How about a ban on advertising?

What would life be like if advertising was banned? I ask because I personally find advertising annoying, and at times totally infuriating. And according to many who research social and economic equality it makes a serious contribution to our levels of inequality.

At a practical level, advertising does absolutely nothing to help supply our needs, the things we really value. If we need and value something we do not need prompting to seek it out. All advertising does is create wants and desires that otherwise would probably not exist, and makes us feel dissatisfied when these wants and desires are not met.  The non-existence of these manufactured wants and desires would not only do us no harm, but may actually improve our lives. Buying less stuff, stuff people work very hard to convince us we want, which we have to earn the money to pay for, would make our lives easier and less stressful. And it would certainly help sustain natural resources and our environment.

What really set this train of thought off was the World Cup. Now I don’t watch that much television, and when I do it tends to be a BBC channel rather than a commercial one – simply because I want to avoid the adverts. And I certainly don’t go out of my way to watch football. But when it’s all around you it’s hard to avoid being sucked in, and some of the matches were screened in ITV. Watching them I felt more overwhelmed than usual by the power of the ‘commercial breaks’. Not only did I find them annoying, some, those for various on-line betting companies for example, I though bordered on being anti-social and unethical. But not only that, it occurred to me that I seem to manage totally well in life without being subjected to such demands for my money.

But I’m also a realist. I acknowledge that there is a problem with my attitude. How would commercial TV and radio survive without the revenue it receives from advertising? This is a genuine problem that I do not have a solution for. Even though my viewing and listening habits tend to focus on the BBC, I accept that they are by no means perfect and that they should by no means have a monopoly on what is being broadcast. If they did it would be one giant step towards government control of broadcast media and a retrograde step for democracy and openness.

There’s a similar set of problems when it comes to on-line advertising. In an article for the current edition of the New Statesman, Ian Leslie makes a distinction between what he calls ‘the Advertising Industry’, the traditional advertising agencies that come up with the media campaigns that we are all too familiar with and that are behind the television adverts referred to above, and the ‘Advertising Business’ which is what we experience on-line. This new approach doesn’t go in for ‘creative’ campaigns. Rather it collects data from our on-line activities and directs simple adverts towards us, targeted to what the various algorithms have calculated we are interested in. These adverts are even more annoying than the television ones. Some, and the website of my local newspaper is a prime example, so bombard you with adverts that it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate around the site. I can’t quite workout why the operators of these sites don’t consider the possibility that such aggressive advertising might actually put people off visiting them.

But again, a similar problem exists. Much on-line content is paid for by the adverts they display. Many sites could not survive without them. And despite the growing criticism of many on-line companies, the internet has been responsible for a massive democratisation of knowledge. I may be getting old and grumpy, I may even have a far too idealistic view of what life could be like, but for all its ills I wouldn’t want my access to information available on the internet restricted by my ability to pay.

However, despite my acceptance of all these problems, and my total inability to think of solutions, I still believe that advertising is responsible for much of the misery and inequality society faces. As Danny Dorling, also writing in a recent edition of the New Statesman, has said: “The advertising industry…displays the economics of inequality at play: convincing those with less to buy more of what they did not need to enrich those already best off.” So, just for an experiment, why don’t we find out what would happen if advertising were banned – even if only for a month?

There is no such thing as THE will of the people

There is no such thing as the will of the people, a singular will or intention that can be unambiguously enacted. This I think so obvious that I almost feel embarrassed making the point. But politically, it’s important. In the midst of the protracted political debate about how to enact the result of the EU referendum there have been numerous calls from ardent leavers for politicians to ‘follow the will of the people’, and obvious signs of frustration that such a ‘simple’ request is not being carried out.

But such a request is far from simple, and for a number of reasons. First, and most importantly, it is impossible for any collective to have a will, a single unified will capable of being enacted. Now the notion of ‘will’ is, itself, far from straight forward, but if we take it simply as that aspect of our mental faculty responsible for making decisions and initiating action, I fail to see how any individual ‘will’ can be identical with any other. The complexity of our individual thought processes, the uniqueness of the circumstances that provide our motivations to act and our visions of future states, makes this impossible. The most that can be achieved is a vaguely similar vision of a future state that a large number of people can agree they want. However, in the same way that a large number of people can claim to have witnessed the same event but when questioned on the details offer slightly different versions, those who sign up to any shared vision, when questioned, will envisage things slightly differently.

