Archive for May, 2010

Sorry Day

May 31, 2010

Accepting the 2001 Sydney Peace Prize, Sir William Deane, former High Court Justice and Australian Governor General, delivered a lecture on ‘The Search for Aboriginal Reconciliation.’

In it he remarked:

[The] oppression and injustice to which indigenous Australians were subjected in our land and under our Federation were not merely the acts of individuals who are long since dead and for whose acts living Australians might deny responsibility. They are properly to be seen as acts of the nation itself of which all living Australians are members. As such, that past oppression and injustice remains part of the very fabric of our country. They reach from the past to blight the present and to demand redress and reconciliation in the future.

Subscription to these views is commonplace and widely considered to be ‘progressive’.

Since the early 1990s, one wing of the Australian ruling elite, having embraced such pieties as useful to its interests, has encouraged their diffusion throughout public opinion under the banner of ‘reconciliation’.

Journalists and academics, apt to take their cue from official sources, have typically followed.

Socially respectable, this conventional wisdom is now promoted by left-liberal organizations like the Sydney Peace Foundation as a necessary part of acknowledging and helping to repair the awesome genocidal catastrophe of Australia’s European colonization.

For much of Australia’s broader non-Indigenous population, stirred by genuine sympathy for the injustices and depredations inflicted on Indigenous people, illusions persist about the purpose of what is presented to them as a kind of national atonement.

The country’s political establishment, for reasons of expedience, promotes collective expiation as a way to ‘heal wounds’ and allow ‘new partnerships’. Editors and executives have approved the project as a matter of ideological etiquette and table manners.

But Deane’s lofty notion of collective guilt  underpinned by a vision of ‘the nation’ as a collective moral agent, a persona ficta capable of undertaking actions and bearing culpability for them  has an unpleasant heritage, questionable logic and reactionary political implications.

Let me explain what I mean, since to say all this is to reverse the evaluative claims typically made for these ideas by the state, the media and intelligentsia. Questioning the political packaging in which such ideas are draped, and the aisle and shelf in which they have been placed in the ideological supermarket, is bound to be jarring.

But what does it mean to speak, as Deane does, of inherited responsibility for ‘acts of the nation itself of which all living Australians are members’?

Firstly, his claim that guilt is laterally transferred  i.e. that a supra-individual entity or group (an entire nation, race, gender, etc.) is responsible for the behaviour of the member individuals who make it up  is accompanied, as usual, with the pendant idea that this group liability is transmitted vertically across generations, a mortmain of culpability.

The latter has been a traditionally toxic formulation wherever it has been introduced.

It’s no longer acceptable, within polite society at least, to speak of inherited guilt with reference to Matthew 27: 25 (‘Let his blood be upon us, and on our children’). The notion of a Jewish blood curse, imposed for the crimes of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, is now uncongenial to liberal sensibility and isn’t, as it long was, salonfähig.

And, though the notion of German ‘collective guilt’ for fascist militarism and the Judeocide was recently revived by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, it too is generally thought repugnant. Postwar governments used it to justify the seizure of assets and citizenship rights from German and Hungarian residents of Czechoslovakia, Pomerania and Silesia.


In general, it’s considered illiberal to say that members of any human subgroup or bearers of some descent-based ascriptive trait (e.g. race, gender, religion) acquire guilt at birth, by virtue solely of their group membership or trait profile, then transmit it to their offspring. To suggest otherwise is to risk censure.

Yet Deane tenders just such a vacuity as an account of Australian history.

Obviously enough, it isn’t the case that members of bien-pensant circles now categorically reject, or make a principled stance against, the notion of collective guilt inherited via ancestry.

For it’s OK to describe one of history’s great crimes  ‘the oppression and injustice to which indigenous Australians were subjected’ — using the same obnoxious logic (if with a different terminology and political inflection). Indeed, as shown by the Sydney Peace Foundation’s acclamation of Deane, commitment to such a view is now a totem of ‘progressive’ group identity, a shibboleth by which the putatively ‘left-wing’ tribe is distinguished from the right.

Its dubious precursors aside, is there any sense to the idea? Does it capture something about settler colonialism that other critical accounts neglect?

Let’s run through the ideological vision as it’s propounded by official sources such as Deane.

In Australia, as with the biblical case of ‘collective guilt’, causal responsibility for the wrongful deeds is acknowledged to lie with specific historical agents, who may be named and arraigned: individuals and entities including colonial administrators, armed forces and police, pastoralists, ‘gentleman settlers’, magistrates, civil servants, Chief Protectors, missionaries and miners, having acted both singly and in concert.

But, in the Australian case as elsewhere, an additional degree of moral blame (culpability) is attributed to all members of a particular identity group, by virtue of their sharing the same (putative) racial, ethnic or national identity as the direct perpetrators.

For the group is believed to constitute a kind of supra-individual personality (‘the Jews’, ‘white people’, ‘the nation’), capable of having beliefs, pursuing goals and undertaking actions.

