Socialism for Sceptics

There’s an adoring article by Leo Hickman at

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/apr/12/jeremy-grantham-environmental-philanthropist-interview

on Jeremy Grantham and the millions he gives every year to fighting climate change. That’s the same Leo Hickman who thought he had the scoop of the century  a few months back when he discovered a UKIP MEP had given Ben Pile a few thousand to make a film about wind turbines.

TinyCO2 said it well in a comment on a thread initiated by E17 at

http://bishophill.squarespace.com/discussion/post/2099655?currentPage=7

“When Jeremy Grantham gives loads of money away to green causes he’s not having less, he’s having more. He’s got everything he needs for comfort and he’s using some of his spare money to feel like a benefactor … The people who feel the cuts first are the people at the bottom…”

On the same thread, Mike Jackson, who, like me, lives in France, linked to an interesting article by Brendan O’Neill about the Gay Marriage Consensus. Mike pointed out how it resembled the Global Warming Consensus.

http://www.spiked-online.com/site/article/13518/

(Interesting that it takes an eccentric Marxist site like Spiked Online to stick up for Conservative Values).

There’s a lot of discussion of  the New Left Project, the Webbs, Mrs Dutt Pauker the Hampstead Thinker, etc. at the BishopHill thread I mention above, which took us miles off the subject, which was about using Public Relations to further climate scepticism.

I did my usual “It’s all sociological” number, and said:

“I come back to my point that opinions as deeply implanted as global warming (or gay marriage rights) are too important to their holders to be tackled by PR. It’s about a new social class creating its ideology. It may take a counter-ideology to defeat it – possibly one devoted to keeping the lights on, defeating poverty and raising the living standards of those suffering from current politics of austerity (We could call it “socialism”…)”

…which isn’t likely to win me many friends at BH, which is more UKIP in its readership profile. Thinking there may be some lefties lurking here (including Chris Shaw) I thought maybe it’s a subject that deserves a post and some discussion.

*              *              *

From the Nature Imitating Art Department:

When I wanted a stinking rich environmental philanthropist for my “Apocalypse Close” saga, I naturally thought of Jeremy Grantham. But because I’d given him transvestite tendencies for the sake of a silly joke, I had to change his name, and Huntingdon seemed close enough geographically, so Tom Huntingdon* it was. See

https://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/apocalypse-close-chapter-two/

Then in February I was transcribing Vivienne Westwood, and she described how she’d read an article about James Lovelock and decided she had to Do Something, so she went on the net and discovered how socialist ex M.P. Frank Field had teamed up with a Swedish millionaire to buy up the Amazon and he only needed  £125 million, so she phoned Kate and Naomi… Then she decided that ordinary people needed to be involved too, that milionaire fashion models shouldn’t have to save the world all on their own, so she started a website

http://climaterevolution.org.uk/

so I wrote about that too.

https://geoffchambers.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/knickers-to-climate-change/

It’s beyond satire, though I do my best.

*              *              *

Anyway, back to the Guardian and Leo Hickman’s hagiography of Grantham and his millions…

A longer, and presumably even more adoring version of Hickman’s article is promised for Monday. Already, we’ve learned that Grantham’s conversion to environmentalism came when he was on holiday with his family in Borneo and the Amazon [what, both at once?] and saw “logs along the side of the river”.

(“What? Logs? People cutting down trees? Don’t they realise the tropics are a nature conservancy area for me and my family to holiday in?”)

Leo, bless him, is not entirely naive:

Having said that, his interest isn’t entirely selfless. “Fifteen years ago, we started a forestry division [at GMO] because I had fallen in love with land and trees, and because I realised it was a mispriced asset class. We have done extremely well in that sector, outperforming the benchmark for 15 years.”

Which brings me to my point about nature imitating art. Because in the last episode of Apocalypse Close I’d sent my Huntingdon character to Brazil (where Moonbat, Delingpole, Barry Woods and Dung will soon join him) with a briefcase full of title deeds, little knowing that the real Grantham had already made the trip. I’m always one step behind reality.

