Archive of ‘politics’ category

Beyond OWS: Problem #3: The Age of Unreason

What is society? Or, more importantly, what’s it for? And how do we want it to be?

It seems there are precious few asking questions like these. And while the Occupy Wall Street movement appears to be rebelling against the way society is structured today, and the direction in which it’s travelling, this rebellion is only the first step. Identifying that there’s a problem is one thing, diagnosing it in detail another. And then there’s the ultimate goal of figuring out how to fix it.

In this post I offer my take on the underlying issues with our conception of society and its function that I believe underlie the Occupy Wall Street movement’s grievances, and in a future post in this series, I’ll offer some suggested alternatives that might take us in a more fruitful direction.

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Beyond OWS: Problem #2: The Problem with Politics

This is part two of my series on Beyond Occupy Wall Street. You can find part one, where I put the boot into contemporary economic dogma here.

In this post, I focus on politics. Or, more specifically, on the failure of the 20th century political paradigm to accord with a 21st century world. Basically, the Left-Right political spectrum as we know it is defunct and, as a result, we’re seeing the political parties of the last century struggle in many democracies around the world, not least in Anglophone world.

In the U.S., Obama was supposed to liberate the country from the bitter partisan politics of the Bush Jr. era, where the Left and the Right had become violently polarised and infected by base-appeasing populism, meanwhile lacking the courage to make the tough decisions that are required to set the country straight. But even Obama – with his feel-good “there’s only the United States of America” – failed to bring the warring parties together.

The recent debt crisis is but one of many, many examples of the abject failure of the two major U.S. parties to put their knives down and govern in the interests of the nation. Not to mention the banality of Fox News and the Tea Party, offering hopelessly simplistic solutions to complex problems – some real, and some fictitious.

In the U.K. and Australia the last elections resulted in hung parliaments, largely due to disillusionment with the major parties and the parlous calibre of political debate. Both countries saw a protest vote lobbed against a long-term sitting government that had gone stale, yet the voters proved unenthused at the prospect of the alternative governments on offer. The result is minority government, with uneasy coalitions formed, which are unlikely to survive the next election.

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Beyond OWS: Problem #1: The Market Ain’t So Free

This post is one of my series on the Occupy Wall Street movement, on the problems that I believe are underlying the protest and, at the end of the series, some proposed solutions. This post is on the first of the three core problems: that the market makes us miserable:

The Occupy Wall Street movement began as a collective expression of outrage at the current economic conditions in the United States. Crippling public and private debt, high unemployment, gaping income inequality and a recession caused by excessive borrowing and reckless behaviour on Wall Street. Yet, at the same time that many people can’t find a job, there are massive bailouts for those on Wall Street who precipitated this economic disaster.

But these are just the surface problems. While many OWS protesters are championing these issues (among others), they’re but symptoms of a far deeper malaise. If the OWS movement is to go beyond being a protest, it needs to direct its outrage not only at the present economic circumstances, but at the deeper causes of those circumstances. And that’s what this post is about.

Because economics is wonderful tool, but a horrible master. And we let it become our master.

The word “economy” originally meant “efficiency” or “frugal”, particularly in terms of management of resources. It used to be an approach. But now it’s a thing, and it’s a thing that we serve.

This is arse-backwards.

Economics is a science that helps us understand how to manage resources to reach a desired end. If people desire X, the market will often be the most efficient process to produce X to meet that desire.

But sometime around the mid-20th Century (1944, to be precise – the year in which Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published), we let economics stop being the arbiter of the means to achieve some valued end, and opened the door for economics to become the arbiter of the values themselves.

According to this ideology (now often called ‘neoliberal’), if the market deigns not to produce some product, that’s because we, by definition, don’t value that product. Likewise, if the market encourages the production of some product, that’s because, by definition, we value that product.

This is wrong.

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Beyond Occupy Wall Street

I’ve been patiently awaiting the revolution for some years now. It’s inevitable that it was coming. The only question was when. And in what form.

It seems it’s arrived, at least in its embryonic guise, in the form of the Occupy Wall Street movement. But is this really the revolution? Is this movement – without goals, without leaders, without a guiding ideology – fit to call itself a revolution?

Not yet.

