From the monthly archives:

October 2022

Yesterday I attended/watched four talks on climate action. The first three were at a festival in Amsterdam where Chris Armstrong, a new branch on our crooked tree, was also speaking, on his book on oceans politics. First I attended two talks by some Dutch-speaking people (including David Van Reybrouck, famous author of the colonial histories Congo and Revolusi, who is now fully dedicated to working on ecological causes). Then I attended Andreas Malm’s talk on how to fight in a world on fire. Nothing special to report for those who have read the book – but given the pretty critical discussion of my bookreview of his work here recently I’d thought I should mention that he came across as more nuanced than [how I read] his book. For example, he stressed that the vast majority of the climate movement will remain peaceful, and that those who want to move to sabotage must carefully choose their targets – focussing on targets that are part of the problem, and as part of an action that doesn’t alienate people but instead lets the climate movement grow.

But the most interesting talk of the day was by Greta Thunberg, who launched The Climate Book at the London Literature Festival. Thunberg has put together a one-stop-volume on climate change and climate action. You can watch her speech and subsequent interview here (it effectively starts at 14’35”). In essence, Thunberg believes that governments are not going to do what is needed without millions more climate activists putting pressure on those governments, so that they speed up action and put the interests of ordinary people central. At some point, she mentions that so many individuals have the opportunity to be an activist, but don’t. She clearly sees this as a [moral, political] duty (she also uses the word “burden” at some point), and calls upon everyone to join a local activist group. [click to continue…]

Missing In Action: The (Democratic) Politics of the Ocean

by Chris Armstrong on October 31, 2022

Yesterday I gave a talk at a ‘thought festival’ in the Netherlands, on the future of the ocean. The size of the audience far exceeded my (quite modest) expectations. And the discussion we had was extremely engaged and informed. Clearly, people care about the ocean, and the various challenges it now faces, largely thanks to us (from warming and acidification to plastic pollution, from destructive fishing practices to the growth of ‘dead zones’ around our coasts). I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Since I published a book on the topic in February, I’ve been blown away by the public interest. I’ve been doing a talk, podcast or interview at least once a week since then. Everyone I’ve spoken to – whether that means ordinary citizens, academics, civil society organisations, or activists – feels that attention to these issues is long overdue.

Which brings me to the central puzzle. Ocean governance has become highly salient, politically – probably more than ever before. But when people ask me, “what can I do to help push ocean politics in the right direction?” the answer is far from obvious. Of course, people can make a direct impact on the ocean’s health in many ways. That could mean plogging (look it up!), avoiding farmed salmon, cutting down on plastic, or a whole variety of things. Still, if the rules under which the ocean is governed are basically dysfunctional, the effect of these measures is going to be limited. Picking plastic from the beach – which I’m not knocking for a second – won’t turn around the juggernaut of an industrialising ocean. It won’t stop seabed mining, or octopus farming, or whatever next year’s catastrophic plan will be. That would take a larger political movement, and a positive defence of the kind of ocean we want to see. But how do we affect the politics of the ocean? Where, in fact, is the politics of the ocean? What would be the political entry point for concerned citizens?

When I say the ocean has been ‘depoliticized,’ I don’t mean, of course, that there is no politics of the ocean. Decisions do get made. In 1982, the Law of the Sea Convention ushered in the largest single extension of state territory in history. (I don’t remember it being extensively discussed in the media – but then I was eight years old, so forgive me if I missed it). Right now, the United Nations is discussing the rules that should govern biodiversity in the High Seas (it has been trying and failing to secure a binding treaty for a couple of decades now). Each coastal country regularly makes political decisions about the exploitation of the ocean (will it support offshore wind? What about gas? How are fishing rights going to be allocated?). But when is the last time you recall politicians campaigning on ocean issues?

