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Chris Bertram

My reflections on Britain since the Seventies the other day partly depended on a narrative about social mobility that has become part of the political culture, repeated by the likes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and recycled by journalists and commentators. In brief: it is the conventional wisdom. That story is basically that Britain enjoyed a lot of social mobility between the Second World War and the 1970s, but that this has closed down since. It is an orthodoxy that can, and has, been put in the service of both left and right. The left can claim that neoliberalism results in a less fluid society than the postwar welfare state did; the right can go on about how the left, by abolishing the grammar schools, have locked the talented poor out of the elite. And New Labour, with its mantra of education, education, education, argued that more spending on schools and wider access to higher education could unfreeze the barriers to mobility. (Senior university administrators, hungry for funds, have also been keen to promote the notion that higher education is a social solvent.) [click to continue...]

Britain since the seventies, impressionistic thoughts

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2013

The 1970s have been in my mind over the past few days, not only for the obvious reason, but also because I visited the Glam exhibition at Tate Liverpool last weekend. Not only were the seventies the final decade of an electrical-chemical epoch that stretched back to the late nineteenth-century, they were also the time when the sexual and political experimentation of the 1960s and a sense of being part of a cosmopolitan world order became something for the masses, for the working class, and when the old social order started to dissolve. In the experience of many people, the sixties happened in the seventies, as it were.

But my main thoughts, concerning Britain at any rate, have been about social division, and about some oddly paradoxical features of British life before Thatcher. There’s a very real sense in which postwar British society was very sharply divided. On the one hand, it was possible to be born in an NHS hospital, to grow up on a council estate, to attend a state school, to work in a nationalised industry and, eventually (people hoped), to retire on a decent state pension, living entirely within a socialised system co-managed by the state and a powerful Labour movement. On the other, there were people who shared the experience of the NHS but with whom the commonality stopped there: they were privately educated, lived in an owner-occupied house and worked in the private sector. These were two alternate moral universes governed by their own sets of assumptions and inhabited by people with quite different outlooks. Both were powerful disciplinary orders. The working class society had one set of assumptions – welfarist, communitarian, but strongly gendered and somewhat intolerant of sexual “deviance”; middle-class society had another, expressed at public (that is, private) schools through institutions like compulsory Anglican chapel. Inside the private-sector world, at least, there was a powerful sense of resentment towards Labour, expressed in slogans about “managers right to manage” and so on that later found expression in some of the sadism of the Thatcher era towards the working-class communities that were being destroyed. Present too, at least in the more paranoid ramblings of those who contemplated coups against Labour, was the idea that that the parallel socialised order represented a kind of incipient Soviet alternative-in-waiting that might one day swallow them up.
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A new party to the left of Labour?

by Chris Bertram on March 25, 2013

Ken Loach, Kate Hudson and Gilbert Achcar are calling for a new party to the left of Labour in the UK.

Labour is not alone in its shift rightwards and its embrace of neoliberal economic policies. Its sister parties across Europe have taken the same path over the past two decades. Yet elsewhere in Europe, new parties and coalitions – such as Syriza in Greece or Die Linke in Germany – have begun to fill the left space, offering an alternative political, social and economic vision. The anomaly which leaves Britain without a left political alternative – one defending the welfare state, investing for jobs, homes and education, transforming our economy – has to end.

Well there’s lots to agree with in their statement: we need to resist austerity, and Labour isn’t going to do that effectively. The Labour leadership’s current strategy seems to be a combination of keeping quiet, appearing “responsible” by not seriously challenging the austerity narrative, and pandering to the right on immigration. Last week’s shameful abstention on workfare was the latest manifestation of Miliband’s pusillanimity.

But there’s a lot missing too. Loach et al focus on domestic bread-and-butter issues and don’t seem to have anything to say about Europe, let alone the wider world. And there’s nothing at all on climate and the environment, a silence that is all too common on the left, as Bill Barnes’s contribution to the Real Utopias symposium underlines.

There’s also the key fact about British politics which means that talk of a British left “anomaly” compared to Syriza and Die Linke misses the mark. The UK just had a referendum on the alternative vote, and that referendum was lost. With first-past-the-post and no prospect of electoral reform, voters will reliably back the party that promises to end the ConDem coalition. That party is Labour, however hopeless it has been in the past and however useless it will be in the future. I can’t see a way round this, and that leaves me deeply pessimistic. I wish Loach et al success, but I can’t see it happening.

Iconic Photos blog

by Chris Bertram on March 9, 2013

One of the ways in which blogging has changed in the past decade is that there are far fewer posts just pointing to recommending stuff. That business has gone elsewhere, to Facebook and Twitter, whilst blogging takes the form of longer (and longer) essays. That’s understandable, but in some ways a pity, and risks turning blogs into sequential slabs of dull but worthy texts (with the occasional gem of course). Anyway, I was just about to plug Iconic Photos to friends on FB, but I think the recommendation deserves a wider (and different) audience. The author (A.A.S. Holmes, whoever he or she is) takes, as the title suggests, an “iconic” photo and supplies fascinating commentary, often focusing on who the protagonists were, how they happened to be there, and what happened next. Particular favourites of mine are his commentary on Robert Capa’s L’Épuration, and Marianne of ‘68, where things aren’t what they seemed. Enjoy.