But it’s a start. The first step in enacting change is to identify that there’s a problem. That’s fundamentally what OWS is today: it’s a broad protest movement making an unambiguous expression that we (maybe not 99% of us, but a lot) are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.

If I could sum up the Occupy Wall Street movement to date in one line, it’d be this: the system is broken and it’s not going to fix itself.

I’ve heard the Occupiers voice this notion in many disparate, fragmented ways. But I have yet to hear or read any Occupier articulate precisely what the problem with the system is. Or, more poignantly: how to fix it.

But to me, the malaise is clear. I’ve been watching it brew for many years. The sickness in the Western capitalist system has many diverse manifestations, but the underlying causes are actually few and simple.

I’m adamant that if OWS is to have any lasting impact, it urgently needs to move beyond being merely a protest movement before people tire of it (or the weather sends it indoors, at least in the northern hemisphere), and move to embrace some positive ideology, one that might genuinely enact change in the world. One that might genuinely be called a revolution.

In the next several posts I’m going to outline my diagnosis of the three core problems with ‘the system’ – the problems that fundamentally underlie the grievances of the Occupy movement – and then offer three solutions as to where the movement could go next if it wants to change the system for the better.

I’ll update this post as a single landing page with links to the others:

Problem #1: The Market Ain’t So Free

Problem #2: The Problem with Politics

The Burqa is Bad (But Banning it is Worse)

I oppose the wearing of the burqa – particularly the niqab, or veil – and I believe women shouldn’t wear it, or be made to wear it. I also oppose banning of the burqa or the niqab, and believe the government should not prevent people from wearing it (excepting, of course, circumstances where people need to be identified).

And these two positions aren’t even remotely contradictory.

Unfortunately, many people – particularly many on the Left – think they are contradictory, and in doing so they get themselves stuck between condemning a practice that is often oppressive to women and condemning those who call for a ban on the burqa as being racist.

However, it is quite possible to hold a clear stance against the burqa and the values it represents, and drawing a line that says the government has no right to dictate what we can and can’t wear (beyond very loose modesty requirements). Here’s how:

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How Twitter Can Spark Revolutions

Penetrate the hoo-ha and self-aggrandising bluster about attributions of what, or who, caused the Arab Spring, and there might actually be some truth to the notion that social media, and Twitter in particular, were pivotal to sparking the revolutions that have punctuated the Middle East and North Africa.

This is a bold claim, but one I think might be justified by looking at the problem of starting a revolution through the lens of game theory, and the Stag Hunt in particular.

The problem with kicking off a revolution in a nation run by a paranoid autocrat is you simply don’t know whom to trust. Sure, you can probably assume that most of the population would be happy to see the tyrant turfed from power – after all, the nature of such regimes is that few benefit at the expense of many, and it’s the many who want to see the revolution get underway. But even if only one in ten individuals is pro-regime, or likely to dob you in to the regime’s thugs to save their own neck, the risk of voicing your anti-government attitudes is high, especially given the potential cost if you grumble to the wrong person.

This reluctance to fly one’s flag is one of the great hurdles to overcome before the people can band together and use that potent resource of overwhelming numbers to bring down even a powerful minority autocracy.

This dilemma can nicely represented by the Stag Hunt:

In this context, hunting Stag is declaring one’s revolutionary intentions and agitating for a better government that can benefit all. Hunting Hare is keeping one’s head down and suffering the regime. Should two revolutionaries get together, they can cooperate to help bring down the government and implement a better system with less corruption and waste etc. However, should a revolutionary meet up with a non-revolutionary, they risk being exposed, and punishment could ensue, while the non-revolutionary just continues plodding along under the oppressive regime.

The trick with the Stag Hunt is there are two equilibria: Stag-Stag (SS); and Hare-Hare (HH). It’s the mixed strategy of Stag-Hare (SH) that is unstable, and any system over time (excluding factors like non-random pairing for the time being) would expect to gravitate towards one of the two equilibria. The thing is, the basin of attraction of HH is significantly larger than that for SS, so most systems (75 per cent, to be precise) descend into the lower-payoff equilibrium of HH (read Skyrms, 2004 for more).

So, most societies where declaring one’s anti-government sentiments in public can be unwise, you’d expect people to more or less uniformly keep their heads down and play Hare all the way. And that’s what you saw in places like Libya. People were doing it tough, but that’s preferable than agitating towards something better and getting dragged away in the middle of night.

