On Non-Democratic Progress

There’s been a number of articles lately that critically examine a crop of tech companies arising out of Silicon Valley that are disrupting (in multiple senses of the word) the industries and communities in which they operate. A chief complaint is that these “Sharing Economy” companies — Uber and Airbnb being the exemplars — are flouting local laws and regulations.

The reason why these companies are moving so aggressively is simple. As savvy businesspeople and hungry investors well know, the key to success is not just profitability, but market dominance. As Peter Thiel succinctly put it: “Competition is for losers.” This is why Uber fights. Given the winner-takes-all dynamic, they will cross and even repeatedly violate the legal and ethical boundaries to gain market share. This means generating bad blood. You’ve probably seen headlines of protests against Uber in major cities around the world. I witnessed this opposition first hand when earlier this month I passed by what I later learnt was the Uber HQ in London, with the entire neighbourhood block brought to a standstill by protesting black cabs.

I am sympathetic to the critics of Sharing Economy companies. I am especially receptive to arguments that highlight the companies’ shoddy ethics and poor privacy practices. On the other hand, we need to look at the bigger picture. These companies are not (just) big bullies who are orchestrating a corporate takeover of modern day life. They are creating and meeting consumer demand. We want to use these companies! Their services are better on at least one vector, and often more: price, convenience, experience, delight, etc. Again, I experienced this first hand. On my European trip I stayed with Airbnb hosts in London and Paris, and both experiences were fantastic.

Now, you may nevertheless find it problematic that these companies are flouting the law. Perhaps on a deeper level you find it sad that people are so blithely allowing such things to happen, and also giving away their privacy, all for seemingly fleeting and trivial benefits. But you have to acknowledge that as a society we are all complicit in making Sharing Economy companies as influential as they are.

Thinking about all this has got me to reflect on another place I’ve been to recently, where progress is occurring at breakneck pace in a non-democratic fashion: China. I went on a short trip to Nanjing in late July to visit my extended family. On my last trip two years ago, there was a lot of construction going on as the city prepared itself for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. This time around the big hole in the ground near my uncle’s apartment has turned into a gleaming (and mostly empty) underground shopping centre and above-ground leisure park. Three new subway lines have been completed, bringing the total to six since 2005.

On an epically grander scale, the Chinese Government is in the middle of a project to transform Beijing and its surrounding area into a supercity of 130 million people, with high-speed rail as the connective tissue that makes it all possible. This is probably the most gaudy example of progress barrelling ahead at a pace that is unthinkable in democratic countries.

Just as Uber fanatically expands its market in order to set a foundation for the future and justify its massive valuation, the Chinese Government is embarking on projects of unfathomable scale to increase the economic prosperity of its citizens and justify its own legitimacy. And just like Uber, the pace of progress in China has resulted in collateral damage — homes seized, environments despoiled, dissent crushed — even as we must acknowledge that hundreds of millions of lives have been lifted from poverty.

The pursuit of technological and material progress (and profits) is outpacing the machinery of democratic lawmaking. In the aftermath of the GFC, I see Western democratic countries  outperformed externally by more autocratic countries like China, and also disrupted internally by companies leveraging technologies that undermine existing laws. In many ways people are reaping the rewards, but I wonder what the long-term implications are of a disregard for the democratic process. Much to ponder about.

Grit Is Not (Necessarily) A Virtue

I’m currently studying in the field of education. This is an interesting area in that everyone agrees that it is important, yet there’s so much variability in its delivery and outcomes. Even in the brief time that I have read about and visited schools so far, my encounters have ran the gamut from inspiring and heartwarming to infuriating and depressing. The system muddles along with so much that needs to be improved.

A while back I saw this short TED talk where researcher Angela Lee Duckworth spoke on the importance of grit to success:

To summarise:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

As with most TED talks, it is slick and persuasive. I remember silently assenting to this obvious and important truth. The implication for education is clear: we need to teach grit to children so that they can be more successful. Sounds about right?

