Elections as inference machines

bbElection results are wonderful things for generating piles of interpretation, since they are so informationally thin  (they only tell you how many people voted for each candidate in particular places, not why, or who they were, or anything else). Where would social science be without the secret ballot? But election results do provide just enough information to set-off all sorts of inferential flights of fancy, supported by waves of supplementary polling and survey evidence of different sorts. This might be one of the more important things that elections do for democratic politics – they generate deliberation after the fact, if not so much before! Getting your interpretation to stick is itself a political strategy, of course. The meaning of election results is nothing if not theoretically-overdetermined, one might say – give someone an election result, and they can use it to confirm their own favourite theory of what is going on in the world just now. It is even possible, for example, for some people to interpret Donald Trump’s election victory, secured quite legitimately by winning fewer votes than his opponent, but winning those votes in the right places, as “an unmistakeable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people.” Never mind.

Anyway, on occasions like these, I tend to find myself thinking that I should either re-read, finish, or read for the first time certain things that I have kicking around the house, things like this:

Hannah Arendt, ‘Truth and Politics’, in Between Past and Future.

Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times.

Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Why Americans Don’t Vote.

Jan-Werner Muller, ‘Real Citizens‘, Boston Review.

Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts.

Nick Clarke, Will Jennings, Jonathan Moss, Gerry Stoker, Anti-politics and the Left’, Renewal, 24, (2).

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.

What do ‘media’ do?

Following my post on the reporting of events in Egypt, Alex Marsh sent me a link to this think-piece by BBC correspondent Paul Mason, Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, which seeks to draw some general lessons from recent protest events in places as diverse as Greece, Ireland, North Africa and the UK. The piece has since been published in The Guardian, and has attracted some attention, not least as indicative of a BBC policy of encouraging journalists to engage in more detailed discussions via blogging.

Mason’s piece treads between a focus on ‘technology’ and a more interesting discussion of some of the sociological aspects of this range of events – the emphasis on the role of young, relatively highly educated people is surely correct. There is an inevitable journalistic emphasis on the newness of all of this, and the default assumption remains that this is really a story about how ‘technology’ transforms the conditions of political action. The geographer Tim Unwin has a list of various reports that address what he himself calls “the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet” in shaping political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt,  and beyond. His last comment is important: “Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.” A certain view of the potential of digital communications is no doubt an important part of the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of contemporary activism. Likewise, Mason’s think-piece refers in passing to how “activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri”. I’m not so sure this necessarily means “they have a better understanding of power”, but in so far as it is true, it does certainly mean they are likely to have a particular, well-formed view of how power operates, for better or ill. But it seems to me that both of these aspects of activist self-understanding – of ‘communications’ and of ‘power’ – are more interesting if they are understood as internal dimensions to this form of organisation, without requiring anyone to affirm the ‘objective’ validity of either of these views of how political action unfolds. The focus on the importance of new media in much of this reporting and commentary allows a narrative framing in which politics is rooted in a generalised but unformed sense of ‘grievance’ rooted in ‘poverty’ and ‘oppression’ which is then given expression by new communications opportunities – Manuel Castells neatly summarises this narrative in his comments on all this.

In short, there is a particular concept of the mediating work that ‘media’, old and new, perform in much of the commentary on the role of social media and digital technology in contemporary politics – they can be ascribed so much importance by virtue of being attributed a merely mediating function. Amongst other things, what disappears from view from this perspective is the different practices that different communications technologies help to configure – twitter and facebook are playing different roles in contemporary events in the Arab world to that played by Al-Jazeera. While much of the commentary out there is about how new media changes how politics is done, my sense is that the real imperative behind much of this kind of commentary is the attempt to understand the changed conditions under which news is made, and indeed, the changed conditions under which academic expertise about complex situations can be articulated in real-time (and there might be interesting elective affinities between certain self-understandings of activism and the focus of media reporting on individualising effects of new media).

For an antidote to some of the more detached commentary on events in Egypt and Tunisia, there are some interesting debates going on amongst anthropologists, which provide much more depth of understanding than is found in much of the technology-focussed discussion. There are a couple of more circumspect reflections on the role of media in these political eventsOne of these pieces makes the point that the focus on the new mediums of political change is a recurrent feature of reporting and commentary on these types of dramatic political events: “This is an evergreen story…The interest that’s focused on social media now, ten years ago was focused on web portals, before that it was focused on email and list-serves, before that it was television.” And in this respect, there is an interesting archive of reportage and commentary on the protests around the contested Iranian election in 2009, described by some as a ‘twitter revolution’, which two years on is an interesting case-study of how the global news narrative of politics as technological expression unfolds and then unravels over time.

