January 31, 2012

On Politics

Posted in Politics at 4:22 pm by Paul Sagar

Obviously, not much being said around here. Mostly, because I haven’t got much to say.

But recently I’ve found it hard to articulate to people what, exactly, it is I tend to believe about politics (and why I get so fed up with so much of the left). As it happens, John Dunn’s remark from his 1968 book on Locke sums things up pretty well:

“Against the morality of those for whom changing the world is such a pressing necessity that the consequences of attempts to change it, however forlorn the efforts or ghastly their results, become wholly trivial, there must be set the morality of those whose moral interpretation of the world is restricted by an accurate sense of the limited possibilities for changing it. The exploration of the moral potentialities of authentically possible social change cannot be assimilated to the reactionary claim that social improvement is impossible. What matters is whether the change commended is derived from the exploration in fantasy of what is desirable but only logically possible or the investigation of what is desirable and sociologically possible. Willing the millennium is not a substitute for exploring the moral potentialities of the possibly available orders of repression. Still less is it a moral improvement on the latter enterprise. There should be no moral prizes for insecurity of grasp on the ‘reality principle’.”

Note that only an idiot would interpret that as a species of conservatism.

December 21, 2011

One Year On

Posted in Politics at 12:40 pm by Paul Sagar

I hate to say I told you so.

But, y’know, I told you so.


November 22, 2011

Selfish and Deluded

Posted in Politics at 10:18 pm by Paul Sagar

Tonight I intended to briefly join the protest at Cambridge University against Universities Minister David Willetts. Arriving at the venue at 5.55pm, however, the protest was already over. So I decided to go inside and listen to the advertised speech and debate.

Willetts was introduced – with an explicit appeal for reasonable discussion – and the man himself took the stand.

But as he began speaking, he was immediately interrupted. A single individual – whom I shall not name – began shouting. His every line was immediately repeated by 20-30 or so others. Thus began a long, ponderous series of declamations, bizarre poetic allegories, and varying denunciations of Willetts, his Government, the future of education, and everything in between.

Willetts could not get a word in edge ways. And it was horrible. The tension in the room was dramatic. Despite calls from the floor – mostly from Cambridge academics who had come for a debate – for this to stop, it continued unabated. Turgid, self-indulgent, incoherent, and pretentious would only just about cover the contents of this “speech”. It felt like it went on and on. Shout then chant, shout then chant. What was probably only 7 or 8 minutes was experienced as 30.

When the “speech” from the floor was over, the instigators began chants of “Willetts Willetts Willets, Out Out Out”, and surged forward. They took the stage. Willetts had already left. By 6.20, the event was abandoned. A hundred or so other people were forced to exit without being able to voice their opinion or take part in the public debate they were invited to attend


I left the hall angry, disgusted and embarrassed. And I write as somebody who took part in the Cambridge Occupation last December, and has attended several recent protests against the Government’s cuts. I’ve been through my fair share of kettles and marches to get to this point.

This “action” was organised by Cambridge Defend Education, or “CDE”. Perhaps “Childish Deluded Egomaniacs” would be a better rendering. CDE claim to be upholders of free speech and democratic fairness. Yet they presumed to speak on behalf of myself and every other person in that room, whilst disregarding our rights, opinions, concerns and beliefs entirely.

CDE will no doubt claim – as at one point in the rambling “speech” it was indeed claimed – that having a debate with Willetts was pointless anyway. As we all know, he and this Government have already decided what they are going to do, and public engagements are largely cosmetic PR exercises.

There is of course a great deal of truth to this claim. So let’s take it to its logical conclusion. If the debate was not going to ultimately change anything, what, exactly, could be achieved by disrupting it so completely and outrageously?

Two things: firstly, greatly offending and irritating all of those in the room who were not privy to CDE’s unilateral decision. The result was the wasting of their time, upseting them, making them feel marginalized, and in many cases also very angry. This is unacceptable and indefensible in itself.  And it’s hardly a good strategy for winning friends either.