The collective identity of this group is held to persist across time, despite changes in personnel. It has a ‘general will’, which is something more than (i.e. can’t be reduced or decomposed to) a mere aggregation of individual wills. Like a limited liability company (rather than a partnership), it survives the departure of those specific individuals who bear the stain of direct causal responsibility.

Indeed, it’s possible to see the action for which blame was incurred as having somehow been undertaken by the collective entity.

The apportionment of culpability to the responsible individuals thus doesn’t exhaust things: a residue of guilt must be attributed to the supra-individual entity itself (‘vicarious liability’), and thus to all individuals who constitute it.

Guilt thereafter accrues to later-arriving members of the collective personality, i.e., individuals who possess the attributes by which group membership is defined. A kind of metaphysical guilt thus ‘reaches from the past’ down to members of subsequent generations. So long as the putative ‘nation’ or ‘race’ endures, and until the liability is discharged, the guilt of its members is undying.

Guilt for ‘what he or she has done to others’ thus taints each person descended from the perpetrators of ‘white aggression and racism’. On Sorry Day, and in Sorry Books, non-Indigenous people are invited to imagine themseves as ‘white’, then to express contrition for the past behaviour of fellow ‘white people’.

Of course, the völkisch basis of inherited responsibility may be downplayed.

In such cases, it won’t be claimed that a nation or race is the type of collective actor that can do something, such as commit a moral wrong. But it’s held that such an act can be performed on its behalf (i.e. to its collective advantage), so that its members thereby incur a debt or degree of culpability.

Thus, for the ANU historian Ann Curthoys, all non-Indigenous Australians today bear guilt as ‘the beneficiaries of the colonisation process’.

But cui bono? is, to say the least, an unorthodox way to determine moral responsibility (the awful Susan Brownmiller is a rare proponent of the idea). Culpability for some harm inflicted on another isn’t usually thought to follow from the mere fact of having benefited, ex post, from that injurious act or occurrence.

That aside, Curthoys leaves unargued exactly how the entire non-Indigenous population  rather than some small subset of it — has benefited from the devastation of Indigenous Australian societies.

Land grants estates NSW 1812-1820

Grazing leases NSW

Port Phillip district landowners

Do Deane and Curthoys not bestow a curious anonymity on the political agents responsible for these sinister deeds, and disguise the purpose of their enterprise? Is the villain of the piece, ‘the nation’, or ‘white people’, not a pure abstraction?

More importantly and troublingly, the upshot of Curthoys’s claim that ‘all migrants and their descendants’ have ‘benefited from colonisation’ is that Australian history (and current political circumstances) must be understood simultaneously as a zero-sum conflict between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups and a harmonious ‘common-interest game’ within each respective group.

That is to say, on Curthoys’s vision the two ethnic groups have contended over relative shares of some pie. More for one group has meant more for all members of that group and less for all members of the other group.

Thus conflicts of interest within groups are entirely absent, while pure conflict exists between groups: the fortunes of members of one group (Indigenous Australians) vary inversely with the welfare of all other people.

The political implication of this argument is dire and reactionary: if A benefits by inflicting some loss on B, then B can only gain or recover the loss at A’s expense, in which case A isn’t a credible ally for any project by B to advance its material interests, for in doing so A would be harming itself.

B can only satisfy its wants by breaking with A; or as Thomas Schelling explained:

[In a] common-interest game we can refer to [the players] as ‘partners’ and in the pure-conflict game as ‘opponents’ or ‘adversaries.’

The spread of such beliefs upholds the political exclusivity of groups defined along ethnic (or linguistic, religious etc.) lines. It partitions members of populations who otherwise might act in political concert, while suppressing other salient social distinctions (e.g. class) that might otherwise lead to political divisions.

The prospect of working-class unity is thereby neutralized, and this surely is one reason why Australia’s political elite has found promotion of these ideas to be expedient.

Of course, this doesn’t speak to the truth of Curthoys’s factual claim. Whether or not it’s to be preferred shouldn’t be decided on the grounds of political handicap or usefulness, but on whether or not it provides a true description of historical events.

Like the children’s messages scrawled in the Sorry Book above, the portrayal of Deane and Curthoys obscures the actual causal process of settler colonialism.

The Australian genocide, in its initial high-impact decades, involved the British state assuming radical title over fertile land, then distributing it and other assets to graziers and farmers. This seizure and re-allocation of resources was enforced through direct violence (by the state and by private agents of the new owners).

More crucially, the creation of possession-based property rights over economic resources entailed the denial (in the name of the owner’s exclusive dominion) of access and use by non-owners to their hitherto secure means of livelihood: hunting grounds, watering holes and shelter. That ousting dealt a massive shock to previously stable practices of subsistence acquisition and societal reproduction.

Worldly things and domains that formerly were open-access were suddenly no longer available for non-owners to satisfy basic needs, undertake sustenance-drawing activities or secure personal livelihoods.

Disruption to the existing regime of self-provisioning, sharing and related types of food production produced a sudden reliance for material subsistence on wage income, market exchange, charity or other novel transactions. This in turn disrupted the kinship practices and forms of cultural transmission that governed pre-colonial Australian societies.

