Friday, 12 April 2013

THATCHER THE UN-GREAT (PARTY BY ALL MEANS, BUT DON'T START TAKING HER ON HER OWN TERMS...)



”The books are filled with the names of Kings...
Each page a victory

At whose expense the victory ball?

Every ten years a great man
Who paid the piper?”
- Brecht, 'A Worker Reads History'

Never hate your enemies. It clouds your judgement.”
- Al Pacino in 'Godfather III'

It is of course ridiculous to say that we should focus on Margaret Thatcher’s “strong leadership,” as if that was automatically a good thing. Mike Taylor has already said all that, so I don’t have to.

It is of course ridiculous to organise what David Cameron called “all but” a State funeral, then complain that her critics are cruelly attempting to drag politics into a private event. Andrew Rilstone has already said all that, so I don’t have to.

And it is of course completely telling that they would spend what may turn out to be eight million quid on such an event, at precisely the point where they’re cutting the pay and benefits of the poorest people because they say they can’t afford it. And that the Daily Mail would then complain that it wasn’t ostentatious enough.

I suppose I could say that, but it seems pretty obvious and anyway I sort of have.

Let’s take another tack. What would Thatcher herself say if she could see all this happening? From up in her cloud/down in that pit (delete according to personal prejudices)?

I think she would be delighted. I think she fed on the wrath of her foes, like a car that’s fuelled by pollution. After all, she coined the term “the enemy within.” Our gloating over her going would have been music to her ears. Wrinkles in her blue-rinse would have been expressions like “Margaret who?”, “wasn’t she the one before John Major?” or “was there ever an easy way to tell her from Virginia Bottomley?”

Except of course that wouldn’t look great on a banner. And I wouldn’t deny that her dark shadow had an influence on the British political landscape. But, for example, someone suggested on the Trade Union board at my work that our history might have been different had Thatcher been converted to socialism instead of free market capitalism. And I wonder if our side aren't starting to inflate her image too...
When 'The Wicked Witch is Dead' was chosen as the theme song of the opposition, it wasn't intended as a serious political statement like the Communist Manifesto. It's clearly a cross between a gag and a provocation, and in that way is more like 'The Road To Serfdom'. But it's notable what happens in 'Wizard of Oz'; as soon as the wicked witch pops it, her former followers escape from her spell and all is immediately right again. 
It's comforting to think had Thatcher stayed a chemist none of the sewage we wade through now would have been unleashed. But it's wrong. Neoliberal economics did not begin in Britain or even America, but in mid-Seventies Chile when a leftist government was overthrown in a US-backed coup and the free market doctrines of Milton Friedman imposed.
Since then it's spread around the world, with organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund existing precisely to propagate it. The “private competition” that now riddles worm-like through our Post Office and NHS services is enabled not by the Tory right, but by the EU which they ostensibly loathe. Many of these changes have structural causes, the move from Fordist to post-Fordist production or changes in communication which enabled globalisation.
India underwent a massive transformation from a protectionist to a free-market, ‘globalised’ economy without them having a Thatcher figure to speak of. In America they talk of 'Reaganism' despite Reagan being more figurehead than politician. When we talk about the post-war consensus we don't talk about 'Atleeism' because Atlee wasn't iconic in that way. That didn't stop the post-war consensus happening or us continuing to talk about it.
Many years ago, Brecht cautioned us that history was “not made by great men” (qouted above). The Gang of Four went and wrote a song about it (embedded below). The surfer, standing high, may look like he’s in command of that wave. But really he’s just riding it.

There will of course always be “great” men and women trying to tell us it’s all down to them, and we should orient our lives around them.

It’s only true if we hold them up.


61 comments:

  1. You are actually the first person I have ever heard say "Reaganism;" we do say "Reaganomics" though. India does have a Reagan/Thatcher/Xiaoping figure; he's the current Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh who was made Finance Minister in 1991 by Prime Minister Rao and liberalized India's economy.

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  2. We'd more normally say 'Reaganomics' too, if often prefixed by “what Americans commonly call...” I just didn't use it to avoid any confusion, figuring the terms were essentially interchangeable.

    However, now you've brought it up, the thing seems oddly backwards! I can't imagine even Reagan's greatest champions claiming he was any kind of an economist. Partly because of his already-mentioned figurehead status, and partly because his public image was different to Thatcher's. Probably Reagan's biggest sound-bite was never actually said by him, tele-evangelist James Robison crying “it's time for God's people to come out of the closet and change America.” Thatcher was characterised by social conservatism combined with economic liberalism, Reagan much more by social conservatism alone. His image was of a kindly grandfather, bringing back homespun values. “Change America” meant “change it back.” (Of course Reagan's government did economic liberalism, the infamous airport sackings are essentially your miners' strike. He just didn't sell it in the same way as Thatcher.)

    The only explanation I can think of is that in the Eighties language seemed more immuable to us than it does now; neologisms and portmanteau terms were less common. I'm not sure whether this actually butresses my argument or not, but someone even claimed to have invented the term 'Thatcherism' - Martin Jacques of 'Marxism Today.' His critics coined the term Jacquesism, which is when someone takes someone else's name, sticks an ism after it and claims to have done something significant. (Actually, that was me just now!)

    I have to confess to never having heard of Manmohan Singh before! I might be tempted to argue that this means he can't be a culturally significant figure by definition, but then that might constitute a circular argument on my part. From extensive research on the subject (a neologism for a brief trawl through Wikipedia), he doesn't seem a culturally totemic figure like Thatcher, if anything more like India's Keith Joseph - guru not figurehead. In Britain, India's globalisation is normally associated with the rise of the BJP rather than the Congress party. (Erroneously, but then we're talking about public perception.)

    The reason I picked out India, incidentally, is that it seemed to go from a more protectionist economy than Britain's to a more free-market one in a much briefer period of time, with the main political parties buying into that quite quickly. That seemed to add weight to my contention that these were global changes happening outside of party politics, even if political parties were taking credit for them when they seemed to be going somewhere.

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  3. Sorry in advance for the length of this. There's so much to get into and I am prone to lengthy digressions.

    I agree nobody believes Reagan was an economist (but then neither was Thatcher). I would say that Reagan is principally known in the U.S. for anti-Communism and the Cold War (which is also what Thatcher is known for in the U.S. - she is thought of as one of the "Big Three" along with Reagan and Pope John Paul II). After that, Reagan's most significant achievements are thought to be economic ones. The sacking of the air traffic controllers is a minor part of his legacy (and personally I think he had Thatcher's example very firmly in mind when he did it, though the U.S. had never suffered the dislocations from union action that the U.K. had), but the flattening of tax rates and the resurgence of the U.S. economy are usually credited to him, even if the economic cognoscenti believe a lot of the credit should go to Jimmy Carter's appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, who finally whipped inflation. Reagan talked about social conservatism, but he didn't actually do anything about it and it's fairly clear to those who closely follow U.S. politics that it wasn't his focus. Two of his appointees to the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, were crucial to upholding Roe v. Wade, for example, despite Reagan's own pro-life views. He also did almost nothing to push social conservatism as Governor of California, nearly the reverse, signing the "Therapeutic Abortion Bill," for example, which led to an explosion of abortions in California, though he later claimed to regret it. His political career as a public speaker prior to his Presidency mostly focused on defense and economic issues, not social ones. On the other hand, it is part of his legacy that the social conservatives took over the Republican Party. Prior to Reagan's emergence in 1976 as a national force in the Party, the Republicans supported the Equal Rights Amendment and the social moderates were firmly in control. After Reagan, they became marginalized. Reagan did pledge to put the first woman on the Supreme Court, a pledge he honored, but he also dropped the Equal Rights Amendment, which he had previously supported as Governor of California (which, to be fair, was doomed anyway and Reagan did not act against it). He was serious about opposition to illegal drugs though and general law-and-order type issues.

    "Reaganomics" was also coined as a derogatory term, by the way. In the early '80s, Volcker had interest rates sky-high in an effort to curb inflation and the economy suffered a severe recession. This was blamed on Reagan's tax cuts and the term "Reaganomics" was born to hang the bad economy around Reagan's neck. When the economy strongly rebounded in the mid-80s, this ended up redounding to Reagan's benefit and he was overwhelmingly re-elected. (He had also been elected in 1980 on economic issues, not social ones.)

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  4. I'm not sure why you think the Robison quote is Reagan's biggest soundbite. I've never before heard it associated with Reagan (though I was able to determine that Reagan was present when it was said and for all I know it may have been quoted extensively in 1980, but it hasn't stood the test of time). The only time Reagan ever took a position on homosexuality was when he opposed the Briggs Initiative in California which would have made it illegal for gay people to become public school teachers. The Log Cabin Republicans started at the same time to oppose the Briggs Initiative. Reagan's daughter reports that she remembers his talking about Rock Hudson's homosexuality in a tolerant and accepting manner. Of course, he is justly blamed for refusing to say anything at all about the AIDS crisis and there's no question that political cowardice was part of the reason for this. I suspect his personal politics on this matter were at odds with his supporters, so he took the easy way out by keeping his head down. Hardly a profile in political courage on that matter, of course, but then on this one issue, I think he was well ahead of his time (almost surely because of his experiences in Hollywood, where gay people were always more numerous) and, had he come out firmly in support of gay rights, he would have put himself very far to the left in the Democratic Party, never mind the Republicans.

    His biggest soundbite, by far, is "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." The other is "There you go again." (Said to Jimmy Carter in the Presidential debate.) The third is almost certainly "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." This is usually quoted (by both sides!) by dropping his qualifier "in this present crisis." Similar to Thatcher's "there is no such thing as society" in which nobody points out that she followed up immediately with "It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour." Also sort of like Obama's "you didn't build that." In context, Obama clearly didn't mean what his detractors claim he meant but, like with Thatcher, the direct quote played into a popular image of him, which his opponents were able to use to their advantage. (And like with Thatcher, it ended up not really working.)

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  5. I have to confess to never having heard of Manmohan Singh before!

    Ha! I'm going to count this as a win. Usually when talking politics with people from the U.K., I am always struck by how much they know about the politics of Commonwealth countries, probably due to the BBC. In the U.S., we focus on Russia, China, and Europe. Even Canada is pretty much ignored. However, I can't take a huge amount of credit. I used to discuss Indian and Singaporean politics with a Sikh gentleman I used to work with and Latin American politics with a Trinidadian gentleman I used to work with. These conversations would always lead me to doing a bunch of reading about the recent history of politics in the regions.

    I would analogize P.V. Rao (known as the "Father of Indian Economic Reforms," according to Wikipedia) to Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, representing the moderate left's response. The curious thing about India is this happened without a Thatcher/Reagan figure to respond to. The BJP supported these reforms, as you'd expect, but it was the Congress which initially implemented them. I agree with you that Dr. Singh is more of a guru figure (he wasn't even political when Rao appointed him Finance Minister), but unlike Keith Joseph, he eventually attained power in his own right, which greatly complicates that analogy.

    The reason I picked out India, incidentally, is that it seemed to go from a more protectionist economy than Britain's to a more free-market one in a much briefer period of time, with the main political parties buying into that quite quickly. That seemed to add weight to my contention that these were global changes happening outside of party politics, even if political parties were taking credit for them when they seemed to be going somewhere.

    Just to be clear, I am completely in agreement with the main thrust of your argument here. I favor a synthesis between the "Great Men" theory and the "social forces" theory, so I probably favor the "Great Men" theory more often than you do, which isn't to say I favor it a lot. I think there are sometimes significant figures who do a lot to shape history and I think it's fairly foolish to claim in all cases that if X hadn't done Y, some other X would have done Y. E.g. the personalities of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII really did have much to do with the shape of Protestantism in Britain. I think it's silly to think otherwise. However, in this particular case, the rise of neo-liberal economics, I think you're obviously right. The personalities of leaders like Thatcher and Reagan do make a difference, but if it hadn't been them, it would have been somebody else, perhaps at the same time, perhaps a bit later (like in India). On the other hand, it is possible to resist changes like that due to the personality of the leader, particularly in authoritarian states. (Castro in Cuba anyone?) The Wikipedia article on the soi-disant Washington Consensus also agrees with you that the policies were developed in Latin America by Latin American policymakers. Actually, the whole Wikipedia article is worth reading.

    Speaking of the wedding of social issues and economic issues, I have a whole theory that the reason why socialism never took hold in the U.S. during the Great Depression, even though most people were probably persuadable, was because people found the social libertinism of the proponents of socialism repellent, i.e. their sex lives made them unsupportable. Similarly, I think the reason why the U.S. is currently rejecting the Right on economics, even though they largely agree with them (polls showed Romney was much more trusted on economic issues than Obama), is because the populace is repulsed by the Right's uptight, prudish morality based on outdated religious beliefs.

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  6. No problem about the length, it makes for an interesting read!

    ”I agree nobody believes Reagan was an economist (but then neither was Thatcher).”

    Thatcher wasn't an economic theorist but she was a more active politician than Reagan. There was a recent BBC series about the free-market economists, and one interesting point made was that Thatcher essentially quote-mined Friedman and Hayak. Economic theorists saw them as quite different, to the point where you really needed to side with one or the other. She just saw them as champions in the fight against Socialism.