Second, even if we accept the possibility of a large group of people holding a vaguely similar vision of a future state, it does not follow that that state can be brought about. When we hold a vision of an imagined future we tend to avoid the fine details. It’s only when we try to bring that future into being that we discover the complexity of what is involved. Unless we are an engineer working on a particular design project we do not stop to consider the details of our vision – how it will work when imbedded in the real world and how we can actually get from here to there. In short, just holding such a vision doesn’t mean that it can be achieved. In a former life I was a careers adviser, and used to advise students to make ‘well informed and realistic decisions’. It is quite conceivable that the decision to leave the EU was neither well informed nor realistic. I suspect that most voters at the referendum did not undertake the amount of research into their potentially life changing decision as I advised those students to undertake into theirs.

Finally, the implication behind this call for our MPs to follow the will of the people is that they should forget their own opinions and judgements and instead simply enact the result of the referendum. Forgetting for a moment the two minor points outlined above, what would be the result if our MPs did so act? They would all support the draft legislation laid before parliament – giving this legislation 100% support, even though it only received 52% support in the referendum. Would they question it? Scrutinise it? Challenge it? If they are going to support whatever is presented to them, why should any of the proposed arrangements be amended or reviewed? But how can we assume that what is presented first time round is substantially the best version? How can an MP scrutinise without the ability to vote against? To repeat the points made above, it is impossible for 650 MPs to view any matter in exactly the same way, and if they have their freedom to reject any proposed action taken away from them we effectively become a totalitarian state!

Stoicism and the World Cup

I choose my words carefully because commenting on football is far more dangerous than commenting on politics; there are far more experts, far more offences to be taken, and you are far more likely to be considered a little odd for not following the herd. However, what I have always considered a little strange is the emotional investment people make in something that is so outside of their control; the euphoria they feel when their team is successful and the complete deflation they feel when they lose. If they had some input into this success or failure, if they had some degree of responsibility for it, I could understand their reaction. But on the whole, I just don’t get it. And this response is magnified many times when it comes to an event like the World Cup, and the public mood becomes palpable.

Even though I do not regard myself as a Stoic, a certain aspect of Stoicism, a school of philosophy that started in ancient Greece and became dominant in ancient Rome, I think worthy of consideration. Epictetus, a Greek Stoic and freed slave who ran a thriving school in Nicopolis in the early second century CE, urged his students to ask, of their reaction to events in the world: “’Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’”

Such a sentiment led to their guidance to seek the strength to change the things in life we can change, the resilience to accept with equanimity those things we cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference, a sentiment that later got written into a Christian prayer. Leaving aside the Stoic belief in the power of fate in a highly deterministic universe (not a minor request, I agree, but bear with me), the basic point is: There are many things over which we have absolutely no control, like the inevitability of death, the inevitability of bad weather, and that only one team can win a competition. There are other things that we can have some control over, like our health, our contribution to global warming, and how well we play as part of a team. We should be very concerned about the latter, and be prepared to put a great deal of effort into doing something about the issues. But becoming concerned about the former is just a waste of time that makes us feel bad unnecessarily, and drains the energy we have available to channel into the latter.

The real skill, however, is developing the wisdom to differentiate between the two. I totally accept that the crowd in stadium can lift and encourage their team and have some effect on the outcome of the game, and that therefore the emotional investment made by the crowd through their support will result in some degree of elation or deflation at the result. But the extent to which some supporters allow their support to structure and provide meaning to practically their entire life, and the extent to which passive (non-attending) supporters allow the result of games to so deeply affect their mood, seems to me to be a total waste of emotional energy. Instead, why not become angry at some of the social inequalities that exist, and then become active in doing something about them? Why not emotionally invest in something that can be changed? In something you can have some control over? That is wisdom. And the result of such an investment is well worth being concerned about.

