Why I won’t be declaring my pronouns

I’m publishing this for anyone who doesn’t want to share pronouns at work – which is to say, I decided fairly early not to declare a gender identity and have needed to be prepared to defend this decision ever since. To cut a long story short, I consider gender as a set of stereotypes and a social imposition I’ve spent a long time trying to get away from, and consequently I don’t have a gender identity. But even as I ungender myself, I still have a biological sex – female. Human animals tend to use the term ‘woman’ for female bloggers (girls are more likely to be found on the gram). However, unlike hens, does, cows, and mares, some human animals are also trans, which means that the meaning of ‘woman’ has expanded to allow some males.

The reason I won’t declare a gender identity is not that I don’t welcome trans people or want them to feel comfortable. It’s that adopting one myself might identify me with political positions I don’t hold, namely that gender identity should have primacy over biological sex, and that recognising biological sex as a major social determinant is essentialising and akin to or as bad as racism.

I realise that may seem a bit of a leap. You might observe that it is equally essentialising to use pronouns to denote biological sex – and in any case what place does biological sex have at work, where we’re supposed to have equal rights and professionalism dictates that we don’t hook up with each other – at least not in core hours. And I’d respond in turn that even if it were desirable to be biological-sex-blind it would be futile. But I can’t see how it is desirable, because distinguishing between equality and equity depends on recognising differences that matter, and biological sex is a major determinant in our lives – for women, menstruation, maternity and menopause are hugely influential, and those are only the most obvious. It’s also not desirable because we are being urged to do the opposite for gender, not to mention other legal equality characteristics – why should sex be excluded? And futile because biological sex is never going to stop being fundamentally important in our society. It’s no coincidence that two of the three gender identity pronouns in general use map directly onto dimorphic sex, and no coincidence that the pride flag does gender as the (I’d say stereotypical) binary pink and blue alongside the non-binary white. Biological sex is very present in trans rights movements. I’d say it’s not a problem to solve – it’s simply at the heart of our species. But we also know that high profile campaigns believe that biological sex undermines gender identity and cannot exist along side it. In many spheres they have attempted to eliminate biological sex as a relevant category, even to the extent of interfering people’s sexuality. And if you publicly objected to that, as many – mostly women – did, it would be open season on you and you’d be fortunate to keep your job.

I’d actually go further. I see the attempt to sever the links between ‘he’ and ‘she’ and biological sex as creating injustice in a number of settings. A failure of monitoring participation by sex coupled with a sharp rise in younger trans people means we have to guess representation in different study, leisure and career pursuits where women are under-represented. If you’re into sport, you’re being asked to accept male-bodied people competing against women in sports where they are likely to win. We cannot accurately monitor sex offences and where there are signs of a sharp rise in women committing them, we cannot know whether the women are biologically male (there is no centrally mandated policy on data collection) which means that we cannot feed the data into valid policy. Accommodating male sex offenders who identify as women in women’s prisons has been recognised as a risk by a judge who nodded it through anyway. I never again want to read the headline “woman accused of exposing penis”. That’s not because I’m in a state of moral panic, it’s because it only takes a few cases like that to ruin the data on female sex offenders and frame women as more likely to commit sex crimes than they are.

I recognise that rounds of gender identity declarations are also intended as a gesture of welcome for trans and non-binary people. Our places of work are supposed to be spaces for people of different beliefs and none to come together and get things done, and one way we do that is not to impose one group’s set of beliefs on groups who object to them – unless it’s a battle for rights where the group being imposed upon is responsible for the injustice. It’s not like that in this case, and moreover here we need to avoid a zero sum game battle of rights between gender identity rights and biological sex rights. There are many kinds of marginalisation that I would like to acknowledge and bring in at work, so If I’m running the introductions I’ll invite people to share anything they want the group to know about them. Then, if anyone wanted to express their personal gender identity, I would observe the pronouns they requested. I might forget sometimes, and I hope that everyone would treat that with the same tolerance I extend to people who, say, refer to me as ‘he’ on social media or forget how to pronounce my name.

Vivez les misanthropes!

Activism used to be synonymous with protest: you raised the alarm and then called for action. You explained ways in which something is bad, called on people to do their duty, gave them something constructive and well-defined to do, and entertained criticism of the ones who didn’t do it. Campaigning is not really like this any more though – at least not if it’s successful. Last week that change hit me with some force when in the space of a few days I encountered several deterrents to traditional forms of activism, and a turn to psychology.