    ”I would say that Reagan is principally known in the U.S. for anti-Communism and the Cold War (which is also what Thatcher is known for in the U.S. - she is thought of as one of the "Big Three" along with Reagan and Pope John Paul II).”

    You are probably right there. Interestingly, Thatcher's eulogists have concentrated not so much on her Cold War hawkishness so much as her role in glasnost. You would think it entirely her doing the way they go on! Only shortly before reading your comments, I came across this quote from Frances Maude:

    ”there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who will enjoy the same freedom because of her."

    The only two possibilities I can come up with for that quite bizarre remark are that he thinks the population of the Falkland Islands is much higher than it is, or that he's talking about glasnost. Neither make sense, of course, I'm just trying to glean his reasoning.

    ”I'm not sure why you think the Robison quote is Reagan's biggest soundbite.”

    What you write about Reagan's views on homosexuality are interesting, but the point about Robison's quote isn't so much the homophobia as the conflation of “perverts” with leftists and communists. They're all presented as a kind of sickness or abnormality, which needs driving out. Very different to making counter-arguments about the route to economic growth,

    ”Even Canada is pretty much ignored”

    Blimey!

    ...actually, I think we get quite poor international news, and often don't get to hear much about the rest of Europe beyond France and Germany - with occasional outbreaks of Italy if we're lucky, and particularly if Berlusconi has been caught with his pants down again. There has to be near social insurrection to get Greece headlines!

    What knowledge I have about India is from running into Indian folks. And while there's plenty of people of Indian extraction here in the UK, most are second or third generation. I used to get more info in my old job, when I worked for a multinational which had a lot of Indian project workers. (Thank Capital for globalisation, eh?) I'm not sure I can quite remember now, but I might have followed the common view that the BJP brought globalisation to India before that.

    ”I would analogize P.V. Rao... to Bill Clinton or Tony Blair, representing the moderate left's response. The curious thing about India is this happened without a Thatcher/Reagan figure to respond to.”

    I'm not sure I'd call Blair moderate or left! I'm not sure this icon of neoliberalism has to come from the right. Think of John Howard in Australia. Part of the 'long game' of neoliberalism is to not just provide a new economic theory or outlook, but change the paradigm to make the old ones out to be no longer possible. So there's a tendency by definition for it not to be the right's property, in the way something like social conservatism tends to be.

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  7. ”The personalities of leaders like Thatcher and Reagan do make a difference, but if it hadn't been them, it would have been somebody else, perhaps at the same time, perhaps a bit later”

    I think we probably are pretty close to one another here. While I reject the individualistic notion that Thatcher changed British history single-handed, at the same time I reject the orthodox Marxist notion that everything's deterministic and 'historically inevitable'. If it's all pre-decided, what's the point in anybody doing anything? (Which is pretty much what orthodox Marxist groups do, keep the party in good order while awaiting the inevitable day when capitalism falls. But I digress...)

    And to push the counter-argument further, neither France nor Germany have had a Thatcherite revolution like Britain. In the Eighties, people sometimes lumped Kohl in as part of a trinity with Thatcher and Reagan, but it only really worked over their Cold War stance. Sarkosy was dubbed the French Thatcher, but wasn't remotely as effective and only served one term.

    One of Thatcher's main acts was to effectively close down manufacturing as it tended to be unionised, which was a fairly insane thing to do even for Britain but quite impossible elsewhere. Germany was the biggest exporter of goods for most of the post-war era, till China came along.

    ”I have a whole theory that the reason why socialism never took hold in the U.S. during the Great Depression, even though most people were probably persuadable, was because people found the social libertinism of the proponents of socialism repellent, i.e. their sex lives made them unsupportable.”

    Well I think good old-fashioned repression came in handy too! A lot of groups had been outlawed, officially or otherwise, even before then. The IWW famously announced they'd call a general strike if America entered World War One, which brought down a ton of persecution they were ultimately unable to deal with. Also, if there'd been no swing like that I doubt the New Deal would have appeared, as there'd have been less need for it.

    Getting a decent sex life might even persuade me to join a group! It would certainly make a change from Doctor Who fans...

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  8. Sorry, forgot to say one thing. The cost-cutting measures associated with Thatcherism actually started under the Labour government of the late 70s. A pay freeze in the public sector, which when inflation was taken into account meant an actual pay cut, led to the strike wave which got dubbed the Winter of Discontent. This has now become a toy of the right, brought up endlessly to show how bad things were in the Seventies, like people were striking for the sheer hell of it. Labour then have to either concede that they provoked the strike or hang their heads in silence. They normally go for the second one.

    So in Britain, even from the beginning, neoliberalism wasn't the property of the right.

    Funnily enough, I work in the public sector now and exactly the same thing is happening. Time will tell if it has the same result.

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  9. Reagan's tricky to get a handle on. By reports, it's fairly clear that Reagan's Presidency was largely one of delegation, acting as a figurehead for his Administration and generally allowing them to thrash out issues. It is a mistake, though, to simply dismiss Reagan as a figurehead. He was advanced in years by the time he became President and he was much more energetic and thoughtful when he was laying the groundwork in the '60s and '70s. His speeches, written by him in his own hand, show him to be a man fully engaged with economic arguments (his degree was in economics and sociology). Obviously, one can disagree with him, but it's a mistake to think he simply took the ideas of other people. Reagan too was heavily influenced by both Hayek and Friedman. What this says about him (as well as Thatcher) is that the conclusions came before the reasoning. In this, they are hardly unique.

    The only two possibilities I can come up with for that quite bizarre remark are that he thinks the population of the Falkland Islands is much higher than it is, or that he's talking about glasnost. Neither make sense, of course, I'm just trying to glean his reasoning.

    Not glasnost. He's giving her credit for the Red Army having to retreat from Eastern Europe, which caused those countries' Communist regimes to fall like dominoes. I agree that it's a little strange to give Thatcher all the credit for this, though I do believe she deserves some credit for it.

    the point about Robison's quote isn't so much the homophobia as the conflation of “perverts” with leftists and communists. They're all presented as a kind of sickness or abnormality, which needs driving out.

    Yes, I just don't think that view is much associated with Reagan. I'm not sure I can recall a single time when Reagan speechified about sexual morality issues, unlike many of his supporters. It would have been dangerous ground for him, given he is still the only divorced man to be elected President. Of course, his first wife Jane Wyman, cheated on and then left him, not vice versa, but most people don't know that since it was never really discussed publicly. Plus, anybody who can count could figure out that Nancy Davis was pregnant before she married Reagan in 1952.

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  10. I'm not sure this icon of neoliberalism has to come from the right. Think of John Howard in Australia.

    John Howard is of the right in Australia though, surely?

    One of Thatcher's main acts was to effectively close down manufacturing as it tended to be unionised, which was a fairly insane thing to do even for Britain but quite impossible elsewhere.

    Is it your contention that U.K. manufacturing would not have declined absent Thatcher? U.S. manufacturing certainly declined, even with government support, during the same period due to competition from Asia (Japan, South Korea, Singapore, etc.). I had always assumed U.K. manufacturing was in a similar boat and Thatcher was merely burying a corpse. It's hard for me to imagine the coal industry could have survived absent government running it as a charity and even harder for me to figure out why people wished it to survive. Nostalgia for black lung disease? (I absolutely believe Thatcher didn't do enough to help coal miners transition to different jobs, but that's a separate argument.)

    Well I think good old-fashioned repression came in handy too! A lot of groups had been outlawed, officially or otherwise, even before then. The IWW famously announced they'd call a general strike if America entered World War One, which brought down a ton of persecution they were ultimately unable to deal with. Also, if there'd been no swing like that I doubt the New Deal would have appeared, as there'd have been less need for it.

    The repression certainly existed, but I would argue that it could have happened only because the socialists could not muster support for their position. Part of the reason for the collapse in support in that period was also due to being associated with anarchists, whose violent tactics repelled people. (See this Wikipedia article on the 1919 bombings which fed the Red Scare of 1919-1920.) U.S. labor never turned socialist in a big way. Walter Reuther and George Meany were both anti-Communists (though Reuther flirted with Communism in the '30s, but was persuaded to the Democratic Party by FDR). And, yes, FDR decided to adopt a great many socialist positions while keeping it within a basic framework of capitalism. But the Democratic Party could have been persuaded to go full-bore socialist, if they judged they could have won the election that way.

    Getting a decent sex life might even persuade me to join a group! It would certainly make a change from Doctor Who fans...

    Wrong sexual orientation perhaps? It seems to have helped John Nathan-Turner's sex life.... All of my news about Doctor Who fandom in the U.K. is anecdotal evidence from those fans, but a lot of people seem to believe that serious Doctor Who fans in the U.K. are disproportionately gay, at least in the '80s and '90s. I have no idea whether this is true, but I suppose it makes sense. Unlike most heroes, the Doctor does not equate saving the world with getting the girl. This must be encouraging to young gay men. If so, it is ironic that it was a gay fan, Russell T. Davies, who decided to change that.

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  11. For your point about Labour, deregulation in the U.S. began under the Democratic Carter as well. (He deregulated the airlines.) And the man who whipped inflation, Paul Volcker, was appointed by Carter. Moreover, the real problems in the U.S. economy occurred under Republican administrations (Nixon and Ford), who were part of the prior Keynesian consensus. (Granted, both always had a Democratic Congress and so did Carter.)

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  12. Found the complete Francis Maude quote:

    “Because of what she stood up for and when she and Ronald Reagan simply said we are not going to allow the Soviet Union to continue to beat down and subjugate a lot of people who had been used to freedom, actually that was the turning point.

    “And so, yes, free speech here – that’s great. Let it be respectful. Let the people who use it remember that there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who enjoy the same freedom because of her.”

    Which is what I thought he must have meant.

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  13. ”I'm not sure I can recall a single time when Reagan speechified about sexual morality issues, unlike many of his supporters.”

    Aye, but there's the rub! It was one of those acts of 'political ventriloquism', where supporters can say what the main man can only hint at through vague sound-bites like “morning in America”. As another example, I don't think Dubya himself ever referred to the absurd 'birther' controversy over Obama, but it was clearly being stirred by the Bush camp.

    And Dubya has been more of a lightning rod for such issues than Reagan, despite a significantly less 'appropriate' life history of knocking back the booze and snorting coke.

    At the same time, Thatcher's social conservatism is clearly now something of an embarassment to her supporters. Notably, the infamous homophobic Section 28 hasn't appeared in any of the eulogies to her, only in the critiques. This intensifies the emphasis on her economic liberalism, and probably gives a distorting effect.

    ”Is it your contention that U.K. manufacturing would not have declined absent Thatcher?”

    This is another one of those classic 'excluded middle' arguments, where some say Thatcher decimated it out of sheer spite and others that it was all dead wood by then. The Thatcher boom years were largely funded by North Sea oil, which scarcely counts as teritary sector. And the coal industry isn't really the best example for you to pick. As many have commented, this winter half of UK fuel needs was supplied by coal and virtually all of that coal had to be imported.

    But globalisation would have seen much of UK manufacturing undercut anyway, that's certainly true. Whether that's a good thing or not is of course another matter.

    Another point, the UK contains the City of London, one of the three financial centres of the world. Yet the relative size of the UK, compared to the US or Japan, is striking. This was a large enabler in the shift to finance-capital, which was hard to replicate elsewhere. If Frankfurt was to seize it's crown, which it has sporadically tried to do, it would still only be drop within Germany. It's only really Iceland which had a bigger shift than the UK, with demonstrably even worse results when it all went belly up.

    ”John Howard is of the right in Australia though, surely?”

    Sorry, my fault, I said John Howard but was thinking of Bob Hawke. Tony Blair took Hawke's campaigns as a model.

    ”The repression certainly existed, but I would argue that it could have happened only because the socialists could not muster support for their position.”

    You could make the same argument the other way up, though. If they'd really been that marginal, why bother to repress them? It's time and effort and police overtime.

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  14. ”Part of the reason for the collapse in support in that period was also due to being associated with anarchists, whose violent tactics repelled people.”

    I think you may be confusing violence with terrorism here. Terrorism is a quite specific form of violence. Historically, anarchists have tended to split between 'propaganda by the deed' types like Galleani, advocates of class struggle violence like Malatesta and pacifists. The IWW, more-or-less anarchists, weren't explicitly pacifists but tended to the solidly syndicalist view that as soon as the working man folded his arms capital would crumble. This meant they weren't necessarily prepared for the inevitable violent repression which came their way. Needless to say, the Galleani bombings were magnified out of all proportion. And anarchists and other anti-capitalists were also often set up, such as in the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti trial a few years later.

    But the argument that people won't side with anti-capitalists because they'll inherently shun violence has always seemed strange to me. Surely if that was the case no-one would support the state at all! I suspect people avoid acts of violence which are likely to bring down greater acts of counter-violence. It's a fear of failure, not a fear of force. Most people aren't by nature pacifist.

    ”Wrong sexual orientation perhaps?”

