2007 - 2022

Liquid Boris and the New Variant Capitalism

The papers have been full of stories about the ‘Tories at War’ and our timelines have been filled with #ToryShambles hashtags as the Conservatives dysfunctionality swirls together with their open corruption in the sewer that is British politics. But if there’s something almost humiliating about being ruled by such people there’s also something emergent about our predicament both here at home and abroad.

A number of contradictions present themselves about the apparent binary choices that seem to dominate our social and political lives.

Much of the Conservatives recent internal war has been from Tories to the right of Boris Johnson (yes!) arguing that he isn’t being Thatcherite enough. But this misunderstands some of the complex dynamics in play between Remain and Leave camps. As John Gray has written in the New Statesman:

“The Thatcherite assault on Johnson is nonsensical for another reason. Curbing the free market was always the logic of Brexit. In its economic aspects, Brexit was a revolt against globalisation. Asserting the state against the global market is in Brexit’s DNA. Thatcherites swallowed a mythical picture of the European Union as being hostile to the free market—the same picture that befuddles much of the left. In reality the EU is now a neoliberal project. Immune to the meddlesome interventions of democratically accountable national governments, a continent-wide single market in labour and goods is hardwired to preclude socialism and undermine social democracy.”

As much of liberal progressive Britain identifies the Remain vote as an attachment to a progressive European Union (which it is in many parts) Gray is quite right in saying that asserting the state against the global market was in Brexit’s DNA. But so too is the language of global trade deals and ‘Britannia Unleashed’.

Equally we can see that the Scottish National Party are electorally transcendent but constitutionally disempowered – while the Conservatives hold constitutional control while being electorally marginal. This deadlock is both useful and damaging for both parties but it is also completely unsustainable. There is only so long that the Scottish Government can delay some (any) action, and the need to overcome the contradictions that hold us back, such as currency, cannot be ignored forever. At the same time the British governments position of exerting a sort of colonial iconography and denying a democratic vote indefinitely is a high stakes venture with diminishing returns.

Over in Ireland the Sinn Fein vote rises and rises, North and South. If Brexit collapses it will have automatic and dire consequences for the very fabric of the Union with both Scotland and Ireland immediate flash points for a country seething with discontent and repressed rage. Add to this, and not to be morbid or unkind, but the Queen doesn’t have long on this earth. Britain’s long complex constitutional crisis rolls on and on with no-one seeming to care or have a plan for resolving it.

Meta Crisis

This ‘local’ crisis of the British constitution bumps along beside Europe’s own ‘crisis’ about how it responds to refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution and seeking entry to Europe on various fronts. The British government, like many other European governments has stoked the flames of hatred against these people – many fleeing war-torn countries we ourselves have destabilised – and sought to turn the public against them and the military on them. The crass and authoritarian rhetoric from the Home Secretary and others may play well with a section of the electorate rendered soul-less and emotionally barren by decades of the tabloidisation of the public realm, but it doesn’t make the problem go away.

If the ‘metacrisis’ is capitalism, eating away at finite resources and committed to endless growth and exploitation then within this we can see other crisis being unresolved and interdependent. The climate crisis which we just saw being effectively ignored at the COP in Glasgow has a very direct impact on the refugee problem as large swathes of the world become unlivable because of heat, drought, crop failure, extreme weather events, wildfire and biodiversity collapse. The short-term answer of ‘Fortress Europe’ or ‘take back our borders’ for Britain doesn’t have a long-term solution. Understanding how interdependent we are is a life-lesson no-one seems to be getting but its getting more and more starkly clear and more and more desperate that we act on it.

The revelations about a new variant are terrifying as is the casual failure to act with any urgency on it. The new B.1.1.529 Covid variant is the ‘most worrying we’ve seen’, says a top UK medical adviser – but the response – to ask people to take PCR tests and to put a few African countries on the Red List seems pathetically inadequate. The logic of capital, and of globalisation means the show must go on, not just to grease the wheels of international trade but also to maintain the facade that you can and should go anywhere and do anything at any time. Nothing to see here just enjoy Black Friday.

I read yesterday that on 3% of Africa is vaccinated. 3%.

