Democracy Café

Brief report of the Café which took place on 13 April 2019

Salisbury Democracy Café on Saturday 13 April was packed with new participants as well as many who come every month.

The first question posed was: Are human rights absolute or relative? That generated a fascinating deliberation that touched on the wider question of the nature of ethics in general.

Arguments ranged from those who believed that human rights had to be absolute and unchanging to participants who claimed that because ethical mores shifted over the centuries human rights had to be relative as well.

The idea that moral laws are out there waiting for us to be discovered has a long and distinguished philosophical history, but questions were raised about how they got there in the first place. Divine action was one possible answer but if that failed then one has to ask why a non-divine, materialistic world would begin with immaterial ethical codes waiting for us to discover them. Nevertheless, proponents of absolute human rights were concerned that if they were not absolute, how could they be protected from arbitrary alteration by the rich and powerful?

However, the dialogue took an interesting turn when it was suggested that the use of the words ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ did not accurately reflect the nature of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not necessarily make claim to the absolute but nor are they quite openly relative. Universal simply means that they apply to everyone and the declaration crystalizes them in a way that prevents easy manipulation while allowing justified changes. A point was made about a phenomenon known as Conquest by Declaration in the same way that Google declared, without challenge, that it had the right to plunder our experiences for its own enrichment. It was also pointed out that it was possible to define certain moral positions, like altruism, in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, making them objective but neither absolute nor universal.

It was an intriguing dialogue, which got us all thinking about things and asking ourselves more questions in a way the democracy café has unique ability to do.

The second question was: Should Julian Assange by extradited to the USA following his forcible removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy? This was a much more confined deliberation, although it did raise questions about the fairness of the justice systems in the UK and the USA. Nobody challenged the justification of extradition in general but concerns were raised about whether or not Assange would get a fair trial in the USA.

Once again the participants in the democracy café proved their ability and willingness to tackle difficult questions in what has become an ‘oasis of reasonableness in a desert of rising intolerance and polarization’.

Dickie Bellringer

We want to have pop-up cafés in other part of the city in order to give as many people as possible the chance to experience deliberative democracy – so if you know of an organisation that would be open to this please let us know.

The aim of the new Salisbury Democracy Alliance – which is advised by Prof Graham Smith and backed by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Wessex Community Action, deliberative democracy experts Talk Shop and Salisbury Democracy Café – is to create Salisbury’s first Citizens’ Assembly. ocked0


WHAT is altruism and what conditions would need to be in place for it to be possible? These are the central questions that the American philosopher Thomas Nagel attempts to answer in The Possibility of Altruism.

I have to concede that this is a book that and I have read and re-read many times since I bought it in the 1970s.  It’s 145 pages of densely packed arguments are difficult and there are some passages that are so opaque that I still don’t fully understand them.  Nevertheless, it has had a major impact on the way that I view the world, so, having tussled with again recently, I thought I would share it with you.

It should be said that Nagel does not rely on the argument of some evolutionists – Richard Dawkins included – that altruism forms part of our genetic make-up.  Rather, he uses pure reasoning.

So, what is altruism?  Well, I take it to mean that an act is altruistic if, and only if, it is a disinterested act intended to benefit another or others.  Note that this a weak form of altruism in that it doesn’t require one to help others at the expense of oneself, only that one does not expect to benefit from the act. But even if this is a weak form, it is still significant because it is distinct from altruism’s arch nemesis – egoism.  Nagel argues that we have a ‘direct reason to promote the interests of others – a reason which does not depend on intermediate factors such as one’s own interests or one’s antecedent sentiments of sympathy and benevolence’.

Nagel relies heavily on his two viewpoints, the personal and impersonal – the ability to see oneself as merely one among many. Put simply, he argues that if from a personal – or subjective – viewpoint one has a reason to do something, like relieve a pain in one’s neck or reduce one’s poverty, then from the impersonal – or objective – viewpoint one has a prima facie reason to relieve a pain in someone else’s neck or reduce their poverty.  “At least sometimes objectification will demand that everyone pursues an uncomplicated end which we acknowledge a subjective reason to pursue… If this is the case, then we have a prima facie reason to secure those ends for others as well as for ourselves.”

It’s important to note that Nagel is not saying that everyone will act altruistically if they have a reason to do so, or that that there are not various situations that ‘may complicate the result when there is a conflict between reasons to help others and reasons to help oneself’.  But he adds ‘even if we allow for these possibilities, the acknowledgement of prima facie reasons to help others is a significant result’. Indeed it is!  For it destroys the egoistic position that everything one does is in one’s own interests.  And this is just as well because earlier in this remarkable little book  Nagel demonstrates how ‘peculiar egoism would be in practice; it would have to show itself not only in the lack of a direct concern for others but also an inability to regard one’s own concerns as being of interest to anyone else, except instrumentally or contingently upon the operation of some sentiment’. He provides a lively example the absurdity of the egoist’s position: “The pain which gives him a reason to remove his gouty toes from another person’s heel does not in itself give the other any reason to remove the heel, since it is not his pain.”

