Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Valuing individuals

I’ve decided to change my blogging style. This year up to now I’ve blogged once every two months, and that really isn’t winning me any readership. (My post trashing The Tao of Badass, on the other hand, apparently is.) This isn’t to say that I’m going to stop doing the in-depth articles. I’m still working on a discussion of social constructionism, and there’s the Imponderable series to finish. But those will now be interspersed between briefer, more bloggy posts. I’m going to commit to posting something every week. On the other hand, I’m not going to do what I used to do on my old LiveJournal, which had entry after entry saying “Sorry, can’t think of anything to blog about today.” Instead, I’m going to find something every week, either online or in my lectures at work, which is worthy of comment. And as I can’t really ask questions in lectures, what with being a staff member instead of a student, that’s likely to be a rich source of commentary.
On Tuesdays I have POLS102, which at Otago is a paper entitled “New Zealand Politics – Introduction”. I say “at Otago” because Dr Bryce Edwards encourages people to tweet in class using #POLS102 as a hashtag, and unfortunately there are lots of people from other universities tweeting with that hashtag in reference to completely different courses. Anyway. Today was an introduction to ideology. About the Left and the Right and how the Left is all about collectivity and the common good, and how the Right is all about individualism and self-interest.
Can people stop saying this, please? It’s bollocks.
Look, I don’t blame Bryce for simplifying things for the first-years. And to be fair he did go into more detail than that, and he used the terms “socialist” and “liberal” more than “right” and “left”. But the idea that Left equals collective and Right equals individual is not a simplification, it’s a falsehood.
Seriously. Look at politics at the moment. Pick a rights issue that’s hot right now, an individual rights issue. The right to marry the person you love. The right to identify as the gender you feel you are, and to change your body to suit if that’s what you want. The right not to be raped. The right to move from one country to another. The right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. On every one, socialists and liberals stand shoulder to shoulder to support the rights of the individual. Opposing them are the conservatives, who champion the interests of collective organizations like the Church and communal abstractions like The Family.
Ah, but that’s social liberalism, you might say. On economic issues the Left really is about the collective good and the Right really is about individual liberties. To which I say: nope. In neoliberal economics, “welfare” is a measure of the total monetary value held by society, which is the same amount whether it’s equally distributed among everybody or concentrated in the hands of an élite. Socialists and social democrats are the ones who care about whether each individual gets a fair share. As for individual dignity, I can tell you from several years’ experience that if you were to design a system with the specific purpose of wearing it down through the sheer weight of bureaucracy, you could scarcely do better than Work and Income New Zealand, which was instituted by the National government of the 1990s so as to stop beneficiaries “ripping off the rest of us” – note again the collectivism of the phrase.
But don’t the Right favour the private sector (individual, freedomish) over the public (state-run, collectivitarianismic)? Yes, they buddy up with what is called “the private sector”, but that term is a preposterous Orwellism. Calling vast international organizations like Coca-Cola or Microsoft “private” makes precisely as much sense as calling an Antarctic midwinter blizzard “toasty”. The honest word would be “corporate”, from Latin corpus “body”, into which, the idea is, the individuals making up the corporation have submerged their personal identities. You could argue without absurdity that environmentalism is about preserving the natural resources of the Earth’s biosphere for the good of everybody rather than letting the selfish exploit it. But most of the real damage is being done by corporations, not individuals; and all of the real suffering is being borne by individual people, who, e.g., haven’t got clean water to drink or fresh air to breathe, or whose homes are being destroyed by the effects of global warming.
A worker is a person.  A corporation is not.
On my Facebook page, where it says “Politics”, I’ve written “I endorse the goals of social democracy but doubt the competence of the state to deliver them.” I’m wary of the power of government, but corporations are worse. And a large reason for my wariness is that since I was a child I’ve been watching governments sell off the responsibilities they were sworn to protect. I believe we can do better. In September I’ll be voting for someone who cares about people, and people’s rights, and people’s freedoms. Someone on the Left.

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