As Ian Lowry writes on Twitter: “Regarding the new variant, let’s call it for what it is Nations of the Global North, including the EU and Ireland voted against waiving patents to allow poorer nations to produce vaccines We’re literally killing the Global South whilst killing ourselves at a slower rate.”

The phrase “no-ones safe until everyone’s safe” isn’t being acted out.

Liquid Boris

This contradiction in our confusion of short term ‘safety’ for long term survival is mirrored everywhere. We have confused network for community, and liberty for freedom and it will end us.  Understanding this and navigating paths out of it while shouldering the mental strain of the economic violence that surrounds us is near impossible. It’s made more difficult by having to live through (and in) what the late social theorist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity”.

Bauman defined the condition: “unlike our ancestors, we don’t have a clear image of a ‘destination’ towards which we seem to be moving… To ‘be modern’ means to modernise – compulsively and, obsessively, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying undefined… Liquid modernity is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ – now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.”

The author John Gray argues that living in this state is an explanation of why Boris Johnson retains an appeal despite everything. He writes: “Modern populations may be in love with change, but they fear it when it seems to be slipping out of control. With all their experiments in lifestyle, they need the assurance that their everyday world is secure. In political terms, this implies a protective state. In economic terms, it suggests a shift from neoliberal to state capitalism.

The enigma of Johnson becomes less puzzling if you think of him this way. A liberal by temperament, he has stumbled on a paradox of freedom. The more their choices expand, the more human beings demand a stable space in which to make them. When this is threatened security eclipses liberty, for if order in society can no longer be relied on freedom has little value.”

This analysis is attractive but not comprehensive. The contradictions of globalisation, the multiple problems it generates are all coming to roost, they are literally lapping at our shores in human tragedy. The state capitalist cares no more than the neoliberal one and the crisis isn’t going away anytime soon. The lessons from the pandemic that “no-one is safe until everyone is safe” isn’t just a nice liberal one-liner it’s actually the pre-requisite for our survival. We can either act on this or we can live in the national equivalent of gated communities as we watch other people burn and drown around us.


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  1. Paula Becker says:

    Mike Small quotes somebody on Twitter who says ‘We’re literally killing the Global south whilst killing ourselves at a slower rate’. A few minutes of research is all it takes to disprove this.
    Europe total Covid deaths: 1,406,505
    Africa( with about double the population) total Covid deaths: 223,291
    So Europe employs lockdowns, social distancing, masks, and ‘vaccines’ but ends up with far worse Covid results. I think the truth is that Africans have much more important things to worry about than a common cold virus and ‘vaccines’ of dubious efficacy. Ebola, malaria, HIV, and malnutrition come to mind.
    Mike Small then goes on to do a bit of fearmongering describing the new variant as ‘terrifying’ . In fact there are thousands of variants out there and generally they evolve to be less dangerous as time goes by. Dr Angelique Coetzee of the South African Medical Association said the variant is causing ‘mild disease’. Let’s go with that until it’s proven otherwise.

    1. Well you’re not alarmed because you view the virus as a common cold, which is a bit insulting to the 144,000 people who have died in the UK. Meanwhile we do know that:

      “B.1.1.529 has a very unusual constellation of mutations, which are worrying because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists have said. Any new variant that is able to evade vaccines or spread faster than the now-dominant Delta variant may pose a significant threat as the world emerges from the pandemic.”

      Your attitude to people in the global south and Africa seems to be “you’ll be fine”. I hope you’re right.

    2. Alex Lomax says:

      Ickean nonsense.

    3. Roland says:

      I haven’t lived in African countries for some time now but the idea that one would rely on pan African cause of death statistics for an illness requiring a test seems unlikely to me.

    4. Mons Meg says:

      Early lockdowns and stricter enforcement of curfews. At least 40 African countries entered their highest level restrictions before they saw their 10th death. This seems to have been effective in limiting the rate of transmission within populations. Or at least WHO thinks so. But of course, being part of the grand conspiracy, WHO would say that, wouldn’t it?

      Age structure of African counties are much lower than those of European and Asian countries; people in Africa are on average 25 years younger than in Europe. Mortality attributable to Covid is disproportionately higher in older populations.

      Geographers in Washington, Liverpool, and Kenya have shown a correlation between temperature and morbidity attributable to Covid. Morbidity soared in Europe during the colder months when the temperature fell much lower than it ever does in the African continent.

