned the term neoliberalism as "lazy use of language" and "a catch-all for anyone with whom you disagree", but since it's mostly Corbynistas who use it against Blairites this was a predictable defensive parry. It's nevertheless true that, as a shorthand for the newly aggressive capitalism we've suffered since the late 1980s, the word is at risk of demotion to a status like that of "fascist" – a loosely-defined insult only vaguely connected to its proper historical meaning. Colin Crouch would be the last person in the world to use the term carelessly: his three previous books "Post-democracy" (2005), "The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism" (2011) and "Making Capitalism Fit for Society" (2013) contained masterly analyses of the crisis of 20th-century social democracy and its ongoing struggle with the neoliberal reaction.

Crouch regards neoliberalism not as an alien imposition, to be eliminated by return to some improbable variant of state socialism, but as a permanent feature of the political landscape, an inevitable response to social democracies that had become ossified, conservative, protectionist: no longer capable of dealing with the globalised power of multinational corporations and demands for choice from affluent consumers. For him a "mixed economy" means not just separate public and private employment sectors but also corresponding social-democratic and neoliberal ideological sectors, locked in permanent struggle for territory and even capable of mutual influence. The neoliberal Old Testament is Friedrich Hayek's 1943 work "The Road To Serfdom", which proclaimed that the market is a repository of superior wisdom which "renders all human attempts to second-guess it through the use of expertise imposed on its outcomes as necessarily inferior". Against communism, social democracy and fascism, Hayek and colleagues claimed that all attempts at planning were potentially totalitarian. During the economic instability that followed the 1970's Oil Crisis some conservative thinkers dared to resurrect this belief, electoral victories by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher enthroned it as the alternative to Keynesian demand management, which forced "Third Way" politicians like Clinton and Blair to entrench it as the new orthodoxy.

Crouch's new book focuses on one specific problem, the concerted attempts by neoliberal agents to restrict and corrupt the dissemination of information, by attacking the status of knowledge professionals and expert advice itself. His first chapter explores neoliberalism as a theory of knowledge, and claims that these attacks erode the feedback mechanisms necessary for democratic governance of modern technological, knowledge-based societies, thus becoming a threat to democracy itself.

Neoliberalism's current assault against the public realm goes by the name of New Public Management (NPM), the doctrine that all public services must behave as though they were in the private sector. NPM first emerged under Thatcher, but was enthusiastically extended by New Labour and continues under Cameron/Osborne. In Chapter 2, "The Corrosion of the Public-Service Ethos" Crouch explains that though proponents can portray this doctrine as democratic and anti-elitist – a cure for the blundering of planners which encourages experts to evolve and improve their skills through market exposure – it also masks a darker, populist belief that people who aren't motivated by profit must automatically be considered lazier and less competent than those who are. This belief prevails among most businesses and throughout our current Tory administration, and it demands several kinds of remedy: privatise whatever can be privatised; outsource all regulation by public professionals to private agencies; set performance targets and assessment regimes for those public professionals who had hitherto been self-governing.

Outsourcing forces public service professionals into closer contact with business, supposedly to teach them efficiency through competition but in practice encouraging corruption by breaking down firewalls deliberately erected after long experience (for example school inspectors or credit rating agencies). Performance targets are the neoliberal's way of evaluating services to which a monetary value can't be directly attached. They are meant to imitate the way businesses choose product lines, but in complex activities like healthcare, education and policing it's not possible for politicians to know which are the most significant aspects of performance to target. The result is dangerous over-simplification that undermines the accumulated knowledge and expertise of the service providers. Providers are also provoking into spending time gaming the targets that could have been spent providing service.

School and university reforms offer grim examples of this kind of interference, as does the police force. When opinion polls suggested that burglary and car theft most influenced public perception of the crime rate, targets were imposed to prioritise those crimes at the expense of police efforts against other areas, like child abuse. Hence new scandals, targets reset, narrow spotlight shone onto newly-crucial areas, a state of perpetual re-re-reform. Crouch calls this kind of excessive politicisation "hyper-democracy": when there are few major policy disagreements between main parties, they explore ever finer levels of detail to promote as distinctive policy, which further sidelines and undermines the knowledge of practitioners on the ground in favour of bright ideas from political ideologues.

Crouch condenses his arguments into five major points, which are:
1) Forcing public services into markets encourages them to over-simplify the knowledge that they demand, and undermines the professionals who create and deliver that knowledge.
2) Though markets do indeed concentrate certain kinds of knowledge, as Hayek claimed, over-reliance on them undermines other forms of knowledge, including science.
3) For earlier free-market theorists like Adam Smith it was axiomatic that market participants would behave with moral integrity, but contemporary Rational Choice theory actually exalts and rewards dishonesty and the corruption of knowledge.
4) Pure market theory presupposes an economy with many producers and consumers, but today's neoliberals tolerate high degrees of monopoly and often permit corporate elites to restrict access to and distort knowledge in their corporate interest (Crouch calls this "corporate neoliberalism").
5) To act fully effectively in a market demands amoral, calculating and self-centred behaviour. As one small component of a total personality this may be tolerable, but as markets spread into ever more areas of life it tends to coarsen us all into calculating machines.

He illustrates these points with copious real-world examples drawn from contemporary affairs and scandals, far too many to catalogue in this short review: suffice to say they include: BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill; the 2011 Japanese tsunami and nuclear meltdown; the Greek bail-out; PPI mis-selling; climate-change science; food nutrition labelling; the Libor, Euribor and Forex fiddling scandals; school GCSE performance indicators (gaming of); university impact targets; PFI building programmes; Big Pharma's suppression of adverse test results; G4S and Serco prisoner tagging scandals; HMRC's leniency to rich tax evaders, and much, much more.

