Bartlett's Bizarre Bazaar

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Thursday, September 30, 2004


Relative progress

In Sam Wood’s 1941 film ‘The Devil and Miss Jones’, J.P. Merrick, the villainous department store owner, dismisses the complaints and demands of union organisers by saying, “why don’t they make themselves so indispensable that they can’t be fired”.

In Digby Jones’ (no relation) 2004 speech, he says, “the only protection people need in a tight labour market with skills shortages is to be so adaptable, trained and valuable that no employer would dare let them go or treat them badly”. He continues, demonstrating some nerve, to say that the unions “just don’t get it! They are doing no more than marching valiantly towards 1970”.

Well, that’s thirty years progress, comparatively speaking.

Monday, September 27, 2004


There are two kinds of people, it seems

I found this quote rather amusing:

"Nobody should be complacent about increases in the minimum wage. We cannot afford to go on forever giving people increases well above rises in average earnings.”

Really? Of course, logically she is correct. We can’t do it ‘forever’, as the minimum wage would rise to a point where everybody was being paid it, and therefore it would be rising at exactly the same level as average earnings. But Susan Anderson of the CBI is not playing a game of speculative abstract economics. She is demanding a halt in efforts to counter inequality. I take it she employs a quite different set of rules for wage rises at the top end of the labour market?

Britain has the highest rate of wage inequality in Western Europe. We can keep on increasing the minimum wage until we have dragged people up to a position of financial power and independence comparable with those countries, and preferably further. We should set an example for other nations to follow, not sell our country by advertising how cheaply we exchange our labour and how weak our voices are.

The minimum wage might rise to £5 per hour. £5! The kind of complaints rolled out by employers organisations remind us that, in the minds of the CBI there are two kinds of people; us and them. In order for the people at the bottom to be motivated, or ‘incentivised’, their vision of a modern economy demands the fear of the crack of the taskmaster’s whip. Poverty and unemployment must hang over employees’ heads. Every day conditions must be arranged so that there is a constant worry, as comfort is a disincentive. They must always ask, ‘have I been flexible enough to meet the demands of my employer?’ And illness must be avoided as there is a shrinking safety net*. The poorer wage levels are, the greater the need for proper sick pay; how can you save to insure yourself when pay is lower than £5 an hour? Of course, I know how we do it. We ask people to work hours incompatible with family life, civilisation or democracy. Britain works the longest hours in Europe. The CBI demands we retain the opt-out on the grounds that the British worker demands the freedom to work till he or she drops. And all the while we undercut our European neighbours, our partners, in a degrading race to the bottom, pointing our fingers at the failures of their economies to maintain their decent, civilised standards. Failures driven in part by our lack of solidarity in any project greater and more noble than ‘free trade’.

For the top? Well, for the top there needs to be rewards, else why would the rich, ‘the good’, climb from their beds in the morning. With the poor you pull away their blankets, their comforts, and that is motivation enough. For the rich you must offer a rich-smelling breakfast trough to tempt them.

*Tesco’s lauded cutting of sick pay for its poorest paid staff came, not at a time of financial hardship for the company, but in a year in which profits reached £1.6 billion. In this same year, £26 million was paid to the eight-man board of directors.

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Bow to the elite

After yesterday’ post, I found a link to a paper [pdf link here] published by The Bow Group, a Conservative Party think-tank. This paper again frames the higher education debate almost entirely in terms of economics. The argument that can develop into the ‘democratic imperative’ is stifled before it can begin. Dr Lilico, an associate lecturer at University College, London, stops short, limiting the course of argument to simply, “more highly educated people make more interesting and sophisticated company and tend to enlighten their friends and associates”. In this quote is the seed of the democratic imperative for mass higher education, and the foundation of the argument that higher education cannot be limited to simply the people and professions that require higher education for the purposes of economic success.