Colonial authorities (and their successors) then attempted, in the manner of war victors, to eradicate the cultures, behavioural patterns and child-rearing practices of the defeated forager societies, and to replace them with norms and preferences more suited to the new market-based economy.

High fatality rates followed exposure to new disease environments. The latter arose through (i) the creation of high-density settlements in what formerly were sparsely populated areas, (ii) population displacement through inter-regional labour markets, and (iii) the introduction of alien pathogens by the colonizers.

Together with disruption of kinship systems and breaking apart of social units, this led to imbalanced sex ratios: changed sexual practices then encouraged the spread of venereal diseases, which led to a sharp and prolonged fall in fertility.

Such catastrophic social disruption then produced the sort of dysfunctional behaviour displayed regularly, over the past five centuries, by peoples defeated by capitalist imperialism: alcoholism, prostitution and high rates of interpersonal violence.

Of course, the displacement of one society by another carrying a novel set of institutions (involving, among other things, catastrophic demographic decline in the original population, and mass export of a new settler population) is something very different from a simple event like the execution of Jesus Christ. A process on this scale, to the extent that it involved deliberate design, required the coordination of many diverse participants into institutional collectivities (corporate bodies like civil service departments, military units, business firms, clubs and political organizations).

In these collective entities, group solidarity and a sense of common purpose were regularly maintained by appeals to a shared European ancestry. Ethnic stratification, rather than class membership, often was the ideological basis for distinguishing insiders from outsiders.

But it’s quite a step from acknowledging this to suggesting (as today’s socially-sanctioned authority figures and cultural models obviously have done to the children writing above) that colonization (and post-Federation rule) was somehow an expression of the ‘general will’ of ‘white people’ or ‘the nation’.

The ways in which historical actors (sometimes) described, legitimized or understood their own activities ought not to govern our understanding of those activities today.

Elazar Barkan - The Guilt of Nations

Historian Marilyn Lake has said:

Aboriginal people were active in identifying all settlers – whether hut-keepers, clergymen, convicts or military officers – as one people, as ‘white men’, whom they held jointly responsible for taking their land… [The indiscriminate nature of] Aboriginal retaliation and revenge… is explained by the Aboriginal perception that a group of people defined by their ‘whiteness’ had taken their country.

Supposing this was in fact ‘the Aboriginal perception’, it was mistaken and regrettable (though understandable). The tangible resources of Australia were seized by, and property rights in them apportioned to, a very small group of people, all of whom had European ancestry.

But none of these property holders could sensibly be defined by their ancestry, since the vast majority of ‘white men’ did not (as today most non-Indigenous Australians do not) own productive assets.

NSW landowners 1845-1946

In this respect, the concentrated pattern of landholding that emerged during the mid-19th century in the Australian colonies may be distinguished from that which resulted from the Ottoman genocide of Armenians during the First World War.

In the latter case, title deeds to plundered Armenian estates, farms, workshops, factories, orchards and vineyards were allocated broadly to the Anatolian peasantry.

In the eastern Australian colonies, no such egalitarian smallholding grew up on the land confiscated from its displaced and hunted Indigenous inhabitants.

In the initial decades following British settlement, land grants were dispensed to military officers and other favoured clients of the governor. Later, from the 1830s, this narrow patronage system was replaced by land sales along Wakefieldian lines, designed to guarantee a supply of labour to capitalist employers.

The ‘sole object’ of a land price, declared Wakefield, was ‘to prevent labourers from turning into landowners.’

Cultivable or grazing land was henceforth accessible only to the wealthy and creditworthy. In 1851, 31 million acres of the Port Phillip District were held by fewer than 1000 squatting licence-holders.

Ownership was further consolidated as the nineteenth century progressed.

The picture of ‘white’ yeomanry dotting the Australian continent, although a powerful ideological symbol, was nothing more than an image d’Épinal.

Camden estate - William Macarthur

Secondly, with regard to Lake’s claim, the ‘collective actors’ responsible for colonization were exclusive institutions which left almost no room for popular participation.

During the first 70 years of their existence, the Australian colonies concentrated decision-making authority in a tiny number of people. For four decades after settlement New South Wales was a military dictatorship. For the next 30 years, autocratic rule was broadened to include an oligarchic elite, allowing the voice of special interests, especially graziers and merchants, to be heard.

Thereafter, the formation of representative assemblies and broadening of the franchise made elite decisionmaking only weakly accountable to the vast majority of the settler population: members of the subordinate and asset-free classes. And by this time (indeed, even by the 1830s), many of the most consequential decisions concerning the fundamentals of Australian life (where economic activity would occur, and how, etc.) were made by powerful private actors (pastoralists and banks) whose property rights kept their decisions beyond the reach of democratic accountability.

Thirdly, while the devastation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies did require the decentralized action of many people from various economic classes (i.e. something broader than a narrow elite coalition), this didn’t involve the deliberate pursuit, in unison by all settlers of European ancestry, of shared goals.