Central to Crouch's critique is a distinction between three different conceptions of the consumer of goods and services: as citizen, as customer or as object. Citizens have rights to participate in discussion and decision-making, rather than merely to consume services. Customers have the capacity to choose to pay for different goods and services in a marketplace. Objects are mere statistics, passive recipients of whatever is offered to them. Neoliberals charge social democracy with reducing people to objects without choices, and preach privatisation to promote them to customers. Crouch agrees with the diagnosis but not the treatment, and would instead promote them to full citizens.

His conclusion is that we can't avoid depending upon markets that will always give suppliers the incentive to ignore important information or to deceive us, upon professionals who don't merit the trust we can't avoid placing in them, and upon politicians who exaggerate both problems to enhance their own power. The solutions he proposes are not such as to set one's pulse racing: more and better inspection regimes and more participation (that is, two-way communication between professionals and their citizen/users).

In fact these prescriptions are both hard to achieve and highly political. Inspectors must again be experts in their field (rather than price-cutting private agencies) which is expensive, and they must be freed from both political and commercial pressures. The recent furore over the BBC's charter renewal shows how political this can become. As for participation, the problem is a gross asymmetry of knowledge and educational level between expert and typical user. The neoliberal solution is to interpose a middle layer of advisory services, often via websites supported by advertising, which merely displaces the problem of trust onto these advice services and so is no solution. Colin Crouch is not entirely pessimistic, observing that in the UK at least strong public support for the welfare state persists, and that the assaults have not so far actually diminished the expert skills required for education and medicine – but for how long?

Monday, 19 February 2018


Dick Pountain/ Political Quarterly/ 10th Jan 2016

"The Age of Sustainable Development" by Jeffrey Sachs
Columbia University Press (2015)
Soft cover, 544 pages

The extreme weather of December 2015, with floods across Northern Britain and lethal tornadoes in Texas, felt like a possible tipping point in the debate over the reality of climate change. Assuming the Democrats win the next US election – and if they don't, all bets are off – then politicians might turn their minds to tackling the looming climate crisis. Then Jeffrey Sachs' sumptuous tome "The Age of Sustainable Development" would be a good thing to keep at their elbow.

Excessive deference by politicians to the opinion of economists is an intellectual pathology of our times: the debacle over Greek debt and default showed us pretty convincingly where the power now lies. This phenomenon is referred to by Left commentators as neo-liberalism – giving priority to market forces over humane, planned policies – and that the Labour Party's Blairite rump has taken to deprecating use of the term suggests it still has some traction. For those who oppose neo-liberal austerity policies the options are limited, since state socialism has failed comprehensively wherever tried and is no longer saleable. Neo-Keynesian policies of various strengths alone retain any political credibility, and so a generation of neo-Keynesian economists, notably Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich, now makes most of the running (somewhat surprisingly from the USA). These economists seek to defend the political against neo-liberal budgetary superstitions, and promote expansionary policies on the reasonable assumption that putting money back into people's pockets stimulates demand and restores a virtuous growth cycle. And then there is Jeffrey Sachs...

Currently Columbia's professor of sustainable development and director of its Earth Institute, Sachs is indeed another Keynesian macroeconomist, but rather different from the other stars of the "Keynesian Resurgence" that followed the 2008 crash. Adviser to the Russian, Polish, Slovenian and Estonian governments during their transition from Communism, he promoted what then amounted to neo-liberal privatisation plans. He's more interested in ameliorating world poverty than in US Democratic Party policy, does work for both the IMF and the United Nations, and has been special adviser to UN Secretaries Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon. Such a CV could tempt one lazily to classify Sachs as a "Right" rather than "Left" Keynesian, but on the evidence of this book that would be short-sighted.

In reviewing "The Age of Sustainable Development" it's hard to resist first remarking its arresting, supra-commercial production standards. Published by Columbia University Press with a foreword by Ban Ki-Moon, it's printed on the finest matte-coated paper with full-colour graphs, maps, diagrams or photographs on over half its 544 pages (and a fiendishly clever metallised photo cover). Such luxury might further stamp Sach's project as "Establishment", but that would again be lazy. He's written a clear, well-organized and non-polemical account of the number and the immensity of challenges that we face, and the sheer inadequacy of current governmental responses to them, aimed at nothing less than a prescription for eliminating world poverty by enabling and encouraging developing nations to catch up with Western standards of health, education and life-chances, in ways compatible with reducing the threat of anthropogenic climate change.

Sachs bases his approach on the science of complex systems, seeking to understand the world as "a complex interaction of economic, social, environmental and political systems”. This leads him continually to cross boundaries between disciplines that normally share neither a common language nor way of thinking, a style that's reminiscent of certain other systems thinkers like Vaclav Smil. This he calls "clinical economics", a discipline intended to advise and encourage "governments, experts and civil society to undertake the 'differential diagnoses' necessary to overcome remaining obstacles". Many such differential diagnoses inform both this book and the UN's Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), of which Sachs was chief strategist. The key word is "differential", as his method involves separately analysing each country, even region, to take account of its history, ethnic culture, religion, ideology and other factors that have altered the course of its development. He claims that failure to perform such differential analysis is what causes so much foreign aid to be wasted, and so many humanitarian endeavours to produce perverse results (the invasion of Iraq springs to mind).

The argument is unfolded in a highly-structured manner, first refining the big goal of sustainable development into three subgoals, economic development, social inclusion and environmental sustainability, then further subdividing and expanded these over 14 fact-crammed chapters. There's far too much detail to even attempt a summary here, and the excellent maps, graphs and diagrams are crucial to following the argument. As an example Chapter 3, "A Brief History Of Economic Development" is a succinct, multi-causal account of the rise of Western capitalism, viewed from cultural, religious, political and geographic dimensions. Chapter 4 "Why Some Countries Developed While Others Stayed Poor" outlines the obstacles to development, which include:

~ the "poverty trap": countries too poor to make basic investments

~ mistaken economic policy

~ financially insolvent governments

~ physical geography: far from trade routes because landlocked or in high mountains

~ bad governance

~ cultural barriers like the subjugation of women

~ geopolitics: wars with neighbours or colonising powers

The other twelve chapters cover the whole gamut of environmental challenge, from poverty, over-population, loss of habitat and species extinction, to overextraction of resources, disrupted nutrient cycles, urbanization, social mobility, climate change and, most importantly, the way all these problems interact, feed back and amplify one another. Sustainable development is “inherently an exercise in problem solving" and Sachs is a techno-optimist who believes that it's possible, in theory, to retain some economic progress of a reformed, sustainable kind that will allow the developing world to catch up. His optimism is neither blind nor irrational, based in part on the Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratiev's theory of "waves" of technological advance that drive the world economy: from steam engines, railways and steel, through electrification, chemicals and automobiles, to the digital revolution. Sachs believes the next wave will be a "sustainability revolution" based on nanotechnology, smarter agriculture, renewable energy sources and huge efficiency gains made possible by new, cheap digital control systems.

