Monday, May 26, 2014

Moment of Crisis

The First World War, a conflict where the major European protagonists had a strong sense of moral purpose but little in terms of concrete objectives, was made possible by the crystalisation of national identities in the years immediately preceding it. 

The results of last week's voting across the continent reveals that we are some way into a new phase, where the national community is in crisis, and knows it. This manifests itself as a straight conflict of interest between the rooted and the consciously uprooted. Some of the latter are comparatively poor and seeking better opportunities across nearby borders, but many belong to the globalised urban elites, who have found that they owe much of their disproportionate affluence to a transnational perspective, and are thus inclined to favour the far-reaching technocratic institutions which appear to underpin their future economic wellbeing. 

The comparatively rooted meanwhile strongly suspect that they are getting the raw end of the deal (which they are...) And yet, I surmise, they must also deep down suspect that there is no going back to the way things used to be, that semi-mythical past when government policies and budgets were constructed primarily in the interests of the clearly-situated taxpayers of the nation state. 

And one suspects that also, on some subconscious level at least, they have recognised the essentially - annoyingly - reasonable nature of the counter-argument that the smug globalised elites have deployed, because their own protests - be they Tea Party activists, Scottish secessionists or immigrant-phobes - have become increasingly counter-rational (when not economically suicidal) and, in the immediate term, this can surely only be further damaging to democracy. 

I've had some direct experience of a mirco-cosmic version of these tensions as I used to make a living working both for a company and beyond it. And of course the likes of WPP, Starbucks, Google and Apple are doing the same thing with regards to nation states and their regulations (and other limitations).

In both cases the key argument for such practices is that they are both the way of the future and a technique for increasing the big numbers for all. These bigger numbers do not however necessarily translate into the sort of universally lifting boats that rising tides are supposed to produce.

So the rooted are right to question the new status quo, at least as it is currently structured. What worries me is that people are turning to emotional, counter-factual, self-defeating platforms in response. Whatever 'good arguments' exist for blocks like the EU or indeed the UK, will be ignored by people who have simply decided to switch off their brains out of pique for the way they have been treated.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Truth vs Acceptability

"In point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits" > Willard Van Orman Quine. 

For an ontological relativist like Quine, both objects and supernatural beings were artifacts of culture — fictions if you like — but he considered the former superior in that they are more efficient for predicting events i.e. useful fictions. Treated the right way, they work.

Philosophy is born with the human desire to know the world as it really is. In the West Thales of Miletus is credited with being the first person to suggest a discrepancy between appearances and reality, and thus the first true philosopher.

Religion then, could be seen to originate with the notion that life will always be better and simpler if we pretend that we already know how the world really is. And, I would suggest, survives today in the West out partly of a fear of recognising the world for what it might be.

Anyway, the whole universe could be a grand illusion, but I'm still here putting the cat out at 4am every morning. Science works, bitches...but that does not (necessarily) make it True. It can be trusted, but one is not obliged to BELIEVE in it.

This is because while philosophy is the quest to know the world as it really is, science involves constructing an ever-improving approximation between our knowledge and objective reality...if such a thing exists. It's certainly a moving target if ever there was one.

Of course it's a perfectly valid philosophical position to suggest an identity between these two projects, but that it not really what Richard Dawkins is up to, because all philosophical positions tend to be inside his blind spot. The open scorn he pours on theology is thus accompanied by an more unstated disregard for philosophy - and not just metaphysics, but any attempt to take an intellectual leap out beyond the strictly pragmatic approach.

You'll find he refers to the latter as 'reason', but his is a rationalism with artificial barriers at both ends. Comfortably still inhabiting a largely Newtonian universe, he's disinclined to allow reason to soar upwards into the increasingly counterintuitive fields of quantum physics and cosmology, and he doesn't seem to like it either when, down below in the real world, practical applications of scientific theory also appear to require the attentions of (moral) philosophers. I once heard Dawkins in a live Q&A session squirming a bit on the issue of cloning, and he ended up with a formulation that sounded depressingly Werner Von Braun: i.e. "Vunce ze rocketz go up, who carez vair zey come down?".