Dr Lilico recommends that the top 10-12% of students, considered academically, should receive grants. The next 23-25% should receive loans, while anyone outside this group will have to self-fund their university education. Dr Lilico argues that this will enable the poorest, yet gifted, students to go to university, suggesting that background will cease to be an issue in deciding whether the most talented go to university. The reasoning underpinning this argument is that in an entirely loan-based system poor students worry whether they can afford to go to university and therefore universities take on less academically talented students from more financially secure backgrounds. Creating a level playing field for the top 10-12% will remove this worry.

Let us say that he is right with regard to the psychology of poor students. It still remains that he does not address the role of background in determining the level of academic attainment achieved at 18. Unless we are to argue that teaching and schooling makes no difference to academic attainment, we must conclude that teaching and schooling do make a difference. We must therefore say that a student who has attended a school with a poor learning environment (for whatever reason) would have scored higher in tests of academic attainment had they attended a school with a better learning environment. We might want to argue, ‘so what’, and suggest that at 18 the person is fixed in terms of academic ability, measured with complete accuracy by A-Level examinations. This is, of course, nonsense. Background must either be taken into account, or higher education must be open and accessible to people who have not achieved at A-Level but nevertheless possess the potential. If Dr Lilico were really serious about a level playing field to select the academically gifted, he would suggest liquidating the private school system in this country and redistributing their resources, both economic and social. As usual with Tory policy, this report is little more than a cover for maintaining social distinctions and inequalities, while illogically, but strategically successfully, denying the role of class.

But there is a further strand to Dr Lilico’s argument. This is that the market should be employed (though in some cases guided by the visible hand of the Conservatives) to decide how many people go to university, and what courses they take. I accept that, considered solely in terms of vulgar economics, degrees like Sociology, English Literature, History and Philosophy produce very little direct economic return. Considered with such though such a debased, decivilising lens, these degrees only economic purpose is to act as ‘signifiers’, to mark people of quality apart from the crowd. But, of course, they have another purpose. They increase understanding and knowledge of both the holders of the degree and there social connections. And as such, for an effective democracy (or indeed a market), the benefits of this standard and level of education need to be distributed throughout the population. We need children of all economic backgrounds to grow up in households where learning and thinking are respected and valued activities. We need people of all professional standings to be as educated as possible, to enable them to articulate their own democratic demands and to properly assess the arguments of others.

Unfortunately, Dr Lilico would limit education to an elite, shifting our democracy further along the scale towards oligarchy. He might argue that it would be rule by the talented, the educated, or, to borrow from Ayn Rand, the good. But the class of ‘the good’ would be effectively fixed. Philosophy and the like would be degrees reserved for those with financial security, a signifier, true, but a mark of class above and beyond it being a mark of talent. The children of these people would grow up in a house, and very probably a community, where learning is respected, and they would then take the top 10-12% of fully funded places. We would effectively create a tax-subsidised aristocracy of the educated. And as we leave the rest of the population uneducated, relatively speaking, how could they engage in a democratic debate to challenge this? They could not, and democracy, government by debate and argument, would become a smoke-screen for government by a few that have arranged the tools and strategies of debate firmly in their ownership.

You might argue that Britain is already like this. Fine, it may be. But that is not an argument for producing arguments that justify this arrangement. The task is to change it. You might argue that economic imperatives must be considered in determining higher education policy. Fine, I have not argued against this. I have simply argued that there are greater values that need to be defended. We cannot expect democracy to fall into our lap. Norman Mailer has written, “democracy… is the noblest form of government that we have yet evolved” and warns that is needs constant protection and promotion. It is not achieved, I argue, by deregulation and individualistic market policies. That produces either barbaric mob rule or the despotic rule of the powerful, though this despotism may be enlightened, humane and relatively civilised. I often argue that voting stations should be open for a week, that large chunks of the media should be turned over to politics and debate, and that public space should be employed for democratic ends rather than determined by commercial demands. ‘But it will cost money’, people argue. I say ‘yes, but it is a small price to pay to help build the most democratic state that we can’.

Saturday, September 25, 2004


Education, education, education (but what for?)

