Healing the Brexit scars

Being an atheist and a committed secularist, it’s not often that I support comments made by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But certain comments made in his New Year message were spot on. Referring to the degree of social division and anger that has been stirred up by the EU referendum and subsequent events, he noted that we not only “disagree on many things” but that “we are struggling to disagree well”. If anything, I would put it more strongly. Everyone seems to have an opinion, often a very strongly held opinion, and many are strongly dismissive of contrary opinions. This seems to be fuelling social tensions that are only likely to increase. And this is all deeply worrying. The remedy, I suggest, is that we all need to develop our ability to critically discuss important issues; we need to learn the arts of public debate and critical thinking.

These are abilities that community philosophy helps to develop. At the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we have one golden rule – that we are critical of ideas, not of the person expressing them. This may sound very simple and straightforward, but in practice it is anything but. It means that when listening to an opinion that you don’t agree with you really do need to listen to what the other person is saying, not just hear them; the quick and easy thing to do is to assign the other person to a stereotype and then attack that caricature – often with an insult. It also means that you need to think clearly about why you disagree with their opinion; you need to do this so that you are able to explain your reasons for disagreement in a way that is both logical and respectful of the other person.

This is of vital importance. If group members think that the moment they say something they are verbally attacked they either keep quiet or don’t turn up in the first place. Either way, their views are not heard. And this is of even greater importance on the national stage. A great many people feel that politicians are not listening to them, that their genuine worries and concerns are being either ignored or paid lip service to. Everyone in society needs to feel comfortable expressing an opinion, to not open themselves to a torrent of abuse for doing so, and, at the very least, to having that opinion listened to.

But there’s another side to this coin: that in expressing an opinion everyone needs to accept that their thoughts and ideas may well be challenged; that not everyone is going to agree with them, let alone praise them for a unique insight into the problem at hand. This means that we must all be prepared to be critical of our own position; that we must be able to defend this position with reasoned argument and evidence, not just make a serious of unsupported assertions; that we must learn not to take offence because somebody has the audacity to disagree with us; and most importantly, it means that we must be prepared to change our mind! We need to understand that thoughts and opinions are best formed through critical debate and discussion, not born from our minds fully formed and perfect.

It may seem like a typical reactionary opinion of someone my age, but I really do think that we have lost the skills of public debate and critical thinking – if we had them in the first place. Most of us read or listen to the same news sources that we always have done, take on board the opinions of politician or political parties we have always supported, and automatically defend our opinion if and when challenged. This does not make for a healthy society. Unless we learn the arts of effective public debate and critical thinking I fear that the Brexit scars will take a long time to heal.

Brexit: the abstract and the actual

This blog is likely to get a little, well…abstract. But bear with me, please. This is important. Its importance concerns not just philosophy, but also politics. And it’s very important in relation to the Brexit crisis we seem to have found ourselves in.

Michel Serres, the French philosopher who has been a great influence on my thinking over the years, describes, in his book The Five Senses, looking through his window at the effects of the sun twinkling “with a hundred sparkling stars through the moving branches of the wind-tossed apple tree”. He attempts, in words, to describe an actual lived experience. The point he goes on to make is that: “Deprived of all its subtlety, the body, blinded, flees towards the abstract, in painting or in geometry. It invents black and white graphics, colourless and formless concepts, consciousness or demonstration, it escapes into inner worlds.” [p249]

Humanity has always had the problem of capturing the complexity of real lived experiences in such a way that they can be discussed or otherwise communicated to others. Arguably artists, whether they be painters or poets, have faired best in this enterprise, often managing to capture something of their experience that defies explanation. But when it comes to the world of ideas, to complex concepts, the degree of abstraction from the world of actual lived experiences often becomes extreme. And whilst we may think that the concepts that we construct (and we do construct them) are complicated and obscure, they have none of the real complexity of the actual circumstances or events that they refer to.

The problem for philosophy has been that many its most influential proponents (and I’m thinking primarily here of Plato) have regarded this move away from lived experiences towards abstract concepts as a move towards the Truth, as a move towards some timeless and universal essence that is the source and true reference point of all that there is in the world. I would like to think that we have moved well passed this ancient way of thinking, not least because it is the complete opposite of the world as described by modern science, particularly complexity science. But I fear that many residues of this thinking remain.