The first example was Sunny Hundal’s Guardian piece on how activists should change their ways in the face of a 17% drop in support for tackling climate change, as expressed in the British Social Attitudes Survey. As well as the anti-capitalist associations of the Green movement, he also points to the problems with feel-bad campaigning. “Talk about solutions rather than focusing on doom. A recent paper, titled Fear Won’t Do It, by the Tyndall Centre found that sensational representations of climate change “can successfully capture people’s attention” but also disengage them and “render them feeling helpless and overwhelmed””. I think this is over-generous. I think that people doubt that climate change is a threat after all. So does the Daily Mail. Anyway, despite promising strategies, Hundal confuses them with goals. Nothing here except a pervasive ‘Don’t scare the horses’.

Another example was Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity. They say that dwelling on what’s wrong with surface level transport (the bad air, the asthma, the expanding waistlines) is a losing strategy for those not already convinced. They learned to avoid cognitive dissonance from the famine charities; apparently the emaciated kids with flies crawling over their open eyes was too much for prosperous global northerners – they might give once to take the edge off the guilt but, finding that the guilt persisted, they rarely sustained the giving. So concluding that giving is mostly self-serving, leading charities had to change tack. We abandoned regular religious worship, and because there’s nobody left to tell us what to do, some charities decided on a strategy of manicuring our self-image. When it comes to transport it’s better to emphasise the positive, the opportunities, the alternatives, our heroism. We are all heroes. We are all Gandhis and Mandelas.

By Sarah Richards on Flickr

By Sarah Richards on Flickr

What do these commentators think is wrong with us? Mrs Hall is such a slave to feeling good that it’s assumed her moral fibre has turned to pulp. We’ve arrived at very low expectations of her acting on duty or conscience – it would be mistake to invoke them at all because she would probably refuse on principle. Mrs Hall has been taught to think of herself as unimpeachable. Consequently, Mrs Hall probably couldn’t recognise anything wrong with the way she lives her life. She is thought to expect extravagant praise for any act not obviously in her own self-interest. She’s thought inert except when somebody is gratifying her vanity. Mrs Hall is assumed to be above all interested in her own self-image. Mrs Hall is anybody’s fool.

And this is the crux of it. Feeling good is not a virtue. This can be clearly seen in my third example, Eve Garrard’s substantial examination of the pleasures of antisemitism and the failure of rational, cognitive approaches to combating it. Thankfully she doesn’t recommend a feel-good approach to dealing with antisemitism – in fact she talks past the people indulging in it when she writes “Here the devil frequently does have the best tunes, and the thin and reedy voice of rational argument is often quite drowned out by their brassy insistence. But we’ll do better in the combat, however we conduct it, if we realise that the views which we’re struggling against provide deep emotional satisfactions to those who hold them, satisfactions not easy either to overcome or to replace”. Eve too wants us to recognise the power of feel-good.

Deep emotional satisfaction isn’t a vice, but it isn’t a virtue either. Feel-good isn’t intrinsically anything moral at all. Sadism is a feel-good behaviour – in Iran, members of the National Guard can feel good raping young male anti-government activists, relishing their future isolation as their unspeakable shame eats them up from within. It feels good but it’s evil. It can feel fantastic when rapists rampage with abandon through Congo villages with abandon, but it’s evil. Ethnic cleansing can feel powerfully good, but it’s evil. Assisting your incapacitated neighbour can feel good, and it is good. Eating dead animals can feel very satisfying (this example is different because it’s normal) but I expect future generations will shudder at the suffering and wonder where our conscience was.

I welcome psychology insofar as it can explain things, but it can be badly used in policy. Don’t tell me the ‘nudge’ phenomenon – libertarian paternalism – doesn’t represent a failure of better means, for example. This Mrs Hall construct of Oxfam’s, which stands for all of us, has a character flaw which is vulnerable to, and contains the germs of, bad social movements. Rather than pander to her failings and pragmatically dream up ways to part her with her cash without disrupting her self-image, I’d prefer people gave more leeway to their inner disappointment in themselves and humankind, and treat moral discomfort as a civilising route to truth in untruthful times. If the Taliban score 10 for misanthropy, the Puritans, 9, Bob Geldof, 5 and Bob Geldof’s daughters, 0, I’d say we’re currently at 2 but we need to be at 6. Which allows for different approaches to campaigning, along the lines of the Daily Vegan who, encountering criticism about preachy vegans, responds with a defence of diversity.

No, I’m atheist-secularist.

“Influential left-wing ideas” (or issues, or initiatives)

Bob From Brockley asked about what I (among others) thought were the most influential left-wing ideas, as a follow-on from what I thought was a dispiriting discussion about influential left-wing individuals.