Secondly, it allowed Willetts to leave Cambridge being able to claim that he’d tried to engage openly, but that irrational, unreasonable, selfish students had prevented any constructive dialogue. Anybody who thinks that this “action” was a victory against Willetts is living in cloud cuckoo land.

There’s a considerable irony here too. One of CDE’s stated complaints about Willetts and his Government is that it is so sure of its own convictions they ride rough-shod over the opinions, concerns, rights and needs of others. And yet that is exactly what CDE did tonight.

I’ve had my run-ins with the Cambridge “activist community” before, leading me to urge that they think a little more carefully about the certainty of their convictions. Tonight demonstrated some of the worst excesses of selfish, childish, self-righteous, politically imbecilic stupidity imaginable.

It was a show of disguised selfishness; the indulgence of a self-satisfied false moral superiority fraudulently passed off as bravery on behalf of others. Others who were never consulted, engaged, or allowed to speak for themselves.


Here’s a short video. You can see me walking out at the end, stopping the main “speech” maker on the stairs to tell him he was not speaking for me.


The text of the absurd “speech” delivered from the floor has been posted online. Quite spectacular is CDE’s lack of self-awareness or sense of unwitting parody.

November 9, 2011

Why I’m Not At The Protest

Posted in Civil Liberties, Education, Higher Education, London, The Police at 1:05 pm by Paul Sagar

Big student protests in London today, against fee rises and the perceived “privatisation” of Britain’s university system.

I’m not going. Two reasons.

1. This afternoon I have a crucial cup fixture to play in. My first loyalty is to King’s Men’s First XI, only secondarily to the future of education and the good society.

2. I often do stupid, impulsive things. I get caught up in the moment. And I’ll be honest, riot and disorder situations are exciting – heightening the chances of my doing something stupid. But I don’t want to be arrested on charges of violent disorder, for something as minor as throwing a smoke bomb, then ending up in prison for 18 months with the rest of my life in tatters.

I also don’t want to be shot at with rubber bullets. Similarly, I was charged by police horses last December, and frankly it wasn’t a very pleasant experience.

So congratulations, government, police force and judiciary (or if you like ‘The Establishment’). With me at least, it worked. Wonder how many others will chicken out?

November 7, 2011

The Ethics of Derren Brown

Posted in America, Higher Education, Media, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society at 4:01 pm by Paul Sagar

Over the past decade the illusionist, magician and psychological manipulator Derren Brown has produced some of the most consistently entertaining and provocative television available. But my appreciation extends beyond mere entertainment, and well into the professional.

A large part of my research consists in understanding the foundations of the major western schools of moral philosophy. To simplify rather a lot, probably the two most influential and important approaches to moral philosophy in the modern Anglophone tradition are as follows. First, that which locates our moral commitments and beliefs in the operations of sentiment and emotion and relegates reason to the role of handmaiden. Second, that which privileges reason and makes rationality foundational.

David Hume remains the great proponent of the first, “sentimentalist” tradition. For Hume, “reason is, and ought only ever to be, the slave of the passions”. Moral codes are built on patterns of emotional reaction to our peers, developed over time, and heavily influenced by custom as we sympathetically identify with each other to build bonds of psychological commitment. Our moral judgements originate in our inner sentiments. They are brought by us to the world we experience and which we “gild and stain” with the passions; they are not found there by some faculty, or revealed to us by the operations of reason alone.

The alternative, rationalist, view receives its most sophisticated formulation in the work of Immanuel Kant. Simplifying terribly: Kant proposed that each rational agent could discern universal moral laws founded in the operations of reason by applying a test of universalizability to any proposed action. In essence, a highly sophisticated extrapolation of the principle that you should not do to others what you would not have done to yourself, but now on pain of fundamental contradiction as an agent engaged in practical reasoning, inviting moral failure by the transcendent and immutable standards of reason and logic. (It is a not-insignificant fact that Hume preceded Kant, and that the apparent limitations of the Scotsman’s project were a motivation to that of the East Prussian’s. And although Kant wasn’t Anglophone, his influence on English-speaking philosophers has been enormous.)

