Posts Tagged ‘Meritocracy’

Capitalism and Property Rights in the West and Islam

March 25, 2022

Private property is very much at the heart of modern Conservatism. Conservative intellectuals, politicians and activists maintain that private industry is more efficient and effective, and has raised more people out of poverty than alternative economic systems. It’s also a fundamental right, a mainstay of western democracy that has prevented Europeans and Americans from tyrannical government, whether absolute monarchies or soviet-style communist dictatorships. It’s also supposedly the reason why Britain and the West currently dominate the rest of the world. The Times journo Niall Ferguson wrote a book about this a few years ago, which accompanied a TV series. In his analysis, Britain was able to out-compete Spain as a colonial power because British democracy gave people a stake in their society, while the only stakeholder in Spain was the king.

This can be challenged from a number of directions. Firstly, early modern Britain wasn’t democratic. The vote was restricted to a small class of gentlemen, meaning people who were lower than the aristocracy, but nevertheless were still able and expected to live off their rents. At the same time, although the power of the monarchy was restricted by the constitution and parliament, it still possessed vast power. Kings could go for years without calling one. As for Drake and the Armada, we were also saved by the weather. There was a ‘Protestant wind’ which blew apart and disrupted the Spanish fleet. As for capitalism, more recent books like The Renaissance Bazaar have shown that the new capitalist institutions that were introduced in Italy and thence to the rest of Europe during the renaissance were based on those further east in the Islamic world. And far from western global domination being inevitable, in the 15th century Christian Europeans feared that they would be conquered by Islam. The Turks had blazed through the Balkans and took 2/3 of Hungary. One fifteenth century German soldier and writer, de Busbecq, feared that the Ottomans would conquer Christendom because of the meritocracy and professionalism of their armies. The Ottomans, along with other Muslim states, recruited their armies through enslavement. It’s the origin of the Mamlukes in Egypt and the slave dynasties in Delhi. But these slaves were given an intensive military training, as well as education in Islam and the Turkish language, and promoted on their merits. Jonathan A.C. Brown in his book, slavery & Islam, how further back in Islamic history Black African slaves had been appointed the governors of parts of Iraq. The result was that while the European armies were feudal, led by aristocrats who had been born to their position and held it despite their ability or lack thereof, the Ottoman’s were manned and led by well-trained soldiers who held their commands by merit. We had better armour than the Ottomans, but they were able to defeat us because they were simply better soldiers.

Property rights have been a fundamental part of western political theory for a very long time. The social contract theory of government held that the primordial human community had elected kings to protect their lives and property. But Islam also maintained that property was a fundamental human right. According to Jonathan A.C. Brown’s Islam & Slavery, from the 700s AD Muslim jurists discussed the issue of human rights – huquq al-‘Ibad, or the rights of (God’s) slaves, i.e. humans, or huquq al-Adamiyya, or Adamic rights, or human rights. These were held to be the rights possessed by all humans, whether Muslim or not. Under the great Islamic theologian al-Ghazzali, these were expanded into five universals: protection for the integrity of life, reason, religion, lineage and paternity and property. He concludes that ‘The Islamic rights of physical inviolability and property can be seen as counterparts or perhaps forerunners of these aims.’ (pp. 299-300). I’ll admit this came as something of a surprise to me, because unless you study Islam at a higher level, you don’t hear about it. And you definitely don’t hear about it from the conservative right, who seem to believe that property rights and virtuous capitalism are something that only the Anglo-Saxon peoples invented. Remember George W. Bush’s famous, ludicrous sneer at the French that they had ‘no word for entrepreneurship’. Well,, they have, as attested by the word ‘entrepreneur’.

And property rights are not automatically intrinsic to modern concepts of freedom and democracy. They arose long before the expansion of the franchi8se in the 19th century and the emergence of universal adult suffrage in the early 20th century. Over much of western history, property rights meant the rights of the property owning upper classes against the working masses. And slaves could not own property, as legally, following the precedent of Roman law, they were property. Anything they had automatically belonged to their masters. Property rights were also regularly invoked to defend slavery. That’s very apparent when you read the protests against the British government’s attempts to regulate and then finally abolish slavery in the 19th century. The slaveowners were incensed by what they viewed as a tyrannical governmental interference in their property rights.