People report they are finding this difficult. Without a doubt it’s harder to examine the influence of ideas on populations of individuals than the influence of prominant (or perhaps more often, dominant) individuals on populations. But ‘vector’, the metaphor for infection or pollination which is now widely used to talk about the spread of ideas, is a good metaphor because a vector isn’t a single organism with intent, but a phenomenon in a context.

The good influences mentioned so far include (Bob’s) social justice; internationalism; the one-state solution; open source; strangers into citizens and (Sarah’s) statism; LGCT rights; minimum wage; secularism; the blogosphere.

Mine follow. They’re scant I’m afraid. There’s some overlap with Bob, but at least one interesting point of departure.

Good influences

Internationalism. The kind of coordination of effort and redistribution of resources and know-how which holds that tackling climate change is important because some people, whose lives are as important as ours, reside in low-lying Bangladesh. This depends on a sense that “that could be me”, and empathy, which I think of as an essentially left-wing disposition. The kind of coordination which sends international peace-keeping forces to underwrite Ivory Coast democracy and peace in the Balkans. And at the grass-roots, organisations like Fairtrade, Labour Behind the Label and the rainforest preservation initiatives whose idea of sustainability includes the wellbeing of local human communities.

Equality. It’s good that talk of social mobility, which implies decline as well as gain, has been replaced to some extent by a commitment to arrest and reverse the gap between the middle and the poor. Wilkinson and Pickett’s ‘The Spirit Level’ has changed the political right and recalibrated the left by claiming that inequality harms the wealthy as well as the poor. On the other hand, the Equality Act (now threatened by the Coalition on the pretext of removing burdens on business) was conceived to support equality of opportunity by outlawing discrimination.

Openness. Open government: the Freedom of Information Act. Open source: Moodle not BlackBoard; OpenOffice not Microsoft Office; Ubuntu not Mac OS; Audacity not GarageBand. The open web: Twitter not Facebook; Gutenberg and CreativeCommons, not Amazon.

The following two are on a different scale from the three above. Better to think of them as initiatives rather than ideas.

Mutualism and cooperatives. Workers’ stake in decision-making about the businesses which employ them. N.b. I (and I think Bob too) mean for the commercial sector, rather than this weird New Labour and latterly Conservative mutualisation of what were formerly state-run public services.

The nanny state. I know that the smoking ban passed through the legistature on an employment law technicality, but for many, smokers and non-smokers alike, it’s a good thing if we are supported to overcome the parts of us which a) hurt us, and b)  draw heavily on a shared NHS pot. The nanny state also belongs in the ‘not influential enough’ section below. I hope for more nannying over our diets and physical activity. I also hope for a better name for this, and feel ambivalent about its alternative, libertarian paternalism.

Not influential enough

Conservation. Conservation is the un-self-interested investment in unknown future others. It stands against consumption, against individualism and for kindness. It cares, preserves, doesn’t take for granted, doesn’t squander, and hands over in good order. It treats the world as an inheritance. Sound left-wing to you? Me neither – even though it should be a principal tenet of the left. This is why I remain, despite their many and troubling failings, more Green than Labour.

Opposing the consumption of animal. In recent decades, the desire for cheap animal protein in a capitalist system has precipitated a race to the bottom in terms of animal welfare. As a general rule, animals are bred to maximise feed conversion at the expense of their health, pumped with pharmaceuticals at the expense of our health. Their deaths are never good, often not achieved quickly, and the sick ones are rarely euthanased because it’s too expensive. The animals’ shit makes us ill. Animal farming is for the most part environmentally degrading and takes up an enormous amount of land at the expense of other food crops – i.e. we do not need to eat animal to thrive. The most acute and prevalent suffering in the world is that of farmed animals. There can be no left-wing position that supports this disgusting, self-harming state of affairs.

Related to openness, the free flow of ideas embodied in the open access movement, enabled by CreativeCommons which fractured the binary all or nothing approach to authors’ rights, and allowed them to decide how they wanted to make their work available.  There is a growing number of reputable non-commercial publication channels such as the Open Humanities Press (another major vector of left-wing thinking and amplifying some of the individuals I know Bob feels have too much influence on the left – but, those individuals aside, a model of how academic publishing should be). Now there is nothing to stop the world’s scholars publishing gratis and libre open access, and offering their ideas to a hungry world. However most continue to publish commercially for readers of means, often without self-archiving.

