Populism: Activism’s Evil Twin

A word has been washing around in the media, spilling from the plump and pouted lips of politicians and journalists everywhere, with a meaning that is surreptitiously adapted at every convenient opportunity. It’s as though they’re all in on the act, utilising the word to make specious claims about things which in reality they have no factually-based ideas. The only certainty about this term is that it serves a receptacle function, enabling any debate within which it plays a significant role to be argued from divergent purposes, ever evading truth and certainty. Is it a Trojan Horse, a decoy, a false premise, or just utterly confused empty talk? What are people really talking about when they speak of ‘populism’? 

One answer is that populism denotes a society with a heightened degree of political engagement. In which case, the term ‘populism’ has recently been used as a veil to mask what is otherwise known as democracy, disguising it as an undesirable, even radical ideology deserving of great criticism. When sold under the guise of an “-ism”, the term becomes categorised alongside real ideologies, truly deserving of our concern (be it socialism, capitalism, fascism – now rebranded, the ‘alt-right’ – etcetera). And when the term is propagated by the media, given precedence in discourse above some truly heinous, yet increasingly popular alternative political and economic systems, more important issues relating to the corruptive intention of this term’s use become buried and forgotten under pages and pages of hypocrisy: Long live democracy, down with populism! This is the layman’s view, and has been interpreted by many as David Cameron’s view also.

Perhaps, however, populism isn’t about the political actions or championing of the common folk and their expressions against whichever branch of the politico-economic elite that they deem either (at best) detached from the needs of society or (at worst) entirely uncivilised. Maybe it has nothing to do with political empowerment or mobilisation whatsoever. Maybe it’s simply a descriptive term, used as shorthand to express a state of democracy, whereby the people take democratic action as a consequence of the system force-feeding them ‘untruths’ within a ‘post-factual’ era – still implying that it is the people and not the system that is untrustworthy, denigrating the value of democracy without appearing to do so. Indeed, a world in which the people’s opinions can do easily be called into question would be utterly enticing, would it not? Opportunities to defend the infallible necessity of radical paternalism would regularly present themselves, clearing the road to a seemingly democratic plutocracy! Bliss. Oh what a beautiful world… I kid, of course, but that’s how Donald Trump’s cabinet seem to be benefiting from populism (12).

But then, maybe it is not the political system that is populistic. Maybe it is the politicians themselves who are the populists – popularising themselves and their prejudices via vicious demagoguery and nationalistic fear mongering. If this is the case, then it appears as though populism isn’t being used as a veil but instead creates the veil through which the electorate are presented a skewed and biased version of democracy. (This leads one to consider whether contemporary populism is a symptom of neoliberalism – read here).

In one sense, these two ideas – that populism describes a state of true democracy and that it is the leaders, the protagonists and not the people who are the populists – both hold true. Just as an activist movement can be described as democratic action, so too can a populist movement. Similarly, activist and populist movements and groups share the characteristic of being led by those who we might also refer to as activists or populists. This might suggest that activism and populism are one and the same; activists are populists and populists are activists.

However, what differentiates these two schools (as far as I see it), if they are truly differentiable at all, is that activism is led by the virtuous and populism is lead by the incongruous. What this means is that, quite unfortunately, well-intentioned, politically-engaged people, who might otherwise be seen as activists, unknowingly become populists when their chieftains decide to take the low road, promoting their positions through deceitful means, justifying them using pseudo-academic literature. (Which is suggested by the rhetoric and subsequent rise of history’s most prominent populist leaders as being so tightly associated with and attributed to post-fact politics. As two examples of this rising trend, Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump come to mind here. Hence, whilst Bernie Sanders may be described, perhaps even criticised as a champion of activism, Trump is populism’s equivalent, as was Hitler during his rise). In short, populism is activism’s evil twin.

So, whilst activism is the attempt by the people to perpetuate democracy through social empowerment, populism is the attempt to perpetuate politico-economic empowerment through pseudo-democracy. Populism is democracy gone wrong. And whether or not you find this conception compelling, one thing is for sure: ‘populism’ is rarely ever what is seems.

 

A.C. Stark

#2

As long as there’s a life, there is a nature.

Abundant from its means – which nature brings –

It thought itself an almost godly creature;

Sang louder than that song which nature sings.

 

So, when the crow cried “can’t” to cast an omen

The creature called “I can!” and cursed it back.

Then, taunted by that cheek went nature’s foremen

From hell to serve it seven shades of black.

