14 February 2020

Russian cinema

To understand the Russian psyche, you could try reading Turgenev and Tolstoy, sit through plays by Gogol or Chekhov, or watch the Tchaikovsky/Petipa ballet of Swan Lake.
   A simpler method might be to see a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, a director of quintessentially Russian cinema and particularly Russian sci-fi. The original movie version of Solaris, made by Tarkovsky in 1972, is currently available on channel4.com.
   The 2010 remake by Steven Soderbergh, with George Clooney and Natascha McElhone, was compellingly eerie in its own way but its brand of strangeness was quite different from Tarkovsky's, which is subtle, slow-moving and hard to define. For one thing, it is more willing to play with the conventions of narrative. In this, and in its sense of detachment, it seems to echo Kubrick's 2001, made four years before Solaris — though Tarkovsky was contemptuous of 2001 and clearly hoped to do better. Solaris has not aged as well as 2001 but remains the more psychologically interesting film.
   Similar as they are in tone, the contrast between these two movies from the hippie era — Kubrick's and Tarkovsky's — could be said to highlight differences between American and Russian mentality. (One can throw in a third film from the same genre/era to provide the French perspective: Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville.)
   Even better than Solaris is Tarkovsky's 1979 sci-fi movie Stalker (the title is somewhat misleading), in which the director shows his genius for generating atmosphere and philosophical reflection, in spite of there being relatively little dialogue or plot.

07 February 2020

TV tax

Gary Lineker is right to remind us that the UK's TV licence fee — which funds the BBC — is a tax. Although not officially described as a tax until 2006, it was effectively one long before that.
   My district council charges for providing and emptying a brown bin used for garden waste. This is analogous to a commercial fee: I choose whether to pay the charge, in exchange for a specific service. The TV licence fee may have had a similar character when it was introduced in 1946, but after non-BBC channels arrived in the 1950s, so that the revenue raised by the charge became disconnected from the services used, it effectively became a tax on TV sets.
   Whatever the pros and cons of using taxes to finance a public broadcaster, the administration of a tax should be managed by the state or an agency of the state. Control of TV licensing should never have passed to the BBC, as it did in 1991.
   The debate over free licences for the over-75s is embroiling the BBC still further in matters that should be the province of the state. The government should not have withdrawn funding for this in the expectation that the BBC would work out its own concessionary schemes. If the BBC becomes responsible for means-testing, it risks taking on even more quasi-governmental functions.
   If the license fee is retained, it should be as a conventional tax, as for vehicle licensing, and it should be administered by the state. The people who call at your home to quiz you, or attempt to prosecute you, should be members of the state apparatus — not employees of the BBC or one of its subcontractors.

31 January 2020


Further to the previous post, the article by Matthew Goodwin about the 2010s is revealing, both about political changes during the decade and about the intelligentsia's reaction to them.
   In one passage, Professor Goodwin exploits the ambiguity of the term liberalism to make some familiar complaints about capitalism:
Liberalism gave us individual rights and protected those rights through the rule of law. But it also attached itself to the most dynamic and successful economic system the world has ever known and which an ascendant middle class came to love: capitalism.

The events of the past decade revealed how these two in-built advantages had come unstuck. Liberalism has won many important battles, but it also crafted societies in which millions of people today no longer feel recognised or rewarded.
   Unpacking this quote deserves more space than I am able to give it, but one may for example wish to take issue with the idea that the liberalism that gave us the rule of law is the same liberalism that is now allegedly under attack from the reaction against socialism. Goodwin's attempt to reduce the counter-revolution to alleged popular unease about capitalism seems like an inversion.
   Socialism has always had two strands:
   (1) concern for the less advantaged
   (2) the desire to run the world on supposedly rational and just principles.
   The second strand came to the fore in the scientific planning utopias of the 1920s that were popular with intellectuals such as H.G. Wells, and which eventually manifested in extreme forms such as Nazism and Stalinism. In a milder form, this strand has become a ubiquitous feature of Western societies, with medicine, education, childcare and the universities all subject to intervention in the cause of 'rationality' and 'fairness'.
   The counter-revolution may well be a reaction to strand 2, but if the Left were to acknowledge this, it might require a retreat from their ambition to manage everything in accordance with leftist ideology.

