Archive for August, 2010


August 25, 2010 7 comments

I saw a government minister today on the news.  He was defending something that I really think is truly unethical. And what’s worse, he was defending it in a completely unethical way.  Rather than being honest, which I would say generally is an ethical way to behave, he lied.  But furthermore, he actually believed his own lies. He was arguing that an institute of fiscal studies report, which shows that the new government’s first budget will hit the poorest hardest, was wrong.  They got it wrong.  ‘but’ Jon Snow says, ‘we work with the IFS regularly and they never get it wrong.’ ‘oh well, they didn’t look at the whole picture’ he says.  And then goes on to tell an incredulous Jon S how the budget isn’t hurting the poorest people in this country by cutting their tax relief, their benefits, and so on. The IFS says the budget is regressive on almost every fair measure.

No wonder Nick Clegg is looking so bemused.  He, just like the minister Jon S interviewed, believes the lie too.  He has made himself believe it because he has convinced himself he has too much to lose.

In an interview with Channel 4 Clegg said 
”That [the budget] is a plan for real fairness, that is progressive and I think that is a richer understanding of what fairness is about than a single snapshot, that doesn’t – that simply doesn’t – provide the full picture of what we’re trying to do over the coming months and years.”

But why lie? Because being honest would be admitting that the whole project of this government an attempt to be even more radical than Thatcher ever dared to be.

But why not just say that they want to be radical in the way that they really are being radical?  I suppose they are afraid that voters will be disgusted.  I don’t know, because I really think most people don’t care that their society is being undermined right in front of them.  We are all too medicated and self-obsessed to care.  But when we do care it will be too late.  I really wonder how Clegg sleeps at night.

The Prime Minister calls the coalition programme ‘a radical policy programme’. Francis Maude spells it out nicely:

The Economist calls the UK ‘The West’s test tube’, i.e. where we go, other countries may have to follow. We are an experiment, to see how far a government can go in ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’.

Cuts Cuts Cuts!  Cut the public sector!  Get rid of waste!  Stop those workshy poor people from exploiting the system!  The state MUST shrink! It is going to be tough, they always say, it’s going to hurt, but it will be good for us, and it’s the only way.  Things can’t go on like this! Etc, etc.  How many times has Clegg looked at us, the people who voted him into power (well I didn’t vote for him, but you know what I mean) and told us that it is going to be tough, that it will hurt?  Many times.  As for Cameron, he doesn’t care.  He’s loaded. The economic cutbacks will never hurt them.

Of course, the state must shrink because the economic system in which we live, capitalism, requires it to shrink in order that it can have free reign.  The state protects people from the worst excesses of capitalism.

But the argument has been, from the 18th Century onwards, the market is best left alone to do what it needs to do.  The market, if it is free enough, will raise people out of poverty.  It will create wealth!  I really am no economist, but this sounds rather ropey to me.  Marx was one of the first people to spot this ridiculous lie – ‘the market’ is not some extra-human entity with a life of it’s own, it arises from human action, or as Marx would say, production.  Experiments in minimising the state and allowing capitalism to do it’s thing unfettered have not gone that well.  Russia in the 90s.  Iraq. Thatcherite Britain in the 80s.  Horrific.  Something died in this country in the 80s.  A sense of community and solidarity.  As certain industries were killed off, so were communities which still suffer from the excesses of Thatcher’s ideological push to the golden future of a truly free market.   I would say that we are very lucky in this country to have a wonderful welfare system, NHS, free education system, and all the rest of it.  I do not want Mr Cameron et al getting their way and going further than Thatcher.  I will fight them and I think you should do too.

of course Cameron the multi millionaire won’t suffer as the state shrinks.  It’s the poorest who suffer and eventually it will be everyone and this is going to happen right here and now, if we let it.

Interestingly, a condition of autism is that one is unable to sympathise with others.  Have a look at this:

Now I am not saying that autistic people are fascists as clearly they are not, but I find it fascinating that it is being claimed Keith Joseph, who helped Thatcher to normalise the socially counterintuitive, was autistic.

