Monday, 26 September 2011

Imagination and the value of 'theoretical everything'

'Philosopy bites' is a fantastic set of podcasts which provides accessible but top end contributions from leading philosophers on a variety of subjects. I listened again recently to one on the role and development of the imagination and how it helps us to understand and appreciate causal relationships

In evolutionary terms, the very extended and protected period of childhood allows exploration through the imagination without the responsiblities associated with survival so that once adult the individual can apply the product from this learning to get things done. The podcast rather facetiously suggests that children are the 'R&D division' and adults the 'production and marketing division' of human beings plc. The insight that not having to focus on short term goals allows us to be able to accomplish goals in the longer term is increasingly well appreciated in spheres such as think tanks, strategy units and firms in silicon valley which all pride themselves on innovation and where efforts are made to capture (through the use of play rooms and play things) some of the child like exploration from which our ability to think differently arises. But it also reinforces that a constrained and regimented approach to child development particularly through the education system is short sighted and in fact counter to our basic evolution!

There is then some discussion about philosophy as 'theoretical everything' i.e. there is always a more abstract and theoretical end of any spectrum (so for example ethics might be seen as the very theoretical end of law; aesthetics as the theoretical end of art). Importantly, these are points on a spectrum or different parts of a web; not different worlds. Perhaps a statement of the  blindingly obvious. But an under appreciated one.

Imagination developed as an evolutionary tool to help us to think about cause and relationship. The abstract tells us a huge amount about the concrete. It was meant to do so. Recognising that there is a  'theoretical' in everything at a time when the emphasis is on the supposedly practical is worth well worth remembering.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Post Democracy and Post Modernity

'Night Waves' (BBC Radio 3) always provides stimulating discussion even if the experience can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating as one feels increasing feeble in the presence of the great minds.

Last week, one of the subjects under consideration was that of 'post democracy' as identified by professor Colin Copus. The basic notion of post democracy should, rather unsurprisingly, be worrying for democrats. It is that whilst the mechanisms and structures of democracy remain in place - elections, rights, rule of law, separation of powers - the content is being emptied of substance since, as Copus puts it, 'the energy has gone elsewhere'.

Just where has it gone? To major interest groups, particularly wealthy corporate interests, which now not only spend their time lobbying but do so 'within the chamber' i.e. they are not just making the case, they are helping to form the response. This direct involvement and indeed entanglement (see hacking scandal) is a major threat since it renders decision making much less visible and less accountable. In other words decision taking is increasingly done in ways other than through the channels that have been established to give effect to democracy.

To some extent politicians have been encouraging of this sort of development. The impatience with opposition or obstacle of any kind has manifested in various ways from the 'one of us' style of sofa government to the reduction in powers for bodies such as local authorities. Thanks to recent scandals on expenses and on hacking, light is now being shone on some of the murkier post-democractic recesses.

At much the same time as thinking about post democracy, I read a piece by Hari Kunzru which was the most lucid writing on postmodernism that I have yet found:

Kunzru makes some penetrating distinctions between modernism and postmodernism: 'If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.' Modernism had as its heart the idea of form following function. It supported a rational future. But its failings became all too apparent in the swathes of high rise tower blocks and grim functionality which all too often was in practice dysfunctional. The emphasis on reason and order which had been integral to much political and sociological thought since the Enlightenment but already buckling in response to some of the horrors inflicted in the 20th century seemed to have run up against the buffers.

At this point I enter highly risky territory in bringing together slippery concepts which apply in relation to both art and philosophy. But here goes.

Democracy has to combine form and substance or it dies. We have become very adept at style and the debasement of terminology. Everything is 'democratic' in some way. The favoured way in a post democractic world is that of grass roots activism and community organisation. It is one that meshes well with a broad neoliberal emphasis on the removal of constraint; on seeing choice and opportunity as the hallmarks of a good system and on fewer rules as almost always a good thing (except perhaps when it comes to personal morality - which, ironically, is in part response to the relativism unleashed by post-modern thinking).

But the dangers of post democracy are very real - irresponsibility among decision makers and a failure of the democratic system to deliver for those who are most disadvantaged in society.

Our wealth may be unequal. Our votes should all score the same. If there is an inside track and a weakening of the rules of the game, such democractic check as there is on inequality is significantly reduced.

A final quote from Kunzru: 'You look around at your beautiful house and your beautiful wife and you ask yourself, like the narrator of the Talking Heads song: 'Well, how did I get here?" After that, it's only a short step to deciding that this is not your beautiful house and your beautiful wife at all.'