There are several ways of nudging the equilibrium from HH to SS, but there’s a considerable gulf of SH to overcome in the process. Spend too long in that gulf, and things will rapidly drop back to HH.

One way of helping bridge that gulf is through sharing reliable information: if agents don’t know whether their neighbour is going to play S or H, they’re more likely to play the risk-averse strategy and play H themselves. As will their neighbour. Yet if they have information that makes it more likely their neighbour will play S, then they can more safely play S themselves.

This is precisely what I believe Twitter did: it facilitated the communication to the broad population that each individual wasn’t alone in their anti-government sentiments and, as such, if they broadcast their anti-government intentions, they’re likely to be received by another anti-government individual.

Now, Twitter can’t solve the whole problem of starting a revolution, and the Stag Hunt doesn’t represent every nuance of the revolutionary dilemma, but if there’s something to this analysis, then perhaps Twitter, and other social media, did in fact play a role in sparking off, if not finishing, the Arab Spring revolutions.

The Moral Psychology of the London Riots

Many of us have been struggling to comprehend what psychology, what such vicious and destructive behaviour as we’ve seen over the past few days in London. Behaviour that many of us wouldn’t flinch at calling baldly immoral.

Yet much of the discourse has so far struggled to grasp the psychology behind these acts, psychology that looks on the surface to be wild and irrational. But there is a rhyme, and even a reason, to the rioters’ and looters’ behaviour. This is not to excuse the behaviour, but it’s crucial to understand the psychology behind it particularly if we’re to attempt to prevent such behaviour from occurring again in the future.

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London Burning

I happened to visit London for the first time only a few months ago. While there, I visited friends living in Tottenham, only blocks from the recent outbreaks of rioting and looting.

Fire fighters and riot police survey the area as fire rages through a building in Tottenham, north London on Aug. 7, 2011. A demonstration against the death of a local man turned violent and cars and shops were set ablaze. (Lewis Whyld/PA/AP)

It’s alarming to think the bustling streets, filled with families going about their business and small shops serving a plethora of wares, have been replaced by broken glass, burning police cars and hooded youths hurling bricks and looting stores.

Many have sought the roots of the London riots, often citing the police shooting of Mark Duggan. But it would be naive to think the current spate of rioting and looting, taking place across London, is entirely fuelled by outrage at a perceived case of injustice.

At the root of the London riots is a deep disaffection by many youths, a disconnection from their communities and the broader society, and a lowering of social norms that would inhibit such wildly destructive behaviour.

And it’s likewise naive to think that police action alone can contain this outbreak, or that the threat of further police action can prevent it from happening again.

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Norway, Mental Illness, Ideology and Computer Games

Tragedy piled upon tragedy. Needless to say, I was shocked and sickened by the news emanating from Norway of the atrocities enacted by Anders Behring Breivik. But I wasn’t only outraged by his actions, but also some of the sadly predictable responses to them. So, first up:

Reality Check

Despite the impression one might get from watching the evening news over the weekend, the world most of us live in today is safer, more tolerant, more pluralist, more just and less violent than at any other period in history.

It’s easy to become despondent at the news coming from Norway (or the double whammy if you’re a fan of Amy Winehouse). But remember that if we had today’s mass media presence 500 years ago, such appalling massacres, and worse, would be documented on an almost daily basis. Today their impact is all the more poignant because of their rarity.

Yet it is in response to such tragedies that the world struggles to improve. It’s in our collective outrage at the inhumanity of individuals like Behring Breivik that we work to make the world more tolerant, more peaceful, more just. We must not let ourselves become despondent. Nor should we let ourselves become filled with retributionist rage. Instead we must use this outrage to drive us towards positive ends.

Extremism Starts with Psychology

It’s natural for us to strive to make sense of such a senseless act. One of the obvious targets is ideology. Behring Breivik was clearly charged with a radical ideology that incorporated elements of nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism. But nationalism, Christianity and social conservatism aren’t the sole cause of his actions.

It’s not extremist views that make people like Behring Breivik. It’s the other way around. It’s unstable psychology that draws people like Behring Breivik to extremist ideologies. These ideologies then reinforce whatever twisted worldview people like this have and act to facilitate and condone their actions.