___________________________________________________

* My character Tom Huntingdon is also a sly reference to Chris Huntingford, a climate scientist who, in an article ostensibly disagreeing with Lovelock’s call to suspend democracy in order to fend off disaster, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/apr/01/james-lovelock-climate-change-pessimism

said this:

“Lovelock’s comment that possibly the only solution is to temporarily suspend democracy needs considerable discussion with social scientists and historians. I cannot be alone in feeling nervous about such a view. Surely, some of the most unstable periods in history have been when governments have become dictatorial.”

An Oxford academic feeling nervous about  dictatorship, and saying that he’d have to consult social scientists before he could support it: – that made me mad and I said so in the comments ad nauseam…

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18 Responses to Socialism for Sceptics

  1. cosmic says:

    What do you mean by Socialism?

    I think there are very few of the UKIP persuasion who would say that the role of the state should be rigidly defined to maintaining the borders, maintaining the armed forces and a few other functions. Most would say that the state is far too big, it interferes in numerous areas which are not properly its business and just about everything it does is done badly. It needs to be cut down to size and what’s properly its business better defined.

    In any case, I think we’ve moved from a left-right divide to something else, which is the worst elements of capitalism and socialism. The privatisation of profits and the socialisation of losses as we saw with the banks. Big companies and industry associations lobbying for legislation which suits them and they can cope with easily, being bureaucracies themselves. NGOs receiving government funds to lobby government and consulted on policy as we saw with FoE and the CCA.

    Now I see the CAGW scare as a glorious excuse to extend the reach of the state into all sorts of areas and I suggest that’s a large part of its appeal to many. I can also see that there would be socialists who would stand up and object to what they saw as the dishonesty, or recklessness it was based on.

  2. omnologos says:

    Geoff – I have problems with your definition of “socialism” too. “Keeping the lights on, defeating poverty and raising the living standards of those suffering from current politics of austerity”? That definitely ain’t “socialism”.

    Socialists have been fighting _against_ all of that for centuries and even managed to misunderstand Marx’s critique of socialism itself.

  3. cosmic
    I agree with about half your points:
    “the state… needs to be cut down to size and what’s properly its business better defined… we’ve moved from a left-right divide to something else, which is the worst elements of capitalism and socialism. The privatisation of profits and the socialisation of losses..”
    The point about linking socialism and scepticism is that energy policy is an obvious area where the state has to be involved. At the moment we’re bribing landowners to put up windmills, bribing EDF to build us a nuclear power station, and will soon have to bribe energy companies to build gas power stations. How could nationalisation be worse?
    Nationalisation is of course illegal under European law. How does that work exactly? If you proposed the Labour Party 1945 Manifesto before the electors, would you be hauled up before the European Court of Justice? It’s one thing to argue that nationalistion leads to inefficient, unaccountable bureaucracies, quite another to make it illegal.
    Lenin said communism was soviets plus electricity. People could probably do without the soviets and just tweet each other, as long as they could recharge their phones, of course.

    Maurizio
    Marx and Nietzsche were a grumpy pair. I’d have hated to find myself on a long plane journey next to either of them. Socialism wasn’t formed by people taking Marx and Babeuf out of the public library and deciding they preferred Marx.
    One of the things we’ve lost, us members of the opiniocracy, is the idea of social change as a complex process that needs patient examination in the long term. The eccentric Marxist social commentator Christopher Lasch said it well; it’s not just the great mass movements which have declined – the churches, the trade unions, the political parties – but also the social space where differing views can be exchanged across the class divide – the park bench and the barber shop. When your political views are reduced to a soundbite exchanged across the dinner table with someone from the same class, the same educational background as yourself, they might as well not exist.
    I once watched half a film about the American Civil War on telly, simply because Ronald Reagan was in it and I wanted to see how bad an actor he was. Surprise! He had lines to say! Ideas were exchanged, dialogue took place. History was people arguing with each other. Django Unchained it was not.