It did, however, involve the (unplanned) coordination of these individuals, via a set of rules, institutions, constraints and incentives which governed how the members of colonial Australian society interacted and behaved, such that social development was channelled in a particular terrible direction.

This set of durable rules governing Australian society was not decided by the broad population in any electoral vote or constitutional convention. Nor were many of the institutions spontaneously accreted over decades. They were laid out purposely in royal charters and letters patent, and in strategic documents like the Bigge reports.

How did this work?

There were, as there are in each society, a set of economic institutions and social relationships governing how individuals could acquire a livelihood (i.e. what they had to do or be to acquire the goods and services needed to survive).

Thus Australian forager societies, before the arrival of British colonizers, involved customary rules of sharing and division, norms which Indigenous populations struggled to maintain subsequently, as described above. These rules then constrained who interacted with whom, the terms on which they met, the rights and obligations of each party to the transaction, etc.

And, in colonial Australia as in any society, the most important of these rules (those defining the set of feasible actions available to individuals and the payoffs attached to them) were the definition of property rights in economic resources, and their allocation to particular individuals, and the contracts (i.e. the type of social relationships) available to people given their level of wealth.

By virtue of (above all) what resources they did or didn’t possess, members of the various classes that made up post-1788 Australian society were compelled to act in particular ways, prevented from behaving in certain other ways, or otherwise had incentives which predisposed them to do some things and not others. This was what Jon Elster called ‘endowment-generated behaviour.’

But today’s ‘progressive’ opinion cannot confront these matters, for to seriously investigate the historical record would lead to undesirable political conclusions. Thus Sorry Day and its backers discourage anyone from inquiring into the social relationships underlying the devastation inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people.

Yet lapidary and insightful description of this genocidal process does exist.

It can be found, for example, in the work of Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote in 1913 of how ‘modern colonial policy’ seized ‘the land, its hidden mineral treasure, and its meadows, woods and water, and further the flocks of the primitive shepherd tribes’ that occupied ‘vast tracts of the globe’s surface’ outside Europe:

Since the primitive associations of the natives are the strongest protection for their social organizations and for their material bases of existence, capital must begin by planning for the systematic destruction and annihilation of all the non-capitalist social units which obstruct its development…

From the point of view of the primitive societies involved, it is a matter of life or death; for them there can be no other attitude than opposition and fight to the finish – complete exhaustion and extinction. Hence permanent occupation of the colonies by the military, native risings and punitive expeditions are the order of the day for any colonial regime. The method of violence, then, is the immediate consequence of the clash between capitalism and the organizations of a natural economy which would restrict accumulation.

This, written 100 years ago in Europe, is a vastly more accurate, devastating and useful account of the criminal policy behind the Australian genocide than the pious self-mortification about ‘acts of the nation’ promoted today by the Sydney Peace Foundation and other ‘progressives’.

By scattering historical focus away from the collective action of propertyholders and state elites (and away from the institutional evolution they begat), and towards a putative ‘white people’, the account of Deane, Lake and Curthoys harmlessly distributes the guilt of perpetrators across time, till both all and none are to blame. And, as Deane says, without understanding liability, it’s impossible to propose an appropriate remedy.

Curthoys does, however, usefully suggest that the ‘black armband’ and ‘white blindfold’ historians are two sides of the same coin.

For both groups, the central problem of Australian historiography is the moral status of ‘white’ people:

Looked at more closely, the contest over the past is perhaps not between positive and negative versions, but between those which place white Australians as victims, struggling heroically against adversity, and those which place them as aggressors and perpretrators, bringing adversity upon others.

Curthoys’s predictable stance is that both positions are, in a sense, true: at least both are ‘narratives, stories about the past which make sense to those who tell and receive them.’ A more useful response, surely, is that both versions are false.

National guilt

May 28, 2010

Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption describes how luxury goods or services (yachts, private aircraft, fowling pieces, Fabergé eggs eggs, Gucci handbags), because of their expense, are a badge of class membership. Their purpose is the signalling of status, adherence to a collective tradition or identity, or display of credentials, intelligence and good taste.

The middle classes lack the purchasing power for such displays, but their private consumption choices and leisure activities do often serve the purpose of signalling good taste and discernment (in the manner satirized by Stuff White People Like).

The more exacting the better, as Adorno described in Minima Moralia:

The high life aspires to be the beautiful life. It affords those engaging in it ideological pleasure gains.

Because the formalization of life becomes a task requiring the adherence to rules, the artificial preservation of a style, the maintenance of a delicate balance between correctness and independence, existence appears endowed with meaning, so appeasing the bad conscience of the socially superfluous.

The constant injunction to do and say what exactly befit’s one status and situation demands a kind of moral effort. By making it difficult to be the person one is, one gains the feeling of living up to a patriarchal noblesse oblige.

Thus are life’s common activities, the everyday routines of consumption, transformed into exercises of style (what Kojève called snobisme, using the example of Japanese tea ceremonies that survived as a kind of postmodern ritual adornment without content or substance).

