Some thoughts on emotions – Friday Philosophy!

So, for the last four weeks or so I’ve been working my way through my Open University course material on the philosophy of emotions. It’s heavy-going stuff, and I definitely will need to revise the multitude of philosophers and theories covered, but as a revision exercise, and something I thought you might find interesting, here are some initial thoughts – based on a revision question posed at the end of the course-book.

Now, I’m not going for an academic essay here, these are my instinctive opinions, quickly formed. So no references or quotes; I want to see what comes out when I start writing my answers. Philosophy is often about the testing of intuitive response, and so, if you are interested in this, see how you think and feel about the topics and my answers.

Does it make sense to describe someone as being justified in feeling sad, jealous or loving a particular person?

Here we are talking about ‘justification’ when it comes to rational thought versus emotion. Much of this topic revolves around whether rational thought requires or is inhibited by emotion. To that ends: what does the emotion serve? What does it do that pure rationality cannot? (if anything).

Strategically, maybe feeling sad or jealous has a long term rationality. It may not help the immediate situation, and it could be argued that the physiological and psychological effects of sadness/jealousy are not very practical in the short term. i.e. When something bad happens, it would practically make more sense to deal with arising issues in a very ordered calm and measured way – not something that acute depression or seething envy is particularly good at doing. However, the event, the content of the reason you are sad/jealous, is the culmination (presumably) of causal factors, both internally and externally, that have led to the emotional response.

For example, I am jealous of another person’s success – this is linked to my beliefs about what I feel I am worth, the opportunities I’ve encountered, my abilities and so on. So, if I get passed up for promotion, and I believe it is unjust somehow (whether true or not), I may experience jealousy. In the short term, that doesn’t serve me well. It is an unpleasant emotion, it is likely to negatively affect how I interact with and think about that person and situation, and usually not in a very constructive fashion (being jealous about something rarely enables you to do anything about it – it can lead to resolve, but resolve doesn’t have to follow jealously, it can be independent and born of ambition, so jealousy seems an unnecessary step).

However, if we are creatures that learn from experience, if we are ‘in touch’ with our emotional responses, the unpleasantness of a jealous reaction to a situation may help us with future desires. After all, not to be jealous, implies an understanding of what jealousy is in the first place. If I go for future promotions and remember how my attitudes towards the last attempt led to a terrible envy, I will try and avoid those triggers this time. I will make sure I am as prepared as I can be, I will make sure my beliefs about the situation are well founded, and I will mentally prepare reasons why, if unsuccessful, either the situation or my abilities are the problem, not some negative paranoia or favouritism (I may well conclude that there is a negative element, but if so, logically I should want to avoid being in that situation in the first place).

So, to look at the alternative, what if jealousy is all bad? If you believe this then the logical ideal would be to not get that ‘shock’ of jealously when we encounter a situation like described. What would the result of that be? I would propose that not to feel jealous in certain situations would result in us fruitlessly repeating negative decisions and becoming dogmatic in our attitudes. There is perhaps a certain positive conditioning that arises from negative emotions. This doesn’t mean that it only takes one bout to be ‘cured’ of negative emotions and behaviours, just that each exposure should help us to learn something new and tailor our beliefs and attitudes to prevent, or reduce the severity of, a reoccurrence if possible.

We are multi-faceted beings, and I like the idea that we respond to all perceptions and thoughts with every emotion, it is just that some are so slight we don’t even register them most of the time, conditioned as we are to expect a surge in one over the other in less complex situations. This could explain why ambiguous events lead us to ambivalence, because more than one emotion is competing for our attention – leading us to make choices and take gambles on which may serve us best. But emotions, or logic, can never actually know which choice is right (epistemology shows us that there is no such thing as true future knowledge) and therefore all must hold court with our judgements to some degree.

So those are some initial thoughts on ‘negative emotions’ (feeling sad, jealous) – but what about loving someone? Can it be cognitively justified to love someone? This may seem a counter intuitive question (it seems obvious really) – but think about the judgements people make for love, the personal sacrifices etc… and then think about how that stands against rationality (if you imagine rationality to mean a practical and logical response) and it does a pose an interesting question. However, I still think the answer to this is yes, it is justifiable, and rightly so. Some philosophers completely take ‘love’ out of the category of ‘emotions’ as it has such unique properties, and requires a fair amount of classification (you can love your friends, family and spouse, even your car! But though we linguistically use the same term to describe these, they are qualitatively different) – so it can be argued it deserves its own category.

I’m not so sure about the categorisation of ‘love’ at this point, but I certainly think it is a justified response. It tends to (ultimately) lead to positive outcomes for the majority of people (stability, companionship, children, cooperation, comfort etc…) and any negative effects we might associate are probably either due to the mistaken belief that love exists when it doesn’t, or a categorisation mistake (mistaking the acts of lust for acts of love for example). So, yes, it seems cognitively justified to me.

In conclusion, I suppose my overriding feeling from just this small inspection is that emotions do play an important part in our reasoning, though I am not yet down to the finer details or whether or not they are actually part of or the same thing as our reasoning (I’ll save that for my proper essay next week!). But I also think that our emotions are not just simply evolutionary ‘left-over’s’ (a kind or pre-vocal language) that get in the way of justified reasoning and that we would be better without. Quite the opposite – I do believe they came first and led to stronger ‘base’ behaviours (fight or flight), but only when that was reflective of our evolutionary requirements at the time. As we have become socially and intellectually more complex, our emotions have evolved also, and perhaps when we feel that they are not serving us well in the modern world (who wouldn’t want to not be angry in a traffic jam?), it has more to say about the modern world than it does our emotions being ‘throw-backs to a simpler time’. If more of us made emotionally led choices, or were allowed to make emotionally led choices, perhaps we would see less anger, stress, frustration and depression as a result. But this is not because our emotions are not suited to the modern world, it is because many aspects of the modern world are not suited to our emotions.

‘No Suitable Candidate’ or ‘To vote or not to vote in a negative democracy’

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I could be accused of missing the hype with this blog, following Russell Brand’s interview with Jeremy Paxman a fortnight ago, Paxman’s own admission that he didn’t vote in the last election, and various backlash commentaries such as that made by Robert Webb and others, ‘branding’ Brand as irresponsible and even dangerous.

But then, this issue doesn’t go away just because the flash in a pan media hype has died down following one interview with a high profile celebrity. I’ve been having this debate internally and with my peer group since the last election. My feeling is, many, many people have been having this debate since the last election, even if they don’t realise it. I say that because if you’ve ever seen the news or some political commentary and had even the slightest feeling of, ‘Oh this is all bullshit’ – you may not have realised it, but that means you are a disillusioned citizen, utilising your most natural judgement mechanism, your instincts.

We underestimate the power of our own instincts in a world where we are increasingly asked to trust others who ‘know better’ than we do. This is the usual defence position against the voice of dissent. We can see this exercised in the Brand/Paxman interview in the typical ‘journo’ way – challenge the authenticity, intelligence or coherence of the voice raising the objection. Politicians use it to dismiss massive popular rallies all the time. Hundreds and thousands of people turn up to the countries capital to protest about the general cosy state of politics and big business, and are greeted simply by the line ‘What’s the alternative?’ The implication being that none of these people are either capable or coherent enough to articulate their dissatisfaction in a constructive manner.

There are a few problems with this argument. Firstly, it just isn’t true. At the one major rally I attended in London, the streets were awash with pledges and demands, printed in leaflets and with supporting websites to offer more detail. The message was, at the time, that we need to start with claiming the tax owed by massive corporations (rather than do the opposite and bail them out), before we start taking services and money away from the most vulnerable in our society. “But what’s the alternative?” they said. Well… that.

