All Thoughts Must Go

IMG_0127-2Do you ever have so many thoughts or ideas it hard to know where to start putting them down? I know, that probably isn’t the most usual problem. But I can’t help it. I think a lot, and I mean a LOT, and while I want to express it all I have such a hard time knowing where to start. For example: the main topics of thought for the past few days have been, in no particular order: Britain, naval power and the race for Africa- implications both politically, but also in terms of things like fairy tales; the need to ‘play the game’ to ‘get ahead’ in life, (although what it means to ‘play the game’ and to ‘get ahead’ are in themselves highly contentious topics and its hard to reach any conclusions without first agreeing on what that means); popular cultural mythology, baselines and patterns; my personal autobiography and if there is any way to write a biography for an application without sounding wanky; the importance of maintenance (re: appearance) and when something is relative how to identify the point at which one should decide to be satisfied; politics: personal everyday choice? Or ballot box limited?; taxes and civic donations- the roles of government and the expectations of the ruling class; definitions of Europe and the implications of that- as well as the ability of a group to be self-centric both successfully, and with the approbation of others.

See? ridiculous, especially because these are not all passing thoughts, when I stop to try to write things down I can get a few thousand words out of each without really trying all that hard. What I’m trying to say really, is that when I don’t post, its not that I’m not thinking, or that I’m not thinking about trying to express it to you, but I’m having a hard time starting because there are so many things its hard to put it down. Especially because, as already demonstrated, its hard to put down only part of it.

So, a bit of a whingey post, more of an update rather than a post. If any of you would like to hear more about any of these topics in depth I have some things written about them already, or I’m happy to oblige and write more. I’m a bit here and there at the moment. I was in Brussels this past weekend, Dublin next weekend and then one more in London before I leave for the foreseeable future to return to the cradle of my childhood to make jam and work on statistics. (If you are a stranger you probably find this last sentence somewhat confusing, although I honestly believe the only people who read this already know me so its less of a problem). For those not in the know but who would like to be I am currently moving from London for a short time to Portland before hopefully relocating to New York. So, that’s happening.

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Natural Caffe (Several Coffees, a tour of the EU and a few gluten free biscuits later…)

IMG_0129-2A friend asked me the other day about my opinion as to what is the new ‘capital’ of Europe. Did I believe that London would take the prize? It was in response to a series of New York Times op eds (see here)  The prompt (for those of you who can’t be bothered to click the link is: In every era, one city is designated as a magnet of creativity and energy. Which city is the dynamic center in Europe now?

I had a quick response that on further reading I still believe, but after spending a few days in Brussels I think I’ve changed my opinion somewhat.

This is my original response:

I think London isn’t really the capital of Europe, but I don’t really think that Europe has a capital yet. The split between Brussels and Strasbourg as an administrative capital, and the push to make sure things are equal in language etc makes it hard for just one place to become dominant/ the ‘centre’. There is a lot of work being done right now about ‘global cities’, what they are, how they manifest, what their result will be. Many of the big capitals of Europe are considered ‘global cities’, but I do actually think London will end up being the major hub of this region. Hub, not centre, because I don’t think that culturally it has the same resonance that Paris or Amsterdam once had and I don’t know if thats even possible anymore. I think its part of a network of global cities that include Singapore, Mexico City, Toronto, Rio, Tokyo, New York, Mumbai and a few others. These cities have elements that distinguish them through historical cultural influence, but neo-liberal values have also set a stamp that makes them identifiable. People like myself and my peers move through each city and find ourselves almost as comfortable in one as in another. The difficulty is that the comfort is much more about personal culture and ideology and much less as a communal centre. They are are largely economic hubs, both as centres of regional growth and as financial exchange points, but they also involve travel which means tourism, and the import of globalized goods. There is also usually elements of academia or cultural production, but even here the members are not particularly tied to place as much as subject/ object. This means that inhabitants, while comfortable, are also transient and this makes it difficult to create a more settled cultural and political community that would root one of these cities as a new ‘capital’ in the way meant in the op-eds. I think London is important because of the ties to Europe, the Common Wealth and the US. This is what adds to the mix of cultures and the importance placed on it by so many people. But, I’ve also seen the tensions between long-term residents of the city (like generations of them) and the more recent emigrees. The Labour minister last week got himself in major trouble saying that british employers should hire british workers, even if they might not be as well qualified or hard working and it was a major problem for him. He encapsulates a big tension between brits who believe they are owed something because they come from here and people are taking over what is theirs and immigrants who say that what britain offers is opportunity but if brits aren’t going to work hard enough to take it they will. All of this of course is also predicated on material resources and if the BRIC countries really start to make inroads, especially depending the debt negotiations in the US it could all change drastically.

