Dueling to Death

Alan Johnson writing on Normblog, points out that the Euston Manifesto gets unfairly criticized by both left and right because they see it through the lens of their own static ideology. So strong are those lenses at this juncture in political debate that the critics entirely miss the clear words of the Manifesto.

The third misperception of the Euston Manifesto is of a different character and it concerns our stance towards global capitalism. Martin Kettle in a largely fair-minded and thoughtful critique, claimed that Euston was anti-capitalist and therefore living in the past, trying to rescue the dodo of socialism. Others have labelled the manifesto ‘Blairite’ and a betrayal of the left. Again, a new reality is being missed. Old categories are being clamped down atop the Euston manifesto in ways that distort its meaning.

I want to propose an approach that I think helps deal with the problem of categories obscuring progress – particularly tired categories. That principle is quite simple – it is the assertion that both/and is more often right than either/or. I propose it as a tool for thinking in ideologically polarized times that I believe sometimes, not always, has the power to move sterile debate on. As an aside I want to credit that I first encountered this principle in the work of 2nd century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, but assure my readers that this is in no way an attempt to inject religion into the debate. I believe the idea stands on its own although it is no accident that a philosophic caution over the Western tendency to dualistic thinking should come from Eastern thought. However, in the current context the origin of the idea doesn’t matter nearly as much as its possible utility as a mental tool to help unstick an overly polarized situation.

The clearest example I know of sterile categories distorting debate is the endless fracas over public transport. One side pushes public transport as good and the automobile as bad. The other just keeps building roads and selling cars secure in the knowledge that whatever people say, they overwhelmingly prefer and often genuinely need the autonomy of driving their own cars. I’m sure lots of people even feel guilty about their use of cars. But it is a false polarization. We need both cars and public transport and the reason is obvious once you see it. Cars are random access devices, like disk drives and books. Trains and busses are serial devices like computer tape drives and pipelines. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but you always need both for an efficient transport system. I think the distortion in the debate makes it much harder to focus sensibly even in uncontroversial areas such as to what extent we should rely on trains for the transport of freight and where trucks should take over. Here in Perth, Western Australia we have two political parties that tend to an either/or approach. About 20 years ago the conservative party actually shut down the most important commuter train line and substituted busses running on already overcrowded roads. The opposition has gone on to sensibly resurrect the train line and extend it, but has developed the dubious policy of building new train lines down the middle of the freeway. My both/and diagnosis: either/or thinking has degenerated into ideological territory marking at great public expense. To the public’s loss, neither party can move the debate on to the real problem of trying to get the system as a whole right – never mind moving on from a phoney war between 19th and 20th century technology and factoring in the role of telecommuting and encouraging it, where justified, with broadband infrastructure.

However one feels about public transport it is not my point. It is the principle of using both/and thinking to see if it helps move unproductive debates on. The area I first noticed that a both/and approach might be considered superior to either/or is in the area of health when I noticed that the apparently redundant mixed public and private health system in Australia was working better than other largely private or socialized medicine systems I had encountered. I wrote about that in Blue State Initiative. While far from certain of my position on health and many other areas I think it immediately opens up new possibilities to try the both/and approach.

Finally I want to suggest that both/and can apply to larger issues central to the Euston Manifesto. Although I want to devote a separate post to it I would point out that the debate over socialism and capitalism that Alan Johnson points to above is generally pretty sterile and that often both sides ignore the fact that there is very little of either functioning in the world today, but rather various forms of mixed economies. Whether it is Sweden, or China or the United States a healthy private sector effectively regulated by government is the norm despite wide differences in culture and values.

The Euston Manifesto was right to leave certain areas unspecified because we don’t know the answers, nor do I believe the answers are the same everywhere in all political climates and cultures. I don’t expect the ideologues on either side of the many areas of contention to try the both/and approach but I do ask people attracted to the Euston Manifesto to look at some of these areas to see if such an approach will move debates on in the general direction of progress. And, yes, I think that either/or is sometimes the most productive way to look at an issue. I believe you have to decide on a case by case basis.

2 Responses to “Dueling to Death”  

  1. 1 John

    Loenz, Hi its John from Kyneton.
    The west does have a “tendency” to dualistic thinking. It is totally dominated by and embedded in dualistic thinking and binary exclusions.

  2. 2 John

    Oops That should have been “the west does NOT have a tendency”

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