The problem is best demonstrated by our legal system. We have laws that make certain acts illegal and subject to punishment. These laws have been made in response to the experienced unfairness that people have directly felt over the course of our social evolution when subject the behaviour of others – to theft or assault for example. Our experiences and responses have been codified, they have been turned into abstract concepts such that they can be discussed and re-applied to other, similar circumstances. This is unavoidable if we want to discuss any generalisation – any idea that is wider or more far reaching than an actual event. In fact, due the sheer complexity of even relatively straightforward events, some degree of abstraction is necessary in order to have any meaningful discussion at all. But even codified laws or complicated legal contracts have a degree of ‘actualness’ about them compared to the totally abstract idea of say ‘justice’. At least a contract can be printed, circulated and be subject to debate regarding its meaning.

And so, eventually, to Brexit. Whatever the actual lived experiences of all of us who voted in the 2016 referendum, however we voted, at least those experiences were real – even if I cannot agree with how many of those experiences have been interpreted. But the further we move away from the richness of our lived experiences, the further we move towards the world of “black and white graphics, colourless and formless concepts”, the more we escape into our inner worlds. And these inner worlds, if not repeatedly subject to repeated attempts to be re-applied to the world of lived experience, soon become rarefied utopias of impossible realisation – worlds so mystified and mysterious that even the inhabitants get lost in the fog.

The various Brexit worlds that have formed during and following the referendum often approach becoming such extreme abstract concepts. They have elements, phrases that, in isolation, can be given a degree of meaning, but when taken as whole they have no coherent meaning. They cannot have – they are far too abstract to have any real, actual meaning. As the Home Secretary, Sajid Javid said on the radio this morning (03.12.18): “the truth is that after that referendum no one really knew what type of Brexit it would be”. Nobody could know. It was far too an abstract idea. To have some degree of knowledge of it would require it to gain some degree of actualisation. At least the PM’s ‘deal on the table’ is actual to the degree it can be meaningfully discussed and debated. People can assess, to some degree, how it fits with their own, actual lived experiences. This is a big improvement on the totally abstract option of ‘Leave’ but requires being put to the electorate to approve or reject.

Brexit and the fallacy of collective intentionality

There’s a big philosophical problem lying at the very heart of all this Brexit rhetoric. It concerns statements such as ‘The British people want / believe / have decided that…’. Such statements are at best vacuous, at worst malicious attempts to curtail serious discussion of very complex situations.

In philosophy, the term ‘intention state’ refers to the relationship between a thinking and feeling subject, a person, and the object or state of affairs that they, in some way, have a thought about or an emotional response towards. At one level this is reasonably straight forward. For example, whilst I may hold a false belief that the Earth is flat, it is at least reasonably easy for me, if challenged, to construct some argument to defend my belief, and for my challenger to point out the errors of my judgement. Both the subject (me) and my intentional object (the Earth) are sufficiently clear and capable of being discussed with the minimum of ambiguity. At the very least my challenger and me can agree that we talking about the same subject and object, about the same intentional relationship.

It is an all together different situation when it comes to ‘collective intentionality’. This term is defined by the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “The idea that a collective can be the bearer of intentional states such as belief and intention”, and by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the power of minds to be jointly directed at objects, states of affairs, goals or values.” There are problems, serious problems, here regarding clarity of both subject and object. Both are collectives, yet are referred to and discussed in singular terms. Even if the entire membership of a particular collective, say the British people, had the same belief, say that membership of the EU was a bad thing, if interviewed in any depth it would soon become clear that the nature of their belief would be different in each case. It would have to be. They are all individual minds. And whilst I would resist any attempt to overstate our individualism, and believe strongly that our thinking is, to a large degree, informed and shaped by those people we interact with, I would still argue that our individual thoughts are the result of a unique process, a unique set of circumstances.

This means that even in the impossible situation described above, where a defined collective all believe that a certain state of affairs is the case, when examined closely the relationship in each particular case will be shown to be different. And coming back to the real world for a minute, no collective is ever of the same mind about the same object. Both collective subject and collective object are inevitably multiple – loose groups of different members that, at best, are held together by a common thread of description. A thread that unravels as soon as it is examined closely. So any statement with the form ‘the British people want / believe / have decided that…’ is actually devoid of any meaning other than the most simplified of generalisations. Such generalisations can be accepted as convenient terms in a general discuss, but are totally inappropriate when trying to resolve any issue with even a modicum of complexity. Such generalisations mask the complexity of the real world that gave birth to them.