London also has this unique vibe, there is amazing culture- free museums, concerts in the park, art in the streets, good food and this amazing mix of people (take a bus across Elephant and Castle on a Sunday and you see the most amazing african women on their way to church with these incredible dresses and hats), and I don’t know any city that is as crowded but that has as much green space.

I still believe all these things, but what I’ve come to realize is that London isn’t really in Europe and it’s a mistake to assume it is. Its been a while since I spent any real time here, but very soon after arrival (if you are paying any attention at all) you can’t help but notice the very European-ness of it. I know, for someone who is supposed to be good with words that is a really bad descriptive, but I think its hard to encompass. For one example- in London if you travel by car (or have a very long attention span walking) you can notice that streets and blocks have quite obviously been developed at different time periods, one block will have little bay windows on the ground floor, one street is almost all one particular kind of brick work, but each block has some integrity. Also, they tend to be build in one or two stories until you properly start to get into the city. Here however most blocks are taller. I don’t know if there are more floors, or it seems that maybe the ceilings are taller? On most of the houses I’ve seen there are also these little grillwork balconies on the first (second) floor. The funny thing is that the buildings seem to be sort of filled in. There will be some that resemble each other, but they seem interspersed with buildings of a totally different design culture. Not to say they don’t work, the mish-mash is absolutely lovely, but it definitely isn’t the enlightenment inspired uniform blocks I’ve come to expect. That’s only one part of it though, there are differences in everything else as well. Brussels is definitely French inspired, but the overwhelming impression, and the reason for my change of heart is how little it seems to be impacted by the neo-liberal furore that is ever present in North America, the developing world, cities of Asia and Britain. Although there are some global symbols, there are many more that are local and the feel I get is that Europe is both doing just fine, and much less concerned with the rest of the world. And honestly, if you really think about it, isn’t that pretty justified? Despite the recent economic events and the threats to the Euro, it is still one of the more powerful currencies in the world, and the EU both continues to grow and to absorb economic instability with remarkable aplomb.

I asked some friends about it, and although there was discussion, almost none of it was in reference to the world beyond Europe. And, to be fair, the way the question was posed that makes sense, but I was struck by their ability to take the question that way, that Europe’s capital has only to do with Europe and not with its impact on the wider world.

I realized that I think that probably always been somewhat the case. Britain’s empire was able to expand because of their naval power, and the ability to hem in the rest of Europe, not to mention that the Europeans were a little occupied fighting themselves, but at the same time, despite their actions impacting the rest of the world in the way they have Europe was and continues to be less aware of the world, because the world is aware of Europe. Not sure why that is, but it seems to be historically the trend and likely to continue.

Neo-Liberalism? Or a return to anarcho- possibilities?

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I was talking to some people the other day about the rise of neo-liberalism and the attendant consequences. Neo-liberalism gets a bad rap (although not totally undeserved), but what I was thinking was ‘what if neo-liberalism gets a bad rap for something it represents and not something its doing?’

So this is my thought: There is a connection between neo-liberalism and the loss of state sovereignty, right? But what if that loss of power has less to do with the system of capitalism, and more that the state, as a unit of administrative organization, has been outgrown? What if the ability to coercively control territory, and more importantly, that population density has rendered useless those governance mechanisms that held sway during the period of early modernity?

Both neo-liberalism and the state are about governance and monopolies of power, but the shift to ‘smart power’ and the increasing irrelevance of constructed boundaries in flows of information, social connection and ‘goods’ mean that the institutions developed as mechanisms of control don’t hold the same potential that they used to. This is important, especially because of the values we developed based on the ability of the state to mediate between different groups, and balance the rights of the individual against the rights of society.