Now I agree people do have a right to private property, though private enterprise in many spheres is certainly not adequate to provide decent services. These are the utilities, education and healthcare. I also believe that, following Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, the west was able to gain ascendancy through technological and scientific advances, particularly military. I think the development of western capitalism also played a part in creating a mass, industrial society that was more efficient and advanced than the craft economies of the Islamic world. But this does not mean capitalism, or at least its antecedents, were absent from Islam or that Islam had no conception of property rights.

Perhaps, before we go to war with these countries to liberate them for multinational corporations, we should stop listening to Conservatives and listen more to those academics and experts, who actually know something about Islam.

TYT Cover Panel on the End of Neoliberalism at Labour Party Conference

October 22, 2017

This is another video produced by the progressive American news service, The Young Turks, of the Labour conference at Brighton the week before last. The panel was entitled ‘Welcome to the End of the Neoliberalism’. Held in a dingy nightclub, the female host jokes about how her audience can say exactly where they were when neoliberalism ended, and that, as with nearly all revolutions, the women were first and the men came late.

With her on the panel were Paul Mason, a former Channel 4 journo, playwright, documentary film maker, and the author of the book ‘Postcapitalism’; Jo Littler, an academic, who specialises in cultures of consumption, and the author of a book on meritocracy, pointing out that this is precisely what it isn’t, as meritocracy is a system that reinforces minority, elite rule; Valary Alzaga, a labour organiser working with the people at neoliberalism’s sharp end in precarity; and Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich.

Paul Mason begins the discussion by trying to describe what neoliberalism is in reality, rather than neoliberalism as a collection of ideas. In doing so he states that he has annoyed the Adam Smith Institute. And he includes not only the perfect, ideal capitalist states of the West, but also mercantilist states like China, as they are now part of the same global system. He states that you could go back to the German ordoliberals to describe it, and to people like Von Hayek and the Chicago School. But he begins with Peugeot’s definition of its aims at a meeting in Paris in 1938. This described precisely what neoliberalism is not: it is not traditional laissez-faire economics. The early neoliberals realised that if markets and market forces were left on their own, the result would be monopolies that would be nationalised by the state, according to Marxist doctrine and praxis. So they sought to enforce competition at every level. This means not only privatisation, and the introduction of legislation to force companies to compete, but also the creation of competition as a mindset to keep working people isolated and competing against each other.

The result can be seen in the favelas – the deprived slums – of Latin America, where you have poor people living in former factories that have closed down. Then the housing association is dissolved, and the mob moves in, as only through organised crime is there safety. And Mason states very clearly that it isn’t only in Latin America that this process has occurred. It’s also happened in many of the towns in the north of England, where industry has been gutted and forced overseas, and the result has been a massive upsurge in crime.

He goes on to state that at first neoliberalism was devised so the rich West could exploit Latin America. But after the Fall of Communism opened up the 20 per cent of the world market that was the former eastern bloc, it became a global system. However, neoliberalism is now collapsing. It produces a series of crises, and so rightwing politicians like Trump, rather than destroying it, are producing nationalist versions of neoliberalism. That is, they are turning away from it as a system of international trade, but still enforcing it in their own countries as a system of private ownership that excludes and exploits the poor.

Jo Littler says much the same as Mason in a much briefer speech. She refers to it as ‘disembowelling’ the public, meaning the enforced privatisation of public services. She also describes how two of the sources for neoliberalism were the German Ordoliberals, who turned away from the state-managed economy of the Nazis, and von Hayek and the Chicago school. She also mentions how it was first proposed by the Montpelerin meeting in Paris. And she also makes the point that it took a long time for them to have their ideas accepted, as until the Chicago School, Pinochet and Thatcher they were isolated cranks and weirdoes.

Valary Alzaga explains that she is a care worker, who are some of the most poorly paid workers with the most precarious jobs. She describes how, under neoliberal capitalism, care homes have been privatised, bought up by hedge funds and venture capitalists, who have then gone on to sell off whatever was profit-making. As for care workers, neoliberalism means that if they try to form a union, they are immediately sacked. Under socialism and Keynsianism there was a social pact, by which employers and the state recognised the rights of workers to form trade unions and bargain for better pay and conditions. This no longer exists.