A more malicious interpretation of the use of such statements is that they are used to intimidate and bully people of different opinions into believing that they are out of step with the dominant narrative and that they should therefore step into line and accept the majority view. This interpretation would suggest an attempt to deliberately curtail debate and dominate the political landscape; to deliberately hide the intrinsic complexity of social and political life under a warm cosy duvet of simplicity.

These problems also extend to such phrases as ‘a good deal for Britain’. For all the reasons stated, there can not be an objective ‘good deal for Britain’ that every rational subject, if using their power of reason correctly, can identify with. What constitutes ‘a good deal’ will, to varying degrees, be different for everyone. It will relate to an individual subject’s world view and to the meaning and purpose that they assign to life. It will be ‘a deal’ that supports or enhances that view. At best, because we all partake of a shared world view or narrative to some degree, this ‘good deal’ will relate to our differing narratives – those of the extreme nationalist, the neo-liberal business person, or the green oriented socialist for example. I strongly suspect that my notion of ‘a good deal’ will be quite different to that of Jacob Rees-Mogg. And whilst I would passionately argue for mine rather than his, these views are ultimately incommensurable; the reference points against which they are judged are different. The real issue concerns our differing world views.

An ethical epiphany

Something important happened to me last week. I realised that I was guilty of doing something in one area of my life that I have become increasingly angry about others doing regarding climate change: acknowledging at one level the ‘facts’, but at another level somehow managing to continue acting as if those facts did not exist. My particular epiphany came courtesy of a Bridport Literary Festival event and related to my practice of shopping on-line at Amazon.

I got enticed into the Amazon habit through books; over the years I have bought a large number of them. When Amazon started their on-line business they very quickly offered, for a relatively modest annual fee, free postage and packing and guaranteed next day delivery on books. Not only that, they seemed to have whatever obscure book I was after, and on the rare occasion when they didn’t (because it was out of print) they had links to second-hand dealers who nearly always did. This seemed a great service to me. Over the years, of course, this book service has greatly expanded to encompass not only just about any item you could want to purchase, but television and film streaming as well. I’ve since heard that this was a deliberate and planned strategy. Never-the-less, I became impressed by just how easy and relatively cheap shopping became. What I chose to ignore, however, was the fact that this was a cost picked up by Amazon workers. In hard economic terms, these costs are termed ‘externalities’, but in reality they are the lives of fellow human beings.

The Literary Festival event was an interview with James Bloodworth about his recently published Hired: six months undercover in low-wage Britain. As the subtitle suggests, he spent six months working in various minimum wage, zero-hours contract jobs – the first of which was a spell at Amazon’s distribution warehouse (sorry Amazon, I forgot, you instruct your workers – no, sorry again, associates, I forgot that you tell every one the are all the same no matter how much they earn – to call their place of work a ‘fulfilment centre’) in Rugeley. I will not go into all the details of disciplinary points awarded for daring to be ill or for being lazy by exceeding your overly generous half-hour lunch break and two fifteen-minute drink breaks, with little or no time to go to the toilet because they are too far away, because I would urge you to read it for yourself. But to be honest there was little that I had not heard before. The difference was that I had heard it before in very abstract terms. James Bloodworth was now describing the lives of real people.

Sitting in the audience listening to a verbal description of these experiences (I have since read them) I first went through various attempts to justify my shopping habits but eventually a loud and crystal clear thought emerged: “how can you possibly claim to take ethics seriously if you continue supporting such employment practices?” What made the difference, I think, was the very real description of the effects of these practices on actual lives – in this case the author who was sitting on the stage talking about his lived experiences, in the case of the book the various characters described. When you hear descriptions of working conditions on the news they tend to be relayed in very matter of fact terms. There is little opportunity for feelings of empathy with the workers to emerge.

The thought that is taking longer to emerge, that I’m struggling to articulate, concerns how to expand what I’ve learnt here into the wider ethical arena. On the one hand my experience reiterates something that I’ve talked about quite a lot recently (particularly with regards to climate change), and that is the importance of emotion, particularly empathy, to ethics. On the other hand, it also suggests a willingness to develop a personal ethics. And here my emphasis is strongly on the active development of an internal ethical process rather than the adoption of an ‘off the shelf’ set of ethical principles. I think that what I’m trying to say is there needs to be some effort from all of us to place ourselves in situations where we receive some empathic stimulation, but also to recognise the importance of developing our receptiveness to such stimulation. Facts are important, but so to are the actual lived experiences of people affected by those facts. And these lived experiences need to be real life stories, not stereotypes or caricatures.

