Last Summer, the United Kingdom voted for a new idea. There was not a lot of detail, but the headlines were clear – an end to bureaucratic Brussels interfering in Britain, less immigration, and a reassertion of a perceived native identity. One year on, the project is in crisis as those who support it attempt to define what it actually means, often contradicting themselves in the process, and dumbfounding their incredulous European Union partners. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. New words are being used to help understand both the process and the objective. The objective (Brexit) was originally defined simply as Brexit, the implication being that ‘you all know what it means, even if we can’t put words on it’. While that had the benefit of keeping everyone at least superficially happy (ah, so the Prime Minister agrees with me!) it belied a hidden and constitutionally awkward acknowledgement: Brexit meant different things to everyone.
The High Church of Technology has made a pronouncement, as is the business of major world religions, on the goodness of novelty. The new, the upgraded, and the shiny are to be venerated, while the old, the obsolete and the dusty are for the defeated and the underprivileged of our species. All buy the iPhone and the Microsoft Surface! All shun the Blackberry, and the desktop computer. It’s not just a technology thing, it’s a capitalist thing, of course; it’s difficult to separate the two these days. It’s all a far cry from the origins of silicon valley in the cradle of the counter-culture, and the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of anarchist tooling up of people to enable them to defend and articulate their personal freedom. Perhaps it’s an irony, perhaps a betrayal of a more fundamental human inevitability, and maybe, deeper still, the ultimate realisation of the Protestant ethic: it may be that technology binds us to fate far more than it liberates us, because of the choices that we have made. As Ken Cukier has put it, what is at stake now is the whole notion of human volition.
The Guardian today ran an interesting selection of comments on ‘What if Women Ruled the World’? It is a fascinating question, though I suspect that such a violent reshaping of our reality would be accompanied not just by differences in approach and attitude, but vast psychological and systemic changes. The world, in effect, would be unrecognisable, our conscious modernity entirely smashed in favour of something new. There is value, of course, in the feminist critique of modernity. In many ways our world is delivering poor outcomes in terms of rights, inequality, and politics; feminist interrogation can highlight failings and help to address those areas, though the extreme object of the question in the Guardian piece doesn’t have a real grounding or reference point. Such would be the radical transformation in our world if women ruled, if men in power were a minority, if men, generally, were subjugated, that’s it’s difficult to find a logical point of comparison. This short post is a brief response to some of those comments from the Guardian piece.
Attending for a while to more immediate political concerns: Brexit. A story today suggested that Ireland should plan to leave the EU should Brexit be as hard and as cold as it promises to be. It struck me that it is in Britain’s interests to inflict significant damage on Ireland for several reasons. Primary amongst them is the rationale that Britain needs to divide Europe in order to find the best deal for itself. A divided and fractured Europe will make those who wish to defend the union more disposed to compromise. Therefore its strategies for dealing with the marginal nations – with Greece, with the Netherlands, and with Portugal – will be just as important as those strategies for dealing with France and Germany. Ireland is special, in that it shares a land border, and where there remains the possibility of terrorism – even if diminished – from a history all too recent.
Iván Szelényi’s course on the Foundations of Modern Social Theory is a fascinating trip through some key thinkers, from political philosophers to economists, psychologists and more broadly based social scientists. If anything, perhaps, it shows how blurred the lines are between the disciplines; linking Marx, Nietzsche, Freud and Weber to me at least was not clear: Marx was either a political scientist or an economist; Nietzsche was an existentialist philosopher; Freud was a psychologist; and Weber a sociologist. Where they coalesce, Szelényi suggests, is that they are all critical theorists. They are concerned with consciousness, with what is in the mind. Giving voice to their common purpose, he said they are suggesting that ‘[w]hat is in your mind is not necessarily what you think it is. Let’s subject your consciousness to critical scrutiny.’ His heavily accented presentation is both compelling and dramatic, and the course is to be recommended, as is the Open Yale program in general. A fabulous educational resource.