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Monthly Archives: July 2006

the faustian pact


Now we must confront something even more perplexing: next to the Communist Manifesto, the whole body of capitalist apologetics, from Adam Ferguson to Milton Friedman is remarkably pale and empty of life. The celebrants of capitalism tell us surprisingly little of its infinite horizons, its revolutionary audacity, its dynamic creativity, its adventurousness and romance, its capacity to make men not only more comfortable but more alive.

Marshall Berman in ‘All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity’

the loophole woman


It can be fun to feel exceptional – to be the loophole woman, to have a whole power thing, to be an honorary man. But if you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven’t made any progress.

Ariel Levy in ‘Female Chauvinist Pigs’

privacy and advantage

I was speaking to Jess last week, who is a biotechnological law ethicist. She said “What is privacy? What kind of thing is it? Why do we want it?”. I said – and I don’t know if I entirely believe this, but it is what came out – privacy is a concern to keep things unknown so as to protect future advantage. Some things we don’t want others to find out because it might disadvantage us in the future. Because there is no use only keeping important things secret – if you did this it gives away what is an isn’t important, which is half of the advantage. The other factor which works to bring things into the realm of privacy is that the future is uncertain. You can’t know with any precision what will and won’t be decisive in the future, so you need to keep more private now, just in case. One of the proximate mechanisms that results from the (evolutionary) logic of privacy is embarrassment. Just because, I claim, privacy is a result of supra-personal logic doesn’t mean that it isn’t a real human need, nor, for that matter that there shouldn’t be legal protections against our embarrassment.

Links for a better today

transformative education

In my department we grade degrees based on four sets of exams – two in the second year, and two in the third year. In the University it is standard to assess students across the bulk of their courses like this. The alternative, which I presume used to happen at my University, and still does in some places such as Oxford and Cambridge, is to assess students in one set of finals at the very end of their courses. I can see that having one set of finals like this is a harsh discipline – especially for those who find exams stressful. Continuous assessment feels ‘fairer’ somehow.

Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if finals might be in fact be fairer, and might be based on a more inspiring model of what happens at a University. Continuous assessment seems to imply that students are receptacles, being filled with knowledge, regurgitating that knowledge at each stage and being assessed on their ability to do this at each point. Conversely, finals express the hope that education will be transformative. Over their time a student will be changed so that they can do some things, things which they were unable to do previously. Assessment on their final ability says ‘we are interested in what you have become, not what you were. We care what you are now able to do, not what you were once unable to do’.

Continuous assessment seems to discriminate against those who get the most out of University education – rewarding those who have been fortunate to grasp the essential model of absorbing and reformulating abstract information before they arrive.

the relegation

It’s a convention to say that the scientific discovery has progressively pushed man further and further from the center of the universe. Galileo displaced the fixed earth from the center and set it revolving around. Now we see the sun itself as a minor light in the backreaches of a single galaxy on the edges of a cluster of glaxies, all of which are hurtling away from each other so that more and more of the black-loneliness of space seperates us from the rest of the universe and from the explosion-point of the universe’s origin. After the Englightenment, God died of neglect and obscelenscence (was Nietzsche really the first to notice?). Without God, in whose image are we made, and on whose authority are we privilaged above all other life? Darwin put us on the same level as the animals, provided a mechanism for our blind creation from the forces of time, chance and selection. The Crick, Watson and the neo-darwinists showed that it is not even us that evolved and still competes to evolve – it is out genes. Our bodies, and by extension the totality of our thoughts and souls, mere ‘lumbering survival machines’ in Dawkin’s mememoral phrase. This is the modern universe. Feel small, feel very small.

But it occurs to me there is another way to look at it. With each relegation, the necessity of man’s existence becomes less and less certain. Because we are no longer required, we become like an unrepeatable moment of time. Because of this we must treasure our existence all the more. (Who else will treasure it for us?). An old testament submission to fate is now outdated, stoic resignation is unacceptable both for individuals and for the species. It is suddenly far more important that we survive, for ourselves rather than for some grand design of which we are the central part. We may not longer be as substantive – foam on the crest of the wave of causality – but we have become infinitely more precious for our pecariousness.

freedom in the usa

Holy Crap! Why is so much of the US population in prison!? Both relative to other ‘basically well-functioning advanced capitalist democracies’:

incarceration-oecd.png

(This from Crooked Timber post)

And relative to the the US of 25 years ago:

prisonplanet.jpg

(from Martin Sereno’s presentation on Peak Oil.)

While we’re at it, here’s another slide which Sereno labelled ‘the beginning of corporate planet’.

(of course, although some would like it to be, what’s true for the US isn’t necessarily true for the rest of the planet)

Links for 2nd of July 2006

Multilateralism in an age of decline

It is, then, conceivable that we could be in for a period in which a synchronised upswing in the global economy turns into a synchronised downturn, as weaker demand from the US ripples out to the export-driven economies of Asia and the Eurozone. Protectionism will then exacerbate the recession. To which the response might be: a good thing, too. If, as Al Gore was arguing during his visit to London last week, the world is on the brink of ecological catastrophe, we ought to lose our fixation with growth and concentrate on self-sufficiency and sustainability instead…..From this standpoint, anything that throws sand in the wheels of the globalisation juggernaut is welcome. What we need is a full-scale cathartic crisis that will enable a new and better world to emerge.

It might not be that easy. True, a collapse of the Doha round, and a sharp contraction in global growth, could provide two of the elements that brought about change in the mid-20th century. But in the 1930s, the progression of events did not go stock market crash, recession, new world order. It went stock market crash, financial collapse, beggar-my-neighbour devaluation, protectionism, fascism, world war, new world order.

Clearly, the solution to Gore’s looming environmental Armageddon has to be collective, rather than unilateral. There is no way that the US, for example, is going to take action to cut carbon emissions unless it is sure every other country is doing likewise.

Yet the chances of multilateral action will be diminished in a climate of fear generated by economic weakness. The report on the economics of climate change currently being undertaken by Nick Stern at the UK Treasury is likely to conclude that the costs associated with a reduction in the emissions to the levels deemed safe by scientists are relatively modest. Gore himself believes that tackling climate change will be good for business, opening up plenty of new opportunities to make money.

That’s as may be. Multilateralism is a delicate plant; it does not thrive in harsh climates and the same impulses that drive countries to put up trade barriers when times get tough will persuade policymakers to listen to the special interest groups arguing that the price of tackling climate change is too high. The growth-at-all-costs lobby will be strengthened.


Delayed, but there is a day of reckoning
Larry Elliot in the Guardian, 26 June 2006.