‘You must change your life,’ ran the injunction issued to bourgeois audiences by Rilke’s archaic torso. Today’s middle-class public is likewise encouraged to shed its complacency. But postmodern art, more gratifying, presents itself to readers and viewers as lifestyle supplement, rather than revision. It offers a means to decorate their lives, adorning, adjusting and embellishing themselves with the finest appurtenances and soundest thoughts.

Members of the liberal professions (certified academics, architects, lawyers, accountants, etc.), together with civil servants and other members of the skilled professional salariat, imagine that the income premium they command, and other privileges, are due to their ‘different genius’ (as in Adam Smith’s parable of the philosopher and the street porter).

Their relatively high earnings (compared to the wages and salaries earned by employees generally) are understood as a just reward for talent. According to the prevailing economic ideology, the level of payment they fetch in the labour market (or receive as proprietorship or partnership income) is set by the worth of what they contribute as an input to production.

The latter capacity is held to derive either from intrinsic characteristics of the person themselves (superior cognitive skills), or from a provident and well-calculated investment of time and effort in education — foregoing earnings for several years of additional study, bestowing upon them a stock of human capital.

These qualities (so it is believed) also manifest themselves in good taste and discernment in consumption, e.g. the best food, clothes, cultural products, etc.

Products marketed at this audience thus often contain deliberate signs of ‘quality’, difficulty and seriousness. These are a kind of screening device: consumption of such products is a reliable signal of the consumer’s underlying ‘type’, since it requires a costly investment (e.g. of effort, time or money spent acquiring the taste, knowledge or capacity for appreciation) that most cannot afford (due to lack either of resources or motivation).

Through these products, consumers can thus signal their correct thoughts, depth, sophistication, possession of good taste, and status as a Serious Person.

Alexander Cockburn described such consumer behaviour in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk…

For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

His examples came from fair-trade coffee and similar speciously ethical products.

When it comes to products like art and periodical publications, such markers of quality include the latest bienséance: the ideological badges of decorous respectability, intellectual fashion and contemporary right-thinking.


Middlebrow arthouse cinema is one example, draped like ‘literary fiction’ with obvious badges of ‘seriousness’ that are designed to distinguish it from mainstream filmic dross (which it dwells happily alongside as a complementary market segment, in peaceable and mutually constitutive coexistence).

Such middlebrow products today include an especially deplorable sub-genre: a filmic variety that, dramatically incoherent and gesturing limply towards political ‘topicality’, gels utterly with liberal-progressive ideology. The latter now includes various tenets of identity politics, and has abandoned any attempt to think seriously about imperialism, racism, sexism, etc.

Instead there is the posturing and demagogy of ‘collective guilt.’

When it comes to novel and film publicity, any promise to ‘explore’ the theme of collective guilt is a fairly reliable warning of middlebrow vacuity to come: of portentous and dramatically specious attempts to fuse ‘psychological complexity’ with political ‘topicality’.

More than this: for a particular social layer, these art products are a kind of positional good, in Veblen’s sense.

Auteuil and Binoche - Caché

In Michael Haneke’s Caché, for example, Daniel Auteuil’s adult character is haunted by a nasty lie he told as a six year-old boy, which turned out to have terrible consequences for an Algerian boy.

This seems intended as an allegory for France’s colonial legacy. Here the secret of overdrawn individual culpability (for who could blame the man for the child’s petty fib?) lies in national guilt. Auteuil’s character is culpable not for what he personally did, but, as a Frenchman and by virtue of that alone, for colonialism.

Even more representative of the genre is Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader, which received Oprah’s seal of approval and was made into an Oscar-winning movie.

In this story, a young German man feels guilty because, as a fifteen-year old, he had a sexual relationship with a woman who later turned out to have been an SS camp guard.

At the novel’s beginning, his parent’s generation, which ‘had been been served by the guards and enforcers, or had done nothing to stop them, or had not banished them from its midst as it could have done after 1945, was in the dock’.

Eventually, though, the main character learns of his ‘accrued or inherited responsibility’:

I was guilty of having [unwittingly, as a child!] loved a criminal… [Perhaps] we are responsible even for the love we feel for our parents… [My] love for Hannah was, in a way, the fate of my generation, a German fate [das deutsche Schicksal].

Here a person, by virtue of national origin, has acquired responsibility for something he wasn’t directly involved in. And, in a step beyond Caché, he wasn’t even born in time to see the crime.

Schlink has since expanded on his theme.

Last year Queensland University Press published a group of his essays called Guilt about the Past. Schlink can be watched addressing the Melbourne Writers Festival on how ‘individual guilt becomes collective guilt and is passed on to the next generation.’

Collective liabilities, he says, are founded on ‘communities of solidarity, such as ‘a family, an association, an organisation or institution and even a people’. Nations are like kinship groups, in which the ‘web of guilt… is high and wide’. If a member of my group offends against morality, I can only achieve absolution by severing the ‘ties of solidarity’ between us — ties that ‘exist by default’.