Not so fast. A couple of weeks ago I was going through the archives of Alfie Kohn, an author and lecturer who is an outspoken critic of the testing culture in schools. I came across an article, “Grit: A Skeptical Look at the Latest Educational Fad,” that gave me pause. Kohn makes several arguments against grit, including, for example, that it may be pointless (and even harmful) to persist with something, and that grit unduly focuses on the “how” at the expense of the “why” (e.g., fear, approval seeking, genuine interest, etc.), which may be the more important consideration.

For me, Kohn’s most noteworthy objection to proponents of grit goes to the heart of their conception of students in the education system. Proponents of grit place the emphasis on young people’s inner character—their grit, resilience, perseverance, and so forth. However, Kohn argues that the more we focus on these personal qualities, the less likely we’ll question the big picture, including problematic policies and institutions. For proponents of grit, underachievement is to be explained by internal character flaws, such as “failure to exercise self-discipline”, rather than structural issues such as class and privilege which in reality play a significant (and often determinative) role in economic outcomes.

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Perhaps, as Kohn points out, the problem is not with kids who are lacking in their stick-to-itiveness. Perhaps they tune out because what they’re asked to do is not particularly engaging or relevant. There are educational reformers who are on a mission to make pedagogy more constructive and imaginative, and less focused on memorisation and testing. Kohn notes that for Duckworth and other proponents of grit, they look at the status quo and ask: How can we get kids to put up with it?

When you put it that way, grit doesn’t sound so flash anymore, does it? Grit is nice. Grit is important. But we can and should also do more to change a broken system rather than simply get kids to adapt to it.

Double Plus Hypocrisy

The old adage that people go bankrupt gradually, then suddenly, can be applied to other areas of life. For me as an outside observer, this was the case for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

The two men were co-ringleaders of a heroin smuggling operation from Indonesia to Australia. They were arrested in 2005, sentenced to death in 2006 by a district court, and had their appeals dismissed by the Indonesian Supreme Court in 2011. There was initial heavy media coverage, which gradually subsided. The two men drifted out of public consciousness. (All the while, undoubtedly their lawyers and family members were working feverishly behind the scenes to save them.)

Things accelerated in 2015. Indonesian President Joko Widodo rejected Andrew and Myuran’s pleas for clemency in January. Arrangements were being made in earnest for their execution. Australia’s diplomatic efforts stepped up, arguably more harmful than helpful at times. Daily media coverage revved up. Even just a couple of weeks ago, when we were shown pictures of the island where the executions would take place, I felt a mixture of despair and faint hope that there was still time left. Then, overnight, they were killed by firing squad. All hope extinguished.

The Australian response combined strong words with the symbolic action of withdrawing the ambassador to Indonesia. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said that the executions were “cruel and unnecessary“. I agree — even if they were considered “legal” under Indonesian law (but query the allegations of corruption by the trial judges). At this time it is natural to appeal to mercy, to the inherent worth of human life, to the way that these two men have genuinely turned their lives around during their incarceration — the pastor and the painter, as their families would like the world to remember them.

One article that really resonated with me in the aftermath of the executions was this one by Sunil Badami. Badami uses this episode as a lens to look at the Australian Government’s own human rights failings with respect to asylum seekers. How can we credibly plead for mercy for our own citizens, while deliberately causing the systematic and callous mistreatment of those who arrive by boat, in the name of deterrence? The Tony Abbott that called the killings “cruel and unnecessary” is also the same person who boasted that his government will not “succumb to the cries of human rights lawyers” in respect of its detention policy, which has been condemned by the international community. The same person who launched an extraordinary and vicious attack on Gillian Triggs, the brave Human Rights Commissioner who published this damning report at an inopportune time for the Government.

I don’t have much hope that this current government (or opposition, for that matter) will redeem themselves on this issue. But maybe this can be instructive for our own lives. In what ways are we living hypocritically? Do we hold views and advocate for positions that advance our own rights and interests without consideration of others? Maybe they’re not matters of life and death. Nevertheless, even small mercies can be precious things.