Vote early and vote often

The response to the election of Ed Miliband as new leader of the Labour Party was interesting not least because it was the occassion for various commentators to articulate their views on what counts as properly ‘democratic’. Julian Glover is The Guardian‘s resident apologist for the coalition, in the sense that he keeps writing these pieces which try to articulate the idea that the coalition reflects some sort of ‘intellectual powerhouse’ rather than, say, a political deal (what would be wrong with admitting this?). Today Glover came up with a very weak argument against equality, on the grounds that any argument which prioritises this value “overlooks the possibility that the actions needed to compel equality may be seen as unfair by those who do not benefit from them”. Er, yes, I suppose they might. This might be true of people earning lots of money who don’t want to pay higher, progressive taxes, just as it might be true of white South Africans benefitting from apartheid who might not have welcomed the onset of a new democratic dispensation. Glover goes on to claim that “An equally valid idea of a fair society may be one in which people are given the space and the right to strive for inequality: advantage achieved by their own efforts”, and then admits that this might all sound “horribly right wing“. It actually just sounds a bit dim (not much intellectual power-housing going on in this sort of argument), although it is certainly provocative to read Glover at the moment because he seems to be trying to articluate a kind of Nozickian-style hyper-individualistic take on coalition spending plans as not just unfortunate necessities but as positively welcome. Each to their own, I suppose, and Glover’s perspective does at least have the advantage of suggesting that ‘the Big Society’ idea at least has some intellectual substance to it compared to what passes as ‘orangist’ Liberal Democract thinking – it reminds one of how far the Big Society narrative departs from a fully-loaded ‘liberal’ individualism of the sort ascribed to ‘Thatcherism’, how far Cameron’s rhetoric for a long-time has been geared to transcending the burden of ‘there is no such thing as society’, and how far the Big Society is properly part of a ‘conservative’ tradition of thought with some intellectual weight.

Anyway, where was I? A few weeks ago, Glover described Ed Miliband’s victory as ‘peculiar and undemocratic’, without quite explaining why. It might have been peculiar, certainly, in so far as electoral college arrangements always generate some oddities; but the ‘undemocratic’ charge seems peculiar itself. Firstly, Ed Miliband won within the rules, of course, which no one contested. Secondly, though, the results indicate that Ed Miliband would actually have ‘won’ the election on just about any electoral system one can think of, if the ‘bias’  built into the unequal loading of the three-way division of the electoral college system between Labour MPs and MEPSs, party members, and members of affiliated organisations is lifted and one only looks at total number of individual votes casts for the Labour leader: he would have won under a first-past-the-post system counting first preferences (the system the Tory party uses); and he would have won under an alternative vote system which counted each indivual vote cast equally too (the system the Liberal Democrats use). It was only close because the votes of those individuals most likely to vote for Ed Miliband were systematically discounted in the electoral college system – quite legitimately, of course (the real issue in all this is whether one thinks trade union members should be enfranchised in this particular electoral system; and more broadly, this episode exposed the deeply undemocratic attitudes of many commentators to the position of trade unions in functioning liberal democracies).

Anyway, somehow Glover’s hyper-individualism seems connected for me with a certain sort of self-righteousness that is associated with current arguments about electoral reform, in which it is widely presumed that proportional representation is the preferred ideal against which any other alternative voting system is an unfortunate, temporary compromise. But what if PR harbours a horribly thin, de-racinated conception of political life, in which all that matters about politics is being counted as an individual bearer of opinions? There are other values worth considering, and across the spectrum from Tory (and not so Tory) worries about representing geographical communities to genuine concerns about accountability and efficiency, these seem worth acknowledging. I have always had a soft-spot for electoral geography, a much maligned field which actually has really interesting things to say about the politics of Politics, and one thing this field reminds us of is that ‘choosing an electoral system‘ is always a thoroughly interested, grubby, political act. We are about to experience, in the UK, at least 9 months of public debate about the fairness of different models of voting, and it will be interesting to see which democratic values are given most prominence as we publicy learn more about the pros and cons of different voting systems – the deafult assumption of ‘proportionality’ bundles up just some of the relevant values, certainly, but while it appears to be intuitively the most ‘fair’, it also tends to cover a series of mathematical problems which means that no purely proportional system is really possible, and might even mean that any imaginable democratic system must always contain an element of electoral dysfunction. The point of all this, I think, apart from any interest one might have in social choice theory or rationality, is that the mathematics of democracy reminds us that there is always a politcal, normative excess in any discussion of ‘fair’ procedures of the sort to which we are about to be subjected. Let’s see how much of this excess is allowed to be clearly articluated these next few months (this excess is precisely why elections are the place where the ‘the political’, in the sense this idea is conceptualised by post-structuralists like Mouffe or Ranciere, is routinely exposed and made public).

And, on a sort of related issue, there is a new podcast interview with Michael Dummett, on Frege, on philosophy bites. Dummett is one of the grand old men of English-language, Analytical philosophy, but kind of interesting despite that (!) – an anti-racist campaigner (who has reflected on the relevance or not of Frege’s anti-semitism for interpreting his philosophy), and author of an important theory of voting in precisely that same tradition mentioned above. A different model of engaged intellectual from the one we have inherited from the ‘Coninental’ tradition.