Sachs embraces nuclear power in addition to renewable energy sources, and believes it possible that the poorest countries can catch up, assuming sacrifices by affluent Western populations that will be real, but perhaps no worse than those about to be inflicted on them by the cupidity of the oligarchic "1%". Swedish population scientist Hans Rosling, in his brilliant documentary "Don't Panic", visualised the way the top octile (by income) of the world's population emits half the carbon dioxide, a proportion that halves again for each succeeding lower octile, which has twofold implications: the very poorest populations have plenty of room to grow themselves out of poverty without disastrously affecting the outcome, but equally, combating global warming becomes overwhelmingly our, Western, responsibility. Similar calculations about inequality suggest that we top 10% also need to shrug off neo-liberal policies before we start berating the poorest nations for corruption. Both Sachs and Rosling have noticed, unlike more radical alarmists, that developing-world fertility is already falling so steeply that population growth will level out this century.

To ask whether Sachs is of the Left, Right or Centre is moot, since all his prescriptions demand deep collaboration between a strong civil society and a strong, honest, state. He's a Bernsteinian social democrat in effect, if not in name: "Even when the financing is strictly within the private sector, a proper regulatory framework and corrective measures are very important to make sure that the private sector is investing in the right areas and is driven by market signals that are giving accurate indicators of overall social costs and social benefits." He's not a pious liberal interventionist who seeks to impose democracy by decree: development in the absence of democracy (as in China) is still a goal, with some hope it may lead to democracy later. Nor is he a utopian, being acutely aware of the many obstacles to achieving these goals.

And the obstacles are almost insurmountably severe: oligarchic vested interests; climate-change-denying US Republicans; Islamists who obstruct the emancipation of women (and the reduced fertility it brings); anti-state libertarians, like those Silicon Valley billionaires who think it more fun to colonise Mars than save this planet; neo-nationalists and racists who degrade our political discourse; and the reluctance of Western populations to sacrifice any comfort. Sachs also retains too much, possibly misplaced, faith in the integrity of international banks and UN aid institutions. What's worse, the degradation of politics is now proceeding at such a pace that even a book published in 2015 looks out-of-date regarding the perils: Sachs devotes little space to the Middle East, with neither Syria nor Iraq appearing in the index, and the current refugee crisis was barely starting when he wrote it.

Even so, and dauntingly dense though it is, reading this book will leave you as well-informed as anyone about the scale of our problems and their possible solutions, if not about the politics needed to achieve them. The beautifully-designed volume is indispensable for anyone who believes, however timidly, that sanity might one day prevail. It's a user manual for running a planet sustainably, the trouble being that a manual is seldom what people reach for first when smoke and flames start coming out of the box....

Sunday, 27 August 2017


Dick Pountain/PQ: Sapiens review/22 February 2015 13:51

“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari
Harvill Secker Sept 2014
Hardcover: 456 pages

Pop science is a big business nowadays, from the cosmological and genetic blockbusters of Hawkings and Dawkins to the hugely popular internet lectures like TED. While some of these works exist mainly to boost their authors' pension funds, a select few are serious reviews of current scientific research expressed in readable and jargon-free language. Among these latter I'd count Dawkins and Hawking but also Jared Diamond, Vaclav Smil and Daniel Lord Smail whose works I've previously reviewed for this journal, and Yuval Noah Harari's provocative treatise “Sapiens”, which applies evolutionary biology to human history with much (if not complete) success certainly belongs among them.

Harari starts from the premise that the genus Homo – a group of higher primates that evolved in East Africa 2.5 million years ago – experienced a sequence of “revolutions” which turned them into ourselves, Homo sapiens, who now own, rule (and are perhaps destroying) the whole planet and all other species. The first of these revolutions, dubbed the Cognitive, happened around 70,000 years ago when certain mutations in brain function created a new strain of hominids who could manipulate abstract symbols. That's to say they detached those warning sounds that most animals employ from the specific events that triggered them, making of them symbols that could be recombined to refer to events in the past, the future or to things that never existed at all. This ability to tell stories and create myths excused us from the brute biological contest of evolution into our own environment of culture, into what Harari calls "imagined orders".

We're the most social of all animals, yet we lack the genetic constraints and bodily specialisations that enforce sociality upon bees, ants or naked mole rats. Instead our sociality evolves through vast accumulations of imagined relations and institutions: "Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination." Money, empires, states, debts, laws, jobs, ranks, joint stock companies all are necessary fictions that collapse if people stop believing in them. But so long as we do believe in them they permit collaboration at scales beyond the pheromone-bound societies of bee or ant, to even encompass the whole planet.

The second revolution was Agricultural, marked by the domestication of animal and plant species that created food surpluses and supplanted the need to hunt and forage. The wholly kin-based foraging bands that were the first human social units gave way to larger, more settled communities – inhabiting, villages then towns, cities and nations – which changed both our social and individual psychologies in profound ways: "... in the subsistence economy of hunting and gathering, there was an obvious limit to such long-term planning. Paradoxically, it saved foragers a lot of anxieties. There was no sense in worrying about things that they could not influence. The Agricultural Revolution made the future more important than it had ever been before." Organised religions emerged: where foragers had felt obliged to placate myriad separate animal spirits, agriculturalists learned to fear omnipotent gods, along with the kings and nobles who ruled on earth in their name (and the parasitic class of priests who interpreted their wishes). Harari's conjectures on the rise of monotheism, and the differences between occidental and oriental theologies are strong points of the book, as are his accounts of the third and fourth, Scientific and Industrial, revolutions.

