Getting engaged

Back to the issue of political philosophy and how it’s applied in daily life, with no apologies for doing so.

If negative freedom is about the absence of obstacles, positive freedom is about empowerment, taking control of one’s life, as Isaiah Berlin powerfully argued.  One step further is Amartya Sen’s capability theory, which I looked at in an earlier blog, the freedom  ‘to achieve what we are capable of’. Behavioural economics takes us further again, looking at the conditions which influence social behaviour and specifically our capacity for social involvement and altruism. That’s my starting-point here.

What intrigues me is how we can move on from the abstract, how we can create the practical conditions which allow us to express our innate altruism (which I do believe is there) toward society as well as individuals, and how can we link that altruism to politics and day-to-day political life.

For starters I’d dismiss out of hand the approach of the classical economists, the American right, Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and anyone else who believes we can leave it to a self-regulating  market to decide.

That approach is still there in the day-to-day tendency to see society in post-Thatcherite terms, as a battlefield, as a place for the survival of the fittest, where we have to earn any rights we have. Yet checking through the output of current think-tanks and theorists you find little mention of it. You have to go out on a limb with the old right, keep up with Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph columnists, to find that. Elsewhere, left and right, there’s active support for social welfare and institutions –  but radically different ideas on how that should be expressed.

In practical terms what we have to overcome first and foremost is disengagement, leaving it to others, being too readily disillusioned, too ready to criticise. We also need to review the nature of our engagement. Pressure groups and local action are all very well, but what are the processes through which they hope to achieve their ends? There’s a wider political process we all need to be a part of, and yet we’re all too willing to disparage it.

Behavioural economists argue that by better understanding the economic implications of human behaviour we can create conditions where we still express our free will and yet conduct ourselves for the common good. I’m with them to the extent that the key is to identify and encourage those conditions in which we feel comfortable, where we feel engaged, and out of which come a willingness to participate and to share.

(Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, which focuses on how we can hone our powers of instinct and intuition, would appear to have some fascinating insights in this area.)

But where do we start? We can’t just pluck a feeling for the common good out of the air. It’s too easy to support causes or argue for improved conditions but to show indifference to the welfare of others closer to home, in our daily lives. The reverse is also true: close family and friendship ties and indifference to the wider world. Political theory is all very well, but it’s worthless if it doesn’t have a practical application. So the key question is: how can we extend the altruism most of us show in our family and personal relationships more widely?

On the left we’ve seen many policy initiatives from the government, to reduce the gap between rich and poor, to cut youth crime and youth unemployment, which haven’t worked because they haven’t engaged the beneficiaries. They have, for example, been unable to influence kids on inner-city estates. Hard though they’ve tried the initiatives have been seen as impositions from outside, not home-grown from within.

For at least some on the right, including the current Tory leadership, some initial wariness has been replaced by an understanding that the successful functioning of core institutions which the right of centre traditionally value, including family, church and community, is at the core of social engagement. The key to wider social engagement is working through these or similar institutions. With the expected change of government we will no longer have a plethora of diktats from above, we will have a new mood encouraging participation at the grass-roots level, with beneficent influences working upwards through society.

It’s worth exploring this further, as it makes a good test case for ideas of engagement. The question is: will it be any more successful than Labour’s more top-down approach? No government is British history will ever have appealed to the grass-roots in this way, nor relied so much upon them.  Nor do the Tory rank-and-file remotely understand what will be expected of them in a post-bureaucratic state. They’re happy that it has the appearance of big government in retreat. In reality there’s a much more centrist sense of engagement to the new Cameron politics. No social goals will be left to the market. Cameron has plans for all of them, and radical plans, and they involve the engagement, the enthusiastic engagement, of ordinary people at a day-to-day level.

So, while I have a lot of admiration for the direction in which Cameron wants to take us, I have grave doubts about its practicality.  On the one hand, government will want to, will have to, set the parameters for local debate and local action, otherwise we will have a lot of sound and fury dissipating itself in the sand. (Maybe that’s what we’ll get from the Tories, but it’s not what they’re owning up to at the moment.)  On the other hand, we need not only a change of heart among wide sections of the population, but also processes by which all the resurgent local activity we’re anticipating can be focused into socially and politically useful channels.

A tall order.

We have also to take into account that motivation is as we all know fickle and transient, energy often short-lived, optimism likewise, so what hope have we of maintaining engagement over the long periods of time we’re talking about here? And is there the remotest chance that we won’t have a backlash of top-down involvement to try and put right the wild fluctuations or performance and outcome in a society without the bureaucratic control that David Cameron wants to dispense with?

He is simply expecting too much too soon, relying on a change of attitude which can’t be conjured so easily. Removing pressure from above, from targets and bureaucracy, will not automatically empower, will not of itself release a flood of hard work and charitable endeavour.