I’m beginning to become resentful (I think it may be partly due to a bout of inter-festive dejection) so let us proceed to:

Initiatives I appreciate when I’m feeling realist in a right-wing world

  • Micro-credit
  • Regulation of the money markets
  • Philanthropy

All for now – thanks Bob. Like him I doubt I can rouse anybody to this, but I’d be very interested to hear from Stroppy, Papanomicron, Barkingside21 and let’s bother Mod some more. And, remembering that Marko did this last year in a fashion, I read his again.

Update: here’s Weggis – think observation rather than aspiration.

Big society versus the coalition government

My view of the Big Society does include volunteering. So they are going to stop picking up litter? Good – I think it’s a scandal that taxes should go, without a word of protest, and as if it were inevitable, to picking up after other people’s parlous neglect. I voluntarily confront people who drop litter, get angry about it, and pick it up where I find it. The latest developments will somewhat strengthen my harangue.

Other than that, on the Big Society I can’t put it better than Bob:

“I have some sympathy for some of the philosophies in the “Big Society” mix; I believe in a small state, self-help, mutual aid, decentralisation and active citizenship.”

and Nick Cohen:

“Local charities had already done what Conservatives and Liberals want them to do and formed a campaign group, Islington Giving, to raise money and volunteers to fill the gaps left by the shrinking state. After writing a few press releases – as I said, my contribution was shamefully small – I have learned that there is little point in leftists denigrating volunteers, particularly if they are scoffing at those who are more willing than they are to give money and time to others.”

Qualified by (Bob):

“BigSoc ideologues like David Willetts and Phillip Blonde talk eloquently of exactly the kind of thick civic culture that I refer to in this post. But I remain unconvinced that the Big Society in reality is anything more than an alibi for fiscal ultra-conservatism, or that Cameron’s attempts to imagine it into existence will do anything to mitigate the social devastation that is already being caused by his government’s slash and burn social policies.”

and (Nick Cohen):

“Public-school conservatives are in power, however, not the left, and their prejudices matter more. I accept David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith are not members of a conspiracy of plutocrats but well-meaning men, who look at the billions spent to keep millions in idleness and wish to reform the system. The trouble is that they do not understand how the system mistreats the poor and inarticulate. Inadvertently or not, they are ensuring that the law will not hear their appeals when they protest against injustice.”

And The Observer’s leaked council document, which reveals a new regime of bare statutory minimum.

If I’m to be part of a Big Society, then it is in opposition to the coalition government.

My view of the Big Society doesn’t include asking for reward points to redeem at Tesco.

It has a view of the education of the individual as a social good. Matt points out that the coalition’s Free Schools are a two fingers up to the Big Society’s message that “we’re all in this together”. My Big Society supports a mass higher education and understands that society is a main beneficiary, alongside the individual students. This is why my Big Society’s government views university teaching, including in  arts, humanities and social sciences, as a £3.5bn+ investment well spent, and why the measure of acceptability for the planned huge increase in fees will be increased participation by students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the squeezed middle, greater student satisfaction, and academic achievement. But HEPI’s analysis of the Browne Review cautions that there is no market research underpinning the review and that “efficiency savings” is likely to mean even worse student:staff ratios (England is one of the worse OECD countries) and fewer resources to go round, making it hard to compete for students and leading to a spiral of decline. HEPI also points out that quality and strong market position do not necessarily have anything to do with each other:

“…the apparent absence of any recognition of public interest in the health and well-being of those universities that may not thrive in the marketplace is to be regretted. Universities are part of the national infrastructure, and it is in the interests of the country and the responsibility of the government of the day to ensure that universities at all levels of excellence thrive.”

HEPI also point out that latent demand for higher education is far greater than the extra 10,000 places a year for three years recommended by the Browne Review, and that the review has omitted to factor in calculations about how much it will cost to resource the loans required – a public subsidy.

Come on UCU, come on HEPI – some good and excellent criticism but where are the alternative models for student and university finance?

My Big Society refuses to have our attention diverted by a few instances of gross inequity in the welfare system even as we act to end them:

“First, by focusing on the claimants, we deflect attention away from those who profit from their claims. Thus my earlier statement that there are 139 families to whom we are paying over £50,000 in rent a year was an inaccurate one: they hand that rent over to private landlords, and it is the private landlords we are actually subsidising. The housing benefit system drives the most unscrupulous landlords (and unscrupulous people, in my experience, seem to me disproportionately represented in the population of landlords) to charge the highest rents they can get away with, and more to the point the current scale is based on a market rate that is grossly inflated by property speculators, corporate landlords and all the other afflictions that have made London’s housing situation so unjust in the last couple of decades. If housing benefit reform will exacerbate social cleansing from inner London, it will only intensify what the market is already doing.”