Derren Brown’s output surely lends support to some species of the Humean position (though it may generate a darker view than the great optimist Hume himself entertained). Take Brown’s latest series, “The Experiments”. In week two, a crowd thinking they were taking part in a comedy game show systematically voted, by clear majorities, to inflict ever more unpleasant events on a hapless, unwitting target. From having this unsuspecting man falsely accused of sexual assault in a bar, they then framed him for shoplifting, ordered somebody to enter his flat and smash his TV, then voted for him to be kidnapped by a masked gang and thrown into the back of an unmarked van. All in under an hour.

The power of reason was conspicuously lacking there, as the passions of mob-mentality rapidly took over. In previous series, Derren has performed a range of stunts, from manipulating ordinary people into committing armed robberies, to directing them to pick seemingly random objects and “predicting” this in advance, to getting strangers in the street to hand over their wallets and keys just by being asked. Brown’s work consistently shows just how malleable we are; not only in our behaviors, but in our reactions to each other and in particular to figures in authority.

Of course, proponents of Kantian positions will say that this is all besides the point: “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”, as Isaiah Berlin famously embellished. That human beings are in fact prone to manipulation, and that reason is frequently over-ridden by their passions, is allegedly irrelevant to the question of what they should do, and whether a more fundamental moral law does exist. Maybe so. Though perhaps one might wonder what the point of such a law is, if it seems to easily ignored, assuming it’s ever even discovered by any human being in the first place.

Rgardless, the implications for politics (as distinct from abstract moral theory) are surely different. Politics absolutely is about what will happen, and not merely what it would be nice in an ideal world. Yet the evidence from Brown, handily available online at 4OD, is that rationality and reason are just about the last things governing most of us. Not only are we buffeted about by our passions, but more worryingly, those who understand how to manipulate those passions can buffet us in directions they choose. This was something well known to Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, and now variously credited with the invention of both modern political propaganda and mass consumer advertising.

Kantian political philosophies that emphasise the rationality of citizens as the primary loci for discussions of (for example) what more just and equal societies might look like, may thus be barking up two wrong trees simultaneously. Firstly, if rationality is not be the primary matter of political action and reaction, taking it as one’s starting point may well doom one’s conclusions to parochialism and irrelevance. Secondly, waxing hypothetical about what a more just or equal society would look like risks missing what really matters in politics: working out who controls who, how they do it, and making sure they do it in ways that are less nasty than others. To spell the point out: the symbiotic relationship between Fox News and the Tea Party, with the specter of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election now firmly on the horizon, surely does not reflect well on the dominant trend for rationalist political philosophy in many North American and British universities.

In these respects, Derren Brown offers important materials for thinking about both moral and political philosophy, at least for those willing to accept that dusty tomes and wise authorities do not have a monopoly on insight. Of course, it may be replied that there’s nothing in Derren Brown that can’t be found in the properly peer-reviewed experimental psychology literature. Don’t we know all of this from Milgram and the Stanford Prison experiments? Actually, this simply raises another host of questions. Because in his latest series, Brown has been conducing “experiments” that would never pass a modern academic experimental ethics committee.

Take his latest offering: The Guilt Trip. In this special feature, Brown systematically manipulated a totally unsuspecting man, Jody, into feelings of guilt, whilst inducing situations which caused him to repeatedly doubt his own memory. Over the course of a weekend, Brown – working behind the scenes – used systematic deception and manipulation to maneuver Jody into confessing to a murder he did not commit. Jody was subjected to increasing stress over a series of days, and his every move was filmed without his knowledge (including the use of cameras in his hotel bedroom). During his first interview with the “police”, and in the interval between this interview and his walking to the local police station to hand himself in for a murder he did not commit, Jody exhibited high levels of stress, confusion and panic. He consented to none of this. Given how uncomfortable this was as viewing “entertainment”, one can easily imagine how it felt to be Jody. And to know one would not like it.