Secondly, how are groups of like-minded people who genuinely believe they’ve got no choice or chance using the current electoral process to affect any meaningful change, meant to construct alternatives and offer these to the wider population if they don’t have the ear of the media or the resources with which to do this? Let’s not pretend that it’s as simple as paying your deposit and standing for election in your local area. Inherent bias exists in the electoral system as it is, let alone the addition of millions of pounds of outside funding to the major parties which ensure they can field candidates in most constituencies, buy prime media column inches and airtime, and already hold ‘the high ground’ as it were. Before the last election, it was generally assumed that although the Liberal Democrats were looking strong, it was a near impossibility that they could actually win the election because of the inbuilt bias. As it happened, they became an ineffectual bit part player in a coalition, and have as a result, destroyed their own voter base (and try to find someone who disagrees with that prognosis). So no – if some of the oldest and most established parties in British politics are unable to make an impact, how are we, the unorganised electorate, even meant to do so in any kind of dynamic and immediate way? I suppose if you have a spare few hundred years to go at and a trust fund or wealthy benefactor somewhere you could do it, but that’s hardly dynamic and immediate, and many people feel that the crisis is already upon us.

On a more philosophical point of view, it is hard to see how we can ever expect our leaders to genuinely try and deal with the ‘problem’ of disaffection and distrust in the whole system, when they refuse to acknowledge there is one. Yes, they go on TV and Radio and say reassuring things like – “we know it’s a massive problem engaging people with politics, and we want to be seen to be doing this” – but putting words aside, we can just look at the evidence, look at the faces in the cabinet and commons, look at the statistics and biographies, and there we have it. A tight knit, interconnected group of people, in both parliament and the media, and even the judiciary, who hail from a narrow social background, closely linked to wealth and status of family members and peers. It is laid bare, we’re not making it up.

Another philosophical point of view when it comes to the actual act of voting is that of consent. As a collective we are providing a mandate, a 5 year contract, each time we go to the polls, irrespective of whether we want any of the options available. Remember, we don’t actually have any rights to terminate the contract or change any aspects of it during that period, we have to rely on opposition MPs for that, who we also don’t have any power to change during the term. What’s more, we don’t really know what the contract is, as pledges are notoriously, laughingly, different from what actually happens when parties are elected. What kind of a deal is that?

But, because of the clever constructs of our democracy, to not vote has no impact on any of this. The counter-argument to not voting is that it makes the democratic sample smaller, and makes it even easier for ‘them’ to win. But hang on, I don’t want to exercise my one power in the world that is meant to represent my whole ethos and opinions about how things could be simply by voting out what I don’t want – I would quite like to approach this with the view of voting in something that I think closely represents my views. This negative democracy model is hardly an argument that implies a working system, constantly retreating away from bad choices and hoping that the previous bad choice has magically become a good choice in the meantime, and so going back to it ad infinitum.

So to conclude, I want to offer some alternatives that may help ‘kick-start’ the process of creating pressure in a way that can’t be branded  as apathy. I just can’t accept the negative ‘vote them out’ ideology as my driving principle for talking part in this democracy, and I also don’t believe that any current party actually capable of gaining power (thanks to the inherent bias) is suitable to do so. Therefore, these three options seem to present themselves:

1.            Just don’t vote (and as discussed above, be accused of apathy, and potentially just make it easier for the system to maintain itself in its current form)

2.            What I like to call ‘Don’t Vote +’ – Don’t vote, but instead, find a way to register your reason for not voting in a coherent way. Ideally some kind of petition. This will of course mean someone setting this up. For example – a new petition called “No suitable candidates”. If this was done right, we could potentially show that more of us didn’t vote for this reason than did vote. It isn’t official, and doesn’t guarantee anything, but I think it may help satisfy people who don’t want to be branded apathetic, but don’t want to take part in the negative democracy model we seem to be part of.

What would they do if this happened? I guess that during the process they would discredit it and try and multiply the available petitions to ‘water down’ the impact. But presuming that can be overcome, they would be faced, as would the country (presuming the media reported it) with a natural democracy – outside of the system but expressing the view of a section of society all the same, maybe even a majority. Perhaps they would then  introduce official ‘No suitable candidate’ boxes to mitigate the loss of popular opinion this causes? It may be a start to a truly more accountable and representative version of politics, where we actually have the power to change manifestos and representatives before we vote them in, not after 5 years of wreck and ruin. The same approach could be done with a call for genuine ‘right to recall’ powers and other aspects that would help us be better represented. The important thing here is to match a no-vote during the time of the election with a principle – the petition must reflect this.

3.            Do vote – but vote for an independent or small party. This could have the affect of creating a rainbow cabinet (and we all like rainbows don’t we?) which dilutes the influence of the big three. I have some interest in how this might work, but my concern is that it would be hard to coordinate and you are limited to who is standing in your constituency. To try and harmonise this approach would be to try and launch a challenger party, which as I covered earlier, involves financial and influential factors not at our disposal. However, even just vastly cutting the number of the big three in the commons could potentially have a dramatic effect, and lead to better debate and compromise that suits local communities and a broader social range. This was akin to the promise of the coalition that never surfaced because it was a coalition of the established where we perhaps need a coalition of dissent.

So those are my options. It may be fairly obvious that option 2 seems my favourite at the moment, and I doubt I’m the only one to have thought of it, so hopefully I will find a petition I can back if I don’t feel I can vote at the next election in good conscience.

Just for the record, I have always voted before, this isn’t something I take lightly, and if you’ve got this far in the blog, it obviously isn’t something you take lightly either and I would be very interested to hear what option suits you, or your alternatives. Also, feel free to try and convince me why simply ‘voting out’ what I don’t want, in favour of something else I don’t want, is the way I should approach this, but I doubt you will succeed.

Thanks for reading.

I’m writing a blog instead of doing my University work…

Yes, that’s right, it says it all in the title. Not that I don’t intend to do my University work, it’s just that before I can get my mind in gear to try and understand the intricacies of computational mind theory, I need to prime my own mind somehow. So a blog it is.

The course I am studying is the level 3 philosophy offered by the Open University. I completed level 2 last (academic) year and surprised myself by coming out of it with a distinction. So the obvious next step, is level 3. The not-so-obvious ‘other’ step, is social science, which I am also studying, mostly because I needed one more course to complete my degree, and there was nothing else left I was really interested in. (so far the social science is quite interesting, if light)

The social science course is ‘level 1’ (are you following this?) – meaning it is roughly equivalent to first year study – so full of fluff, hand-holding, broad but with not much detail. Unfortunately for me, when I started studying with the OU (about 3 years ago) – I hadn’t really planned to get a degree, I signed up purely for the creative writing courses, which I completed, and then though “why not?”

The only small problem is that thanks to my impulsive approach to education, every-time I revert back a ‘level’ I have to put up with the introductory elements that presume you have just started learning – as the assumption is you will study a couple of level 1 courses, followed by level 2, and then onto the third level. I on the other hand have gone:

Year 1: Creative writing level 2

Year 2: Creative writing level 3

Year 3: Western Philosophy level 2 / History of the arts level 1

Year 4: Philosophy of the mind Level 3 / Social Science level 1

So it’s a mixed bag of difficulty and subjects, but I’m getting through them (I’m on year 4 now, my final year before receiving a BA Honours, all being well)

But why am I telling you all this? Well, because I tried yesterday to get ahead on my philosophy and absorb three chapters of theory of mind in one go, only to find my own mind melting somewhat when I arrived upon computational theory. As far as I can tell from what I gleamed before I shut down, is that CTM (computational theory of mind) believes our thoughts to be a semantic syntax, used, like a computer would use a programme, to respond to and trigger physical and mental processes. However – it’s not as easy as all that.

So far, the philosophers I have covered in the first section on ‘the mind’, have said that we (our minds) are simply our outward behaviours, or we are the inner things that cause our behaviours , or that we are disembodied immaterial substance that communicates with, but is not part of, the material body (which I rather like but the upshot of Descartes rigid doctrine is that animals don’t feel pain – which is rubbish). But as with all Philosophy, none of them have a very clear advantage over the others, and some (CTM) are overly complicated to arrive at only a slightly different conclusion, that still has all the pitfalls of most other theories.

For example, to put it simply, if our thoughts are just the programming language of our bodies and our other thoughts, who is doing the programming? And why don’t advanced computers have any signs of free-will? Why the need for a biological component at all? Why don’t self-aware calculators spring from the dust? (I like that last one, I might use it for a short story).

