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Chris Bertram

From Monday we’ll be running an online symposium on Joseph Carens’s brilliant The Ethics of Immigration. (It is the book that sets a new standard for what “long-awaited” means.) So stay tuned. Meanwhile, I was speaking yesterday at a seminar organized by Democracy Forum at the House of Commons on “Immigration: Liability or Asset”. My talk, which shows the influence of Carens’s work in many respects, is below the fold.

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Sunday photoblogging #5: cranes

by Chris Bertram on May 18, 2014

Sunday photoblogging #4: staircase in Rome

by Chris Bertram on May 11, 2014

The fading buds of May

by Chris Bertram on May 1, 2014


Today is the first of May, a day of international solidarity for the working class and labour movement, and always a day of memory for me. In the mid 1970s when I was thirteen years old, I was sitting with my language exchange partner Pierre in his bedroom in a ground floor flat in Montparnasse. I was leafing through a magazine—Paris Match as it happens—and there were pictures of the May events from 1968. I was absolutely stunned by them. Here, in Western Europe, there had been a street-fighting and a general strike within the past few years? I’d been aware of Czechoslovakia and, indeed, my whole school had chanted “Dubcek! Dubcek!” when the Christmas pudding had been brought out in 68, but of Paris I knew nothing. I resolved to find out more, and when the opportunity arose to choose a school history project, I asked if I could study the May events and produced a longish dossier, complete with photos, newspaper clippings and the rest. A few years later, in 1978—and hence on the 10th anniversary—I joined the May Day parade for myself at the Place de la République, no longer an observer but a participant.

What did May represent for me? There was an element of romantic adolescent attachment to be sure, but also the possibility of another society. In the reconstructed history of the victorious Thatcherites the choice that had to be made was between the marketized West and the gloomy authoritarianism of the Soviet bloc. But May 68 seemed to offer a different way, perhaps (oh dear!) a third way. And in a sense it did, it offered the hope of a non-authoritarian and participatory egalitarianism (and coupled with the Prague Spring, the chance of socialism with a human face). From that flowed a lot of other things, social movements, feminism, ecologism, trends in art and culture (there were other sources for these streams, to be sure). The possibility of rejecting the world of corporate power without embracing dourness and concrete was a liberating thought, some might say a naive and romantic one, to which I say “Soyez réaliste, demandez l’impossible!”

The memory of May, or at least the memory of the possibility of May, has always been there for me as a nourishing idea like Wordsworth’s Tintern when times have been bad (as they so often have since). It doesn’t have to be this way: vivre autrement. Sadly, when I was talking to a very smart student of left-wing convictions the other day, I mentioned May 68 and she asked “What happened in May 68?” It seems the memory of May is no longer there in the imagination of the left. Time for a revival.

Sunday photoblogging #3: Boats moored at Reykjavik

by Chris Bertram on April 27, 2014

Sunday photoblogging #2: stripes

by Chris Bertram on April 20, 2014

Sunday photoblogging: Staircase

by Chris Bertram on April 13, 2014

I met up with Ingrid recently and she reminded me that we had plans to run a regular photoblogging series at Crooked Timber, indeed, we actually started one. So here’s a re-start. This is the staircase at the Musée des Beaux Arts at Nancy, France, taken last summer. Here’s hoping that other CTers will join in.

Teaching Rawls after Piketty

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2014

We’re hoping to have a proper book event on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in due course. That’s hard for those of us who have read it, because the book is so stimulating, so bursting with surprising facts and ideas, that there’s a lot to talk about. Still, I think I’ll permit myself to share a few thoughts that I had about the way in which reading Piketty might impact on teaching political philosophy, and, specifically, teaching Rawls and the difference principle.

A Theory of Justice came out in 1971 and was composed during the period the French call the trente glorieuses . During that period it was easy to believe that the power of inherited wealth had melted away and that we were living in a new era of more equal opportunity, with careers open to talents and income inequalities largely explained by the differences in talent and ability that the parties in the original position were denied knowledge of. To be sure, 1960s America (like 1960s Europe) hadn’t accomplished that social-democratic meritocratic ideal, but it was kind of visible in embryo, waiting to be born. Rawls’s book took us way beyond that, challenging the glib assumptions about desert that the winners flattered themselves with, but in its toleration of some inequality for the greater good (and particularly for the benefit of the least advantaged), Rawls’s view was recognizably connected to a then-emerging social reality.
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IPPR on immigration: cup half full or half empty ?

by Chris Bertram on March 6, 2014

The UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research has just published a new report on immigration, “A fair deal on migration for the UK”. Given the recent toxicity of the British debate on migration, with politicians competing to pander to the xenophobic UKIP vote, it is in some ways refreshing to read a set of policy proposals that would be an improvement on the status quo. Having said that, the status quo is in big trouble, with the Coalition government having failed to reach its net migration target (the numbers are actually going the wrong way) and with open warfare breaking out between ministers. Given the current climate, however, this probably marks the limit of what is acceptable to the Labour Party front bench (who have notably failed to oppose the current Immigration Bill), so it represents a marker of sorts, albeit that it is a strange kind of thing to be masquerading as a progressive approach.