Anyway so this minister today on the news also believed his own lies because if he really honestly stopped lying, his job, his nice comfortable existence, his mortgage, his future would be at risk.  GOD FORBID! (What’s God? I hear some of you scream…). He has only just got his job.  He can’t lose it all now.  He and Clegg have too much to lose so they lie to us and to themselves.

The philosopher jean Paul Sartre calls this sort of behaviour ‘bad faith’.

Some people lie to themselves because if they stop lying, the truth is far too terrible to face.

Some people are able to make themselves feel better by putting out a press release that they are a great philanthropist and the money they make from the book they have written (so buy it, it’s going to a good cause) will help the people who are suffering directly because of something they have done.  Blair’s whole life is a masterclass in bad faith.  He really believes his own lies.  His very big lie to himself had rather public consequences and countless people suffered and died.  I might send him Being & Nothingness by Sartre.  But he would say ‘oh how interesting.  My faith in God helps me to make the right choices.  It sets me free’.

Sartre’s philosophy is known as Existentialism.  Essentially it criticises the common idea that human beings have an ‘essence’ (some people call it a soul) that is eternal and fixed.  This understanding of human beings implies that the way we live is in some way or other pre-determined, because we have an essence, a soul or a personality even that is fixed and describes how we “really are”.  Existentialists argue that there is no eternal and pre-existing essence in human beings.  What comes first is human physical existence (this reflects Nietzsche’s ideas)  Their mantra is existence precedes essence.  Because human physical existence precedes essence, our being, what we are, can be determined in whatever way we like, in other words we can create our lives and live them however we want to. Every human being has the responsibility to chose to live the most free life they possibly can.  This idea is at the heart of existentialist ethics. Existentialists think living like this is authentic or real. It is real, because it is chosen by the individual.  This type of life is a burden because in a way it is easier to blame the bad things that happen to you on your circumstances or other people.  But you can’t do this if you are an existentialist, you have to make choices which reflect the idea that you want to live as authentically, as possible. Authentic existence concerns liberty rather than happiness.  Often happiness will follow from free choice, but often it won’t.  You might have to make a decision which actually makes you unhappy, but as long as it is authentic and makes you free, that is acceptable.  Sartre wrote a lot about the dilemmas existentialism brings. For example, we choose to act liberate ourselves.  This might not make us happier, but it will make us freer.  Bad faith is a concept Sartre use to explain when we don’t choose to act in a way that will make us freer.  The classic example of this is lying to oneself.

If only the government were honest with us.  They would probably still be as popular as they are now.  It’s tragic.  But things can be different.  Go and see this – it will show you how.


Don’t you wish you had done something else this evening?

August 17, 2010 1 comment

‘The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking’.  Martin Heidegger.

Laugh at the truth. Forge an alliance with wisdom.

August 15, 2010 13 comments

In 1900, the Prussian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche died after a very long illness.  Nietzsche died just as a new Century was born – the Century of the internet, the atomic bomb, the motor car, factory-scale murder, mass production and consumption, of universal suffrage, civil rights; the century where we saw human beings on the moon but also still in mass graves.

I have had a long love affair with Nietzsche’s work, which has in many ways given me a (very challenging) framework with which to understand, criticise and make sense of things, of ‘modern life’, or whatever you might want to call it. For me, Nietzsche is one of the very few true giants of philosophical thinking. In order to do justice to Nietzsche’s ideas that are relevant, this post is quite long. I am being quite self-indulgent but my hope is that a discussion of these ideas now will inform further posts and hopefully stimulate some debate.

I really don’t think you can think about what I want to think about, without bringing Nietzsche into it.  His influence has been so far reaching in so many ways, culturally, politically, philosophically, it is astonishing.  For instance without Nietzsche there would be no Freud, without Freud contemporary Western culture would be very different: those baby boomers may not have made the break from the culture of their parents generation and so much of what we take for granted in culture and politics would be different now.  I would suggest watching some Adam Curtis documentaries here (if you can get hold of them – I got a knock-off from ebay that didn’t work…)