Beware the popularist wolf

The long and steady drift towards popularist politics, epitomised by the election and performance of Donald Trump, is a very dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing. It clothes itself as the voice of the down-trodden, morally good people fighting back against the corrupt and all powerful elite, but instead simply opens the doors for the most corrupt and self-interested to gain power with the minimum of public scrutiny. Rather than liberating ‘the people’ it patronises them with emotive headlines, and in so doing supresses their ability to critically challenge.

I am not against all popularist writing. Popular science or philosophy books can be a real force for good, introducing people with no or little back-ground understanding of a subject to ideas that allow them to not only see their world from a fresh perspective, but provides them with the critical tools that allows engagement with problems in an enhanced and more effective manner. Such writing has the capacity to encourage further study or research, and (hopefully) the desire to ask increasingly more forensic questions of those in power. No doubt with the odd exception, such writing does not ‘dumb down’ the issues – rather it opens them to greater scrutiny.

The same cannot be said of the popular press. The main purpose of these ‘news’ papers is not to inform its readership, but to increase their numbers. Their aim is to increase the number of copies sold (and therefore their profits) through evocative and emotive headlines – headlines which feed prejudice and ignorance rather than trying to combat it. Any ‘analysis’ lurking behind the headlines simply (very simply) supports the headline, and makes little attempt to either inform the reader or sharpen their critical skills. These papers, under the guise of supporting the people, instead seek their support; their support in buying the paper, and their support in any campaign they might run; both of which only support the wealth and power of the paper’s owners.

Popularist politicians like Donald Trump adopt much the same attitude. They speak in headlines, phrases which are aimed at their supporters rather than the people, institutions or governments that they need to be talking to, phrases which are evocative and emotive, but which have little or no depth. Thinking, together with any attempt at critical analysis and understanding have been demonised along with ‘experts’. Not only is critical thinking not encouraged, it is overtly drowned by a rising tide of emotions, a tide that is actively fuelled by emotive language. They do not want people to think, to critically engage with the issues. If they did they would see these politicians for what they actually are: people with a greatly over inflated sense of their own self worth and importance, and who are only interested in the wealth and power that public acclaim can supply.

We need to increase public debate and scrutiny. We need as many people as possible to become engaged with the issues we have to deal with, not leave it to a minority of wealthy and powerful individuals who know how to avoid critical scrutiny. It is not only deeply, deeply patronising to the general, none expert population to assume that they have no need of expertise or additional information, that they have an intuitive grasp of a very complex situation, but also very, very dangerous. It it the path towards tyranny, the path towards government by a few very wealthy people.

If the readers of the popular press and supporters of popular politicians are guilty of anything, it is probably laziness; a reluctance to critically engage with issues, a desire for (followed by a belief in) simple solutions. And this is not just a belief in simple solutions, it’s also a belief that the underlying problem is simple. This is where we really need to wake up. We need to understand that very few, if any, of the problems we face are simple. They do not follow a straight forward cause and effect model, where if we dislike the effect we simply modify the cause. The vast majority of the problems we face have have a multitude of causes, causes with varying degrees of significance that we can never be sure of; and any cause (because it can never be isolated from causes outside of our control) can have any number of unpredictable effects. There are no simple explanations, no simple solutions – there really are not! And to believe that there are only opens the gate to the wolf with a sweet tongue yet very sharp teeth.

 

 

On human happiness or flourishing

What’s your goal? I don’t just mean today, this week, or even this year, but over the course of your life? If you try to imagine yourself reflecting back on your life towards its end, what achievement will cause you to think that your life has been good? And I purposely said ‘goal’ and not goals, even though I know that we all have many of them.

