23 February 2012

The death of city centres in Britain

The death of town centres in Britain is gathering pace.

Across Britain, at least outside the centre of London, town centres are dying as commercial locations. The number of empty shops is around 6% in the richer south, but 40% in some of the ex-industrial cities of the north.

The causes are several. The financial crisis has reduced the spending power of all social classes, but particularly that of the poorest. In addition, there has been the growth of out-of-town shopping centres and an increase of shopping on-line. For city centres a vicious circle results: fewer city centre shops, fewer potential customers and vice versa.

As a result, in many parts of the centre of cities are becoming new slums consisting of boarded-up shops over and around which are found decrepit flats and rooms rented to the unemployed. The out-of-town shopping centres – often only easily accessible by private transport – provide only commercial wares. There are no public spaces here and permission to enter is in the hands of the shop owners.

The abuse and loss of public space is a loss for democracy, liberty and equality.


14 February 2012

Signposting Public Footpaths

Public footpaths do allow some access to the countryside.

Although England has some beautiful countryside, most of of it is private property surrounded by “Trespassers will be Prosecuted" notices and inaccessible to the public.

Nevertheless, across fields, woodlands and between properties there are public footpaths. These are often poorly marked, overgrown - and in many cases vandalised by landowners. Thirty centimetres of deliberately created mud or a few coils of barbed wire deter a majority of ramblers.

One of the biggest impediments is the poor signage. Two obvious steps could be taken. One would be to replace the rather unhelpful sign “public footpath” with a sign which said where the path was going and how far it was. The second would be for paths to have colours, red, green, yellow and blue – and at points where walkers could go astray mark a clearly visible tree, post, wall or stone with the appropriate colour.

I suppose there are some who argue that well signposted and marked public footpaths protected by robust laws would remove the pleasure of the challenge of walking in the English countryside. I do not agree.


6 February 2012

The Internet: Influence and Limitations

The internet a massive resource with attendant dangers

The internet has brought about the single biggest expansion in freedom of communication in the age of market fundamentalism. This is exceptional because in the last three decades nearly every other indicator of social progress has gone into reverse: the size and influence of civic organisations, moves to advance social equality and security, traditional civic freedoms, etc.

Of course the internet has facilitated not just left-wing political communication, but also other hitherto restricted topics of communication, particularly minority sexual interests. The main channels of internet communication are email messages, discussion boards and internet sites. The ability to find information has multiplied a thousand-fold.

Some people say that the internet is the cause of a decline in face-to-face political contacts. I don’t think so. Rare is the socialist who prefers writing facebook messages to having the discussion face-to-face. The fact is the internet substitutes when face-to-face contact is impossible, as letters and telephone calls did in an earlier age.

For me the three main dangers of politics on the internet are these:

First, the internet not only allows political communication widely and relatively freely but also facilitates near total state surveillance of the correspondence of activists. Yet in the liberal democracies if one is already known as a left-wing activist, this hardly makes a difference.

Second, there is always the danger of the internet being made unavailable in whole or in part, as the recent attempted suppression of FitWatch and WikiLeaks has shown. Common sense dictates that people should prepare for that eventuality, though I doubt whether many people actually do that.

Third, there is something more subtle and insidious. When we communicated more in printed articles, reading a five thousand word article was a normal occurrence. Who does that easily or willingly on the net? We have become accustomed to reading no more than a few hundred words in an on-line post or article, before clicking and moving on. That attention-span deficiency has affected the whole way in which we acquire and structure information.


Althusser: Philosophy of Science

Althusser does have something meaningful to say; it is just buried in mumbo-jumbo.

According to Goran Therborn, “Science, Class and Society” (1976) we can identify at least four elements in Althusser’s philosophy of science. I have simplified and reworded Therborn as follows:

The MATERIALIST POSTULATE: there is an independent material world out there, and we subjects try to comprehend it.

The ANTI-EMPIRICAL POSTULATE. Science investigates its object; however the object does not present itself to us directly, but has to be theoretically constructed. What does this mean? Let’s take an analogy. Well imagine you were teaching someone politics and your student asked you define politics. You couldn’t do it without supposing he or she knew what politics was. You would have to construct the object of your investigation.

The DISCONTINUITY POSTULATE. Every science has its own system of concepts. For example terms like ‘base’ and ‘surplus value’ acquire their meaning in a terminology tied to historical materialism and cannot be used with the same meaning outside it. This way of thinking shares much with the theory of scientific paradigms developed by Thomas Kuhn.

The ANTI-PRAGMATISM POSTULATE. Science is distinct from ideology in that it is poses questions which cannot be answered by reference to the object alone (Questions within ideology presuppose their own answers). At this point there is even some affinity with Popper! Yet, according to Althusser there is no possibility of external verification because the methodology of science is determined by its object.

Althusser was indeed a Stalinist in his politics, but that is about as relevant to the value of his philosophy as Aristotelian logic is to slave owning. The great shame of Althusser – apart from the fact that he was mad and strangled his wife – is his obscurantism, so what he did say that was meaningful is buried in mumbo-jumbo and tangled prose overflowing with pretentious and muddled metaphor.