In respect of democracy we do actually know how we 'got here'. We may enjoy the playfulness and the wit of posst modernism but we need a democracy which is about more than a pick and mix borrowing of the ideas of the past and an easy way with dressing up systems in democratic colours. It is easy to be playful when unhelpful rules can be wished away. In contrast playing by the rules is a lot tougher. How we 'do' democracy matters deeply - its form is there to give effect to its function which is precisely to try to ensure that what is done commands broad support and that decisions are not taken in the interests of the few.

Post-modernism may now be behind us but it may be replaced by a future of post-modernity characterised by 'disorganisation' rather than by the order and reason which underpinned modernism. In such a disorganised future - which envisages a disintegration of the role of the state; the growth of consumerism and an increase in the strength of multi-national corporate interests - post-democracy fits well. 

That certainly makes me want to restate the case for the full substance of democracy - warts and all. 

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Localism Bill Transfer of Functions: Is Government back tracking already?

There has been support across the political parties for amendments to the Localism Bill which were developed by the Centre for Cities and which will allow for the transfer or delegation of the functions of Ministers, Departments and NDPBs to local authorities either in structures such as combined authorities or to individual councils. In the debate in the House of Lords there were claims, which are far from grandiose, that these amendments represent the biggest step towards genuine localism in the Bill.

It feels churlish to carp a little when these are big steps forward for more genuine devolution. Yet in responding to what had been a very positive debate, the Minister, Baroness Hanham, slipped in some statements which may give supporters of the amendments some cause for concern. Here are two:

‘I need to stress to the House that this new power, to which we are all signed up, does not mean that we intend to unpick the arrangements for the national delivery of certain economic development functions as set out in publications such as the Local Growth White Paper and skills strategy. Those would not be able to be devolved’

She did not explain further and clearly there will be some major practical questions whch arise in unpicking current arrangements. However, but one can well anticipate that this includes the whole gamut of Work Programme provisions and probably much of the skills agenda both of which would be seen as significant elements of a well rounded economic development strategy. It would be helpful if Ministers were pressed to explain further what this apparent pre-emptive strike takes off the table.

Secondly, there was the following reference:

 'Any such proposals that were to come forward would need the clear support of local enterprise partnerships’

Given that the amendments were in part designed to provide ballast for emerging LEPs, at one level this makes sense. One would also expect that it would be unlikely that authorities would be putting forward proposals with which any LEP strongly disagreed. But at another level it does seem rather odd that bodies that will have no standing in statute and which have complicated and less than transparent accountability will apparently trump the views of democratically elected local authorities.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Co-Regulation: A Positive Step

A recent report on the prospects for effective local co-regulation by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning set me thinking about the way that the debate on regulation in the UK has become so binary and negative in nature.

For some, regulation is pretty much always a bad thing; for others it is an essential tool of control. The main proponents in this discussion are often business on the one hand and public authorities on the other. Individuals tends to see themselves as consumers wanting quite properly to have recourse where things go wrong and to have their health and other interests safeguarded. Local communities tend to become involved in controls over nuisance and anti-social behaviour in their area.  

The debate is very rarely couched in terms of wider citizen interests and even more rarely in terms of promoting positive outcomes from regulatory activity.

This Cambridge report has some reasonably detailed discussion about the experience with various forms of particpatory techniques much of which will be familiar to those who immerse themselves in these questions and does not come up with any specific prescriptions for the future. But three things emerged from it for me:

- it helps to delineate the role for citizens as opposed to consumers (although to be fair the report discusses at some length whether this is always a helpful distinction to make) and between citizens and professionals. As the report says 'citizens should not be treated as experts. Their role is .. to express their aspirations, values and concerns ...' . That seems absolutely right; providing an input on the general manner in which regulatory activity is conducted; not usurping the role of professionals in its detailed translation and not becoming a set of essentially individual consumer demands

- co-regulation goes beyond self-regulation in that whilst it may draw on a broader range of interests it is undertaken in the expectation that it will be enforced

- well designed and thought through processes to develop co-regulation could provides a basis on which to have a  positive dialogue rather than one focused either on removing almost all constraint on economic activity or on demanding ever tighter and more draconian control over some actions or people deemed undesirable.

If a greater degree of co-regulation can start a discussion about the way that regulatory activity can be used to promote good things and to secure outcomes - reflecting views on sustainability, justice and the like - which are ones that are good for the area and the people that live in it, that would be a huge step forward from the sterile discussion that generally takes place. As the report suggests, couching a conversation and a process around safer streets is far preferable to the kind of inherently negative discussions about restricting alcohol sales, banning people from certain activities and so on.

If approaches of this kind can help to put the discussion about regulation back into the context of making places better, that  can only be a good thing.