This is hardly a comprehensive critique of this theories – if my essay looked like this I would be in for a hard time – but these questions are begged, and rarely, if ever answered.

A warning for you who may fall into these conversations with someone who thinks they ‘get it’ or know the answer – they don’t. This debate has raged for thousands of years, and will rage for thousands more. Advances in neuroscience have brought a new dimension to understanding what we are in our ‘eds, but not answered anything to do with the simplest thought ‘I am’ – which is what Descartes was getting at, even if he felt the need to place this in a rigid doctrine to try and encompass his particular faith.

My favourite dichotomy, put forward by David Hume, is that the self is a ‘fiction’ cause by the rapid mental processes, merely creating the illusion of a greater whole. It’s very easy to place this in an constructed argument as follows:

A. An illusion requires an observer.

B. The self is an illusion.

Therefore: The self requires an observer.

In the semantic logic of philosophy, if statement A and B are true, and the conclusion encapsulates both statements, the proposition must be true. This is a sound and valid argument, and one that defeats most theories of mind that try to ‘cut out’ the observer. Simply replace statement A with ‘A programme requires a programmer’, B with ‘The self is a programme’ and we have a similar conclusion, with ‘observer’ replaced by ‘programmer’, which arguably, is the same thing.

There is a lot of semantic and even syntactic argument in philosophy, as if we can unlock truth with combinations of words, or derail theories with scrutiny of the language used. This is necessary, as these concepts have a certain precision that needs to be communicated, so sloppy language can dilute conclusions. This is exactly what happened with Hume when he used the word fiction. A fiction can’t exist in a vacuum. (cue jokes about hoovering up Jane Eyre…)

Anyway, as I said, I just needed to get my mind going a bit, and this is a bit of a ramble. Maybe  you found it interesting, maybe you didn’t – but I’m off now to try and wrap my head around the details of CTM, and as interesting as it will be, I never expect it will answer these questions, I feel it is one of those causal riddles that lie at the heart of everything and we may never know – but we must try, as it keeps us linked to ourselves as energetic and intelligent beings, seemingly blessed with the rationality to have these debates out of all living things, a task we must at least acknowledge.

Syria. A good day for democracy?

A funny thing happened when I came to write this blog last week. I had just written my (now previous) blog on out TV viewing habits (available here: https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/the-rise-and-demise-of-the-boxed-set/), but felt unable to post it due to certain more serious stuff going on in the world. The blog was all ready to go but it just felt exceptionally unnecessary at the time when we were poised on the edge of another conflict. So, I decided to shelve the fluff blog and look at Syria, see if I couldn’t get some thoughts together.

It was the day of the commons vote, and I was trying to pick my way through the bafflement of it all. I was (and still am) acutely aware of the myriad voices speaking on the matter, most of which carry more authority and knowledge on the issue. So, I didn’t want to add another opinion piece, pulled out of thin air, to the strata of loose opinion that is already out there, and instead decided to look specifically at the question itself, the question being:

What do I think about Syria? (specifically, what can I think?)

Bearing in mind that this was before the surprise vote last Thursday that ruled us out of conflict in the UK, I will paraphrase here some of the notes I made from the never-released blog (and when I say notes, I am literally trying to read my own hand-writing). Following this, I shall just offer a little update, now I know what happened last week.

***

(original blog, Thursday 29th August, afternoon)

The question isn’t what do other people think about Syria, the question is what do I think about it?

At this point I am totally flooded by a sense of ignorance, resorting to snippets and tit-bits gleamed from the news and other people’s social feeds.

A vocabulary emerges for people who like me, have not specifically researched the issue but who have rather ‘allowed’ the research to find them semi-distracted and sub-consciously absorbent.

The words that spring to mind immediately are:

Assad, regime, rebels, Damascus, terrorists, Islam, oil, Turkey … And now (with this latest development), chemical weapons, UN, resolutions, weapons inspectors, arms, Russia, China, allies, USA, Obama, Hans Blix, intelligence and so on.

But what do I think about Syria?! To be honest, I know next to nothing about it, and what I do know, I only think I know. I’m not getting all philosophical, metaphysical about it or denying reality here, it’s just true.

So, I could say that the Western interests are forcing its hand to intervene in the ‘civil war’, and that the stability of oil supplies and wider business interests in the region is actually closer to the true motive for intervention than any humanitarian concern. But I have this niggling feeling that Syria (like Libya) are not huge sources of oil production, or tactically as important as say Iraq or Afghanistan. But I don’t know any of this, I can’t even cite my sources.

Another possibility is that our leaders really do ‘draw the line’ on the use of chemical weapons, as hypocritical as that seems to me. I could justify this idea though, because I can imagine how the rich and powerful could foster a twisted morality whereby the reasons and the scale by which you kill people become less important that the means by which you do so. A kind of honour-amongst-thieves scenario. Yes, we happily go around killing civilians, but with drones and missiles, not with gas. Etc..

But I can’t be sure, who can other than the handful of people making these decisions? And even then, if they are ‘convincing themselves’ in order to make the organised killing of humans more palatable to their conscience, how can we trust that there thinking is clear and reasonable?

Another problem is that I can find a counter claim to every accusation made by our leaders, simply be reading the retorts of the involved parties. When a spokesman from the Assad regime says this whole thing is a set-up by the West to draw them into conflict, why shouldn’t I believe them? I’m not saying I do, but it’s not like the CIA haven’t created or encouraged ‘trigger’ events before, so why shouldn’t we entertain the idea that they are doing it again? After all, if the regime don’t want to be bombed into tiny pieces by the West (and I’m guessing they don’t), why would they do the one thing that looks certain to guarantee it? It would almost make sense for the none-specific ‘rebels’ to stage this, in order to bring about this set of circumstances. But who knows? I don’t.

Given the thought process I’ve just briefly set out, are our MPs really able to make such informed choices? If they deny evidence produced by those who rule them and want war, would they not be branded unreasonable and risk losing the little power they have been allowed to keep?

If an answer is incompatible with any logical puzzle, it cannot be a solution to anything. A bit like ‘Jeopardy’, the American game show where the answer is stated and then the question must be guessed. But in this version, the question and answer must constitute a positive truth. So the answer could never be ‘a unicorn’, because the only question could be ‘name a mythical flying horse’, which would constitute a myth, a negative reality as such. For me, ‘war’ as we know it (not self-defence), will never be the answer to a positive reality question. It will never justify any possible question that can be asked. This is why no amount of thinking or debate, or evidence, should ever lead us logically to military intervention. Which leaves us only with other factors, less honourable intentions.

***

So that was my blog, but I decided to wait for the vote before posting it, and as I guess you know, our house of commons voted against any military action in Syria. Big hooray yeah? I think so, but then…

It was hard to fathom at first, as I sat listening to the live house of commons session. An amendment was made to the bill by Labour, specifically Ed Miliband, that called for a second vote at a later time once the weapons inspectors had actually finished their task of you know, inspecting weapons. I must admit at this point I was confused, having been out all day and only just sat down to hear the process, I wasn’t aware of the structure of debate. As far as I could tell, whatever happened, there would be a second vote after the UN had published its findings, which I thought was at least better for our elected representatives to make an informed choice.

So, as I listened, Nick (what-is-the-point-of-me) Clegg was defending/explaining (badly) how it would work if a second vote was needed, and quite rightly being questioned by a stream of confused MPs as to why a need for the first vote, if a second vote was going to happen anyway. As usual, the pointless voice of Clegg evaded and danced around the question, while constantly assuring them that the result of the first vote wouldn’t be taken as licence to act. So why the vote at all? I wondered, as did most of the house, it seems.

Then, the house withdrew to vote on the amended version, and the amendment was defeated. Immediately the house withdrew to vote on the original bill, and it was only at this point I started to grasp that this meant no second vote, if this was passed, we were as good as signing up for the conflict. I tried to reconcile why it was then that I had just heard Clegg defending Miliband’s own amendment to his own party members, but before I could unpick this, the vote came back and the original bill was also defeated! Cameron said one of the most clear things I have heard him say, that it was obvious the house didn’t want to take action and that he would therefore respect that, and that was that. No war!