He applies his evolutionary biology with a defter touch than many competitors, avoiding crude reductionism thanks to a firm grasp of the appropriate ontology. He clearly distinguishes the material from the imaginary and then grants autonomy and agency to both, hence applying biology at its proper level to define the outer bounds within which cultures evolve freely by their own rules. He squarely confronts the historical succession of hierarchies based on pure force, wealth, race, class and gender, making few concessions to either moralism or libertarian pieties: “Hierarchies serve an important function. They enable complete strangers to know how to treat one another without wasting the time and energy needed to become personally acquainted.”

All such hierarchies are based in myth and belief rather than biology: "Since the biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are, in fact, negligible, biology can’t explain the intricacies of Indian society or American racial dynamics. We can only understand those phenomena by studying the events, circumstances, and power relations that transformed figments of imagination into cruel, and very real, social structures". He continues to further ridicule reductionism with the droll observation that “No culture has ever bothered to forbid men to photosynthesise...”

Harari's argument reaches its strongest point in a chapter analysing the social psychology of nationalism. Recognising the historical connection between markets, nation states and individualism he postulates that "The nation is the imagined community of the state." The nation state usurps the sociological (and much of the psychological) role formerly held by families and tribes, an unfinished process whose bloody workings-out we're still living through today: "Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them." This approach, with its hints of both Weber and Veblen, illuminates the power of the modern state to defuse class politics (thus contradicting deterministic kinds of Marxism) and the persistent triumph of nationalisms over internationalism. It chimes with George Bernard Shaw's barbed view of patriotism as “Your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it".

Class is what eventually leads Harari's argument awry. Class consciousness is just another imagined order, and one in which trust is fading, so Communism was a secular religion and by implication Marx was wrong to attribute any special status to class. But regardless of whether or not class is a material fact (ie. belongs to the "base" rather than "superstructure") Marx was certainly right that relations of production belong with the deepest and most effectual of social constructs, as Harari in effect acknowledged in his early chapters on the agricultural revolution. Underestimating the potency of class leads him toward a Fukuyama-like vision of the human species uniting globally for the first time under the banner of consumer individualism. However those pesky relations of production will continue to beaver away at the foundations of such a shaky union, because it's not just market-individualism and high technology that shrink the world but also the power of labour to wrest a sufficient share of wealth to buy all the new products. Piketty and others have amply demonstrated that labour's power is currently in retreat and that the oligarchic global “1%” seek instead a return to family dynasties based on inherited wealth as their new world order.

As for the final chapter on techno-futurism, it's as unexpected and about as welcome as a turd on a soufflé. Where in earlier chapters he'd been so adept at rooting out religious themes concealed in secular clothing, Harari finally falls headlong into Wired-magazine-style millenarianism, forseeing our species elevated by genetic-engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence into an immortal super-sapiens. Meanwhile, outside Frankenstein's lab the peasants are congregating with pitchforks and burning brands...

Wednesday, 2 March 2016


Dick Pountain//Political Quarterly 18/02/2014

"The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt
Penguin Books 2013

The protracted war of attrition between those who would defend and those who would demolish the Welfare State is being fought on the terrain of Economics, a great pity because that offers the aggressors far too many advantages. The state's defenders might be well advised to break out toward the more favourable ground of Social Psychology, because in democracies comprised of atomised, vote-wielding individuals the mind is often capable of overruling the wallet. Debates over the role of the state invariably turn moralistic, for example pitting the virtue of "standing on one's own two feet" against the virtue of "caring for others". Could it be that the opposing sides don't merely have opposing views about "human nature", but that they actually possess different natures?

That's a crude summary of the conclusion of Jonathan Haidt's book "The Righteous Mind", a conclusion that depends upon a relatively new experimental approach to the constituents of human nature. The author researches social and cultural psychology at the University of Virginia, where he's spent a couple of decades studying the mechanism of moral decision-making from an "intuitionist" perspective. That's to say he believes that moral decisions are fundamentally non-rational, that we all possess unconscious, emotionally-based moral heuristics that guide our moral decisions, for which we can only supply rationalisations after we've already made them. This intuitionism draws on a tradition stretching right back to Hume's Treatise, and if true it has profound implications for politics. He believes that people are intrinsically self-righteous and barely amenable to arguments that don't support their existing beliefs.

His experiments depend upon a series of strong moral dilemmas ingeniously devised to preclude all reasoned analysis (often by exploiting major taboos like incest or bestiality). In "The Righteous Mind" he combines these results with others from neuroscience, social psychology, genetics and evolutionary modelling to describe a plausible set of these subconscious moral heuristics which seem innate to human minds of all cultures. Indeed he claims that different cultures, religions and political stances differ precisely in the weight they place on these various heuristics. Clashes between different parties or religions are profound clashes between different unconscious assumptions that distort communication and sometimes render it impossible.

The book begins with this declaration: 
""I could have titled this book The Moral Mind to convey the sense that the human mind is designed to 'do' morality, just as it’s designed to do language, sexuality, music [...] But I chose the title 'The Righteous Mind' to convey the sense that human nature is not just intrinsically moral, it’s also intrinsically moralistic, critical, and judgmental." 
The book's three main sections correspond to Haidt's three basic principles of intuitionist moral psychology:

1) Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.
2) Morality is about more than harm and fairness (the main concerns of liberal utilitarians).
3) Morality may both bind a community and set it against other communities.

