Is there a case to be made for Rousseau’s General Will?

The philosopher Rousseau discusses a number of ideas which are relevant in various ways to the world of today. The Enlightenment idea of the State of Nature is quite prescient in itself, given later discoveries about evolution. Human beings evolved to function in certain environments – these environments may not have been the most optimal from a human perspective, but the conditions which our psychology and biology are best suited for. Rousseau’s conception of the State of Nature as a kind of optimum position is close to what the evidence suggests today.

Rousseau’s conception of the General Will, however, has been highly criticised as totalitarian and dangerous. This is for two main reasons – first of all, Rousseau provides little explanation as to how to achieve this General Will, and therefore it would be easy to supplant it with the will of a dictator or party. Secondly, the idea that people could be ‘forced to be free’.

These issues are clearly present in Rousseau’s writings – however I do not believe that Rousseau or his concept of the General Will should be entirely discarded. There are, after all, entire groups of beings which are incapable of determining for themselves what would be in their best interests – animals, children and so on. Many political theories seem to lack a real idea as to how to properly address the care of these beings. They are left to the whims of individuals, or communities, or governments.

I came to the conclusion that the only moral way to decide on the treatment of those who require outside assistance is through the combined intellect and compassion of all of humanity. This is very similar to Rousseau’s concept of the General Will.

Although the details would be too much to discuss here, I believe there are possibilities for answering the first issue as well. It should be possible to develop a form of consensus based decision making which works on a large scale and within suitable time frames. Even the simple first-past-the-post representative democracy we have today is a form of consensus based decision making when we consent to respect the outcome of elections.

It would therefore be a mistake in my view to discard Rousseau altogether. He can still provide us with a source of inspiration both through his beautiful writing and his political thought.

YouTube Series

Hi everyone, quick update. I’ve been focusing on writing and editing at Conatus News, along with putting out a new podcast under that label which you can find here. But I’ve also started a new series on my own for short commentaries on varied subjects, much the same as my old articles on here, and I’ll be running that under the Fisher Download title. You can watch the first episode of that here.

Quick Announcement

Since I’m now a contributor to Conatus News, I’m going to be doing less blog posts generally. This isn’t going to be abandoned though, I have other projects underway which I will discuss here in due time, and anything that isn’t suitable for Conatus News like more personal pieces and dry theoretical musings will go here. That may not be an appealing mix but in that case you can follow my work on Conatus instead.


The first of my new articles is here:

Defining Metamodernism

As a teenager, I saw no contradiction in following the tenets of both Marxism and the ‘New Atheists’. Both perspectives provide simple black and white answers to the problems of the world, and are mutually compatible in other ways.

Both can be seen as very ‘modernist’ ideologies.

The ‘New Atheist’ movement has emerged after the downfall of modernism, however.

Let’s be clear here and lay out a definition of modernism and postmodernism. I don’t really care if you have a different definition of the terms. Art, architecture and so on will undoubtedly have their own versions. Either accept my terminology or substitute the words for more suitable alternatives.

So, modernism is the belief that human society is an ordered affair with recurring patterns which can be identified. It is faith in the human power to comprehend such structures, and that understanding and knowledge is a fundamentally good thing.

We now live in an age of postmodernism, in which all human concepts are considered to be social constructs which can and should be rearranged for political purposes. This age is characterised by a denial of universality, an embrace of emotion over reason and scorn for any claims of objective knowledge.

Postmodernism emerged in the 60s as a response to the failures of modernism. The belief was that science and reason had only led to war and death, and the rigidity of Communist ideology resulted in the stagnant authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.

This shift in attitudes among the left gradually allowed the right to claim the language of the Enlightenment. Freedom, democracy, reason and rationality all became buzzwords in the service of individual egos. The right uses formal logic and philosophy to help justify pre-existing assumptions and prejudices. By starting with a false premise, they build an entire structure which seems reasonable on the surface but has rotten foundations. Many such individuals and movements claim to be rationalists, but could more accurately be considered rationalisers.

It was at least partially the terrorist attacks of September the 11th which pulled a number of left wingers out of the post-modern perspective and spawned New Atheism. Suddenly, religion went from being a harmless if annoying form of philosophy to a real and present danger in the eyes of many who had already rejected it.