Guilt thus extends not only to ‘perpetrator, inciter and accessories to the crimes’, nor merely to ‘those who were perfectly capable of resistance but did nothing’. It ‘entangles an entire generation and even casts a shadow over later generations’, so long as the criminals aren’t ‘cast out’.


Here Schlink has borrowed — his Australian audience no doubt remains ignorant of the transaction — from Max Weber and Otto Bauer’s description of the nation as Schicksalgemeinschaft, or ‘community of fate.’ The intellectual pedigree is impeccable.

Yet its origins in the early-twentieth century empires of Wilhelmine and Habsburg Europe ought to give pause. Stripped of Schlink’s piety and examined coldly for its consequences and internal logic, the notion of assigning guilt to an individual on the basis of group membership or ascriptive characteristics (racial or ethnic identification, language, religion, etc.) is bizarre, incoherent and sinister.

It’s the precise analogue of the idiotic demands, regularly made over the past decade, for ‘moderate Muslims’ to disavow or condemn every terrorist attack committed by other Muslims (Daniel Dennett adds an extra layer of responsibility: ‘if we non-Muslims do not speak out, we too must share in the blame.’) And Schlink’s notion of trans-generational guilt, acquired by ‘a people’ then transmitted via consanguinity, creepily mimics that old anti-Semitic saw, by which Jews are forever condemned as Christ killers.

Is there a Jewish or Muslim ‘fate’ (Schicksal), along with a German one?

Underlying the idea of collective guilt is a vision of ‘the nation’ (or the ‘race’) as a collective personality, a supra-individual actor that can perform actions and incur liabilities (and culpability for wrongdoings) just as a natural person does.

This entity (the nation) is understood to have an existence distinct from that of the individuals who constitute it: like a limited-liability corporation, with its ‘perpetual succession’, the nation endures after the departure of its original members. The nation is considered to act vicariously through the agency of (some or all of) its members. A government, especially, is said to act ‘on behalf of the nation’, either as its mandated representative, or in holding jurisdiction over the territory in which members of the nation reside. The consequences of actions undertaken ‘by the nation’ at one time may fall upon subsequent members, just as an individual is assigned responsibility for actions he has performed during earlier periods.

The nation is a kind of moral agent, which entails that its members, having jointly committed a collective wrong, may justly be subjected to collective sanction.

The appallingly reactionary origins and implications of this line of thinking hardly need to be stated.

The idea of national guilt collapses the distinction between a territorial state, its population, and the imagined community that ideologically binds part of the population (the in-group) into a ‘nation’ (or ‘community of solidarity’, to use Schlink’s term).

Among other things, this confers a whiff of legitimacy on the targeting of civilians in times of war. After all, by signalling their membership of the enemy out-group — by saluting the flag, singing the national anthem or speaking the national language — they become, on this view, responsible for the state’s actions like any member of the ruling elite: the Kaiser, police chief or army general.

Once deemed collectively culpable, they may — why not? — be susceptible to collective punishment.

This last argument, it will be recognized, was used to justify the murder of ordinary people in New York’s World Trade Center. And Schlink’s book, in turn, reads like the fictional equivalent of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

The adherence of avowedly ‘progressive’ people to such ideas (they are expressed not just in middlebrow cinema but in bien-pensant organs of opinion) testifies to the deep intellectual and political confusion of the ‘liberal left’ in the present era, and to the deep contempt felt for the broader population among members of the skilled intelligentsia and middle classes.

Homophobia and sport

May 23, 2010

If you believe newspaper reporting,

new research by Victoria University shows that gay men believe Australian rules is the most hostile football code, with many saying they feel too threatened to play the game….The Victoria University research, based on a survey of 308 people and to be published next month, found the most common sports that gay men would like to play but did not, or felt they could not, were Australian rules football (45 per cent), rugby (17.5 per cent) and soccer (10 per cent).

Really? Australian-rules football seems greatly more hostile to homosexual participants than rugby? This made me suspicious, and eager to check out the report, “Come Out to Play: the Sports experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people in Victoria“. The figures described above in the newspaper, given on page 66 of the report, might catch the eye. But they don’t represent a useful score of perceived hostility, such as the proportion of people who feel they can’t play a particular sport, conditional on them wanting to play that sport. Instead they represent the proportion of people who want to play a particular sport, conditional on them feeling they can’t play a sport. This isn’t so much an index of homophobia as a popularity score! Gay men don’t ‘believe Australian rules is the most hostile football code’ – at least there’s no evidence to say so.

Actually there’s not much evidence for anything in the report, in the sense of unbiased estimates. Intuitively many of the figures make sense, and the dreadful anecdotes of homophobia and abuse deserve weight. But the actual numbers mean little. The survey data comes from a questionnaire hosted online at Demographix, with respondents recruited through both advertising and snowball sampling (researchers forwarded emails to people on their contacts list, who then referred them to friends, and so on). When the target population is hidden or marginalised, of course, this kind of sampling may be unavoidable. But the authors of ‘Come Out to Play’ don’t even acknowledge it, or seem very fussed with what one of them calls ‘rigid quantitative methodologies’. Figures 12 and 15, for example, are completely trivial.