    The UK stereotype of Dr Who fans is half gay folks who love a bit of camp, and half asexual nerds. (Though of course the programme itself often tried to appeal to the straight male viewer with a parade of leggy 'magician's assistants'.) I'd hazard the guess this was probably at it's most true in the original show's later years, when it was at it's most camp and most full of 'insider' references. I doubt the picture is as true of the new show.

    Actually I think the biggest group of Who fans is Lib Dem supporters. Andrew Hickey is merely the tip of that particular iceberg! My own political demographic has a fair share of Who fans too (of which I'm one of course), but there's far fewer of us than there are Lib Dems.

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  15. And the coal industry isn't really the best example for you to pick. As many have commented, this winter half of UK fuel needs was supplied by coal and virtually all of that coal had to be imported.

    I'm not sure that it is a bad example. Muscle labor goes where muscle labor is cheap and that's not the United Kingdom. I.e. I'm betting that it's cheaper to import the coal from Russia than it is to produce more domestically. Assuming I'm right (and I'm not sure I am, of course), you could still make a security argument for subsidies. E.g. Japan, where land is at such a premium that economically Japan would probably have virtually no domestic farming without subsidies. However, due to vulnerability to embargoes and so forth, it probably makes sense for Japan to subsidize farming so they can't be easily starved out in the event of an international emergency. I don't know if the U.K. is in that position when it comes to domestic energy production or not. (Energy is easier to ration without severe hardship in the event of an emergency than food is.) If they are, then I would be inclined to agree with more government subsidies, but it's a case for the Armed Forces to make.

    It's only really Iceland which had a bigger shift than the UK, with demonstrably even worse results when it all went belly up.

    I see where you're coming from here and you may very well be right - financial services is a volatile industry and it is a little nerve-wracking to be too dependent on it. On the other hand, it's a really nice business to be in. So it's one of those classic questions: would you rather be richer with significant volatility or poorer with a steady income? This isn't that easy a question since it's hard to live on 20,000 when you're used to 40,000, harder than it is to live on 20,000 when that's all you've ever had. I would take richer with more volatility, but then you have to realize you're in that position and sock money away during the fat times (in government terms, pay down your debt) so you have a reserve to draw on in lean times.

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  16. Sorry, my fault, I said John Howard but was thinking of Bob Hawke.

    There's that Commonwealth knowledge I was talking about. I've never heard of Bob Hawke. (Don't know enough Australians and I was only 18 when he left office.)

    You could make the same argument the other way up, though. If they'd really been that marginal, why bother to repress them? It's time and effort and police overtime.

    I really do believe the Palmer Raids were heavily motivated by the two assassination attempts on A. Mitchell Palmer and other radical activities. Really, Galleani has a lot to answer for. When Palmer decided to take on radicalism, this directly led to his recruiting of J. Edgar Hoover to head the newly formed General Intelligence Unit. If the movement had been composed entirely of non-violent types (not pacifists, mind, just not revolutionaries, bomb-throwing anarchists, or advocates of class struggle violence), I think it would have been much more successful. A similar thing happened in the '60s.

    And anarchists and other anti-capitalists were also often set up, such as in the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti trial a few years later.

    I'm not sure Sacco and Vanzetti were set up. Even Upton Sinclair apparently believed they were guilty. Here's NPR on the possibility of Sacco and Vanzetti's guilt. However, I wouldn't want to push that too far since I do believe there might be truth to the standard narrative. This is distinct from other celebrated "miscarriages of justice": e.g. Bruno Hauptmann really did kidnap the Lindbergh baby, Julius Rosenberg was certainly giving secrets to the Russians (I'm not defending the execution of both him and his wife, mind), Alger Hiss really was a spy, etc.

    But the argument that people won't side with anti-capitalists because they'll inherently shun violence has always seemed strange to me. Surely if that was the case no-one would support the state at all!

    They're willing to side with the anti-capitalists in democratic elections; they will not side with armed revolutionaries looking to overthrow the state. Yes, the state uses violence. That's the contract: the state gets to have a monopoly on violence. If the state abuses this monopoly, then, sure, a revolution can be justified. But if "you say you want a revolution," you need to persuade people that the state really is bad enough to justify that very extreme measure. The revolutionaries could not meet that burden to most people's satisfaction in either the 1910s or the 1960s. If you're not calling for a revolution, but just throwing bombs to make your point, that's going to alienate people. It happened with the abortion clinic bombers as well. When they were happening relatively frequently, the whole pro-life movement was in bad odor.

    I suspect people avoid acts of violence which are likely to bring down greater acts of counter-violence.

    This perhaps explains why there were a lot more sympathizers (who didn't disapprove of the violence) than bomb-throwers. But the bomb-throwing was what caused there to be fewer sympathizers willing to support them as a political movement.

    I'd hazard the guess this was probably at it's most true in the original show's later years, when it was at it's most camp and most full of 'insider' references. I doubt the picture is as true of the new show.

    Yes, I think the stereotype of Doctor Who fans as being disproportionately gay could only have been true in the '80s and '90s. Certainly not true in the '60s, '70s, '00s, or '10s.

    Actually I think the biggest group of Who fans is Lib Dem supporters.

    If so, Barry Letts would be pleased. I agree with Terrance Dicks that Doctor Who rarely had any particular political agenda, but if it ever did in the old series, it was under Letts (and Terrance Dicks!).

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  17. One thing I meant to say about Thatcher and Reagan is that both galvanized a base their parties were ultimately unable to control, so short-term gains stored up problems. Thatcher’s base was Euroscepticism, which in Britain acts as a weird kind of litmus test for the economically liberal/socially conservative mob. This could well seem inexplicable when viewed from abroad. Or from here for that matter.

    The continent contains a fair number of Catholic countries, which don’t tend to be particularly pro gay rights. Yet there’d doubtless be a huge overlap between the Eurosceptic Tory MPs and those who voted against gay marriage. (Embarrassing Cameron who needed the support of opposition parties to get his own measure through.)
     
    ”financial services is a volatile industry and it is a little nerve-wracking to be too dependent on it. On the other hand, it's a really nice business to be in.”
     
    The point about financial services is that I’m not in it. But, and probably like most British citizens, I’ve been made dependent on it anyway. I'm a public sector worker. When its profits went up, I didn’t get bonuses or dividends. But now it’s tanked my pay has been frozen, and public services are being cut. To paraphrase the old song, “it’s their profit but it’s our loss.”
     
    ” There's that Commonwealth knowledge I was talking about. I've never heard of Bob Hawke.”
     
    Well it seems like I couldn’t really remember him either!

    I’m not sure if you’re not indulging in a popular stereotype with this talk of “bomb-throwing anarchists.” People associate the two because they assume (wrongly) that anarchists are inherently anti-organising, so are just on a quest to perpetually disrupt things. As mentioned, the IWW were essentially anarchists without any involvement in bomb-throwing. Personally I’m quite influenced by at least some anarchist theory, and might well consider class struggle anarchists as the next position along to my own. (Certainly closer than so-called communists such as Trotskyists.)
     
    Inevitably, there are different strands of anarchism, with the “bomb-throwing” element being better called insurrectionism. The French publication ‘The Coming Insurrection’, which Glenn Beck made such a bogey a while back, is a fairly typical example of this current. These days it more takes the form of street confrontations than bombings, though with the downturn there have been bombings in Greece and Italy.

    While I’m normally critical of insurrectionism, I should in fairness concede their actions tend to be targeted and avoid civilian injury. My problems with it are more the fixated, one-note nature of it all (it’s essentially a tactic turned into an ideology), and its substitutionalism. All too often it tries to bypass the slow slog of grassroots organising by throwing a petrol bomb, and hoping that jump-starts everybody else.

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  18. ”If the movement had been composed entirely of non-violent types (not pacifists, mind, just not revolutionaries, bomb-throwing anarchists, or advocates of class struggle violence), I think it would have been much more successful.”
     
    The not-so hidden subtext of my argument about the dichotomy of Thatcher saving/damning Britain was that neither was really materially based, they just kind of took cause and effect for granted. You seemed sympathetic to that at the time, yet your argument here seems to me not at all materialist. Of course radical groups are perfectly capable of making the wrong decisions. (I’ve seen it myself often enough.) But when a tendency keeps playing out it seems to me something more must be afoot.
     
    The general tendency for radical white youth groups in the Sixties was to propagandise that “the system” was violent and repressive, then be ultimately unable to deal with the repercussions when the system started to treat them violently and repressively. The majority response was then to abandon activism and lick your wounds, the minority one was to retreat into closed terrorist-style groups of various stripes. Both are clearly dead ends. Due to their basis in what was actually a fairly privileged social group, this exacerbated the trend – but the trend is general.
     
    How do you get out of that loop? It may not be an easy question to answer. But the presumption that non-violence will be met by non-violence or that our democratic rights will be honoured… history kind of disproves that one. Normally, if you’re not being repressed it’s because you’re not being effective.
     
    ”They're willing to side with the anti-capitalists in democratic elections; they will not side with armed revolutionaries looking to overthrow the state.”
     
    The thing is, we’re coming from such different perspectives here it’s hard to find enough overlap to work as a basis. If like me you contend that we live under a class system, elections seem kind of irrelevant. The most progressive-minded political party could come to power, but they wouldn’t be able to bring anything about as politics isn’t really where the power is. It’s like talking about the fish without the water.
     
    I’m quite happy to talk about this stuff, in the pub or on the internet. But formal debate as a means of effecting social change… we might as well be talking about Doctor Who. People tend to talk as though capitalism is strong because capitalist ideas are strong. I say it’s the reverse. It’s when the working class acting autonomously wins victories or concessions against the ruling class that it will become more self-aware and feel stronger. Change will breed more change.
     
    I don’t think that’s the same thing as “advocating class struggle violence”. In fact I don’t “advocate” either of those things. As Warren Buffet commented, the class struggle will continue whether my side fights it or not. It’s simply a reality of the world we currently live in. I accept the truth that the other side will force their agenda, and will use violence against us whenever it chooses. I’m unsympathetic to the notion that we should just tolerate that because it might look better on the TV news. Response could take many forms. Historically non-violence has at times been an option, other times it hasn’t. But deciding which is which should be a tactical consideration based on circumstances, nor a moralistic one.
     
    In the (most probably unlikely) event you’ve any interest in this, the Wikipedia page could be worse.

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  19. I do plan on responding, but unfortunately I've been quite ill the last couple of days. Nothing serious long-term, but still shaking it off.

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  20. No problem! Sorry to hear you've not been well, hope you're on the mend soon.

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  21. Feeling much better now. Just had quite a cold. The hazards of living with a small child. Reading back through, I did want to challenge one point you made, not that I care particularly, but just due to my devotion to the truth.

    As another example, I don't think Dubya himself ever referred to the absurd 'birther' controversy over Obama, but it was clearly being stirred by the Bush camp.

    I'm nearly 100% that this is not true, though I'm willing to be educated on this point if there are secret recordings or something. Karl Rove, the most vocal representative of the Bush camp, did as much as he could to to fight "birtherism." While not impossible, I find it dubious that he (and the rest of the Bushies) would be fighting it publicly but pushing it privately. For example, when Rick Perry flirted with "birtherism" in 2012, Rove said that Perry was "damaging" himself by associating with such "nutty" views. Now, I can see how a casual follower of American politics could be confused. After all, isn't Rick Perry himself a Bushie? Wasn't he Bush's Lieutenant Governor? Didn't he succeed Bush as Governor of Texas? The answers are no, yes, and yes. Bush and Perry were never on a "ticket" because the Governor of Texas and the Lieutenant Governor are elected separately. And the two of them have a long-standing feud. There is no evidence that I am aware of that anybody in the Bush camp was pushing "birtherism." (It was first floated by a Hillary Clinton devotee during the 2008 primaries, though I would hasten to add that I think there is good reason to believe that Hillary herself may have disapproved of this tactic.) Anyway, that doesn't really have anything to do with anything, but I thought I'd clear it up.

    The point about financial services is that I’m not in it. But, and probably like most British citizens, I’ve been made dependent on it anyway. I'm a public sector worker. When its profits went up, I didn’t get bonuses or dividends. But now it’s tanked my pay has been frozen, and public services are being cut. To paraphrase the old song, “it’s their profit but it’s our loss.”

    Well, this is why I was talking about how governments need to respond, if faced with this situation (i.e. being dependent on a volatile sector). You can't be in the position where austerity is forced on you in lean times due to lowered tax revenues and (possibly) higher interest rates. Austerity, i.e. not spending as much as you can, needs to be done in fat times - when tax revenue is high, you pay off your debt instead of increasing spending. That way, you don't have to decrease spending in lean times, since you'll be able to borrow cheaply to make up the gap in revenues. This is standard countercyclical Keynesianism and I believe it is still basically correct economic theory, but especially so when you've got a potentially volatile economy. I am not a fan of excessive government debt, but I am less of a fan of austerity in tough times. Unfortunately, you need to be frugal when times are good so you have the option of being profligate when times are bad. We seem to have forgotten the first part of that.

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  22. I’m not sure if you’re not indulging in a popular stereotype with this talk of “bomb-throwing anarchists.”

    Not at all. I said "bomb-throwing" purely to differentiate them from non-bomb-throwing anarchists. Some of my best friends are non-bomb-throwing anarchists.