I was never particularly concerned about Islam as a teenager myself. My enemy was the Christian fundamentalism which denied evolution and condemned homosexuality, which had a foothold amongst my peers and whose messengers were allowed access into my high school.

It was surprising, then, when I discovered the Marxists at university largely considered New Atheism to be a hostile phenomenon, a tool of the powers that be to justify their new crusades in the Middle East. Despite the persistence of Marxism itself, I found the left to have thoroughly embraced postmodern concepts.

In time, I too embraced, if not postmodernism directly, then the philosophical products of postmodernism. I spent a good few years embedded in modern ‘social justice’ as the evidence piled up around me that there was something deeply wrong with the ideology. Without a rigid structure, without a solid foundation, terminology constantly shifted, nobody could really make sense of anything, and anyone who tried would be shouted down. The loudest, most aggressive and authoritarian voices held sway.

When a correct interpretation of the world is said to follow not from reason but from experience, those without experience can do nothing and trust nobody, because for every experience there is another which contradicts it. At best, people will use their own judgement to pick the voices of experience they wish to follow, and use that voice as a weapon to fend off any opposition. At worst, it will not be reason but fear and guilt instead.

Postmodernism, as an approach to life, is inherently open to abuse. By denying human reason, it leaves people in a state of perpetual uncertainty which can be taken advantage of.

Modernism has the opposite problem. By elevating human reason, it serves to hide the role of emotions in decision making, and leads its adherents to a dangerous level of certainty. This certainty spawns authoritarian attitudes and a close minded unwillingness to consider alternative perspective.

Even worse emerges when modernist and post-modernist philosophy mingles and combines in random and unfocused ways. People become rigidly inflexible about wishy-washy beliefs, or render themselves incapable of doing anything.

It is, therefore, necessary to solidify a positive approach beyond both modernism and postmodernism. Despite modern usage, the term ‘meta’ in Greek means ‘beyond’. Metamodernism is a term we can use for a new approach, the response to the failings of both modernism and postmodernism.

There are other approaches and interpretations of metamodernism, which I encourage you to google if you are interested. In this article I will be outlining my own interpretation.

Metamodernism accepts the universal truth of an existence external to ourselves. The world is more than mere human perception. However, it recognises the limitations of the human mind. Although external reality exists, we can only understand this reality through ‘models’ or ‘simulations’. We make assumptions and draw parallels to similar things in order to short-cut our way to understanding.

The task of the metamodern analyst, scientist or philosopher is not to reveal a fundamental truth about the universe, but to improve upon the models we use. By understanding and overcoming prejudices, for example, we help people understand the world and enable them to navigate it more efficiently.

Metamodernism recognises that not all ideas are equal – that the wrong idea whispered to the wrong person can lead to negative outcomes. However, it also recognises that the alternative to free speech and free expression is tyranny. Because metamodernism understands the role emotions play in decision making, it recommends sharing and dialogue rather than antagonistic debates.

Metamodernism acknowledges that categorisation is a human behaviour which is necessary to understand a complicated world, and thus rejects a simple dichotomy between what is real and what is a social construct. Everything is a social construct, the only question is how accurate and useful the concept is. Depending on the level of detail required, a category cannot be founded on broad stereotypes, or rejected because of a few exceptions.

To a metamodernist, truth is a direction, not a destination. Rationality begins with recognising the inherent irrationality of the human mind. Instead of suppressing emotions or obeying them, the metamodernist considers emotions something to be aware of, which should be a tool of the thinking being’s arsenal as a motivator and source of information.

Metamodernism recognises the patterns and systems which govern the movements and behaviours of people, but also understands that the individual is far more complex than the sum of interactions between a few of these systems. Attempting to make judgements and pick sides on a personal level, without understanding anything more than the social groups into which these individuals fall, is a deeply flawed and dangerous approach.

Metamodernism seeks to rehabilitate the Enlightenment. Rather than seeing it as a project of the Western elites, Metamodernism takes a wider view of ‘Enlightenment’ as a global, millennia long struggle for truth and justice which the 18th century movement was a very small and deeply connected part of.

For a straightforward definition: Metamodernism is the belief that human reason is inherently flawed, and that complete knowledge about the universe is impossible, but that reason and knowledge are still worth striving for all the same.