Here we should probably get one thing out of the way: Nietzsche’s unfortunate appropriation by the Nazis (this was instigated by his sister Elisabeth Nietzsche who went to Paraguay with her crazy husband to found an Aryan colony but it didn’t work so she came back to Germany to interfere with her brother’s work instead).  This is ironic considering his disgust for anti- Semitism and mass political movements of any kind (including democracy), which he contemptuously refers to as aspects of the ‘herd mentality’. This appropriation also negatively affected Nietzsche’s reception in Europe and the USA for a long time after World War 2. But over the last 50 years, this shadow has passed over his work. He does say some things that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic, but the point is really that everything Nietzsche writes is controversial – he pretty much despises everyone, because pretty much everyone is unable/not willing to think for themselves. Nietzsche is often seen as a negative thinker because he criticises just about everything, and doesn’t give any easy answers. His contempt is part of his charm and it reflects the challenging nature of his ideas. Really he is a profoundly positive thinker, which is moving when considered in the light of his painful and difficult life.

Nearly eleven years before his death, Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown and then a series of strokes. Nietzsche had suffered all his life from very poor health including crippling migraine.  He was a very lonely person. The one time he fell in love that we know about was with the very interesting Lou Salome (above on the left, posing in the cart; Nietzsche is the one with the massive ‘tache) who turned Nietzsche’s advances down and later went on to have a relationship with Freud.  But Nietzsche was a pioneer. He knew this, but very few other people did and so his usual reaction was contempt. The peak of his career came in his 20s but because of his bad health he had to resign his prestigious professorship and move to the mountains where the climate was better for him.  With his academic career pretty much over, his work became more and more difficult for people to engage with and he had few friends.  Yet he kept on writing and he knew that one day his work would be taken seriously. If only he had known how seriously his work is now taken, Nietzsche probably would have been proud of his legacy but also disgusted by the people reading it, and the institutionalization of his ideas.

What I find so inspiring about Nietzsche’s work is that he thinks the most serious thing one should do is not take anything too seriously. He wrote a book called The Science of Joy (unhelpfully translated into English as ‘The Gay Science’): that’s how seriously he took not being serious. Nietzsche is often a very funny writer. The chapters of his last book Ecce Homo have absolutely classic titles: ‘Why I am so Wise’, ‘Why I am so Clever’ and ‘Why I Write Such Good Books’.  He was probably already a bit bonkers by then.  You have to love this man.

One of the main themes in his work is the death of God, what he calls the advent of nihilism, and the subsequent revaluation of values.  If we follow this line of thinking we can begin to see how Nietzsche can help us negotiate the ethical maze, or at least see it from a different, perhaps rather radical perspective.  The idea is that Nietzsche is challenging us to act despite there being no way that we can know what is objectively right or wrong.  The more I think about this, the more unsettling it becomes.  It is very hard to feel liberated by this imperative as Nietzsche wants us to.  However that is the challenge.

For Nietzsche, nihilism occurs when modern society experiences the loss of what we might call objective truth.  This means that there is no longer a satisfactory and all-encompassing answer to the question ‘why’ that can show us in a convincing manner how things “really are”.  The loss of objective truth can be explained as being particular to the modern age or ‘modernity’, because modernity is characterised by a rapid destabilising and undermining of traditional structures of authority, meaning and discourse. Like the decline of religion for instance.  Nietzsche highlights the loss of objective truth in modernity by examining our moral belief-systems. He argues that crucial to these structures of authority, meaning and discourse is the idea that truth is a property of things.

For example, we might say that something is good. When we say this, we are also saying that we believe that it is true that something is good.  The fact that we think it is true in effect ascribes a property to an object/person/idea, in this case “goodness”. We might say, for example,  “I wonder where all the good in the world has gone”.  The outcome of this is the belief that we can match language to reality, that the words we use actually correspond to “the facts” about something in the world, and this is what makes them true.  Nietzsche argues, particularly in two of his books ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’ and ‘The Science of Joy’, that this whole way of thinking is a fiction.  Truth does not correspond to any facts about reality. Truth is, he believes, actually no more than a series of authoritative metaphors that we use to describe our world and with which we keep our values in place.  We do this in order to satisfy what he calls ‘the desire for certainty’. The desire for certainty is motivated by our drive for survival. We all have it, all life is driven by self-preservation.   You may see Nietzsche’s influence on Freud here.  Nietzsche’s account of truth really says that when we call something good, we might believe that our doing so matches language to reality.  But we are deceiving ourselves.  In fact, we are more likely to call something good because it asserts our individual or group power, thus satisfying our survival-drive. This is what he says about the subject:

