Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Horrible right-wing ownership

It's one of the terrible ironies of being a blogger that it is sometimes the smallest remarks that garner the most attention. It's possible to slave away for weeks producing well-written and thoughtful material and find that no-one's particularly interested; criticise another's work and all of a sudden your every utterance is subject to intense scrutiny - or at least it seems.

I was guilty of committing such an act very recently. Coming across the blog of former diplomat Charles Crawford I found the bold assertion that
"There are only two important ideas in politics and political philosophy:
  • That government belongs to the people (ie the people are the source of sovereignty)
  • That the people belong to the government (ie the government/state is the source of sovereignty)".
Such a claim is of course utter nonsense, and I pointed out as such:
"This is, I fear, an intentionally selective observation. There are also those of us who believe that government is the best vehicle to fight discrimination and promote equality. 'Ownership' - such a horribly right-wing term - has nothing to do with it."
This is indisputable; I feel - as do many others - that government is one of the best resources we have to tackle inequality, so long as it performs that duty responsibly. That in a democracy governments can have their mandates removed on the whim of the electorate further suggests a far more complicated relationship then Crawford et al would have us believe. Ownership doesn't come into the equation.

The rest of the article - a round-up of right-of-centre blogs - then proceeded down a familiar, Daily Mail-esque route; that government is the source of all evil and those "Left collectivists" who believe it has a positive function to play are essentially collaborating in spreading "darkness". Government wants to control you. To own you.

It's a well-worn and tiresome path; first claim that all left-wing politics is about state control and nothing else, and then rubbish any advances it makes or suggestions made by its advocates. By reducing politics into nothing more than a black-and-white - and non-existent - dichotomy Crawford prevents any genuine or realistic discussion of how society and government can and should interact. I can't imagine that it's anything other than an intentional sleight of hand of the sort that is repeated ad nauseum in the right-wing tabloid press.

But it wasn't this that caught the eye of Crawford. Rather than address the main point of my response he has instead seized upon my final parting assertion that "ownership" is a "horribly right-wing term", essentially a flippant remark made by someone irritated at the unashamed bias - nay crassness - of what I was reading. It's become the subject of a short commentary here and a more lengthy dissemination here.

Crawford rubbishes the claim, suggesting that the concept of ownership as right-wing and horrible reminds him of Tito's Yugoslavia. He should know; Crawford worked extensively in Eastern Europe and the Balkans for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office during the turbulent era of economic transition in the early 1990s. In case we're not sure what happened with Tito's brand of socialism we are helpfully informed that it went "bust". And the reason why? A removal of the profit motive and the initiative of private enterprise.

Again, this seems a narrow interpretation; as we all know capitalist economies have also been vulnerable to implosion, and numerous other factors both internal and out can and do effect economic performance. I also fear that Crawford places too much weight on his experiences out East, as if the communism of the Soviet Union and its satellites were and are the sole expression of left-wing politics. That the 'communism' in these countries was in reality nothing of the sort is another debate entirely.

But this diverts attention from the point of that final and - at the time - seemingly inconsequential comment. What I was trying to articulate is that the concept of ownership is a frequent obsession for many of a rightist persuasion to the utter exclusion of all else; that it has been seized upon so gleefully perhaps illustrates the point better than I ever could. It's fair to say that right-wing politics is the politics of selfishness and of cooperation only when there is something in it for an individual concerned. Crawford even makes this very point, with a final poetic flourish to the commentaries mentioned earlier - "If you fail to deliver your side of the bargain, off I go – taking my fair share of my production with me" - but I'm not convinced that selfishness is a healthy mindset for a society to have nor greed to be the most desirable or morally constructive driving force behind an economy.

The reason for this is simple; the aims of rampant capitalism and the needs of the disadvantaged do not always coincide. There is no room in Crawford's world for those in need or those who wish to help them; in his mind the state can only interfere or restrict, never assist.

I say that's nonsense. Government can and does act as a check on economic exploitation and is one of the best ways for those imbalances to be addressed. As I originally said, it's nothing to do with ownership: it's just that Crawford and the rest want you to see it that way.


Tom Ruffles said...

Oddly enough Martin Bell started a two-part documentary on Radio 4 about Yugoslavia today. If Mr Crawford would care to listen to the first part on BBC iPlayer, he would learn that the reason it disintegrated was down to ethnicity (unsurprsingly) mixed with resentment that wealth generated in other regions had a nasty habit of ending up in Serbia. It wasn't because they were trying to build a Socialist utopia which failed because, not being a Capitalist system, it was of necessity inherently unstable. He was a diplomat in Eastern Europe you say? God help us.


Just horrible.

If Mr Crawford is paying attention to this he can find Martin Bell's programme listed here. He may learn something.

