Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Cynicism, Kynicism and Poverty in Britain

A new word which I've sighted on a few blogs recently is "kynicism", a word coined by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in order to separate out the concept of political cynicism into two opposing ideas. Kynicism is the progressive half, in which, for example, people mock George Bush for acting like a peacenik when it comes to other countries' wars, or are sceptical of any statement by Zimbabwe on human rights. The conservative half he calls cynical reason, and this is what people express when they say that, for example, there will never be peace in the world or that no one can change the Zimbabwean human rights situation. In short, cynical reason is a philosophy of inaction whilst kynicism is a shrewd caution in assessing the actions of those in power.

However, I'm not sure I necessarily agree with this characterisation. For one thing, it is impossible to find out where one cynicism ends and the other begins. Cynical reason, deployed effectively, is an incredibly effective propagandist tool - e.g. the conviction of some of America's working and lower middle classes that new taxes and unionisation will just bring about more misery and unemployment has led to a weak labour movement. But will experiments in kynicism not bring about similar results? If we convince the public that the Conservatives are not concerned about being green or helping the poor, then we are not using the logic of cynical reason, which might be that of climate change denial or trickle-down theory, but we do end up with a situation where the Conservatives can commit terrible crimes against the environment or the poor and not be thought to be hypocrites, since no-one believed their rhetoric in the first place.

The central question must be how to characterise authorities or powerful people and organisations that have agendas we oppose in order to evoke the maximum of active resistance rather than passive cynicism. What forms that resistance takes is a second question.

Fig 1: Something to be cynical about:

Despite the economic boom days, the poorest in Britain (primarily the unemployed) have actually seen their real income go down. Both inside and outside the Labour Party, we can resist policies which have caused this (among them the removal of the 10% tax rate and cynical reforms of the unemployment benefit system).

(Courtesy of the BBC's page of credit crunch graphs).

Monday, 11 August 2008

Libertarians Against Free Speech

Most people by now will be familiar with a system of political ideas which goes by the name of libertarianism. This ideology is fundamentally concerned with the freedom of the powerful to fully exercise their power. However, as a sideline, many libertarians argue that their ideas will allow for more personal liberty: for example, that freedom of speech will be respected in a place where government is not able or willing to restrict it.

It is worth noting that libertarians aren't just some of the loudest people on the internet. Many of the most influential internet entrepreneurs claim to be persuaded by this political perspective. And it is from them I want to take our lesson today.

Peter Thiel is one of these new band of ideologues. He was behind PayPal, intending to undermine governments' abilities to collect tax through the creation of a web-based currency (1). Now he owns a large chunk of Facebook and an even larger chunk of other sites like Slide, LinkedIn and Friendster. It's safe to say that, even without consulting his book attacking multiculturalism, he isn't a natural friend of the left: "You can't have a workers' revolution to take over a bank if the bank is in Vanuatu" (2). As source 2 claims, the other directors of Facebook are venture capitalists sharing similar opinions, one closely linked to the CIA.

Libertarians being in favour of freedom, we would expect to see all ideas being freely expressed in the fruit of their endeavours, Facebook. There was the perhaps understandably American lacuna in the "political viewpoints" tab which excluded Socialism and merely left open the spectrum from "Very Liberal" to "Very Conservative", plus, of course, "Libertarian". But recently allegations have spiralled all over Facebook that the Cameronite "Nudge" policy has been replaced with something harder. Groups which were in favour of Lenin, the FARC and Fidel Castro and against Boris Johnson (!) are among the known casualties. In this 'public' sphere controlled by private corporate interests, the libertarian response is to stifle dissent in favour of their own ideology.

Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia (the non-profit arm) and Wikia (the for-profit arm) is also very open about his ideology. He calls himself a libertarian and credits Hayek for the inspiration which led to Wikipedia's founding (3). His entire project is aimed at creating a great encyclopedia by adding together the free speech of all, and yet he has been compared to a tyrant for occasionally exercising his unlimited control over the site (4). Overall, the "Neutral Point Of View" (NPOV) policy on Wikipedia has kept the political opinions of its founder more or less under wraps. But his new project, Wikia, will be more evangelical. "He calls it the “uncyclopedia” because he hopes to use wiki technology to build “the rest of the library”—books, articles about health and hobbies—with no presumption of neutrality." (5) - and no doubt there will be tranches of moderated opinion on politics as well.

Our final famous and potentially dangerous libertarian is one whose internet presence is perhaps only secondary. But in owning and all the websites of News Corporation, he is a big player nonetheless. Rupert Murdoch claims to be a libertarian: "What does libertarian mean? As much individual responsibility as possible, as little government as possible, as few rules as possible. But I'm not saying it should be taken to the absolute limit." (6), but he also shows an unhealthy contempt for free speech. refuses to let people link to certain anti-Iraq War websites (7) as well as making it difficult for users to link to YouTube. If that was not bad enough, his newspapers have been engaged in a long campaign of slander against internet competitors such as Facebook (8). See also.

One of the greatest dangers of the internet is that social websites and others with large audiences can begin to censor opinions and try to manipulate politics. It's well worth noting how few hands a large percentage of pageviews rest in, and how much power those few are beginning to have. This blog post was written on Blogger, owned by Google, who censor their content in China.