I ask because recent conversations have caused me to revisit work I was focussed on a few years ago regarding virtue ethics, and in particular its potential value as a green ethic. Environmental ethics has, to a large extent, been dominated by a utilitarian approach, an approach that focusses on ends rather than means. In attempting an impossible calculation of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ it often seems to justify very questionable means of achieving that good. The other main approach to ethics, one adopted by many ‘hard line’ campaigners for animal rights, focuses instead on the means, and largely ignores the end. Under this approach certain acts are quite simple wrong, irrespective of context and consequences. My gripe with such an approach is that it is impossible to explain why such acts are wrong without taking into account context and consequences.

Virtue ethics, whilst taking into account both means and ends, instead focusses on the character development of the person making the decision. Under such an approach no act is good or bad, right or wrong, in and of itself – such an assessment is impossible to make. But through trying to develop certain virtues or character traits, and through the development of good habits, over the course of their life a person becomes more and more skilled in making good decisions. The character traits developed are those we think necessary in order to achieve the main goal in life. Hence my opening question. For Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher who is credited with developing virtue ethics, this goal was happiness or flourishing.

Aristotle reasoned that everything we do, we do for a reason – to achieve a certain end. But when we examine those ends we then find that they, in turn, are simply means to some further end. And when we examine this further end…you get the idea. If we follow this line of thinking through to its conclusion we arrive at a final end, what Aristotle thought the greatest good. This he termed eudaimonia, a word that is often translated as ‘happiness’. However, as his notion of happiness was not as laden with the same degree of subjectivity as our modern day notions, an alternative and better translation is flourishing.

Take my act of writing this blog for example. Why do I do it?  I often ask myself this. Very few people people read this blog, so what is the point? Well, I do it for a number of reasons: writing helps me to organise my thoughts, and having my thoughts organised helps me to explain my thinking in more pressured circumstances, and being able to do this (hopefully) allows me to persuade other people that certain decisions or courses of action are more beneficial than others. I can arrive at the same end if I follow the thread of another reason for writing, that by doing so I may engage with the thinking of others through the written word. Why do I want to persuade other people to adopt certain courses of action? Because I truly believe that these courses of action will be for the common good.

At an individual level, as an aspiring politician, to flourish I need to be able to respond to any situation with a measured, well through through and considered argument. I need to be able to get others to take my views and comments seriously, and persuade them to at least consider them, and possibly act on them. But circumstances change, and events often confront us unexpectedly. So, in a wider sense than just politics, my individual flourishing is not (and cannot be) a specific state or response. It has to be a dynamic response to circumstance, to what ever life throws at me, a response that keeps me ‘in a good place’, a place in which I am as able as possible, both physically, emotionally and psychologically, to form effective relationships with my fellow citizens and physical environment.

But no man is an island, and what applies to the individual applies to the community as a whole. A community, at any level, flourishes when it is able to respond to circumstances in such a way that it maintains healthy internal relationships between its members, and externally with its physical environment in which it is nested and upon which it is dependent for so many essential life giving elements. To my thinking, flourishing is this ability to respond and maintain healthy relationship with out fellow humans, non-human life, and the planet Earth. And if, at an individual level we are able to do this, we develop a sense of happiness. But, having arrived at some comprehension of what the greatest good (the common good, the Good) might be, how do we get there? Aristotle’s answer is by developing certain character traits, or virtues. To be continued.

If only Nietzsche had done a better job!

In the same way that you do not need to be an out and out royalist to keep the myth of the acceptability of inherited social status and privilege alive, you do not need to be devoutly religious to keep the myth of a transcendent origin and reference point for human morality alive. Even tacit support for the monarchy and God keeps these two myths breathing and influencing our social relations. Unless they are both laid to rest once and for all they will continue to influence, even at the level of the unconscious, who we think we are, our role in society, and how we behave towards each other. And in doing so they will act as severe restraints on our ability to creatively respond to the problems we encounter. In my previous blog I focussed on the former of these, now I present my case against God.

A few weeks ago I attended a debate organised by Dorset Humanists on belief in the existence of God. The debate was between a humanist and an evangelical Christian. The humanist presented what he considered to be the six main areas of argument, and why he though that such belief was unfounded. The Christian responded by focussing on just three of these areas in explaining why he thought it was. In the spirit of fairness, I will attempt a brief summary of the three contested areas, and add my tuppence worth.