Instead it involves regulating rents – for pete’s sake the capital city of the ultimate capitalist state has rent control – based on the landlord’s mortgage, and removing any tax breaks for second properties. Shelter is good (specific, evidenced) on building more affordable homes, as well as on reforming the rental market. The Green Party’s housing policy is one of the things I like about them.

My Big Society campaigns for changes in the law so that, for example, we are not relying on the good will of our sinfully rich but nevertheless law-abiding Conservative chancellor George Osborne to pay what should be his tax dues but currently, undeniably, are not. David Mitchell is understandable frustrated with 38 Degrees:

“Does 38 Degrees really want this to become a country where politicians, as well as being scandalously underpaid considering the importance of their jobs, are expected to pay more tax than the law requires? Should we all be chipping in a bit more if we think we can afford it – treating the Treasury like a charity? Is that its vision of liberalism? Like a “pay what you can” night at the theatre, the more generous and generous-spirited, the caring, the giving, will feel the pressure to pay more – it would be a tax on qualms, on social conscience. What a brilliant scheme for finally, irrevocably, impoverishing the left.

George Osborne doesn’t “think it’s OK to have one rule for him and his friends and another rule for everybody else”. He knows he can’t get away with that. What he thinks is OK, and what the petition should really address, is how that one rule, which applies to all of us, is so much more beneficial to him and his friends – to the rich – than to everybody else.

The rules are universal but unfair. They allow the rich to avoid tax without having to evade it and Osborne, as chancellor, is responsible. We should be protesting about this, not that he’s keeping as much of his own money as the law currently permits. If it helped focus his mind on a wholesale reform of the taxation system, I’d happily let him off tax altogether, make it a perk of the job. I don’t care about his £1.6m. I care about the billions being lost through the same loophole.”

My Big Society involves people from all walks of life, like the City lawyers Nick Cohen noticed, protecting vulnerable disadvantaged people from government contractors like Atos Origin – another scandal, Islington Law Centre has a 80% success rate on appeals against incapacity benefits declined on the basis of Atos Origin’s medicals.

Although my Big Society doesn’t really understand economics and has to explain quantitative easing to itself time after time, it is persuaded by an alternative budget to the one the coalition government proposes, which – in contrast to Chancellor George Osborne’s plans – has a 65:35 ratio of cuts to tax increases, seeks to eliminate the deficit in 6, rather than 4, years, which maintains but taxes universal benefits to both give everybody a stake in the benefits system but acknowledge inequality, and which understands capital investment on transport and housing as an investment in a future economy, and a better kind of borrowing than the borrowing required simply to finance a deficit.

And – most importantly, and which is much harder, and which I haven’t cracked yet myself – my Big Society refuses to settle for miserable griping, or even criticism, necessary as it is, but pushes beyond pointing out what’s wrong to conceive or find, and campaign for, specific alternatives which are underpinned by principles for a fair and real world.

My Big Society is in dire need of something to coalesce around, and awaits with anticipation False Economies, a resource from The Other TaxPayers’ Alliance which pledges to challenge Osbornomics.

A thought experiment about copyright in a digital age

I value Henry Porter’s column on privacy and digital rights in The Observer of a Sunday. But today, in an abstruse windmilling piece about copyright he really lost me with his baseless conservatism. A little further below is a thought experiment on escaping restrictions on copying what is freely reproducible, while attending to the need artists have of an income.

Information is pretty cheap these days, there’s talk of ‘information glut’ and ‘information overload’. Professional journalists no longer have a monopoly on researching and breaking news of social value. Whaddaya know – there is a lot of talent and wit out there after all. I value the penetration and reach of citizen journalism, and I value the rigour and ethics of professional journalism. The onus is on the professionals to find new models of income generation – to distinguish themselves from people like me. And if they can’t, we take a lesson from that. But I think they will be able to.

Henry Porter harks back to an age of elite-producers – I don’t. The vision lies in the way we interact with the glut of information – emails, blog posts, web pages, media bits. This is Google’s enterprise. When Henry Porter refers to Google as:

“a parasite that creates nothing, merely offering little aggregation, lists and the ordering of information generated by people who have invested their capital, skill and time”

this is the most breathtakingly unjustifiable diminishment I’ve come across in ages.

We owe to Google a number of revolutionary interfaces and algorithms, some gorgeous visualisations and some sweet office products. Google Earth and its mash-ups. Google Maps, including Street View (which helped me plan a new route to Paddington and execute it seamlessly and in a hurry; which helps people look for new homes). My integrated, overlapping, selectively-shared calendars. Threaded email. All new, all ground-breaking, all so, so helpful.