    If like me you contend that we live under a class system, elections seem kind of irrelevant. The most progressive-minded political party could come to power, but they wouldn’t be able to bring anything about as politics isn’t really where the power is.

    I agree that we do have very different perspectives here and they may be irreconcilable. Nevertheless, I am always interested in finding out what people who don't agree with me think. So, for example, I wonder by what mechanism you think things would be enforced? Say that the most progessive political party does come to power. How do you think they would be stopped from enacting their agenda?

    Historically non-violence has at times been an option, other times it hasn’t. But deciding which is which should be a tactical consideration based on circumstances, nor a moralistic one.

    Originally I was talking about social issues being what prevented socialism from gaining U.S. adherents during the Great Depression. I'm happy to talk about the 1910s (or 1960s) instead when I believe it was violence that caused the resistance. However, I have hitherto been talking purely tactically. I don't believe I had taken a position on whether the majority of people (who rejected the arguments due to the violent tactics) were right, merely theorizing that moral considerations were the reasons.

    Having said all that, and perhaps you guessed, I do agree with them. I think it's obviously a moral issue how a particular end is brought about. There are lots of claims about how often people disagree about morals and so forth, but this is mostly wrong. People rarely disagree on moral premises; they disagree on factual ones. However, "does the ends justify the means?" is a moral question over which there is genuine dispute. (It is the only one I have ever identified and I have challenged many smart people to come up with another.) My personal opinion on this dispute is it exists because the true answer is "it depends." In this case, even if the socialist utopia was true and would genuinely arrive, there is a limit to how much we should be willing to pay to achieve it. Since I also don't believe in the utopia (all human societies will always ultimately be divided into the rulers and the ruled and there is no escape from this) and I think my opinion on that is also commonly held, obviously there are even more limits to what it's worth to achieve only an incrementally better (if that) social system.

    In the (most probably unlikely) event you’ve any interest in this, the Wikipedia page could be worse.

    Thanks for the link! I did find it interesting reading and I'm happy to have a better idea of your perspective.

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  23. ”Karl Rove, the most vocal representative of the Bush camp, did as much as he could to to fight "birtherism."”

    I have to admit I was making the assumption that 'birthism' was being encouraged by the Bush camp. But are there any examples of Bush himself disowning it? When one of McCain's supporters called Obama “a Muslim” he repudiated her. Did Bush ever say anything similar? I'm guessing the subject must have come up in his presence.I also wondered, are you querying just this example or the general notion that the Bush camp used the Tea Party as an outlier?

    ”Unfortunately, you need to be frugal when times are good so you have the option of being profligate when times are bad. We seem to have forgotten the first part of that.”

    I don't know how closely you follow UK politics, but this is pretty much what Labour are being accused of now. The Tory line, that their public overspending caused the crisis, is of course merely propaganda. But there's also a common argument that they should have stored more money away in case of rainy days.

    My general point is that Labour used public spending as a kind of social engineering under the heading of 'inclusion', such as the switch from out-of-work to in-work benefits. Which might have been bearable if people's incomes had gone up as a result – but largely it didn't. There's also the point that so much financial services money can be made in the City, then magicked out of UK tax jursisdictions. Obviously, no-one's going to bother moving losses around.

    Also, I'd argue the defecit is just being used as an excuse for the cuts. Many of the cuts have been assessed by independent groups to actually cost more than they save, once knock-on effects are taken into account, but they're pressing ahead anyway. The cuts are part of the class war, rolling back gains we made in the post-war era.

    But there may well be another dimension to it. Take Gordon Brown's infamous claim to have eliminated the boom/bust cycle - such an obvious hostage to fortune it's worth asking why he ever said it in the first place. I mean, he was a fairly rubbish politician but he wasn't stupid – or at least not that stupid.

    One possible explanation is that he felt he had to. Circumstances insisted. My parents generation, who grew up during rationing, were very frugal. Yet the successive generations seemed to increasingly become spenders. Thatcher's era saw a huge rise in social expectation as far as conspicuous consumption went, despite her own Methodist upbringing and spendthrift image. Yet looked at logically this happened the wrong way around. In the jobs-for-life era, even in times of high inflation, people largely saved. At the highpoint of job and home insecurity, people just got in debt.

    I'm not minded to buy into sinsister capitalist plots at the best of times, and besides this seems to concern politicians. Their current fix for the ongoing pensions crisis, for example, is to make it harder for employees to opt out of workplace pensions by building more hurdles and obstacles.

    The click-here-now world of the internet may be a factor, but it's surely a means rather than a cause. I'm wondering if this is a late capitalist thing, its seeming triumph, the apparent lack of counterweights any more to the life of a consumer. The language of advertising has become a kind of common tongue, to the point where senior politicians have to give up on saying sensible things and have to sell their policies just like advertisers. You have to promise there won't be a boom/bust cycle because people don't want there to be one.

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  24. Even campaigning and supposedly radical groups seem to be in on the act, at it's nadir in the clicktivism of groups like 38 Degrees. Essentially these groups ask people to choose a tick-box as to whether the word should stay as it is only be fairer, or just stay as it is. Could you really call that, to use their own phrase, “real change”? Isn't it just a slightly different kind of comsumerism? “This T-shirt is whiter, and more ethical too.”

    ”Some of my best friends are non-bomb-throwing anarchists.”

    You really need that on a T-shirt. (You know, an ethical one.)

    ”by what mechanism you think things would be enforced? Say that the most progessive political party does come to power. How do you think they would be stopped from enacting their agenda?”

    Well first they'd have to come to power. For that they'd need backers and a sympathetic media. So the most common thing is that parties become more and more mainstream the closer they get. In Germany, for example, the Greens were chiefly characterised by opposition to nuclear power. But they soon came to say that, while they weren't actually changing their policy of closing the nuclear power plants, they weren't going to have a deadline for it any more.

    There's also international institutiuons, such as when the IMF pulled the plug on a left-leaning Labour government in the Seventies. (Though ironically the IMF are now saying the Tories' austerity measures are going too far!) In Central and Southern America, electing the 'wrong' government has often resulted in foreign-backed coups.

    But the main point is that power doesn't lie in parliament but with a class, and that power is weilded through... Marxist term coming up... ownership of the means of production. This is even said quite openly, for example companies will threaten to leave the country if they don't like the sound of certain policies and it's reported as a perfectly normal thing to do. There's the old saying, politics is just the shadow cast by big business over society.

    Seen the other way up, when I talk about communism what I really mean is horizontal communities - people coming together to run their own work and living spaces. It's almost by definition not the sort of thing you can legislate for, it has to come from the bottom up.

    ”even if the socialist utopia was true and would genuinely arrive, there is a limit to how much we should be willing to pay to achieve it.”

    I think this is rather at cross-purposes. There are people who proclaim themselves anti-capitalist revolutionaries, to the point where they refuse to participate in anything 'reformist'. Funnily enough, that normally leaves them doing nothing at all. The end or transcendence of capitalism might not seem to be immediately forthcoming (English understatement), but the class struggle is perpetual.

    If a vote is held at my work over our latest rubbish pay deal, and if I vote to strike, this is clearly not some swingeing attack on alienated labour or commodity production. But is part of the class struggle. It would mean pressing for something which better meets my needs, and for those around me, not betting on some utopia arriving. It's no more about “planning for the revolution” than every chess move has to be aimed directly at the other side's King. Even if I thought there was no alternative to capitalism, I'd still be agitating for better pay and conditions at my work. Most of the people I work with, that' s probably precisely how they see it.

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  25. ”Thanks for the link!”

    I think autonomism stems from being (chiefly) incubated in Italy and France, countries which then at least had a powerful orthodox left. In Italy, the Communist Party were sometimes strong enough to act as Kingmaker in elections, plumping for one coalition above another.

    So the main instructions workers and youth were given were “look to the party”, with the party always saying “not yet”. It was a model of moving slowly but inexorably from one mode of production to another, history happening like continental drift in geography. And like continental drift, you needed experts with special equipment to measure it. But of course “not yet” really meant “never.” In '72, 'Last Chance to Save Capitalism in Italy' was published by an anonymous right-wing academic, insisting on continuing hand-in-glove alliance with the Communist Party was one of the main strategies to avoid communism. After being well received in official circles, it was revealed to be a hoax from a radical group.

    Autonomism reacted against the orthodox left in two connected ways. First, it eschewed the party form to assert the centrality of class struggle, not just as something to agitate for but as an ongoing reality – as one of the main motors of history. Also, snowballing from an academic enquiry into worker's conditions made in the early Sixties, it insisted on empiricism. Before that, the Party had the answer, which normally meant applying the same fixed answer whatever the question was. Now any notion of a small elect group with some overall, transcendent knowledge of history was out. The question to ask became “what is happening now?”

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  26. When one of McCain's supporters called Obama “a Muslim” he repudiated her. Did Bush ever say anything similar? I'm guessing the subject must have come up in his presence.I also wondered, are you querying just this example or the general notion that the Bush camp used the Tea Party as an outlier?

    I don't think it ever did come up publicly in Bush's presence. (Jeb Bush has repudiated it publicly, though.) Keep in mind that Bush never ran against Obama. When Lehman Brothers failed and the crisis occurred in 2008, I had never in my life seen a President as weak as George W. Bush was. He couldn't even get his own party to back TARP in response to the crisis. (They eventually came around, but only after dealing him an extremely embarrassing defeat and causing the stock market to have its largest single day loss.) As the election heated up, he was increasingly irrelevant and just faded into the woodwork. He endorsed John McCain, of course, but otherwise he said nothing about the 2008 election. (The McCain camp, quite correctly, thought he would be a distraction and a liability.) Also, the press was ignoring "birtherism" (arguably correctly, given its lunatic nature, just as they ignored 9/11 Trutherism) and Bush never liked talking to the press anyway, so I don't think it ever did come up.

    As far as the Bush camp specifically using the Tea Party, since the Tea Party came about after Bush was safely out of office, I assume you're using "Bush camp" simply as a synonym for the Republican Party establishment. I don't think the Republican Party establishment was using the Tea Party either. (This isn't to say that Republicans in general didn't latch on to the message, which some of them certainly did.) The Tea Party was very embarrassing to the Republican Party establishment, defeating several of their favored Senate candidates, and likely costing Republicans control of the Senate in 2010 by supporting extreme candidates in inappropriate states like Delaware and Nevada. The Tea Party movement was supported by a quite different group of conservatives than the Republican Party establishment. It is commonplace for each side to think their own side is consumed by infighting and division while the other side has a unified front and singleminded purpose, but the right is at least as fractured as the left. (E.g. I have heard conservatives claim to believe that Occupy Wall Street was a plot by Democratic elites to benefit Obama. There is no evidence that I know of for this claim and a great deal against it.)

    I don't know how closely you follow UK politics, but this is pretty much what Labour are being accused of now. The Tory line, that their public overspending caused the crisis, is of course merely propaganda. But there's also a common argument that they should have stored more money away in case of rainy days.

    It's not possible for me to follow it that closely, though I could have guessed this was part of the Tory narrative. I agree that arguing that Labour overspending "caused the crisis" is a very stupid theory, but I (obviously) have sympathy for the critique that they should have lowered spending while times were good, in order to prepare for a possible bust. In the U.S., of course, it is George W. Bush and the Republicans who are blamed for public overspending and I think that critique is valid as well.

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  27. There's also the point that so much financial services money can be made in the City, then magicked out of UK tax jursisdictions. Obviously, no-one's going to bother moving losses around.

    Unfortunately, I couldn't discuss U.K. tax policy without revealing my profound ignorance. I will say that I often hear this in the U.S., but it's largely untrue. U.S. financial services corporations pay a lot of taxes when they're doing well (as do their employees).

    Also, I'd argue the defecit is just being used as an excuse for the cuts.

    On the other hand, I'm sure this is true.

    Take Gordon Brown's infamous claim to have eliminated the boom/bust cycle - such an obvious hostage to fortune it's worth asking why he ever said it in the first place. I mean, he was a fairly rubbish politician but he wasn't stupid – or at least not that stupid.

    See, I think he was that stupid. Not stupid generally, mind you (I think he's very likely a very smart guy), but I think he really believed A) that it's possible to "manage" an economy the size of the U.K. (it's not), B) that he was the one doing it (he wasn't), and C) that he was a lot better than the people who had done his job in the past (perhaps so, but irrelevant since the Chancellor and PM don't really manage the economy anyway). He didn't start saying it until he'd been Chancellor for, what, ten years? In that time, the U.S. had gone into a recession (2001-2002) while the U.K. had not. The U.K. had pretty much had uninterrupted growth since John Major was PM. I think he really believed it was going to go on for forever, that he and Blair had repealed the business cycle.

    The language of advertising has become a kind of common tongue, to the point where senior politicians have to give up on saying sensible things and have to sell their policies just like advertisers.

    I think there's a lot of truth to this.

    Seen the other way up, when I talk about communism what I really mean is horizontal communities - people coming together to run their own work and living spaces. It's almost by definition not the sort of thing you can legislate for, it has to come from the bottom up.

    If you called it something else instead and changed up the rhetoric to something less Marxist, I imagine you'd be more successful. That sort of thing would appeal to lots of people who probably aren't willing to mess around with communism. If it leads to a better outcome, does it matter whether Karl Marx gets credit for it or not?