In the beginning…was the cosmological argument, the idea that every event has a cause, and that even the ‘big bang’ which brought the universe into being had to have had a cause. For the Christian, that cause was God (though to be fair he did say that this was the weakest of his three arguments), whilst the humanist offered two potential causes, a personal creator or a cause that derived from contemporary scientific thinking – a ‘multi-verse’, the idea that the ‘big-bang’ was simply the emergence of this universe from any number of possible previous universes. If I sound like I actually understand this last bit, you are very much mistaken. But in a way that is my response to both of these arguments.

They both assume that because our logic tells us that there had to be a cause, there was one. But, as far as I can understand, at the moment of the ‘big-bang’, matter as we experience it, did not exist – this emerged later. All that existed probably did so at the quantum level, which is a very strange place indeed, certainly a place in which cause and effect, as we know it, did not / does not happen. Our whole conception of cause and effect is premised on our experiences of the physical world, and is totally unsuited to comprehend the interaction of energy outside of this physical world. For me, any argument from first cause falls at this hurdle.

The second argument concerns morality. From the Christian perspective, our conscience requires us to have objective moral values, some transcendent reference point against which we can measure goodness – and that reference point is, of course, God. The humanist response, which I fully endorse, is that, quite simply, there are no objective moral values, and no transcendent reference point. Our morality is the result of the evolution of social norms, the evolution of a loose set of ethical responses that have been found, through practical experience, to be advantageous to our continued survival. These are neither objective (have total universal application) nor subjective (are totally relative to the individual), they are inter-subjective – they are the result of our social interaction with each other. Many have close to universal application, but none totally so.

And the third argument concerned the existence and ‘experiencing of’ Jesus Christ. For the evangelic Christian this was the most important argument for the existence of God. He firmly believed that Christ was God incarnate, that there is good historical evidence to support this, and, for him, this belief is confirmed by his own religious experiences. For the humanist, there is no historical evidence to support this. From my perspective, the so called ‘evidence’ has two irreconcilable problems: it was first written many years after the events it claims to record happening (therefore allowing a huge degree of mental rewriting, interpretation and story telling), and has undergone many translations (all of which would, almost of necessity, require further ‘interpretation’). Additionally, both of the above, together with any attempt to understand our personal experiences, are subject to what psychologists term ‘confirmation bias’. We interpret the evidence to confirm what we already believe.

Religion, and the concept of a transcendent being, were simply stories constructed by our distant ancestors to make sense of the world that they were experiencing; an attempt to impart meaning and purpose to their experiences such that they could better deal with what life threw at them. They served a purpose, a purpose that is now better served by science and the scientific method of requiring experimental evidence before we provisionally accept something as ‘true’. Continued belief in religion, even tacitly, prevents us responding creatively, and in a more informed way, to the events of life. It attempts to anchor our thinking, either consciously or unconsciously, to myths that hold back our social, moral and cognitive evolution. We need to accept that the concept of God is dead. If only Nietzsche had done a better job!

It’s time for a British Republic

There are two subjects that I try to avoid for fear of upsetting people: God and the monarchy. To my thinking, belief in both is not only outdated and unreasonable, but constitutes a habit that prevents people responding positively and creatively to the problems we face. Prompted by a certain royal wedding this week-end, I have decided that it’s time the gloves came off. In this particular blog I present my case against the monarchy, in the next I’ll present my case against God.

I fully understand that the British monarchy are only constitutional monarchs and have no real power – that the Queen is a purely symbolic head of state. But that’s the issue – my main concern regards what the monarchy actually symbolises: inherited status and privilege; a social structure in which we know our place and bow down to people simply because of the position they were born into. Why should I place anybody on pedestal (or a throne) and revere them simply on the grounds of their birth? But that is the insidious and unconscious message that support for the monarchy entails – support for a social structure that is hierarchical, archaic and grounded in inherited privilege.