Haidt studied in Chicago under the anthropologist Richard Shweder from whom he gleaned a suspicion of rationalism and a distinction between "sociocentric" and "individualistic" societies. A sociocentric society puts the needs of groups and institutions first and subordinates the needs of individuals to them: examples range from traditional tribal societies, through theocracies to secular totalitarian regimes. Individualistic societies place the individual first. This is a distinction that runs deep because it nurtures different kinds of self. The industrial West has become increasingly individualistic over the last two centuries, and even our ostensibly collectivist welfare states mainly protect individuals against the vicissitudes of life. Almost all social and political science starts from individualist assumptions, while many of the world's peoples still live sociocentric lives, hence that incomprehension which, for example, dogs our relations with the Islamic world.

Shweder's influence, and some fieldwork carried out in Brazil, encouraged Haidt to create a repertory of sophisticated questionaires for identifying peoples' moral assumptions, which he used to uncover what he calls his six basic "Moral Foundations", atomic components of actually existing moralities. These foundations are he proposes universal, having a biological basis in brain structure. They evolved by a combination of individual and group selection to make us into social animals, but highly competitive ones. Since group selection is still controversial Haidt devotes a whole chapter to reviewing the latest evidence: "Natural selection favored increasing levels of ... “group-mindedness” - the ability to learn and conform to social norms, feel and share group-related emotions, and, ultimately, to create and obey social institutions, including religion."

Some of Haidt's foundations correspond to known functions of the brain's emotional areas (the limbic system) as recently elucidated by affective neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio and Jaak Panksepp. He names the foundations using axes of binary opposition: care/harm; fairness/cheating; liberty/oppression; loyalty/betrayal; authority/subversion; and sanctity/degradation. The last of these would reflect the physiological disgust mechanism, present in all higher animals, which evolved to avoid poisoning and infection. We humans extend its scope far beyond the realm of food by labelling objects, behaviours and persons as sacred or forbidden.

Haidt then applied his framework to the analysis of political and religious allegiance, conducting some 132,000 interviews on US voters who self-described as liberal, conservative and libertarian. He found they differ significantly in the degree to which various moral foundations affect them. It seems plausible enough that, for example, sanctity/degradation might underly totems, taboos and dietary prohibitions in ancient and modern sociocentric cultures, but he finds it equally important in differentiating US conservatives from liberals. The unconscious, emotion-based nature of these moral foundations explains the great ferocity of such differences. Liberals appear most influenced by just three of Haidt's foundations, care/harm, fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression, whereas conservatives are almost equally affected by all six. The sheer venom of the Tea Party's opposition to Obama is clearly fuelled by emotion rather than reason: it violates their notion of loyalty (that birth-certificate libel), authority (soft on our enemies) and sanctity (plain old-fashioned racism). Those values mean less to Democratic voters who are more moved by the unfairness of bankers' bonuses and the lack of "care" of private medicine.

Several books I've reviewed for this journal questioned why US workers repeatedly vote against their own best economic interests, but Haidt suggests that perhaps they don't: they simply vote for interests like authority and sanctity that we on the Left don't share. If so, that suggests that a radical shakeup of Left political theory is overdue. Marx, a convinced materialist, placed the economic (that is, material) at the helm of politics, but notoriously died before he could elaborate a fully-fledged materialist theory of ideology. Left intellectuals strove for much of the last century to extract such a theory, recruiting extra tools from Nietszche and Freud. The result is the babel of post-modern critical theories, all contending either that "human nature" doesn't exist at all, or at the very least is wholly socially-constructed and sufficiently malleable that one can inscribe any desired utopian character upon it. The cost of abandoning dogmatic Marxist-Leninist notions of class-consciousness and economic determinism has been retreat to a thinly-disguised version of Romantic vacant liberty (surprisingly close to neo-liberal ideas of freedom). Haidt's work is unlikely to be well received in these circles, where his semi-popular prose style and liking for folksy metaphors will no doubt be regarded as naïve and less than serious.

In fact this book is far from naïve, presenting an intricate and closely-argued case that draws on Plato, Hume, Kant, Mill and Durkheim to interpret his experiments. Neither is his concept of moral foundations necessarily inimical to critical theory: for example his sanctity/disgust axis has clear relevance to themes in both Foucault and Agamben. When taken together with the cognitive studies of Kahneman and Tversky, Haidt's work traces the outline of a new hedonic psychology, a science of desire (or Bentham's "felicific calculus" finally realised). We instinctively recoil because this prospect threatens our cherished notions about free will, but the absence of utopian goals leaves such utilitarianism as the only compass remaining to democratic politicians. Rather than whipping up the masses to insurrection, social democrats need to continually attract their votes.

Deep understanding of the electorate's desires used to be the mark of a great politician, but like so much else in contemporary society this skill crumbles in the face of sheer complexity. The Left needs to absorb this new science of mind if only so that we can counteract its use by the Right. For example, why did the 2008 financial crisis unexpectedly boost the Right rather than the Left? Because the Right understood how to exploit voters' guilt over excessive debt, and to deflect their wrath over unfair bankers' bailouts and bonuses onto welfare recipients. Or again, current furores over paedophilia and FGM demonstrate how popular evaluations of childhood innocence can change radically over 50 years, and across different cultures. Woe betide the politician who fails to understand such changes.

Thursday, 31 December 2015


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/Carbon Democracy 07/06/2012

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell. Verso. 278 pp. £16.99.

The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin. Allen Lane. 804 pp. £30.

Popular imagination intuitively grasps the importance of fossil hydrocarbon fuels in a way that—according to the author of Carbon Democracy—reflects quite accurately their effects on our lives. For example, our image of coal is slow, dirty, loud and dangerous: the grunting steam engine, the row of grinning, black-faced miners, muck and brass bands. By contrast, our picture of oil is fast, easy and fruitful: the sleek motor car, the spouting oil gusher, the instant colossal wealth of a Beverley Hillbilly or an Oil Sheikh. Both fuels became tied to Big Money, but in revealingly different ways that are explored by the two books under review here.