…man needs to believe in an unbiased ‘subject’ with freedom of choice, because he has an instinct of self-preservation and self-affirmation in which every lie is sanctified.  The reason the subject (or, as we more colloquially say, the soul) has been, until now, the best doctrine on earth, is perhaps because it facilitated the sublime self-deception whereby the majority of the dying, the weak and the oppressed of every kind could construe weakness itself as freedom, and their particular mode of existence as an accomplishment.

I love the way he writes; those italics drip with sarcasm.  Anyway so following on from this we have Nietzsche’s take on religion and the death of God.

Nietzsche claims that among the discourses of science, metaphysics and religion, the ‘best doctrine on earth’ for sustaining objective truth is theological truth: the established authority of God. In The Science of Joy, Nietzsche describes the ‘death of God’, the moment when the highest value is devalued. ‘The holiest and the mightiest thing the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives’.  Nietzsche’s challenge in this famous passage is the accusation that we have killed God.  We have to recognise that the loss of the ultimate objective truth is our doing, because we ourselves created the story that there is objective truth in order to satisfy the desire for certainty.  Once truth vanishes, we are left with nothing theological or philosophical upon which we can rely to orient ourselves in an increasingly complex and disorienting world.

Once we recognise that truth is merely a set of psychologically motivated values we are left with a sense of horror at the absurdity of the lack of meaning in life. Nietzsche calls the drive to keep our values in place, thus avoiding this absurdity, the ‘will to truth’. He claims that the will to truth is just a means of concealing the terrifying fact that truth is merely what we call various values, which are themselves motivated by psychological drives.  As such he writes, ‘truth is a useful deception’.  It is useful because it keeps the values we have invented in place, making them look like values that are something to do with the way things really are.  The greatest and therefore most dangerous cultural expression of the nihilistic will to truth for Nietzsche is Judeo-Christian morality. Nietzsche argues that God, as the ultimate expression of truth, is the ‘great justifier’.  This is because Christianity prevents us from seeing the absurd nothingness of life by directing our attention away from the physical to the metaphysical. Because it is concerned with the metaphysical rather than the physical, Nietzsche argues, Christianity is life denying. Christianity is the embodiment of disgust for life, because it focuses on the metaphysical rather than the physical world. Why look to another world, why deny life? He asks.

For Nietzsche, the only thing to do under the conditions of nihilism is to affirm life, to confront the absurdity of existence and then bravely embrace it. Nihilism thus represents the complete breakdown of the traditional order of meaning and values, allowing those who embrace nihilism to experience the opportunity for revaluation and reinterpretation. This revaluation is really an ethical practice. It focuses on the creation of new meaning after the breakdown of traditional meaning, allowing the individual to ‘laugh at the truth’ and ‘forge an alliance with wisdom’.

In defiance of the idea that it is the task of the wise philosopher to seek the truth, Nietzsche claims that it is not wise to seek truth. Instead he argues it is wise to give up the idea that truth can be sought after or discovered as if it is something objective or ‘out there’, a property of things which can be found or revealed to us.

This idea, I believe is truly challenging. It’s inherent scepticism forms the basis of an interesting theoretical and ethical imperative. In other words, this idea can perhaps inform us when we are trying to understand what is the right thing to do. The challenge of course is to try to avoid both objective truth and relativism. One problem with Nietzsche as an ethical thinker is that with the collapse of values, everything is relative.  So actually what we do doesn’t matter, because every thought and action is of equal value.  Clearly this isn’t the case.  For instance you may believe that it is wrong to torture and kill someone, not because your religious values say it is, but more because you have no right to make anyone else suffer.  Here, Nietzsche may ask why don’t you have the right to make anyone suffer.  Your answer may be because you have respect for the integrity of someone else’s life.  This may well actually be based on the remnants of religious sentiment (the soul etc), or it may not.