As usual I am only touching upon a much deeper subject. There may be deeper levels of analysis, more accurate ways to consider a rejection of postmodernism. I encourage everyone to voice their own opinions, in a constructive manner, no matter how ignorant we perceive ourselves to be. Postmodernism restricts our ability to act decisively, while modernism makes it too easy. Have confidence in your current opinions. It is only through putting them into practice, testing them in the real world and in conversations with others, that we can see where we have made a mistake. Do not be ashamed to be wrong publicly and get corrected. Be ashamed to be wrong in secret and never learn.

Principles of Ethical Secession

A curious phenomenon is taking place throughout the United Kingdom. Last year, we voted to leave the European Union. This year we face the possibility of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. In the course of these events, the left and right have largely switched places, using similar arguments previously raised by their opponents.

So what is going on? How can we make sense of this? If we can develop a general approach to secession then we can navigate these issues without fear of hypocrisy.

It seems to me that there are two specific reasons which make people want to secede from a larger union, though the two are often intertwined.

First of all, there are the political and economic arguments. Parliamentary democracies seem to settle around an equilibrium and shift between a centre left and centre right government. But if an area within the state consistently favours one side or another, they may feel themselves unrepresented in parliament. Right wingers objected to the European Union because it remains a bastion of centrism. Right wing newspapers have blamed EU regulations for all sorts of nonsense over the years. Now, left wingers went to secede from the United Kingdom because it’s too right wing. I find this entire approach reprehensible.

Democracies depend on the belief in a peaceful transfer of power. When your side loses an election, you cede control to the other side and plan your victory in five years or so. If you want the country to go in a different political direction, you focus on trying to persuade people to vote for your cause. Nicola Sturgeon is clearly a capable and competent person in a time where few politicians seem to be. Imagine how much good she could have done as the leader of the Labour party rather than the SNP.

Leaving a union because you don’t like the direction politics has gone opens up a whole can of worms which nobody should want to loose upon the world, as the right wingers are now discovering. You shouldn’t get to opt out of the results of a democratic election, although rich people and corporations have already been managing for a while now. If rich areas secede in order to avoid subsidising poor areas, things will really start going downhill.

On the other hand, there are the nationalist arguments. If one part of a state has a different culture it may feel alienated and isolated from the whole. This in itself is not grounds for secession. As long as your nationality is not subject to discrimination, your schools teach your language and so on, there is no reason why you can’t coexist with other nationalities within a single state. The potentially awful consequences of dividing up communities with borders, people relocating from one side to another and so on, can only be justified in a situation in which it is absolutely necessary to protect a persecuted ethnicity within a clearly defined geographical region.

Reading this, you may presume I am opposed to both Brexit and Scottish independence. Certainly I am opposed to both British and Scottish nationalism. But for Scotland to leave a United Kingdom which is in itself leaving the European Union is not an act of secession. As long as Scotland remains part of the EU it is maintaining the greater union and refusing to allow itself to be dragged down by English hubris. Before the referendum I was opposed to Scottish independence, but now I see it as the lesser of two evils. If Scotland suffers from leaving the UK, at least the EU will bail them out.

Automation and the Female Body – A Warning on Women’s Day

In my unfinished series of articles I may never publish on this blog, I calculated that misogyny was mollified, to some degree, by the fact that men and women must necessarily coexist in close proximity. Social bonds such as parentage play a role, but also the biological necessity of female reproductive systems, and for many men, relationships or at least sexual intercourse.

Elsewhere, I discussed that the reconstruction era of the United States was botched in that it failed to address the economic divide between rich white people and poor black people. The rich whites had been deprived of their income via slavery, but they still possessed their riches and their land. Meanwhile black people were left to ‘make their own fortunes’.

Since the rich and poor white people still maintained prejudiced attitudes, the poor white people now saw black people as direct competition for the same jobs. Meanwhile the rich white people, many of whom had been banned from seeking office, saw their former subjects rising to political prominence and began to consider them a threat.

The white south, rich and poor, begun suppressing the potential power of black people, by keeping them harassed and terrified, removing them from political office or even running them out of communities entirely.

Although it may not have escalated to the level of genocide, parallels can be made to the approach of the Nazis towards Jewish people. Keep them suppressed and terrified, run them out of Germany, and then ultimately exterminate them.