I say that this “experiment’” would not have passed an academic ethics committee. How do we know? Because by the standards of modern experimental ethics committees, no academic department would now permit the Milgram or Stanford Prison experiments. (Indeed it was partly because of these experiments that the rules on what you could and could not do to volunteers were dramatically tightened). Yet, arguably at least, judging by the standards of prolonged distress and acute anxiety – not to mention systematic manipulation, deception and unwitting surveillance – what Brown did to Jody was worse than, say, what Milgram had his subjects think they were doing to other people.

But does this simply mean that vital psychological experimentation can now only be conducted outside of the academy? Brown’s results in his latest series – pace any discrediting hidden trickery – are fascinating. Getting a hypnotized man to think he’s shot Stephen Fry; directing a masked television audience into advocating the kidnap of an unsuspecting man; manipulating an innocent into confessing to a murder he did not commit. These “experiments” stand to tell us not just about our psychologies as individuals and groups, but about the moral and political philosophies compatible with those internal workings. Has academic science now become so restricted that truly important work has to be done in the intellectual wild west of television?

That’s a difficult question. But it wasn’t the one that bothered me the most when watching a traumatised Jody agonise about whether he had been capable of murdering a man with a croquet hammer, and not even remembering he’d done it. What most truly disturbed me was the feeling that Brown had simply gone too far this time. My sympathetic identification with Jody ensured I spent most of the hour wanting this “experiment” to stop. Here was a man being put through hell, and not primarily in the name of science (let’s be honest), but for mass entertainment.

When it comes to science, questions of the benefit some potentially harmful experiments might yield versus the rights and welfare of the individuals affected are notoriously difficult to settle. Was the insight gleaned from Stanford sufficient to justify the abuse the “prisoners” went through at the hands of their “guards”? Do utilitarian benefits trump some of the rights of some individuals? Given the value of scientific and intellectual advance, those are genuinely difficult questions. What seems more clear cut is that framing a man for shoplifting (with corresponding “arrest” by “police”), or getting another to think they have killed another human being in cold blood, simply in the name of Friday-night-fun, is not acceptable.

But then, Brown has a strong reputation for looking after the psychological wellbeing of his subject (victims?) after the show is over. And in the case of Jody, several minutes were dedicated to his personally enthusing after the event about how great the experiment had been. Cue numerous shots of Jody immediately seeing the funny side of it all, laughing along with not-a-little relief. By pulling the emotional heartstrings so adeptly, Brown dramatically lessened the sense of viewer guilt that what had been done to this man was wrong. All’s well that ends well. Right? And who’s to say whether Brown was wrong to so manipulate us viewers – isn’t that part of what you accept when you tune in to this sort of show? And if – and it’s a big ‘if’ – we actually learn from Brown’s “experiment”, does that make it OK? Even when bearing in mind that what he ultimately gets paid for is the provision of our entertainment?

November 2, 2011


Posted in Education, Higher Education, History, Intellectual History, Politics at 11:44 am by Paul Sagar

Oikonomia, Economy and War: 2012 Cambridge Graduate Conference in Political Thought and Intellectual History

University of Cambridge
19-20 March 2012

Paper proposals are invited for the fifth Cambridge Graduate Conference in Political Thought and Intellectual History, to be held on 19-20 March 2012 at the University of Cambridge. The theme of the 2012 conference will be “Oikonomia, Economy and War”, and papers dealing with any period and tradition in the history of political thought from antiquity to the present will be considered. Papers which bring an historical perspective to bear on problems of contemporary political theory are welcome. A keynote address will be given by Professor Andrew Gamble of the Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies

The conference theme should be interpreted broadly; papers relating to any aspect of “oikonomia” “economy” or “war” will be considered. Up to eight papers will be accepted. Panels will be led by a discussant from Cambridge, who will offer comments on each paper before general discussion with Cambridge faculty and conference participants. The aim of the conference is to provide an opportunity for outstanding graduate students to present and discuss their work in a collegial and supportive atmosphere. Accommodation will be provided for speakers from outside Cambridge.