For my part I believe passionately in the importance of a more altruistic, saner, more measured approach to all areas of our lives. Our sense of self is so strong that it overwhelms our more charitable instincts. All the great religious/ethical traditions argue that we find ourselves by putting our neighbours first, and that’s something we have largely lost sight of in the modern world. But changes of attitude will come slowly, require a long-term approach, building up local activity and local institutions, and then connecting with the wider world. That would be a healthy body politic.

Politicians can’t force it. Despite Christian socialism and other attempts to find an ethical basis for politics, it’s an area where they must tread warily. They can create the conditions for altruistic behaviour, but they cannot preach it.

I have to have serious doubts over whether Cameron’s is a practical philosophy, but treated less ambitiously it is of course a wonderfully positive approach. Engagement at a local level is what a successfully functioning society is all about. But it’s also about legislation that enables, about governments with a broad understanding that can guide society, and about the democratic involvement with the electoral process that ensures that people are fully engaged.

We’re talking about balance, we’re talking about practical politics, based on ordinary behaviour of ordinary people, not expecting too much, avoiding grand theories and inflated expectations, but creating a sense of day-to-day involvement with family, community and the wider world that lies at the heart of any successful society. Push the mood for change to hard, base it on overly abstract hopes, and you have failure and disillusionment with that process.

The next step is to look at one or two practical applications of the Cameron philosophy, and see how they might work. I have to admit that so far I’m discouraged by what I’ve heard and read. But it’s early days, and judge for yourselves…

Orange jackets

I’ve had feedback on my blog recently, which has been encouraging, but also surprising as I’ve not attempted to publicise it in any way at all. It is still very much in development, and I’m in learning mode. The link to Zen is clear, the focus on principles behind actions likewise. It’s also though about identifying agenda – as far as possible the real agendas, not those swayed by hobby-horses or circulation or vote generators that press or politicians may pick up on.

One such is the debate over anti-social behaviour.


What follows is hardly a rigorous examination of our criminal justice system. That would be way beyond my competence. But it is about identifying the real agenda we should be working to.

Louise Casey (the government’s neighbourhood crime tsar – what a title) recently urged the government to deal more quickly and effectively with anti-social behaviour, following the Fiona Pilkington case.  She also argued that people wanted a ‘public justice system’ not a ‘criminal’s justice system’, and the Times leapt in with the argument for more prison places, a favoured theme of the moment, with the promise that 5,000 more places will be found and more prisons built if the Tories come to power.

While we all want an end to violence and loutish behaviour on our local streets, we have to ask just who will be incarcerated? Will ASBOs become prison sentences, as seems likely? Prison is an appalling place when it comes to rehabilitating (which however angry we are has to be the real aim), with inadequate schemes within prison, and little support or hope for prisoners (despite good intentions) when they get out of jail. And little prospect especially for longer-serving prisoners of their finding any job that pays a decent wage. Prison is vital as a punishment and a deterrent, but it also all too often guarantees recidivism.

The government are criticised for not building more prisons, but so too were the Tories before them. Prisons are always seen as a low priority, and I doubt if that will change when and if the Tories find themselves in charge of the purse strings.

What we’ve heard recently has been far too much focused on retribution and too little on ensuring criminals are rehabilitated. There’s a dangerous element of populism in Louise Casey’s comment.

Orange jackets, making certain that offenders are denied anonymity, are one small but important step toward making sentencing, prison and community, more effective.  This is where the discussion needs to be. Hope, skills and opportunity are what offenders need to escape the vicious downward spiral in which they’re trapped, and jail simply doesn’t give it to them.

Arguing that victims’ rights come second to offenders’ rights assumes a false dichotomy.  Retribution is all very well, but what victims and society need far ahead of anything else is the assurance that criminals won’t offend again. Society’s and offenders’ interests are one and the same.

As always, we have to define the right agenda.

The price of freedom (2)

I note that Libby Purves argued in a recent Times article that the ‘age of free-ness must end’.  Her views tie in remarkably closely with mine, only I have to say that you’d have heard them first reading this blog. There is one additional argument she makes that I like: it is as she says the young who are most reluctant to pay for content, but they are the same kids who want to work in the media or the arts, and they’ll find there’s not much paid-for activity there. Or (and she doesn’t make this point) they may want to be an academic, but find that knowledge is less rigorous and literally cheaper, or a publisher, and find that there’s no such item as a book or even an e-book. They may all of them ‘change their minds – at least when they start looking for a job’.

One other thought.