Yes, okay, fair enough, but what about the topic at hand? Sorry, but I have some more to talk about before we get there.

A lot of fuss has been made by many people, including myself, about the looming threat of automation. This has been a potential concern since the beginning of the industrial era. However, in the past, people, vast numbers of people, have been necessary to operate the machines which might otherwise replace them.

Now, with increasingly sophisticated machinery and computers, manual labour is being phased out completely. Without a comprehensive, global, social security network including advanced schooling, large sections of the human population will become obsolete. No longer useful for exploitation, they turn from an asset into a threat. Unscrupulous members of the world’s elite have already been ramping up prejudice against foreigners and the poor in recent decades. The consequences could be disastrous. The thing is, this issue has been raised and discussed by many people. Including influential and powerful people such as Bill Gates. They may be happy to exploit labour but the potential for death on a massive scale is far beyond many people’s moral compasses, for the moment.

What hasn’t been addressed is how this automation might affect women. Although prejudice against women in various forms still permeates our society, feminism no matter how distorted has been a bulwark against this. The more women value their own existence, and value other women, the more men have to at least make an attempt at respecting women in order to maintain positive relationships with the women in their lives.

Most men are heterosexual and have a sex drive stimulated by the media and society which pushes them into at least some interaction with women. Mainstream feminists are invested in leveraging this drive in order to maintain and raise female worth in men’s eyes. If women demand respect from their partners, and men are driven to become partners, then men will necessarily be compelled to respect women. This is, perhaps, one reason why mainstream feminism is so “sex positive”, and why many people think sexuality gives women power over men.

Sexuality gives women power over men the same way that slavery gave black people power over white people. It made them useful.

If scientists can develop entirely artificial wombs, women will no longer have to undergo pregnancy in order to have children. And if scientists can develop entirely artificial egg cells, men will no longer have to partner with a woman in order to have a child. Similarly, if engineers can make robots which replace manual labour entirely, it’s not a big step from there to making servant bots and sex bots. Why would a misogynist go to the effort of getting a girlfriend who they might have to treat with respect when they can buy a robot which can do all the things they value a woman for, and they never have to care about its feelings?

The female body has been exploited for centuries for its reproductive capabilities, both for entertainment and for the purposes of producing offspring. We may, in the near future, bear witness to the end of such exploitation.

The end of women’s usefulness in a society dominated by men will lead to suppression followed by extermination.

‘Britain First’? Or A Post-National World

All mainstream political debate takes place within a common perspective of nationalism. To a greater or lesser degree, perhaps, but candidates focus on what they think is best for their country. This is about what you would expect, when their electorate is people within that country.

The degree to which you think your country needs to rely on others or whether it can go alone are merely questions of economics and jingoism. So here’s a question of economics – in the future, will globalisation continue or diminish? If you look across the world right now and witness the rise of nationalist leaders you may well think it will diminish, but you would be wrong. Developments in technology, particularly transport and communication, will continue regardless of who is in power, and international mergers and takeovers of corporations will keep happening.

If you think your local nationalist politicians will stand up to this, be prepared for disappointment. If they’re not actually in league with corporate interests, watch what happens to a country which tries to assert its own economic agenda. Governments no longer have control over their own economies. Customs unions can be left, treaties can be torn up, but it won’t make a difference in the end. In the European Union or out, your country will bow to the interests of global capitalism regardless.

In such conditions, what is the use of nationalist policies? Only to control population movement. And you might be thinking, “great! That’s what I want!” if you’re from one of those countries which historically benefited from capitalism. I say historically, because, as nation states lose control of their economies to corporations bigger than they are, and borders are closed down while markets stay open, what possible use do you think the corporations will have for you?

More likely, governments will expand into the areas they still have control over – security. Wealthy individuals and corporate headquarters will move to safe, tax free, unregulated islands, and leave the rest of us paying for all the social costs, unable to travel out of deteriorating regions, watched and controlled by authoritarian powers we may even lose the privilege of electing.

Protecting your country is no longer an option. It will take the combined effort of most of the world to protect democracy and self-determination in the coming era.