Effective Altruism

For me, one of the joys of organising the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group is the discovery of new ideas and different ways of approaching problems. Even with a background in philosophy I’m constantly being introduced to a new way of thinking, something which I think vital to human development. The October meeting of the group discussed ‘Effective Altruism’ – an approach which I only heard of for the first time when one of the members of the group suggested it as a topic. This is how we try and run the group. Ideas are suggested by group members, and a consensus agreed at the end of each meeting for discussion at the next.

‘Effective Altruism’ is a philosophy and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways to benefit others. It encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions in order to act in a way that brings about the greatest positive impact based upon the values they already hold. A person committed to supporting disaster relief, for example, would not necessarily respond to an emotionally charged television appeal, preferring to rationally research how their money could be used to help prevent disasters in the first place.

This movement, which has almost developed into a cult status amongst certain of its advocates, has close affinities with utilitarianism, the approach to ethics that aims to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number” and for which the end is more important than the means. And it shares with utilitarianism a number of problems concerning the calculus of ‘the greatest good’. Just how you quantify any good such that it can be compared to other goods is very difficult, and needs to make a lot of assumptions regarding values held. And this calculus becomes next to impossible when you start taking future generations, non-human animals, non-animals, and any number of unintended consequences into account.

But perhaps more importantly, Effective Altruism’s emphasis on the application of reason rather than emotion has led Giles Fraser to argue that its cold hearted efficiency leads it to deny love as the base of morality, and for the philosopher John Gray to suggest that its appeal to treat strangers more favourably than your own family creates feelings of guilt amongst those who succumb to their emotions and with it “a rationalist version of original sin”. For my part, whilst I think a degree of rationality needs to be applied to any ethical decision (I certainly would not advocate simply responding emotionally to all situations) I do not think that we either should or could eradicate emotion from such decisions. This would be to deny emotion, and particularly empathy, as the foundation from which ethics grows and develops.

But what do you think? How important is your use of reason when making an ethical decision? To what extent should that decision be informed or motivated by emotion? Please reply if you feel the desire to discuss, and if you want more details about the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group simply visit the Philosophy in Pubs website (philosophyinpubs.co.uk) and find ‘The George, Bridport’ under ‘venues’.

Towards a new common sense

The social, economic and political changes necessary to restrict the rise of mean global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels are fundamental and extensive. Yet despite the seriousness of failing to achieve this target the issue is not being addressed with anywhere near the urgency required. There are two significant reasons for this failure.

The first is the neo-liberal hegemony maintained and continuously propagated by our political and business leaders. Whilst the majority of these leaders pay lip service to the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change, and talk about the need to move towards a carbon neutral economy, any change must still support continuous economic growth and not hinder what they regard as the power of ‘the market’ to find solutions to all our problems. Whilst this attitude is fundamentally flawed, it is the prevailing hegemony. It is supported even by those who suffer from its effects; it forms our current common sense.

The second is that for these changes to come about in the time scales required they will require mass emotional support. And at the moment there is no such support. Whilst many people agree with the assessment of climate scientists, because the current climate situation remains largely theoretical people understand but do not directly feel the need for change; they are not suffering and are not angry. As Kate Crehan argues in Gransci’s Common Sense: “…while reasoned argument is certainly crucial, it cannot on its own create persuasive political narratives. Effective political movements need more than this: they need passion.”

Whilst politicians and ‘experts’ can develop narratives that explain this need for change, and provide counter-narratives to the hegemonic narrative propagated by those who want the neo-liberal status-quo to remain, this can only be on the back of a mass movement that feels the need for change. And here we fall foul of Anthony Giddens’ Paradox: that because “the dangers posed by global warming aren’t tangible, immediate or visible in the course of day-to-day life” most people are not motivated to act, but by the time these dangers are visible and felt, it will be too late. By the time people feel angry about what’s happening, have developed a real passion for change, it will be too late to do anything about it.

However, people are angry! They are angry that their lives are not improving, that they struggle to get decent houses to live in, that their children are not getting the education they deserve, that they can’t see a doctor when they want to, that they are working harder and longer in jobs that are becoming more and more insecure, and that their wages have not increased for many years; whilst at the same time they look on in awe at the growing wealth of the top 10%. It is from this passion that the energy and drive for social, economic and political change can arise. That is why this passion is so contested.

