Tuesday, January 24, 2006

In which I remember I'm a philosophy student...

I've been writing an essay on the debate between Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege on how names refer to objects. Posting the essay seems like the height of arrogance, especially because it's elementary and extremely boring. But it has set me thinking about the tradition of what's called 'analytic philosophy', and how it fits into the grand scheme of things. This may well be rubbish, but that's kinda what the blog is for...

The philosophy I am taught here almost certainly must come under the heading 'bourgeois philosophy'. In a sense this is uncontroversial, after all, they are the ruling ideas of capitalism. However, it isn't enough to simply dismiss thinkers like Frege and Russell as bourgeois theorists, we have to investigate further the nature of their thought, both in isolation and in how they relate to society more broadly.

To approach Analytic Philosophy from the position of a marxist has its limitations. The reality of this tradition is that, while it is intellectually dominant through institutions in the west, it cannot realistically be said to have the ideological hegemony of, say medieval christianity, or even modern day liberalism. If people have opinions about the questions raised by the analytic tradition at all they would certainly not be referring back to the body of work that appears on my reading lists. This presents clear problems in understanding the role that analytical philosophy is likely to play in social relations, and to some extent it is difficult to explain its intellectual dominance in terms of social forces. There is a danger of sliding into an idealist explanation, ignoring entirely the material structure.

However, here goes: Analytical Philosophy seems to arise out of a reaction to some of the excesses of post-Hegelian idealism. It is the 'common sense' view of things. It is generally materialist or realist, at least about nature. In this sense Marxists might be tempted to prefer it to the idealism that preceeded it-any sort of materialism is better than fantasy and fiction. This, I think, would be a mistake. A central tenet of Analytical Philosophy seems to be that things largely are how they appear-our senses don't lie to us, or if they do then they're still all we've got. This is not the intelligent, nuanced, materialism of Marx, understanding that, whilst what you see exists, the reasons you see it happening for are not what they seem. Marx's acknowledgment of the importance of the underlying structure of things not being automatically given, even when their existence is, is central to his thought, and largely absent in Analytical Philosophy.

To the extent that Analytical Philosophy is 'the common sense view' we must also be wary. Tell someone you are a dialectical materialist and they will, once they've stopped associating you with Stalin, give you a funny look. It's just not logical, they might say, it's too full of inconsistencies. However, one of the few conclusions that I have come to writing this essay is just how incoherent and fantastical some of the consequences of the ideas of the particular philosophers I'm writing about end up being. Is the proposal that the dialectic is a powerful analogy for understanding the way the world, and society especially, changes any more incoherent than the 'third realm' in which Frege's notion of 'sense' supposedly resides, or Russell's 'indefinable variables' and 'sensibilia'? I personally do not think so. Though admittedly maybe I wouldn't.

My final observation is that, like most dominant philosophy, the vast majority of Analytic Philosophy seeks to break down it's target of study into smaller and smaller bits. It seems to be a basic assumption that we can better understand the world by explaining smaller and smaller particles, better understand society by understanding individuals, and better understand human thought by understanding individual minds. This, I think, is both a crippling weakness and an ideological necessity. It is, it seems to me, impossible to understand the nature of the world without understanding the relationships between individual units, both in nature and society. The opposite opinion is born of a specific, dominant, bourgeois individualist mind set. The demand for rights of the individual against the state, and against other individuals, is a clear growth out of the clamour for recognition of a growing bourgeousie. The ideological justification for capitalism comes from the idea that we all compete equally with each other, hence what becomes necessary is an account of us as individuals, not as a group. This has also been seen as a profoundly patriarchal mindset. The basic unit, always represented as the individual man, is actually the family, including a woman whose rights are not the same. There is a great deal of excellent feminist political philosophy that emphasises a very different perspective.

It is this final point that I think is most pernicious. It is important that we resist this atomising of society and of nature. It may be contested that I have assumed a spurious link between logic and politics, and I have. However, i don't think it that unreasonable. I would contest that if being an analytical philosopher was what drove Robert Nozick to write the vile libertarian tract 'Anarchy State and Utopia', claiming that it followed from basic assumptions of his philosophy (previously he had been better known for his epistemology), then we might, just might, think that there's something dodgy about the whole business.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Nick Cohen - Fascist

See what I did there. I took the name of someone I disagree with politically, and put the word fascist next to his name. I didn't offer any definition of what I mean by fascist, or an intelligent analysis of the contemporary phenomena of fascism, I just used the word. It's a very useful technique, try it yourselves sometime.

Cohen's article in today's Observer reaches impressive heights of hysteria even for him. Apparently Respect is disintegrating because of Galloway's appearance on Big Brother. The left (he uses that wonderfully vague word 'liberal') are sick of him, and he 'can no longer count on their indulgence'. I clearly missed this. Obviously Nick is in a much better position than me to know these things, after all, I'm just a member of the organisations he mentions in the article. What would I know about it.

Actually, I know this: The SWP is not going to split from Galloway. Respect is a coalition, and believe it or not, coalition partners can disagree. Socialist Worker makes pretty clear the mood of most SWP members on the nonsense happening in Big Brother.