Renowned energy consultant Daniel Yergin’s The Quest and Columbia history professor Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy document the displacement of coal by oil as our primary energy source, and highlight the significance of this for world politics, but they do so at different scales and with different emphases. Yergin’s 800-page tome is a sequel to his Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Prize, which covered the early years of oil exploration and exploitation. Here he takes up the story at the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, moving through the bitter and dirty struggles to capture that former empire’s oil and gas resources, the Iraq war and its consequences for the politics of the Middle East, before arriving at the future security of oil supplies, the climate change debate and alternative sources of energy. Yergin analyses all these matters from a largely orthodox viewpoint of neo-classical economics and realpolitik. Timothy Mitchell’s far shorter work, on the other hand, concentrates on the history and politics of Middle Eastern oil mainly to enlist them as evidence for his grand and far-from-orthodox thesis about the influence of fuel sources on politics. His thesis is not merely plausible but reveals a significantly new way to approach political economy, and for that reason I will tackle it first, the better to compare later with Yergin’s more detailed chronicle.

Briefly summarised, Mitchell proposes that the political institutions of human societies are profoundly influenced by the types of energy flow they employ, and that in particular the coal-based economy of the industrial revolution permitted and provoked the rise of mass democracies, while its displacement by an oil-based economy is eroding those democracies. This approach implies a level of determination rooted in physics. All the energy consumed by early forms of human society came almost directly from the sun: photosynthesis supported those plants that are eaten by animals, and the wood used for dwellings and for fire. Hunter-gatherers consumed plants and animals directly from the wild while later agrarian communities domesticated and harvested them, but in either case energy consumption happened locally, with no need for extensive networks of energy transport—such rudimentary networks as did exist were more likely constructed of wood and stone.

That all changed with the Industrial Revolution, which was made possible by digging up buried coal deposits that were extremely localised. Iron smelting industries grew up where such deposits were located and spawned the invention of the steam engine, which was then adopted to power other industries elsewhere. That called forth a network of railways to transport coal all over the country, hauled by coal-powered steam locomotives, and this new class of machinery educated a workforce that was more confident and more skilled than the farm labourer. In Mitchell’s words:

Great volumes of energy now flowed along narrow, purpose-built channels. Specialised workers were concentrated at the end-points and main junctions of these conduits, operating the cutting equipment, lifting machinery, switches, locomotives and other devices that allowed stores of energy to move along them. Their position and concentration gave them opportunities, at certain moments, to forge a new kind of political power.

Thus the geographic concentration of skilled workers in cities led to mass trade unions, and the ease with which narrow energy conduits could be disrupted by strikes gave these workers the power to negotiate more egalitarian conditions of life. Thatcher’s defeat of the coal miners’ strike perhaps marked a definitive end to this phase of history.

Oil, unlike coal, almost mines itself, often spouting to the surface under its own pressure. To be sure, advanced technology is required to discover deposits and drill the wells, but the highly skilled workers involved are relatively few and they remain above ground, closer to managerial supervision and hence having far less autonomy than coal miners. Oil is a liquid that can be transported over vast distances by pipeline and tanker, demanding far less human labour than that required to load, unload and drive trains. Deposits are distributed over the entire globe, so at a single phone call, supplies can be diverted to counteract the effects of strike action in one location. In short, the switch from coal to oil greatly reduced the ability of labour to disrupt energy flows and handed this power instead to the oil companies, who thereby acquired the ability to threaten governments and dictate foreign policy. Mitchell proposes that this property of the oil economy was explicitly recognised by American politicians, and that the Marshall Plan for post-Second World War reconstruction was in part designed to switch Europe from coal to oil, hence reducing the political power of Communist-led coal miners and introducing US-style industrial relations. Certainly oil usage tripled from 10 per cent of European energy consumption in 1948 to over 30 per cent by 1960.

The concept of ‘sabotage’ is central to Mitchell’s thinking about energy flows. The everyday meaning of the term is a spanner in the works, a tactic any striking railway worker or miner might use to disrupt production, but Mitchell employs it in the special economic sense introduced by Thorstein Veblen, for whom it meant any ‘conscientious withdrawal of efficiency’, or ‘such restriction of output as will maintain prices at a reasonably profitable level and so guard against business depression’. Seen in this latter sense, sabotage is a tool employed far more often by oil companies than by labour. In direct contradiction of naive free-market dogmas, sabotage is what companies do to sidestep competition and keep prices high—and both Mitchell and Yergin demonstrate that the whole history of the oil industry is a succession of such acts of sabotage by the major companies. For most of the twentieth century there was always a surplus of oil in the world, threatening to drive prices too low for satisfactory profit. In the 1900s heyday of the Great Game rival empires competed for Middle Eastern oil concessions, not to extract the oil but to keep it from their enemies and protect their fields further east. Later they fought vicious battles for control over pipeline routes to Europe: Arab nationalist governments expropriated the oil fields and eventually formed the OPEC cartel, but far from displacing the oil giants, they became willing accomplices in restricting flow to maintain prices.

Mitchell’s arguments are subtler and less deterministic than such a bald summary might suggest. He enlists ideas from Thorstein Veblen, Bruno Latour, Karl Polanyi and many others to explain how energy flows intersect social relations, affecting even the ways in which we see the world:

... our world is an entanglement of technical, natural and human elements...we are not subjecting ‘society’ to some new external influence, nor conversely using social forces to alter an external reality called ‘nature’... We are re-organising socio-technical worlds, in which what we call social, natural and technical processes are present at every point.

Daniel Yergin’s The Quest is, in effect, two separate books. The first, consisting of almost 400 pages, presents histories of oil, natural gas and nuclear power, while the second covers the discovery of climate change and explains the range of non-carbon alternative energy sources and the prospects for a carbon-reduced future. His history of oil, starting as it does at the fall of the Soviet Union, still overlaps with much of Mitchell’s account in important ways. His accounts are far more detailed, highly readable and often quite gripping. Yergin does an admirable job of explaining the ferociously complex machine that is the world oil market: it is so complex that merely to summarise all the crucial players and events would be well beyond the space of this review. The main groups of players are the oil companies, who are global and have only limited national allegiance; the producer nations, most of whom now own their oil and depend heavily upon taxes (of up to 90%) from the oil companies who extract it; and the consumer nations, for whom the price of petrol is a crucial political variable—petrol queues can remove a party from power. Adding an extra layer of complication, America, the world’s most powerful nation, is both producer and consumer, and its political class is deeply penetrated by oil industry figures (think Bush père and fils and Dick Cheney). Under such circumstances, working out who will benefit and who suffer from any particular increase in oil prices is dauntingly hard.