The report is structured around the need to respond to the current “crude restrictionist” approach to immigration and positions itself by rejecting other views which it characterizes as “failed responses” (pp. 9-10). Leaving aside the “super pragmatist” approach which is actually remarkably close to their own, these are the “super-rationalist” and the “migrants rights activist” approaches, the first of which consists of telling the public clearly what the current social scientific research says and the second sticking up for a vulnerable group on grounds of justice. Since both of these groups have strong grounds for doing what they are doing—telling the truth and fighting injustice, respectively—it seems rather tendentious and self-serving to represent them as being simply failed attempts to do what the IPPR is trying to do, namely, influence senior politicians.
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Ukraine: who to read, what to believe?

by Chris Bertram on March 3, 2014

As a non-expert, I find myself scouring the various news columns and op-eds trying to work out what’s true and false about the situation in the Ukraine, who to believe, what to trust. It isn’t easy, given that the two “sides” (or is that three or four) fail to sort themselves neatly into the mental maps we all have to organize this kind of thing. One such map, beloved of the “decent left” tries to fit everything into a 1938. That’s tempting, but then who is Hitler, who are the Nazis, who are the Sudeten Germans? Things don’t quite line up. And then there’s the narrative of the plucky little insurrectionists against their post-Soviet overlords: Hungary 56, Prague 68? But once again, people aren’t fitting neatly into the little boxes. Then think of those crises, Hungary in particular, or the East German revolt. How many Western leftists tried to read them (and misread them) through the glass of Soviet opposition to Nazism? During the Balkan wars of the 90s my own imaginary had plucky multi-ethnic Bosnia as the incarnation of liberal republicanism, resisting the ethnic tyranny of the Serbs. But there were plenty of of leftists who saw things in terms of the dastardly German-collaborating (and backed) Croats with their Ustaše past, versus the Serbian partisans. One friend from Northern Ireland said on Facebook that a relative had told him that the key to understanding any conflict was to work out who are the “Protestants” and who are the “Catholics”. I can’t think that’s going to help here (or in Syria for that matter): we all get trapped by these heuristics.

Reading Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers last night, I came across a discussion (I’ve only just started the book) of Serbia’s Foreign Minister Milovanovic and his predicament in the crisis of 1908: a moderate and pragmatist trapped by the rhetoric of the more extreme nationalists, who could and would denounce any compromise with the enemies of the people. Hard not to think or parallels with Vitali Klitschko and the other opposition leaders who cut a deal with Yanukovych but couldn’t make it stick with the Euromaidan for fear of being howled down as traitors themselves. Presumably they saw that running Yanukovych out of town on the day after the deal would be certain to get a nasty reaction from Putin, but what else could they do? And now here we are, with the Russians in the Crimea, the rouble plummeting and the prospect of a new cold war, with everyone apparently fated to play their allotted roles. Meanwhile, the hapless John Kerry tells us – with no self-awareness whatsoever – that, in the 21st century, you can’t invade foreign countries on trumped-up charges.

For what it’s worth I found Mark Ames useful, Paul Mason insightful and Timothy Snyder propagandistic. And here’s Ben Judah on why Russia no longer fears the West. With my political philosopher hat on, I can say that just states find ways to integrate their citizens across ethnic and linguistic divides, that the boundaries set by history should not be sacrosanct, but that people shouldn’t try to change them by force of arms. Political philosophy will not have much impact on how this all turns out.

A note on an argument about open borders

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2014

Open borders advocates often advance an argument in terms of a duty to help the global poor. Poor people who succeed in making the journey to more advanced economies are usually more productive; those who are locked out of such economies by hard border controls are kept in dire poverty, often within sight of great riches. And those who are admitted are often an important source of income to family left behind. Those who defend border controls and the right of states to exclude often make the following move: they concede a duty to help the poor, but say that such a duty can be discharged in ways other than admitting poor would-be migrants to wealthy countries. In particular, they argue that such a duty could be discharged by supporting the economic development of poor countries via development aid (Christopher Heath Wellman is an example).