  4. Dodgy Geezer says:

    (Interesting that it takes an eccentric Marxist site like Spiked Online to stick up for Conservative Values).

    As always, your piece is thought provoking. I concur with the comments above – indeed, I was contemplating writing a vast tome here about the collapse of current certainties with regard to political classifications, but there are only so many hours in the day.

    One critical point to bear in mind is that the political parties of today no longer represent the social movements which gave birth to them. Labour dropping Clause 4 was a bit of a giveaway, and you can hardly say that Cameron is pushing Conservative values with Gay Marriage. I trace a lot of this back to the original European Common Market proposals – all main parties supported this, and yet the proposal included the requirement to merge the country in the greater political entity of Europe. At that point, no UK party was committed to supporting the UK’s interests alone any more – they were committed to supporting their own parties’ existence in the massive bureaucracy which was created. This marks the first point at which UK politics stepped onto the primrose path of ignoring democracy in favour of retaining power.

    By now political groupings have become pragmatic exercised in vote-slicing the middle ground for temporary electoral gain. You could swap manifestos randomly between the main parties – there are no coherent principles out there any more. Spiked illustrate this confusion perfectly – they seem to be Marxist Liberationists, and would be equally at home in a Bolshevik committee room making directives for the confiscation of Kulak properties or holed up in a Kentucky swamp holding off the FBI with an huge collection of assault weapons.

    Incidentally, if you want to get a rise out of Spiked, say that the Falklands War was justified. One of their few articles of faith is that Maggie started the Falklands War to get re-elected….

  5. Mike Jackson says:

    Geoff, you say:
    “It may take a counter-ideology to defeat it – possibly one devoted to keeping the lights on, defeating poverty and raising the living standards of those suffering from current politics of austerity (We could call it “socialism”…)”.
    Yes, you can call it socialism; I would call it common sense. Pushed to give it a name I would actually be tempted to call it “traditional conservatism”!
    The only point where you and I are likely to disagree is on how you are supposed to shelter anybody from the current austerity though probably the best way would be to re-ignite our coal-fired power stations, start bringing shale gas on-stream, reduce our energy bills, and stop pretending that every attempt at liberalising industry means you are trying to go back to the days of coal barons and sending little boys up chimneys.
    On a slightly different tack, should we perhaps differentiate between “socialist” and “left-wing”? (And how about “traditional Labour”?) My working definition of socialism is that preferred by the examples I quoted in my post at BH — Webbs, Shaw, Stopes, Toynbee (can I add Alibhai-Brown?) — a mindset typified by this (no doubt apocryphal!) exchange:
    Breathless young woman: “Oh, Gerald! Was that what the working classes call ****ing?”
    Gerald: “Yes, m’dear.”
    Breathless young woman: “Well, it’s far too good for them.”
    The “Hampstead Thinkers” or “bien pensants” or “(il)liberal intellectuals” or the “Opinionocracy” (thanks, geronimo, for reminding me of that word — no, I can’t remember who coined it either) are what Socialism has become, and possibly always was — a philosophy of “we are the élite and we know what is good for you”.
    Which is what we are seeing now with CAGW and gay marriage and the response to Leveson and no doubt other examples as well.
    Enough from me for one morning!

  6. TinyCO2 says:

    Yeah, what you guys said.

    We find it hard to get out of our current mess because modern politics doesn’t promote change. There’s no point being a party or a politician with grand ideas anymore because the system will bash it out of you.