Ideologies are like catalysts rather than causes. Likewise with terrorism conducted under the banner of Islam.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work tirelessly to combat extremist attitudes and ideologies. But we can’t pretend that by banning all neo-Nazi groups we will rid the world of neo-Nazi views, nor the psychological proclivities that draw some people to those views.

What we also need to target with just as high a priority is understanding the psychological proclivities and how they lead to extremist attitudes, and how to work on preventing people disposed to violence from acting on their dispositions.

What this tragedy really compels us to do is place greater focus on mental health, education, anti-extremism and, of course, tighter gun control.

Games Don’t Make Killers

S0me opportunistic reporters have latched on to a handful of comments made by Behring Breivik is his rambling manifesto to the effect that computer games were a “part of my training-simulation” to suggest that violent video games played a causal role in his horrendous acts.

This, like the above idea that ‘ideology made him do it,’ is a spurious notion that only muddies our understanding of people like Behring Breivik and makes it harder for us get to the real root of his behaviour.

The evidence suggests that games don’t turn normal people into psychopathic killers, but that individuals with a disposition towards violence are drawn to violent video games.

Games, like ideology, may also act as a catalyst, but ridding the world of violent games (or movies, or television shows, or books etc) will likely have a negligible impact on the frequency of such actions.

And comments by some startlingly ignorant commentators only steer the conversation into unfruitful territory. Consider these ruminations from the article linked to above:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games” then the game should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits of the games industry and selfishness of games libertarians to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

Mr Wallace might rethink his position if he applied the same argument to Behring Breivik’s Christian views, which might go something like this:

The Australian Christian Lobby managing director Jim Wallace criticised O’Connor over his remarks and said that if even a few deranged minds could be “taken over the edge by an obsession with violent games religion” then the game religion should be banned.

“How can we allow the profits evangelism of the games industry religion and selfishness dogma of games libertarians the faithful to place our increasingly dysfunctional society at further risk? Even if this prohibition of religion were to save only one tragedy like this each twenty years it would be worth it.”

That last sentence is particularly stinging for the likes of Mr Wallace.

A Better Way

We may never rid the world of individuals like Behring Breivik, or Timothy McVeigh, or Osama bin Laden, no matter how many of them we imprison or execute. Human psychology is fickle, ignorance and insecurity is the norm, and we now have more power to impact the around us in destructive ways than ever before.

But we also have more power to impact the world in positive ways than ever before too. And the very fact that the entire world has spoken out in horror and condemnation of Behring Breivik’s actions reminds us that, on the whole, we do believe in peace, tolerance and justice.

With continued and determined focus on: comprehensive education; encouraging mental health and treating mental illness; taking deadly weapons out of the hands of citizens; challenging extremist views; understanding extremist psychology; developing stable and sustainable economies; and encouraging healthy rational public discourse, we can and do make the world a better place.

Ultimately the likes of Behring Breivik can never turn the tide of history towards peace, tolerance and justice.

Ends and Means

I call it “pulling a Cameron,” in reference not to the present British Prime Minister, but to the broadcaster Deborah Cameron who handles the morning slot on Sydney’s ABC Radio 702.

A common refrain a few minutes in to her maddeningly predictable morning routine of following the happenings of the first several pages of the Sydney Morning Herald is to enquire of some expert or other: “what are we doing to prevent X from ever happening again?”

And by “X” I mean whatever undesirable event has appeared on the front pages, whether that’s a case of callous bullying in our schools, a death by accident or some other unsavoury turn of events.

One recent example was the tragic death of a young university student at a rural college after being thrown from an ex-racing horse that was being used to train horse riding skills. The horse was deemed safe for students yet it possessed a fierce distemper that flared on that day, throwing the student

The question posed by Cameron, seemingly predictable and justifiable in the circumstances, was along the lines of: “what are we doing to prevent more deaths of students during riding training?”

The presumption is that the outcome is unacceptable so, clearly, our current process that led to this outcome must be deficient.

Yet that’s a presumption that is unfortunately as fallacious as it is common.

For we chase outcomes on an ad hoc basis at the risk of employing processes that undermine our very intentions to produce better outcomes. In short: we focus myopically on each good or bad outcome at the danger of forgetting that it’s good processes that are of primary importance.

And even a good process – nay, the optimal process – can result in bad outcomes from time to time.

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