Abstracts of up to 500 words are requested by 5 December 2011, with accepted papers to follow in full by 5 March 2012. Please submit abstracts, along with your name and a brief academic C.V., to ptihconf@hermes.cam.ac.uk.

Registration will close on 27 February 2012; those wishing to attend the conference without presenting a paper should write to the above address with their name and institutional affiliation before that date.

2012 Conference committee:

Jared Holley
Dom O’Mahony
Paul Sagar
Tara-Jane Westover
Waseem Yaqoob


October 27, 2011

Occupy (my attention)

Posted in London, Politics, Society at 11:56 pm by Paul Sagar

A friend – who happens to be both left-leaning and employed in City finance – sent me a text:

“Not that I’m against it, but what is the stated reason for the St Paul’s protests? Just awareness or do they want something specific? Normally there’s a reason – Uni fees a very valid one – but this just seems like a bit of a moan. The timing seems odd, even if it is jumping on the Occupy Wall Street bandwagon. It’s been two weeks though, who has that much time?”

I sympathise.

Recently, I’ve become utterly bored by day-to-day politics. Paradoxically, this has afforded me some insights.

I don’t really know what Occupy London Stock Exchange (OLX) is about. I haven’t had the time or inclination to find out. Because I don’t really care. Because I am uninterested in the repetition and tedium of daily political debate and exchange. I’m interested in politics (hence why I’m doing a PhD in it), but then I increasingly think that’s really something else. What I’m certainly not interested in is the daily outrages and accusations; the ranting; the tribalism; the he-said, she-said; the bla bla bla ad nauseam .

Which itself wouldn’t actually be so bad, if people were quietly conscious that they were being hypocrites and opportunists in pointing out the hypocrisies and opportunisms of their enemies. What I have no time for is the pathetic sincerity of the daily outrage. “Oh, my political enemy has done something nasty and underhand! How outrageous! How shocking! I am so appalled! Something Must Be Done!”


I don’t really know what OLX is about. It seems a bit silly. And that’s an interesting perspective coming from me, given that a year ago I was involved in the Cambridge student occupation, attended quite a lot of demos, and was generally Pretty Interested In Daily Politics.

But it may be instructive, for precisely that past, to observe just how off-the-radar OLX is to me. Somebody busy with their research (which is not much like having a real job). With teaching commitments. With Friday nights. With the football season. With time on my hands. With left-wing views. With a tendency to read the news.

If I don’t register OLX, how much do you think it gets through to people working 40+ hour weeks? With kids? With bills and mortgages to pay? Worried about job security and inflation? Who don’t have time to read the paper? Who aren’t particularly left-wing?

Of my friend’s text, however, what really stands out is his closing line: “It’s been two weeks though, who has that much time?”

When I used to box at a gym in Southport, a post-training discussion once turned to the TV series Big Brother. The general conclusion was that not only were all the contestants freaks, but they were Not Like Ordinary People. Why? Precisely because they could swan off for 10 weeks without worrying about work. For most in the discussion, that was enough to discredit each and every contestant. The BB housemates weren’t from the real world. The world where kids and mortgages ruled out such summer sojourns. And that bred both a fairly obvious contempt, but also an underlying if mild resentment.

Leftist activists might endorse OLX with passion. Many of them are out there right now, proudly taking part, braced against the cold by the sincerity of their views. But activists should remember that goldfish bowls create visual distortions, in both directions. And like it or not, dissimilarity quickly breeds contempt.

August 10, 2011

Riot of a Time

Posted in Cameron, Civil Liberties, Conservatives, Consumerism, Economics, Hysteria, London, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society at 6:11 pm by Paul Sagar

Very quick thoughts on the recent riots.

1. Clearly it is true that poverty, alienation, deepdisgruntlement with the police and lack of opportunity are important background facts that any serious attempt at understanding will have to take into account.

