Sunday, May 13, 2012

Choosing choice

Recently I was in Berlin - a good place to be thinking about choice.

Three experiences started this train of thought.

Number one was of course my first sight of the remains of the Berlin wall. Near the Brandenburg Gate I came across a small museum commemorating the Kennedys and in particular JFK’s visit to Berlin in June 1963. I watched his speech and was very struck by one sentence, not the most famous:

Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.

The second prompt was the marvellous novel ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’ by Azar Nafisi, which I read while travelling. It’s about Iraq under Ayatollah Khomeini including the Iran – Iraq War, not a subject I know much about. But I was particularly struck by one point: a friend of hers who had chosen to wear hijab (I presume – Nafisi calls it a scarf) before the revolution:

At that time, she had worn the scarf as a testament to her faith. Her decision was a voluntary act. When the revolution forced the scarf on others, her action became meaningless.

The third, more personal, incident was connected with a minor difficulty in ordering vegetarian food in the city of curried sausage, and realising that some people really do take exception to my decision not to eat animals or fish, despite it causing no harm to them whatsoever.

Each of these episodes made me realise just how much my political perspective is grounded in the importance of individual choice. I don’t think this was always the case, for example when I was a London left-winger in the 1980s. Although on the other hand my tendency towards leftie authoritarianism was always leavened by an element of feminist individualism.

There are, of course, problems with the wider consequences of personal choice, for example the ‘tragedy of the commons’, when the aggregate of single decisions brings about a detrimental situation for a wider group. It is now widely understood that many of us do not pay the full price for the benefits we enjoy, and that those who do pay on our behalf might live a long way away, or may not yet have been born. Awareness doesn’t seem to lead to behavioural change, though.

Choices have a cumulative effect in our own lives. The degree of context and autonomy varies over space and time, but both make us what we are. There is no such thing as truly ‘free’ choice, as I pondered at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Track 17 and the House of the Wansee Conference.

So how can we make the ‘right’ choices, both for ourselves and for society as a whole? I think this is a real problem for those of us on the democratic left, who follow Gramsci in believing we need to win over civil society and create counter-hegemonic positions rather than dictate to people. It looks like the tide is turning against austerity in Europe, providing an opportunity to think about a practical alternative rather than just opposing right-wing parties. I hope Labour in the UK and the Republic are both up to the challenge. And I hope that the Greens can be brought into new a left of centre alliance, following the German example, in order to develop a political philosophy that includes the best of democratic socialism and environmentalism for the future.


LeftAtTheCross said...

Berlin is a fascinating city.

Your piece is an interesting one.

One comment on JFK. His escalation of US support to the south Vietnamese included a bit of fencing! From Wikipedia: "The Strategic Hamlet Program had been initiated in 1961. This joint U.S.-South Vietnamese program attempted to resettle the rural population into fortified camps. The aim was to isolate the population from the insurgents, provide education and health care, and strengthen the government's hold over the countryside." ( Just pointing out that propagandist headline quotes in a partisan museum don't necessarily tell a complete story, history tends to be a little more complicated and murky.

On Germany and meat, I was a veggie when I lived in London in the 80s and had the experience of spending a long summer in Germany while not a meat eater. So I know where you're coming from there!

I think you're correct about Gramsci and hegemony. I admit I do have difficulties with the balance betweem individual choice and common good. As you say, what's "free" choice anyway? I'm more inclined towards the need for political leadership underpinned by an ideology which provides a rudder to guide the project towards the long-term goals without allowing short-term squalls to upset the course. Of course "real" democracy is an essential component of that politics. The question is how to achieve that level of democratic engagement. Clearly the existing mechanisms leave a lot to be desired. Compartmentalising democracy to exclude economic democracy as a fundmental component of the mix fundamentally limits that engagement.

On your hope that Labour and the Greens can ride the wave of anti-austerity, you're in denial there I'm afraid. Look south of the border and see the reality where both parties have embraced neoliberal economics and austerity.

Rab said...

The JFK quote brought to mind something that my sister said. She lives in the US and laughs that the government there don’t need to build a ‘Berlin Wall’ to keep people from leaving. Nobody who lives there knows about the world beyond American shores anyway.

