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Guest Post – Dave Bath’s Review of ‘Left Turn’

By Legal Eagle

[SL recently discussed Christos Tsolkias' piece in her recent post on left-wing politics. At the end she said:

Tsiolkas’s essay impressed me so much that I decided to review the book from which it comes, Left Turn, which is edited by two prominent lefties, Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow. But then I thought better of it. I am a classical liberal leavened with a dash of conservatism. I don’t have a left-leaning bone in my body. I really don’t. And I don’t want to engage in the same bullying rhetoric Tsiolkas’s piece skewers so skillfully. The book needs a review from someone who is of the left, who will take its claims seriously and address them thoughtfully. Fortunately, one of our regular (leftie) commenters, Dave Bath, has been sent a review copy by the publisher and has agreed to write a review for skepticlawyer.com.au.

LE: Here is Dave's piece. I really applaud Dave's call for dialogue between 'Left' and 'Right', and indeed, I think such dialogue is achieved on this blog. There's no point speaking only to those with whom you agree; and I know that I've learned a good deal from people on this blog whose views are quite different from mine but that deserve careful consideration. I hope you enjoy Dave's piece as much as I did.]

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Left Turn: Political Essays for the New Left, edited by Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow.
Publication date: June 2012
Price: $27.99
Status: Available
Format: 288 pp, PB, 210 x 135 mm
Subject: Politics
ISBN : 978-0-522-86143-3
Imprint: MUP

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“Left Turn”, with the secondary title “Political essays for the New Left”, edited (I’d say “assembled”) by Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow, is a series of essays from a range of lefties with different perspectives and concerns, each essentially a single issue, with some “doubling up”.  The introduction and back-cover blurb acknowledge the despair of many on the left, and offer the promise of suggestions for a way for the left to make a difference again.

It’s a book of bits: disparate opinions, varying styles and varying quality.  That makes it tricky to review – like a food critic trying to give a concise impression of a “bring-a-plate” dinner, nothing consistent, apart from in this case, needing to say “Hang on … there was no dessert … where is my dessert?”

If there is something striking about the book for me, it was what is missing.

Reading the book feels like being in a slightly too-small room full of ardent lefties, all wired on lattes, tongues loosened with chardonnay, everybody talking at once.  Aaaah … memories of times before I met my grandson’s grandmother, when Big Mal Fraser was the Big Bad … the nods or wry smiles at good points, the rolled eyes at stating-the-bleeding-obvious and the lowered slowly-shaking head at clangers.

If you are much younger than I am, you might instead feel you are reading a “Best of Larvatus Prodeo” – for better and worse.

The “bring-a-plate” dinner has some tasty bits.  Some morsels come with a nice dipping-sauce of self-criticism.  There are few, not quite enough, meaty bits of common-sense suggestions.

Then there are the bits where something wasn’t trimmed properly before cooking, the bits you bite on, then wonder whether you risk gagging on it, or whether it is possible, in a polite way, to reach into the back of your mouth with your fingers, grab the horrible gristly bit, and put it on the side of the plate – where, sadly, everybody can see what was served up.

“Capitalism is, after all, inextricably linked to the contemporary concept of ‘being a slut’.”
- Jacinta Woodhead – Sexiness and Sexism

Oh dear. Where’d that come from? Now … nobody brought any napkins to wipe my fingers after disentangling that from my uvula.  If by capitalism you mean Adam Smith capitalism, then I am confused – but then, Marx and Engels missed predicting the inevitability of that inextricable linkage too, so I guess I can forgive myself.

This is one problem that comes from the left talking to itself, expecting not to be pulled up by other lefties when making statements that are “out there” as if they are self-evident, needing no justification.  I guess there is a karaoke machine at the bring-a-plate dinner, with everybody getting up, expecting that really bum notes won’t be commented on among friends – but … it’s not a private party … there are righties wandering past the doors, scrunching their faces in pain while laughing at the bits horribly off key.  This is not the way to help yourself to be taken seriously when you are complaining about not being taken seriously.

One thing the book does correctly, I imagine due to the editors, is minimize use of the term capitalism, with “neoliberalism” named again and again as the “Big Bad”.

This thing done correctly, however, points to what I see as the flaw in the book, the “where was dessert?” moment: there is a place between the left and neoliberals, not a small place, not terra nullius, but with many good thinkers, wanting, like many lefties, decent humane outcomes, evidence-based policy development, better discourse in the parliament and the press, and just as depressed about how things are going.

The “missing dessert” problem is made worse when the book discusses the way the media and politics now operate. This includes what I see as the way anti-intellectualism is pandered to because it avoids the need to deal with evidence when developing policy (not much discussed in the book).  The flawed processes, the social conservatism, the absence of Jefferson’s informed and active citizenry is just as troubling to “decent righties”, who would make such good and necessary allies, are not mentioned, and certainly, there is no reaching out to the progressive right, no suggestion of this being a way forward.

SNIPPETS

Perhaps given the bittiness of the book, a few bits, albeit possibly out of context, are useful.  Given this review is hosted by women, it’s probably appropriate to select bits written by women, and mainly on women’s issues.

Sexism

“Indeed, abortion still falls under the Crimes Act in every Australian state and territory, save Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory.  …  This illicitness fits nicely with the conservative worldview – and the importance of the nuclear family.  That’s perhaps why, despite the gains from sexual liberation being subsumed by neoliberalism, women’s reproductive rights are the one area the marketplace hasn’t claimed.  The market may very well hold all other aspects of women’s bodies in its grasp, but social conservatism still reigns over abortion, self-abortion, and reproductive products.  ”
- Jacinta Woodhead – Sexiness and Sexism

Reasonable observations, some facts, and a justifiable interpretation.  The book contains enough such bits to be worth reading, if you are into political essays.