      Virologists in Africa have also pointed out that the population in Africa could be more resistant to Covid. 70% of Africans live in dispersed rural communities, where the opportunity for transmission is much reduced. Evolutionary virologists have also hypothesised that the continuous contact between bats, livestock, and humans in rural Africa may have resulted in exposure to emergent coronaviruses and the development of cross-reactivity; though this hypothesis is still being tested.

      Low transmission and reduced disease severity in Africa seems to be due to a combination of age profile, weather, and acquired resistance, rather than the benignity of the virus. At any rate, they’re not evidence that the pandemic is a fake emergency engineered by a malign conspiracy of evil men.

      Not even Paul Kingsworth denies the authenticity of the pandemic, which he sees as part of Nature’s judgement on mankind rather than a fake emergency; that is, he iterates the first Horseman of the Apocalypse as pestilence rather than false prophecy. Maybe you’re confuting the two.

  2. L. Carey Rowland says:

    Thank you, Mike, for this analysis, which has helped this American see more clearly the Brit/Scot mind(s). Your concluding statement, casting light on a decision between gated communities vs. international cooperation, is helpful in comprehending the real issue.

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    Superb. Sent to as many as I could tag. I must ask, though–why the soft spot for the old monarch? I’ve understood that she’s de facto a tool (via meetings in counsel) of the most reactionary, antidemocratic elements in UK political/governmental life. Ask the Chagos Islanders.

    1. Thanks Daniel. I don’t have a soft spot for the old monarch, but was just pointing out that her death will contribute to constitutional instability.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Daniel Raphael, in my childhood I collected several sets of Top Trump cards, including the Horror ones, where Dracula, the Mummy and the Wolfman would be given numerical ratings for attributes like killing power and fear factor out of 100.
      If a card was dedicated to the Queen in a real-life horror pack, it would be extremely difficult to beat, with attributes based on, say, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ threats of nuclear killing power, biological terror (she is the patron of Porton Down), ecosystem extermination and climate criminality. Vulnerable on disruptive technology, perhaps, with that solid gold coach, swords, courtier-based communications and suchlike.

      In fact, you could apply such a scoring system to rank named individuals and corporations on a global league table combining (perhaps through logarithmic scales) the topmost entities with negative effects on the living planet. Of course, the Queen would have a longevity advantage, although she keeps escaping credit for her work, for example Tony Robinson’s recent Britain’s Forgotten Wars on Suez neglects to mention her role in the conspiracy to invade Egypt.

  4. Paula Becker says:

    ‘Only 6% of Africa’s population is vaccinated, and national healthcare systems barely exist in many places, yet the WHO describes the continent as ‘one of the least affected regions in the world’ by the virus. In fact, the richer, more ‘developed’ parts of the world seem to be suffering worst from the pandemic. Nobody seems to be able to explain any of this, but that hasn’t changed the official direction of travel’
    – Paul Kingsnorth in his essay The Vaccine Moment, part one https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/the-vaccine-moment-part-one

    1. John McLeod says:

      Paul Kingsnorth has made major contributions to understanding the relationship between human beings and nature, for example in his curation of the works of the great Wendell Berry. It is always worth paying attention to his take on a situation. In the case of his recent ‘Vaccine Moment’ essay, cited by Paula Becker, I believe that his analysis covid policies is not entirely helpful. At the present time, we are somewhere in the middle of the covid-19 pandemic. No-one really knows how it is going to play out. However, if you look at the historical analysis of previous pandemics, there seems to be a pattern where a virus eventually dies down due to a combination of immunity (through recovery from infection and/or vaccination) and preventing transmission through reducing contact between people. Alongside this there is another factor, which is the capacity of social systems to cope. If you read Laura Spinney’s history of the 1918 flu pandemic (and other similar texts), in some localities things got so bad that there were dead bodies in the street and whole communities were wiped out. All of the pandemics in human history have been different, because the viruses varied in trasmissability, mode of tramsission and lethality. But what we are experiencing is essentially similar to what human societies have been experiencing for thousands of years.

