Out of Focus

by Chris Horner

There’s a widespread belief that the world is really run by dark forces, or hidden actors we cannot see or know, but which operate like puppet masters somehow ‘behind the scenes’. On this view, only by a painstaking piecing together can we arrive at the truth about what is really going on. So we get conspiracy theories about New World Orders, Illuminati, Qanon and so on. Yet things are quite otherwise. Most of what you need to know is hidden in plain sight: all the conspiracies are open ones and the way the world runs is open to our gaze. The problem is that they are in front of us, but out of focus.

There are some things we know, and somethings we don’t know. Some things we see and acknowledge, and some things that remain hidden. But strangest of all are the things we see and know, yet somehow cannot see. We unsee them [1]. Obvious, commonplace things, like objects too close to a lens that are out of focus. Staring us in the face, they sit in plain view, but still unseen. They are disavowed along the logic of ‘I know this very well, but still, I do not know it’. Read more »

Signifying Bullshit

by Chris Horner

It is everywhere: the production of words designed to promote the fiction that something positive and good is happening, even though it isn’t.  It comes courtesy of the people you work for, the retail outlets you shop from, and the government organisations that regulate your life. An example: a large organisation develops and with fanfare publishes a document laying out its ‘values’ – under titles like ‘ trust’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘courage’, diversity’, and ‘respect’. It stresses how the individual is valued, the importance of diversity in the workplace, mental health, freedom from harassment and so on. This extends to recruitment and promotion: everywhere diversity, respect and fairness rule: they are ‘investing in people’. Meanwhile, workers at this place have had no real terms pay increase in a decade, overtime and overwork is commonplace, and the complaints system is bureaucratic and agonisingly slow. In the coronavirus epidemic, while desk bound staff were encouraged to work at home, catering and cleaning staff had to appear at the workplace as usual – and naturally, the lower paid stuff doing this are disproportionately female and black. Feeling stressed by the long hours and low pay? There’s an after hours yoga class for that, and a values document to read. 

The mass production of warm sounding words with minimal interest in real material outcomes is signifying bullshit (SB). It is nearly ubiquitous. A vast amount of time is spend promoting the idea to consumers that a pair of boots, or a coffee or a shampoo is somehow saving the planet or conquering hunger in Africa; the public is encouraged to tweet or post their reviews of the goods they’ve bought, as retailers and the media outlets that boost them all want your warm words, too. There’s an ocean of participation and inclusivity, although it is not clear who is reading all this stuff. Read more »

Another World is Coming: Liberals, Socialists and the New Right

by Chris Horner

The political world is changing again. In place of the neoliberal politics of the last decades, capitalism and the nation state is undergoing one of its periodic metamorphoses. The period of what Nancy Fraser has called ‘neoliberal progressivism’ – broadly progressive stances by many governments on issues of sexual choice, reproductive rights and so on, coupled with an economic agenda committed to ‘balancing the books,’ actually cutting public expenditure, austerity in other words, is slowly giving way to a new dispensation. This new approach is unsurprisingly favoured mainly by parties of the right, and it threatens to leave centre left parties with a problem. This hasn’t happened in every developed country in the same way, and like any political phenomenon, it is subject to the ebb and flow of electoral fortune. But whether the right is formally in power or not, the we can see a family resemblance in the different forms that the right has recently taken. Read more »

Personality or Ideology: Which matters most in a political leader?

by Emrys Westacott

In evaluating candidates for political office there are two main things to consider:

a) their ideology–that is, their political views and general philosophy

b) their personal qualities

With respect to ideology, the most important questions one should ask are these:

· Are their beliefs true? (Do they hold correct beliefs on, say, climate change, or on whether a particular policy will increase or reduce poverty, crime, unemployment, pollution, or the likelihood of war?)

· Do I share their values and ideals? (E.g. Are they willing to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of environmental protection (or vice versa)? Where do they stand on issues like gun control, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, foreign aid, gay rights, or economic inequality?)

· Whose interests do they represent? (Do they generally favor policies that benefit the rich, the middle class, the poor, employers or workers, corporations or consumers, cities or rural communities?)

Regarding personal qualities, the ones that matter most are:

· knowledge – Are they decently informed about the world and the issues they will be dealing with

· intelligence – Are they able to understand and think through complex problems

· wisdom – Are they reasonable? Do they exercise good judgment?

· effectiveness – Do they have the practical skills to realize their goals?

· integrity – Are they truthful? Is what they do consistent with what they say? Are they motivated by a concern for the public good rather than by self-interest?

These personal qualities obviously cannot be possessed absolutely but only to a greater or lesser degree. And they may often conflict. Most politicians who are effective sometimes have to compromise their integrity, and the first compromise is invariably made before they hold office. As the historian George Hopkins (emeritus professor at Western Illinois university) has observed, “all presidents lie for the simple reason that if they didn't, we wouldn't elect them.” A candidate who was perfectly truthful would be ineffective because they would probably never get the chance to implement any of their ideas.

Effective governance may also require leaders to lie, mislead, hide the truth, and break promises. Franklin Roosevelt was by any account a highly effective president; but in the two years prior to Pearl Harbor, he consistently told the American public that he was fully committed to keeping the US out of any foreign wars while simultaneously, and secretly, preparing the country for war against Japan and Germany. The political leaders we are most inclined to venerate are those like Lincoln or Mandela who, in addition to possessing the other qualities listed above, somehow mange to be practically effective with minimum loss of integrity.

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Are We Witnessing a Major Shift in America’s Two-Party System?

by Akim Reinhardt

DemublicansIn the 150 years since the end of the U.S. Civil War, the Republicans and Democrats have maintained a relentless stranglehold on every level of American politics nearly everywhere at all times. While a handful of upstart third parties and independent candidates have periodically made waves, none has ever come close to capturing the White House, or earned more than a brief smattering of Congressional seats. Likewise, nearly ever state and local government has remained under the duopoly's exclusive domain.

Why a duopoly? Probably because of they way the U.S. electoral system is structured. Duverger's Law tells us that a two-party duopoly is the very likely outcome when each voter gets one vote and can cast it for just one candidate to determine a single legislative seat.

However, in order to maintain absolute control of American politics and fend off challenges from pesky third parties, the Democrats and Republicans needed to remain somewhat agile. The times change, and in the endless quest to crest 50%, the parties must change with them.

Since the Civil War, both parties have shown themselves flexible enough to roll with the changes. The Civil War, the Great Depression, and Civil Rights era each upended the political landscape, leading political constituencies to shift, and forcing the Democrats and Republicans to substantially and permanently reorient themselves.

Now, several decades removed from the last major reshuffling of the two major parties, we may be witnessing yet another major transformation of the duopoly as the elephant and the donkey struggle to remain relevant amid important social changes. The convulsions of such a shift are reflected in the tumultuous spectacle of the parties' presidential nomination processes.

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