I would like my head of state to symbolise meritocracy and accountability. Whilst I’m actually quite reluctant to place anybody on a pedestal, I am prepared respect their position if they have acquired it through merit and ability, through some form or democratic process, and if they are accountable to the people for their actions. And I want them to actually have power – power to change things, power to drive forward the common good. I would like my head of state to have an understanding of the problems we face, a vision of the future, and the ability to drive us towards that vision.  But most of all, I would like my head of state to symbolise and campaign for human global egalitarianism.

The Crown Chronicles website lists eight reasons why we should retain the monarchy. From my perspective, eight reasons why we should assign them to room 101.

  1. They unite the people: Potentially that is true, but united under an archaic and privileged social structure that keeps people in their place rather than united behind a vision for the future that promotes their creativity.
  2. They provide stability: Again true, but an outdated stability that is creeping towards stagnation.
  3. They are cheaper than a Republic: I’ve not done the maths on this so am prepared to take them at their word (though intuitively it feels wrong), but even if they are correct I think the price of a Republic would be one well worth paying.
  4. They are less corrupt and more trusted than politicians: It’s difficult to be corrupt without power, but what’s the point of a head of state without power? The solution is to demand higher standards from our politicians, not retain an inherited position in which the incumbent is not accountable to the people.
  5. They are good for the economy: So was slavery, an expansive empire, and coal production, but that doesn’t make them desirable in the twenty-first century.
  6. They have morals: They may or may not, but who is there to judge, or hold them to account? Surely the argument is not that their inherited position somehow provides them with an intrinsic morality only available to one such as themselves?
  7. The monarchy makes sense: No it doesn’t, for all the reasons stated above.
  8. Important causes and issues are highlighted: Various members of the royal family have, over recent years, highlighted important issues, but no more than a whole host of politicians and other campaigners. Again, surely the argument is not that only the view from their privileged position provides insight into issues the rest of us are incapable of seeing, or that only their privileged position permits the dissemination of these issues to people capable of doing something about them?

So I’m sorry if I offend any royalists, but everything about the monarchy seriously offends my sense of humanity. I have nothing against any individual member of the royal family other than the wealth and status they have acquired simply by virtue of their birth, and I wish them no harm other than they experience life as the vast majority of us experience it. We need to end this outdated system now, and replace it with a British Republic. Until we do, their background privileged and hierarchical structure will continue to infest the remainder of our social structure in ways we are not even aware of.

Are you sitting comfortably?

We all like a good story, don’t we. Whether its reading a novel, watching a film, or being absorbed in a drama on television, there’s just something about a well told story that’s deeply satisfying. But have you ever considered just how integral story telling is to our life? Or the degree to which stories control us?

We all have stories we tell, stories concerning our lives, stories that provide the structures from which we derive the meaning and purpose of our lives. We have, for example, the story we tell at a job interview, or the story we tell when we go on a date for the first time with a potential new partner. These tend to use highly selective aspects of our lives, deliberately edited to place us in the best possible light, constructed to get us the job we want or impress the person sitting opposite. But there are also the stories we tell our selves, the stories through which we make sense of our numerous life events, through which these often disparate events are woven into a coherent narrative that makes sense, that has a story line that is going somewhere.

In these all these stories we feature as a subject, a subject partly based on fact, but a subject that is also part fiction. I mean, let’s be brutally honest about this, we revise, edit, polish, round the corners, remove the ugly bits from the events of our life. To use a well quoted journalistic phrase, ‘why let the truth get in the way of a good story?’ We don’t do this because we are inherently bad, or because we set out to deceive (though on the job interview or first date this may be the case), we do it because we have a need to make sense of the constant stream of experiences life throws at us – and life is just too complex for us to make sense of it ‘as it is’.

But who is the author of this story? Who is doing the editing and re-writing? Who selects what to include and what to leave out? And, further, what is the relationship between author and subject? This, I believe, is a very ambiguous relationship, not least because the subject is both created by, and in turn creates, the author.

To make this relationship even more ambiguous, the subject-author is not the only writer of our life story; the subject-author is also subjected to the meanings and structures of the dominant social narrative – a larger, mostly silent background story from which we absorb our place in the world and create our take on life’s meaning and purpose. Our various roles only have meaning against this backdrop, through a comparison with the roles of others. We make sense of our own lives by differentiating them from those of others.