 

Through having tainted men all birds deceased.

The virtues men cherish take many shades;

With blackness overshadowed life increased

Whilst nature’s beasts lived life in retrograde.

 

If men prayed, ‘deliver us from nature,’

That creature would then smile down on its stage –

In its shadow live men with pious features

Reciting words it scribed upon their page.

 

As long as there’s a life, there is a nature.

Abundant from its means – which nature brings –

It thought itself an almost godly creature;

Destroyed itself through killing natural things.

 

A.C. Stark

The Great Misconception About Consequentialism

Consequentialism it is almost universally misunderstood and so, by extension, is Utilitarianism.

So, to start, let’s clear something up which I believe is at the heart of the matter: Consequentialism is not per se a normative position. Despite what many will have you believe, it is in fact nothing more than a law of ethics – what I would call a meta-ethical truth. In teaching this truth a typical pedagogue tends to explore abstract scenarios, tasking her students to conduct thought-experiments in order to solidify her students understanding, inspire debate and autodidacticism.

Let me attempt to make my point clearer: In the words of Moore, Consequentialism prescribes that “an act is morally right if and only if that act maximises the good, that is, if and only if the total amount of good for all minus the total amount of bad for all is greater than this net amount for any incompatible act available to the agent on that occasion”. The typical pedagogue provides this maxim before then turning to a thought-experiment. For instance, the Trolley Problem:

“Edward is the driver of a trolley, whose brakes have just failed. On the track ahead of him are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a spur leading off to the right, and Edward can turn the trolley into it. Unfortunately, there is one person the right-had track. Edward can turn the trolley, killing the one; or he can refrain from turning the trolley, killing the five.” – Judith Thompson

Typically, the students then engage in the thought-experiment – they consider the philosophical implications of the scenario, the ethics of responsibility and will, the distinction between action and inaction, the value of life, explore various definitions of ‘good’ (etc. – etc.) and a plethora of other topics which dress the study of Moral Normativity.

All the while the students subconsciously submit to the assumption that Edward’s unfortunate situation and their related evaluations (or at least aspects of them) are practicable in reality, in Consequentialist terms; they believe that what Consequentialism is telling us about what we ought to do, is to do what is ‘right’. But in doing this they assume a normativity that was never prescribed in the first place (and where other writers may describe the principle as possessing this characteristic, I contend that it should not). And this is where the problem lies.

You see, it is in the nature of such thought-experiments that true answers are only ever discoverable once the boundaries of the envisioned scenarios are absolutely defined. Such thought-experiments describe abstract closed systems wherein, by definition, there exist no spatiotemporal extensions beyond their descriptions. Or in other words, they define all the relevant epistemological factors of a given ethical conundrum. From within, and only from within, these closed systems can Consequentialism be appropriately assumed to have normative value (i.e., be appropriately applied). For, it is only from within closed systems that certainty can be made with respects to the consequences of all the potential optionable actions. When you concern yourself with the Trolley Problem, once you are given all the parameters and provided the rules, when asked about what Edward ought to do, there is only one correct answer. (In our case we are yet to define what ‘good’ means but if we were to adopt a Hedonistic sentiments as Utilitarianism does, the answer would be only to turn right). However, rarely in the real world is there such certainty surrounding the parameters of any ethical situations.

Reality is not a closed system. Or rather, if it is a closed system (in which case it must have a definitive spatiotemporal beginning and end, and be strictly determinate), in the real world we never obtain all the relevant epistemological factors for any ethical situations – possibly besides vacuous ones. Hence, we can rarely, if ever, confidently appropriately apply Consequentialism, trusting that we have strictly conformed to its maxim. Hence, whilst navigating ethical conundrums in the real world, one should rarely attempt to apply Consequentialism in an active sense because in doing so one would invariably contravene the maxim (or put another way, if Consequentialism incorporated a normative characteristic within its maxim, it would be as though it were ordering you always to take the right action whilst never really letting you in on which action is right).

Hence, for the most part, it is only really appropriate to consider Consequentialism as descriptive. It is a meta-ethical truth and nothing much more.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, Consequentialism deserves another run in. But this time we need to understand it and teach it correctly. Otherwise, it’s destined to carry an unjust reputation. As to how it’s compatible with other ethical theories, it’s precisely because it is not normative that it is so. But I’ll leave expounding upon that subject for another rainy day.