“Feminism needs a program that … stops focussing on debates about semantics and pornography, and, instead, returns to collective action with broader tangible goals.  …  [long dot dot dot to next page]  …  Maybe a contemporary feminist movement should concentrate on the right to free abortion-on-demand, without the doctor’s or the court’s permission.”
- Jacinta Woodhead – Sexiness and Sexism

Good – some self-criticism, and a sensible enough suggestion about what to do, perhaps a bit bleeding obvious, but worth saying nonetheless, especially for those on the left hung up about semantics, but … no mention of the natural allies in the progressive right who want those same tangible outcomes.

Media

There are two essays on the media, one by Antony Loewenstein, the other by Wendy Bacon.  These, along with the introduction, are perhaps the strongest parts of the book, perhaps because they focus on the systemic problems that block progress on every other part of the “lefty” agenda, and have fewer “gristly bits” that will make decent righties gag.  There are criticisms of journalists as mere stenographers passing on information, but also an acknowledgment of the media not always conspiring against good policy and debate, merely being a bit gutless in order to get the favor of politicians, the privilege of an exclusive or a leak.

“Progressive media needs to reclaim the democratic philosophical underpinnings of journalism … a scientific approach to the testing of evidence, which does not preclude an interpretive point of view … the ‘claim of humanity’ to the principles of journalism.  The claim states that journalists’ primary claim is to truthful, independent informing of a global public humanity.”
- Wendy Bacon – A Voice for the Voiceless

Again, this is something decent righties want too – journalists doing what they are supposed to do in order to justify the privileged position of journalists in a democracy.  But … no mention of the natural allies.

I was surprised, given the obvious problem of public disengagement, and indeed general antipathy to thinking, that I couldn’t find discussion of the success of The Jon Stewart Show as part of the way forward, throwing bricks at screwups regardless of which “side” is responsible for the screwup (maybe I was reading too quickly) .

WHO CAN GET SOMETHING FROM THE BOOK

“Left Turn” is useful to lefties, and the most useful is the self-criticism, perhaps best done in “The Toxicity of Smugness” by Christos Tsiolkas.  We need more of this.

The book has many good “factoids” useful for dropping into other conversations, pointing to failures in how our society operates, although the flaws are already obvious to lefties (and quite a few decent righties) and not uncommonly provided, if not put together to form a “message”, in the mainstream media.

There will be the righties who read it, and go “I told you so” at the self-criticisms, look at the bits of sloganeering and roll their eyes and perhaps have greater reason to dismiss lefties in general.  Still, the wry giggles are giggles, and laughter is good medicine.

Maybe some of the decent righty readers will see a snippet, and say to themselves, “well, yes, that’s a good point, and I am worried about that too.”  Every little bit of that helps, but I doubt it is “friendly” enough to decent righties in general tone to encourage acceptance of all the points that could be accepted.

The indecent righties, however, will enjoy the book no end, find every single “gristly bit”, put on a great show of gagging, and make the left look sillier than it deserves to be.  Of course, the indecent righties won’t point out the biggest flaw of the book, the “missing dessert” problem – oh, no – can’t have the decent folk of the right and left joining forces and spoiling the fun the hypocrites are having!

THE BOOK THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

If the problem facing the left is being considered irrelevant by the mainstream, if we need to make an impact again, make progress, then we need to have as much in our arsenal as possible.

So we should be aware of our natural allies among decent righties.  We need to be able to criticize neoliberalism, and the failures of the financial market, with arguments that are valid, and more likely to get the attention of the unthinking mob, including the aspirationalists who assume anything labelling itself as capitalist is good, anything smacking of intellectualism bad.

We need to use the weapons the decent right provides for us. The Economist magazine, well-informed and a devout believer in free markets, warned for years about an impending financial meltdown and a housing bubble – their prognostications and criticisms of bailouts are surely useful, cannot be dismissed by the lumpenproletariat as the rantings of the smug lefty intellectual elite.  Similar weapons are available from The Adam Smith Institute, pointing out that the advantages of the flexibility of free markets and competition are lost when there is a political system that allows existing commercial players to get politicians to institutionalize moral hazard, make it difficult for new players or constructively disruptive products to compete – something as harmful, if not more so, than the state intruding in markets openly and for openly-discussed reasons.

It would surprise many that The Economist is very much for climate change action, because effective climate change actions — not the symbolic ones proposed by many governments are necessary anyway — good for business in a world of finite resources.

The cream on the missing dessert is the mutual respect, the strength through dialectic that comes from engaging with the decent righties, who are part of the intellectual elite, share a large part of the progressive agenda particularly where the underlying democratic processes are concerned.  Jefferson’s informed and active citizenry essential for a functioning democracy is highly desired by the left, but Jefferson wasn’t a lefty.  Edmund Burke’s arguments against British militarism and lack of due process for prisoners during the American Revolution, with so many parallels to the militarism of the USA today and the excesses of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, would fit right in with the lefty agenda – but Edmund Burke called himself a Conservative, and even John Howard (hypocritically, and he knew it), claimed there is Burkean Conservatism running in the blood of the Liberal Party.

Being more specific, and practical, Keynes and Hayek were on very good terms, admired the work of each other, while admitting disagreements.

The book that could have been would have used progressive righty arguments as well, and ideally, got some progressive righties as contributors – right and left not selling out or softening, but keeping each other honest, both fighting on their own high grounds against the common foes.