An important issue deserves a bit better than this. Vague impressions and anecdotes are best left to the likes of Jason Akermanis.

Emissions abatement and the Greens

May 20, 2010

Attentive observers will have noticed several people on the extra-parliamentary ‘left’ proposing a carbon tax (also advanced by the Australian Greens and many on the right) as their preferred short-term measure to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

This has involved some or all of the following claims:

  • tradeable emissions permits are a sneaky way to commodify the atmosphere, granting private property rights over a common resource;
  • a secondary market in permits, and the inevitable permit-backed derivatives, will only enrich traders and idle rentiers;
  • granting free permits to large emitters, or even conducting auctions, doesn’t provide enough revenue for the state to mitigate the effects of global warming, invest in solar and windpower, or compensate households;
  • price instruments are usually the best way to correct market externalities like pollution.

Some of these are reasonable and helpful points.

But there are problems with a carbon tax, especially from what purports to be a left-wing perspective.

First, we don’t know the price elasticity of fossil-fuel usage (i.e. the precise responsiveness of carbon emissions to the tax-induced price rise). So at what level should the tax be set, if we want a given level of emissions? We could start with an estimate (say, $23 per tonne), then adjust the tax rate every year until we reach the desired level of emissions. But it’s likely to require several iterations to reach the emissions target; meanwhile international obligations (under any new protocol) aren’t met.

It may be objected that annual deviations from the target don’t matter; global warming depends on atmospheric concentrations built up over decades. But politics works on a different timescale, and no government is likely to embark on a year-by-year sequence of tax-rate adjustments.

A government serious about reaching targets must therefore set a physical limit to the volume of emissions.

Second, the tax is regressive, just like any fuel tax, VAT or poll tax. Even with some redistribution to households, it enriches the state bureaucracy at the disproportionate expense of lower-income groups. Carbon-tax advocates seem to consider this necessary to finance state investment in renewables, but that issue is separate from short-term abatement of CO2 emissions. (At any rate, income and asset taxes would appear better candidates.)

If one must (why?) choose a market-based policy, compatible with existing institutions, the best option seems to involve setting a physical cap on emissions, then dividing permits equally among the adult population, rather than issuing them (either through auctions or “grandfathering”) to existing coal and oil companies.

These rations would then be tradeable on a secondary market, allowing companies to purchase emission rights by paying ordinary citizens. This would allow a precise emissions cap to function, while producing progressive income effects. It would also make obvious the only fair basis for international agreement: equal per-capita emissions rights for every country.

These are, of course, short-term policy objectives. In what way might they serve as instruments for pursuing larger goals?

The Greens pay due respect in their climate-change pronouncements to the importance of ‘price signals’. But the problem of emissions reduction makes plain the desirability of economic planning in physical terms rather than market prices. Prices encode less information than the set of technical coefficients that make up an input-output model of the economy; the latter provides all the information necessary to form prices. So any calculation that can be done with prices can, in principle, be done in kind (i.e. with physical units).

An emissions target (so many tonnes of CO2) is easily incorporated as an additional constraint within a linear programming model, allowing planners to optimize final consumption and resource usage while ensuring the cap isn’t breached.

Know thy foetus

May 19, 2010

If the philosophical question of when consciousness begins and ends is so contentious, then perhaps this article in New Scientist, about the sensory abilities of a growing foetus, will help to demystify the issue through scientific data. To frame Linda Geddes‘ piece in a more prosaic context, this information could certainly help many women come to a decision about terminating a pregnancy. Whether or not she believes abortion is morally acceptable (and I’d like to state that I am absolutely pro-choice), the emotional trauma experienced by a woman making the decision to abort a foetus or continue with her pregnancy cannot be denied – especially if she is ill-informed about the physiological characteristics and sensory-motor abilities of the foetus.

I hope this kind of information is available in schools, doctors’ surgeries and sexual health centres.

Unproductive parasites are stealing our sunlight

May 18, 2010

Someone once commented that you could judge the relative size of unproductive bureaucracies in different countries (the examples given were the US and Soviet Union) by comparing the skylines of their biggest cities. Great clusters of office buildings and skyscrapers testified to the presence of many financial, legal and advertising workers. As Adam Smith tells us, these workers consume rather than contribute to the social product.

Even worse, their horrible buildings create dark and unpleasant wind tunnels. In Melbourne’s CBD the tallest office towers are thankfully – as this slightly out-of-date video shows – concentrated at certain points: the western and eastern ends of Collins Street, and generally at either end of the east-west-running streets (Bourke, Lonsdale, etc). These areas are cold and uninviting, with the sun obscured unless it’s directly above you. But this also leaves a nice, clear hollow patch running north-south along the CBD’s spine, Swanston Street, where an entire winter’s day can be spent in sunlight. 