British readers might have a ready answer: 2016. In the Brexit campaign, Leave-supporting politicians suddenly decided that the allocation of fishing rights raised basic issues of fairness. Having secured the votes of many fishing communities (and a disastrous Brexit), it seems that those issues of fairness can now be safely forgotten. Either way, politicians are not being called upon to lay out a vision of the kind of ocean they want. Very few governments even have ministries of the ocean (ministries of fishing are not the same thing!). Very few political manifestos make any sustained effort to address ocean-facing issues. The cosy relationship between politicians, the fossil fuel industry, and the industrial fishing lobby goes on undisturbed. One alarming story, which I relate in my book, comes from a 2019 meeting of the International Seabed Authority in Kingston, Jamaica. This is the body that is supposed to come up with rules to regulate deep sea mining, which is inching ever closer. At that meeting, the job of representing the Belgian state was given, not to a politician, or even to a civil servant, but to an executive from a Belgian seabed mining corporation. It was as if the United States had not bothered to send a delegate to a WTO meeting and just allowed Jeff Bezos to speak on its behalf. I like to think that is quite unlikely (I may be wrong). But in the murky world of ocean politics, the divide between political and corporate power is much less clear-cut.

What, then, is the alternative? That’s what some audience members wanted to know yesterday. How do you force an issue onto the political agenda when not a single party is choosing to prioritise it? Likewise, ocean scientists often talk about the importance of educating people about the ocean, and the challenges it faces. I think this is very important. But the question is what comes next. What is a citizen informed about the threats faced by the ocean meant to do?

Sunday photoblogging: Marseillan

by Chris Bertram on October 30, 2022


The Death of God and the Decline of the Humanities

by Eric Schliesser on October 29, 2022

The decades long decline of the Humanities – the academic study of texts and/or the academic practice of criticism* – is often blamed on the latest fad in it, or its faddishness, when such diagnosis is not altogether ground in ideological, political, or theoretical culture-war score-settling (with structuralism, deconstruction, queer theory, critical race theory, etc.) To be sure, in North America and Europe, the decline is very real when measured along a whole range of intrinsic and extrinsic measures: relative undergraduate enrollments, the hiring of freshly minted PhDs, starting salaries of its college graduates, and cultural prestige.

By contrast, I suggest that the decline of the Humanities indicates a more general shift away from the cultural significance of texts in our societies. And put like that allows the real underlying culprit of the decline of the Humanities to come into view: it is fundamentally due to the declining significance of the Bible and of getting its meaning right among those that seek out higher education and social forces that are willing to sponsor the academy. The unfolding death of God — understood (with John 1:1) as the Word — is the source of the decline of the Humanities.

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I’m not a fan of the convention that newspaper and magazine editors choose the headline for articles, but I liked this one for a piece I published in The Conversation. The heading is neat and the sub-heading gives you the tl;dr version.

It’s about Australia, but disillusionment with privatisation is now widespread, so I hope this is of more general interest.

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Crooked, but crooked upwards: A reply to sceptics

by Paul Segal on October 27, 2022

What a pleasure to join Crooked Timber! It’s been great to receive the comments on my first post. Here I’ll address what I see as the three main points of criticism.

Criticism A. Some things are worse for some people.

I agree with this, of course, and it’s not inconsistent with my claim that most things are better for most people. But perhaps what underlies this kind of response is a distaste for my implicit claim that we can judge various bads against each other. One comment implied that war in Ukraine (and I would add Ethiopia, Yemen, etc.) just isn’t comparable with improved civil rights in much of the world. I agree that there’s no objective way to weigh-up civil rights with risks to health or physical safety. But I do insist on one kind of comparability: for a given kind of suffering, the only kind of judgement that makes sense has to be based on cosmopolitanism – that our starting point must be that all humans are of equal value. If something bad happens to a thousand people, that’s terrible. If it happens to a million people, yes, it’s a thousand times more terrible. That means we have to look at global numbers, and those numbers, in almost any dimension we look at, are vastly better than in the past.

This also points to what’s problematic with some uses of claims like “poverty reduction is slow outside China”. If that statement is used to argue that we should all learn from China, then yes, absolutely we should. But if it’s intended as a normative statement about human well-being, to diminish the claim that human well-being has improved enormously, then it’s hard not to interpret it as racism.

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Sunday photoblogging: steps, Neffiès

by Chris Bertram on October 23, 2022


Welcome, New Growth Crooked Timber!

by John Holbo on October 22, 2022

Welcome, new Crooked Timber members, and thanks to my colleagues who worked hard to round folks up to join us.