Our minds are a knowledge store and in our student years that’s enough, but there’s a time a few years later when we like to put down waymarkers (copies of the books we read) and like to have hard evidence on our shelves of all that we’ve absorbed, or indeed might like to absorb. I’ve been wondering if that process would apply to the current student generation, and my hunch is that it will. In this case even e-books aren’t enough, it has to be the real thing, and that in the aftermath of all the e-book and digital talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair is a relief.

What a mess?

Looking at the Tory conference my first thought was, what a mess. There are policies but the philosophical framework isn’t there. Cameron and his allies have a trust-the-people vision, a notion of from the bottom-up accountability, which they think will work better than top-down regulation, and it has merit as an hypothesis, but as a philosophy of government it’s dubious. Maybe all they are expecting is a re-balancing, and they don’t deep down see it as a solution, but either way it doesn’t add up.

My second thought, well, it is a philosophy of sorts, passionately promoted by Cameron in his conference speech. If you’re going to trust the people, then they need to take responsibility for their lives. Is it really the Blair/Brown approach that’s reduced the sense of responsibility at all levels of society, or has it more to do other long-term factors, not least the impact of  affluence? Maybe Cameron thinks that the more he focuses on crisis and the broken society, the more he’ll shake us out of our torpor, but the likely result will be more heckling from the comfort of our TV chairs, and very little action.

The Cameron approach looks especially pernicious in healthcare, where devolving control down to the front line, and expecting the frontline to operate on minimum bureaucracy (for which read management), seems to be the main policy.

In education, devolving budgets down to schools, and allowing schools to rebuild and refurbish as they need, rather than rebuilding whole schools using money that comes from winning bids under the Building for the Future programme, makes a lot of sense. So too does giving power back to schools and teachers to run their schools in the best interest of their pupils. If that means excluding more children to ensure that the great majority have the best possible conditions for learning, then so be it. But we also get talk of devolving down to parents, which is puzzling. It will be interest groups not parents who want to start new schools, and there will be huge disruption.

Trust the people … on Europe, the leaving of which or partial separation from would cause massive disruption (do we want to be an island that much, cut off in every sense?), on security, building more jails, when they are so clearly dysfunctional, on defence, when Hague wants quarterly reviews which will run up against the importance of the long-term view in military strategy. 

In all these areas there’s a middle common-sense ground, which is open for the Tories to grab, but in their enthusiasm to set themselves apart they are in danger of over-positioning, over-defining, and leaving themselves too many hostages to fortune.

The world according to Mr Heffer

Why a mention of Simon Heffer? Simply because as a Telegraph columnist he’s widely read and influential.

I can’t imagine he would feel comfortable with Amartya Sen. (It helps to read my last blog before this one!) Heffer’s philosophy focuses on free markets and individual responsibility, with few concessions to individual rights. He is a conservative in its most literal and uncritically Anglocentric sense. His philosophy may not be mine, but it has substance and a long history. 

He’s the polar opposite to supporters of capability theory, where every individual has positive freedoms including the ability to take part in economic or political activity. Such freedoms require positive intervention by the state, of a kind anathema to Heffer.

Capability is about fulfilling ourselves as human beings but there’s something missing in what I’ve read on the subject to date, something that takes us to the heart of the problem faced by Western democracies, and that is a reference to the importance not just of participation in politics but of balanced debate.  Too often these days the shrill and the vituperative squeeze out reasoned argument.

I read Heffer’s beautifully balanced appraisal of Polanski’s arrest a few days ago, and then by contrast another piece (the title of the article ends with the words ‘the last gasp of the charlatan’) on Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour Party conference. ‘Cynicism’, ‘pretending’, ‘rubbishing markets’, ‘disgusting act’ all tripped off the keys in his first paragraph. Later on we had ‘phoney smiles’, ‘charlatanry’ (again, this time Mandelson) and then we had a comparison with Goebbels. From a long-time writer for the Mail, famous for its dalliance with Hitler, that was a bit rich. It was also nasty.

It is key to the debate that must be at the heart of our ability to engage in political action that we show respect for other individuals and parties, however much we disagree. We can then debate issues, rather than engage in grandstanding. Where there’s real corruption or dishonesty we can highlight it and we’ll be listened to.

Heffer does huge damage by making his attacks so personal, and one only has to read the unpleasant comments on the Telegraph website to realise he carries a multitude readers along with him.

Curiously, alongside Heffer we have Mary Riddell as a Telegraph columnist, with her measured comments on Brown and Labour. She could indeed be writing for the Guardian, and it does mean that Telegraph readers get another point of view. And whipped up by their cheer-leader, many of them hate it, and hate her. Brave lady.

Politics can be rough, and get personal, and you don’t get involved unless you can take it, indeed enjoy it. But too much animosity and it impacts on debate not just in the political but in the wider community. Therein lies the danger.