Clive Lewis, who to my mind looks like a younger version of Noel Clarke, the actor, who played Rose Tyler’s boyfriend in Dr. Who, is an economics graduate. He describes how, when he was studying it, he and the other students were filled with its doctrines, but no-one ever mentioned the word. He only woke up to what it was and really meant when he happened to go on a summer course about it. He describes this in terms of a religious revelation. He says it was as if he’d been deprogrammed. When he returned, his friends complained that it was as if he’d joined a cult, because all he talked about was neoliberalism, neoliberalism and neoliberalism.

He states that the goal of von Hayek wasn’t to set up an independent party, as he was asked by one of his followers. He wanted instead to permeate the academic institutions, like the universities and take over the whole system. And so this resulted in Blair and Brown accepting it as absolutely true, and introducing it into the Labour party. He refers to the story, which he thinks was apocryphal, about Thatcher being asked what her greatest achievement was. Instead of pointing to one of her wretched privatisations, she said it was Tony Blair and New Labour. Lewis states that their adoption of neoliberalism is unforgivable with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight but you have to understand the state of British politics at the time.

This is a fascinating analysis of the rise and destructive effects of neoliberalism. Robin Ramsay, the editor of ‘Lobster’, also studied economics in the late ’60s – early ’70s, and he states that Thatcher’s beloved Monetarism was considered so much rubbish that his lecturers didn’t even bother arguing against it. And before Thatcherism turned to mass privatisation and the idolatrous adulation of the free market after 1981-2, neoliberalism was considered very much an extreme doctrine held only by cranks. Which is what it should return to being.

As for annoying the Adam Smith Institute, they have been pushing for the complete privatisation of all state assets, including the NHS since the 1970s, so annoying them is, in my view, a good and holy occupation. And in amongst their dissection of neoliberalism they also have a gibe at Jacob Rees-Mogg, which is also always a good thing.

Nietzsche, Academy Schools, and Elitism in Education

March 30, 2016

Mike and a number of other bloggers have wondered recently if the Tories’ own enthusiasm for privatising education and turning all schools into Academies aren’t a deliberate attempt to ‘dumb down’ education. Despite all the hype, and mendacious graphs in the Torygraph to the contrary, privately run Academies actually perform worse than state schools managed by the local authorities. Mike speculated that the Tories wanted the children of the hoi polloi – the working and lower middle classes – have an inferior education as they were afraid that the masses were becoming too bright, too well-education, and they didn’t want the competition. After all, they could hardly retain their places as the leaders of society, thanks to their extremely moneyed parents sending them to Eton and the other public and fee-paying schools, if a bunch of comprehensive school oiks actually were demonstrably more intelligent and better educated than they were.

And there is certainly some evidence that the latter is true. A year ago, the Independent and the I ran a story that students from state schools actually did better at uni than those from the private schools. How ghastly! Especially as the introduction of tuition fees and their increase to truly extortionate levels really does seem to suggest that there is a section of right-wing opinion that believes higher education should be the exclusive preserve of the wealthy few.

The German philosopher Nietzsche also took this view. He was afraid that if the masses became too well-educated, it would lead to a decline in cultural standards. The historian Gordon A. Craig describes his elitist view of education, and that of his successors in Germany: 1866 – 1945 (Oxford: OUP 1978). He wrote

(A)nd some widely read publicists expressed the view that the emphasis placed on the education of the masses was dangerous because it could not avoid diluting the quality of German education in general. This was the view of Friedrich Nietzsche, who in a remarkable series of lectures, ‘On the Future of our Education Institutions’, delivered in Basle in 1872, stated that ‘not the education of the masses can be our goal but the education of individually selected people, armed for great and permanent achievements’ and went on to charge that those who argued for a further extension of Volksbildung were seeking to destroy ‘the natural order of rank in the kingdom of the intellect’. Nietzsche’s views were repeated with variations by Paul de Lagarde, an embittered eccentric who saw German culture imperilled by the advance of barbarism and blamed this on the educational system, and Julius Langbehn, the author of the extremely popular Rembrandt als Erzieher (1890), whose insistence upon the necessity of training a racially pure elite was later to take more extreme forms in the educational practices of Heinrich Himmler.