But Jenny, don’t you think that once you start to think about choice beyond patterns of consumption, our choices are really rather limited, even in the ‘free’ West? I am frequently dazzled by how many different varieties of tea, beans, bread and frozen chips there are but I’m frustrated by how little agency I seem to be able to exercise in other spheres of life.

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - I was less fascinated by Berlin than I'd expected to be, surprisingly. And so much emphasis on Nazis and the Wall. It made me realise how some tourists must feel in Belfast. But I think it's the kind of city that could grow on me. It reminded me of London in the 1980s, very divided, poor and scruffy. But I was there for work.

I realised I'd get comments about JFK! I'm fascinated by the Kennedys, because the reality was so different from the image they managed to project to the US public. I think I need to write a post about charismatic political leaders. BTW the quote was part of his speech on a video, not highlighted in the museum at all. And if you want partisan, go to the JFK Library and Museum in Boston!

I like your point about democratic engagement. The problem is that political activism is so deadly dull. We need an Alinsky to liven us up a bit!

Also re Labour and the Greens, I'm interested in which parties could form the bedrock of a mass counterhegemonic movement - trouble is, that's not going to be as far to the Left as some of us would like, and in different jurisdictions there will be different parties involved. Certainly here in NI I hope that if Labour stands for election then we can come to some kind of agreement with the Greens, who seem very radical here - perhaps too radical for some of our members though.

Jenny Muir said...

Rab - Your point about the US surely shows the power of ideology. Re. choice, you are right that sometimes it seems that we only have choice over things that don't matter that much. But then I cast my mind back to when I was growing up, when gay relationships were unheard of (even though it was post 1967), pregnancy was the end of your life as you had to get married, and women in particular had greatly constrained career choices. It's easy to forget that over the course of 40 - 50 years there is greater tolerance despite the problems society still has - racism woud be another example, it still exists but isn't as overt as it used to be and there are laws.

Where things have got worse is the dominance of money over eveything else. When I was young it was quite acceptable to get a low paid job you enjoyed (I was a bookseller) but now it's all about careers and 60 hour weeks, or no job at all.

LeftAtTheCross said...

"Also re Labour and the Greens, I'm interested in which parties could form the bedrock of a mass counterhegemonic movement - trouble is, that's not going to be as far to the Left as some of us would like, and in different jurisdictions there will be different parties involved."

That's a huge point you've raised there and to be honest I don't think it's the sort of conversation that can be easily had through a comments box. However I'll start by agreeing with you for the need for popular resistance to the orthodoxy, for counter-hegemony, and for political action associated with that. Associated with, leading, supporting, guiding. And not just party political, but certainly including party political, just so I don't sound like one of those anti-politicals from Occupy. And I agree with the mass part of what you've said, it can't be on the margins, although it may start there of course. Where I have real difficulty is on how to progress along that political journey. I don't have any faith in the existing mainstream political parties. Mainly because there is a catch-22 in representative democracy which appears to ensure that to win the game, to win electoral popularity, necessatitates lowest common denominator populism and an abandonment of principle, doctrine, ideology. And there's a huge discussion to be had on that single point that perhaps that's not altogether necessarily a bad thing, it does provide after all a democractic foundation. But without the guiding light of ideology there is the danger, if not teh inevitability, that any radical political initiative and or organisation becomes stuck in the quagmire of reaction and status quo as soon as it begins to break in from the margins. Look at the changing rhetoric of any formerly radical political party as it begins to win electoral support, e.g. the Greens or Sinn Féin (in its economic policy) this side of the border. Unless a party had a strong ideological base, which it openly and honestly proclaims, which it prioritises over gaining popularity by embracing populism or mainstream policies, then it will lose its way as it becomes a mass movement. I could point at the Democratic Left split from the Workers' Party here also. Now your point about such a mass counterhegemonic movement not being as far Left as some of us might like is almost self-contradictory. Unless it's strongly rooted on the Left it will drift towards the Centre. But if it refuses to embrace populist policy drift, then it limits it's potential to become a mass movement. Catch-22. However, I do think that material circumstances on the ground, the collapse (or at the very least the sharpening of the internal contradictions) of global capitalism will push people's politics away from what has constituted the mainstream for teh past decades. Therein lies the hope for the future. But all of this is a huge question and while I enjoy your blog posts and strongly support the movement towards normal class politics in NI, I do think that ultimately the Labour goal of a return to some form of social democratic stability will be at best a passing phase, welcome though it would be compared to what exists now, but not an end point on the political journey of western European society by any means. So in terms of building counter-hegemony, my own view is that you need to look outside the existing politics for a starting point. I would like to think the Greens were outside that, but as I said, experience here shows that they're enthusiastic neoliberals unfortunately, when push comes to shove, because ultimately they claim they don't do class politics, which is a nonsense.

