Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Almost Right

Stanley Fish has written an interesting blog on the NY Times website, concerning neo-liberalism, not so much in defence of it as in exploration, having had the tag thrown at him as a term of (albeit academic) abuse. He provides quite a neat example of the ideology in practice:

"In a neoliberal world, for example, tort questions — questions of negligence law — are thought of not as ethical questions of blame and restitution (who did the injury and how can the injured party be made whole?), but as economic questions about the value to someone of an injury-producing action relative to the cost to someone else adversely affected by that same action. It may be the case that run-off from my factory kills the fish in your stream; but rather than asking the government to stop my polluting activity (which would involve the loss of jobs and the diminishing of the number of market transactions), why don’t you and I sit down and figure out if more wealth is created by my factory’s operations than is lost as a consequence of their effects?"

This strikes me as a good system, with one modification, or perhaps clarification. A Millsian reading of liberalism, with its strong utilitarian roots, would admit of a non-cash meaning of value. This is the tricky point where political theory proves itself not to be a science, but rather a philosophy. The pure science of economics, in which neo-liberalism is rooted, considers in this example only the economic (i.e cash) value of the fish and the factory, however our human experience tells us that there is more to both life and value than cost. The idea of solving the dispute with reference to cost-benefit analysis is sound, but we must find some way to weigh up the aesthetic and cultural value of the fish and the stream and the leisure and enjoyment they provide to individuals and society, againstnot only the financial but the social benefits of the factory.

There is a problem with any aim to create a society based on this model, and that is the gap in education, we are not teaching our young people (in pretty much any country) to think in terms of general value, and so people's idea of value rests on the arithmetic which they are taught. Until we can separate the ideas of value and cost, then we are stuck in a position of greed, where money will drive us all.

Power sharing in crisis...

The tragic news today is of an attack on an army base in Northern Ireland, the first in around a decade of hard won peace. All loss of human life is tragic and this is possibly more so for its potential to spiral into a return to the low-grade civil war that ate at British and Irish society for three decades. The thing that has been getting at me all day however is the insistence of leaders on all sides that this will not derail the peace process. The sad truth is that the peace process has been stagnant for several years, and one of the main planks of the process is to blame--Power sharing.

Power sharing is not in itself the problem, indeed it has been an invaluable tool in Northern Ireland and could provide the vital bridge towards progress in Zimbabwe and elsewhere. The problem is that it has become seen as an end-state. Power sharing ought not to be the target end-state for the main reason that it is not democracy. A situation where an election is held and the losing side take up powerful positions within the government is in fact almost the reverse of democracy. True democracy is a position where the minority accept that they are a minority and will be governed by the majority, whilst (and this is important) the majority accept that being in the majority does not give them the right to demonize, terrorize, discriminate against or impose personal morality and religion upon, the minority.

It is this state that must be the target of any peace process, and the events in Northern Ireland are perhaps a sign of what happens when the flow is allowed to stagnate. If the peace process was moving forewards properly, then the extremist dissidents on both sides would not be able so easily to find solid ground and support. We as people on all sides need to redouble our efforts.