I will take this opportunity to mildly self-promote my ongoing series of philosopher portraits. I just added Isaiah Berlin, and was thinking about how to round him out, in my off-color 70’s ice cream parlor style. Some ‘Crooked timber’ joke? Nah, too ready-to-hand! Not punk rock. Hence:

I’m serious. It’s interesting that both Berlin and Shklar were from Riga. (And maybe there is some Crooked Timber wisdom to be derived from the fact that Berlin’s dad was one of the largest, most prosperous timber merchants in Riga. Who is to say?) [click to continue…]

My latest piece in Independent Australia

THE RISKS of nuclear war are greater than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not only is Vladimir Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons to stave off defeat in Ukraine, but the North Korean Government has continued to develop and test both missiles and nuclear warheads.

U.S. President Joe Biden has responded to Putin’s threats with admirable calm so far, playing down the risk that Putin will use nuclear weapons and avoiding any threat of escalation.

Leaks from the U.S. Administration have indicated that the response to a tactical nuclear weapon would be massive but confined to conventional weapons.

Yet the official doctrine of the U.S. would call for the use of nuclear weapons in exactly the situation faced by Putin today: a conventional war going badly.
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Crooked, but crooked upwards

by Paul Segal on October 21, 2022

Bad news surrounds us. Russia invading Ukraine. Fascism in Italy. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan. The criminalisation of abortion in parts of the USA. Melting glaciers. Bolsonaro (though hopefully not for much longer). Coming on the back of the worst pandemic in a century it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the world is entering a truly nasty period.

The science fiction writer Cixin Liu describes a civilisation on a planet orbiting two suns, trapped in what physicists call the three body problem – the chaotic, unpredictable motion traversed by three masses orbiting each other, radically different from the smooth path followed by a simple co-orbiting pair like the Earth and our sun. When the planet is relatively close to just one sun they enjoy a Stable Era – life evolves, civilization advances. But because of the three body problem, it is impossible to predict how long this will last before the onset of a Chaotic Era: the planet is either pulled close to both suns, burning all life to ashes, or drifts away from both suns, freezing all life in the cold of open space.

For Liu, these unpredictable catastrophes are a metaphor for China’s Cultural Revolution, as chaotic and unpredictable as it was destructive. Today many of us feel the Stable Era of the 1990s to 2008 – or perhaps even since the 1950s – is over, and we are about to be either fried in a nuclear conflict, or frozen as we can’t afford to pay sky-rocketing energy bills this winter.

At least, that’s how I and many of my friends and acquaintances feel. But if we’re honest, we’re hardly representative. Everyone is entitled to complain about their own burdens. Yet if we want to make a judgement about the state of the world – and people often do – then we need to take the time to look at some data. When we do that, our current downtick hardly makes a dent on the improvements in human well-being of the last half century. Child mortality, literacy, early deaths, it’s hard to find an indicator of global human well being that hasn’t improved in the last 10 years, and improved massively in the last 50.
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Caring, growth and choice

by Chris Bertram on October 21, 2022

In any society, certain needs have to be catered for, either socially or privately. At a minumum, those unable to work, because they are too young, too old, or too sick have to be cared for. Of course, they can be cared for in ways that are better or worse for them, but caring there must be, and that is going to take someone’s time, labour, and money.

I’ve been thinking about these rather obvious facts over the past few days partly because a report came out showing how many people – mainly women – are being driven out of the the UK workforce by the need to care for relatives, given that the social care system is broken. At present, there are also a lot of people out of the UK labour market either because they can’t work due to COVID and its after-effects, or because the underfunded National Health Service has been shattered by the pandemic and they can’t get the treatment they need in a timely fashion for other health problems they have. If left languishing, the skills these people have will atrophy. Many of them will never work again.

At the same time, our soon-to-be-former Prime Minister has been pushing her “pro-growth” agenda, which largely consisted of tax cuts, and her now-former Home Secretary mocked the anti-growth coalition of “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati”, of which I am proud to consider myself a member.