    I don’t think it’s possible to slot old labels like conservative or socialism onto current politics and it’s counter productive to encumber a new vision with the expectations of an existing title. Call it something new like ‘Copealism’ – embrace the best of capitalism, conservatism, socilaism and we can cope with anything😉

    Many of our western unhappiness stems from a human inability to think ‘actually I’ve got enough now’. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s what drives us up out of poverty, ignorance and conflict but it also keeps driving us, makes us jealous and leaves people always wanting more. Because we don’t know what we want in life but we’ve met most of life’s pressing goals, we get a politics that reflects our disatisfaction. Instead of a Conservative right arguing for business and prosperity and a Labour left party, formed of people representing the voice of the people, we have two groups of wealthy people with dreams of social harmony, who represent neither. Or both? Maybe our mixed up politics is better than swinging from one extreme to the other?

    The next step in politics should be ‘where does mankind go from here?’ If we knew that, we might know what sort of politicians might get us there. Alternatively we live with what we’ve got and let the Granthams, Camerons and Cleggs fiddle with the future as they see fit.

  7. Dodgy Geezer says:

    Whoops, sorry – I can’t spell HTML properly…

  8. cosmic says:

    I don’t think it’s helpful to think in terms of socialism as promoted by the Labour Party in the 50s. Those days are gone and in many ways represented failed experiments. I think the Labour party lost its soul before Clause 4 and it started with making war on the grammar schools. That marked a change to a new elitism and bien pensant thinking.

    We have a system of politics where we have elections every five years for two or three teams, which as DG said, have come a long way from what they were supposed to represent and are really very similar and in agreement on many things; so they offer no choice and there are wide areas they choose not to discuss. They ride herd, sort of, over a wider government, the EU, Civil Service, Local Government, QUANGOs, NGOs, large companies. We see revolving door appointments between Local Government, NGOs, QUANGOs and shocking examples of incompetence rewarded. Lobbying by determined groups plays a large part as we saw with FoE and the CCA.

    I think the answer is to move more towards a system of direct democracy where the electorate plays a bigger part in the decision making process than turning out to elect rival teams of people, who are nominally the managers of an amorphous, manipulative dictatorship.

  9. Dodgy Geezer says:

    @Cosmic

    “we have elections every five years for two or three teams, which …have come a long way from what they were supposed to represent and are really very similar and in agreement on many things; so they offer no choice and there are wide areas they choose not to discuss…”

    Under these circumstances it is in each of the teams’ best interests to suppress thought amongst the masses as much as possible, and encourage the spread of a ‘team’ mentality. Vote Red or Blue! Do not, repeat NOT, consider what the Red or Blue policies (if any) might be…

    ..”They ride herd, sort of, over a wider government, the EU, Civil Service, Local Government, QUANGOs, NGOs, large companies….”

    By now the Civil Service is much more in the driving seat. Politicians are reduced to fronting the arguments for policies which have already been decided and developed in the bowels of the system. A classic example was the Identity Card proposal. No voter wanted it, politicians could only lose votes and money on it, it was a pointless exercise dreamt up by computer companies lobbying the Home Office. Yet it was pushed through nearly to completion by politicians who stood up and made statements they obviously didn’t believe. Why? Because they were told to by their Perm Secs…

  10. Dodgy Geezer says:

    P.S.

    It is the encouragement of the lack of thought that I find so appalling. You could say that this started with the suppression of the Grammar Schools under Labour, but the Conservatives have been equally guilty of succumbing to activist lobbying and ruining the education system in pursuit of some social goal. It has been good for all of the parties…

    You can see this appalling development in the growth of ‘rebuttal services’ – web sites whose job it is to create approved rejoinders to any opposition proposal or criticism, which are then wielded in debate. Pre-canned thoughts – no need to add brains… Almost all Climate Change discussion is now like this, as is discussion on Europe…

  11. zbcustom says:

    (Interesting that it takes an eccentric Marxist site like Spiked Online to stick up for Conservative Values).

    Must be a different Spiked Online to the one I occasionally peruse. That’s the one edited by the self same Brendan O’Neill.

  12. cosmic says:

    Geoff,

    Did you get what you wanted from this thread or have you simply heard several UKIP sympathisers say their bit, pretty much what you wanted to escape at BH?