Slow Work in Progress

I have been on leave the last couple of weeks, though not quite on holiday. I’ve been decorating various rooms of our house, sanding walls, filling holes, painting. So I have been in the house for two weeks, apart from forays to Swindon’s enormous B&Q for supplies. I have ended up listening to an awful lot of radio as a result, which has become a project in itself. There is BBC Radio 6 of course, thankfully saved, but actually quite difficult to listen to all day – too much ‘mortgage indie’. Oddly, I did end up listening to 4 days of county championship cricket, an unexpectedly exciting end of season round of games – I can’t ever remember first class county cricket being broadcast on the radio, but digital radio makes is possible. I suppose, when I think of it, this wasn’t really broadcasting, not even narrowcasting, rather something like sliver-casting.

Between these delights, I have been catching up with some favourite podcasts, or experimenting with some new ones. I usually only listen to these in the car on the way to work, and over the summer haven’t really kept up the habit. I first started listening to podcasts regularly in 2008, during the US Presidential election, and it’s election time again in the US, so I have been listening to various things to keep up – Slate’s weekly Political Gabfest is fun in an anguished liberal sort of way, and there are now a couple of podcasts which provide regular highlights from progressive/liberal radio and TV in the US – the Best of the Left podcast, and Democracy Now! I have also discovered Stephanie Miller, who is a bit like John Stewart on speed, without the pretence of exasperated moderation. More soberly, The New Yorker has a great weekly podcast The Political Scene, and The Nation’s Chris Hayes has a regular podcast The Breakdown. These provide my sources for up to date analysis of the currently ever more bizarre world of US politics. There isn’t anything I know of which does the same sort of thing in the UK – The Guardian’s Politics Weekly is very good, but in general this medium of public debate doesn’t seem well developed in the UK. Maybe because we don’t have a madly partisan media scene. Yet.

These sorts of podcasts work well because they have a regular rhythm to them, updated daily or weekly, and none of them is too long – an hour or so at most, for the ‘magazine’ style podcasts. The other podcasts I have been listening to these last couple of weeks, and which I sometimes listen to in the car, are more resolutely academic. I feel I should listen to these ones more often than I do, but actually after two weeks of trying, I have decided that many of them do not really suit the ‘medium’ of the podcast as well as they might. There are some exceptions, but these prove the rule – Philosophy Bites, which consists of short, 15 minutes or so of interviews with philosophers talking big philosophy – Pat Churchland on ‘eliminative materialism’ , Galen Strawson on conceptions of the self. Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds, who host Philosophy Bites,  have an interesting podcast about podcasting here. The OU also has a great list of podcasts, some of which are bespoke course materials, some of which are ready-made for iTunesU. These shows work because they are relatively short, and often take the form of the interview or round-table discussion. There are some longer ones – Canadian educational broadcaster TVO has Big Ideas, which seems to be mainly lectures by academics – I listened this week to a great talk by the late Gerry Cohen, using Olivia Newton-John to elaborate on his distinctively radical understanding of conserving existing values, and Toby Miller laying out a great agenda for studying the environmental impacts of cultural practices. Australian public radio has The Philosopher’s Zone, which is more interview based. And Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, has a magazine style monthly podcast as well.

These podcasts all work well. I’m not so sure about all of the stuff you can access on iTunes mind. Lots of the content available on iTunesU seems to be there for promotional or recruitment purposes, without a lot of thought being put in to making material interesting. The OU has a big presence on iTunesU [I’m even on it], but this material is well produced with an eye to the nature of the medium being used. On the other hand, while you can download lots of famous people talking and lecturing from UC Berkeley or Oxford, much of this material is just recordings of seminars or lectures, which means that you don’t get the benefit of any visual aids people might be using, and the overall lesson I learnt from two weeks of trying to listen to these sorts of podcasts was that the academic lecture, as a communication form, really is pretty dysfunctional.

One of the first things I listened to over the course of my two weeks of decorating was David Byrne on TEDTalks, reflecting on how far different styles of music are generated in symbiotic relationship with the architectural spaces of performance, recording, and listening. I think you might extend the same sort of idea to thinking about how well different styles of talk-heavy analysis – of news, cinema, or philosophical concepts – translate to platforms that are beyond-radio, as it were. Lectures work in so far as they literally have a captive and immobile audience. But the academic podcasts which work are shorter, less analytical, and tend to work more as ‘tasters’ than substitutes for reading – they are better attuned to the spaces and rhythms in which one might find oneself listening to them, in the car, or standing on a ladder with a paint brush in your hand.

Back to work now – writing/reading/thinking work, that is, not painting/listening work.