Google is better at helping us to interact with and share data in creative ways than any other single software company I can think of (and it doesn’t matter if I’m wrong – the thrust of Henry Porter’s argument – which failed to acknowledge the creativity of Google’s coders – was content-authors v. “parasites” in general). Google is not a parasite any more than a baker is a parasite for profiting out of the reworking of wheat. Google is an enterprise. I know ‘entrepreneur’ is a dirty word for some people – for me they are simply designers. They rework materials in ways which bring them to more consumers than before..

Google will attempt to capture our data and profile us in order to improve its core business, which is advertising. The corollary of this profiling is potentially very dangerous (Henry Porter is a stalwart in highlighting this). The price we pay for the pervasiveness of Google is that we need to watch it closely and to criticise it minutely. We can do this. Or we have to opt out. We can opt out. Or we have to cooperate globally to develop new anti-monopoly models for the Web.

But what really got me thinking was his comments on copyright, which nudged my existing views into radicalism.

“Google presents a far greater threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of commercial institutions important to the community. One case emerged last week when a letter from Billy Bragg, Robin Gibb and other songwriters was published in the Times explaining that Google was playing very rough with those who appeared on its subsidiary, YouTube. When the Performing Rights Society demanded more money for music videos streamed from the website, Google reacted by refusing to pay the requested 0.22p per play and took down the videos of the artists concerned.

It does this with impunity because it is dominant worldwide and knows the songwriters have nowhere else to go. Google is the portal to a massive audience: you comply with its terms or feel the weight of its boot on your windpipe.”

So, taking down your video from its own equates to treading on your windpipe? Come on. I mean, come on. And if it weren’t Google that owned YouTube? If YouTube were commons – free and open? Would Billy Bragg let his video be shown for free?

No he would not. Because Billy Bragg wants to earn from royalties (God knows what Henry Porter wants).

And this is when I set myself off on a thought experiment. I haven’t read widely on this subject at all, so maybe it is superficial, stale, or just plain senseless. But until somebody enlightens me, think on the following scenario.

Imagine you wrote a novel. It would be a digital file. If you and I were friends, you might give me the text – perhaps by email – and I would rework it for my e-reader. Digital files can be kept and given away at the same time – giving it would cost you nothing. And yet going by the old publication model, you’d expect to lock down your file with copyright and sell it as a hard-copy book and – with digital rights management (DRM) to prevent copying – an e-book. Seventy years after your death, your text would pass into the public domain.

But imagine if we drew a line under this old way of doing things and designed a new model – this time beginning from the premise that it is unethical to attempt to prevent the reproduction of what can be freely reproduced. There would be no more royalties and bookshops would be decimated or more.

Imagine we also accepted the necessity of giving the artists we love an income which enables them to practice their art.

What would we do?

I’d be inclined to reconceive the idea of revenue as an idea of income. So the product of the labour – here, the book – is free, but the artist requires an income. How would we raise an income? Currently, artists – let’s say ‘authors’ here – struggle unsupported to produce their first pieces of work, and it is only if those pieces gain critical recognition that an advance or grant is forthcoming. Many authors find it hard to attract funding and don’t make it to the shelves, let alone to the high-traffic parts of websites or bookshops where the promoted works are.

Another way might be for you to publish your work – on Scribd or on Lulu – for free. Perhaps in installments. We would preserve the ‘attribution’ aspect of copyright which gives credit for a work. Maybe we would also impose some law restricting derivative works – this is important but I don’t want to go into it now.

And when you have readers, and maybe even a few reviews under your belt, and you are keen to begin your next work, you get an account on a site which is a cross between Just Giving and Pledgebank, but more formalised. This site is designed to allow you to collect donations from people who want you to write another book. You make it clear that you can only embark on your next work if a given amount of money has been donated – if this amount is not achieved by a certain time then everybody else gets their money back if they say they want it back. You set the terms of a contract, or you just collect the donations. Just as you would with a publisher, you produce a treatment for the book which piques the interest of your prospective funders. You tell people how much you needed to be able to write the book (say £35k – or some amount which factors in your tax, your pension contributions, your savings pot, your roof repairs, and so on – you are as transparent as you want to be, or feel you can get away with). You perhaps explain that if 100 people donated, each would need to give an average of £350, or if 1000 people donated, £35, or if 10,000 people, then £3.50.

You are funded by myriad tenners and fivers from the people who want to be your readers, rather than a single advance from a publisher who wants to profit from distributing your work according to derelict distribution models.