Are there big systemic problems that lefties would acknowledge as big systemic problems?  Do we have, as Barry Jones puts it, the most highly qualified yet least educated cohort in history?  Do we have politicians on all sides who no longer represent the people but are the puppets of faceless men in the back rooms of the party machines?  Do we have regulatory and legislative capture, news-cycle political agenda for soundbites, rather than evidence-based policy development and the demand for it?

Would those same problems be recognized as systemic, preventing movement on important specific issues, by progressive righties?

The book that could have been would not be titled “Left Turn”, but by engaging all those influenced by Enlightenment values, it would have been called “Fall In, Forward March”.

51 Comments

  1. Don Aitkin
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    You say that ‘climate change actions’ are important, and I guess I would agree if you meant what I mean – that climates change, and we know enough about climate to prepare for droughts and floods and fires, because they will come again.

    If you mean something more than this, you might like to say what it is. I was rapped over the knuckles for getting too far into global warming last year, so I’ll back off now.

    But I do enjoy what you all write, and on my new website, out in a few weeks, Skeptic Lawyer gets an honourable mention in the blogroll.

    Cheers,

    Don

  2. Posted June 3, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I find use of the term ‘neoliberalism’ interesting; no-one uses that term over here, or in the US — it seems to be peculiarly Australian. I suspect this has its origins in the theft by US progressives of ‘liberal’ (Hayek really wanted his word back, and hated ‘libertarian’). In the UK and Europe, liberal means what it says, and parties that want to do something with it have to bolt something else onto it, like the ‘Lib Dems’ do.

  3. Posted June 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Don,

    (Hoping to avoid the climate change argument)

    The Economist was looking at effective action making a difference regardless of whether climate change is a threat or not, and I’m pretty sure one example was the particulates removed from the atmosphere by cleaning up power generation and transport – the savings in health costs over a 30 year period, by removing the particulates that damage health, far outweighed the costs of the cleaning up. Other value includes the considerations of efficiencies with finite resources, which would include keeping carbon chains intact for lengthening them into plastics, rather than burn them.

    The Economist also criticized the design of the EU carbon trading system, pointing out that because each country could grant whatever carbon indulgences they liked to existing industry, there was bugger-all left to trade, no-one actually needed to use it, it can’t be used for price signals – BAD (Broken As Designed). The same indulgences are a major feature of the Australian system. The Economist was rather tough when it came to the “beancounting” about what actions by governments would work, and which would do little but make politicians more popular with greenies.

    A less controversial area – We lefties may want to see a world without private properly, we may detest the whole notion of the financial system, but to get the attention of the masses, and the politicians, the critique from free market fans about “dark boards” that cannot provide price signals, the poor governance, the design of dodgy derivatives that hide risk that should be priced … well, that’s like using theology and biblical scholarship to fight hateful christians – a lot more useful weapon than saying “there is no sky fairy”.

    Marx himself wrote that capitalism was a huge improvement on what preceded it – and I’d say what has followed it – the major parties now acting like two houses in feudal times, currying favor with earls and barons to secure the throne, and the earls and barons driving a hard bargain with each house. Many of the dangerous problems we face would be ameliorated by removing market distortions, cleaning up capitalism, even if it does delay, from my lefty perspective, its ultimate collapse and the creation of a socialist paradise. So … call me a traitor, but I want improvement, and the great untutored anti-thinking masses out there (smug lefty that I am) won’t recognize the legitimacy of any other argument for change – and I’ll choose the lesser evil.

    Now, if we actually get decent informed debate driving policy, we can actually collect the evidence, have the debates, and a fair fight between people of good will coming from the left and the right – and I have faith the left’s broad arguments will win out – but if they don’t, in a fair fight, so be it. We can’t actually /have/ those debates now, evidence and the hard thinking required are unwelcomed by most people, and therefore the parties.

    But … my immediate problem … what are the terms, the nice short ones, that put people who like evidence, are prepared to consider the views of opponents on merit, on a case-by-case basis … in short, those people who will say “Damnit … I hate to admit it … but you have a good point there”. We need a label for those, and they are found across the political spectrum. Utilitarian? Maybe. Not enough emphasis on the “likes evidence and prepared to think about it” though. And then there is the question of how to get evidence and thinking to affect public policy … I am at a loss there.

  4. Don Aitkin
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Finished my post before my wife and I went to dinner In Coober Pedy (a great meal, too, in the Desert Cave hotel), and arrive back to find Dav’s response.

    OK. By ‘climate change’ I don’t mean ‘human-induced climate change’, which is the approved (official) meaning. So I am about adaptation, not mitigation. So, by all means let us remove even more particulates (to add to the great amount that has been removed in developed societies since the 1960s). And let us conserve transportation fuels because they have other potential uses. We can use gas for motor vehicles, and are likely to do so before very long, and can easily do so. Planes can’t use gas yet, so we have a problem there.

    Now I’m a Fabian who is also an incremental liberal. I like the glow of ‘the light on the hill’, but I’m not sure what it points to. I don’t want everyone to be equal – I think that’s a fatuous goal – but I do want everyone to have a creative outlet and output that gives them a good sense of themselves. On the whole, I find it relatively easy to talk to both lefties and righties, who generally think I’m nice but misguided. But after twenty years of policy and implementation I have come to the view that small improvements to the way things are is the way to go.

    Alas, so many want sweeping changes …

  5. Posted June 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    Don@4 Fabian is not a bad thing … even if you think you hear the self-styled true believers calling one “Cunctator” or something sounding like that…. as long as there is improvement rather than things going backwards … although, push it too hard and you see Fabius let the enemy scorch the earth until there were no resources left, … but then, the elephants weren’t in the room.

    Oh … yeah … for me on this thread from now, self-imposed silence on climate issues. The Ab Fab. punning I couldn’t resist tho. Just sayin’.