Charles Crawford said...

Unlike Martin Bell I was there when all this began (1981-84) and warned London that Yugoslavia was heading for a crisis because economic collapse was breeding weird forms of nationalist socialism at the republic levels. I was informed by the FCO top brass that Yugoslavia is a "pillar of stability in the Balkans".

The economic failure came from the simple stupidity of borrowing huge amounts of international money and building all sorts of unproductive factories, then being unable to pay the country's debts. Plus, of course, not allowing significant small enterprise to flourish for explicitly ideological reasons.

These follies exacerbated ethnic tensions suppressed by the Titoists after WW2, as republic leaders all played the 'ethnic card' in different ways.

I am sure that if Martin talks to me he'll learn something.

Charles Crawford said...

On the separate subject of the 'Ownership' issue as part of a philosophical Left/Right divide, I am not sure where you get the idea that I see no role for the state.

Good grief, I have worked for the UK state all my life, so I know quite a lot about its strengths and weaknesses.

I suspect that we'll not agree too much. You fret about Rampant Capitalism. I have lived in the ruins of Rampant Socialism.

My main and principled difference with you is that you seem to define ambition, energy and creativity as 'greed'.

I by contrast (a) see those things as a supreme expression of being human, and (b) believe that most of what makes society worth living comes from private large-scale cooperation among free people, albeit with a judicious role for 'state' intervention for a number of valid and important purposes.

"... government is one of the best resources we have to tackle inequality, so long as it performs that duty responsibly."

Fair enough. The drama much of the West now faces is that governments have stopped behaving responsibly on numerous fronts simultaneously, instead plundering present and future taxpayers to fund all sorts of specious schemes - and stacking the deck to prevent voters from getting the Change they really want.

This is moving from being a problem to becoming systemically dangerous - much as happened in post-Tito Yugoslavia, but on a gigantic scale.

Don't be like the FCO and say you weren't warned!

Charles Crawford said...

Finally, I see that Mr Ruffles takes a close interest in 'psychic' and 'paranormal' phenomena.

He seems to fret that someone like me who knew Yugoslavia should have worked there with the FCO on behalf of the taxpayer: "He was a diplomat in Eastern Europe you say? God help us." He apparently prefers policy to be shaped by the views of a TV journalist instead.

This is the point about the state, Mr Ruffles. It gets some very big things right - and some very big things wrong. The bigger the state, the more dramatic and far-reaching the blunders it can make.

The state gives significant power to people you don't like; whom you can't choose, even though it's your money which pays for them; and who may have all sorts of prejudices and ignorant views, yet who operate in positions of great public influence.

Peer deep into that crystal ball. You'll see through the swirling mist why some of us see that as a problem.

Tom Ruffles said...

Sorry, Mr Crawford, something here seems to have got under your skin.

"The economic failure came from the simple stupidity of borrowing huge amounts of international money and building all sorts of unproductive factories, then being unable to pay the country's debts.": It sounds like that makes the failure one of State Capitalism, as they used to say in the International Socialists, not "Rampant Socialism" as you put it.

"The bigger the state, the more dramatic and far-reaching the blunders it can make.": Is this a universal principle which applies to the USA, Russia and China equally? Or is it just the type of state whose ideology you personally don't agree with?

"Judicious role for 'state' intervention": I'm not quite sure whether you prefer a small state, such as Socratic Athens, or one with minimal regulation, the sort that would allow laissez-faire behaviour just short of preventing you from shooting someone for trying to steal your horse. Who chooses what is judicious in any given context? I suspect this is the preserve of an elite which knows what is best for the unenlightened masses.

I'm sure Mr Bell (who is a bit more than just a 'TV journalist') would be grateful for your input so that he can rectify his errors.

One thing we do agree on: "I suspect that we'll not agree too much".

Anonymous said...

Mr Ruffles,

"I'm sure Mr Bell (who is a bit more than just a 'TV journalist') would be grateful for your input so that he can rectify his errors."

I am intrigued, what is Mr Bell if he is not a TV journalist, MP (in his case the political equivalent of gentleman farmer)?

Charles Crawford's observations do seem to look more like a fine racehorse when compared to your one legged socialist pit pony, I'm sorry to say.

Tom Ruffles said...

I'm never too impressed by people who hide behind anonymity, but I will say that if you doubt Martin Bell's credentials, read this:

Among other things you will see that a well as reporting from places as diverse as Vietnam, the Middle East, Angola and Rwanda, he was badly wounded reporting from Sarajevo (so yes, he does know a bit about the place). You make him sound like someone who stands outside a town hall on the regional news telling us about a planning wrangle. He actually earned his OBE, unlike many career diplomats who get their gongs for merely keeping their noses clean and pontificating from the safety of their embassies.