If Nagel’s arguments carry any weight – as I believe they do – then they are an important antidote to the self-interested individualism that runs through the neoliberal project.  As such the neglected The Possibility of Altruism and its equally neglected companion book The View from Nowhere, also by Nagel (published by Princeton University Press and Oxford University Press respectively) deserve to be revived.

Dickie Bellringer

Surveillance Capitalism – a waking nightmare

In her new book Shoshona Zuboff defines surveillance capitalism as a ‘new economic order that claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a must-read for anyone interested in the roll that the giant internet companies play in our society – and surely that must mean all of us. It reveals much more than the slick advertising of ‘smart’ machines over ‘dumb’ humans and the way that these companies prey on our psychological vulnerabilities.

This, according to Zuboff, is a ‘parasitic economic logic in which the production of goods and services is subordinated to a new global architecture of behaviour modification’. And she argues that it is as ‘significant threat to human nature in the twenty-first century as industrial capitalism was to the natural world’.

Under this new economic hegemony instead of, as Marx put it, capital being the vampire that feeds on labour, surveillance capitalism ‘feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience’. It is no longer nature that is the raw material of capitalism – we humans are!

It all began almost by mistake when Google realised that the ‘behavioural surplus’ that was clogging up its servers as ‘data exhaust’ could be bundled together to create powerful and accurate predictions of human behaviour. That in turn could be deployed to modify human behaviour. Google simply declared, without any apparent challenge, that it claimed ‘human experience as raw material free for the taking’ in what Zuboff describes as being ‘conquest by declaration’.

The Age of Surveillance Capitalism also provides us with the philosophical underpinning of what Zuboff calls ‘instrumentarian power’. One of its high priests is Alex Pentland, the director of the Human Dynamics Lab at MIT’s Media Lab, whose ‘God’s eye view’ of animals is transposed to humans and declares that he doesn’t much like the ‘despotism of democracy’. Democracy, it turns out, is unwelcome friction in the otherwise smooth transition to perfect prediction of human behaviour through behavioural modification. In his thinking the sheer speed of the digital world outpaces the slow machinations of human deliberation and negotiation that characterises traditional politics. So, ‘computation replaces the political life of the community as the basis of governance’. And this process speeds up even more as the internet becomes decoupled from computers and smart ‘phones as it enters the real world with the Internet of Things.

Zuboff wtites: “This shift from society to swarm and from individuals to organisms is the cornerstone upon which the structure of an instrumentarian society rests.”

In his 2015 book Postcapitalism Paul Mason takes a rather more benign view of the internet because it allows the possibility of zero-priced goods in the webbed network as the spread of free information undermines the hierarchical interests of the corporations. He mentions in passing that part of the latter’s fightback is the ‘creation of monopolies on information’. According to Zuboff, however, this monopoly is the new capitalism. The question then arises as to how the creators of goods and services maintain their prices as ‘things’ become a part of the flow and the real value lies in the cheap information it contains.

Well, it has been known for some time that there is no such thing as a free market, except in the sense that the corporations demand freedom from regulations and interference. The masters of advertising have always played on our human frailties and in particular over the last 30 years or so have been working to infantilise us by encouraging us to want some ‘thing’ NOW instead of waiting until we have enough money to pay for it and by urging us to ditch cash in favour of plastic because it’s easier to part with our money. Nevertheless, the Internet of Things does present new problems for the ‘makers’ and they are having to think of new ways of pricing through mechanisms like subscriptions, pay-per-use and value sharing. At the same time surveillance capitalism does appear to create a tectonic shift away from the ‘makers’ to the information gleaners and Marx’s old adage in the Communist Manifesto that ‘all that is solid melts into air’ springs to mind.

In the meantime, Zuboff urges us to be the friction that Pentland so despises and she is as one with Mason as she attacks the inevitability that the tech giants exploit to make it seems as though there is no alternative. She writes: “Friction, courage, and bearings are the resources that claim the digital future as a human place, demand that digital capitalism operates as an inclusive force bound to the people it must serve, and defend the division of learning in society as a source of genuine democratic renewal.” Indeed, although in my darkest moments I wonder whether we have already become resigned to our fate through this sense of inevitability and helplessness, and that we will eventually collaborate in our own demise as Joseph K finally does in Kafka’s The Trial – heads bowed staring into the abyss of the black mirror that reflects our empty selves.

Dickie Bellringer