  6. Posted June 3, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed the post, but Edmund Burke was not a conservative, he was a prudential liberal. He was a Whig not a Tory, supported the American Revolution and had the same views on economic issues as Adam Smith.

    Of course, that Burke is adopted as the icon of Anglosphere conservatism says something central about the conundrums of being a conservative in the most dynamic of all civilisations.

  7. Tim
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    Just desserts. ;-)

    Pubic policy can be about evidence. But public policy is also about fundamental differences in political philosophy. Left and right differ fundamentally. They do not just differ in their understanding of the facts and the evidence. Even if the evidence were all agreed upon, there would still be public policy debate. This is as it should be. I find it hard to agree with the argument that public policy debate should pay more attention to evidence. I think public policy debate is probably just about where it should be. It’s not primarily about evidence. It’s about fundamental conceptions of right, government, justice, prudence, expediency and morality, not to mention democracy.

  8. Posted June 4, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo@6 … Yes … or of the problem of righties all being tarred with the same brush! I’ll ‘fess up to the sloppiness on Burke, but, claimed by the right, yet talks, especially with “Sheriffs of Bristol”, like a lefty argument against Bush’s War on Abstract Nouns.

    Tim@7 – “Public Policy Debate is probably just about where it should be”. Umm… haven’t seen politicians do anything but theatrics for some time. The politicians don’t engage in nuanced debate, and probably don’t want the general voter interested in nuance. As to evidence … well … let’s see, how many things can we point to and say “it’s not working, change” … like the “War On Drugs” that keeps the drug lords wealthy. The evidence is clear cut, the policy doesn’t work, hasn’t worked since Al Capone was in nappies, and yet major parties won’t even point this out to the public … how come? Even though everyone in both parties KNOWS … policy doesn’t change. I doubt the parties want the general voter to be informed or engaged, on any issue, just easily whipped up to a frenzy over nothing, for no reason.

  9. Posted June 4, 2012 at 2:20 am | Permalink

    Even if the evidence were all agreed upon, there would still be public policy debate.

    I think this is true, but I also think that the refusal to attend to evidence (particularly at the implementation end, which is why abortion laws are just ignored in Australia, rather than repealed) is undermining both green and conservative arguments. If you are arguing that something is better, inherence doesn’t cut it any more: it actually needs to work out in the wash, or you get this:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/agriculture/geneticmodification/9281863/GM-vandals-are-shutting-down-scientific-debate.html

  10. Posted June 4, 2012 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    A brilliant review. The criticism of the book’s approach is equally applicable to ongoing debates between atheists and believers. Instead of slagging each other off, all must seek points of concord. In Australia probably the majority of believers are in favour of both a secular state and the humanist principals held by most atheists. .

  11. Tim
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand your comments SL.

  12. Posted June 4, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Well done Dave, but I won’t bother to read the book

    you might instead feel you are reading a “Best of Larvatus Prodeo”

    Careful, you might sound a bit like Prof. Bob Carter who has for years argued that we should be funding action against the impact of climate change (whether anthropogenic or not) rather than trying to minimise the human production of greenhouse gasses. An intelligent right/centre right needs an intelligent thoughtful left so the impending demise of Labor is of no value to any of us.

  13. Don Aitkin
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Tim@7. I loved your ‘pubic policy’ – and hope we’ll see more of it. I think that a ‘pubic auction’ was once advertised in the Armidale Express.

    More generally, we seem to go through improvements and retractions, and sometimes the improvements provide us with new problems. An incrementalist will usually suggest that we try to fix the small thing that really bugs us, rather than proposing a radical change that might fix a number of problems but will most likely lead to several unintended and unwelcome consequences.

    The trouble is that radical changes sound good, while fixing something small and do-able sounds boring. Also, most people who want change want it now, even though effective and beneficial change usually takes at least a generation.

  14. kvd
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Even if the evidence were all agreed upon, there would still be public policy debate.

    Is a more than fair statement. Evidence can always lead to more than one conclusion, or more than one proposed course of action, from people with differing overall objectives. I don’t believe there is any stark right or wrong; more just choice of possible alternatives. And because this is so, Henry2′s comment that An intelligent right/centre right needs an intelligent thoughtful left is also spot on imo. Although you could probably replace ‘needs’ with ‘benefits from’.

    Dave I was struck by the word ‘bitterness’ in your review. You feel that was the general tone?

  15. kvd
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Forget question; I now see the word was ‘bittiness’ and I have projected bitterness. Only defense is I took no pleasure from (mis) reading that.

  16. Posted June 4, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Tim: I meant that if you make a policy proposal intended to produce more of x or to protect x because x is inherently good, it actually has to do what it says (protect x or produce x). If it doesn’t (ie is inert) or – more commonly – produces more of the harm (thereby actively undermining x), then it has to be scrapped. You can’t leave laws on the books because they make a certain section of the population feel good about themselves, no matter how well-intentioned that group may be.

    Anti-drug laws (as Dave points out) are the most obvious example (they generate more of the harm but make well-meaning people feel good about themselves) but all sides of politics are vulnerable: hence my link to the greenies destroying a GMO study that, if successful, would result in less pesticide use – surely a win for the green movement.

  17. Posted June 5, 2012 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Dave and Legal Eagle (and wittyknitter, when you come back from your PhD hiatus), you’ll be delighted to learn that you’re now ‘right wing’. Srsly.

    Click on the link from Antony Loewenstein below.

  18. Posted June 5, 2012 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    SL@17 : “Delighted to know [I'm] now right wing”

    I wonder if my righty friends think so? Just because there are points of my interlocutors I can see have merit, just because I think dialectic is good, doesn’t mean I agree with their assumptions or their reflex tactics, even on issues where they have a point.