    I think there is a new social class, it arose out of socialism, and Fabian socialism had and has a large part in it. We see it in this huge, ill-defined government which elected governments can’t control and where interest groups can take hold of the controls. I don’t see that a socialist movement based on capital and labour is the answer. The answer has to be something along the lines of defining what the government is and putting power back where it belongs by having plebiscites on any major policy and budgets, something along the Swiss lines.

    As for natural monopolies, like power generation, they’re hard to control and have run properly. It wasn’t great when they were nationalised. Things improved when they were de-nationalised, Now as far as I can see things are worse, through a mixture of government control ( the CAGW business) and government lack of control (companies running rings round them and toothless watchdogs). Now I’m not sure how the old nationalised industry would have coped with a government policy of solar PV, windmills and biomass.

  13. Mooloo says:

    The answer has to be something along the lines of defining what the government is and putting power back where it belongs by having plebiscites on any major policy and budgets, something along the Swiss lines.

    Not noticeably Socialist though, the Swiss.

    No old-fashioned Socialist party will go down Swiss lines, because it takes power from the Party. Now the Labour Parties of the world aren’t built like the old Communist parties, but they still like to have a Party line and aren’t going to move away from it quickly. The likes of the NLP are really even older fashioned than that. Don’t question the line, thank-you.

    Direct democracy has a poor history anyway. In Switzerland it has continued to make any change difficult. The Swiss get by because they are wealthy but the moment really hard decisions have to be made, they struggle to cope. (The gain of Savoy by France is instructive in this regard. The Swiss said “Savoy is not to be given to France”. Piedmont gifted Savoy to France anyway. France moved in. The Swiss couldn’t react in time, due to their glacially slow decision making process. Savoy has remained French as a result.)

    Direct democracy has wreaked havoc in many US states. Budgets are locked in by votes taken on impulse decades before, in situations which were much different. Old issues are debated forever, because there is no mechanism for shutting down any discussion, no matter how often debated. The matter of abortion is still a pressing matter for a small set of people, but it doesn’t get a work out every election because all the parties have, after much debate, settled on a policy. In the US every election it flares up. Even a bad decision is better than a decision that is never settled.

    So chalk me up for avoidance of too much direct democracy. It’s a trap from which it is very hard to get out.

  14. cosmic says:

    “So chalk me up for avoidance of too much direct democracy. It’s a trap from which it is very hard to get out.”

    It’s not it’s without dangers.

    OTOH a creeping state, pushing various agendas, all in the name of enlightentment, but actually propelled by self-interest, or plain nonsense, is also dangerous and inevitably going to lead to breakdown.

  15. cosmic: “I don’t think it’s helpful to think in terms of socialism as promoted by the Labour Party in the 50s. Those days are gone and in many ways represented failed experiments”.
    This is where I disagree, and where I’d like to see some discussion, here or on the left in general.
    Some points about the Labour Party in the 40s/50s:
    90% of people voted back then, and 98% of them voted for one of the big parties.
    There was a clear ideological divide right down the middle of society. Motivation for voting left was most succinctly put by MP Dennis Skinner, (as always). “People didn’t vote Labour in 1945 because they thought Clem Atlee was a better leader than Churchill; they voted Labour because they’d experienced socialist organisation during the war an they knew it worked”.
    I wouldn’t describe the National Health Service (or the 19th century Royal Mail, or free street lighting and motorway access) as failed experiments. They tend to go wrong because bureaucracies get top heavy, and lack competent management. When a private company goes wrong, it goes bust and is forgotten. You can’t do that with health care or transport or energy policy.
    The Labour Party was always an uneasy amalgam of Oxbridge intellectuals and Trade Union dinosaurs. The Oxbridge lot ran the Treasury and the Foreign Office and left the Post Office and the National Coal Board and British Railways to the dinosaurs. Plus the fifties rise of meritocracy meant that people were better off studying to be hospital managers rather than being nurses. Going to university, instead of meaning aquiring a specialised skill, meant joining an élite class of people who read the Guardian or Telegraph and learned to have opinions to match.
    A lot of élite leftwing opinions were correct. Homophobia, sexual discrimination, colonialism, apartheid, capital punishment are gone. Who remembers that Mrs Dutt Pauker and her like were part of a small ridiculed élite pushing for these things? The civilised leftwing position that homosexuals had a legal right not to be ridiculed and discriminated against won. We stopped saying “queer” and learned to say “gay” and the world became a better place.
    But other changes are not necessarily for the better. We stopped saying “the World” and learned to say “Spaceship Earth”, “Fragile Planet” and the like. The opinion-forming mddle classes who led the great unwashed to see the light on sexual and racial discrimination are now leading us towards sustainable lifestyles.
    State intervention in civil society used to have a positive role of improving our lives (by providing free medical care, guaranteed access to cheap energy, etc). Now it’s more likely to see it’s role as preventative – punishing you for your smoking and obesity, switchng off your fridge when the wind isn’t blowing etc. And the left, which used to favour state provision of basic services, now favours state intervention to save the planet from ourselves.