    Even if I thought there was no alternative to capitalism, I'd still be agitating for better pay and conditions at my work. Most of the people I work with, that' s probably precisely how they see it.

    Driving for the best deal you can get for yourself is a perfectly capitalist thing to do anyway. In the U.S., the big labor unions throughout the 20th century explicitly did not want the end of capitalism; they just wanted a bigger share of the pie for their members. Personally, I have always said that when a man tells me straight out he is acting in his own self-interest, I can always find a way to make a deal with him.

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  28. ”I assume you're using "Bush camp" simply as a synonym for the Republican Party establishment.”

    My fault for using such a sloppy phrase! “Palin camp” might have been closer, tho' still not really right. I think I said earlier on that both Reagan and Thatcher galvanized supporters who later came to plague their parties. And I was of course partly thinking of the Tea Party.

    There certainly are 'progressive Republicans', the sort of people who think it may be a good idea for a political party to make itself appear electable, to whom the Tea Party were a cross between a lead weight and an embarassment. But I meant to suggest a split within the Republicans, with the party's right wing going along with them. Of course this led to a loop, where the more the Republicans went rightward the further out the Tea Party would position themselves. (How much the Tea Party is a general groundswell movement and how much astroturfing by right-wing lobbyists such as the Koch brothers I couldn't say, but presumably a bit of both.)

    We're so used to the same things happening here as in America, but on time-delay. But this happened here first! While in opposition the Tories got caught in a vicious circle where they lost more and more support, which threw them back more and more onto their activist base, who pushed them further rightwards and so on. They got stuck with the tag “the nasty party” at the time, which even some of their prominent MPs would quote back.

    I suspect much of Cameron's insistence on pushing socially liberal issues, such as gay marriage, is to try and prevent those days repeating. He's not pursuing them despite grassroots opposition, he feels he has to precisely because of that grassroots opposition.

    Hoiwever, one feature that may have been unique to the Tea Party is their lack of coherent policies. It always seemed more about shock tactics, a collection of buzz-phrases to use or Aunt Sallies to tilt at. Some took to calling them the Yippies of the right. But seeing as they were oriented around elctoral politics that was always going to lock them into lobbyism.

    ”Also, the press was ignoring "birtherism" (arguably correctly, given its lunatic nature, just as they ignored 9/11 Trutherism)”

    Do you mean actually ignoring here, or was it more like dismissing? Both got a fair amount of coverage here, tho' admittedly the British take to anything that makes it appear that all Americans are mad.

    I ask because because people here seem generally quite familiar with 'Trutherism'. Conspiracy theories have always been around, of course. I remember one in the Eighties about Aids being deliberately unleashed in order to kill off the radical people. But they inhabited subcultures and fringe publications. Today, I should imagine everyone I work with has heard of the 9/11 conspiracies. Even though (naturally enough) the majority still don't take them seriously, that still seems a cultural shift which I find interesting.

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  29. ”See, I think he was that stupid.”

    Not dumb, so much as absurdly overconfident? That's a perfectly arguable point, of course.

    I sometimes toy with the theory that, rather than class struggle inhibiting capitalism, it grounded it and therefore propped it up. With class struggle at such a low ebb, the general tendency is to become overconfident and overstretch. The result seems to be more likely catastrophe than revolt. Brown's comment seems a perfect exemplifier of that. (More on this sort of thing.)

    ”Driving for the best deal you can get for yourself is a perfectly capitalist thing to do anyway.”

    Only on the page. I think a lot of the current rhetoric over entrepreneurs, “wealth creators” and so on, is based on the implicit assumption we naturally divide into generals and infantry. For us to assert our own self-interest is to just hold the great men back. Workers striking for more pay are “greedy”, while capitalists driving down pay or conditions are doing what is “necessary” or are even “courageous.”

    But my real point was that it isn't non-communist. People tend to assume communism is about us all being completely altruistic, sharing toothbrushes and only ever thinking of the greater good. I don't think that's remotely true.

    ”If you called it something else instead and changed up the rhetoric to something less Marxist, I imagine you'd be more successful... If it leads to a better outcome, does it matter whether Karl Marx gets credit for it or not?”

    This is actually quite a common response. But I only think the second part is true. Granted if you use the term communism people first think you must want gulags and Five Year Plans, or if you use the term anarchism you must just want to smash stuff up. You could use some term like Autonomism or Situationism or Councilism, which most people haven't heard of. Or just make a new word up.

    But before long there'd just be a whole bunch of smears over that new word. Sometimes campaigning groups here in Brighton have initially received quite a good press, but their good name has always been turned into a swear word before too long.

    That's the name of a group not a political theory, but I think the same rule applies. It's not the name that's dangerous. It's not even the ideas behind it that are dangerous, in themselves. It's the risk they might be put into action.

    (Radical groups tend to fixate upon the media to the degree that it almost becomes a conspiracy theory, of course. Like the BBC have a mind control ray atop Broadcasting House which, as soon as switched off, would leave the proles revolting. Dampeners to activity actually tend to be much wider and more structural. Things like having to go to work. Yet at the same time the media obviously have some influence.)

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  30. Ah, yes, I see the problem. You seem to be equating George W. Bush with the Republican right, or at least the fiscal conservatives. Remember that George W. Bush, in 2000, ran as a "compassionate conservative." He was upfront that he fully intended to expand government, and that's what he did (his education bill, the prescription drug Medicare benefit, etc.). Bush is, to the Tea Party wing, something of a nemesis really. Only a small number of Republican politicians embraced the Tea Party - Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, a few others. The general establishment of the party was opposed to them (though also afraid of them and would frequently genuflect in their direction). When the Tea Party started up, they obviously directed most of their fire at Obama, but Bush came in for a pretty good kicking as well. One of the theories (along with the Koch brothers theory) is that the Tea Party arose out of the ashes of the Ron Paul 2008 Presidential campaign. I find the Koch brothers theory more plausible, frankly.

    Do you mean actually ignoring here, or was it more like dismissing?

    It depends on the press. I would have been astonished to hear a question about birtherism or Trutherism at a Presidential press conference or in the straight news section of a newspaper, but certainly editorial columnists would mention it (usually to say "look at those lunatics on the other side"). Plus, of course, the Internet means more people have access to such theories through other venues.

    Only on the page. Workers striking for more pay are “greedy”, while capitalists driving down pay or conditions are doing what is “necessary” or are even “courageous.”

    Oh, certainly. Virtually all big business "capitalists" are using free market rhetoric merely to advance their own interests. Government subsidies for me, but not for thee, and so forth. And certainly I would likely concede that it's not non-communist.

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  31. ”Remember that George W. Bush, in 2000, ran as a "compassionate conservative."
     
    But did 9/11 not push him rightwards? Into the arms of the Neo-Cons, who are not necessarily the same mob as the Tea Party, but rightwards nonetheless. (One of the absurdities of the Truthers is that they’ll often claim the Neo-Cons set about faking 9/11 as soon as they gained political power. Yet of course 9/11 is precisely the thing which brought them into political power!)
     
    I’m not sure I think the Tea Party are consistently against Big Government anyway. Have they spoken against funding for the military, for example? It seems like they’ll just put things they don’t like under the heading of Big Government rather than try to apply the rule across the board. Randians, the ones who really are opposed to all that, are supposed to get upset that the Tea Party take up Rand’s name. Randians are barmy, of course. But at least they’re consistent about it.
     
    But then, as said, the Tea Party are not particularly into coherence in the first place. They seem to regard questions about clarification as some liberal media plot, to draw you away from your intuitive homespun values. All that book-learnin’... a distraction at best.
     
    ” When the Tea Party started up, they obviously directed most of their fire at Obama, but Bush came in for a pretty good kicking as well.”
     
    I confess that I have never actually heard this before. Was this done openly? Do you remember any specific incidents?
     
    ” the Internet means more people have access to such theories through other venues.”
     
    I’m not sure I see the net as anything more than a means. IMHO it’s more to do with the decline in society/ rise in individualism. It’s almost like since we gave up on sharing anything meaning has become privatised, and it’s become people’s consumer right to believe what they want.

    Conspiracy theories are just an extreme example of a general tendency. You can say for example “qualified structural engineers have confirmed flying planes into skyscrapers tends to damage them. So I’d rather believe them than some bloke you met on the internet who lives in his mom’s basement and has just Googled the words steel and melting point.” And people will respond as though their fundamental human rights are under attack.
     
    Yet of course conspiracy theories are also unifying. There’s a ‘them’ who do everything, a bewildered mass and an ‘us’ who are smart and sussed and see through it all. Their underlying premise is a world which is planned and ordered and therefore comprehensible once you're given the key. But I think that’s just the paradox in their nature.
     
    ” Virtually all big business "capitalists" are using free market rhetoric merely to advance their own interests.”
     
    Not meaning to read too much into one set of quotation marks but you’re distinguishing between capitalism and big business there?
     

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  32. But did 9/11 not push him rightwards?

    On foreign policy, sure.

    I’m not sure I think the Tea Party are consistently against Big Government anyway. Have they spoken against funding for the military, for example? It seems like they’ll just put things they don’t like under the heading of Big Government rather than try to apply the rule across the board. Randians, the ones who really are opposed to all that, are supposed to get upset that the Tea Party take up Rand’s name. Randians are barmy, of course. But at least they’re consistent about it.

    I think a decent number of Tea Partiers are Randians and are fairly consistent about it. But, yes, most of them are not.

    I confess that I have never actually heard this before. Was this done openly? Do you remember any specific incidents?

    Just rhetoric here and there. Not hugely publicized. Because the Tea Party included both formerly pro-Bush and not pro-Bush right-wingers, the not pro-Bush camp were usually content to softpedal that in the interest of getting along. But there were always things like the following quote from Slate:

    "In February 2010, a Tennessee lawyer named Judson Phillips put on a miraculously successful National Tea Party Convention, and he became, for a while, a movement spokesman. 'The Tea Party movement does not defend George W. Bush,' said Phillips in February 2010, promoting the convention. 'George W. Bush is not exactly one of my favorite people.'"

    There were other speakers on occasion who would take on Bush - mostly TARP and the 2008 bailouts. Sarah Palin herself generally felt free to criticize Bush (and everybody else in the world).

    The problem with trying to pin down the "Tea Party" is the same as trying to pin down "Occupy Wall Street." They are an amorphous blob without a single top-down agenda.

    Not meaning to read too much into one set of quotation marks but you’re distinguishing between capitalism and big business there?

    Capitalism was, I believe, a word more or less coined by Karl Marx. If you want it to be synonymous with big business, I'm willing to grant it to you. I was really distinguishing big business from a free market though and equating capitalism with the free market. I am not married to this definition. Common sense wise, people use capitalism to mean the mixed economic system currently practiced in most Western democracies which is certainly mostly a big business system. I have heard Noam Chomsky deny that the United States is a capitalist country (because of massive state interventions in the economy) and I was following him with my use of the scare quotes.

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  33. ”The problem with trying to pin down the "Tea Party" is the same as trying to pin down "Occupy Wall Street." They are an amorphous blob without a single top-down agenda.”

    You see, I'd stick to saying the Yippies are a better comparison. There's the same stuntism, the same reliance on shock tactics to get media attention. You may get reported as a freakshow, but you'll get reported and that may be enough to push things your way. And while the Yippies weren't astro-turfed in the same way, their apparent open-ness just disguised an unaccountable leadership based in media celebrity. As the leftist writer Mark Marquesee, himself from the Sixties agitational tradition, said “the real problem with the Yippie leaders was that they were self-selecting and unaccountable.”

    Occupy were criticised by some anti-capitalist figures for merely being against stuff. (Zizek seemed particularly scathing.) Which kind of obscures the insistence on self-education that tended to happen in the Occupy camps. But mostly what's presented as a weakness was actually an advantage. Occupy made political decisions over the kind of world they wanted to live in by making practical decisions as they came up. They were more genuinely representative of decentralised decision-making than the Yippies.

    Incidentally, I'm only really talking about Occupy in the US there. It's easier than ever for movements to spread internationally these days, which can be to the good but often ends up with cargo cults. Occupy in London seemed to me far too close to a cargo cult copy of Occupy in the US. (While the Occupy camp in Brighton felt like a cargo cult copy of the one in London!) Home-grown groups such as UK Uncut were more important over here.

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  34. ”Capitalism was, I believe, a word more or less coined by Karl Marx... I was really distinguishing big business from a free market though and equating capitalism with the free market... I have heard Noam Chomsky deny that the United States is a capitalist country (because of massive state interventions in the economy)”

    Of course Chomsky's trying to frame something in a way his audience may not be used to. But, while I'm normally sympathetic to him, I'd have to disagree. I don't think it's any more important that Marx coined the term capitalism than that he coined the term communism. And I don't see capitalism as synonymous with big business, with corporatism, with centrally planned economies or anything else. To one side the 'anarchy' of the free market is capitalism gone haywire, to the other corporatism is a machine stuck with a man with a red flag walking in front of it. But there is no 'pure' form of capitalism. It's a social relation not an economic model If the majority of people sell their labour to survive, and if they effect that survival by purchasing commodities, that's what we're talking about. Castro's Cuba is as capitalist as Friedman's wettest dream.