Politicians and people with power on the right of the political spectrum have succeeded in providing a common sense narrative that explains this anger and frustration, one that blames the EU and / or immigration, that blames ‘big government’ or the ‘nanny state’. Rather than acknowledge this anger as resulting from the failure of our current socio-economic system to deliver the promised rewards to anyone other than the top 10%, such a narrative is designed to actually maintain the current neo-liberal political hegemony. And as such, it will do next to nothing to combat climate change.

The left has always had an alternative narrative, one that blames the Capitalist system and the associated rise in inequality for these feelings of anger. Whilst their counter narrative directly challenges the existing hegemony (at least in part), it is narrow and incomplete. It looks back to a time of social democracy and strong economic growth rather than forwards to a post-growth social-economic system. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue in Inventing the Future: “…even if we could go back to social democracy, we should not. We can do better, and that social democratic adherence to jobs and growth means it will always err on the side of capitalism and at the expense of the people. Rather than modelling our future on a nostalgic past, we should aim to create a future for ourselves.”

Srnicek and Williams are part of an emerging element within the Left, one that appears to be gaining the ear of the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. This element is starting to adopt a forward looking approach rather than the traditional backwards looking one, an approach that is radically different from the ‘labour’ focus on jobs and economic growth. Srnicek and Williams, for example, argue for the full adoption of automation, the gradual reduction of the working week, the provision of a Universal Basic Income, and the diminishment of the work ethic.

They also talk about the need to de-carbonise the economy, but admit “that issues of climate change and ecological sustainability are not dealt with in anywhere near enough depth” in their text. And this admission is symptomatic of the Left in general – it does not take climate change anywhere near seriously enough. Whilst it is capable of supplying a new common sense, one that both explains the anger and frustration felt by 90% of the population and one that creates a forward looking alternative vision to replace the neo-liberal hegemony, one capable of being vitalised with a genuine passion, it is nevertheless a vision that fails to incorporate a social world respectful of its place within the natural world, a social world capable of functioning within the means and limits set by the planet. Such an omission is not only short-sighted it is ethically unacceptable.

And to make matters worse, I think it very unlikely that The Green Party is able to provide an alternative common sense narrative, one likely to be adopted by a mass movement of people demanding change – at least not before it becomes too late to bring the necessary changes about. Our best option, therefore, is to work with the emerging element within the left that is exploring post-growth and post-capitalism, an element that should be very receptive to Green political and economic theory, and to help develop a common sense narrative that both explains the anger and frustration felt by a growing number of people and works to bring about the fundamental changes necessary to mitigate the worse effects of climate change. Ultimately, the causes and remedies for both are the same. Even if The Green Party had the time to develop an alternative common sense, one that was adopted instead of that emerging from the Left, it doesn’t seem the most efficient way of achieving the desired outcome. Time is too short. Co-operation and collaboration are required.

Three words that speak volumes

Theresa May has attempted to woo Labour voters by describing her government as providing “a decent, moderate and patriotic programme” that is worthy of their support. These three words speak volumes. They capture exactly why any Labour voter, in fact why any voter with any concern for the future of human wellbeing at all, should NOT support her programme.

The least offensive of these three words is ‘decent’, and I suspect that many people would raise an eyebrow as to why I or anyone could object to it. After all, what is so wrong with being polite and respectable? Well, in itself, nothing, except that even these rather benign attitudes suggest a certain acceptance of the status quo, of doing things in a socially acceptable manner. It is these connotations of ‘decent’ that I object to; the implication that a ‘decent’ person is a person with an ability or desire to conform to social convention, to play by the rules, to not ‘rock the boat’. It is a word that is very British, very conservative, and very backward looking. The problems faced by humanity require the exact opposite attitude; they require people to be provocative, radical and forward looking.

The word ‘moderate’ has similar problems, and is, I suspect, a word that we will hear uttered often by many Conservatives in the coming months. Oliver Letwin, my local (Conservative) MP writes a weekly column in our local paper. A couple of weeks ago he wrote suggesting that the solutions to the complicated and messy problems that dominate our world should be moderate ones, ones located midway between extreme solutions in a similar manner to the ‘golden mean’ of Aristotelian virtue ethics. I have responded to say that for Aristotle virtues were not an end in themselves, but a means to an ultimate end, the greatest good, which he considered to be human flourishing. Life, for Aristotle, was a constant reflection upon the extent to which the exercise of these virtues moved a person towards such flourishing. And whilst no action or decision could be regarded as good or bad in itself, if it prevented someone moving in that direction it was to be avoided.