A.C. Stark

#1

Here upon bark smoke embers of fire,

Armour of soldiers from the erstwhile wood.

Myopic men with heedless desires

Ravage their slaves for the greatest of good.

 

Beads of remorse take passage on cheeks;

Meander down from a tortuous line.

Born forlorn, unfastidious freaks;

Gorging antecessors spill brine from wine.

 

Reminiscent of that prior state;

One picker condemns other men to fail,

And taunted by their prospective fate

They too attempt for the Holy Grail.

 

In the flood the arc reset the board.

Enabled, some pieces reassembled.

My request: please, re-submerge us, Lord –

Of that prior state the world resembles.

 

A.C. Stark

The Glorious Twelfth: What the BASC Aren’t Telling Us

The Glorious Twelfth has passed. Which means that for the next 25 weeks droves of white, upper-class, tweed-adorned cronies, sharing in their conceited politico-moral sensibilities, will make to the Scottish Highlands, the Peaks and North Yorkshire (and anywhere else that’ll entertain them) to take part in a legalised blood frenzy.

It’s not that I have anything against the upper-class per se. It’s the corrupt, plutocratic manner by which many of them reign financially supreme that I detest. Yes, I’m sure many less-advantaged folk fancy the idea of blood ‘sports’ too, but that shouldn’t deflect from the fact that, for the most part, game shooting just isn’t an activity accessible to the masses. With a day’s shoot likely to cost £20,000 to £40,000 (in some cases up to £70,000), membership to this exclusive club is granted almost solely to the conservative financial elite.

This wouldn’t be so bad if ordinary taxpayers weren’t forced to foot the bill for their fun – or at least a large portion of it, as I discovered with a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation: Throughout England, Scotland and Wales there are roughly 300 grouse moors. The average size is 2000 hectares. Notwithstanding moorlands used for field sports other than grouse shooting, with moorland subsidies being ~£54 per hectare taxpayers subsidise this faction some £33,600,000 per year (in 2011 Animal Aid calculated a figure closer to £37,000,000). Is this some sort of sick joke?

Ironically, for some of the beneficiaries, oracularly denouncing benefits claimers has become a casual past-time. They conveniently fail to recognise that they’re the same as those they condemn. You see, despite the fact that they’re given a different name, subsidies (in this context at least) are nothing more than benefits for the rich. Benefits exploited by incredibly wealthy grouse moor proprietors, such as the Daily Mail’s editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre (who earned £5.36m in 2014-15) and pub-chain owner Michael Cannon (who’s net-worth is £240m), who’ve evidently already been heavily advantaged by a vastly disproportionate wealth distribution system. These plutocrats just don’t need the help. While benefits are cut and living standards for the lower classes continue to decline, the country’s richest are given pocket-money and told to go out and play. Adding insult to injury, these subsidies propagate financial inequality and miss-educated bigotry. It’s entirely unnecessary, offensive and damning to the every-day taxpayer.

What’s more, these ‘sports’ wreak havoc upon our environment, consequent to the pseudo-conservationist land management techniques used to maintain their requisite landscapes. One main such technique is swailing: the burning of mature heather shrubs in order to make way for newer shoots (which many gamebirds feed upon). Yet, despite that “[t]he burning… can lead to increased flooding, decreased biodiversity, more carbon being released into the atmosphere and increased water pollution. And [that] we have to pay for the water to be treated, and we pay higher home insurance bills because of that increased flood risk.” (Which is far from the propagandist assertion it has been described as (1, 2, 3)) – Despite that, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) insists that the pros of this archaic practice by far outweigh the cons.

But their arguments are about as logical as those in favour of witch-dunking (i.e., they’re incredibly illogical). In their recent white paper, the BASC insinuates that unscorched terrains are bad for the environment; that any collateral damage resulting from land management, however immense it may be, is positively justifiable on the basis that denser populations of some red-listed wader species are found on moorland sporting estates. It’s absolute poppycock! Socio-economic injustices aside, what about the rest of our natural world? Why does the BASC disregard our depleting populations of hen harriers (1, 2), skylarks, or whinchats, of which all are red-listed also? What about the meadow pipit, the golden eagle, buzzard or carrion crow (1)? What about foxes, badgers, moles, voles, pine martens, weasels, pole cats, adders, mountain hares? All of these creatures suffer to the prevalence of blood sports, despite their legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Since the establishment of gaming estates, the continuous decline of this country’s wildlife has been less attributable to collateral damage and more to all-out assault (as is eloquently detailed in Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The long decline of a nation’s wildlife). Indeed, there is much intention to the BASC’s general omissions of the wider facts. 