      In his essay, Paul Kingsnorth criticises the policy of encouraging or requiring people to get vaccinated. As far as I can see, he argues that this is wrong because the evidence does not show that vaccination prevents transmission. I believe that governments have not been sufficiently transparent about that. presumably, in the early days of vaccine use they hoped that it would prevent transmission. Then they held back on publicising the bad news (that it had probably only a marginal effect on transmission) to avoid undermining public morale.

      The real reason for getting vaccinated is to minimise deaths from covid. Each death has a terrible impact the families and communities of those who have died. This massive collective grief is not being sufficiently recognised. Each death also represents an intensive care hospital bed being occupied for a considerable period of time. Almost all of the covid patients in hospital are adults who have not been vaccinated. There are many calls from hospital staff involved in the care of the patients that they are at – or beyond – breaking point.

      The history of pandemics shows that it requires enormous collective effort and discipline to minimise their effect, primarily involving the reduction of transmission through reducing contact between people for a period of time. I think that a lot of what Paul Kingsnorth was writing about in his essay reflects the difficulty we have in an over-individualised society, in acting together with solidarity and common purpose. If we were all consistently acting in ways to reduce transmission (all the boring stuff around washing hands, wearing masks, self-isolating and so on) then the R number would gradually drop and the virus would (probably) run out of steam. There were no vaccinations available in 1918. In 2020, countries that acted rigorously to reduce transmission (China, South Korea, New Zealand) had low covid fatality rates even before the vaccinations became available.

      The covid-19 crisis and the climate/biodiversity loss crisis are two sides of the same thing. Our politicans either do not understand this, or are unwilling to talk about it in public for fear of losing elections. Read Wendell Berry. He had a very successful career as a writer and academic, and gave it up (many decades ago) to return to the small town in America where he grew up, to run a farm using the old ways, and write books using a pencil. The collection of his papers – The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry – was edited and compiled by Paul Kingsnorth.

      1. Paula Becker says:

        Thanks John. I will check out Wendell Berry

        1. GordonD says:

          [Sorry, I meant to type misanthropic rather than misogynistic in my earlier comment. Brain fog.]

      2. GordonD says:

        I hadn’t really paid much attention to Kingsnorth and the Dark Mountain project. I had seen the views that they were developments of the worst elements of primitivism and misogynistic Deep Green ecology, and wasn’t motivated to find out more. This piece in Monthly Review though gives Kingsnorth quite a sympathetic, although not uncritical, appraisal from a left perspective. It acknowledges his criticism of the techno-fix nature of much of the left’s response to environmental crisis. In particular it welcomes a renewal of the biocentric approach plus creative use of myth to develop a true Red/Green synthesis rather than a superficial hybrid. https://mronline.org/2021/05/07/on-paul-kingsnorth-and-unruly-nature/

    2. Wul says:

      Spend a night or two in a Covid ward, Paula. Then report back here. See if you’re still feeling so laid back.

      1. Bruce says:

        I would say that kind of comment adds nothing to the debate. Part of the argument of Kingsnorth is that debate has been suppressed.

        If you have information to add to the discussion then I would like to hear it.

        If you have a contribution like Paul Kingsworth has argued cogently , then let us hear that.

        If all you do is stand on the touchline and throw snide remarks, then it’s better you find another forum.

  5. MBC says:

    Great article. The crises of our time. Don’t know how you can bear to be so clear-sighted and prescient.

    What you are saying is that on a finite planet growth is incompatible with stability but Tories have traditionally wanted both. Now they can’t have them but won’t face up to the fact. They are a contradiction in terms, their credo is ultimately unsustainable. They have both wanted the stability of picture post-card perfect Home Counties rural England whilst their share portfolios continue to expand and they get richer and richer and consume more and more and have more and more luxury. Now chickens are coming home to roost. Ever-increasing capital growth is creating a global ecological climatic crisis, which is causing instability as pressures on the environment cause war and force mass migration to more stable temperate zones.

    Not sure about Tories and modernity. Tories want increasing prosperity, not ‘change’ per se.