De Lagarde and Langbehn were two of the 19th century intellectual precursors of the Nazis. The German elementary schools were called Volksschulen – People’s Schools. The Germans had had an excellent school system of primary education from the 18th century onwards. If children couldn’t go to church schools, then they had to go to state schools. As a result, illiteracy in Germany by the end of the 19th century was very, very low – about 0.05%, compared with 3-4% in England and France.

Nietzsche’s ideas might have been a novelty for Germany, but until comparatively late in the 19th century they were common amongst the British ruling class. There was some education available for the working classes in the Sunday and Dame schools, but these were by no means widespread, and standards could be very poor. The dame schools have been criticised as essentially a place where parents could send their children while they were at work trying to make a living. As a whole, the education system was geared to training an aristocratic elite for careers in government. It looks very much like this is what the Tories intend now in their eagerness to privatise schools and so create an education system that will leave children worse educated, not better.

Cameron, Osbo, Thicky Nikki and the rest of the Tory party are either aristos, or very middle class. It really does look like they are trying to drag Britain back into the 19th century, where the workers were given just enough education to satisfy the requirements of industry, while a good education, and the career opportunities that went with it, were the exclusive prerogative of the middle and upper classes. This was challenged by the Labour party, who wanted the education reformed and expanded so that more people from the lower middle and working classes had the opportunity to acquire it and so enjoy the same career opportunities and social privileges as the wealthy. It can be seen in chapter IX of G.D.H. Cole’s book, Britain in the Post-War World – ‘Education for Democracy’, for example. It’s the reason Anthony Crossland set up and championed comprehensive schools, because the existing system of grammar and secondary modern schools were elitist, and kept the working class in their place in the manual trades.

And so far from striking a blow for meritocracy, it increasingly seems to me that the privatisation of the education system begun nearly thirty years ago by Thatcher really is indeed to keep the masses in their place, and make sure that only the elite can afford an educational standard that will guarantee them their place of leadership in society. All under the guise of delivering quality, which can only be provided by private industry, of course.

Vox Political: Amazon Boss to Get DWP Directorship

February 4, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political today posted this piece from the Guardian, commenting on Margaret Hodge’s disgust at Amazon’s boss of Chinese operations getting a directorship at the DWP: In his comment, he asks a very pertinent question: since when did the DWP, or the Civil Service as a whole, start having directorships? Traditionally, the heads of the civil service were secretaries over various descriptions, undersecretaries, private secretaries, personal private secretaries, etc. Secretaries by the bushel, secretaries by the bucketful. But no directors. So, he asks, is this indication that the Gentleman Ranker, Ian ‘Snollygaster’ Duncan Smith, wants to privatise another section of the DWP, or indeed the whole government department?

It’s a good question. IDS – just one vowel away from ‘AIDS’, and nearly as poisonous – and the rest of the Tories really do seem to think that privatising everything is the solution. They took this idea over from the Libertarians in America, who want just about everything privatised, even the courts. All in the name of small government. I don’t think even IDS is so stupid that he wants to go as far as completely privatising the justice system, but he and they do seem to follow the libertarian line about privatising the police force. This policy is based on the idea that private corporations are automatically more efficient and more effective than state operated enterprises or organisations. Even when it’s been proved again and yet again that they aren’t. The Civil Service was originally considered unsuitable for privatisation, so they did the next best thing. They quasi-privatised part of it, but separating the Department of Health from the Department of Social Security, and turned the latter into the Benefits Agency. Now it seems that they want to privatise it completely, at least piecemeal.

As for the title of ‘director’, there’s an element of vanity in there. IDS, Cameron and the others have all entered public service from business, and therefore don’t seem to be satisfied with simply having the title and job description as ‘public servants’. No, they want to be seen as hot-shot directors, not secretaries. So directors they must be, even if it’s completely inappropriate. Way back in the 1990s, a similar rebranding occurred in the Department of Trade and Industry. This wasn’t good enough for the responsible minister at the time, who insisted on calling it, ‘The Department of Enterprise’, in line with Thatcherite Yuppie ideology. Well, yuppies have come and gone. A lot of them finally gave up the game when the steam ran out of the part of the Thatcher Revolution, and New Labour came to power, only to carry on her legacy in a slightly less noxious form. But as the idea of directorships in the DWP shows, it’s still there. And it’s entirely inappropriate.