But wait! Was this a victory for Miliband? Well, no. If his amended bill had of gone through, the vote for war would have happened again the next week, which by then, no doubt, plenty of ‘compelling’ evidence would have been compiled. So Miliband, Clegg and Cameron all had a position that led us to war/intervention, whatever you want to call it (killing people, basically). It was only the surprise overturning of both bills, by rebels in both parties I expect, that prevented all our leaders (opposition and all) from getting what they wanted. Conflict.

So now, am I meant to be happy with this? I get a suspicious shudder when I think that actual ‘democracy’ happened last week, because I have learned not to trust the power people, and now don’t know if I should just be happy, or wary. I’m certainly weary.

I can’t shake the feeling that something good happened, but that there will be repercussions. And I don’t mean, more chemical attacks etc… Conflict is conflict, solving it with conflict, that doesn’t add up. I mean, in our processes that allowed us to actually say ‘no’ this time. And then (the even more suspicious side of me) worries that this was engineered in order to show a glimmer of democratic control at a time when so much vile and damaging domestic policy is being shoe-horned in against the will of so many people, and no real opposition exists. But hey, at least we aren’t going to lob some missiles at another country right?

What has happened to me that makes me think everything our governments do is so suspicious? Even when it is something I want? Is it me? Is it paranoia?

No. I don’t think so. I am perfectly able to conceive of a world where the kind of inequalities I see, the kind that lead to conflict, disease and death, are not present. And in this world, the only factor that is different, is the lack of the ‘kind’ of people that are running things currently, and the systems that support them and that they utilise, i.e. massive financial backing. Sorry, MASSIVE FINANCIAL BACKING and access to machines of war, that just isn’t made available to the rest of us, because if it were, we just wouldn’t accept the lots we have been granted, across the world.

That’s what I think of Syria, I think. I hope that the suffering is alleviated by greater wisdom than we seem to posses at the moment. I hope that ‘Nobel peace prize’ Obama is defeated in his congress vote to happen soon, but I guess he won’t be. I hope we do not get consistent with the shame and pressure we should be pouring on all the leaderships of our democracy who tried so sneakily to dupe us into conflict, and that we stand up more often to be counted against the multitude of sins that are taking place both at home and abroad by people who would convince us they are helping us, while they are really feeding off us.

But then, I hope a lot of things.

 

We’re all in this together?

I’m sure you’ve heard the line ‘we’re all in this together’ before. It came from Cameron in 2011 and has since (quite rightly) been used as a stick to beat him with as every new divisive and top-heavy policy has been introduced.

Well I think we’ve been getting our assessment of this statement wrong. I think we erroneously assumed that when he said ‘we’ he meant, you, me, them, everybody, everybody… (cue the music). However, I think it’s much more likely that when he said ‘we’ he meant, the conservatives, the liberal democrats, labour, large swathes of the media and the business community, plus a few billionaire types. ‘We’ are not part of the ‘we’.

I am what you could call a ‘disillusionist’ – that is, I am disillusioned by the whole framework of this country (and others) and believe that to be a legitimate position in itself. Unfortunately there is no place in this democracy for people like me to have our say, as we are by our very nature, not interested in engaging with the people who currently run it and the systems that prop it up. Also, by the fact that our position crosses over with that of anarchists, we are easily attacked and dismissed.

For example, I don’t really want to vote for any party. No-one is saying the things I want to hear, given that I want to see a truly radical overhaul of the way things are done. Therefore, if I don’t vote, I am ‘apathetic’. I’m not. I am very engaged with this country, just not the people and business interests running it.

I want to see true redistribution and an end to speculative and destructive financial practices that benefit a few at the expense of the many. I believe this world has enough resources to support this vision. For that, I am called an ‘idealist’, which apparently is a bad word (probably because it has the word ‘idea’ in it). It may have other definitions, but for me it means that we can and should be better. We have the capacity to be so  much better. But those who mock ‘idealism’ are usually the people running the show, who either can’t or won’t think past the structures and restrictions we have placed on ourselves, and incidentally, do very well out of keeping the status quo.

I don’t believe that most, if any, of the wars we have started or supported, at least during my lifetime, have been necessary, and I have a strong suspicion that they have been motivated for the greater part by the acquisition and security of foreign resources for our own needs (and when I say ‘our’ I mean the western central banks, arms and energy trade etc. We suffer for wars, they profit). For this I am called unpatriotic, even though I appreciate the bravery of the armed forces, I just don’t want to see them dying for unjust reasons (or any, ideally).

When I have my ‘1984’ moment and see the mainstream media gradually ‘flip’ the news so that a financial crisis, caused by speculating investors and dodgy hedge fund schemes, turn into a ‘public services structural deficit’ and my reasonable brain starts thinking, hang on, we didn’t cause this, and every major political party seems to be going along with it, and the banks keep on going, and the bonuses keep on flowing, and trillions of currency is taken out of our countries and given to private companies, and we suffer – I am called a conspiracy theorist.

I can’t win really. I don’t want to try and ‘change’ the system from within, and even if I did, I doubt I’m the only person who thinks and feels like this, and I guess there must be a lot of people who have these thoughts and have tried to do this in the past. Where are they? Where are the voices in the system that say, “it’s not about percentages and statistics and interest rates and GDP and immigrants and benefits, it’s about you, it’s about those people who ‘benefit’ phenomenally from the system you maintain and uphold. How is taking £50 quid a week from a family who needs it going to compare to the trillions of unpaid tax sitting in offshore accounts? One persons unpaid tax could be our NHS, our schools. This whole system is corrupt.” – Where are those voices? I hear them in the streets, on the internet, but not in the media, not in the commons. So they either a) Don’t exist (unlikely given the times we live in) or b) try and fail to enter the system or c) try and are prohibited/blocked/blackmailed or threatened out of the system.

Have you seen the party funding from donors? You can download them. I did. (http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/party-finance/PEF-online-registers) Millions of pounds pumped into the parties by individuals and businesses/organisations. How can one person stand a chance unless they are the basically the mouthpiece for a vested interest? Even for the emerging parties, even for the old liberals, it is nigh impossible for them to ever get a majority because of the construct of our democracy. So one person, who has the answers, but doesn’t have the money, has no chance.

So, I just keep on watching, waiting for something I can get behind that doesn’t smack of compromise or appeasement, and actually seems to represent this view*. In the meantime, I continue in this country, this world, much as everyone else does. Yes, there is always someone worse off, but why should we aim for the lowest common denominator? Where is the evidence that this world won’t continue to work without people doing dead-end low paid jobs for their entire lives in order to satisfy some bond-holder or investor? But that’s what we are told needs to happen so that the little green arrow behind the newsreader can point up and we can ogle over some decimal points while all around us the services are being strangled, the poor are getting poorer, the sick are killing themselves to avoid the misery of enforced work or destitution. We are told by rich people to work in poor jobs (spiritually and financially) and live poorer lives than they do, and we take it.

If you are spiritual, then you should aim higher for yourself and others, if you are atheist, then you should live by your mantra that this in ‘one life to be used’ and not accept this one spark of existence to be subdued and dimmed by others. Because we are all in it together, we physically exist in this space and time, and those few people who cling to wealth and power need to be brought back into the fold with the rest of us so that we can move on from this ridiculous situation they have put us in and start looking after ourselves and each-other in a balanced and fair world. And if you say things like that, they call you a hippy. Good. I’d rather be a hippy than a greedy, power crazed bastard any day.

* A common response to this argument is ‘well, what’s the alternative?’ – Well, I honestly believe that it is enough in itself to simply express concern with how things are now, so that people can come together and start figuring out the alternative. Most people don’t have the time and resources to dedicate to writing manifesto’s and canvassing others opinions within the current system, so it is paradoxical to expect them to have done this. Let’s start with the ‘no suitable candidate’ box, or true power of recall for our MPs and see how quickly the system collapses anyway unless they make genuine changes. Let’s start dedicating some air time to the many groups who have devised alternative social models and hear what they have to say first. But to do this, we need first to know that it is us who are in control of our our future, and not the defenders of the old guard, even if the current system has to continue for some time in the interim.