The differences between Yergin and Mitchell’s interpretations of crucial events can be most instructive. In the chapter ‘The Demand Shock’, Yergin expounds on the effect of price deregulation, market speculation and rapidly growing demand from the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) on oil prices in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis. Higher standards of fuel efficiency for US automobiles set in 1975, during that earlier ‘oil crisis’, stagnated until George W. Bush announced in 2006 that the United States’ ‘addiction to oil’ had become a threat to national security. Yergin comments that ‘[f]uel-efficiency standards were no longer a left-right issue. Now they were a national security and a broad economic issue’. However, where Yergin buys into the US government’s concept of ‘energy security’, Mitchell devotes much space to deconstructing the notion.

Firstly, he observes that the 1973 OPEC embargo was not imposed primarily to raise the price of oil, but rather as a political reaction to the US decision to support Israel in the October War—an attempt to link the oil price to Israel’s progress in relinquishing occupied Palestine territories. Western commentators continue to ignore this, preferring what amounts to a vulgar Marxist interpretation in terms of oil profits. Mitchell suggests that the US’ interest in securing its energy supplies is less transparent than Yergin believes. In fact it revolves around the state of Saudi Arabia, which in its modern form was in effect constructed by the USA as a reliable ally to control (i.e. sabotage) world oil prices.

For Mitchell, the image of democratic, consumerist USA (symbolised by McDonalds) facing militant Islamic jihadists, driven by irrational and anti-modern hatred of the West, is a carefully constructed fiction that masks a duplicitous attitude which he labels with the rather contrived term ‘McJihad’. In 1930 Abd al-Aziz Saud, ruler of what would become Saudi Arabia, began negotiating with American oil companies to sell rights to Arabian oil. He had come to power in alliance with the muwahhidun, a militant movement of puritanical, Wahhabite nomadic tribes who only tolerated his courting of foreign oil companies on the condition that he applied much of the proceeds to spreading the Wahhabi strain of Islam throughout Arabia. The USA was perfectly happy with this arrangement, as the intensely conservative Wahhabism provided an excellent bulwark against Communism: ‘The geophysics of the earth’s oil reserves determined that the rents on the world’s most profitable commodity could be earned only by engaging the energies of a powerful religious movement’.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, with Soviet-friendly parties in power in Egypt, Libya and Iraq and the USA spending ever more to import Middle Eastern oil: the lucrative return trade in modern military equipment to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states killed two birds with one stone. Going further still, Mitchell proposes that the US government and oil companies prefer perpetual low-intensity conflict in the Middle East, both to sustain arms sales and to prevent significant cooperation between the nations that might oppose US interests. This was for him sufficient motive for the 2003 Iraq War (what the RETORT collective has called ‘a neo-liberal putsch’: see their Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War), whereas Yergin prefers to toe the official line of revenge for 9/11, threats of WMD, etc.

And so, finally, on to climate change. Both authors accept the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change caused by burning fossil hydrocarbon fuels. Both agree that doing anything to combat it will require burning far less oil. Neither is very confident that any alternative energy source such as nuclear, wind, geothermal or solar power is capable of wholly filling the gap, particularly for transport applications, and neither can offer concrete proposals about how to achieve such a reduction politically. Mitchell theorises that the transition from coal to oil-based energy systems during the mid-twentieth century induced a separation of ‘the economy’ as an object of study for economists: this creation occupies a strange limbo level between the natural and the social, which economists busily populate with the price of everything. In his own words, ‘Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future: the future was a limitless horizon of growth. This horizon was not some natural reflection of a time of plenty. It was the result of a particular way of organising expert knowledge and its objects, in terms of a novel world called the economy’. The ease with which oil spurts from the ground and the seemingly endless uncovering of new fields foster this dangerous illusion and make it the master of politicians, whose purpose becomes to nurture and serve ‘the economy’ rather than the people.

So long as politicians listen to economists suffering from this delusion, and so long as the vast populations of the BRIC countries and the rest aspire to live like the West, there is little chance of enforcing effective carbon curbs. It is more likely that the price of oil will rise steadily as demand outstrips the rate of discovery of new reserves, while the rising food prices as climate change bites amplify the effect, engendering xenophobic nationalism and war. Mitchell ends rather weakly with a warning about the erosion of democracy and a call to recognise the passing of the era of fossil fuels, while Yergin remains resolutely inside ‘the economy’ and its promise of continued growth. He hopes that technical innovations and market forces might come to our rescue, but it’s a very guarded optimism: ‘There is no assurance on timing for the innovations that will make a difference. There is no guarantee that the investment at the scale needed will be made in a timely way, or that government policies will be wisely implemented’. Whatever happens, however, both of these books have offered invaluable contributions to the necessary debates.

[Dick Pountain, London, Aug 2012]

Wednesday, 12 August 2015


Dick Pountain/Political Quarterly/Against Autonomy 07/06/2013

Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism by Sarah Conly
Cambridge University Press, 206 pp., £55.00
ISBN 9781107024847

With the possible exception of "class", the most confused and confusing term in modern political discourse has to be "liberal". Among the various dictionaries on my bookshelf, the Collins' definition best exemplifies this confusion:

ADJECTIVE 1. Relating to or having social and political views that favour progress and reform 2. relating to or having policies or views advocating individual freedom 3. Giving and generous in temperament or behaviour 4. Tolerant of other people

Definitions 1 through 4 all to some extent contradict one another, since many individuals – whose freedom is always to be respected – are against progress and reform, may not be giving (especially when it comes to taxes), generous or tolerant of other people. Definition 1 corresponds to everyday American usage, often employed in a pejorative sense by conservatives, while 2 is closer to usage among academic economists and political scientists. Whenever we try to describe the system of government that prevails in Europe, the USA and those parts of the world we regard as "free", our term of choice is "liberal democracy", but which of those contradictory senses of liberal is that phrase invoking? That is, which concept should such societies value the more highly, freedom of the individual or progress?