2. But these alone cannot explain what was clearly, in many cases, opportunistic theft and glee in destruction.

3. So where do we go from there?

4. I take these to be true and important components of any description of modern British politics and society: that it promotes self-interested greed, materialism, the possession of ostensive goods for status, immediate gratification, and a toleration (even encouragement) of ruthless competitiveness with a deep disregard for the welfare of others. (Call this the “no-such-thing-as-society society”, if you like.)

5. Putting 1 and 2 together with 4, and adding in conditions of spontaneity, anticipated impunity and evident opportunity, a basic yet broadly sufficient explanation appears to emerge.

6. Note that the things described in 4 above constitute the core tenets of the political ideology broadly known as ‘Thatcherism’ (or if you want to bring things up to date post-1997, ‘neo-liberalism’).

7. Also note that the conditions described in 1. have been massively and continuously exacerbated by Thatcherism (or ‘neo-liberalism’), especially if enormous inequality and its debilitating effects on individual well-being and self-respect are included too.

8. So actually this may not be such a mystery after all. If you constantly tell people to be selfish, ruthless, competitive, greedy and disregarding of the welfare of others, then you can’t really be surprised when they behave as they are told they fundamentally are and must be (even if they forget about the bits to do with obeying the law).

9. However, if you happen to be the prime minister just invoke some vacuous covering fluff about ‘moral responsibility’. Continue to condemn loudly, and then get back to promoting the elements in 4. on a daily basis. Without wondering about which ways the knife may cut.

June 26, 2011

Holiday Reads

Posted in Books at 11:18 pm by Paul Sagar

Although the act of writing still feels akin to dragging razorwire across my face, I’m OK with reading.

Next week I’m off to France for some serious Alpine cycling. But books are required for chill out periods. So I’m looking for recommendations.

In the travel bag already are:

- Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook

- Thomas Hardy: Far From the Madding Crowd

- Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

- Michael Frayn: Copenhagen

- Plus a bunch of Bernard Williams essays, and some post-Treatise Hume (it’s a pipedream paper that I’ll never write).

I would appreciate suggestions for intelligent but page-turning novels, and also some non-fiction. Indeed, if there is a book you think so good that I should read it before any of the above-listed, then certainly say so.

June 13, 2011

2 Stuffs

Posted in Higher Education, Other blogs at 1:01 pm by Paul Sagar

Announcement 1: I will be speaking at the Balliol Left Caucus this coming Thursday. If you’re in Oxford, consider coming along.

I intend to talk for about 15 minutes, and then open things up to discussion. Which will hopefully be less boring, for all concerned. The topic I’ll introduce I’ve entitled: “The Conservative Left? – Predicaments and Prospects for Thinking Leftists in a Globalised World”. Tony Judt can get you thinking:

“The real problem facing Europe’s Socialists (I use the term purely for its descriptive convenience, since it is now shorn of any ideological charge) is not their policy preferences, taken singly. Job creation, a more ‘social’ Europe, public infrastructural investment, education reforms, and the like are laudable and uncontroversial. But nothing binds these policies or proposals together into a common political or moral narrative. The Left has no sense of what its own political success, if achieved, would mean; it has no articulated vision of a good, or even of a better, society. In the absence of such a vision, to be on the left is simply to be in a state of permanent protest. And since the thing most protested against is the damage wrought by rapid change, to be on the left is to be a conservative.”

8pm onwards, in the Bajpai Room, Balliol College, Oxford.

Announcement 2: As recently noted, not much is happening around here at the moment. However, things are happening elswhere. Two recommendations from Fenland Poly-based writers.

Louisa Loveluck at the almost eponymous Leloveluck, where she thinks and writes about middle east politics. Highly recommended if you want an informed perspective on a region where most western reporting appears to be chronically ignorant. (Posting appears to have been suspended due to exams, but no doubt will resumt soon. I hope.)

Dana Smith at the not at all eponymous, but vocationally-inspired, Brain Study. Applying the insights of experimental psychology to issues of public interest and importance. Again, highly recommended for those who want to read opinions by people who actually know what they are talking about (for example).

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