Quote(s) of the Day IX

March has thrown up a multitude of articles on the prickly subject of free speech versus protection on US college campuses. By protection, I mean the ability to be safe from upsetting or damaging speech/conduct, in particular as it revolves around sexual dynamics, politics and identity. The New York Times has a good summation of the hubbub.

There was one passage from an account of anti-rape activists protesting against an objectionable essay that caught my eye:

It’s easy to sympathize with the young feminists’ desire to combine maximal sexual freedom with maximal sexual safety. Yet there are contradictions between a feminism that emphasizes women’s erotic agency and desire to have sex on equal terms with men, and a feminism that stresses their erotic vulnerability and need to be shielded from even the subtlest forms of coercion. The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection. A rigid new set of taboos has emerged to paper over this tension, often expressed in a therapeutic language of trauma and triggers that everyone is obliged to at least pretend to take seriously.

I’m troubled by the proponents of boycotts and safe zones on the grounds of free speech and stifling political correctness. But putting aside the question of whether it is justifiable or not, there is an inherent contradiction at play. I wonder whether and to what extent they are aware of this.

Self-Sabotaging Social Systems

A bunch of interesting stuff I’ve read and heard over the past week has prompted me to discern an underlying theme—the capacity within a social system to sabotage itself even as its adherents strive to more fully implement its ideals in practice.

The first piece is an article by Yanis Varoufakis, a former academic thrust into the consequential role of finance minister for the new leftist Greek government. The article is sharply written, critiquing both Marxism and neoliberal capitalism in the context of the contemporaneous economic and political problems in the EU. What struck me most was this:

Every non-Marxist economic theory that treats human and non-human productive inputs as interchangeable assumes that the dehumanisation of human labour is complete. But if it could ever be completed, the result would be the end of capitalism as a system capable of creating and distributing value…

If capital ever succeeds in quantifying, and subsequently fully commodifying, labour, as it is constantly trying to, it will also squeeze that indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom from within labour that allows for the generation of value. Marx’s brilliant insight into the essence of capitalist crises was precisely this: the greater capitalism’s success in turning labour into a commodity the less the value of each unit of output it generates, the lower the profit rate and, ultimately, the nearer the next recession of the economy as a system. The portrayal of human freedom as an economic category is unique in Marx, making possible a distinctively dramatic and analytically astute interpretation of capitalism’s propensity to snatch recession, even depression, from the jaws of growth.

If you suppose, as I do, that there is indeed an “indeterminate, recalcitrant human freedom” that underpins the creation of things—all objects and ideas, not just stuff that is amenable to economic valuation—then this Marxist critique of capitalism becomes extremely powerful.

I’ve always thought about the problems with capitalism in concrete terms—the way it can overturn communities, the environmental damage that is often overlooked, the seemingly inevitable growing inequality. These problems, in turn, create pressures that undermine the capitalist system. But perhaps there’s also a more fundamental problem that is inherent within capitalism itself—the more that people are dehumanised and commoditised in the name of ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’, the less capitalism is able to create and distribute (economic) value. That is a fascinating idea.

The second piece is an ABC Radio National feature produced by my friend Allison Chan titled God on Campus: theology and the secular in higher education. She explores the history of theology as a course that is taught in universities, the sometimes fraught role of government in funding such teaching, and more broadly the place of Christianity in the public sphere.

The thematic element I drew from this piece is not about faith (that’s my next point!), but rather a seemingly innocuous idea that came up during the interviews—that universities provided with public funding should be ‘accountable’ for the ‘results’ they produce. OK, calling this a social system is a bit of a stretch. Suffice it to say that it is an ideal to be striven towards.

Here is the problem that arose for me as I listened. Of course, it is bad for universities to be unaccountable for the funding they receive, wasted resources and all that. So, they should be accountable. But how do we determine it in practice? By what metrics?