    Small ‘c’ Conservatives, by definition, are those who are opposed to change, who want things to stay the same – in their comfortable niche. A good swathe of Tory voters are small ‘c’ conservatives who oppose things like HS2 and want to preserve the countryside intact. Quite a number are Greens, but for different reasons Greens on the left are.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    I was thinking about the reference to Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘liquid modernity’, which I am unfamiliar with, but sounds comparable to what I call ‘improving the pattern’. Perhaps the important point to make is that being uncertain about where the next sources of good examples will come from is precisely the antidote to xenophobia (we should be open, not closed, to learning from other cultures and non-human life), doctrinairism (including but not limited to apocalyptic religions), fake centralism (the belief that your own chosen group is carrying some kind of torch for the rest of humanity to follow) and the blinkered ideological dead-endism of the various humanisms. Modernity as maturity, not having all the answers, passing on great unsolved questions to future generations, is lot more planetary-realistic than the dogmatic soup we are often served with, but it does not mean complete moral relativism (because a core of ethics comes from our shared biology) nor does it undermine systematic exploration of our natural world and universe, since science is never complete; and reliable judgements can be made (about corruption and other degradations in patterns, including anti-patterns). Progress can be achieved without linearity. It just often takes a large collective to process the value judgements.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      Yes, Bauman prefers the term ‘liquid modernity’ to ‘postmodernity’ in his characterisation of contemporaneity because he wants to emphasise the continuity of change in the contemporary world rather than the discontinuous ‘breaks’ with the past that postmodernists emphasise and often gleefully celebrate as the distinguishing mark of our current culture.

      According to Bauman, forms of contemporary life in the West may exhibit an unprecedented diversity and fluidity, but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability, and susceptibility to constant change. We modernise compulsively and obsessively, striving not so much to keep our identities intact than to be forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, remaining under-defined. Change is the only permanence, and uncertainty is the only certainty. A hundred years ago, ‘modernity’ meant to be striving for a final state of perfection; now it means an infinity of overcoming, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired, which is a very Nietzschean idea.

      It’s difficult to square this, however, with the traditional view that our moral values have a permanent ‘objective’ ground, whether in theology or biology. In liquid modernity, no less than in postmodernity, our moral values are just as fragile, temporary, vulnerable, and susceptible to constant change as any other cultural phenomenon. How do you manage it?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Mons Meg, I don’t see an overriding obsessive compulsion in modernising, typically it is a rational process with its own traditions and often very stable (which is why layers of technology can be steadily and reliably built upon). Perhaps Bauman was simply projecting his own prejudices upon it.

        In any case, a simple well-known example with relevance to Scottish independence should illustrate my point (improving the pattern, learning from nature not doctrine, shared biological ethic), which is the apocryphal story of Robert the Bruce watching a spider try, try and try again to build a web, and abstracting the lesson:
        And now we have a world wide web…

        1. Mons Meg says:

          Indeed, had Robert the Bruce been alive today, the lesson he might have drawn from his observation of the spider might have been: if at first you don’t succeed, call an airstrike.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, no, that’s not what the legend is about. It would have been useless to the cause of Scottish independence if only Bruce was inspired. The spider responds to each (potentially calamitous) setback with constructivist, diligent, rational (its web is necessary for its survival), biological-realist resilience. In some spider web myths, the spider tries a different design each time, each destroyed by the elements, until an optimal design survives. This pattern must then be disseminated throughout the independence movement, adapted and improved upon where necessary. Bruce is just a convenient vehicle.

            Of course, it is entirely possible to take the wrong lesson or false interpretation from nature (all those chest-puffing depictions of warrior kings — Bruce included — as male lions, when the female is generally the mighty hunter training her daughters, while the maned male is more associated with infanticide and scavenging carrion, as any child who watches wildlife documentaries might tell you). In Macbeth (Shakespeare’s skewering of male warrior posturing) Act 4 scene 2, Lady Macduff says:
            “Wisdom! to leave his wife, to leave his babes,
            His mansion and his titles in a place
            From whence himself does fly? He loves us not;
            He wants the natural touch: for the poor wren,
            The most diminutive of birds, will fight,
            Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.
            All is the fear and nothing is the love;
            As little is the wisdom, where the flight
            So runs against all reason.”
            Another lesson from nature. And I don’t pretend that this kind of ‘modernism’ was anything new even then, although certainly it would have been suppressed in doctrinaire hierarchies, like the opportunity to learn moral examples from outside Catholic doctrine is apparently still being suppressed under the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence guidelines for separate schools.

            Or you can talk as if you embodied a historical pattern while falling utterly short:
            Nowadays, the British imperial rightwing trollgorithms would attack the spider for virtue signalling, which is their attempt to degrade patterns.