Jenny Muir said...

LeftAt - terrific comment, thank you. I think you're right, the debate needs to be moved up one into a future post, would you be OK with me using the comment as a starting point? The contradiction you identify is so important. Especially at the moment with what's going on in Europe.

LeftAtTheCross said...

Jenny, of course, use away. Another point which I forgot to add above, is that the very process of representative democracy itself is limiting the end result or the potential for (let's call it) rupture with the status quo. I know its cliched on the far Left to point out these limits, I don't want to sound defeatist or worse again ultra-Left in saying that. I don't think progress through the corridors of power is a lost cause as such, only that we have to be aware of the limits of the process. It goes back to the point I made in the earlier comment about democratic engagement. To be honest I don't really think most people are all that exercised about representative democracy, and here I'd add in that Rab's comment about "choice" comes into play, and that meaningful engagement can be accelerated by extending democratic debate / influence / control into the economic sphere, into the workplace primarily, and by creating the space and meaning for counter-hegemony within people's daily lives. Not that such fundamental reorientation of power relations can occur without the social forces including political leadership to pave the way, but once established it would have the positive effect of reinforcing a popular democracy that was not based on orthodox populisms. The question you're asking, as am I, is rather than just discussing these issues, how do we make them real, where do we start? The starting point is important, for all the reasons mentioned earlier, in order not to lose one's way along the journey one needs momentum and critical mass and a compass to carry the project over the speedbumps.

Seymour Major said...


Some of the observations that you have made could drive political conversation in many directions. One of those directions could be the subject of political dishonesty.

The “tragedy of the commons” could be used as an argument against democracy on the basis that voters only make a decision based on self-interest instead of voting for policies which benefit the whole of society. I’m sure you have heard it said before that the majority of voters are either too ignorant or too selfish to vote responsibly. The result is that Politicians win elections by making promises that are totally unrealistic or by bashing their opponent and blaming them, whether or not there is a genuine causal link between the decision they criticise and the undesired outcome.

I cannot stand dishonest politics, yet have to put up with it, day in and day out, from all sides of the political spectrum. What we all really need, of course, is system of political ethics to regulate all politicians. How do we get such a regulatory system that works?

The current election campaign in Greece could become a case study on political ethics. Here we have the left wing Syriza party promising the Greeks that they will be able to stay in the Euro and abandon austerity at the same time. They will probably win the election because of those promises, yet there is about as much chance of achieving those aims as getting planning permission to build a house on top of an active volcano.

I would like the left to do as you wish and come up with something constructive which represents a genuine practical alternative. If it does, it will need to take account of tomorrow’s fiscal problems, including the welfare time bomb. But will policies to tackle that problem not be too frightening for the average voter to contemplate?

Perhaps honesty and sincerity in a democracy is too much to expect.

Jenny Muir said...

Dear Seymour - thanks for this interesting point, and as you say it's one I'm aware of and have often despaired at the way people make their political choices. But I put that down to a lack of political leadership, whether at NI or UK level. Options that benefit us collectively can be made to look attractive to the vast majority of individuals, for example the social cohesion argument for better public services paid for with higher taxation. The same goes for a shared future in NI - too few of our politicians really want it. And I have thought the same as you about the Greek election - the honest left wing approach is to say that austerity of some kind is unavoidable, it's just whether you want to be in hock to the banking system and the IMF or to sort out your own economy as they did in Iceland.

There's an element of dishonesty in politics that I think can't be avoided, however. That's connected with the wonderful saying (was it Clinton?) about campaigning in poety but governing in prose. Good politicians have a wide vision of the society they want to see, but might not be too good on the detail, which can hit them in the face after they have been elected. In these cases, I'm in favour of saying it won't be possible to do what was promised, or that it'll take longer than planned. Treat the voters like grownups.

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