This ghostly background story structure exerts a huge influence on us as the subject-author of our own life story, an influence that is particularly noticeable when we are faced with the need for fundamental social change. Take our dominant economic narrative for example, the story that supplies us with the role of being good consumers and the goal of measuring the success of our life by the amount of wealth we have created. We may reason that in order to mitigate the worst effects of man-made climate change we need to consume less stuff, take fewer flights, and measure success by non-monetary means. But making these changes often involves a fundamental change in our role as a subject within this all pervasive economic story, and this makes us feel emotionally ill at ease. For many of us the necessary changes just feel wrong, and they often feel to be against common-sense. This is because our own personal stories are so deeply embedded within this all pervasive economic story that this grand-narrative has become, quite literally, common-sense.

So, how do we start to loosen the strangle hold these social narratives have over us? How do we achieve a sufficient degree of freedom for our ability to reason such that we can escape the tyranny of this so called common-sense? I will end with just three suggestions: We try very hard to bring this ghostly background into into the sunlit foreground by talking about the role of stories in our lives at every opportunity. We become accustomed to thinking of our lives as narratives which we author and feature in as the main character. Next, we simply accept what I call the paradox of necessary fiction – that all these stories, whilst based on actual events, are, nevertheless, fictions – but that they are totally necessary fictions in as far as we need the meaning and purpose they supply to our lives. And third, that we try to break the ‘common-sense’ spell through the prodigious use of comedy and satire – invaluable tools in exposing the absurdities of life.

 

Gambling with the future of humanity

One of the many great things about events like Bridport’s Film Festival is that you are drawn to performances that you would probably not otherwise see. Take the film Molly’s Game for example. If screened at a local cinema it probably would not have caught my attention. But because you want to support the festival, and because it’s right on your doorstep, you have licence to be less circumspect. And this was a gem.

It’s the true story of Molly Bloom, a beautiful, highly intelligent young American skier who, on the verge of qualifying for the Olympics literally crashes out of her sport. Picking herself up she goes on to run, over the course of a decade, a number of the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker games, before being arrested and put on trial by the FBI. This film works on many levels, but I want to focus on just one. The psychology of those addicted to high-stakes gambling.

What has really haunted me about the film is the image of one of the poker players, a supposed ‘professional’ player who knew exactly what he was doing and who was more than capable of assessing the odds, being broken by a chance event – a rare piece of ‘good’ play from an otherwise complete amateur. Unable to back-down and walkaway from the table, unable to accept that things have not turned out as planned, unable to accept the loss, he just keeps on betting – and, as emotion takes over from reason, keeps on losing. This normally rational player gets sucked into an irrational vortex of his own making: borrowing more money than he actually has, losing, borrowing and losing, convinced that just one win will balance everything out. It doesn’t happen.

And all time I’m watching this I’m simultaneously thinking of two high-stakes politicians constantly ‘upping the ante’ on the world stage. One threatening missile strikes to deter and punish a third party for their use of chemical weapons on innocent civilians and alleging the complicity of their opponent at the table, the other denying their involvement and threatening to not only shoot down any missile fired at their friend and ally, but to retaliate by striking the sites the missiles were launched from.

In the poker games depicted in the film, most of the winning and losing derived not from who had the better hand, or who had calculated the odds more accurately, but who was able to out bluff their opponent – who was able to convince the person sitting opposite them that the hand they held was the higher, even though it often was not. But in the scene I described above the players managed to position themselves into such a corner that there was no room to back down. As the surge of irrational responses overwhelmed their play the only way they felt they could walk away from the table was by beating their opponent. It was literally winner takes all. The loser lost everything.

This loss was heart-breaking to see. But when applied to the world stage the metaphors start to break down. Potentially there will be no winners and losers, just losers. The world, at every level, environmentally, politically, and economically, is now so highly connected that it will be impossible to confine the results of losing ‘the game’ to the opposition. We will all suffer. And when it comes to politicians with a nuclear arsenal at their disposal, the stakes include the very future of humanity.

