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.

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