Why does the BASC value some creatures less? The answer is simple. They find them economically undesirable. They’re a hindrance to gamekeeping. They out-compete and at times prey upon gamebirds, ransack nests and feed upon their young. Unhabituated to human linearity (the human obsession to organise and manage everything), and unfamiliar with the concept of arbitrary borders, they wander, nest and predate wherever they please. Consequently, gamekeepers regard them as vermin, failing to recognise that the backbone of our world economy relies heavily upon a relatively healthy and stable global ecosystem. Yet, in our progressively liberal world, with laws prohibiting the senseless killing of wildlife, groundskeepers, the BASC, indeed all blood sports enthusiasts cannot risk being seen to denigrate any creatures, given the possibility of wide-spread public denouncement. Instead they sell falsities, hoping to foster a culture of ignorance, so that they can continue to exclusively quench their everlasting thirst for blood.

Occasionally, when they realise they’re opposition is qualified enough to expose their quasi-logics (as Chris Packham recently has) they resort to elementary politico-economic arguments, appealing to fear rather than reason. They argue that particular rural communities would fall apart if the shooting industry ceased to exist, since much of their income relies upon the industry. But this line – that there exists no alternative method of financial stimulation in rural areas other than by the running of killing estates – is a fear-mongering fallacy. We don’t permit human trafficking because failure to do so would put many people out of work. We disallow it because it’s wrong, inhumane, entirely immoral. And the same logic should apply to blood sports. They form a barbaric and damaging industry, and ought to be relegated to the history books.

When I first heard of this day, the glorious twelfth, I wondered what I’d been missing out on. I was ready for some sort of personal enlightenment. Instead I found disappointment, a deep sense of discomfort. For me the glorious twelfth celebrated something exceptionally inglorious. It celebrated wide-spread naivety, extreme social and environmental injustice, and a common indifference to the needless slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of birds.

#NotSoGlorious.

A.C. Stark

On Hiatus…

I haven’t written anything substantial for some time now and for that I apologise. I’ve been working on a few other projects this summer which have been taking up the majority of my spare time. The main one of which is Lords Valley, a new musical group I’m working with. Once we’re done in the studio I should have time to write a little more. I do miss it. And trust me, as always, I have a lot to talk about. So, please, stay tuned.

Look Zoos Talking

Blackfish stirred up a storm. The documentary exposed Sea World for the mistreatment of its captive orcas, its inhumane and sometimes fatal capture, breeding and training methods, its coercive staffing procedures, and the comprehensive duplicity of its senior management and public relations teams. In August 2015, almost two years after its release, Sea World reported an 84% drop in second-quarter profits. It’s stock prices have dramatically fallen. And in March of this year, in a desperate attempt to claw back a little credibility, the park announced the end of its whale breeding program. Hurrah!

But wait… Is this really enough? After all, the orcas remain in captivity, enclosed within tanks so small they’d have to swim well over 3000 lengths to match the distances they’d usually travel on a single day in the oceans. Reverberating throughout the tanks, their vocalisations cause disorientation and consequent unnecessary stress. Originating from different social groups, occasionally from distinct subspecies, they can be hostile towards one another. And as inherently social creatures, those that are subsequently separated develop chronic, sometimes manic, depression (as opposed to the regular state of despondency they’d experience if successfully socialised). As a result of all of this and much more orcas tend to live considerably shorter lives in captivity, with an average life expectancy of around 13 years, as opposed to the normal 30 or 50 (dependent on sex). So, clearly, captivity is far from the best place for these creatures.

The same can be said of countless other animals held within zoological parks worldwide. I dare say most of them. (They frequently suffer from zoochosis, a psychological disorder with obsessive and repetitive behavioural symptoms such as pacing or rocking back and forth for up to hours at a time. We’ve all seen it). Yet if captivity is not appropriate for them, why do we persist in containing animals? Do zoos really have an honourable purpose?

Many people believe they do (1, 2). They argue that zoos intrigue and educate us and that they’re integral to conservation. Others contend that zoos are entirely immoral; that they’re nothing more than profit-seeking businesses. Having experienced Sea World’s spectacular facade first hand, as well as dozens of other zoos and animal parks worldwide, I sympathise more with the latter school of thought.