I was heartened by reports that Kim Howells, the new minister for higher education, has stood up for a fundamental plank of progressive democratic socialism – education – using an argument that supports this political worldview. Unfortunately Charles Clarke is still Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who has been reported as saying “I don't mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them” and that learning for its own sake is “a bit dodgy” (Guardian, May 10, 2003). This kind of language feeds economically utilitarian views of the function and purpose of education, engaging with the demands of the British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) [pdf link to position paper] on their own terms. This approach addresses the problems of education as being a case of providing a sufficient number of properly trained employees to meet the demands of businesses. While there is nothing wrong with this being a part of the debate, for a Labour government to treat this problem as the whole debate is worrying. While it may achieve progressive ends in the current environment, the moment the economic situation changes and alters the demands of even the most enlightened employers, so must education policy. There has been no assertion of the value of education except in market-defined economic terms, reducing it to a price and profit rather than an object with a value that exists outside of those calculations.

But education is more important than that. Kim Howells calls it “the second best thing I know in the world”, a great line, and I agree, though rather warily. I love to learn. But there is a value beyond simple joy, and that is the democratic value of education. Democracy is, simply put, government by the people through debate, discussion and argument. For a decision made at the ballot box to be anything other than mob rule or a decision between competing aristocracies, the electorate need to be able to understand the arguments behind the options presented. In fact, the electorate needs to decide what the options on the ballot are, and what arguments underpin these options. Anything less than this level of engagement with political debate, participatory democracy is you like, concedes the great portion of the debate to an oligarchy of those with access to the tools of mass persuasion. In a democracy, everyone needs to be a politician, everybody needs to take part, else the electoral process becomes a tool justifying rule in the interests of a few, however this few are arranged.

Education alone cannot produce a nation of citizen-politicians, but a nation of citizen-politicians cannot be achieved without a high level of education across the general population. The tools of critical thought, information synthesis and literacy in knowledge bodies such as economics, history and the sciences (amongst others) cannot be limited to only the professional classes, to people in jobs that demand such skills. The aim of a democratic government must be to ensure that all the people possible have such skills, and such skills are distributed throughout whatever economic, geographic and social stratification that is found to be necessary or acceptable. People at all positions in society need to be able to take part in democratic debate. While such skills are not limited to those with a university education, the idea that education is irrelevant to producing such ways of thinking is the intellectual ground seized by Kilroy when he criticised government plans to teach schoolchildren how to ‘read a newspaper’. He blustered and bullied his readership. He argued that, of course, his readers knew how to read a newspaper and that, with these proposals, the government is insulting his readers and their children. My grandfather would disagree with this assessment. He attended a union funded course at Sheffield University aimed to increase understanding of the media. He said that he never looked at newspapers the same way again. Presumably Kilroy is worried that if the critical reading skills of the general population are improved they will see him for the brazen racist that he is, and that his ‘friend of the working man’ act is a mask to cover an ideology that turns one set of poor people on another.

But even if you reject democracy, arguing that ‘the market’ is the only area of decision making that a citizen should engage with, high-levels of education are crucial in order to prevent the market being simply a tool of exploitation. Advocates of the market assert that people are clever enough to decide between the merits of products, to dissemble advertising and make their own decisions according to the virtues of the products and services on offer. How do citizens achieve this level of market competence, if not through education? Through high levels of education, inculturation in methods of critical, independent thought and information gathering and synthesis?

The demand for an expansion in higher education should not be based on the economic benefits of having the correct ration of education to uneducated employees, allowing wages to be set a levels favourable to employers*, but by the principle that education empowers. It empowers participation in a democratic society, a society of debate and argument and the citizen politician. And if we must have the market, it empowers consumers (and producers) in the only way that can expect the ‘invisible hand’ to work to build a better society.

And this is quite apart from the role of education in civilisation. Barbarians are capable of wearing suits and ties and shiny shoes.

*Note that the argument that Britain needs more plumbers, found in the Daily Mail, for example, is really about the labour costs of plumbers. Plumbers are too expensive, so the government should encourage other people’s children to become plumbers, which, in a market economy, reduces the pay and conditions of plumbers to a level that the Daily Mail reader finds appropriate.