Until, that is, a bunch of office towers and apartment buildings began popping up on the northern end of Swanston Street around Victoria Street, between RMIT and Melbourne Uni. Now some yuppie who’s spent his day not so much performing work as applying force can sneak a convenient spot of indoor rock climbing in before dinner, thereby denying all of us the late-afternoon sun. Here’s the relatively unimpeded view, which no longer exists, looking north up Swanston Street from the State Library’s lawn.

Link dump

May 10, 2010
  • “The [occupied territories] were to be insulated from Israel and converted into a series of enclaves, not so much like the South-African Bantustans (which were a reserve of labour for the settlers), more like the Indian Reservations, where the indigenous people could rot out of sight.” Interview with Moshé Machover.
  • “Age-related IQ decline is reduced markedly after adjustment for the Flynn effect”. From the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology.
  • “So I’m planning this trip to Costa Rica, looking at possible activities I can do when I’m there, and I come upon parasailing. Now I’ve never given parasailing a second thought, but the moment I click on this webpage and see the pictures of people soaring above the beach, I know it is something I really really want to do. Even better, the parasailing company’s website says something about ‘all shapes and sizes’ of people being able to participate in parasailing. Heck yes, I’m psyched! That is, until I read their FAQ a little closer and see that, to them, ‘all sizes’ means up to 250 pounds.” From Big Fat Blog.
  • Simulated 3D tour of the Dimona nuclear complex, based on Mordechai Vanunu’s descriptions:

Jerry built

May 6, 2010

From the early edition of PNAS“Footprints of nonsentient design inside the human genome”:

Intelligent design (ID)—the latest incarnation of religious creationism—posits that complex biological features did not accrue gradually via natural evolutionary forces but, instead, were crafted ex nihilo by a cognitive agent. Yet, many complex biological traits are gratuitously complicated, function poorly, and debilitate their bearers. Furthermore, such dysfunctional traits abound not only in the phenotypes but inside the genomes of eukaryotic species. Here, I highlight several outlandish features of the human genome that defy notions of ID by a caring cognitive agent. These range from de novo mutational glitches that collectively kill or maim countless individuals (including embryos and fetuses) to pervasive architectural flaws (including pseudogenes, parasitic mobile elements, and needlessly baroque regulatory pathways) that are endogenous in every human genome. Gross imperfection at the molecular level presents a conundrum for the traditional paradigms of natural theology as well as for recent assertions of ID, but it is consistent with the notion of nonsentient contrivance by evolutionary forces. In this important philosophical sense, the science of evolutionary genetics should rightly be viewed as an ally (not an adversary) of mainstream religions because it helps the latter to escape the profound theological enigmas posed by notions of ID.

This last bit seems incoherent and unnecessary.

Neither new, nor labour, nor a party

May 3, 2010

Anyone tempted to excuse Gordon Brown’s childish hissy fit and support the “lesser evil” should read Tony Woods’s verdict on 13 years of New Labour:

The specifics of New Labour’s record—one murderous war after another; slavish devotion to finance; promotion of rampant inequality; repeated assaults on civil liberties; fragmentation and privatization of public services; outrageous corruption—make plain that they have fully merited being turfed out of office. Good riddance; this execrable government deserves to go.

Complexity and self-organization as ideology

May 2, 2010

In a lecture from a few years ago, later published as Shaping Life: Genes, Embryos and Evolution, John Maynard Smith remarked that, in biology, ‘to believe in self-organization seems to be associated with left-wing or feminist views’, while for economists it was often found alongside right-wing political opinions.

So, in one field, people like Brian Goodwin and Richard Lewontin (see the video below) opposed a kind of ‘holism’ to what they saw as the dominant reductionism of molecular biology.

Elsewhere, of course, pro-market hostility to command, control and planned economies was more mainstream.

But with gene-culture evolution now a prominent research program, with supporters from L.L. Cavalli-Sforza to E.O. Wilson, I’m not sure this equation (or the related claim, often made, about levels of selection and political affiliation) still holds for biology.

As for economics, any relationship has always seemed non-obvious to me. Commodity exchange through markets isn’t the only way of organizing a complex division of labour. To suggest otherwise is a sneaky claim to generality.

Confusion arises because self-organization is often used more as a woolly descriptive slogan than a well-defined concept.

To suggest that a given system tends, over time, to increase in Kolmogorov complexity without structured external interference (which is one attempted definition) isn’t thereby to assert that it also climbs Mount Improbable (i.e. reaches fitness peaks).

So there’s a world of difference between recognizing that market exchange can spontaneously achieve well-defined average prices (which is true), claiming that these prices are first-best Pareto optima (which is unlikely), then taking this all as demonstrating the supremacy of market over non-market allocation.

Finally, there are other universal features of self-organizing closed systems.

Many-particle systems with random pairwise interactions (e.g. money transfer between participants in market exchange) that conserve some property (e.g. labour for classical economists, utility for neoclassicals) tend towards highly uneven income distributions, with Gini coefficients of roughly 0.5.

These distributions, where many people have low income but a few are very wealthy, are unlikely to be altered by tinkering with tax or welfare payments.