  16. Mooloo says:

    I agree with Geoff. At least in NZ the Labour Party struggles with its message today because almost all its aims of the 50’s and 60’s have been achieved. Free health care. Free accident insurance. Liveable dole. Greatly reduced discrimination.

    The ones that they stood for then but have since lost, such as compulsory unionism and nationalisation of major industries, are battles well lost. There’s no mileage in them, even with traditional Labour supporters.

    Our Tories (the National Party) won’t touch free health care etc. Their latest wheeze is charter schools, and it is meeting massive resistance. The Socialists have won most of the battleground, and can’t win the rest.

    OTOH a creeping state, pushing various agendas, all in the name of enlightentment, but actually propelled by self-interest, or plain nonsense, is also dangerous and inevitably going to lead to breakdown.

    States where the elites are in charge and propelled by self-interest do not break down. Even when technically overthrown (say modern Egypt) they have an amazing ability to regenerate. That’s why they are the world’s dominant form of organisation.

    We might not like them, but they are stable. And people generally value stability rather more than they value the opportunity to risk losing it all on some wild speculation about a “better” form of government.

    I would want rather more than some general feeling that direct democracy is the answer before I risked my country (and hence me) with it. When it works it generates conservative stasis (Switzerland). When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster.

  17. Mooloo
    Two of the things nobody knows about New Zealand are that it was the first country to institute votes for women (and therefore the world’s first democracy) and the first to vote in a socialist government. If we took politics seriously, those facts would be in the history books alongside Magne Carta and the French Revolution.
    I agree with your suspicions about direct democracy. Referendums may have their place for deciding simple moral yes/no issues like gay marriage, but they play to the general modern tendency to treat all problems, however technical, as a matter of opinion. People are for renewable clean energy because, well, it’s clean, and renewable, and how dare you challenge their opinions with facts.
    This is where the question of élites comes in. It’s a complicated point for someone on the left to make, but I’m not actually against the idea of élites. We need a class of professionals – lawyers, economists, civil servants, academics, who understand the world and know how to run it. Then we need elected representatives to keep the élite in check.
    If I keep harping on about the chattering classes / opiniocracy, it’s because a qualitative change came over society when the élite changed from being a tiny minority of highly educated people with specific competences to being a mass movement consisting of the 20-30% of young adults with a university education. There’s nothing wrong in principle with generalised higher education, but it can have unforeseen consequences on the way.
    Universal literacy leads to politicisation and eventually democracy, but you may have to pass through a reign of terror or a war of religion on the way, with power in the hands of a Robespierre or an Ayatollah Khomeini. Maybe something similarly irrational, though less violent, is happening with generalised higher education. Everyone wants to save the planet, end war and poverty at a stroke, and the first result, instead of concrete measures to achieve reasonable aims, is the invention of an ideology.

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