Undeniably, zoos are both inspirational and educational (though, the extent to which they are either is debatable). However, it’s difficult to see their importance to environmental conservation when the methods of conservation employed by even the world’s biggest and best zoos are so clearly inexpedient. Both collectively and individually zoos spend absurd amounts of money upgrading facilities. Money that could be better utilised towards protecting or enhancing the natural habitats and ecosystems from which their detainees were originally hijacked. For example, in March of 2007 London Zoo opened its state-of the-art gorilla enclosure, the Gorilla Kingdom, the construction of which cost somewhere in the region of £5.3M. Better yet, the Bronx Zoo recently spent over $43M on its Congo Gorilla Forest, an enclosure unprecedented in both scale and diversity (holding 400 animals from 55 different species). But this 6.5 acre glorified gorilla asylum still compares to no more than 0.026% of what its primary inhabitant’s, the western lowland gorillas, home territory can naturally span. In being concerned with zoology these organisations are without doubt completely aware of their inherent inadequacies; they’re fully aware that true conservation requires much more than they’re willing to offer.

As an organisation capable of offering far less but which gives so much more, consider Trees For Life in comparison. In 2008 the charity purchased the 10,000 acre Dundreggan estate in Glenmoriston of the Scottish Highlands for a mere sum of £1.65M. They have since worked hard to reforest the area, planting 30,000 trees per year, enabling local ecosystems to flourish free from the constant and intrusive glare of bolshie spectators (they understand that to properly conserve the natural world is to preserve the world in which animals live naturally, free from the constant bombardment of human intrigue and activity). With the money used to finance Gorilla Kingdom, London Zoo could have purchased Dundreggan three times over. Equivalently, the Bronx Zoo could have purchased it almost 19 times over. Why then did they not invest in something more worth while, something more in line with the environmental conservation they’re supposedly so integral to? Simply put, inexpediency is good for business. Indeed, if zoo’s were sufficiently expedient, then they’d cease to remain profitable.

But inexpediency isn’t the only problem concerning our zoos’ conservation efforts. Some general practices also are greatly condemnible, on the grounds that they directly conflict with the very concept of environmental conservation and demote animal welfare. For example, in order to manage genetics, populations or sometimes simply in order to feed their more predatory species, zoos cull animals that aren’t useful to them. Undeniably this is a deplorable practice, contrary to conservation, which if justifiable at all is so only on shallow economic grounds (12, 3, 4). Consider also the practice of keeping elephants. It has been repeatedly reported that elephants in captivity live on average less than half as long as their wild counter parts. Still, the vast majority of commercial zoos worldwide retain elephants as a main feature. Why? Well, elephants draw a lot of attention from spectators, bringing more people in through the gates, increasing revenues. Further still, consider the after-hours adult only events hosted by many of our favourite national zoos – such as London Zoo’s late night parties, Bristol Zoo’s Sunset Specials or it’s Big Night Out, or Edinburgh Zoo’s Summer Nights – all of which encourage their guests to partake in hedonistic activities whilst the zoo’s inhabitants are obliged to endure a night shift haunted by jesting, inebriated merry men and their wandering bands of louts and ladettes. How’s that zoochosis now, lion?! This is yet another practice accepted solely on the basis that it gets more people in through the gates. So, undoubtedly, for many zoo’s profits are a key factor in determining their practices. Moreover, profits clearly take precedence over conservation, to a degree by which the pursuit of them is often detrimental to the conservation efforts they’re purportedly intended to fund. Worse even still, this capitalistic culture has cultivated a zoo industry which further blurs the already hazy lines between what is and is not deemed morally acceptable in zoological practice, according to the normative framework laid down by our Secretary of State’s Standards of Modern Zoo Practice.

As businesses more than anything else, their agendas are fundamentally at odds with environmental conservation. The problems associated with Sea World are not unique. They’re  wide spread. They’re happening right under our noses, on our shores, committed by our zoos and adventure parks. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a place for zoos in the contemporary world, only that we need to drastically reevaluate the standards of practice by which they are run – something which hasn’t been done here in the UK for decades! (Some zoos are doing this off their own backs (1, 2) while some governments, such as Costa Rica’s, are closing zoos down altogether).

Ultimately, here in the UK, we’re deeply in need of a comprehensive review of our Standards of Practice. Furthermore, as individuals, we ought to consider whether our zoos are currently worthy of our attendance fees. I myself will boycott them all. And I implore you to do the same.

A.C. Stark