    However, I think ideological commitment to a free market is both something relatively new and something site-specific. When Britain was the most powerful country in the world, it talked of 'free trade' but it was an open secret that meant 'what Britain said went'. But due to America's post-colonial history there's a tendency to tilt at archaisms, one of which is to claim we've never really had a proper form of capitalism. People see the game isn't played the way it says on the lid, so they tend to throw the game away and fixate on the lid. There are non-American free market cheerleaders, such as Hayek. But strikingly few.

    There is, I'll grant, a dampener to (at least my kind of) communism. It's an empirical form of analysis, which asserts the primacy of the class struggle. So where do you go when the class struggle weakens? People normally note the weakness of communism today and conclude it must be an impossibility. Naturally I don't agree with them, but even I have to admit they have a point. The last global shift towards communism? Now nearly a century ago.

    Nevertheless, there are those historical precedents and there are examples even today. Naomi Klein made the film 'The Take' about workers' takeovers of factories in Argentina, and while that may be worker's self-management rather than fully fledged communism it still seems a pretty good stride towards the right direction.

    The free-market right present themselves as pragmatists and my lot as hopeless idealists. Yet the situation's precisely the reverse. Where are the examples of pure free-market systems arising, sole traders interacting as they forged bipartisan agreements, with no influence from big business? Those outside America point to America. While those inside America merely react to what's going on there. The whole thing's a chimera!

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  35. So, speaking of class struggle, I happened to pick up the complete collection of Columbo on DVD just the other day. It's my impression that Columbo has maintained its popularity better in the U.K. than in the U.S. If that's correct (and I'm not sure it is), I've always thought there were two possible reasons for it.

    1) Columbo clearly owes much more to English mystery fiction than to American detective fiction or cop shows. Columbo doesn't carry a gun and there's no drug busts, street murders, prostitutes, or shootouts. And the show was entirely dependent on dialogue and plotting rather than action.

    2) The "class struggle" angle. Theory is that being more class conscious, the British take particular delight in Peter Falk's working class schlub outsmarting rich and powerful malefactors. The creators have said they didn't have any political intent, just that given Peter Falk's persona, they had no choice but to contrast him with Noel Coward types - nothing else would have worked dramatically. Nowadays, even Law and Order has figured out that rich people make more interesting murder suspects.

    Anyway, all of this is mostly to ask if you're a Columbo fan yourself, since it seems like you should be (if you like mysteries at all).

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  36. 'Columbo' is more a staple of UK TV than 'popular'. It's almost constantly on rotation, but always on Saturday afternoon or some time like that. As that means I'd have to record it to see it, and there's never any particular impetus to record it, I don't think I've actually seen an episode in over a decade.

    But I think that sort of proves your point in a way. It's like we've absorbed it into our culture, become so familiar with it that we've stopped actually noticing it.

    I'd say yes to both points. The lack of guns and car chases certainly made it seem particularly unusual for an American show. And 'Rockford Files' was equally popular over here at the time. (Though it's lacked 'Columbo's staying power.)

    The only question I'd ask is – which class is doing the struggling? Columbo could be seen as a working class schlub. But you could also see him as the petit-bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie, the affordable mac against the fancy sports jacket, the hard-working mind always winning over the arrogance of privelige who saw spoils as just their rightful due. Careers can be open to ability, even if ability wears an old mac. The job of the cop, at least in popular culture, can double as both blue and white collar.

    Certainly I remember my parents being fans of the show, and they tended to blow a gasket at the notion that the lower orders should be allowed to show their faces on TV. To get (almost) back on topic, I've no idea whether Thatcher was a fan of the show, but it's fairly easy to imagine that it would have appealed to her.

    I've sometimes wondered if the war of the coasts is in there as well. Columbo is the regular working guy whose (culturally speaking) home is the North East, against the West Coasters with their high-falutin' roles in the media or society.

    Which makes for an interesting comparison to the Doctor! I don't know if you read this exchange with Andrew Hickey at the time, but it seems we both separately hit on the idea of the Doctor and Columbo as similar. Particularly the 'cosmic hobo' Second Doctor, but it's there throughout I think.

    Except of course there the classes are the other way up. The Doctor's like the de-titled toff in the post-war world, thrown back upon his wits. His adversaries are jumped-up little men who think they're important for having a badge on their chest, bureaucratic box-tickers or military men.

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  37. Andrew Stevens1 May 2013 at 05:18

    If you haven't seen much Columbo as an adult, I'd urge you to give it a try. Of course, there are bad episodes, but most of the original 1971-1978 run was really excellent (and there's a lot of good stuff in the '89-'98 period as well, though the overall quality is much lower). The acting, writing, and production values were really top-notch for a TV show. Consequently the only thing that's aged are the fashions and the technology. Obviously, it's formulaic, but that's it's only real weakness.

    The only question I'd ask is – which class is doing the struggling? Columbo could be seen as a working class schlub. But you could also see him as the petit-bourgeoisie against the bourgeoisie, the affordable mac against the fancy sports jacket, the hard-working mind always winning over the arrogance of privelige who saw spoils as just their rightful due. Careers can be open to ability, even if ability wears an old mac. The job of the cop, at least in popular culture, can double as both blue and white collar.

    Columbo is clearly played as a blue collar character. Not saying Mrs. Thatcher wouldn't have liked the show, though. In fact, I'd be surprised if she didn't. Everybody likes Columbo. In any event, the creators have said they weren't really trying to push a class struggle angle; it just fell out from the way Peter Falk played the character.

    I've sometimes wondered if the war of the coasts is in there as well. Columbo is the regular working guy whose (culturally speaking) home is the North East, against the West Coasters with their high-falutin' roles in the media or society.

    Whether intentional or not, it's clearly there. The two creators, Levinson and Link, were both Philadelphia boys who transplanted to California and Peter Falk was New York City born and bred, also transplanted to California.

    And, yes, I can definitely see the similarity between Doctor Who and Columbo. The Doctor is continually underestimated more or less from the beginning, even with Jon Pertwee though it's probably least true of him and Matt Smith.

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  38. ”Obviously, it's formulaic, but that's it's only real weakness.”

    But it’s not a show that’s based around surprises, so I don’t think the formula is as serious a weakness as it might have been. There’s usually a couple of incidental details of the murder plot left to discover along the way. But it’s telegraphed from the start who the killer is, with the enjoyment lying in watching Columbo slowly stain their perfect-dentistry smile. It’s like the way the same situations can recur again and again in sitcoms, but in a good sitcom it just stays funny - because it’s so well played and the situation is just so much fun to watch!

    ”Columbo is clearly played as a blue collar character.”

    This may be just a British reaction, but while you’re obviously right there I still think it’s possible to read it both ways. One of the main ways the petit-bourgeoisie defines itself against the bourgeoisie is by its thriftiness. This cheap-mac guy shows up in this world of Beverley Hills ostentation and conspicuous consumption, people who think they’re above and beyond the normal rules of society, and brings them down to earth. Whereas the general response to ostentation in working class culture (or at least it’s media reflection) to is to wish you had some of that yourself. It’s like the old Pulp lyric: “What’s the point of being rich/ If you don’t know what to do with it?” The British media love a ‘chav-wins-lottery’ story almost as much as an ‘Americans-are-all-mad’ story.

    This is from a long-back memory, but wasn’t there an episode where he arrests the murderer at an airport cafe with a suitcase of cash he’s trying to run off with? Then when the guy gets carted off its revealed Columbo can’t pay the café bill, despite the bundles of cash lying in front of him.

    While it’s common to say the Doctor-as-underdog thing got dropped in New Who, the goofy grin of the Ninth Doctor must be one of its clearest examples. By no kind of coincidence whatsoever, the Ninth was always my favourite New Doctor. I didn’t really go for all that ‘lonely God’ stuff. It just felt fannish.

    Okay, having rumbled on about the petit-bourgeoisie for two comments in a row, I now only need to mention the extraction of surplus value and the actual subsumption of labour by capital to complete my Marxist bingo!

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  39. Andrew Stevens2 May 2013 at 01:28

    This is from a long-back memory, but wasn’t there an episode where he arrests the murderer at an airport cafe with a suitcase of cash he’s trying to run off with? Then when the guy gets carted off its revealed Columbo can’t pay the café bill, despite the bundles of cash lying in front of him.

    Yes, "Ransom for a Dead Man," the 1971 series pilot. The only thing you misremembered is that the murderer in that one was a woman (played by Lee Grant). A middling Columbo episode, probably doesn't even rank in the top half, but still very good. I'm not sure if I can name another fairly long-running TV series with as high an average quality as Columbo. Only at the very end of its run in the late '90s and early 2000's does the average quality really slip, though there was the occasional clunker throughout.

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  40. The selective vision of my parents never fails to boggle my mind! Not only was 'Starsky and Hutch' forbidden viewing in our house while 'Columbo' was mysteriously not considered to be American, but 'I Claudius' was quite avidly watched. Which they're currently re-showing.

    'Starsky and Hutch' was outlawed ostensibly due to it's violence. But, while rarely graphic, 'I Claudius' is stuffed full of often the most sadistic and sexual violence. I suppose the RP accents delivered from togas made it okay!

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  41. Andrew Stevens2 May 2013 at 21:29

    Mr. Burrows: Obviously, your parents' criteria didn't have anything to do with violence or American-ness; it was simply based on good taste. Columbo and I, Claudius were great and Starsky and Hutch was terrible. Were I your parents, I would have had the same rules, but I probably would have been more upfront about my reasons.

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  42. Andrew Stevens2 May 2013 at 21:31

    I, Claudius didn't really have to be graphic. Caligula's killing of his sister Drusilla was far more disturbing than anything in either Starsky and Hutch or Columbo.

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  43. ”Obviously, your parents' criteria didn't have anything to do with violence or American-ness; it was simply based on good taste.”
     
    You'd be forgiven for thinking so given those examples, but alas not. Turning a blind eye to ’Columbo’s American origins was perhaps the attitude to take. (Short of ridding themselves of anti-Americanism altogether, which was unlikely to happen.) But we also had to watch a whole load of luvvie-stuffed, stately dramas just because they were Good Taste. You were supposed to wait for the next luvvie-celeb to show up, so you could say “yes, that’s Dame Maggie Smith”, like going to a stately home and pointing at a Chippendale chair. Meanwhile, a whole lot of good telly was quite deliberately avoided...
     
    At the same time, I did get my love of classic and foreign films from my Dad. I just thought he was mad at the time. We finally got a colour TV and he wanted to watch some old film in black and white. And he’d want to watch something where you had to read the subtitles, while there was something properly on in English on the other side.
     
    ” I, Claudius didn't really have to be graphic.”
     
    Don’t give anything away, Caligula’s not even proclaimed Emperor yet!
     
    You’re right, of course. The horrific thing is that minds could be so scheming, sadistic and cruel. Everything they actually do is just illustrative of that.

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  44. Andrew Stevens4 May 2013 at 03:03

    Wait, you mean you've never seen I, Clavdivs!? I'm sorry; that possibility had simply never occurred to me. (Also, the claim that it was avidly watched in your household led me to believe you'd watched it then.) One of the all time great TV miniseries, in my opinion. It's a pity American television has lost the desire to do miniseries any more. I keep watching shows like Lost or whatever and thinking, "This could have been a really good miniseries. As it is, I'm never going to have the patience to keep watching it for six seasons while they drag on and on until they finally wrap up." (And indeed I never do.)

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  45. Two possible answer!. Quite often even when we were allowed to watch something, I still wouldn't be. And I have memories of being sent to bed so i couldn't watch 'Claudius' and consequently being fascinated by what i was missing. But also memories of it, of Caligula being in charge, Claudius stammering in the corner and everything in the hands of a madman. Memories which seem to contradict each other somewhat. But even if i watched them all back then, it means I haven't seen it since I was six!

    My theory is they've given up on good TV and now just go for moreish TV. They used to try and make something you wanted to watch again next week. Now it's like one of those snacks that don't actually taste that nice, but you seem compelled to keep eating them all the same. I've never actually watched 'Lost' but most people seem to say it's a classic of stringing the audience along for as long as it could.

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  46. Andrew Stevens4 May 2013 at 18:43

    I assume the answer is economic. My guess is that a miniseries just doesn't have enough episodes to amortize the production costs over. Economies of scale and all that. When there were only three networks, the networks would compete over prestige since if you got a household watching ABC for some prestige miniseries (like Roots), they might keep watching it for the other programming, allowing the network to recoup the cost of the miniseries. I'm pretty sure the U.S. miniseries died shortly after the invention of the remote control.

    Well, hope you enjoy I, Claudius. I've had that one on DVD for a while (to replace the recording I had made off of cable TV years ago).

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  47. Dennis Potter! I was trying to think of something we were forbad from watching in my youth, but couldn't think of one before. There was always a tabloid furore over Potter, ostensibly over the sex and violence, but almost certainly actually about his leftist views.