Ronald Dworkin has died

by Chris Bertram on February 14, 2013

Ronald Dworkin has died of leukaemia at the age of 81. I can’t speak to his work in jurisprudence, but his work in political philosophy has been some of the most original and creative of the past 50 years. In particular, the first two of his equality essays (welfare and resource), published by Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1981 and then featuring as the opening chapters of Sovereign Virtue had a major effect on the field and paved the way (for better or worse) for luck egalitarianism. I’m sure there will be obituaries over the next few days. In the meantime—though prephylloxera claret may be unavailable—I hope we all raise a glass to his memory.

(Here’s Dworkin talking about Justice for Hedgehogs, starts at about 12 minutes in.)

Obituaries: The Guardian, New York Times, Financial Times, Oxford Law Faculty (with links to radio), Daily Telegraph, Atlantic, Independent

Six Nations (and some other sports) open thread

by Chris Bertram on February 2, 2013

A big sporting weekend ahead. First up, the competition that probably counts the most here at Crooked Timber: the Six Nations. We kick off with, inter alia, Wales v Ireland and England v Scotland (the Calcutta Cup). I think England could do it this year, but you can’t really write anyone off. The Africa Cup of Nations is still going of course, and we’re into the quarter-finals, where the highlight of the weekend is Ivory Coast v Nigeria. Ivory Coast still look like winning the competition, but they have a tougher route to the final than Ghana do (they’ll probably have to beat Nigeria and South Africa in succession – assuming I’ve understood the draw, of course). That match also clashes with Man City v Liverpool, which is unfortunate. (And then there’s the Superbowl, but I have no clue what’s going on when I watch American football.)

Cameron’s gamble

by Chris Bertram on January 24, 2013

Most readers will know by now that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, yesterday pledged an in-out referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, to be held in the event that the Conservatives win the next general election. Cameron says that he will try to negotiate better terms for UK membership and that he hopes that he’ll be able to recommend these to the British people in 2017 or thereabouts. I thought CT should have a post on this, but the remarks below are very much off-the-cuff and not written on the basis of any expertise re EU politics.
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Africa Cup of Nations open thread

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2013

We haven’t had a thread on the Africa Cup of Nations since 2006, but I see that the latest competition has just started. There’s a solitary win so far with Mali beating Niger. The bookies are fairly clear about who the favourites are: Ivory Coast. Makes a lot of sense, since they have strength in all parts of the team, with players like the Touré brothers and Didier Drogba. Coverage in the UK media is pathetic, with the competition not even having a dedicated BBC webpage and the games being shown on ITV4 and British Eurosport. Francophone reporting is, predictably in this case, a bit better: L’Equipe has a page.The twitter hashtag to follow is #Afcon2013 . Predictions?

The illusion of consistency

by Chris Bertram on January 5, 2013

The New York Times has an interesting piece on the variability of people’s personalities, tastes and opinions over time and how we tend to underestimate the amount we will change in the future:

when asked to predict what their personalities and tastes would be like in 10 years, people of all ages consistently played down the potential changes ahead. Thus, the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s. And the discrepancy did not seem to be because of faulty memories, because the personality changes recalled by people jibed quite well with independent research charting how personality traits shift with age. People seemed to be much better at recalling their former selves than at imagining how much they would change in the future.

This wouldn’t have come as any surprise to Montaigne, whose whole project was predicated on the idea of constant change in the self:

I am unable to stabilize my subject: it staggers confusedly along with a natural drunkenness. I grasp it as it is now, at this moment when I am lingering over it. I am not portraying being but becoming: not the passage from one age to another … but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must adapt this account of myself to the passing hour. (“On repenting”, Screech trans 908-9)

But how much this contradicts the central presupposition of much intellectual biography, which is to find as much consistency as possible among the attitudes and doctrines adopted by a person throughout their life.

Chomsky on work, learning and freedom

by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2012

New Left Project has a wonderful interview with Noam Chomsky on work, learning and freedom. It really brings out the more attractive anarchist side of Chomsky’s personality and politics. He’s particularly eloquent on the importance of spontaneous play for children’s development and how this is being crowded out in societies like ours (a theme, incidentally of James C. Scott’s recent Two Cheers for Anarchism). Recommended.

Noah Smith had me going for a minute there

by Chris Bertram on December 27, 2012

I just love econobloggers, with their capacity for Swiftian satire. Dry as dust, yet clearly having a laugh, they aim to reel in the poor saps who are take them seriously, but they are big enough to continue to play along, making as if they really mean it. Until now, I’d thought of Tyler Cowen, Bryan Caplan and, perhaps, even Arnold Kling as being the true masters of the genre. But I’m pretty sure that Noah Smith surpasses them all with a new blog on The Rise of the Cyborgs. Smith does a really excellent job of pretending to be keen on the robot-human future he imagines. So, for example, we get


artificial eyes and ears would replace all input devices [i.e. actual eyes and ears]. You would never need a television screen, a phone, Google Goggles, or a speaker of any kind. All you would need would be your own artificial eyes. You could play video games in perfect, pure augmented reality. Imagine the possibilities for video-conferencing, or hanging out with friends half a world away! And why stop there? If you wanted, you could perceive the buildings around you as castles, or the inside of a spaceship. The whole world could look and sound however you wanted.