However is it the case that if we take a Nietzschean view then why shouldn’t we torture and kill? If all values are relative, why should we have any respect for life at all? Whether the intention is there or not, I see this question being dealt with in the extremely creepy Michael Haneke film Funny Games (1997) where two young men utterly without empathy kidnap and torture a family just because they can.  Similarly in the fantastic Hitchcock film Rope (1948) two young men (why is it always young men? Would women do this?) commit murder, again just because they can, but here we have some sort of rationale. They wish to exert their intellectual and social superiority (a misinterpretion of Nietzsche) and see the crime as an experiment.  In both films there is no moral anchor as all actions are conceived as relative.  However, what we could say here is that although the young men in each film are laughing at the truth, they fail to forge an alliance with wisdom. So they fail in Nietzschean terms. Nietzsche is charging us to revaluate and reinterpret our moral values but this does not mean we should have no moral values. If we are brave enough we are supposed to create our own values and delight in our ability to do so, and our ability to choose the course of our own actions and stick to it.  At the very least Nietzsche’s challenge can help us to negotiate a world without the absolutes we once had. I think that Nietzsche can help inform really tricky moral issues and I will come back to this in subsequent blogs.

Everyone is listening, no one is listening

August 4, 2010 6 comments

For me the excitement, the creative rush of starting something new is always moderated by the fear of ridicule and failure. Everyone is waiting for everyone else to fail, and is jealous of everyone else’s successes. The world we live in today appears to have conditioned us to seek unobtainable perfection but impossible difference.  Everything is the same, but nothing is allowed to be.  This paradox, I believe, is at the heart of our complex, infuriating and overwhelming post-industrial society.  Advertising demands our compliance, we are told to buy this or that product so we can be just like them, cool, happy and desired.  Being just like them is being an individual that others will want to emulate.  But of course, there is no individual, just as there is no whole.  We are alienated units of consumption and as our world slowly melts into freefall we are happy to medicate ourselves against the fear that we are going to lose everything; everything we own, but even worse, the structures that we are told protect us from the terrifying unknown.  Going shopping keeps the marauding hordes from the gates.

Given what we might call the dark side of the Enlightenment; the rational-bureaucratic structures of modernity and the repressive tendencies of late capitalism, what are we supposed to do? How on earth can we do anything meaningful, creative, how do we resist? Are we supposed to be happy?  Are we able to lead an ethical life? How is this possible today when there are no ultimate foundations, no absolute moral anchors? Can we do the right thing, do we even know what the right thing is?  Well, yes of course.  Often we do, just as often we choose not to, because that is the easier, more comfortable option.

In what follows I am going to explore, in a completely whimsical and random way, what stinks and what doesn’t, what is hateful and what is wonderful, how there can be both hateful and wonderful, and most importantly, begin to try to think about trying to make sense of it all, to ask why, even though I know there are no answers.  I want to explore how we can challenge a system of which it is often (always?) difficult to formulate coherent and significant criticisms, and honour those that do, and those that have. In my comfortable conformity I will champion those that have taken risks.  Because like almost everyone else I am too scared to.

As a student of modern European philosophy, especially the German kind, I tend to think and write in a certain way, and have a certain perspective on things.  In my next post I will explain what this is, but to cut a long story short it all begins with Nietzsche and his controversial claim that God is Dead.  But the thinking around this claim can often lead to our inability to actually do anything because if there is no ultimate or absolute meaning and everything is contingent, then everything we do becomes meaningless.  So that’s no good.  The other extreme is blind idealism, but as Frantz Fanon quite rightly said, blind idealism is reactionary.  So I will explore the idea of a happy medium, of the possibility of balance between the two, whilst trying not to sound like a whining liberal.

Ariadne led Thesus through the maze. She was also married to Dionyus the god of revelry, wine, theatre and fertility.  Despite her brains and her heroism, Ariadne obviously knew how to have a good time.  So here I want to follow her lead and as  I try to negotiate the ethical maze I will distract myself with some of the things I like to do. The film director Terrence Malick once said, ‘when people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés’.   So if you are reading this, please ‘bear with me’ as they say in call centres.

Categories: cinema, philosophy, politics