Despite Cohen's more delusional rantings, Respect did unite on points of principle. In fact, what he seems to fail miserably to understand is that precisely the reason that he is on one side of the fence, and every other significant section of left-wing opinion is on the other, is that we united in opposition to the plundering and occupation of Iraq, and he lined up with the apologists and the warmongers. He's missed that point of principle, because it's not his. This is fine. He's entitled to his opinion. What he cannot do is paint the SWP as opportunists going against their values. The defining faultline of 21st century politics so far is the question of where you stand on American Imperialism: do you resist, or do you apologise? Cohen apologised; we resisted. In fact, to Cohen's dismay, 'the most disgraceful protest movement since the Thirties', was also the biggest ever. 2 million marched, thousands walked out, and opinion polls were squarely against the government. Apparently we were all apologists for Saddam, islamofascists, to use Cohen's impressive rhetoric.

Still, this is par for the course for the 'pro-war left' (though I keep missing what's left about them). What's really interesting is how Cohen increasingly sounds like a journalist writing for the sectarian left. All these ridiculous pronouncements about Respect and the SWP's imminent demise could have come straight from the pages of the Weekly Worker. I don't know why, but I genuinely expected better of the Observer...

Friday, January 13, 2006

More on Galloway

Well, it's been a week now of George being in the house, and the attempts to attack him are becoming more and more hysterical. The problem is that the establishment press can't use the 'he took money from Saddam' argument anymore, because they'd have to pay even more in libel charges to fund our election campaigns. Without that they have to resort to criticising things that Galloway is actually doing, and that's a bit harder.

So, impressively hypocritically, he is accused of not representing his constituents! After all, the electors of Bethnal Green and Bow were clearly casting a vote for a pro-war MP who would support the selling off of their council houses and privatising of their schools. When Galloway goes on Big Brother to use it as a platform to spout anti war, anti privatisation and pro Palestinian rhetoric they no doubt hate it.

There are more serious arguments of course, but they are all so stunningly easily rebutted you wonder how Blair gets away with it. Oh yeah, the press.

So let's start: His constituents, according to Vikram Dodd in the Guardian, could not get hold of him if they wanted his help with something. Well, I could have established that by switching over to E4 on my telly, but good old Vikram has a thorough ring round to establish that, no, a message could not be got to George. Except that's not the whole story. Respect, as Rob Hoveman makes clear, did hold a surgery that day for constituents, which is more than most constituency parties would manage. It seems that certain journalists can't get their head round the idea that Respect is a party with an actual social base, and serious grass roots activists, making inroads into East London by representing the people New Labour has abandoned. They'd rather it was all about George.

Then there's the, increasingly notorious Crossrail claims. This is the main stick that New Labour drones are using to beat Galloway with. He has, apparently missed an important debate on Crossrail, something that will directly affect his constituency. Before I point out the absurdity it might be worth reflecting on the hypocrisy here. A government introduces a bill that is potentially extremely damaging to some of the most vulnerable parts of scoiety, and suddenly it's George's fault for not being around to argue. But anyway, he has argued against it on a number of occasions, and will again, when the actual bill comes to parliament. All he has missed is a select committee meeting that he could not attend anyway. More on the website.

The biggest issue for Galloway right now has to be Channel 4's editorial decision to edit out most of his political comments, which Zoe Williams commented pretty well on in the Guardian. This is allegedly about balance, which is fair enough, to the extent that some laws exist. But surely all balance is relative. Would a documentary about the holocaust require a fascist to 'balance out the debate'? I seem to remember C4 showing Fahrenheit 911 recently, did they need to balance that? I find it hard to believe that George would have agreed to such censorship beforehand, indeed given his stated intentions it seems more likely that the reverse is true. However, I do think it was naive of him to think any differently, and that is why I ultimately think it was a bad decision.

George hasn't killed anyone and he hasn't suddenly become a war-monger. He hasn't agreed to sell of council housing, or privatise schools. He hasn't sold out workers, or supported attacks on civil liberties. He's appeared on a TV programme. I would rather that he had been on the picket lines on Monday morning, supporting the tube strike. I would rather he was at this demo, supporting Tower Hamlets' council's disgusting victimising of Eileen Short. But he wasn't and he won't be. More importantly, though, Respect representatives will be. What we are building is not just George, and people in London are beginning to realise that.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Galloway's Big Brother

So, in literally the most jawdropping thing I've seen for ages, George Galloway just walked into the Celebrity Big Brother house. Apparently:
  • "It's a chance to show a large and different audience what I'm really like, to get away from constant telephone and email traffic, and for the chance to make new and unexpected friends."
There used to be a time when I felt I had to apologise for Galloway. I'm sick of it, and since I'm anticipating a lot of press attacks on him, I think I'll offer some defenses.

Galloway took a principled stand against the war. He wasn't the only Labour MP to do so, but he did so most vociferously, and made the extremely bold move of calling for troops to refuse to fight. It was this that was the given reason for his expulsion from the Labour Party. He had until then been a tireless campaigner for the Iraqi people's rights, against a murderous sanctions regime and against Saddam's tyranny. He has since helped to win the most impressive victory for the left in this country for decades. He is genuinely committed to the Respect project, and has helped it achieve so much.

More to follow, by which time I'll be back in Cambridge...