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The new Left
on 2 November 2013
The most important thing about books like this one is not how well they read, but how well they increase your own political sense of the world, and how they can change your argument on vital *current* themes (which, incidentally, is why most of my Marxist books hit the bottom of the bin some years ago -the *current* part is long gone for most of them!).
So, let me take you through two of my big world views after reading this book. The first involves the concept of `Commons', which is arguably the most important leftist issue of the day. The second involves my view on education (and particularly how Michael Gove and the Tories want to change it). Both these arguments have been significantly reshaped by reading this book, and to my mind, are the best indication of how good (or otherwise) this book this is...
One of the most notable recent interviews (at least on social media) has been the Newsnight interview with Russell Brand. Although his spiel was high on emotive platitude and low on answers, he did touch on an argument that is the core of the politics of most alt-left wing people today: the concept of `commons'. Commons refers to the things that capitalism should not own, and should pay to put right when it gets broken. It refers to freedoms and privacy as well as the more obvious one - the environment. Brand's argument is flawed because the concept of `commons' is usually chosen on the basis of self-interest rather than the `greater good', and is actually just as damaging as capitalism itself...
I used to live in an idyllic village in rural Somerset. One of the farmers put in planning permission to turn his fields into a housing development. The villagers were up in arms about the ecological impact, and tried to force changes such as a village green (complete with duck pond no less!), but their biggest concern was the need for an element of social housing because `it would bring the area down'. Their idea of what the countryside should look like came from a 1950s biscuit tin lid.
Most ecological arguments are the same: self-interested. Why should nature stay the same when it loves change? The dinosaurs never played about with nature, but change still came. Better that we should actively engineer that change rather than leaving it to God and Dawkins. Things can never stay the same, so stop looking backwards.
Further, the ecological idyll of everyone living in small, self-sufficient and spaced out homes comes from a biscuit tin, whereas in reality this idyll would be an ecological disaster with no pristine landscape left. The alternative is population control. Population control done naturally and on the scale we would need is called `disease and starvation for the poorest'. No thanks.
Better for nature and the environment that our cities are busy, dirty and cramped centres, because then humans leave a larger part of the environment alone, and we are left to clean up our own mess rather than spread it out. But we don't want to do that, because, like Brand, our real philosophy is vaguely hedonistic with a hint of Buddhism (if we are leftist tree huggers) or with a hint of nihilism (if we are capitalists who know it's all going to end badly, but as long as the band keeps playing, happiness is sitting in the well off part of the hall).
Even in the digital sphere, we stick to the concept of `commons' when the concept just doesn't exist and never has. We are happy to take the free google mail or Facebook account, but then wonder why our data is harvested. It's because those things never existed as a 'common' before an entrepreneur made them available, and we confuse the lack of exchange of currency for 'free'. None of it was ever free and the currency in this case was information. The best way to have secure email or web presence is to simply pay for it, and it costs very little.
There is one `common' that Russell Brand and most people like him fail to address, and it is the most important one: responsibility. We all have a common responsibility, and it is not common - it is personal, and there to be used rather than offloaded.
Education and economic growth
One of the big issues that Gove and most of the centre right are concerned with today is creating `experts'. Experts, such as Engineers and Scientists and economic/medicine specialists are the people who really drive growth. According to Gove and his followers, we should shut down the Art and Philosophy departments as they do not give us those much needed experts-who-drive-economic-growth.
Experts don't create innovation and only address current problems. Engineers can make more efficient aircraft, but they are unable to ask why. They don't really care that the more efficient aircraft design they are developing is a new bomber, or that 40% of a typical first world resident's carbon footprint comes from flights, and it's the mode of transport that is at issue not minor efficiencies. Steve Job's only course of any importance was calligraphy, and turning him into a fully paid up economist would perhaps have killed his sense of typography, and therefore killed the Mac as the digital design tool of choice.
If we don't need experts from our education system, what do we need? We need radicals.
I am not even talking `radical' in terms of politics: radical engineers and designers are the people who caused the Industrial revolution and all the `Empire' stuff that the Tories hark back to. But who are these radicals?
In the Reclaim the Streets, Occupy or 99% movements, name any of the young people who have acted as focus point? There isn't any. In the same way, name any ideological youth who has come up from Tahir Square. None. These big events have all reached a point and them fizzled out, and cannot be expected to cause change because they lack strong leadership. Its almost as if the new social media creates radical groups, but smooths out radical individuality, or that the education system is already doing exactly what Gove wants: raising experts who shy away from any responsibility outside their scope.
We have only two real radicals so far: Chelsea Manning and Eric Snowdon, both of whom are passionate about something such that everything else (including personal safety) becomes a sideshow. But look at how much of an impact they have made: two people can change the world.
If we want Britannia to rule anything anymore, we need people like those two coming out from our educational system. How do we do that? By feeding their passion. Let our children do calligraphy (or philosophy or art) if they have a love for it, because it is passion for a subject that creates the radical personality that generates real economic progress and change through innovative patents, gainful hard work and novel design.
So there you have it. Not a book to just read, but a book to generate new ideas in yourself. A much needed and thoughtful political `ideas' book for the left leaning who are sick of the old leftist dogma and looking for something to help them form opinions for the newer, connected world we now inhabit.
*** Edit Nov 2013 ***
Just for the record, I am not a philosophy/politics graduate, but a Chartered Engineer (of the type Gove actually wants more of - I worked in the Energy generation industry for 10 years), before moving on into a role as development lead in online advertising. So some parts of this review are not punditry but based on actual practical experience of Engineering, Energy Policy vs Environment, and online security/data harvesting.