These views may be considered extreme in modern politics but they must become mainstream in short order. Nationalism is no longer fit for purpose. ‘Britain First’ won’t help us when the crops die as the climate changes and the flood waters spill over the banks of the Thames. ‘Britain First’ won’t help us when an unhinged autocrat fires a missile and begins a war of total annihilation. ‘Britain First’ won’t help us when our own government turns on us and the polls close for good. And ‘Britain First’ certainly won’t help us when we’re all in debt to a corporation nobody can touch and the choice is between doing what you’re told or going to prison.

The need to maintain a welfare state is constantly used as an argument against helping anyone from outside our country. “Why help refugees when we have veterans who need support?” “Why spend money on the European Union when we have a failing NHS?”. But that only begins to work as an argument if the politicians who made those arguments were actually prepared to spend that money on the NHS and veterans. And yet we head inexorably towards privatisation and the destruction of social security regardless of how little we engage with the rest of the world.

It’s time for us all to swallow our national pride and admit that none of us are more important, none of us deserve more than anyone else in the world. Corporations and governments are certainly beginning to think so. If you don’t already believe that on moral grounds, it will be true in practice soon enough. The only question remaining then will be, what do all of us in the world deserve? Democracy, equality and freedom? Or dictatorship, inequality and servitude? Your choice.

Prejudice, Choice and Criticism – Where the Left Went Wrong

I was struck by a question as I was piecing my arguments together for a future series of articles. How can racism and sexism be dominant ideologies of a society which near universally rejects those labels? If these beliefs are so widespread, why are they condemned?

I realised the prejudices we commonly refer to as racism and sexism are often quite distinct from the ideologies which once justified them.

We can call the original version of racism and sexism ‘supremacy’. The supremacist believes their chosen people are inherently superior, morally and intellectually, to their lessers. This was the dominant ideology across most of the world until relatively recently.

Social conservatism still has the occasional taint of supremacy, which rears its head particularly in the form of religious sexism. However, neoconservatism and neoliberalism have adopted a new method of justifying their prejudices.

Supremacists believe that the unequal status of various groups in the world is proof of inherent mental and moral inequality.

Similarly, but importantly distinct, modern prejudice rests on the belief that the unequal status of various groups in the world is the result of poor (or ‘different’) choices being made. In this way, victims of discrimination and circumstances are made out to be self-sabotagers who simply need to get their acts together.

Critically this allows the prejudiced individual to claim no prejudice whatsoever. In fact this may be somewhat true, in the sense that they believe anyone who falls on hard times has it coming. This is, however, still a prejudice, and applying it to entire categories of people is a further prejudice on top of that.

Although the end result may be prejudice against women and other racial groups, this can be an entirely oblivious and unconscious bias which results purely from their ideology.

It should come as no surprise that this shift came about when the political right stopped openly stating supremacist perspectives and switched to dog whistle tactics. The modern ideology reinforces prejudice without ever having to acknowledge its existence.

The left, however, has been led to continue fighting the phantom of an enemy which has largely moved on. The overt prejudice of the far right is only a threat in areas with an active fascist organisation such as a street gang or the like. Far more insidious and looming of a threat is the harsh indifference of the modern centrist.

The ideology which underpins the modern prejudice is one which celebrates an individual’s free choice. It is necessary to believe wholeheartedly in a currently present reality of freedom of choice before we can fully judge individuals for choosing poorly.

But the left has largely failed to challenge this narrative. Instead they vehemently defend the supposed free choice of the individual, ignoring some of the oldest socialist concepts in doing so. Instead they focus on the symptom of the problem. The left tries to tackle ‘stigma’. The biggest obstacle to success and happiness in modern society, they seem to claim, is people looking down on you.

But this is such a trivial and superficial way of looking at the situation. The biggest obstacles to success and happiness in life are the circumstances which push you into situations which people look down on you for.

The biggest problem with suffering from a disability, for example, is not the stigma involved. The biggest problem is suffering from the disability and not being able to get the help you need. The stigma may prevent you from receiving help, but the stigma exists because giving you help does not align with the economic interests of people with power and influence.

To put it simply: the prejudice propagates the circumstance, but does not create it. Rather, the circumstance necessitates a prejudice in order to justify it.

Therefore, in order to end prejudice we must change the circumstances, not the other way around.