    Economies of scale, at the very least that must be a factor. They're the criteria which originally led to the development of the sitcom, aren't they? The particular problem for me is that those shows always promise extended storylines, like a whole grand narrative's planned out, when those production necessities insist that they're actually just extemporised. It's like the worst of both worlds. I'd rather something was actually planned out, like 'Babylon 5', or didn't pretend to be. Or had a kind of modular approach, as in something like 'The Wire.' There are plot lines which continue across the seasons in 'The Wire', but it's more like seeing the same object from different perspectives. You couldn't quite watch the seasons in a different order, but it's closer to that than most things...

    Initial thoughts on 'I Claudius'... some of it is very klunky, in that hammy theatrical way early 'Doctor Who' can be. But the weird curve ball is the politics. As befits the early Seventies, it's very un-PC. Caligula's campness is used as a signifier for his perverted evil, and so on. But in a weird way that kind of fits the way it's set in a world which doesn't share our morality. (Okay Claudius probably does, but he's not an active protagonist like in most TV shows.) Perhaps the early Seventies is now almost as foreign to us as ancient Rome...

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  48. Andrew Stevens5 May 2013 at 17:15

    There was always a tabloid furore over Potter, ostensibly over the sex and violence, but almost certainly actually about his leftist views.

    I can't say I'm an expert on Dennis Potter. I've seen The Singing Detective, of course, which I thought was all right, but not up to its reputation. Can't say I noticed his leftist views in it, though I knew he had them.

    The particular problem for me is that those shows always promise extended storylines, like a whole grand narrative's planned out, when those production necessities insist that they're actually just extemporised.

    Yes, it became obvious early on that shows like Lost and The X-Files had no idea where they were going, so the explanations given for earlier shocking events turn out to be very unsatisfying. It's okay to make up a novel as you go along because you can go back and edit in light of where you ended up before you release it. You really can't do it with a TV show. On the other hand, Babylon 5, which clearly was planned out in advance, kept getting punched in the nose by events.

    Or had a kind of modular approach, as in something like 'The Wire.'

    Yes, planning in advance a season at a time like The Wire or Buffy is the way to go with television. On the other hand, The Wire lost steam after they killed off Stringer Bell. Buffy got away with it for longer, but really should have ended with Buffy's death at the end of Season 5.

    As befits the early Seventies, it's very un-PC. Caligula's campness is used as a signifier for his perverted evil, and so on. But in a weird way that kind of fits the way it's set in a world which doesn't share our morality.

    Roman morality isn't that far different from ours. Cicero, for example, was practically a modern moralist. He didn't condemn slavery, but he did insist that slaves should be treated well, like family members. His slave, Tiro, who continued to work for him after being manumitted, was obviously devoted to Cicero.

    There are a few places where Rome clearly differs from Christian morality. For example, some moderns find Cicero insufferable because of his self-regard. Humility is a peculiarly Christian virtue (though not unique to Christianity - it's similar in Buddhism); the Romans would have found it quite alien. (Of course, I'm going to argue that the Christians are incorrect here, often making a virtue out of a positive vice.) Cicero really was a great orator; why is it wrong of him to acknowledge this?

    The Romans were often harsh and brutal, not terribly surprising in material circumstances as harsh and brutal as theirs, but in the end they were not so very different from us.

    Perhaps the early Seventies is now almost as foreign to us as ancient Rome...

    It is commonplace to talk about the decline of films and television in terms of sexual and violent content. But the stuff being made now still doesn't compare to the stuff made in the Seventies. The possibility that porn would go mainstream was seriously talked about in the Seventies, when obviously that's not going to happen. I watch films from the era and I'm rather shocked at how in-your-face the nudity and violence is, even in what was considered mainstream films. The pendulum hasn't done a full swing back, but we're still not as far down that road as we were 40 years ago.

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  49. ”On the other hand, The Wire lost steam after they killed off Stringer Bell.”

    You think? Stringer Bell was a great character, of course. But Season 4 is probably my personal favourite. I love the jumps in scale between the school kids and the Mayoral race. Plus you get all to see the changes and developments in characters, like Prez and Carver.

    One of my pet theories is that people will come to think Season 4 must have happened after Obama's election. Not only does Carcetti have such high hopes for office but there's the straightforward reversals, such as his being white working as an impediment to him. Season 5 was weaker, admittedly. It's generally regarded as the last and least.

    I have to admit I've never actually got into 'Buffy'.

    ”Roman morality isn't that far different from ours.”

    I think it was relatively common for owners to free and sometimes even marry their slaves. I'd be surprised if their morality was so much like ours, but shan't pretend I know enough about the subject to really comment.

    ”Humility is a peculiarly Christian virtue... the Romans would have found it quite alien.”

    The two might be associated but I can't think of Christianity as causal there. Wouldn't that just lead to the question of what caused the Christianity? Highly speculatively, I'd suggest at a change from a military to a trading culture. But I think even in the early days Rome traded more than people think. It wasn't all about conquest.

    Irrespective of actuality, 'I Claudius' shifts between the notion Rome has an alien morality and an embroynic form of our own which doesn't adequately function yet. When Sejanus' infant daughter is to be killed, a soldier objects that it's wrong to kill a virgin, only to be told there's an obvious solution. It's the way that it's seen as a resolution to a problem that's chilling.

    Actually, one of the things I like about it is the way that different characters have different (and sometimes differing) attitudes - to soothsaying and the like. One of the things which grates about many fictional worlds is how homogenous they're always made.

    ”I watch films from the era and I'm rather shocked at how in-your-face the nudity and violence is, even in what was considered mainstream films. “

    It's common, once you get a freedom, to kind of over-indulge in it. What I find more shocking is the casual approach to sexual violence. Something like 'Clockwork Orange' is obviously an art movie, but some of it feels more like an exploitation film.

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  50. Andrew Stevens6 May 2013 at 14:29

    To be honest, I never cared much for The Wire. Always thought it was absurdly overpraised (though not as much as Mad Men). I didn't think any of the seasons worked that well after the first one. By the second season, I was only watching for Stringer Bell. I did watch all of the first four seasons though, never saw Season 5.

    One of my pet theories is that people will come to think Season 4 must have happened after Obama's election. Not only does Carcetti have such high hopes for office but there's the straightforward reversals, such as his being white working as an impediment to him.

    Your theory may be right, but the "reversal" didn't surprise me. Being white is a disadvantage to being elected mayor in a majority black city such as Baltimore. I don't think any American would be surprised at this. Washington, D.C. has never had a white mayor since it started having mayors in 1973. On the other hand, Baltimore did have a white mayor (Martin O'Malley, now Governor of Maryland) when The Wire was made. Just prior to his election, there were tons of newspaper articles asking if it was possible that Baltimore would elect a white mayor.

    I think it was relatively common for owners to free and sometimes even marry their slaves. I'd be surprised if their morality was so much like ours, but shan't pretend I know enough about the subject to really comment.

    Freeing slaves was common, though marrying them was not (but it did happen and wouldn't have been found especially remarkable).

    The two might be associated but I can't think of Christianity as causal there. Wouldn't that just lead to the question of what caused the Christianity?

    Huh. It seems obvious to me that Christianity was causal. Unworthy in God's presence, original sin, and all that. A common theme in Christianity is that we're all sinners who can only be saved through God's grace and so forth. And, yes, Rome did a lot of trading throughout its history.

    Irrespective of actuality, 'I Claudius' shifts between the notion Rome has an alien morality and an embroynic form of our own which doesn't adequately function yet. When Sejanus' infant daughter is to be killed, a soldier objects that it's wrong to kill a virgin, only to be told there's an obvious solution. It's the way that it's seen as a resolution to a problem that's chilling.

    All the crimes of the Emperors and such depicted in I, Claudius (such as the one you mention) which horrify us also horrified the Romans. (For the record, Sejanus's daughter was not an infant. She was fourteen years old.) Robert Graves followed Suetonius's history fairly closely. Suetonius is regarded, by reputable scholars, as more than a bit of a gossip who was exaggerating the crimes of the Emperors to grind his own axes. Point being, all of these things were related, at the time, in order to show how evil and depraved Tiberius, Caligula, etc. were.

    And, yes, while showing opposition to slavery (except among the slaves) in Rome at the time would have been anachronistic, the attitude toward soothsaying was much more diverse.

    It's common, once you get a freedom, to kind of over-indulge in it. What I find more shocking is the casual approach to sexual violence. Something like 'Clockwork Orange' is obviously an art movie, but some of it feels more like an exploitation film.

    Yes, that too. And the exploitation films of the time! I Spit on Your Grave, for example.

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  51. Andrew Stevens6 May 2013 at 15:55

    Apropos of this, as Barack Obama and his wife have mentioned several times, when he began his political career in Chicago, the question wasn't whether he was "too black," but whether he was "black enough." In 2000, he ran against Bobby Rush for Congress in the South Side of Chicago, overwhelmingly black and working class. Obama ended up winning the majority of white voters, but got killed overall. Obama was, after all, raised by white people in Hawaii while Bobby Rush had been raised by a divorced mother in the inner city of Chicago. Rush successfully painted him as an academic Harvard elite running out of Hyde Park (a majority white neighborhood in the district which includes the University of Chicago). Losing turned out to work out pretty well for him and he was elected to the U.S. Senate instead four years later (and the Presidency four years after that).

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  52. Andrew Stevens6 May 2013 at 18:31

    I'd be surprised if their morality was so much like ours, but shan't pretend I know enough about the subject to really comment.

    I really do recommend becoming thoroughly conversant with some ancient culture, the more foreign and exotic the better frankly. (I chose Rome, but I wish I had chosen ancient China or something instead.) One of the reasons why people believe they see so much moral disagreement between cultures is simply the "Otherness" that we project onto other cultures, combined with various slanders and libels on the culture. When you really steep yourself into another culture, then you begin to understand why they had the traditions they did and how similar they really are to ours. E.g. in I, Claudius, Claudius's morality isn't an embryonic form of ours; it is rather an echo of Rome's past. Claudius (i.e. the fictional character created by Graves based on the actual historical person) is an old Republican who believes in the old virtues: amicitas, pietas, and most importantly fides, putting the good of the state ahead of one's own ambitions, as exemplified by the legendary Cincinnatus, who was given a six month emergency term as dictator, but after defeating the invading Aequi in a mere sixteen days, resigned as dictator and returned to retirement on his farm.

    It's funny that this belief (that cultural morality is supremely flexible) is so common on the political left who also stand up for diversity and tolerance and so forth, when the latter attitude only makes sense if the belief is false. If, for example, the ancient Romans really were moral horrors, then surely we must concede the possibility that some modern cultures may be as well. In which case, we probably don't have any choice but to extirpate them. Fortunately, this view is incorrect. Differences in culture are fascinating, but ultimately our common humanity matters more.

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  53. I think the point about Carcetti and Obama is that colour works as a 'throw'. Often when a drama is likening itself to a real-world situation it throws something in the mix just to stop the likeness being exact. Often this is just a straightforward reverse which gives a mirror image. It looks like that's what they're doing with Carcetti, but of course the chronology proves otherwise.

    I think one of the themes of 'The Wire' is the way people enter institutions in the hope they can change them, and it's always the other way around. Carcetti things he can transform politics, but always imagines the power to do it lies in the next rung up from where he is. (Like Obama thinking he could close Gitmo and so on.) Stringer Bell and Prop Joe think they can transform the drugs trade, and fail in a somewhat more dynamic fashion. Characters later on in the series come to copy the lifestyles of characters you've seen earlier, simply because there's only so many channels you can run in. It makes you realise how much the effective hero is a staple of drama. The hero can be flawed, but it's normally simply assumed his actions affect the world around him.

    Siding for once with the majority, I consider 'The Wire' one of the best things ever to have hit TV. It's modular format, the way you see different institutions in parallel, make it the perfect frame through which to look at the modern neoliberal world.

    ”Robert Graves followed Suetonius's history fairly closely. Suetonius is regarded, by reputable scholars, as more than a bit of a gossip who was exaggerating the crimes of the Emperors to grind his own axes.”

    I'm not sure I'm so interested in how historically accurate the series is, and haven't wondered about that as I've been watching it. Isn't it now commonly agreed that Caligula wasn't as mad or monstrous as used to be assumed? I've just imagined it tells us more about Seventies Britain than ancient Rome.

    Regarding the Republic, that's actually pretty similar to another Seventies epic, 'Star Wars', where a benevolent Old Republic (kept conveniently offscreen) has to be restored. Notably, the Ceasars also follow a linear path into greater oppression and depravity. Augustus is a serial banisher but has a kindly side, Tiberius is bad (with Sejanus doing the worst stuff) and Caligula badder. Augustus is against being proclaimed a god even in distant Syria, announcing his divinity is virtually Caligula's first action.

    On a total side-note, Caligula's hearing horses' hooves as a signifier of his insanity, could that be an influence on the Master hearing the drumming in 'Doctor Who'?

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  54. ”Huh. It seems obvious to me that Christianity was causal.”

    I think you've then just got the question of what caused the Christianity.

    ”It's funny that this belief (that cultural morality is supremely flexible) is so common on the political left who also stand up for diversity and tolerance and so forth, when the latter attitude only makes sense if the belief is false.”