Philosophically speaking

Zen is about the everyday. Daily life practice , as it’s called, being mindful every moment of the day, is at its core. Zen is all about how we understand ourselves, and how we respond to others. Politics by definition is about a bigger picture, seeking to benefit people en masse, and philosophy about a wider picture still, how we define the principles that underpin our actions.

Zen and politics for some wouldn’t be an easy combination.  For me it’s about principle, how principles derive from daily life, and how those principles then play out in the wider world.


The attempts by various political leaders and commentators to find a philosophical core for their thinking, using the October issue of Prospect as a platform, make interesting reading. What they highlight is the disjunction between theory and practice, how hard it is to move from the abstract to the realisation.

Many on the centre and centre-left come these days from the same starting-point, Amartya Sen’s capability theory, and there’s no reason why the centre-right shouldn’t buy into it to as well. We’re not talking of equality of income, or of opportunity, but something more personal, more in tune with our own time, the freedom  ‘to achieve what we are capable of’. It could be argued that freedom from the burdens of a centralised state, at the heart of the current Tory message, is just such a capability.

Both James Pannell and Gordon Brown (no Tories in this issue) outline policy programmes which are similar, highlighting how close in approach the two men are. A shame then that Pannell resigned in a death or glory moment. Time out from government has certainly given him the opportunity to catch up on his political philosophy reading.

Not a bad thing. He focuses in his piece on liberty, power and democracy – all vague terms, all capable of multiple definitions. They need to be re-defined for each generation, and for each country. How can we advocate liberty and democracy to Islamic and third world leaders when we don’t have a clear focus on what they mean in our own countries?

As a starting-point we need humility, and the understanding also the even the grandest principle is only a hypothesis. Not only are all definitions inadequate, they are also transient. Socialist aspirations to equality of income seem largely irrelevant to our own time. And now we see happiness as a measure coming up on the rails. It’s good to discuss it and make access to quality of life central to our beliefs, but, again, how on earth do we define it?

If that’s not enough to ponder over, there’s the difficulty is how you translate theory into practice, and both Brown and Pannell try hard to conjure policy out of principle. Policy statements all too often look very lonely out there, without a context.

Pannell derives three goals for our time from Sen: the freedom to choose our way of life, the power to achieve it, and democracy as public discussion. This in summary requires guaranteed jobs, a less centralised education system, responding to need, and everything from parliament initiating laws, American-style, to communities getting together to take local decisions. And much else besides.

Brown  also argues for a similar notion of freedom (the same hymn sheet here) and he claims many of his policies as Chancellor were Sen-inspired, including Sure Start. But it’s evident his experience as PM in the last few months has shifted the focus from a typically New Labour top-down approach to talk of  ‘a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the state’, and specifically people wanting a greater say over how they are governed, and that means institutional reform. That said, it would be crazy to think that measures on economic growth, the public finances, families and communities, climate and social mobility (Brown’s choice of headings) can be other than top-down. You don’t get such measures through by protracted debate, and the PM still talks of ‘the positive power of an enabling state’.

I don’t think Sen as economist and philosopher any more than politicians could have anticipated the last few months. Capability may be an aspiration, but especially among the Tories accountability has become the watchword, much easier for the public to relate to. Instead of targets and bureaucracy, we will have full disclosure of performance, and accountability based on that. In Cameron’s post-bureaucratic state managers and middlemen, whether in health or education, are dispensable. Hence the confidence that so many can be culled.

How Cameron can really make a political philosophy out of this, connect an aspiration to one-nation social justice to across-the-board cuts, we shall have to see. Are so many jobs worthless, or if not worthless overpaid? A business can shed staff by refocusing its business on fewer core activities. Government (any party that wants to be elected, quite apart from considerations of morality and justice) can’t do so. And can so much shedding be done without creating chaos?

Politically we are in interesting times, and philosophically too.

Slow goes big time

My very first blog, read by thousands, remembered by millions, was entitled Going Slow. See below if you didn’t read it the first time.

Why am I re-posting it? Well, the HuffnPuffington Post, the internet newspaper of Arianna Huffington, famous talker and socialite, have just named Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slowness, which inspired my blog, as their first-ever book of the month over in the USA, and they are rabbiting on about how wonderful going slow is. So I thought I should be quick off the mark with my riposte.

Going slow is a state of mind, not just a brief relaxation. But the author thinks Arianna is wonderful, so maybe I should. There are now apparently at least a hundred slow cities. We know about slow food (in the cooking I think, not the eating) and there is apparently a Slow Sex movement underway, which may lose out just a little on the excitement, but I guess we’ll all have to try it out.

If you want to read that original blog …. scroll down, then hit Previous Posts, and scroll down again.