In trying to mitigate this stigma the left has begun to destroy itself. Criticising the circumstances people end up in is interpreted as criticising the free choice of the people involved, and therefore an attempt at shaming and therefore a reinforcement of the status quo. But since the circumstances people find themselves in cannot be changed unless we recognise them for what they objectively are, this is the exact opposite of the truth.

A radical critique of prejudice under capitalism would include a complete deconstruction of the notion of free choice within the current system. Instead of trying to shelter people’s ‘choices’ from criticism, we should be working to help bring about a world in which people can make educated decisions for their own benefit, free of coercion and excessive stress.

People have been waking up to the reality of the situation since the financial crisis of 2008. You can only maintain a belief in the poor decisions of individuals leading to ruin when it hasn’t happened to too many people you care about. When their faith in neoliberalism and neoconservatism have been crushed, they look elsewhere for an explanation. The left’s doctrine of individual choice appears far too close to the ideologies they just rejected. Rather, populist right-wingers give them convenient scapegoats to blame for their problems instead.

Supremacy rears its ugly head again, but it has learned its lesson and still speaks with the language of the new prejudice. Muslims, perhaps, or foreigners in general, it claims, are fundamentally incompatible with your way of life, with your democracy. They make the wrong decisions.

You shouldn’t have to support their mistakes. In fact, what’s happened to you isn’t your fault at all. It’s their decisions which put you in this mess. They decided to fail in life, and then they decided you had to pay for it.

This intoxicating propaganda falls on ears already primed and willing to receive it. A new faith to replace the old one. And the left is hopelessly unprepared for the battle, with language and concepts which only add fuel to the fire.

The political right correctly associates the left with elite institutions such as the media, universities, non profit organisations and so on, but they misunderstand who is in control. The left has absolutely no legitimacy as an opponent of neoliberalism, because it has been utterly compromised from within.

Communists and anarchists routinely denounce liberals and liberalism as a matter of course, while defending to their last breath concepts which are entirely dependent on liberal ideology for justification. Feminists now enthusiastically support every instance of the degradation of the female body as long as it is undergone ‘willingly’, and they insist that revulsion at abuse is in itself the greatest misogyny of all. Anti-imperialists support the imperial ambitions of the Russian state, Islamic extremists and reactionaries of every colour.

It is clear that the the left must rise again, to prevent the return of fascism and deliver economic and social justice before humanity fully destroys itself in one of a thousand ways. But in order to be reborn, it has to die.

Socialism or Populism

In a recent conversation with a friend, we discussed whether charity could be considered a form of socialism. Charity is the distribution of goods or services at no upfront cost to those who require them, done on a voluntary basis. A government which can choose to implement policies or revoke them could be considered performing a sort of charity when it provides social services.

But to me, the philosophical purpose of socialism is, in theory, to distribute not material goods but power more evenly in society. Early socialists called for democratic governments and workers control over the means of production. The purpose of this was to enable people to live lives free of coercive control.

Historically speaking, any powerful individual or organisation which has any sense will find some way to appeal to the masses. Often they may turn to what I described above as charity. Granting out favours in exchange for loyalty and obedience. This approach can be described as populism.

Populism is an appeal to the masses through addressing widespread concerns, as a means to accumulate power.

Socialism is an attempt to redistribute power to the masses, as a means of addressing widespread concerns.

Now of course you may immediately object that the vast majority of socialist governments have more closely followed my definition of populism. But a populist must necessarily pretend to be on the side of the masses rather than out for their own gain. Calling yourself a socialist has historically been a great excuse to seize all power and centralise it within your own hands.

If an ideology which is intended to distribute power instead allows for its accumulation, it is not fit for purpose. Most common interpretations of socialism will inevitably produce populism instead. This is a product of fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of power at best, and deliberate intent at worst. Any organisation which claims to value democracy and freedom, yet operates in an undemocratic fashion, both internally and through its interactions with the world, cannot be trusted.

It is a clear fact that right now that the general population of the Western world has major concerns with the way things are being run. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism have failed to address these concerns over the course of successive governments.

Populists are on the rise because they offer cheap and easy solutions to difficult problems. They are perfectly happy to make promises they can never fulfil. So far, establishment parties have tried to contain this rise by adopting populist tactics themselves.