    I am depressed by the way lefty agendas are ignored or even derided by the general population, and especially that there is no significant voice in politics. So allies, on certain issues, from the progressive right, are useful, both for progress on the specific issues, and for the general aim of getting some street-cred in tabloid-reading street.

    Do I find the finance industry – where not basically involved in anything much more artificial than basic lending, close to an abomination? Do I see derivatives (even though I wrote software to manage funds, and worked on a trinomial algorithm for options pricing rather than the standard Black and Scholes binomial algorithms) as a Bad Thing, that short sells are nothing more than selling something you haven’t got and basic fraud? Would I like a world with no property owners, just stewards of a common wealth? Do I want in the short term a massive increase in the public service? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

    Conversation, respectful conversation, willingness to consider, not reject outright without thought, is NOT the same as agreement. It’s no difference in science, when in some circumstances a different model is required – or especially when dealing with wave/particle duality of photons, electrons, etc.

    Marx saw capitalism (/traditional/ capitalism) as a huge advance on what was before, ulimately doomed to failure, to destroy itself – something well on the way, I’d argue. But … I think we have gone backwards, in some areas to almost pre-Enlightenment, anti-empirical ways of working, to, as I’ve said elsewhere, a type of corporate neo-feudalism. We must stop this regression, and start on the path forward again. The left cannot do it alone, especially not now, when it admits it is considered irrelevant by the masses (yes, I’m a smug lefty, deride the McMansion owners, but we’ve got to educate their children more completely, and, I fear, may have to write off the current cohort of CUBS and aspirationalists as a dead loss – too brainwashed, too addicted to Harvey Norman, to ever listen to us).

    Oh, SL, would you consider me “righty”?

  19. Posted June 5, 2012 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Dave. I will be buying the book.

    But I think your arguments about the co-operation between the right and left in dialectical terms misunderstands the nature of the dialectic as it came to be used in Marx’s thought. It seems to me you are hankering for a social democratic revival, when the objective conditions (such as declining and/or stagnant profit rates) make social democratic outcomes, but not desires, almost an impossibility, especially without class and other mass struggles.

    In any event that cooperation I would argue exists in the convergence of both parties to a neoliberal agenda, which is perfectly in tune with the idea of the ALP as a capitalist workers’ party, or as I have written elsewhere, a CAPITALIST workers’ party.

    And Helen, I was doing some research for an article the other day and it appears to me neoliberlism is a term that much of the left internationally use. Or maybe it is just the radical left I read that uses it?

    Which leads me to the next point. I think neoliberalism is not the only enemy. It expresses ideologically and politically the need of capital to restore profit rates by attacking workers’ living standards, lengthening the working day, cutting government expenditure etc etc. That makes it an enemy, but because capitalism with its manic drive to accumulate and the threat that poses to our livelihoods and lives, is the enemy.

    Here endeth the lesson.

    And if I ever get around to doing my best of En Passant book, I’ll need a reviewer. Interested?

  20. Posted June 5, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Oh, SL, would you consider me “righty”?

    I’ll just repeat what I said on facebook with respect to Dave allegedly changing his spots:

    “It is annoying, because Legal Eagle could have reviewed it (she is centre-left), or I could have asked any one of my Labor/Labour friends for a review (eg Tim Watts). Instead I tried to choose someone who was genuinely outside the centre-left mainstream, and then HE gets mischaracterised. Along with the whole blog.”

    And I’ll also add the following:

    I founded this blog because I hate libertarian purity (read pissing) contests, and because I came over time to be persuaded that the skills I’d learnt as a skeptic applied equally to politics: seek the evidence, see where it leads. And when the results are equivocal, be honest that politics come into one’s choices.

    If we don’t do that, then we have flipped the bird at David Hume & Co and turned our backs on much of what makes us great.

  21. Posted June 5, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    SL@20: I think Lowenstein calling the review “less charitable” was unfortunate (well, I wasn’t charitable, and I don’t get revenue from overselling the book).

    If anything, the review-of-the-review could have been spun as “righty blog doesn’t dismiss it entirely, says there is some good stuff and occasional commonsense in the book”.

    I do note that while there was a lengthy copy/paste – the core criticism – talking to oneself and not looking for allies who will join in the chorus “the emperor has no clothes” (even if we disagree violently about what clothes should be worn), wasn’t mentioned. I am beginning to wonder why.

    John@19 perhaps misreads my intent – I don’t think on all things there should be a convergence of opinion of decent righties and lefties on all issues. Some issues we agree on – something bad exists and should be stopped. On other issues, the general population believes the emperor has clothes – both decent righties and lefties know better – so lets make the truth known, then we can have our argument, one the general public might notice, about whether something to block the sun, or something to keep out the cold, is what the emperor should put on. We need all the help we can get to tell people the emperor is naked first. There are an awful lot of naked emperors out there!

  22. Nick Ferrett
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 5:48 am | Permalink

    I just read that extract of the Tsiolkas essay. I found it bizarre. Maybe the extract doesn’t do justice to the whole essay, but the glaring absence is any reason why he adheres to the left or any idea of what being left means to him. He’s committed to the left without any idea of why or what that commitment might mean.

    Given the substantial criticisms he makes of the left, you’d expect him to say what keeps him keeping on.

  23. Posted June 6, 2012 at 6:28 am | Permalink

    Maybe the extract doesn’t do justice to the whole essay, but the glaring absence is any reason why he adheres to the left or any idea of what being left means to him.

    I suspect they’d like you to buy the book, Nick — so there’s no doubt a fair bit of ‘leaving out the good stuff’.