But understandably, he feigns enthusiasm most successfully about the prospects for the economy:


… cyborg technologies have the potential to improve human productivity quite a bit, as my examples above have hopefully shown. Humans who can store vast amounts of knowledge and expertise, who can directly interface with machines, and who can make themselves more well-adjusted and motivated at the touch of a (mental) button will be valuable employees indeed, and will prove useful complements to the much-discussed army of robots.

Indeed, employers could make it a condition of employment that workers undergo the necessary cyber-modifications! Actually, I think Smith missed a trick there, by failing to imagine how this might affect workplace dynamics. Oh well, I expect someone will be along to explain how such contracts would be win-win. Brilliant.

Apocalypse postponed

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2012

Those of you who are worried that the world is going to end on Friday may be inclined to relax and party when it doesn’t. On the other hand, those of you who have put off buying Christmas presents because, you know, what’s the point? May yet be vindicated. Apparently there is no scholarly consensus on when the Mayan calendar runs out. Could be Friday, but Sunday or Christmas Eve are also possibilities (pdf), and, indeed, it is Christmas Eve that these guys incline to:

Implicitly or explicitly, the majority of scholars have accepted Thompson’s leap-year argument (see, for instance, Bricker and Bricker 2011:91). That is why the idea has entered into the popular consciousness that the thirteenth Bak’tun will end on December 21, 2012, which is the date in the 584283 correlation, as opposed to December 23 in the 584285 correlation (or Christmas Eve, December 24, according to 584286).

From Simon Martin and Joel Skidmore and “Exploring the 584286 Correlation between the Maya and European Calendars”, The PARI Journal 13(2), 2012, pp. 3-16.

[All via Charles C. Mann ( @CharlesCMann) on twitter.]

Sickness unto death

by Chris Bertram on November 26, 2012

Since today is movie day at Crooked Timber, I thought I’d share. If you haven’t yet seen Michael Haneke’s Amour then you probably should make the effort. Emmanuelle Riva’s performance as Anne is one of the most brilliant pieces of screen acting I’ve ever seen. On the other hand, this is an almost uncompromising portrayal of aging and dying and of incomprehension across the generations with the end in plain view. When we left the cinema, several people outside were in tears and when I started to talk about the film I found I couldn’t without starting to dissolve myself. Some audience members sat in their seats staring at the screen for a while afterwards, and some of those were quite elderly. So if you go, and, as I say, it is a great work, do so knowing that you’ll probably be somewhat upset by the end. As you should be.

“Decisive conclusion”

by Chris Bertram on November 19, 2012

I last paid attention to the Jerusalem Post when it was running apologetics for Anders Behring Breivik. It seems to have gone one better yesterday, with an article by Gilad Sharon entitled “A Decisive Conclusion is Necessary”, a sample:

We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.

As one person remarked to me, maybe “decisive conclusion” could be one rendering of Endlösung.

Meanwhile, the President of the United States has this to say:

… there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.

Well then, can we expect Pakistani tanks on the White House lawn imminently?

Perhaps not.

And so the familiar litany of “justifications” goes on, most predictably about Hamas being to blame for any civilian deaths because their “operatives” “hide among the civilian population”. Those of us who have been paying attention during recent wars in Libya and Syria will note that nobody thought Gadaffi and Assad any the less responsible for the babies they killed (and in Syria, continue to kill) from the air because those resisting their tyrannies did so from populated areas such as Misrata and Aleppo. Do different principles apply when it is the IDF doing the killing? It would seem so.

And there seem to be a lot of “surgical strikes”. You know, the ones that magically discriminate between the innocent and the guilty in urban area, except when they don’t.

So it goes.

Max Weber’s Newcomb problem

by Chris Bertram on October 25, 2012

I was reading a postgraduate dissertation on decision theory today (a field where I’m very far from expert) and it suddenly occurred to me that Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic has exactly the structure of a Newcomb problem.

Consider: in the classic Newcomb problem a being, which always guesses right, offers you a choice involving either taking a box (A) containing $1,000,000 or nothing OR taking that box plus another one (B) which certainly contains $1000. The being guesses what you will do and, if you are disposed to take both boxes (A+B) always puts nothing in A, but if you are disposed to leave B alone and just open A, puts the million dollars in A. But by the time you make the choice, the money is there or it is not.

One apparently compelling argument says you should open both boxes (since A+B > A), another persuasive argument says that you want to be in a state of the world such that the being has put the million in box A. A sign that you are in that state of the world is that you are disposed to open just the one box, so this is what you should in fact do. You thereby maximize the expected payoff. [click to continue...]