May ’68: what’s relevant after 50 years?

Fifty years after the events of May ’68 it may be worth reflecting on their relevance to contemporary circumstances: what’s changed, what’s the same, and what inspiration could we acquire? What led me to ask these questions was the memory of 10 years ago, as a post-graduate student, taking part in a series of seminars organised between the philosophy and politics departments at Staffordshire University, to reflect on the events at the then 40th anniversary. Having just just revisited a review of the events by the French philosopher Alain Badiou, written to mark the same anniversary, I am struck by two particular points of his analysis: his conception of communism, and his view that the events opened the possibility of there being a “political practice that accepted new trajectories, impossible encounters, and meetings between people who did not usually talk to each other.” Taken together, these two points could inaugurate something of value.

Let me start by attempting to get past the use of the ‘c’ word. Badiou is a communist, and communism is a dirty word in the UK – far more than it is in France. As soon as it is mentioned images of Stalinist repression, excessive state control, and bread queues are conjured up. This is nowhere close to what Badiou means by communism. For one thing his idea of communism is one where “we are not doomed to lives programmed by the constraints of the State”; instead, he’s in favour of “the withering away of the State”. No, rather than being something that most people in the UK would shun, his Communist Hypothesis, as he calls it, is something that could unite and rejuvenate left of centre politics: his communism is “the politics of emancipation”, a politics that simply aims for freedom “from the law of profit and private interest”; it is a politics which believes both that the “Party-form, like that of the Socialist State, is longer suitable”, but which, nevertheless, is revolutionary in the face of “an utterly cynical capitalism”.

So having, hopefully, at least mitigated the worst of the potential ‘commuphobias’, let’s move on to his forty-year review of May ’68. Badiou suggests that there were four “quite heterogeneous” dimensions to these events. Three of these (that the events were primarily a revolt by school and university students, that there was “the biggest general strike in the whole of French history”, and it brought about a radical change in the moral, sexual and cultural climate of the country) are obvious, well discussed, and arguably only of historical interest. However, he suggests a fourth dimension, the most important, that is more forward looking. The events in France, he argues, inaugurated a “search for a new conception of politics”. Protesting students and striking trade unionists, for example, found themselves on the same side of the protests, but struggled at first to communicate with each other. There existed a mutual distrust.

In overcoming these barriers there was a forced break-away from the ‘old language of politics’, a language that was heavy with such terms as ‘the working class’ and ‘the proletariat’; there was a forced review of how politics was organised and the sites of power within a strong political-party system; and there developed an obsession with the question ‘What is politics?’ As a result, students and trade-unionists found their mutual distrust evaporating, and that a “sort of local fusion was taking place”. They “agreed to get together to organize joint meetings”. This heralded “the process of the Union of the Left” and a decade (1968 to 1978) of intense politics in France. Admittedly this union and political action was repressed with the election of Mitterrand, an event that “seemed to impose a return to the classical model”, but it does indicate what is possible if we “realize that all politics is organized, and that the most difficult question is probably that of what type of organization we need”.

How is all this relevant to our contemporary situation? Well I take hope from Badiou’s Communist Hypothesis as a form of language capable of bringing about a generalised union of the Left. Whether we regard ourselves as being members of either the Green or Red factions of the Left, we have some conception of the type of society we want to bring about. Whether this conception is egalitarian in the traditional sense of being focused on the social, economic and ethical relations between our fellow humans across the world, or whether these relations are expanded to include those with non-human life and our natural environment, this vision will only come about through our emancipation from Capitalism, our obsession with economic growth and wealth, and the liberal illusion of the primacy of individualism. Freedom from the law of profit and private interest is as vital to the Green conception politics as it is to the more traditional left conceptions.

I also take hope from the possibility of there being an intense period of political activity as the result of a generalised union of the Left, a union brought about by all parties and factions being prepared to question the political language they use, the constraints imposed by the way they currently organise themselves, and by constantly asking the question ‘What is politics?’