The ‘C’ Word.

No, not that one (but I got your attention yes?). I mean the other ‘C’ word that for some has almost the same connotation: Conspiracy.

Before I get started, I would urge anyone who has an instinctive negative reaction to the ‘c’ word to read on, regardless of any existing prejudice. To dismiss it at this point would defeat the purpose of me trying to discuss the subject in a balanced way and engage with both sides of the issue. It is hard to declare a position or talk about such matters when the received view of this type of thinking is that it should be mocked and ridiculed. So please, don’t receive a view, at least for the next few minutes as you read on, instead disseminate my ramblings and form a view of your own, even if this ends up being the same as the one you started with. Thank you.

This isn’t a formal philosophy essay, so I have no problem declaring a position of my own before I really get into things. I am open minded. I don’t seek out conspiracy theories (I’m not a regular visitor to those website and such like), but I do know people who tell me interesting things, and I may occasionally go and check them out to see what I think for myself. It’s not much of a position, but I still think it preferable to being totally closed to something that is evidently important to a vast number of people. Therefore, as I am interested in people and what they think, and the state of the world and how we live and donate authority etc… I am more inclined to listen and make up my own mind than I am to mock those with ‘alternative’ views.

And that’s the nub of this article really. I’m not here to condemn or condone any individual conspiracy theory, as for one, that would be an almost impossible task, there being as many theories as there are opinions. I am not here either to convince those who are opposed to such things to change their mind. I am here to point out a few broad thoughts that I think should be of interest to both sides, and if this leads to anyone having new and distinct thoughts of their own, then that is always a good thing.

Now, the definition of a conspiracy is:

“A secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful” or the much more vague, “action of plotting or conspiring” (Google).

So we need to separate this real definition from the connotations it brings with it. For many, the definition of a conspiracy theorist  probably runs along the lines of:

“A tin foil hat wearing lunatic who believes the Queen is a lizard and Elvis lives on the moon and that 9/11 was an inside job, these people’s opinions are of no note or concern whatsoever.”

Hands up if that’s your definition? I know it must be some people’s because I encounter this all the time, in life, in the media etc… Well, let me offer a more balanced definition:

“A person who believes that there may be groups that have a secret plan to do something unlawful or harmful.”

That definition doesn’t seem so inflammatory, and it is strictly limited to the definitions of the words ascribed to them. So, on the face of it, is it reasonable for anybody to think that there may be any groups of people hatching plots to do something unlawful or harmful?

Now don’t get concerned if there is one over-arching group of people, you know, the ‘illuminati’, that’s not important. What is important is that we know, and can identify, at least the first part of the definition – i.e. groups that meet in secret. By secret I don’t mean wearing hoods, I mean there is no published, accessible minutes or information available about their meetings. So, let’s quickly list some examples of things that have happened recently that were not meant to be common knowledge and so, supposedly, took place in ‘secret’ to some degree:

(to give these stories the credibility that some desire, I have added links to BBC articles that support them – also, I am not commenting on the validity of these cases or otherwise)

1. The ‘Prism’ data gathering project as leaked by Edward Snowden.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22836378

2. The documents and footage of alleged war crimes leaked by Bradley Manning

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22749745

3. Alleged use of under-cover police to spy on and discredit the family of Stephen Lawrence

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23026324

4. Payments between the media and senior officials for private information (as revealed in the Leveson inquiry)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17173438

5. A high level cover up of pertinent details concerning the events at Hillsborough

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19610226

6. A cover up in the NHS around baby death rates

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22980803

7. Politicians ludicrous expenses claims

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/uk_politics/2009/mps’_expenses/default.stm

8. HSBC money laundering for Mexican drug cartels (and now it seems, Argentina)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-21840052

9. The whole host of banking practices that led to the 2008 crash and continue today (that we are only now starting to suggest should result in prosecution, like that will ever happen)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22382932

10. The questionable intelligence reports that led us into what is now widely considered to have been an illegal occupation of Iraq.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3661134.stm

So you can see, I’m not treading into the more contentious issues here, I’m just spelling out some of the well reported cases that we are told about due to one reason or the other (usually a kind of ‘critical mass’ point where it must just become impossible to maintain the lie, or due to very brave and selfless whistle-blowers). And these are just a handful that I can think of without consulting the internet or looking further.

As all these examples were not intended to be known about, there must have been at the core, a ‘secret’ group who did know about it, and tried to keep it that way. These may well be bespoke groups, formed by incident and circumstance, but by association, they definitely form a unit. Did they intend to do something unlawful or harmful as per the definition? Well, in most cases, they started by doing something unlawful or harmful, and then chose to try and evade discovery.

This may not be the earth-shattering revelations that you may hear from certain quarters of the conspiracy community, and I know some people go a lot further in their interpretation of events, which can often harm the credibility of what they are trying to say. What I would point out is that by matter of degree, if these things are known about, and as serious as they are, then the next one is only ever around the corner and is happening right now. So yes, some people may go too far with the conclusions they draw, but is it any wonder they are asking the questions?

Before the proliferation of the internet, the global financial crisis, the riots and uprisings around the world, the word ‘conspiracy’ was usually ascribed to the likes of UFOs and Elvis etc… But now, perhaps not surprisingly, it is about global banking corporations giving dictates to sovereign countries and stealing their wealth. Political parties that seem more interested in removing civil liberties and rewarding private companies and wealthy individuals for helping them to do so, and about the bastardisation of our food supply and ruthlessness of our pharmaceutical companies. Oh yeah, and fabricated intelligence to lead us into illegal wars.

I would argue that it is a self fulfilling phenomenon. There are conspiracy theorists, because there are conspiracies. To believe there is not would be extremely naive. But where is the demarcation point? The people I meet who scoff at the idea, would accept the cases I raised earlier I’m sure (being generally intelligent and well reasoned people). So it’s time for a good old analogy.

Think of the conspiracy community like the fashion industry. No-one really wants to wear the outlandish outfits that are hung on human-skeletons and teetered up and down the cat walks, but it is seen as the bench-mark of imagination and flare that will ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the market in a derivative way. Small features and elements of the designs may work their way into every-day fashion and accessories as a result of a few people taking the practice to its extreme. It is the same with the world of conspiracy. A few determined people are stretching the bounds of imagination to allow us to explore the possibility that all may not be right with the world, and in many cases, though perhaps not as dramatic or extreme as they may have originally purported, we see evidence that things like that do happen, and eventually, these derivative claims become substantiated and accepted.

At the core of these inquiries however, are some very sound principles:

1. The huge inequalities in the world.

– There is no secret about this, we all know they exist but we are relatively happy as long as it isn’t happening on our doorstep (we may be morally repulsed, but distance is a great healer). We can look at parts of Africa and feel sorry for them. They have drought, disease, oppressive regimes and what not. However, they do also have vast tracks of land owned by Western countries who prevent them being self sufficient, destroy their way of life and sell them back the products they produce at a higher price than they can afford. (ref: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17099348). The point to be made here is, there are huge avoidable inequalities in the world, so if they are avoidable, why are they are still happening? Business interests? Most likely. Does this constitute a conspiracy?

2. There are people making a lot of money in the world for doing nothing.

– Again, no secret here. By ‘nothing’ I would add the words ‘of value’ to make this clear. Yes, some people may do the arduous task of pressing buttons or making a phone-call, or employing someone else to press buttons and make phone calls, in order to speculate and gain massively on stock and money markets, but this adds no value to the world and over inflates the cost of fuel, food, medicine and other resources. Someone speculating on a stock doesn’t go down to the warehouse to inspect it, take an interest in the company, have a passion for the benefits it will bring, declare a moral interest. No, they see numbers on a screen, and the better return, for the least effort and cost, the more attractive the prospect. Is this a conspiracy? Well, when you think that we are suffering self-imposed austerity measures which, lest we forget, derived from the global financial crisis of 2008 and not from public spending, then why exactly are we allowing ourselves to be subjected to these measures because some super rich people made some dodgy deals? Do you remember the sentiment of 2008? We were ready to put them in prison, the bankers, the traders who caused this, but now we seem happy to be paid less, to pay more, to be less secure, less educated, less socially mobile, to lose our jobs, to lose our rights, to lose our benefits… and not one banker or politician responsible for overseeing the system went to prison? Whatever the reasons, this just doesn’t add up in a reasonable world, and the scary thing is, we seem to have gradually accepted the semantic shift from ‘global financial crisis/bank bailout’ to ‘structural deficit’ & ‘public spending savings’. When did this language change, and when did we adopt it? And why do we accept it?