Their central assumption is that growth is best served by a low-tax economy and that public spending needs radical reduction, with the fat-cutting exercise of the last twelve years now to be extended to the bones. Well, I hope readers can see the problem. You don’t get growth by pursuing policies that effectively force people to give up productive work either through their own sickness, or in order to care for other people. If these needs are not met socially, they will be met privately, and, again, because it bears repeating, in ways that are disproportionately damaging to women.
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Renewing Crooked Timber: new grafts

by Chris Bertram on October 18, 2022

We’ve been blogging together at Crooked Timber for nineteen years now, pre-Facebook even. Inevitably people move on to new projects in that time or just find less interest in writing in this format. So from time to time the tree surgeon has to visit and do some running repairs on our crooked timber. We’re really happy to welcome some new bloggers to the party with a couple more probably on the way in a few months. Our new additions are Chris Armstrong, Speranta Dumitru, Kevin Munger, Paul Segal and Eric Schliesser and, if all goes according to plan, there will be a couple of further additions in December that will also improve the gender balance of our new cohort. Also a sad farewell to Daniel Davies, Kieran Healy, Scott McLemee, Eric Rauchway, Corey Robin, Astra Taylor, and Rich Yeselson who have contributed so much over the years, particularly to Dan and Kieran who were founding members back in 2003, with Kieran’s tech support having dug us out of more internet holes than I can remember.

A little bit about all of the new bloggers below:

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For quite a while now, I’ve been making the argument that, in an information economy, the relationship between investment, production and profit, central to capitalism, no longer works. Here’s an early statement from my Giblin lecture in 2005.

to the extent that innovation and productive growth arise from
activities that are pursued primarily on the basis non-economic motives, the link
between incentives and outcomes is weakened. This in turn undermines the
reationale for policies aimed at sharpening incentives and ensuring that everyone
engaged in the production of goods and services is exposed to the incentives15
generated by a competitive market. Such policies represent the core program of
‘economic rationalism’, the set of ideas that dominated Australian public policy in
the 1980s and 1990s.

I recently reviewed two books by Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake. Their 2017 book, Capitalism without Capital presented a relatively optimistic view of a market economy in which “intangible capital” plays a central role. But their followup Restarting the Future: How to Fix the Intangible Economy, is much bleaker

“When we think about the state of the economy today, it is hard not to think, it wasn’t supposed to be like this,”

My assessment was that

The real intangible here is likely to be monopoly power, generated either by intellectual property laws or control over platforms.

My conclusion

Haskel and Westlake discuss traditional spheres of government activity — the defence-related R&D that gave us the internet, for example — but they don’t consider whether governments should become active investors in intangible capital.

The possibilities are full of promise, but also potential pitfalls. Governments could expand the informational role of public media services like the ABC, reversing the cuts of recent decades. They could systematically strive to make information of all kinds available in an easily searchable form, bypassing advertising-driven search engines like Google. And they could provide platforms for social media on a common-carrier basis, requiring easy interconnection and discouraging the use of “algorithms” (a misnomer) to keep people inside a “walled garden.”

It’s easy to point to the problems that would arise if these possibilities were pursued in a world where trust in governments is low. But these are the kinds of arguments that need to be made when the existing economic model is failing so clearly.

Despite the limited scope of the reforms they consider, Haskel and Westlake’s work tackles fundamental questions considered by few other writers. Restarting the Future is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of capitalism, or in the possibility of a post-capitalist future. •

Sunday photoblogging: Le Grau d’Agde

by Chris Bertram on October 16, 2022

Le Grau d'Agde

The Little Things That Restore Your Faith in Humanity – 1

by Miriam Ronzoni on October 13, 2022

There is something really lovely about the way “bless them/her/him” is sometimes used in the UK (or most of the time even? Also is it a pan-UK thing or predominantly Northern? And what’s the role that social class plays in this type of use?). I am not talking of when people use the phrase to praise or express delight for someone in an unqualified manner, but of when they use it, on the contrary, after having said something ever so slightly nasty about someone – basically, after having gossiped about them. The “bless them” declares the gossip bit concluded, by admitting “well, who knows why they did that, why they are like that, and what they are going through; I could have been them in similar circumstances; actually, I probably am them more often than I think.” Or that’s what I hear in it at least. It is so lovely because it acknowledges imperfection at both ends, and it’s one of the little things that restores a bit your faith in humanity. And since at the moment there aren’t many big things that do that, I think I am going to try and start off series on the little things. This is the first one of them.

PS The comments (thanks) teach me that there are similar expressions in American English – some involving the word “bless,” some not. Maybe that’s a universal feature of the English language, then (or at least it’s not only UK-specific). I am, however, pretty sure that it doesn’t exist in Italian, and that I have never heard of a phrase with quite exactly the same connotation in any other language I understand. That’s why I used to associate it, until now, to a very British way of showing compassion for fellow-humans.