Our choices, then, will merely be between populist parties. The destruction of democracy and independent living will be inevitable regardless of who we vote for.

That’s why we need the return of socialism according to the above definition. An actual shift in power, both economic and political, away from the governments and corporations and back to the ordinary person. Beyond total revolution, the only mainstream proposal I’ve seen for this is a universal basic income combined with a land value tax. It’s somewhat heartening to see basic income being trialed in many places across the globe, but there is a lot riding on the details of its implementation, and I’ve seen no moves towards a land value tax so far.

Unless we can deal with the rapid increase in global inequality in a structured manner, through socialism as I defined it above, the only alternative will be the rise of populism, and all that entails. Regardless of previous political alignments, my hope is to build the largest coalition possible in favour of redistributing power downwards, for fear of it being redistributed upwards instead.

Personal and Social Morality

The tongue-in-cheek argument that “if you don’t like gay marriages, don’t get one” has always seemed strange to me. For a long time, I didn’t understand why. But it was clear that a person opposed to gay marriage believed nobody should have one, and this snappy comeback seemed to imply that moral beliefs should be applied on an individual level.

Finally, I came to understand the distinction: there are two different types of morality. Personal morality concerns what you as an individual are prepared or unprepared to do, and social morality is about what you think society as a whole should do.

Unfortunately it seems this distinction is not widely understood. The phrase I mentioned does actually raise a good point, in a clumsy way. Opposition to gay marriage is based on religious rules, but religious rules are supposed to be a covenant between you and your God.

When you convert to a religion, or, I suppose, affirm your support to the religion you’ve been raised in, you implicitly agree to follow the rules of that religion. But why should those religious rules apply to anyone else? I have not made any such pact with spiritual entities, so why insist I play a part in your own? 

Religious rules are, or rather should be, a form of personal morality. Although many of these rules can be harmful, I have nothing in principle against an adult following their own path. In fact, I have a lot of respect, or at least sympathy, for people who fully commit to something they deeply believe in, even when it goes against their best interests.

What I do object to is the imposition of these rules on anyone else. In the Western world it is Christianity which get imposed on society, but one of my first serious breaks with the rest of the left was the attempt to enforce an Islamic rule across the board. That is, the depiction of Mohammed. I actually admire the original intent of the ban. Mohammed was a man, and depicting him could have lead to idolatry and worshipping the man rather than the God. Sadly, this noble intent has been warped into a prohibition against depicting him by anyone for any reason.

This kind of religious imperialism should be universally condemned but instead was treated as a reasonable request by many on the left. It’s true that many who depicted Mohammed did it purely to antagonise Muslims. But the fact that many Muslims are apparently antagonised by this is a big problem. Being outraged at the depiction of Mohammed could be seen as a form of idolatry in itself. In much the same way that it is always darkly amusing when even moderate Christian leaders are incapable of turning the other cheek.

Due at least partly to its connection to religion, personal morality tends to have a sense of ‘purity’ to it. The world may be full of sin and vice, but you hold yourself to ‘higher standards’. You can tell if someone is following a sense of personal morality when they oppose something only insofar as they have to be directly involved. It is very difficult to live by such a code and not feel superior to others. The sense of purity leads to a sense of disgust.

Because of this it can be quite difficult for personal morality not to leak over into social morality, even unintentionally. Those who fail to follow the rules may be seen as tainted and subject to shame both by others and internally.

And on the other hand, Western society seems intent on turning things which should be social morality into individual morality instead. In much the same way as people respond to disagreements over gay marriage, you may well be told to stay out of it when you raise a concern over any practice which might be exploitative, dangerous or unhealthy. This is ironic if you believe people should be making informed choices. Attempting to silence any potential negativity makes it impossible for anyone to actually come to an informed choice.

Ideologically, this weakens any effort at social change and reduces it to a lifestyle choice instead. If you believe farmers in poor countries should be paid more for their work, then you can buy fair trade products instead of trying to change the system.

The way I see it, the stronger the separation of personal and social morality, the stronger the ethical foundations of society. Understanding and reinforcing this distinction could help us establish a more robustly secular world, which would benefit the religious and nonreligious alike. By making this distinction clearer we can also more safely breach the “to each his own” attitude which has helped render left wing politics so impotent.