Both of these reasons, which are pretty fundamental, cause people to suffer, for harm to befall them. And in both cases, you can easily draw parallels to the prosperity of a few companies/organisations. For me, these are enough to demonstrate why we have conspiracy theories, that, by matter of degree derive from easily observed truths. However, because of the tendency to ‘go further’ in such matters, some theorists ruin their chances at being taken seriously on such matters by the majority. They do the governments and businesses a favour by adding conjecture and speculation to the debate and effectively debunk themselves before they get started. They must love it, the people who benefit from all the misery in the world, when they hear something like:

“I believe there is a conspiracy between the FDA and Monsanto to prevent people growing their own food and to patent nature by only allowing GM crops to be sown…”

… at this point, someone somewhere may well be thinking, oh dear. Until…

“… and that nano-technology in these crops is going to re-programme our hormone levels and make us more malleable to hypnotic trigger words hidden in broadcasts…”

And that’s where the credibility suddenly disappears, and the man in the suit lights up another cigar and carries on. Because here we see the move from observations and reasonable assumptions, to speculation and (what some will term) fantasy. I just made that last example up, and maybe (because anything is possible) there are schemes in the world as ridiculous sounding as this which are true. But people have been programmed to want evidence for these things. And when I say programmed, I mean by a culture of thinking and inquiry that has dominated our view of knowledge for centuries – empiricism. This doesn’t make it right, but it is the default for the majority and without it, they will turn their heads, make silly gestures about you, and do nothing.

I tend to conclude with a plea for tolerance and reason, and individual thought, and this is no different. For the people who readily mock the conspiracy theorists, consider this:

Even if you think they are wrong or even deluded about some things, in general they are just observing injustices in the world and trying to find out why we allow this to happen. Give them that modicum of respect and credibility if nothing else and don’t accept the world as presented just because someone else may go too far (in your opinion) in pointing this out. Maybe it is as simple as business interests, bribery and corruption that lead to a lot of the problems we see in the world, but does that make it alright? Can you not see why some people would have concern for the world and its people and want to get to the bottom of it all?

And for the theorists:

Many people are looking for reasons to discredit and doubt you. Try not to give them that reason. The injustices you stand against are reason enough to raise awareness, the leap into speculation and complex, divisive theories, deters peoples from engaging with the underlying issues and taking them seriously. Until you get people on board and demanding answers to the basic problems that are evident, it is hard to see how progress will be made.

So there we are. I hope, my opinion goes some way towards reasons for us to all move closer together rather than further apart, even if respectful distance is maintained.

I can but hope.

To lend or not to lend, is that even the question?

Before I get started, just so you know, I’m not an economist. Therefore, like most of you, I pretty much rely on one man, the BBC business/economics editor, Robert ‘The Drawl’ Peston, for all of my information about economics in this country.

This morning Robert told me (via Radio 4 – he wasn’t in my house, I don’t think), that we have somewhat of a conundrum in the banking world. The government want banks to lend to businesses and ‘the economy’ again, but simultaneously they also want them to hold higher ‘tier 1 capital ratio’s’ in line with BASEL III recommendations of around 7%.

You got that? Good, because here is the tricky part… The two banks that have been lending and meeting the governments targets, namely Barclays and Nationwide (which isn’t strictly a bank, but never mind) are now going to get penalised by the regulators for not holding the requisite 7% of capital against the loan books, and now have a ‘shortfall’ of capital… Oh no! Double oh no! Triple oh no!

Here’s the stickler, the best way for banks to hold the capital is by not lending. But we want them to lend, and we also want them to hold capital. Robert says, (and he makes clear this is in no way a criticism of politicians) that this is contradictory.

Thank God, or if you prefer, the purely random complexity of life to emerge out of just one of an infinite number of universes, for Robert Peston! Without him we would surely be ignorant. For now we know the two choices that face the economy, to lend, or not to lend, but is that really the question?

As I said, I’m not an economist. Thank God, of if you prefer… etc. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a profession that gets itself caught in incompatible binary choices and still can’t see the utter pointlessness of its existence. Let’s put it like this, have you ever played Sudoku? I’m going to presume ‘yes’ or that you are at least aware of it. Now this may seem obvious to you seasoned players, but I used to think with Sudoku that if you arrived at a point where you had only two possible numbers in several boxes, and were unable to eliminate any others, you were faced with a choice. One or the other, and then see what happens. I was really pleased to (only recently) find out strategies that, although complicated, avoid you ever having to make a random choice in Sudoku. I still haven’t mastered them all yet, but I’m getting there.

Now imagine playing Sudoku where you were left with two choices, and there was no process you could follow, or any amount of computer analysis that could tell you for sure which number to go with. Now imagine that even if you chose either numbers, they could still inevitably fail, and no correct answer could ever be obtained. I think you would agree that it would constitute a rather poor, frustrating and pointless game.

Well, it is my opinion (remember, not an economist) – that the economy and the financial systems of this world are exactly that. A Sudoku puzzle that cannot be solved. We’ve been at it for years, but now it has come to the crunch. Two numbers in a box, and no reason to choose one over the other, as both make the solution invalid.

For the philosopher Thomas Kuhn, this would constitute a ‘paradigm’ that has been fully inhabited and rigidly defined by its architects, defended strongly by its adherents, and been more-or-less suitable for our purposes to a point. However, as Kuhn described with science and political structures, the dogmatic adherence to this paradigm will reach a revolutionary phase, where the underlying errors in its foundations and principles can no longer be ignored as they are causing catastrophic problems that can’t be reconciled.

An easy way to demonstrate this (courtesy of Open University author Jon Pike)  is with astronomy. For centuries we relied on a geo-centric model of the solar system (placing the Earth at the centre) which was fundamentally wrong. However, the principles were still sufficient to enable steady progress in navigation techniques and solve celestial puzzles. Eventually, over hundreds of years, as our needs became more complex and our techniques more advanced, little inaccuracies began to form and adjustments were made to the calculations. But the underlying false premise remained, and as real-world problems occurred in navigation and astronomical calculations, the opponents to the system, who had until that point been branded idiots or even heretic’s, were finally able to supplant the old system, firmly placing the sun at the centre of the solar system. And lo! Suddenly all the little errors were rectified by the truth of the new system, and humanity made a great leap forwards.

So it is that we have arrived at the same point with the current financial system. There is a false premise somewhere which unless removed and the whole framework restructured, will constantly prevent us from progressing. My guess (not an economist remember) is that this flawed premise lies in whatever function of the system also causes the huge wealth inequalities in this world by granting those with vast resources the ability to exponentially increase said resources via trading on loans/debts etc… I think that buying money to make money, with money that never existed, sounds like a pretty damn ridiculous concept that benefits a few people with access to such scams, and depresses everyone else.

But I’m not an economist, so what do I know? Maybe Robert Peston will wake me up one morning (not literally – look, I don’t live with Peston ok?), and say:

“The problem with the IMF’s plan to demand more capital ratio’s from the banks while stimulating the economy and avoiding further rounds of quantitative easing from the BOE is that they are the dogmatic defender’s of a paradigm based on a flawed premise and we need a revolutionary shift in how we structure and distribute resources if this world is ever going to progress to a more enlightened and equal age of shared prosperity.”

If he ever did say that, I would probably ask him to move in with me, but alas, I fear such words will never slowly drone out of his lips and through my radio to my anxious ears. You see the problem with a ‘paradigm shift’ is that those who have made a profession out of the current system will defend it, as it is in their interests to do so. This is why the mainstream media does not give us an accurate enough picture of the world, because it rejects the possibilities of alternatives that could render its expertise redundant. Not that it doesn’t have a place, it certainly does, but we need to think about and explore alternatives to all sorts of accepted truths that are actually just abstract concepts of our own device, able to be revised and replaced when they become unworkable and damaging to equality, which I would argue ‘economics’ certainly and irrefutably has.