More important is the ability the state has to attempt to regulate inequality through some accepted legitimate redistribution of resources, not totally socialist or communist, but important nonetheless. The state redistributes wealth from those very well off to those less well off, but also gathers resources to address problems that could not be attempted without some community organization. The problem now is that many of those problems are too big for a state (or several states) to address and the goals themselves are also contested. Because of this, the legitimacy of the state to collect taxes for purely redistributionary policies, or for contested goals is being questioned. Neo-liberalism is blamed for both the failure of the state and the inequality that results, but it may be a case of our economic sphere evolving before our social sphere catches up. This is not to say it won’t. I’m pretty clear that we already are. But I think that to just blame neo-liberalism, and capitalism in general ignores the realities that are facing us, and in blaming the state for failure to combat this new reality is a way to hide our heads in the sand. (I think I’ll come back to this later too)

The real issue is that the power/ responsibility balance is being questioned in myriad ways and the construction of who and for what is exponentially complex. Population density and its associated issues (*I’ll come back to this at some later point) make messy the issue of power to versus power over. This relates directly back to the issue of the state as for several hundred years the state was assumed to have both power to and power over and currently its ability to control either is kind of up in the air.

Another, also interesting, somewhat related point. I was also thinking about the power/ responsibility balance in relation to failure to take responsibility. I realised that although there is often good reasons to say ‘I don’t have any power to take responsibility’, there are also many reasons to say ‘taking responsibility creates its own power’. I think that at times it is true that individuals or groups feel powerless to change their situations, but I also think that there are points when some people make that as an excuse. Those who don’t want to take responsibility blame their lack of power for their failure to act instead of admitting it is a choice they have made. I believe the last great freedom that can be taken is the ability to act, and in acting we should be striving to take responsibility- for ourselves, for our situation, for our community. This is not to say that anyone can and always should act- that would be arrogant and naive, but that I think very often more people could take more responsibility than they do because it is easier to let someone else do it. I find this disappointing, although not terribly surprising. Thoughts on a postcard?

Reaching out and touching someone

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So the issue of respect and relationship has been on my mind still. Pas pointed out, quite rightly, that some people want respect despite a lack of relationship. There are individuals who just want people to like and respect them, and that it usually has to do with empathy. I think empathy is key. Just key in almost everything.  If we could find a way to expand peoples’ capacity for empathy I think it could be an antidote to fear, shame and anger. The thing is, the more we see ourselves in others, and them in us the more we want a relationship and want respect. But what is it that instills empathy, why do some people have it and some people don’t? What is it that allows empathy to expand once the seeds are sown? More importantly, what causes it to wither and die?I’ve been reading (listening to) a book about Ayn Rand and the development of her individualism. I think its interesting, because if you subscribe to the idea that most debates can come down to ‘first principles’ and that most of those principles are related to a self/ other, individual/ group divide, the question of why people lean one way or the other becomes paramount.I’ve been thinking about why some people find the ‘group’ to be oppressive, or why they fear the group denying their individual freedoms that guarantee their safety. Why do some people feel that individualism is the only route to safety? (in a totally self centered thought- why do I think the group is more important in that regard?)

I was told recently that I have found myself amongst a group of intellectual refugees, banded together to explore ideas that they were unable to pursue elsewhere. I think thats interesting, especially because my interpretation of why they couldn’t think their thoughts in those places is because they challenged the extant hierarchy in those places. Now my dilemma is this: I think it is important that they think those things, that they be allowed to think those things. I take away important lessons from them thinking those things. So my question is, why do I not feel a part of that community? Why do I try so hard to fit in to the ideology of the dominant group? In all honesty, I think I try to fit into both, but I find it much harder to fit into the challenging paradigm, despite the fact that I’d like to think I spend a lot of time doing that. It would seem that I don’t find the group excessively oppressive enough that escape is the only recourse to intellectual freedom. Or, perhaps I think that total escape is less important than intellectual freedom within the situation as it is only there that one can affect changing that specific system. This feels like a very messy entry, the second such and quite self-centred. Hopefully I’ll become more coherent when I am not myself an intellectual refugee…