Directors are the heads of private companies, which are driven by the profit motive. The aim of private enterprise is primarily to make money, not to provide a service. The role of the civil service, on the contrary, is to provide a service in spheres which are outside the applicability of the profit motive. It’s why there are just so many regulations prescribing the correct conduct of civil servants and what constitutes corruption. They aren’t there to enrich themselves at the expense of the state or its citizens. They are there to serve the public. This latter point is important. It was imported into the Civil Service ethos by the Trevelyan in the 19th century. His idea of moral, responsible service by state officials was largely based on the old Stoic ideal of service to the state. Trevelyan himself was an utter b*stard in some respects. He had absolutely zero sympathy for the victims of the Irish Potato Famine, and did not want them to be given any relief in their most dire need. It’s an episode which has cast a terrible shadow over subsequent relations between Britain and Ireland ever since. But Trevelyan’s reform of the Civil Service did create an ethos of efficient, responsible public service. IDS’ creation of directorships threatens to undermine this, and throw the whole institution back to the corruption of the 18th century and previously, when officeholders believed that they had an absolute right to exploit their position to the full to enrich themselves.

And in that case, ideology will have come full circle, and the Tories will have gone back to their roots. Modern Neoliberalism has much of its ideological roots in 19th century radicalism. 19th century radicals generally wanted small, cheap, efficient government, free of the webs of patronage and corruption that stifled the economy and prevented individuals from developing their own talents and being rewarded by the fruits of their energy and enterprise. Thatcher and her Yuppy crew largely took power by muttering a lot of nonsense about ‘meritocracy’. It informs the very title of Norman Tebbit’s autobiography, ‘Upwardly Mobile’.

But for all that they mouth Neoliberal clich├ęs about enterprise, efficiency, meritocracy and self-reliance, the Tories aren’t motivated by a desire to increase social mobility, or limit the stifling power of an hereditary ruling class, like the 19th century Liberals. Cameron, Osbo, IDS and their cabinet are toffs. They are the stifling hereditary ruling class. Social mobility under New Labour had all but ceased. Under Cameron it’s stopped completely. And they’re determined to hold on to power, and oppress everyone else. Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd gave the game away in the Times in the 1980s when he loudly hailed Maggie Thatcher as bringing about a ‘social restoration’ of the old country house elite. The only difference now is that the ruling elite are corporations and their managers, rather than an agricultural aristocracy. But the ethos remains of a ruling class, which regards the state and its institutions as their instruments with which to govern and plunder, rather than to serve the greater national good.

Fabian Socialist View of Democracy vs Public School Elitism

April 20, 2014


Peter Archer in his chapter on ‘The Constitution’ in Pimlott’s collection of Fabian Essays, stresses the importance of democracy for Socialism, and gives a few brief descriptions of its opponents, one of which sounds eerily familiar.

For Socialists, it is fundamental that every issue is decided ultimately by the wishes of the majority. For any other method of resolution entails that an elite has allocated to itself the right to pronounce the majority wrong. For the High Tory, convinced that some are born to rule; for the Platonist, proclaiming that distinguishing good from evil is a question of knowledge; for the meritocrat, persuaded that only some are intellectually fit to be entrusted with deciding the course of history, it may appear justified to exclude the many from a share in deciding the fate of all. But an essential part of the commitment to equality is the belief that the right to play a part in guiding the affairs of the community attaches to each member of that community, irrespective of the names and status of their relations, the cost and nature of their education, the size of their fortune or the letters behind their name. Even the elitism of the early Fabians, referred to by Rodney Barker, was subject to the right of the people to call the elite to account. Indeed the Fabian commitment to gradualism arises, as Shaw explained, not from satisfaction with present injustices, but from a recognition that improvement cannot come about more quickly than we succeed in persuading the people that it will really an improvement.

This doctrine continues to come under attack from two directions. First are the high priests of the classical tradition, who are prepared to concede to the masses a right to choose, provided that they choose within the frame work of beliefs established in the public schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

He then goes on to discuss the other source of opposition, the doctrinaire refusal of those on the Left to compromise their policies for the sake of winning elections.

But the description of the High Tories, the presumption of the moneyed elite to have the exclusive right to rule, and the limitation of democratic choice to Victorian and Edwardian Public School ideas, just about perfectly describes the attitude of Cameron, Osborne and this current government of public school toffs.

It’s time we took democracy back from them, and voted them out.