But I’m not an economist, so what do I know?

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-22983363 (Peston on Barclays/Nationwide)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn – (A good starting point on Kuhn and his philosophy)

The slippery slopes of privacy and data.

“If you haven’t done something wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.”

We’ve all heard that right? When there’s a debate or a scandal happening about privacy or identity, like the emerging saga of the ‘Prism’ systems in the USA that have been harvesting our private data and allegedly been giving access to our intelligence services, thereby circumnavigating the legal process we have in this country for access to private data.

It seems like such a straightforward rebuke, a simple piece of logic. If you haven’t done anything wrong, or are not planning to do something wrong, then why should you be worried about the idea of the state accessing your private communications? At the end of the day, all they are going to find is that your ‘data’ is innocuous, innocent interactions about your daily life, of no consequence to national security.

The problem, for the unthinking who take this view, is that what we decided is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to the state, and whether we are subject to the authority of each and every law, is one of the oldest and most highly debated topics of philosophy, because it is one of the oldest and most highly debated issues that exists in humanity as we know it. Questions like, “why should we obey the state?”, “Who gave them authority over us (and when)?”, “When did I agree to these conditions and give my consent?” are as old as Plato and beyond.

And they are very important questions that lead to very interesting, if not clear, answers. In the example of ‘Prism’ and its fight against terrorism by harvesting our data, a few imaginary scenarios should start to highlight the problem.

The first one I will call ‘The Extreme Inheritor’ problem. Simply put, at some point at a future election, an extreme party manages to secure power. By extreme, I mean a party that has hard-line views. They may have only been voted in on one issue, but now they are in control of the whole state functions. And what do they inherit? An infrastructure that allows them to gather, filter and view all our correspondences on all our various online interactions. How will they use this data? Even if we believe the current administration to be a fair and just custodian of this information, only using it for the kind of threats we agree with, how can we be sure the new keepers will do the same? They may want to search out sympathisers who stand against their extreme view (which by matter of degree, given their position, is highly likely), and bring sanctions against them. They may have a very different concept of justice than you do, and what you thought was right and wrong before, has become inverted or has significantly shifted.

The next ramification could be a ‘Temptation Shift in the Custodians’. In this scenario, the existing administration discover, naturally, the new powers available to them, the scope and possibilities that it brings. Now that they can conceive of and examine the new options that arise from the powers granted to them, they are at least aware of the possibilities. To find a suitable analogy, suspend your beliefs, or lack of, and think of it as a ‘road to paradise’ that we discover, but we also find that it runs through all the temptations of hell. Do we trust the current leaders to not give into the temptations, now they travel so close to them and are in touching distance? How long can they travel down the long road with the whispering demons promising spoils and temptations in such close proximity? Would it not have been better to find a road that does not run this way at all, or if unavoidable, only runs past hell on the least occasions? Even if this road is shorter, is it worth the risk?

The third and final possibility is the ‘bribery, threats and collusion problem’. I have seen defenders of this invasion of privacy making comments like “If the government look into my online communications, they will probably knock on my door and tell me to get a life!”. Basically saying that the majority of us live such dull and uninteresting lives that there can be no value in any data gathered. Who would care that you were visiting your elderly relative that day? Or that you have a new partner? Or that you work for a cheese factory? On the face of it, this data may seem innocuous enough, supposing that you believe your life will forever not be of worth, that the world may never change around you, and that you will never be in a position to be bribed or threatened. Say however, something does change (heaven forbid), and you become aware of some corporate negligence that had led to the deaths of your colleagues, and you wish to report this. If there was an interested party who would prefer you not to, they now know your family arrangements, your loved ones who you hold dear, and the extent to which you would go to protect them. This is a small example, and you may think, not very likely. But as we don’t know the future, as terrible things happen naturally and by design, to think ‘it will never happen to me’ is just ignorance. It may never happen to you, but I warrant that anyone can be in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ regardless of how boring a life they aspire to lead.

The objections I imagine, will be made along the lines of ‘checks and balances’. Some agents, above moral corruption, will conceive and enforce measures in order to prevent the powers being abused. Yes, we may sail close to the rocks, but a ‘reliable navigator’ will make sure we never stray too far. This objection has at least two faults.

In the case of the ‘Extreme Inheritor’, remaining with the nautical theme, we would have to rely on the mutineers who have now taken over the ship, maintaining the ‘reliable navigator’. The likelihood of this is as unclear as the agenda of any group we can imagine taking power in the future. Most, if not all, administrations usually start their terms in power by making any constitutional shifts to the frameworks they operate within, usually in order to favour themselves and their causes. Often these changes, concerning as they do a host of specific and convoluted legal and bureaucratic decree’s, go unnoticed by the general electorate, and like most decisions, are not passed by referendum. It is easy to imagine the extreme inheritor blatantly or subtlety removing the checks and balances that were designed to prevent them abusing powers.

The second objection to the ‘reliable navigator’ in the case of the ‘Temptation shift of the custodians’ practically runs along the same lines as the first, though may be less dynamic and as a result more subtle as the temptation shifts towards the new position. I would argue that this is the most likely and most worrying scenario, as unlike the ‘extreme inheritor’, a shift of this sort would necessarily be made gradually and secretly, so as to maintain custody of the powers without protest. The aim would be to almost imperceptibly degrade or transform the role of the ‘reliable navigator’ over time, until it is now only reliably navigating us down a route we didn’t originally want to follow.

A further objection would be the case of ‘statutory underpinning’ or something similar, that aims to ensure that no succeeding government can tinker or change the operations and positions of the ‘reliable navigator’. To make them ‘locked out’ like black-box technology, a kind of immovable and unchangeable moral foundation to wit all future humanity must adhere to. To this I would say that we are over-reaching our temporal influence. To imagine we can set dictates now for the future of humanity, that will last as truth beyond such a time as our own generations have long since perished, is an absurd notion. To put in motion a boulder down a mountain because we live at the top and our villages are well clear of it, when we have no knowledge of the life in the slopes below, is irresponsible, presuming you have any concern for the future of our race.

To briefly bring this back to the real world examples, we also have questions of security versus commercial interests. The material gathered about our lives will undoubtedly be of great commercial value to private enterprise. You may not be concerned about receiving tailor made adverts to your desktop based on your browsing habits (as happens already), but even so, what if this data sheds enough light on our group habits as to allow price-fixing models and the distortion of the market beyond what we already endure now? This is more a case for political science that philosophy, but it is worth mentioning here as another example of unforeseen consequences.

I hope here to have shown the folly of adopting the ‘greater security means less liberty’ argument by highlighting what high risks such a statement, at least in this case, could lead to – namely a reduction both in security and liberty. It has too great a capacity to be ultimately self-defeating and we should not set such a risky precedent. If it has already began, as it seems to have been, it should be reversed immediately before these risks can be manifest.

Of the Benefits of Crisis

There is an important question that should cross the mind of anyone who makes a departure from a particular career after a significant amount of your life has been given to it: Have I just avoided a mid-life crisis, or am I heading towards one? I had this thought last night, a bit drunk, while smoking and looking at the stars as usual. I should request here that those who say that 31 is hardly ‘mid-life’ to put semantics aside for the purposes of this article… you get my meaning.

A few months ago I finally left employment at the bank I had worked at for about ten years. It was a job that I had originally taken as an agency worker in my very early twenties after dramatically leaving my job at a pub due to differences in opinion (I thought the landlady was a nosy drunk, she didn’t). Before working at the pub I had been placed in several factory/warehouse jobs by agencies, so this time I wanted to try something that a) required greater use of my brain, and b) had somewhere to sit. So I decided to try and get a job in an office. At the time I had no inkling that I could turn my skills as a musician into a paying enterprise, and writing was still just an occasional hobby. I just wanted some money so that I could live for a bit and see what happened. The agency took some persuading, usually when I asked for office work they would nod, stare blankly, tell me that they would have a look, and then send me to a factory in the meantime. But eventually I got in at Britannia Building Society in Leek and was able to don my old school black trousers and shoes (literally, that’s not a fashion comment), pull on an ill-fitting work shirt (having fluctuated in weight by two stones since I had last bought any) and head to my new office job where they had computers and everything.