Or maybe you don’t want to be a small-business person. Maybe you need an editor. This is where publishers come in – only perhaps now we call them ‘producers’ rather than ‘publishers’. Or perhaps ‘publisher’ is still appropriate. Maybe the publisher organises the pledges, and your target collection amount includes the fee of the editor and the fundraiser, typesetter, illustrator, etc. The cost of producing the book goes up but if the reputation of your team is good – if you are loved and your work is breathlessly anticipated – people would pay your advance. Think Joseph Stiglitz, J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin. Or if a publisher was like a record label (i.e. a trusted brand) then maybe the publisher could collect on its own behalf, and work according to the established model.

Except once the book was written, it would be free. You (or your publisher) would be collecting for your next book. Maybe you never stopped collecting. You’d also have revenue from readings, appearances and the other things authors earn from which can’t be reproduced in a click. Security of income would be no less than the current model – perhaps it would be greater, since the author would control the terms.

And what this means is that (because this goes for sound copyright to, or anything that can be effortlessly reproduced) Billy Bragg, Bono and Cliff could stop trying to lock down their stuff. And Henry Porter could stop calling Google a parasite and concentrate on protecting our data.

This is a sketchy post, but it’s bedtime so I’m going to publish it anyway. I’m particularly hoping that Sarah will read this and – as a writer – let me know what she thinks.

New years’ resolutions

In a nutshell, I intend to be both understanding and firm this year.

This year I’ll be a less pusillanimous vegan. There will be firmer objections to the eating of animal. I won’t be good humoured about jokes and there will be no more indulging of pork sausages and swordfish steaks at my barbecues. All critical activities in this department will be directed at celebrity cooks and other opinion formers, not at the friends I wish to keep.

I’ll try not to leave people who deserve overt support sticking their necks out without me while I assume the superficial and untaxing posture of peacemaker.

I’ll tackle political conundrums with a novel new approach – making excuses for everything. This should isolate the things for which it is impossible to make excuses and then hey presto I will know exactly what to think. It should also salve my current blistering negativity when confronted with arseholes.

I’ll reconnect with environmentalism, which I currently practise by rote. Having reached the end of my (remedial) year of women and animals, this year’s particular focus will be the environment and how it sustains us.

Secularism too.

I’ll commemorate everything which has a significant anniversary this year, including the National State Pension, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and WIZO.

I’ll try to think about what internationalism should mean in socialist politics.

At work I’ll become famous for initiative, knowledge, judgement and getting things done.

I’ll manage my time extremely well, with close reference to Lifehacker and by being disciplined about priorities.

I’ll keep in better touch with absent friends (this will involve getting accurate weighing scales so that I can send them things without spending a lunchtime queueing at the Post Office.

That’s plenty. Starts now.

Oh – and I will go to bed at a decent hour on weeknights.

Euston Manifesto signposts

With my last post in mind – about how useless Hamas is as a mascot for the anti-imperialists – this serendipitous piece from Alan Johnson of Democratiya sums up how and why the post-Left (aka kitsch Left, rococo Left) is wrong.

The Euston manifesto was a warning cry. Post-leftists, we said, were living in what Paul Berman called “foggy zones of half-believed beliefs, freed of any responsibility to subject any given opinion to the simplest of common-sense tests”.

What were these half-believed beliefs?

A demented “anti-zionism”. Paul Berman observed:

“During the last two or three years, large publics in western Europe and even in the United States have taken up the view that, if extremist political movements have swept across large swaths of the Muslim world, and if Ba’athists and radical Islamists have slaughtered literally millions of people during these last years, and then have ended up at war with the United States, Israel and its crimes must ultimately be to blame. And if America has been drawn into war in Iraq, it is because President Bush’s second-level foreign policy advisers include a few Jews (though all of his top level advisers are Protestants), and these second-level figures have manipulated everyone else to the bidding of Ariel Sharon.”

Anti-Americanism. A lunatic book like Thierry Meyssan’s Le 11 Septembre 2001, l’Effroyable Imposture (translated into English as 9/11: The Big Lie) – was given respectful attention in Le Monde Diplomatique and sold 200,000 copies in France within one month of publication. The dinner party talk was that America “had it coming”. Anti-Americanism was becoming a “self-sustaining hatred” as Andre Glucksmann puts it, akin to the other grand hatreds – of women and of Jews.