          2. Mons Meg says:

            No, the legend is a moral tale that Sir Walter Scott first penned in his apocryphal Tales of A Grandfather being Stories Taken from Scottish History, the meaning of which is to illustrate the virtue of perseverance. THAT’s what it’s about: Scott’s moralising. Scott based the legend on an earlier story told by David Hume of Godscroft in his 17th-century History of the House of Douglas, in which Sir James Douglas is depicted as drawing the same moral lesson from watching a spider trying to climb a tree. The ‘Bruce’s spider’ myth, like so much of Scotland’s popular history, is a classic Scotticism.

            The idea that ‘The spider responds to each (potentially calamitous) setback with constructivist, diligent, rational (its web is necessary for its survival), biological-realist resilience.’ is only the construction you place on a well-worked tale. The idea that your particular construction is the ‘right lesson or ‘true’ interpretation from nature requires some justification.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, how can it possibly be untrue that:
            a spider building a web is constructivist (it is literally constructing a novel web from scratch!)
            a spider labouring repeatedly on a web is diligent (‘careful and persistent work or effort’ is the dictionary definition!)
            a spider building a web, a mechanism for catching flies which is the spider’s means of sustenance and possibly home, is engaged in rational activity (how can such a spider’s web fail to be rational?!)
            a spider building a web is engaged in biological-realist activity (do you think that web-spinning spiders are fantasy creatures from Dungeons and Dragons or something?!)
            a spider repeated rebuilding a web after previous ones were destroyed shows resilience (actually in both common dictionary senses of recovering quickly from knocks and regaining shape)
            None of this is ‘my construction’ on a tale. That you argue so, is perhaps indication that you have some heavy-duty dogmatically-coloured prism-goggles clamped to your peepers. It is an objective analysis of a pattern commonly found in nature.

            The derivation of the myth is irrelevant to my point (I mentioned that there was a class of spiderweb myths), as was whether Bruce was ever inspired by a spider.
            Interestingly enough, Bruce (or one of his military staff) may have been inspired by a thicket, one of the plant kingdom’s defensive structures against herbivore invasion. The willingness to innovate and involve, rather than stick to existing military doctrine and rely on elites, might have been crucial in the decisive battle of the Wars of Independence.

          4. Mons Meg says:

            You’ve taken us a long way away from Zygmunt Bauman characterisation of our contemporary condition as ‘liquid modernity’. But whatever…

            We’re not talking about the truth of Sir Walter Scott’s story here but about what moral we can draw from it; about how we’re to interpret the spider’s behaviour and, more importantly, how we can decide between rival interpretations.

            The bottom line is that it’s you who, in your interpretation of the spider’s behaviour, anthropomorphically ascribe the qualities of constructivism, diligence, rationality, and biological-realism to that behaviour. You do this to make sense of that behaviour, which is itself (beyond the human world of language and meaning; that is, beyond the limits of what we can know) none of these things (as far as we can know).

            Other interpretations are always possible; and, being inescapably minded ourselves, we can access no ‘mind-independent’ reality against which of the several alternative interpretations is the ‘correct’ one. We can only pursue, with an ever-open mind, an ongoing and interminable dialogue with the phenomena we encounter, a dialogue in which we’re continually revising and readjusting our understanding (‘changing our minds’) as that dialogue develops and our interpretative horizons shift as a result of new learning.

          5. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, your claim that I am anthropomorphizing a spider is mere speciesist bigotry on your part (why cannot a spider be diligent, for example?). But I guess you are going through one of your ‘denying objective reality’ phases, while insisting upon your favourite dogmatic narratives (even if they rely on objective reality to be true), and prefer to channel the expressions of one of your ‘great men of history’ rather than rely on observation (and yes, I have several times observed a spider building and rebuilding a broken web). The idea that you have an open mind is presumably just another of your delusions.

          6. Mons Meg says:

            A spider can’t be diligent for much the same kind of reason that you can’t be a spider.

            But a spider can be diligent. A spider can have (for you) any quality you ascribe to it in appropriating it to your understanding. It’s just ‘unscientific’ to offer teleological explanations of animal behaviour (i.e. explanations in terms of ‘final causes’ – ends or purposes – rather than purely in terms of ‘efficient causes’).