If we consider human life as a collective enterprise, as Aristotle did, then our flourishing could be regarded as an enterprise that meets the needs of everyone whilst living within the means and limits set by our planet. Our current obsession with economic grown and endless consumerism will clearly exceed these means and limits, and should, therefore, be jettisoned. The resulting adjustments to our lifestyles may well be seen by some (if not many) people as extreme, but they will be absolutely necessary for human flourishing. It is the light of such an analysis that both ‘decency’ and ‘moderation’ fail as guiding attitudes for a political programme.

May’s use of the word ‘patriotic’ extends these problems in other directions. My dictionary describes a patriot as “a person who vigorously supports his (sic) country and its way of life” and patriotism as “devotion to one’s own country and concern for its defence”. Our ‘way of life’ needs to be the subject of a radical reassessment rather than receive our vigorous support, so I will say no more on that aspect for now. What I will add, however, relates to the implication that we need to be devoted to our country and concerned with its defence. Such an attitude may have had a value in the past, when our way of life was threatened by the aggressive nature of other nations and that its defence required passion, sacrifice and solidarity. But not any longer.

Now I don’t want to shock anyone, but times have changed. The threats to our way of life come not from the threatened invasion by the massed troops of Johnny Foreigner, but from run-away climate change, world economic crises, global migration resulting from poverty or war, international terrorism, cyber security, and pandemics. These all pose existential threats to large numbers of humans, if not us all, and are all beyond the power of any national government to deal with. These threats will only be resolved through global cooperation, though the recognition of our global inter-dependence, not through a selfish devotion to our own country. Any concern for the defence of our country must be transformed into a concern for the flourishing of human life across the world.

Those three words uttered by May are words that are hopelessly out-of-date in the 21st century. They are conservative words, words that look back to a time that, for good or bad, will never, can never return. They need to be eradicated from any political programme and replaced by words that inspire us to look forwards to the future and outwards to the whole of humanity, words like radical, progressive and humanitarian.

Is it time for a World Government?

Is this a good time to resurrect the idea of a World Government? In these times of increasing nationalism and calls to “take back control” is it worth considering the value of the opposite approach – the value of increasing internationalism and passing control to an entity with global vision?

I have thought for a while now that we should be giving this some serious consideration, but what brought this to the front of my mind was a recent ‘Archive on 4’ programme on Radio 4 (The Dream of a World Government) in which David Miliband described first the birth and eventual failure of the League of Nations, and then the formation of the United Nations. The first of these was founded as result of the 1920 Paris Peace Conference that followed the First World War – an attempt to create an intergovernmental organisation that would prevent the recent recent horrors from occurring again. But occur again they did. So, in 1945 the League was replaced by the UN – an international organisation tasked to promote international cooperation and to create and maintain international order. I’ll leave you to judge the success of the UN, but I would suggest that any success has so far been partial, and is under increasing threat from resurgent nationalisms.

The next existential threat to humanity was not long in following, with the power of the UN again being shown to be marginal. In 1961, when the Cold War was in full swing and amidst the clear and widely held belief that a nuclear war could easily bring humanity to the brink of extinction, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell expressed his lack of faith in the ability of any national government to resolve matters. In his book Has Man a Future he argued that an international government of some kind was required to deal with the failures of national ones.

The threat of nuclear war may have retreated, but other existential threats to humans have emerged, and in many ways these are more intractable than those of nuclear war. These treats are trans-national. Whilst individual national governments can be persuaded, through economic, diplomatic or military means, to pull back from the brink, the threats facing humanity now are beyond the scope of any national government to do anything about. So whilst inter-governmental interventions could be highly effective in resolving nuclear threats, they are absolutely essential to the resolution of our current ones. Global climate change, world economic crises, global migration resulting from poverty or war, international terrorism, cyber security, and pandemics all pose existential threats to large numbers of humans, if not us all, and are all beyond the power of any national government to deal with. These threats have no respect for borders, so “taking back control of our borders” will prove futile. They can only be resolved through global cooperation, though our recognition of our global inter-dependence.