Occidentalism and self-hatred. Whatever “they” do, it is “our” fault. We are the great satan and they are “the resistance”, so the worse their atrocity (decapitating aid workers, blowing up wedding parties, marketplaces, and mosques of the “wrong” sort, slaughtering election workers, assassinating elected MPs, hanging homosexuals, torturing trade unionists, flying airliners into buildings, using the mentally ill as suicide bombers, denying the Holocaust, threatening to “wipe Israel off the face of the Earth”, killing those who would teach girls, that sort of thing) the more starkly was revealed the depths of … our sin! Agency and moral responsibility lay with the west, so “they” could not really be held responsible. (“They” could not really come into focus at all.)

Albert Camus warned that a love of freedom and progress can become “weirdly inseparable from a morbid obsession with murder and suicide”. In the foggy zone of the post-left there is a new ease with violence. The urbane intellectual shouts “Victory to the Resistance!” The affluent middle-class anti-globalisation protestors chant “Martyrs not Murderers”. And John Pilger tells us we “can’t be choosy”.

Careless moral equivalencing that rots the ability to judge. Listen to leftwinger Ellen Willis. “Central to Bush’s outlook is a Christian fundamentalism as hostile to liberalism as Sayyid Qutb”. As hostile? Even the usually excellent Martin Bright has argued that ‘[Paul] Berman’s description of a paranoid ‘people of God’ convinced of its own righteousness, prepared to kill its enemies and sacrifice its own in pursuit of a realm of pure truth might just as easily apply to the United States as to its Ba’athist and Islamist foes.” Just as easily?

Along this road madness lay. The Euston manifesto set up a checkpoint and offered some alternative signposts.

Ibn Rushd (Averroes), theology and philosophical-and-scientific inquiry

I heart Barkingside Library. You go in on a whim, you nose around and you come out with a treasure like Islam and the West. A Dissonant Harmony of Civilisations by Christopher J. Walker (ISBN 0-7509-4104-9). I’ve been reading Ch3 – Europe’s Loss and Recovery of Knowledge.

I got it out to help with bothering the Islamophobes. Specifically, it’s helpful against the charge that ‘free-thinking Muslim’ is an oxymoron. Later (it deals with Muslim history chronologically) maybe, hopefully, it might help me figure out what it would be reasonable to make of these findings about some countries’ unfavourable attitudes to Jews.

Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba in 1126 and settled in Morocco where he was physician to the caliph. His major contribution was to prise theology away from the the realm of philosophy-and-science. He was an avid Aristotelian and translated a number of his works, adding his own commentaries. Ultimately and ironically it was the subtlety of these commentaries, which were carried to Europe at the height of the clerico-aristocratic crusades, which smoothed the way for Aristotle’s work to become incorporated into the Christian Church. Walker attributes the spark of the Renaissance which unshackled Europe from the Dark Ages to Ibn Rushd. He was a Muslim. Here’s what Walker says about his attempt to draw lines between theology and science (p63-4)

Filled with admiration for Aristotle, Averroes sought to reconcile him with Islamic belief. This he did by delimiting, for the first time, the territory governed by religion and that covered by philosophy and science. He became known as the philosopher of ‘double truth’. It was claimed that he asserted that religious truths were allowed to be called truths, even if they contradicted philosophical-scientific truths, which likewise might be claimed to be true. Averroes appears not to have been saying that a proposition could be true in theology while a contradictory proposition was true in philosophy. Rather, he was trying to measure out the areas of applicability of relition and philosophy; to draw the boundaries between the two. They dealt, he asserted, with different things. He held strongly that faith was irrelevant to logic, mathematics or science, and that theologicans had no business dabbling there.  There is a hostility to theologicans in his writings, although he favoured religion, insofar as it related to the emotions and the inner life. Only those who continued to confuse the areas of applicability of faith and science could accuse himk of saying that a proposition could be true and not true at the same time. Averroes was, however, determined that theology should be subordinate to philosophy, if only because philosophy had to be the distinguishing index between theology and science-and-philosophy. Philosophy held the enviable position of being, by its very nature, both referee and a player in one of the teams.

This view was naturally highly unpopular among theologicans; they believed it was their job to act as referee.

And they began to move to close the doors on speculation and intellectuality. In a counterproductive act Baghdad caliph al-Mamun did something mad – he enforced scepticism in 827, making it practically inevitable that he would be succeeded by reactionary conservative orthodoxy. This included a cleric, Ahmed ibn Hanbal, whose bleak anti-intellectual rallying cry was “Don’t ask how“. Between then and the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, which effectively ended this golden age of Muslim inquiry, Europeans who wanted to learn were travelling to the Arab cities, learning Arabic, translating scientific and philosophical works, and taking them home. The ideas of Ibn Rushd were carried widely, and Walker gives him a lot of credit for the progressive, humane strand of thought which carried Europe out of the Dark Ages.