            Teleological explanation is a classic feature of pseudo-science; in relation to biology, David Attenborough is one of the worst offenders.

          7. Mons Meg says:

            Sorry! The first sentence of the second paragraph in my last post should read: “But a spider can be ‘diligent’.”

          8. Mons Meg says:

            There’s also the fact that your embodiment as a human being prevents you from knowing what it’s like to be a spider; e.g. whether it’s being ‘diligent’ or not. You can only understand its being by analogy to yourself; i.e. anthropomorphically.

          9. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, yet more inanity, naturephobia and bargain-basement sophistry? Diligence does not imply any interior humanlike consciousness. It can be an entirely external, objective observation (“steady and careful application”, “persistent exertion of body or mind”), while labour itself, as work done in the physical sense, can be achieved by nonsentient entities. Perhaps your obsession with your ‘dominant’ place in a hierarchy or a dogmatic division between the ensouled and soulless has enfouled your judgement.

            I was wondering if you’d mixed up David Attenborough with Johnny Morris, but perhaps you have never forgiven the former for rejecting God on close observation of the natural world, and valuing nonhuman life over unlimited human population.

            Of course, people can come together to make such values legally binding, if they wish:

          10. Mons Meg says:

            ‘Diligence does not imply any interior humanlike consciousness.’

            No, it doesn’t. But that’s not my point.

            But it does entail a teleological account of the spider’s behaviour, which is my point. To say that a spider behaves ‘diligently’ is to speak metaphorically rather than scientifically.

            If you want to appreciate this argument, have a look at Thomas Nagel’s paper, ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’, which is probably the most widely cited and influential thought experiment about consciousness of the past 50 years.

          11. SleepingDog says:

            @Mons Meg, there would not be a legend of Bruce and the spider unless people understood it in terms of ends: the spider’s goal is to build a web; Bruce’s was to achieve Scottish independence. Science does speak in terms of ends, purposeful behaviour, uses and so on.
            As Wikipedia puts it, “Many spiders build webs specifically to trap and catch insects to eat.” The end is not final, but becomes the means to something else (generally an improved set of conditions, a full stomach or increase in political freedom).

            However, you are completely missing my point, possibly because I have used a word like ‘diligence’ which you associate with virtue ethics or some other interior state. My point is about patterns of interactions between actors, and other actors, objects and environments; how these patterns are replicated, adapted, applied, abstracted and improved to fit other circumstances (generally to obtain provisional goals). You could use the legend of Bruce and the spider for some kind of virtue ethics lesson, but that is not my purpose here.

            Perhaps another example will illustrate why consciousness is not required to replicate such patterns. Shakespeare’s Hamlet devises a scene for a play to be performed at court, which replicates the interactions he has heard from a ghost between King, Queen and (orchard-poisoner) King-brother. This is the background for “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (which has a nice webby resonance). But the actors are unaware of this intent, or the relevance of the pattern of interaction to actual events. For his narrow purpose, Hamlet could have programmed mindless automatons to perform the scene (although human actors are needed for other purposes in the play). This is the way we can learn patterns from drama without concerning ourselves whether the actors understand them, or are even conscious at all (which will be the case with computer-resurrected reanimated actors). Thomas Nagel’s bat is irrelevant here. Bruce-in-legend doesn’t have to care what the spider thinks or feels. The pattern’s the thing which captures the imagination of the king.

          12. Mons Meg says:

            Read Bauman first, though.

          13. Mons Meg says:

            ‘…there would not be a legend of Bruce and the spider unless people understood it in terms of ends…’

            That’s exactly right.

            ‘Science does speak in terms of ends, purposeful behaviour, uses and so on.’

            No, it doesn’t. Science strives to explain events exclusively in terms of their efficient causes. That’s one of the things (it’s reductivism) that distinguishes science from pseudoscience. Basically, spiders spin webs because their complex biochemistry compels them to, not because they’re ‘diligent’ or to any projected end or purpose.

            ‘The pattern’s the thing which captures the imagination of the king.’

            No, the pattern’s the thing that the imagination of the king supplies. He might equally have imagined the spider’s behaviour as ‘stubborn’ or ‘obsessive’ or ‘compulsive’ as ‘diligent’.

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