    Also: some people care more about equality than liberty. Equality floats their boat more than liberty does. Tsiolkas may fall into this category. If Prof. John Haidt is right, this fundamental (and reflexive) difference is both moral and instinctive, and very difficult to shift (an aspect of the best Humean argument – ‘reason is the slave of the passions’).

    Liberty floats my boat more than equality, and as much as liberty, autonomy. I will subordinate the interests of children and animals to the autonomy of free adults, for example, in part because I think autonomy — an aspect of liberty — is the most important value (but not the only value — I am an empiricist after all). Some people don’t do empiricism (Rothbardians, Catholic Natural lawyers), others do it with a controlling political understanding (Marxists)… and so on. But we all start with something instinctive that floats our boats. I have been poor and managed okay, but I have also been unfree and unable to operate independently in my own interest. I experienced the latter as worse, so: for me, liberty and autonomy. I would die in a ditch for those things.

    Tsiolkas’s reason is slave to a different set of passions.

  24. Mel
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, Lowenstein, Sparrow, Rundle etc make my stomach turn. I don’t feel like a lefty when I read these characters. I think most of the best lefties have a background in economics. At least when someone like John Quiggin uses a term like neoliberal you can be confident that he has an intimate understanding of what he is talking about, whereas the social science/humanities/arts lefties are nearly always well out of their depth.

  25. Posted June 6, 2012 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

    Oh you mean capitalist economics? Perhaps the best place to start with understanding how capitalism works might be Marx.

  26. Mel
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    John Passant in another Age.

  27. Posted June 6, 2012 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    JP@19 It is amazing how many false statements you can pack into the one sentence:

    by attacking workers’ living standards, lengthening the working day, cutting government expenditure etc etc.

    From August 1994 to February 2012, Average Weekly Earnings rose 22%. (I would use a longer time series, but that is what is available on the ABS website for average weekly earnings.) From August 1994 to April 2012 average hours worked per month dropped from 150.8 to 142.1. From 1994-95 to 2010-11 Commonwealth expenditure per person rose from $11,400 to $15,250 (in 2010-11 dollars).

    So average weekly earnings rose, hours worked fell and government expenditure per person went up. If you had actually understood what the economic reform program was about (creating a sustainable welfare state) you would not be surprised by this.

  28. Posted June 6, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    JP@28 Perhaps you need to start reading new things to understand how the society you live in actually works.

  29. Posted June 6, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    John@28 (and others) … I don’t think we are in capitalism anymore Toto … imaginary finance rules, not capital.

    Nanosecond trades, derivatives that yield power often without anything to back them (apart from pork belly futures and the like, which do something real – farmers need them), the “dark boards” … Marx was good, but the impact of computers on finance’s inventive illusions was a big ask.

    I’d call it “post-capitalist” but anything with “post-” would mean I’d write with the aim of nobody understanding me. We need a label – “neocapitalism”, “financialism”??? Any ideas folks?

  30. kvd
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Dave@32 since surrealism is already taken, what about klepto-monetarism ;)

  31. Posted June 7, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    OK, so we should only read approved tracts of economics. Is that it? And as to being out of date I think Marx and his ideas explain the reality of the GFC and the crisis in Europe and the US better than any apologists for the profit system. But obviously since reading Marx is banned on this website we’ll have to find other works. Kliman’s recent book, the Failure of Capitalist Production, might help.

    Lorenzo, the share of national income going to capital is at its highest since records were kept, that to labour at or near its lowest. Inequality has increased. Read the OECD Divided We Stand country report on Australia for confirmation. Government expenditure as a percentage of GDP is at very low recent historical levels. Australia’s working week is at or near the top of the OECD. So while official hours to be worked under awards fell a little to 38 hours, actual hours worked went to about 43. The way to redress this shift of wealth to capital? a 30 hour week on current pay without any job losses might claw back some of the ill gotten gains Rinehart and the other hostile siblings have made.

  32. mel
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    JP@34:

    “The way to redress this shift of wealth to capital? a 30 hour week on current pay without any job losses might claw back some of the ill gotten gains Rinehart and the other hostile siblings have made.”

    That would seriously damage the economy and impoverish the workers you say you care about. When I hear Marxists say such things I suspect (a) they are useful idiots, or (b) they know their crazy ideas would destroy the economy and cause chaos if put into practice and this is what they want because they’re still dreamin’ of a revolution.

    Nonetheless, as a lefty, I find it disgusting that Rinehart is now the world’s richest woman because of who her daddy was and because she’s had a good run with compliant politicians.

  33. Posted June 7, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    kvd@33 That would be a gross slander on Milton Friedman et al, who would not have approved. Klepto-creditism might work better :)

    JP@34 (1) What LE@35 said.

    (2) On inequality, it depends rather on whether you count market or post-intervention incomes. And if the workers are generally better off (as they are) then I don’t care so much if inequality has increased.

    And if people are earning more money from working longer, I really don’t care. Given we have one of the highest rates of labour mobility in the world, it would appear to represent workers making their own work/leisure choices, and good on them.

    As for rating government expenditure as a share of GDP as a good in itself, what nonsense–let’s look at standard of living and prospects, shall we?

    Also, the increase in the profit share is a bit ambiguous, given how many workers now have significant super (where do you think super income comes from?).

    So, (3) what M@36 said, except he was a little harsh on Gina Rinehart, who is not a nice person but has proved to be rather cleverer than her father in managing mining assets. Grrrl power capitalism :)

  34. mel
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I don’t think Gina’s cleverness should entitle her to $30 billion worth of grrl power ;)

  35. Posted June 7, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo@37 said “klepto-creditism”

    Oh, my …. Someone with your economic colors describing modern finance with the word root “klepto” in it warms the cockles of my lefty heart no end. Wicked grins, rubbing my hands together so hard they are about to burst into flames.