For the first two months I was put in a documents store room and spent all day on my feet filing miscellaneous paperwork into mortgage deeds. We had one chair between three of us, no windows and no supervision. It was just like being at a factory again, but eventually, after what seemed to be some kind of sadistic trial period, they let me upstairs to hit keys on computers and move paper around. They soon found, as did I, that I’m quite good at hitting keys on computers and moving bits of paper around. I was also quite good at telling other people what keys to hit and where the paper needed to be moved to, so I moved relatively quickly into a job where I helped to figure out what keys needed pressing, and even designed some of the bits of paper that got moved around.

I can’t say I enjoyed it, in fact, I pretty much hated it. I even grew to miss the honesty of putting cups in boxes, because it was a clear and distinct task that had some merit and needed doing. Most of the work at the bank, especially when I got involved in projects, was reactionary and unnecessary. It could have been done by the computers if they would just spend the time and money. But apart from that, it was just so damn false and I quickly learned how much emphasis was put on advertising and internal propaganda. They wanted us to whistle while we worked (not literally), to be ‘on-board’ and ‘with the programme’ – we were quite often told that if we didn’t agree with the bank’s ‘values’ we should leave (all very well and good coming from an exec who pockets over a million pounds each year… it’s easy to hold values with that kind of incentive). But I persevered, I panicked but did nothing, I threw my efforts outside of work into a relationship which eventually broke down, and then I had my first quarter life crisis.

I say a quarter life crisis because I must have been 25 at the time, so although it’s unlikely I will see 100, again, you get the meaning. As I found myself moving back home, a shadow of a possible life left behind me, I laid a lot of blame at the feet of my job. I had thrown myself into work, going for interviews, moving up the ladder slightly, bringing home the pay and bonuses. I had convinced myself that was what was required when I moved in with my girlfriend. I had a household to support etc… all that protestant work ethic crap which was somehow engrained in me (and still is to an extent – it’s that feeling of guilt you get when not being productive). But it made me unhappy, creatively starved and frustrated. That probably wasn’t the reason the relationship ended, but my retrospection found it the easiest thing to target as something I could do something about. I couldn’t do anything about the failed relationship, that was over, and I was determined not to slide into self-pity and destruction (I had done that before and it wasn’t pretty for a while). So I took the big, bold step of… going part-time. It doesn’t sound like much, but I was determined to carve out some space to figure out what I wanted to do. As quite often happens when you come out of a situation, I rediscovered a lot of my friends were still there, waiting to be supportive (I’m very lucky in that respect), and things started to happen. I moved to Leek with a friend and we set up a music production business, I got involved in organising events, I restarted my education with the open university and started to write, I lived by myself for a year (everyone should try it), I got engaged, I joined a band, I moved in with my fiancé, and then, last of all, after ten years of waiting for the right moment, I gave up the day job.

That was three months ago now. February 2013. Throughout all the changes I had continued to work for the bank, partly because I still didn’t have the confidence to give it up, but mainly because for the last three years there was the possibility of redundancy and walking away with a reasonable sum of money (due to the take-over by wool-clad wolf, the Co-op – see https://garryabbott.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/ethical-alternative-my-guide-to-the-coop/). Eventually that possibility, though still hanging in the air as a remote distant chance, was denied to me. While others around me were losing jobs they wanted to keep, I couldn’t get rid of mine. I tried my best to argue the senselessness of this to the powers that be, even ending up face to face with my ‘big boss’ and telling him what I thought of the way they did things, but it didn’t make a difference. Perhaps I had showed my cards too often, threatened to leave just one too many times, because they wouldn’t cut me loose. Why would you give me money to go when I quite obviously wanted to leave anyway? That’s the corporate way. Despite all the work and energy I had given them for ten years, despite the moving of the ground from beneath our feet as one lot of corporate clowns took over the running of our lives from another bunch, that path was not open.

And so, after a few sleepless nights and the flaring up of every ailment in my mind and bodies repertoire of stress-induced warning signs, I gave it up. It was not very dramatic in the end. I told them I was going to leave, they did the paperwork, and within a couple of weeks (thanks to stored up holidays), I walked out of the building for the last time, with the sun and the chatter of open-office politics behind me. I was overwhelmed for a minute or two as I drove away, laughing tears, and then I was back to normal. I waited a few weeks for the reality to kick in, but it already had. All I had now was what I made of it, all I have now is what I make of it.

So the point of this blog is, have I just gone avoided a mid-life crisis or am I walking straight into one? And I hope to make this appraisal global enough for this blog to be of value to anyone else reading who has or might be thinking the same thing, otherwise I’d just be sharing with you chapters from my life, which is not my intention.

One of my nightmares as a teenager was ending up like ‘Ernold Same’, the eponymous character from the Blur song over which Ken Livingstone drones this monologue:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror
Made the same frown
And felt the same way he did every day,
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to him the same old what’s his name
On his way to the same place to do the same thing
Again and again, poor old Ernold Same.

– ‘Ernold Same’, Blur.(The Great Escape, 1995)

                So if turning away from a day job at a bank, in which I sat in the same chair, next to the same people, doing the same things, again and again, the same drive to work, the same canteen, the same coffee machine, the same pot plants, the same meetings, the same screens, the same problems and the same solutions, the same frustrations, the same politics, the same building, has made me a little less like Ernold Same, and a crisis that is, then a crisis is certainly a good thing and I would urge anyone considering having one to go for it.

If on the other hand, the crisis is forthcoming, and this is a temporary stop-gap where everyday my work is what I make it, be it writing music for high-street companies, writing stories, writing scripts, writing scores for original films, writing blogs, or whatever else I choose to do, then what a crisis the next one will be! Is it possible that one crisis will cancel out another and I could end up back at a desk in an office? Not if I have anything to do with it, not unless the work that takes place in that office is  creative and/or for the benefit of those who need it (the moral-void of bank work is a strong motivator to express yourself and help others). So now, as a fledgling self-employed person, with all the uncertainty that brings, not knowing if the last paid job was literally my last paid job, having to try and pick my opportunities from everything I am capable of and convince others of that capability, a crisis would surely be a good development. I mean, the last two crises I’ve had started my desire to educate myself further and produce original work, and have given me the opportunity to do so. What will be next? So far, I’ve had only net gain from crises, the only thing that was ever holding me back was not instigating one in the first place.

I say, if you are heading towards a crisis, at whatever stage in your life, bring it on! It is a creative act and we are creative creatures. It is decision and action, and those are attributes we are blessed with. Aristotle said that our capacity for reason was the objective of human-life, and that only aiming for mere survival like plants and beasts is to not fulfil our humanity. So let’s not be plants, not just now, maybe another life-time if you believe in that kind of thing, but not now. Let’s greet crisis with open arms, because it means something is about to change, and change is the only way we can create (there was only ever one truly creative act in this Universe, and no one really knows how that came about, we just work with what we’ve got).

So in answer to my own question, I think I have both gone through a crisis, and am heading towards my next one, and I hope that is always the case.  For others, and I do not mean to undermine the choices people make, some people genuinely do want to work for a bank or other such industries and that’s fine (though I wager most people don’t), but if you are becoming a bit ‘samey’ and you wonder where that feeling of wasted time and senselessness is coming from and what, if anything, you can do about it, instigate a crisis of your own. So far, the evidence tells me, they can be very good things, if you have control (which of course we all do, though it may not seem that way). There is a fundamental truth in here somewhere, even if the crisis comes to you and seems negative, there is nothing you can do about the past, there is only how we choose to appraise and move on from it to the future by choosing the present moment by moment. That is not a wishy-washy, motivational sound-bite, it is just a statement of fact. I certainly don’t feel that I have ‘made it’ yet, and the anxiety of self-employment is a formidable foe (this article is just one round in the fight against it), but I’m definitely on the right ladder now, which is a start.