24 January 2020


Politics professor Matthew Goodwin produced an interesting review of the 2010s decade for The Times. Commenting on the apparent shift to the right, he criticises leftists for responding to it by
retreating to their gated communities and bunkering down, self-selecting their activist base, echo chambers and social networks in which everybody looks and sounds like them.
   Like many in his profession, however, Professor Goodwin overstates the significance of the shift. He suggests that the decade represented the end of liberal hegemony (he uses "liberal" in the American sense of leftist-interventionist).
   There are two reasons why recent changes in America and Britain would be better described in terms of a mild counter-revolution than a change in hegemony. First, we have to separate style from substance. The rhetoric of Donald Trump is very different from that of previous US presidents; and the current UK government feels like a significant departure from the ideological complacency of the Blair and Cameron eras. In terms of actual policy changes, however, little happened during the 2010s that could be described as deviating from the leftist-interventionist paradigm.
   The second reason why references to change of hegemony are premature is that commentators fail to distinguish between political and cultural hegemony. Political theory appears not to have caught up with a phenomenon dating from the 1980s: governments being notionally right-wing, while the cultural establishment remains firmly left-leaning and is openly rejecting of moves to the right, however democratically based. The hostility of the cultural elites towards Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan provided a good illustration. We saw the phenomenon repeated more recently with Donald Trump, and may well experience the same with Boris Johnson (we had a possible foretaste with the Supreme Court's ruling on prorogation). Until there is some definite change in the politics of the cultural establishment — say, a clear sign of the BBC renouncing its programme of excess political correctness — reports about the demise of 'liberal' hegemony are likely to be exaggerated.
   We have to remember, of course, that the concept of hegemony is charged with significance for a Marx-inspired Left, since in terms of their ideology it is normally something to be criticised rather than endorsed. Hence complaining that the hegemony is right-wing (and thus to be opposed) will generally be preferable for them, compared to having to acknowledge that it is they who are hegemonic.

17 January 2020

post truth

It is hard to take the "post-truth" critique movement seriously, given it seems to suffer from the very defects it claims to deplore: dishonesty and a disregard for facts.
   Ostensibly the movement bewails that politicians are bending the truth and that the public is willing to swallow lies — phenomena as old as the hills. However, what is likely to be a greater reason for cognoscenti discomfort is the tendency, allegedly increasing, to question the wisdom of supposed experts. The discomfort may be largely about loss of power, but is wrapped up in concern for veracity.
   The movement likes to claim that many people's attitude to facts is selective at best, but it's not clear that it scores any better on this issue. For example, the movement likes to cite Brexit as an illustration of the post-truth tendency: Brits who voted to leave the EU were allegedly motivated by considerations that are not supported by facts, and allegedly ignored counterarguments based on hard data. None of the articles about post-truth I have read takes note of the fact that UK voters' scepticism about official pronouncements may have been justified, if those pronouncements were deliberately slanted towards what officials believed was the 'right' answer (i.e. Remain).
   If the alleged loss of faith in experts has been triggered by increasing awareness that their advice is driven partly, or even predominantly, by factors other than truth — e.g. what they consider to be the greater good — experts may need to look for the source of the problem in themselves.

10 January 2020

rule of law

I note there is an article at Policy Exchange by John Finnis, Oxford professor emeritus of Law and Legal Philosophy, arguing that the Supreme Court's annulment of Boris Johnson's prorogation was "wholly unjustified by law" and that it has caused "damage [...] to our constitutional doctrine and settlement."
[The judgment] ignores most of the immediately relevant statutory and political constraints and contextualising factors, and illustrates the ineptitude of judicial forays into high politics.
The Times's former legal editor, Frances Gibb, points out that Supreme Court President Baroness Hale "has left a web from which judges must now disentangle themselves". The government is apparently considering "greater political oversight of judicial appointments to curb 'activist rulings'."
Lady Hale insists that judges do not overstep the mark. They only look at the legality of actions by ministers, she says, and not the underlying reasons. But the very lack of a cited reason, "let alone a good reason", was central to the justices' ruling on the suspension of parliament.
It would be unfortunate if an undesirable intrusion of politics into Supreme Court logic results in the Court becoming more answerable to politicians.
   The rule of law requires that governments can be held accountable to the law. It also requires that the law not be applied arbitrarily: sticking to the letter as far as possible, minimising scope for discretionary interpretation, and not looking at intention unless this is explicitly called for. It is only an ideal of course, but it's an important one.

03 January 2020

trade war

One of the more interesting phenomena of 2019 has been the continuation of the US-China trade war. I am not sure what US President Donald Trump was trying to achieve by ratcheting up tariffs on imports (predictably leading to reciprocal tariffs by China) but the whole episode appears to have defied the conventional logic of textbook economic theory. While stockmarket valuations are not a foolproof predictor of economic fortunes, the continuing (albeit gradual) rise of US stock indices over the period 2018-2019 suggests that the overall effects on the US economy have been either neutral or even positive.
   The US's 'experiment' with tariffs illustrates one of the problems with economic theories: they may only work under a fairly stringent set of conditions. If markets are already distorted in one way, predicting the effects of further distorting them in some other way may be difficult or impossible.
   It is not clear to what extent Mr Trump's objectives have been achieved, but it was a bold move to defy the orthodoxy and — so far at least — critics of his trade policy appear to have been proved wrong.