On the day I write this, Donald Trump is due to speak at the UN (the closest we have to an international government, but one made ineffective by the power of certain nations to veto any resolution). He is expected to assert yet again his motif of “America first”. Whilst this may be well received by many of his domestic supporters ahead of November’s mid-term elections, on the world stage it is deeply concerning. Whether we like it or not, all aspects of human life on this planet are highly connected and interdependent. And the complexity that is behind this interdependence is increasing daily. This needs to be acknowledged by our politicians. They are simply failing in their jobs if they fail to do so. Politicians need to be honest with the electorate, they need to tell them that certain things they want are just not possible. It is just not possible to put your own country first and to “take back control” of that country. Any national interest is best served by accepting its inter-dependence and that global cooperation is the only way forward. This needs facilitating, and perhaps even enforcing at times, by some form of world government.

On prisons

There has been a great deal of talk about prisons of late. But rather than get into a debate about who should run our prisons, the state or private enterprise, I think it worth asking why send people to prison in the first place? At the very least, prison involves the intentional infliction of some degree of suffering upon someone together with the removal of their human right to liberty and free movement. How can we morally justify such action? And how effective is it?

In very broad terms there are two main approaches to justifying punishing someone through imprisonment, a backward looking approach, one that focuses on the ‘crime’ committed, and a forward looking one that focuses on the future behaviour of the ‘criminal’.

The oldest, the most traditional approach, is that of retribution, the idea that a person committing a crime should receive their ‘just deserts’, that somehow the punishment should fit the crime, and that the criminal should suffer to the same extent as their victim. There are too many problems with this ‘an eye for an eye’ approach to punishment for me to discuss in a short blog, but, in extreme summary: at a logical level, it is difficult, if not impossible, to balance the crime with the punishment (particularly if the punishment you want to inflict is prison); and, at an ethical level, once the ‘appropriate’ degree of suffering has been inflicted, you surely have to ask ‘what has been achieved’ other than causing more suffering?

A second aspect to the backward looking approach, a more modern take on the above, is that of grievance satisfaction. This is the idea that offenders must pay their debt to society, and that the justification of the punishment lies in the satisfaction it brings to others; it satisfies the grievances of both the victim and their family, and those of the wider society. I am not convinced that this attempt to justify punishment can be sustained. The ‘satisfaction’ of knowing that someone is locked-up is surely mitigated by both the cost of doing so and the longer term harm generated by psychologically damaging the prisoner even further than they possibly already were before releasing them back into society. Having said that, I do think that some forms of ‘restorative justice’, where the offender meets their victim, understands their suffering, and attempts to ‘make amends’, can prove effective – but not through the prison system.

The forward looking approaches aim to prevent crime from happening in the future. And it’s here that a very limited justification for imprisonment can be found – and I do mean very limited. If a person is found to be a serious risk to either themselves or to other people it may be that the only option is prison – that this person is confined to some form of institution until such time when it is assessed that that risk has passed. This is the only time when I think imprisonment can be justified.

The other ‘forward looking’ justifications for imprisonment do more harm than good and, in general, make re-offending more likely. One of these justifications is that prison will act as a deterrence to future offending – that the time spent and suffering received in prison will encourage the offender either to see ‘the error of their ways’ or will be such an unpleasant experience that they will not want to suffer it again. I can’t of course say that this has never happened, but I’m convinced that the tougher the regime in prison, the greater the extent to which the prisoner has to adapt to, and survive in, life in the company of other offenders, and the greater the extent to which he (and it usually is a ‘he’) becomes an offender.

Prison, of course, if often cited as an opportunity for an offender to be rehabilitated, to receive some training or education that will improve their life on the outside and make offending less likely. Yes, training and education, together with various forms of ‘therapy’, may well be of huge benefit, but these should be done on the ‘outside’, not in the concentrated criminal atmosphere of a prison regime. With the possible exception of a few people who pose a serious risk to either themselves or others, I can see no justification at all in locking people up.

Whilst I accept that arguments can be made as to why certain offenders should suffer their loss of freedom, it is very difficult to actually rationalise just to what extent their sentence matches their crime, but worse, I think that in doing so society makes them much more likely to commit further offences in the future. If we are serious about reducing crime in this country, I suggest that we consider redirecting the money that is currently spent producing criminals in our prison system towards improving the lives of the people and their families who are largely responsible for the majority of crimes in the first place.

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?