Monday, September 20, 2004


Foxhunting: of course it is a class thing (or 'Roger Scruton is wrong')

Picture the scene.

A group of shaven-headed, inarticulate, tattooed, vulgar young men ride their motorbikes recklessly through the city, occasionally falling spectacularly. The bike the leader rides carries a pair of speakers from which blares the bass-heavy call of the chase. The gang follows a pack of Dobermans that track the scent of their prey, a stray dog, a pest, the vermin of this traditional urban British landscape. When the pack of dogs catch the stray the animal is ripped to pieces. The gore of the dismembered mongrel is smeared on the face of a twelve-year old initiate into this culture.

Philosophers of the streets write defences of the hunt, lionising the bravery of these men. Naturalists of urban wildlife write letters offering an evolutionary defence of the hunt, in between arguments that describe the hunt as the most humane and the most efficient method of keeping the population of stray dogs under control. They ignore the labours of the hunt gangs who create artificial environments encouraging the vermin to breed.

If a foxhunter bites the bullet and supports this practice, then you have found an outright barbarian. If a foxhunter fails to support this idea then it is the hunter who is the class warrior, defending privileges incompatible with a democratic society.

Roger Scruton is a philosopher, an apologist of class privilege. He is also highly respected. He argues that foxhunters display the virtue of bravery. Absolute rubbish. Ascribing the virtue of bravery to a person requires that they perform actions that present a (high) degree of risk. This risk could be physical, psychological, financial or professional. I will concede that foxhunters risk physical harm as the gallop across an unplanned course. But this is not enough.

Are joyriders brave? Would Roger Scruton write philosophy defending the virtues of joyriding? I doubt that he would. And I agree, joyriders do not display the virtue of bravery. It is not because they put the lives of others at risk. No, as we have no problem describing soldiers as brave. Is it that they risk the lives of innocents? No, that can not be it. Bomber pilots who flew the notorious missions over Dresden displayed the virtue of bravery.

No, joyriding does not display the virtue of bravery because there is no ‘cause’ behind it. The motivation is behind the risk involved is nothing other than pleasure and enjoyment.

The key to deciding whether a risky actions demonstrates the virtue of bravery is motivation, which we will describe here as a ‘cause’. If this were not the key then we would be bound to describing a soldier who kills to save his comrades as being as brave as a soldier who kills for pleasure. We would be forced to describe a teacher who risks his career for his principles as being brave in the just the same way as one who risks his career for a lust-driven fling with a pupil.

These actions are not equally brave, but they carry the same risk. It is in their motivations, their ‘cause’ that they differ. The ‘cause’ that motivates an individual to commit a risky action that we can describe as brave need not be one that we agree with. We do not find it difficult to describe soldiers fighting for the other side in a war as brave. Their cause is different, possibly mind-boggling alien to our values, but within their own ideological framework it is a cause nobler than simple lusts, thrills or base pleasures.

Foxhunters have no noble ‘cause’ within their ideology. They enjoy the kill, and that is their motivation. They are not brave. When they tumble from their horses it is the result of recklessness, not their virtuous character.

Perhaps a defence of a foxhunter rests of the idea that they ride out to defend their privileged position in British life. In which case, yes, it is a class issue. And rightly so.

Incidentally, the evolutionary justifications of foxhunting are fundamentally flawed. Such justifications demonstrate either an absolutely outdated understanding of the philosophy of evolution, or the deployment of persuasive arguments that the author does not agree with. The first is excusable, but should be exposed. The second is damagingly dishonest, and needs to be exposed.

This is a task for another time, however.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004


The Unbeatable Man

Thanks to Brian Janchez for the art on this one. He can be contacted at b_janchez*at*yahoo*dot*com*dot*ar. Brian is currently working on the 9-page story 'Dirty Work'. I'll post more on that when closer to completion. Please leave any comments, however short or inane.


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