    Even in half-jest, it does support my suggestion that the current setup can be attacked as pathological by decent folk of both left and right, enough to shake complacency of the public who are pro-capitalist into the notion that we live in a system that is labelled properly, and questions should be asked about how to, at least, rein in the excesses, moving to something which /can/ be justified by decent theory, of right or left.

    Now, how useful is the logic of the half-jest from Lorenzo, to both decent left and right, to allow a wider public acknowledgement that something is very wrong and needs fixing? That’s a huge first step. This is exactly the “missing dessert” problem of the book is indeed a “missing dessert”.

  36. John H.
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    Wonder if it actually will be published?

    Does it need to be? This blog is unequivocally one of the most politically tolerant, amiable but intense blogs around. The posts are first rate and the comments are the best you can expect from a blog.

    I don’t comment here much is because I am clearly out of my depth with most subjects raised here. I visit, I read, I learn, but I can’t contribute much. I am too confused in these days so my blogging involvement has largely vanished.

  37. Posted June 7, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    John H: often we’d be lost without your health commentary, though. You always manage to unearth something fascinating.

  38. Posted June 7, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    DB@39 That something is rotten in the world of finance is not quite the same as tarring the entire system with it. I would point out that part of the problem was politicians promising stuff on the never-never and buying into guaranteeing financiers from bad decisions. Part of the problem was bad central banking (see my post on the subject). Then you get into banking that has become morally challenged, in a serious way.

    There is a tangled thicket of politics, governance and banking to challenge any ideological perspective.

    But watching the Dictator-President of Indonesia being browbeaten by the IMF into guaranteeing dodgy loans on the backs of Indonesian peasants so Wall St suffered no harm from dubious decisions was all one had to see to know things were getting in a bad way.

    JH@40 Thank you, the appreciation is appreciated.

  39. Posted June 7, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    OMG – I called for dialog, sure, but this thread seems to becoming almost a love-in … mel slagging off some lefties being stupid, lorenzo making up “klepto” words in reference to the finance industry, … , in a minute someone will make nice remarks about post-modernist stuff being readable.

    Seriously though, can you politicians in parliament with the range of views we have here being as respectful as the skepticlawyer.com.au hosts and fans. Shouldn’t they be? So why not? Can that be fixed?

  40. Posted June 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    DB@43 We only have to please ourselves and are not competing for any scarce resources in a zero-sum game :)

    I am reminded of a question asked of Henry Kissinger:
    Why are academic politics so vicious?
    Henry Kissinger’s response:
    Because the stakes are so small.

  41. Posted June 7, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    L@42: wasn’t suggesting you were suggesting the whole system is stuffed … but … Lots of the voters go “is capitalism therefore is best”, unaware that the current way things have got twisted is readily criticized from a righty PoV, not just by lefties like me. And the financiers keep saying “no regulation, it’s bad for capitalism, theory says so” (never mind no risk, because of endemic moral hazard with “too big to be allowed to fail” government bailouts almost guaranteed) … So the AMITS (Average Moron In The Street) doesn’t know that making a diagnosis, identifying a problem, the first step, is necessary. I think decent lefties and righties would point to the same things as the worst bits of the system, and say “fix this”, which offers the chance to fix the worst bits, one way or another. I’d bet prudential regulations and removal of moral hazard would be high on the agenda of both camps.

    I wonder what the underpinnings of capitalist theory, the scottish enlightenment folk, scottish and therefore usually canny and prudent, would think of all the wankery of modern finance, the moral hazards, the “risk free investment”, etc, etc. but more importantly, look not at finance.sector profits compared to GDP, but to total corporate profits. Looked at that way, the finance sector is more and more inefficient in servicing “real stuff” capital (goods and services-you-can-see, like hairdressers or call centres or even accountants).

    Personally, I’d say nanosecond buying in and out of a stock doesn’t allow time for the “prudence” to operate, for risk to be appreciated, for deliberated choice of where to invest, and so any advantage of crowdsourced wisdom, or the invisible hand, to make a difference, is lost … So slow transactions down somewhat, force deliberation and control volatility. Of course, the finance industry, paid by transaction volume, wouldn’t like that, but “real world” capital might like it, money would be more stable to rely on for planning, and “real world” capital wouldn’t have as much a bottomless pit of the finance industry as a non-productive expense.

    Then there are the other problems shared by the decent lefties and righties … The prohibition of fun, invasion of governments into what you want to do in the bedroom, or put into your brain. There is the poor quality news/issues reporting that prevents an informed citizenry. There is legislative and regulatory capture. There is race-to-the-bottom politics. … What problems would the rightier-than-me see in left/right neutral processes, the processes that allow or encourage politicians to avoid looking for evidence and.following it?

    What important things do you, any of you, see as areas where decent left and decent right are natural, if awkward, allies? Where to we, from our different aesthetics and instincts, agree not just where problems are, but which direction we move in? I suspect I can only see a small fraction of such issues.

  42. Posted June 8, 2012 at 12:44 am | Permalink

    DB Not a response to your 45, but just to confirm disgust at the hubris of the bankers and their political enablers crosses ideological lines, see this.

  43. Posted June 8, 2012 at 1:08 am | Permalink

    L@44: said about we being polite, politicians being vile: “We only have to please ourselves and are not competing for any scarce resources in a zero-sum game”

    Very good point. I wonder if independents, or at least where parties are loose alliances, or at least too poorly funded for party machines to enforce obedience of their MPs,, would be more likely to see it as a non-zero sum game – because independents have to prove usefulness to the parliament rather than to the party.