Needless to say, when Britain needed a professional verdict on human embryo experiments they turned to a philosopher, Girton's former Mistress Baroness Warnock. I have a sneaking suspicion that Richard Dawkins must at the time have thought that only a scientist ought to be allowed to take such decisions. It works bitches, what more do you need to know?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Pantsdown and the Proxy Effect

When the Crimea recently opted out of rule from Kiev, former Lib-Dem leader Paddy Ashdown penned an article suggesting that Russia had some significant — and rather topical — previous in stirring up Slavic irredentism to very dangerous ends, describing the Sarejevo slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie as political assassination by proxy, in which the Tsar was the ultimate author of this most earth-shattering of crimes. 

This viewpoint has some immediate ironies and absurdities that are worth pointing out. Firstly, although the Russians did indeed encourage Serbian expansionism in the years leading up to WWI, there is no evidence of a direct link with the Black Hand, the extremist, deep state organisation in Belgrade that planned the attack in Sarajevo. But more importantly, which position did Britain and France take up in 1914? Rather than talking the Tsar out of his unconditional support for the Serbs, they publicly denied the legitimacy of Austro-Hungary's grievance against them, scorning the credibility of the enquiry which found the breadcrumbs leading back from Princip to the government of Nikola Pašić. 

What Ashdown might instead have alluded to was the paranoia about Russia coupled with an exaggerated sense of its capabilities which pervaded Europe at the start of the last century, and how this in fact became one of the key factors contributing to a hardening of block mentalities. 

On paper the Russian army was at least 30% larger than that of Germany and Austro-Hungary combined. The at least partly irrational sense of threat that this generated led military thinkers in Berlin to consider the notion of a 'preventative war', so convinced were they that the Tsar meant them ill and that Russian power could only increase. The French had a similarly view of Russian military strength and feared the day when the St Petersburg would no longer need the Entente for their own security, leaving Paris once again alone and exposed to the Prussian invaders that had so humiliated them only recently. For the British the Russian 'threat' impacted on their strategic focus outside Europe on the fringes of the empire. They were drawn into a closer understanding with both the French and Russians precisely in order to safeguard distant 'jewels' like India. So in a sense the Russians did provoke WWI - but not in the way Ashdown lately suggested  the proxy effect was largely psychological. 

The calamity of continental war needed a spark to set it off, but the instability of the Balkan region had in a way been pre-prepared by all sides as a causus belli some time before the plot against the Archduke came to fruition. The French, fearing for the loyalty and commitment of their principal ally, had decided that the circumstances that triggered their alliance would have to originate in a area in which the Russians had a strong strategic interest. If Germany invaded France, they reasoned, the Russians might not mobilise in a timely fashion. This sense of foreboding was directly paralleled in Berlin, where it was felt that the armies of Franz Joseph would be disinclined to get out of bed unless the Russian threat against their own alliance played out in the Balkan backyard of the Empire. So, instead of treating the dispute between the Austrians and Serbs as a localised, somebody else's problem sort of shambles (as we do seem to be treating the developments in the Ukraine today), the great powers one hundred years ago had rather deliberately attached this regional powder keg to their detonator. And, the politicians of the day had a sense of honour when it came to following up on treaties and agreements, however vague, that our own lot would probably find hard to comprehend. 

In the end perhaps the final irony of the crisis that led to WWI - and thus, albeit indirectly to WWII as well - is that the Russians and Austrians were almost last in declaring war against each other. Meanwhile Germany had invaded France through neutral Belgium, something the French had been planning to do in reverse, but were just not quick enough. 

The modern lessons from all this seem to have less to do with whether to appease or confront Russia — or indeed keeping them onside at all costs on the basis of shared geopolitical fears and antagonisms — than about understanding the true nature of its intentions and the threat that it may or may not present to the contemporary world's other power blocks.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

No Reservations

So they can send someone in to open the place up?

Seriously, this is actually one of the few places in town that stations two guys at the entrance so that anyone stopping to glance at the menu can be hauled inside!