But the problem with such an argument is that it has two parts. The first (conditional) part, says that it is false that we must open our borders to discharge our duty of assistance IF we can discharge that duty some other way. The second empirical part is the claim there is another way, because development aid is an effective way of helping the global poor that is comparable in its beneficial effects to (much more) open borders. In other words, the claim by philosophers and political theorists that the duty could be discharged by development aid needs to be backed up by sound economic evidence that development aid really is an effective means of helping the global poor. Economists such as William Easterly are skeptical that we know enough about economic development to make effective use of development aid. They may be wrong, but philosophers and political theorists shouldn’t make the easy argumentative move to development aid as an alternative to (more) open borders without being sure that the economics supports them.

Notes on “academic blogging”

by Chris Bertram on February 27, 2014

I had a fun day on Tuesday, as my friend Stuart White had invited me to speak at a conference on “academic blogging”, to be precise “Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age” at Oxford. There were some great talks and conversations, but, to me, something was quite weird about it. When we started Crooked Timber back in 2003, universities didn’t really want to know about blogging, it was a fundamentally unserious activity and a distraction from the central tasks of teaching and scholarship. There was also, recognizably, a “blogosphere” composed of sundry citizen-journalists, cranks and enthusiasts (and a few academics) whose members linked and interacted with one another (often in quite civil terms, despite deep differences). Now universities, at least British universities, want to get in on the act, as “impact” and “outreach” are suddenly important. Hence, the sudden impulse to fund blogs backed by universities, or university department or consortiums of universities.
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Hard not to take pleasure when a corrupt and autocratic leader is forced from power by popular pressure. Nevertheless, I can’t be the only person whose frisson of excitement at the revolutionary form of the overthrow is accompanied by a shudder at some of the content. As with Egypt, we have the unfortunate precedent of someone who was in power through elections being forced out by non-electoral means, albeit that, like Morsi he abused democratic norms in power. (Erdogan in Turkey also springs to mind as an abuser of democratic norms; I hope the Turkish people vote him out.) Then there are the frankly fascist affiliations of some of the opposition leaders, like Oleh Tyahnybok whose Svoboda party has “observer status” in an “Alliance of European National Movements” that includes the Hungarian Jobbik and the British National Party.

However, one can perhaps overlook some of that as an exigency of circumstance and hope that most of the insurgents are cut from more liberal cloth. However, we now have the fact that the Parliament just annulled a bill permitting Russian to be an official language in regions with largely Russian-speaking populations. That’s a clear sign that the new Ukraine does not regard all its citizens are equals and as genuine members of the state, that the winners conceive the “people” as an ethnos rather than a demos. Personally, I hope the EU make any financial support – which Ukraine will need to pay its Russian gas bills – conditional on the full integration of all Ukrainians as equals without regard to ethnic or linguistic background.

Two cheers for Scottish independence

by Chris Bertram on February 13, 2014

Britain’s Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is today threatening pro-independence Scots that if they secede then they can’t have the pound sterling as their currency any more. This is a problem for SNP leader Alec Salmond because he’s been peddling the idea that an independent Scotland will continue to enjoy a common currency, a notion that appeals to risk-averse Scots. A few years ago, the euro might have looked an appealing alternative to sterling, but now it looks much less so. But though Salmond has rather painted himself into a corner on this one, I’m struggling to see why an independent Scotland having its own money would be such a bad idea. After all, the various Scandinavian countries seem to get by perfectly well with their different kroner, so why not Scotland? Scotland’s economy is significantly different from England’s anyway, with natural resources playing a bigger part in one, and financial services in other. Better for everyone to have separate currencies, with different interest rates and floating exchange rates so as to adjust to circumstances. (Having a different currency for the north of England and Wales might be nice too … or alternatively grant independence to London as a new Singapore.)

The other major worry about independence from the official Great British point of view is that “we” would have far less weight and influence in the world. The UK already has less influence that its political elites delude themselves that it has, but at least an independent Scotland would end that delusion. Facing up to reality probably means that the UK would be less tempted to waste billions on the post-imperial accoutrements of military power (new fighters, nuclear weapons and the like). And then not having that stuff would make the UK less able, and therefore less willing, to join in with rash invasions and interventions, and to to send task forces to recapture distant outposts. Further, without the delusion that the UK is a great power, its politicians would be forced to adopt a more co-operative relationship with neighbouring countries, both in the EU and the various states that would compose our Atlantic archipelago. No longer able to go it alone: the UK would have to work with others.

So Scottish independence, what’s is there not to like about it? Well, nationalism, I suppose. But having more and smaller democratic nations, forced to rub along with their neighbours for pragmatic reasons of mutual-self interest. Sounds good to me. Of course the English left worry about the prospect of permanent Tory government if Scotland secedes. This concern is probably exaggerated. The political dynamics of a weakened Anglo-Welsh rump would be different over time and the demographics probably favour the left, as younger voter are considerably more liberal and cosmopolitan in their attitudes than the over 55s. So here’s hoping for the end of the UK and its replacement by a post-imperial patchwork of smaller countries.