    Oh … side note: academic politics … I got caught up in this (http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/89ta.html), the fraud (Briggs) shafting the supervisor (she was gathering evidence of the fraud, pretty basic, lots of rabbits mentioned in the papers, no rabbits used from the animal house, there was no experiment!) and the project (pathology) she wrote for me (NHMRC funding covering the lot – and wrote /for/ me, not pulled from her to-do list!) and forced me to work for his supporters in a far less interesting subject (pharmacology), and squeeze me out. BIG turning point in my life. Vicious. Not so low stakes.

  44. kvd
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    DB@45 I think you are more than a little harsh on the average man in the street (assuming your word ‘moron’ is to remove the gender, not some sort of superiority thing). I think the amits see, and read, what is going on, but have very few means to change what they see. If you look at the various ‘classes’ of people who really could invoke or encourage change then I think it is more a question of (lack of) integrity and/o incompetence holding us back. Lord knows, after the past 10 years, I’d vote early and often for anyone who simply nominated one problem, and undertook to address it, and keep addressing it until it was ‘fixed’.

    This is not a left or right thing and it has been commented on many times here and elsewhere that we need serious, concerted reforms in both the financial system, and the legal system. Admitting that does not weaken either side’s political belief systems. It is just common sense and I’m pretty sure easily recognised by your amits that ‘the system’ is presently warped, and badly administered, and operates within a policy free political process.

    Just a few little things I’d like pursued to restore some integrity and faith in our betters:

    - ASIC announcing the other day that they won’t pursue some fellow who shipped $160M of super funds under management overseas, because “he’d broken no laws”.
    - Ross Gittens’ article a month ago about the six high frequency traders renting a data pipe between client orders and ASX computers, allowing those firms to literally buy and sell before the trades hit the floor. Passed without any comment.
    - the Pink Batts and BER schemes – both good policy – destroyed by absolutely incompetent administration
    - unexpired management agreements being paid out even where those same managers have destroyed company value. Small thing, but in a free-capitalist society, another moral hazard reducing responsibility for performance.
    - the AWB bribes, and the Children Overboard affairs. Either criminal or incompetent; no action to save embarrassment.
    - Keddies farcical legal process. How the legal profession can stomach that is beyond me. I’m not talking about the overcharging, just the process.
    - manipulation of statistics such as the unemployment rate, where somebody working one hour a month is deemed to be employed. A few of your amits would fall in that category, I’d guess
    - Bernie Fraser moving into the superannuation industry, with the first move being to ‘consolidate smaller, less efficient funds’. Pure chance of course that this provided a larger bonus pool for management, and also made the investment decisions more unwieldy through hugely increased holdings in specific companies. Oh, and also the justification for management fees attaching to ‘index-tracker’ funds: you could write a program for your Nintendo Gameboy which could manage that.

    I’m being boring now. The point is your so-called amit has no means to address even these things. But the parliament, and public service, and ASIC and ASX certainly do, and it boils down to a question of integrity and competence. The lack thereof.

  45. Posted June 8, 2012 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    kvd@48 : AMITS is perhaps not as harsh as you think, not synonymous with “average person”. It’s shorthand some of my friends use in their work for regulators when deciding what warnings and “blurb” manufacturers must put on packaging and products so the average moron who is /just/ intelligent enough to buy the product, is unlikely to cause significant damage to themselves or others – the sort of person who is the target of the warnings you react to with “no-one could be that stupid”. I suppose 1 standard deviation below the mean, so, smarter than about 15% of the population. The standard deviation of IQ is 20 to 25. So, AMITS are those who have jobs, but keeping a cash register under control for a couple of hours is a bit of a stretch, vote, drive, … With enough of them to make a difference to election swings and public opinion polls. So, think “average bogan” , “average redneck” without specifying racism or whatever, maybe drop a few IQ points, and you get AMITS. I suppose I was a /little/ harsh, and really meant “the average below average person in the street”, say 3rd to 4th decile. It’s a concept that is actionable and significant, for political parties, advertisers, and negligent not to consider when designing warning labels.

  46. Don Aitkin
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been out of Internet touch for a few days in central Australia. I commend those who have posted for a civilized and interesting discussion.

    I don’t have a list of things I would like to see done, but here’s three.

    (1) work away at the drugs thing until more and more recognize that banning ‘substances’ that people want to use has few positives to offset the negatives – at least, so it seems to me.

    (2) Support politicians and other opinion-makers who are prepared to say it as they see it, politely but firmly, and are prepared to do it publicly and engage in real discussion.

    (3) Pay teachers and nurses more, and keep doing so until these essential occupations become really attractive to all.

    I would like to say more, but doing this on an iPad n my knees does not help the final product!

  47. Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    Interesting review Dave. I’m yet to find myself suffering any LP withdrawal symptoms so I think I’ll probably pass on this book for the time being.

    As for equality and liberty I tend to think both are important. However it’s worth noting that these concepts are related. If you look at libertarianism and classical liberalism, the focus for liberty is freedom from government. This is because historically its the government that has been the greatest oppressor of freedom. However as inequality becomes greater, the threats to liberty become less from the government and more from the private sector (corporations in particular). This is becoming more important as modern technologies allow greater exploitation of inequalities than ever before, whether you’re talking inequality timing access to automated trading systems or understanding of cognitive vulnerabilities in the average human. Thus in order to ensure the greatest liberty of the common person the government must paradoxically restrict our liberty (that is the liberty to restrict others’ liberties).

    kvd@48, interesting list of points there. I do wonder how much of that list comes down to failing to manage perceptions, rather than the existence of actual problems.

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