    Out of interest, do you agree there are general cultural differences between societies? Were Rome, Egypt, Sumer and the Hittites essentially interchangeable? Or do you think of morality as a special category?

    Actually I think the problem normally occurs the other way around to the one you state. The kneejerk argument against communism is that it's “against human nature,” so the rote response becomes to claim there's some 'true' human nature which capitalism suppresses but communism embodies.

    Of course this is just leading us back into the old idealism vs. materialism debate. It may be that not all materialists are communists, but I think all communists have to be materialists by definition. It's easy and comforting to imagine that, had you been brought up in some Spartan warrior society, your 'true self' would somehow still have asserted itself. But there's no real basis to think that.

    But if a materialist looks for a real-world basis for why a culture or system of morality has worked out the way it did, it doesn't then just assume its all equivalent. More egalitarian, more freedom-based societies can still be regarded as better. You can reject moral absolutism without running to moral relitavism.

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  55. Andrew Stevens9 May 2013 at 00:34

    Isn't it now commonly agreed that Caligula wasn't as mad or monstrous as used to be assumed?

    It has always been debated how bad Caligula was. Part of the problem being that it was extremely common in Rome to express one's opposition to someone by claiming he is insane or sexually perverse. A very great many major political figures were accused of incest, general debauchery, and so forth and chances are the majority of such claims were exaggerated. For whatever reason, most writing about Caligula has been lost (even Tacitus's detailed history of Caligula's reign has been lost) and no surviving source about him is positive. I don't think it's really possible to know what Caligula was really like, barring undiscovered manuscripts.

    I've just imagined it tells us more about Seventies Britain than ancient Rome.

    Robert Graves wrote the books in 1934 and the scripts are pretty faithful to his novels. You mentioned John Hurt's performance as Caligula and that is certainly on Seventies Britain, since that performance is not dictated by Graves's material, but a great deal of it is on Robert Graves.

    Regarding the Republic, that's actually pretty similar to another Seventies epic, 'Star Wars'

    The Republic and the Empire in Star Wars were unquestionably modeled on Rome, yes.

    On a total side-note, Caligula's hearing horses' hooves as a signifier of his insanity, could that be an influence on the Master hearing the drumming in 'Doctor Who'?

    There is no doubt in my mind. As soon as I saw Sound of Drums, I caught the homage.

    I think you've then just got the question of what caused the Christianity.

    You seem to be arguing that people must have wanted to adopt humility as a virtue in order to have accepted Christianity. I don't agree with this. They may have adopted it for other reasons and got stuck with humility as a virtue, so to speak, because that was part of the package. Now, it may be the case that Christianity was popular because "humility as virtue" was something people very much wanted to adopt, but I reject your apparent view that this is necessarily true.

    Out of interest, do you agree there are general cultural differences between societies? Were Rome, Egypt, Sumer and the Hittites essentially interchangeable? Or do you think of morality as a special category?

    Of course there are cultural differences. We all recognize those differences which are a result of social convention rather than morality. E.g. nobody writes long, learned treatises on why it is immoral to belch after meals, even though in our culture, we would regard it as rude. We all understand this is just a social convention, not a moral law. What I am saying is if you read Plato or Seneca or Confucius or whoever, you’re going to find they all recognized the same virtues and the same vices. They all thought courage was a virtue and cowardice a vice, honesty a virtue and dishonesty a vice, justice as a virtue and injustice a vice, and so forth. I.e. people are people and have substantially similar moral beliefs throughout time and space. Of course, there are cultures who do adopt immoral practices. What I am saying is that, even when they do this, you can tell A) this is a result of reasoning (or rationalization) and B) in general, they usually seem to know what they're doing is immoral, even though they rationalize it. For example, Cuba called itself "the People's Republic of Cuba," a common locution among the Communist dictatorships, even though they were not remotely a republic. Why did they do this? Because hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. When Southern slaveholders tried to justify slavery in the 1850s, how did they do it? A great many of them argued it was good for the slaves.

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  56. Andrew Stevens9 May 2013 at 00:35

    Now, of course, those examples both had a popular counter-belief they were arguing against (Western democracy and abolitionism respectively). So let's take one which didn't have that. Aristotle justified slavery in his writings and, at the time, virtually nobody was arguing against it. How did he justify it? He argued that some people are basically born to be bodies and should be slaves (such as women and barbarians) and others are born to be minds and should be masters (which happened to include him and the rest of the Hellenes). It was, he argued, just for the body to serve the mind and so slavery was just. Aristotle denied, though, that it was right to enslave someone merely because he lost a battle. It took Augustine to justify that one, by claiming that victory in battle was determined by God and therefore enslaving the loser had divine sanction.

    But you can plainly see, because they take the trouble to justify it, that they know it is wrong or, at least, they know that it is an evil which must be justified in some way. Aristotle insists that slavery is natural like, for example, sex or eating, not conventional, but he didn't waste large amounts of words telling people why they should eat and have sex. He goes to a great deal of trouble to justify slavery. He knows it needs to be justified because he knows it would be wrong to enslave him.

    It's easy and comforting to imagine that, had you been brought up in some Spartan warrior society, your 'true self' would somehow still have asserted itself. But there's no real basis to think that.

    If you mean would I have all the exact same beliefs and cultural practices that I have now, of course not. And I am certain that I would also hold different moral opinions on certain subjects than I currently do. Undoubtedly, I would be more accepting of and inured to violence and brutality than I am. I think it's obvious that we are a mixture of our genetics, our environment, and our choices. Arguing that any of the three is causally ineffective just seems crazy to me. However, I regard the belief that all morality is culturally determined to untenable. While it certainly does explain the variety of morality in societies throughout history and all over the planet, it cannot explain the enormous amount of agreement. Only something innate (genetics or moral laws) can do that.

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  57. Andrew Stevens9 May 2013 at 00:36

    But if a materialist looks for a real-world basis for why a culture or system of morality has worked out the way it did, it doesn't then just assume its all equivalent. More egalitarian, more freedom-based societies can still be regarded as better. You can reject moral absolutism without running to moral relitavism.

    Well, first of all, I am probably not a "moral absolutist" by your definition and I'm definitely not by my own definition. Mr. Rilstone was arguing in favor of moral absolutism. He seemed to be saying that things are right or wrong regardless of context (such as intent) or consequences. I reject this view. I am a moral objectivist: I believe things are right or wrong regardless of custom or opinion, but not independent of context or consequences.

    That's a side issue. I agree with you that you can claim some systems are better even though you don't think there's any rational basis for holding them so. You can claim you're a bicycle, if you so desire. What you have lost is the warrant for your claim. It's like saying "it's raining, but I don't believe it." This is not a logical contradiction; it is formally consistent. But the second part undercuts your right to assert the first part.

    It would be helpful to me, though, if you could clarify your moral position. Which of these do you think is true?

    (1) Moral claims do not assert propositions.
    (2) All moral claims assert false propositions.
    (3) All moral claims assert propositions that are neither true nor false.
    (4) All moral claims assert propositions whose truth depends on some attitudes of observers.

    In my debate with Salisbury, he has been asserting (2). I regard this as a tenable position (though obviously I think it's wrong). For the record, I regard (1), (3), and (4) as untenable, but without knowing which you might be saying, I can't say why I think you're mistaken.

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  58. Have read these comments! Will respond! But maybe not for a few days. And it will probably be along the lines of "you are talking about filing cabinets when it should really be cherry trees."

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  59. Back now from doing nothing very interesting at all. Sorry for the delay. I'm afraid the following will be something like “you have been riding a bicycle when you should have been eating a mango.” But for the record...

    ”You seem to be arguing that people must have wanted to adopt humility as a virtue in order to have accepted Christianity”

    No, because that would just give us the same problem the other way up. Militaristic cultures have for what of a better term we might call a pecking order. In such cultures, boasting or bigging yourself up can be acceptable, depending on where you stand in the totem pole. I am bigger and tougher than you, therefore I am the boss of you. But trading cultures are based on either an equivalence (anyone can buy or sell), or a more dynamic form of dominance. The seller may defer to the buyer, but the seller will himself have buyers - at which point he expects deferment to come to him.

    There seems to me a connection between the spread of Christianity and the growth of trade. A general, universalised God who watches over all of us sits easier with a world based around trade than do a series of tribal gods. (Here's something I wrote a while ago which touches on similar points.) 'Humility' is most likely another factor similar to this.

    I'd concede this is at best an incomplete theory. As mentioned before, the Romans traded as much as they conquered, despite the image of endless expansionism most have of them nowadays. (Though at the same time their society was in many ways a militaristic one.) But whatever its strengths and weaknesses, it's not really meant as much more than an example. At the very worst it will be another theory like this, a materialist theory, which will hold water. There will be a cultural change based on a material change, a change in the way people actually lived. Marx wrote “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

    All non-materialist theories either end up as circular, where things are said to cause other things but later on appear as their symptoms. Or one thing is held to be causal simply on the basis of favouritism. Most scholarship of ancient history, even today, is rooted in times where Christianity was held to draw followers simply because it was true.

    ”It would be helpful to me, though, if you could clarify your moral position. “

    I don't think I even have a 'moral position' in the way you mean, and so don't really fit in at any point on your schematic. I suppose point 3 would be closest, but that doesn't really do it. I don't see moralism as having any a priori existence outside of culture, or even any existence which is separable, so for me you're really starting in the wrong place. I don't think I can really answer your point any better than I did over at Andrew Rilstone's thread, where I asked how people might respond if a dictatorship seized power overnight.

    I confess I hadn't heard before of Aristotle taking the time to justify slavery. But I had thought that to be relatively unusual in the ancient world, so it is most likely something unique to him and best explained by reference to his other writings.

    The similar thing would be to criticise wage labour today. Why should I spend my days renting myself out to a capitalist simply because I want to survive? It seems scarcely any different to day-prison. Yet people often react as if you're nuts to even suggest such a thing. It's not so much your thinking appears wrong, so much as it appears inconceivable. As such points moralism is brought in as a handy 'do not enter' sign, a way of not engaging with the ideas any further.

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  60. Another similar point would be the hard line that people assume exists between employment and slavery. But that line is actually as soft as a very soft thing. There's evidence that with cash crop workers in Africa, bonded labour is on the increase. The pressure on suppliers is to sell more cheaply, and one obvious way to achieve that is for them to press down wages. But wages fell so low that the only next step became to stop paying them at all. People would arrive for work simply to find themselves taken hostage.

    You're probably thinking “but then you are saying you are opposed to wage labour, how does that come about?” Indeed, I grew up in a time and place where to be racist and homophobic was more or less the norm. Yet from a young age neither made any sense to me. You could try explaining that through me having greater smarts or a more highly developed moral sense than those around me, which allows me to flout the material constraints to which others are subject. But asking anyone who knows me would quickly dispel that notion.

    In fact, such a question misinterprets materialism. Contrary to what many profess to think even among those who call themselves communists, Marx was not some iron-fisted determinist. Our material conditions constrain not just what we can do but what we can think. But a constraint is not the same thing as a determinant. The same Marx who wrote the quote above also said “the doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating.”

    ”in general, they usually seem to know what they're doing is immoral, even though they rationalize it.”

    I am a little confused as to what you are arguing here. Your point here seems to be that there are absolute moral values which we are capable of sensing and so, for most of the time, behave like a bunch of hypocrites. Like the rules are up on the wall in writing so large we can't pretend not to see them, but must creatively reinterpret them. But you've argued at other points that these moral values can only be instanced by human action, so I don't really see how the two square. How can these values be absolute if we break with them most of the time, unless they exist outside and apart from us?

    In all honesty I'd have to say your list of moral attributes (“courage was a virtue” and so on) is such a set of generalities as to not be truly meaningful. And even then on the rare occasions when a brick wall seems to be hit the terms are changed arbitrary anyway. You seem to have a better memory than me on this sort of thing, so you might recall the two guys who had the post 9/11 debate on American TV. One was pointing out quite rationally that, whatever else they may have been, the hijackers were hardly “cowardly”. They were actually acting bravely in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, if for entirely the wrong cause. But of course he was simply shouted down. The IRA were routinely described as cowardly in the British media. Terrorism is just held to equate to cowardice, that sits much easier with us than the truth.

    ”Cuba called itself "the People's Republic of Cuba," a common locution among the Communist dictatorships, even though they were not remotely a republic. Why did they do this?”

    This is largely down to politics. “The People's Republic of” Cuba was based on a revolution. So formally holding to those revolutionary values could be seen as necessary for continued public support. (How much anyone believed it is another thing. But it's probably a better bet than hanging up signs saying 'Yes, We're Repressing You. What Are You Going to Do About It?')

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  61. ”you can claim some systems are better even though you don't think there's any rational basis for holding them so.”

    To quote from Andrew Ducker over at the other thread, 'sentence fragment'. 'Better' doesn't mean anything unless you ask “better for who”? It is obviously better for an employer to push down wages, even to zero pay if necessary. But what's better for the workers is the opposite. I side with the workers not because of any universal moral principles but because I too work for a living. Whether me taking that side is 'warranted' or not is, in all honesty, not a subject I'm very interested in. I don't believe taking the other side would be any more 'warranted', even if it's culturally more reinforced.

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