Take theology, the subject of the piece. Should it be about improving critical thinking? Hm, that might be a bit hard to measure. What about the number of people that go on to serve in formal ministry? Or maybe the income generated through charity work? That would be more doable. But what happens when the numbers-based benchmarks are not being met? Does that mean funding should be cut, unless changes are made to get the ‘results’ we want?

In that case, universities teaching theology will have a subtle but unmistakable incentive to achieve those benchmarks—an incentive that is, I would argue, not aligned with the purpose of teaching theology in the first place. Of course this is also an issue more broadly in the teaching of humanities. What’s the point of resource-constrained governments spending money on universities if they are not preparing students for jobs in the ‘real world’? Good question, but we should also consider what we are losing by taking a strict ‘results’-driven approach to accountability.

The last piece is a short commentary by Elizabeth Bruenig on a recent poll that found 57 percent of Republicans agreed that Christianity should be established as America’s “national religion”, and why that would be terrible for Christianity. Essentially:

Were Christianity named our national religion, it would only be dubbed such to serve a particular national purpose, that is, to straighten out our morals or boost morale for our confrontation of terrorism abroad. But to do this would be to force Christianity into the servitude of particular national interests, which would only further the degree to which the Christian faith is already wrongly conflated with specific American political aims. But the goals of Christianity are in no sense specifically American, and understanding them as such only instills divisiveness between American and global Christianityand that’s ultimately contrary to the unity sought by the Christians of the world. In other words, establishing Christianity as a national faith would force Christianity into submission to American politics, morphing it into a servant rather than a guide of political thought.

While not many respondents would’ve thought through the full implications of what they were agreeing to, I can understand their sentiment. Specifically, Christianity may constitute their identity or worldview, and they would like to live in a country where this is officially ratified as good and right. More generally, Christianity may be associated with positive notions of service, charity and idealised notions of a ‘better’, Anglocentric past (these are Republicans after all)—therefore they would like the country to be more like this.

This gets to a question that was also raised in the Radio National feature: what is the place of Christianity in the public sphere? Broadly speaking I think Christians can take three positions on this:

  1. Withdrawal — Live within their own communities, no influence in the public sphere (this is also what some of the more aggressive secularists and atheists would like to see)
  2. Presence — Advocacy, service, dissemination of Christians ideas and values
  3. Authority — Christian values and practices have legal force.

My thought that social systems can undermine themselves is directed at the third position. It is understandable that Christians would like more power to influence society, to shape it in ways that they believe is right. But this is actually antithetical to the gospel message. Christians are taught to follow Jesus’ example and give up power for others, not to seek power over others. Christians live by biblical principles out of love and gratitude, not to enforce those principles on others through legal compulsion.

Public participation through authority is not only contradictory to what Christianity teaches, but it is also a kind of self-sabotage. Authority leads to imperfect people abusing their power. Also, as Bruenig noted, Christianity would become entangled with national interests and politics in a way that diminishes its standing and its universality.

Let me be clear: I am not against the systems that I’ve written about.

Capitalism has on balance improved the quality of life for billions of people today. Many of humanity’s major challenges (some of them self-inflicted)—social, economic, environmental—need to be addressed, to varying degrees, by the (appropriately regulated) free market. Of course I’m in favour of accountability in teaching and against universities wasting money. And I also think that Christian ideas and values have profoundly shaped modern Western societies for the better, even in light of historical wrongs (which are numerous and complex),

My point is that these social systems, when implemented in their purest form, are not only potentially detrimental to society but also to themselves.

That still leaves a bunch of questions. Are systems self-regulating to the extent that they will sabotage themselves if they go too far? Even so, should there be countervailing forces in society to prevent a system from doing so and causing harm as result? What do these forces look like for each social domain and how can we create and sustain them? Is there some ‘happy medium’ in each domain that we can or should adhere to?

If you ask me, philosophy is still a very worthwhile pursuit!