A question something like this lies at the heart of Professor Sarah Conly's short but potent book "Against Autonomy". She shows that to provide an adequate answer requires unpacking the notion of freedom of the individual in the light of recent findings in social psychology and behavioural economics. Sense 2 liberalism depends upon individuals being capable of making free decisions about matters important to the conduct of their lives, but what if addiction, advertising or the intrinsic defects of human reasoning that psychologists like Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have uncovered, so distort their decisions as make them no longer meaningfully free, leading people to behave in ways contrary to their own expressed interests and injurious to their health?

A perfect example is the recent dispute over, and ultimate defeat of, New York Mayor Bloomberg's initiative to ban the sale of sweetened of drinks like Coca Cola in containers larger than 16 ounces from city restaurants and other venues. Note that he wasn't advocating a ban on the drinks themselves – people with big thirsts would remain free to buy two smaller ones – he simply acted on medical advice that such huge buckets of Coke tempt people to buy more than they actually want and contribute to the epidemic of obesity. The measure was defeated by America's hatred of paternalism, that tendency of the state to tell them what's good for them, which they feel infringes their autonomy – their freedom to go to hell any way they choose.

Conly examines many such measures that fall onto a spectrum from total success (compulsory seat belts in cars, crash helmets for motorcyclists), partial success (smoking bans) to outright failures like those buckets of Coke or US gun control. She returns often to a favourite example of buying a house more expensive than your income can support, due to high-pressure sales tactics, over-optimistic assumptions that you'll remain employed and that interest rates will remain low, and impelled by fantasies of grandeur and big parties on the lawn. This is of more than academic interest, relating directly to the sub-prime mortage crisis that almost destroyed the world's financial system in 2007 and remains at the root of our current economic woes.

This a work of technical philosophy, though Conly's style is sufficiently approachable for any interested lay reader willing to afford its swingeing price. She sets out from a close analysis of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill, to see where the boundaries of paternalism should be located. Conly believes not only that paternalism is necessary to the state in complex modern societies, but that it may justly be imposed wherever the stakes are sufficiently high (as with smoking) and its costs of imposition, in both money and offended freedom, are sufficiently low. She's concerned to combat both libertarian critics who reject any sort of paternalism at all, and an in-between position called "libertarian paternalism", as advocated by Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler in their popular book "Nudge" (some aspects of which David Cameron incorporated into his largely-forgotten Big Society).

Libertarian paternalists share Conly's conviction that people often fail to make correct decisions concerning their own welfare, because as Kahneman's experiments have shown, we're all very poor at estimating probabilities and most of us have an inbuilt tendency to irrational optimism (the bookmaker's meal ticket). However libertarian paternalists depart from Conly's "coercive paternalism" over whether the State has the right to impose solutions on people in their own best interests: they claim it has no such right and may only "nudge" people toward the correct decision by clever structuring of rules and institutions. A typical nudge issue would be opting-in versus opting-out in various kinds of agreement like mobile phone contracts, warranties, mortgages and privacy agreements: people are lazy and will usually go with the default option, so carefully choosing that option can nudge rather than compel them in a desired direction.

The arguments involved become increasingly subtle. Conly only claims that coercion is justified in cases where people are tending to act against their own, recognised interests thanks to poor information or distorting factors, but not when some external authority like the state or medical profession has determined that person's best interest, which is quite often the case in medical matters like cancer and diabetes. She also takes much trouble to distinguish between "perfectionism" – which stipulates what people ought to do on some moral ground – and a paternalism that seeks only to help people achieve what they already want, were they sufficiently informed and equipped. This "paternalism of means" rather than ends separates her from all kinds of theocracy, as well as from authoritarian forms of socialism that impose moral dictates disguised as materialistic truth.

Cass Sunstein has reviewed "Against Autonomy" in the New York Review of Books (Mar 7 2013), where he points out that Conly's means-based paternalism runs the significant risk of being mistaken about what people actually want, and is also vulnerable to "slippery slope" objections – that some initiative which at first does good may lead toward more oppressive varieties (Conly devoted most of a chapter to tackling the latter issue). Nevertheless Conly and Sunstein are agreed that a significant degree of paternalism of one kind or the other is built into the very structure of modern regulatory states – over matters like food and road safety, prescription medicines and contract law – making it hardly possible any longer to value autonomy as an end in itself as strong libertarian critics of modernity like the US Tea Party do.

Strong social democrats might be expected to be fairly happy with both forms of paternalism, since social democracy depends to a high degree on various kinds of coercive state intervention, not only over matters like safety in the workplace but more fundamental economic issues like incomes, where the state opposes downward pressure from employers by imposing a minimum wage, and tax collection where the state may adopt coercive measures, up to and including imprisonment, as a penalty for evasion. (Conly might argue over whether these are paternalist or perfectionist measures though).

I would like to put forward another kind of objection from a social democratic point of view, because this whole discussion takes place within a conception of a well-functioning liberal democratic state and its best governance in the widest possible interests. What however if said liberal democratic state has become dysfunctional, in several different ways, so that: tax evasion by giant corporations has become so pervasive as to deprive the state of sufficient funds to achieve its ends; politicians have become suborned by these same corporations, so that attempts to regulate the corporations' activities are no longer effective; deregulation and privatisation have so increased inequality and decreased the power of labour that state paternalism is no longer an adequate remedy for its worst effects. In that case the structure of the state itself requires adjustment, but even the most coercive paternalism is hardly an adequate means to achieve that end. In other words, can Daddy really spank himself?