Playpen

Welcome to the Playpen, our space for ferrety banter and whimsical snippets of things that aren't quite long enough for articles (although they might be) but that caught your eye anyway.

at 16:52 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
Manichaeanism is complicated but so far as I can tell Mani popped up in the 3rd Century AD and was all like "Yo, don't mind me, I'm a follower of Jesus just like the rest of you" and the Christians took one look at his wacky cosmology and said "Er, actually you seem to be just kind of weird, kindly cease taking our boss's name in vain kthx".
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at 16:13 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Wasn't Manicheanism one of those other similar religions from roughly the same area as Christianity that just didn't succeed to the same degree? But yeah, apparently the author assumes that because superficially religious(meaning Christian) films and media often have satan as a character, it must mean that that is pretty much the main thing about Christianity and since Tolkien is catholic + Sauron(or Morgoth for experts), this holds true of genre literature as well. And Star Wars of course.
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at 16:01 on 11-11-2013, Arthur B
I'm not a terribly religious person, but the writer seems to depend on some heavy generalizations here regarding both theology and genre fiction.

Not to mention that mainline Christianity expressly denounces Manicheanism. The Manicheans were, like, some of the first dudes to get kicked out of the club back in the day.

Next up: "Why do Zoroastrians write so much glam rock?", an article based on the author not being aware of any Zoroastrian musicians aside from Freddie Mercury.
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at 15:54 on 11-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
From the article:

Christianity and genre fiction both depend on Manichaean, good-versus-evil plots, and the savior motif, in which an anointed one saves the kingdom or the world, is important to sci-fi and fantasy and central to the Christian Gospel.

These sorts of blanket statements are very annoying as well. Not only because it is easy to come up with counter-examples from speculative fiction, it also claims that there is some sort of one Christian Gospel that is just so simple and reductive. I'm not a terribly religious person, but the writer seems to depend on some heavy generalizations here regarding both theology and genre fiction. But think how insignificant this article would be if one removed all the weird stuff. Like why bring up Shakespeare or Milton? Why make so many blanket statements? Then it would be just: mormon writers make popular young adult and genre fiction, which might or might not have something to do with the religion; we do not really know, but we will make assumptions.

Robinson:
All those are symptoms, but I would argue the problems go much deeper. It's analogous to asking how, say, patriarchy or racism are perpetuated within a "democratic" system - does that make sense?

I think so. But perhaps a defense might be that the system of government will always be work in progress and while the situation is dire, it's still an improvement on the way things were 100 hundred years ago. Although that might just be moderate hand-waving. It is just that in my mind, an utopic society would not come about by sudden upheaval, but by baby steps. Of course a few revolutions might be needed on the way... Parecon seems interesting. I've read some Kropotkin and Bakunin, but if you have any other reading suggestions, I would be grateful.

On the subject of anarchic communities, I know it's not the same, but the sort of christian communitarian communities which sprang up in connection with the reformation, the mennonites, the amish or the hutterites seem an interesting example of a stable and long living community. Of course they arefar from perfect and at least the amish practice on exiling non-conforming members. Which is probably the most ancient form of social punishment imaginable, in addition to social moral judgement, which would probably be present in any community. Of course they depend on people leaving them be as well as protecting them(quite like the capitalist extremes of Monaco, or Dubai or tax havens in general depend on protection to exist). But in general, if a society shares a story or an ideal of how things should be, it can achieve longevity and progress. Pretty much how Nordic welfare states depended on co-operation between moderate left and right to build a relatively inclusive society to block radical wings from succeeding. The stories which seem to be gaining in popularity nowadays seem so lacking in many respects.
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at 00:10 on 10-11-2013, Arthur B
But "why is there no Mormon Shakespeare" is a much more loaded question, and the whole article does essentially wind up coming across as dismissive of both Mormonism *and* genre fiction (these people have a *silly* religion so they write *silly* books).

Yeah, the article pretty much boils down to "why do these people whose worldviews and ethics are incompatible with mine write stuff which I don't especially like?"

To be fair to the article, it does raise a glancingly useful point in that the official Latter Day Saints church is an organisation which does make particular demands of its members and will kick your ass out if you're openly breaking from the hierarchy. On the other hand, there's a distinction between "being a Mormon" and "being a member of the official LDS" - there are people outside the LDS who practice Mormonism both as splinter sects and on their ownsome. I think you could make an argument that being part of an organisation which could wreck your family and social life (by kicking you out and asking people to shun you) and, if you actually believe in its doctrine, consign you to hell if you say the wrong thing can restrict your creativity in such a way that making decent artistic work much more difficult. On the other hand, if that were true, where does that leave more or less all the literature of medieval Europe?
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at 23:59 on 09-11-2013, Arthur B
Or perhaps to put it another way, unsuccessful attempts to resist the Nazis were not as uniformly nonviolent as they are presented as being.

It's also worth noting that small concessions and local victories don't necessarily change the large-scale picture. Yes, some German mothers were able to get the Gestapo to release their sons arrested for subversive activities through non-violent protest. Yes, large amount of Jews escaped in a range of non-violent actions like the evacuation from Denmark. That doesn't change the fact that the Jews who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising weren't exactly going to have a happy ending had they refrained from violent resistance (granted, the uprising precipitated the total liquidation of the ghetto, but that was kind of on the agenda anyway), or that there's a big difference between "obstructing someone's planned violence" and stopping them from pursuing a violent course of action in the first place. If someone is determined to kick you in the teeth no amount of persuasion is actually going to stop them making the attempt.
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at 23:52 on 09-11-2013, Dan H
The New York Times tells us why Mormons can't write serious fiction.

Because there wasn't any possible way this would come across as facile or offensive. And I say this as someone who despises Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson's work.


It's tricky, because it's *almost* an interesting piece, and if it was phrased as a question of why Mormons might be more inclined to write genre fiction (which, as somebody who likes genre fiction, I don't see as being a bad thing) it would have been quite interesting. But "why is there no Mormon Shakespeare" is a much more loaded question, and the whole article does essentially wind up coming across as dismissive of both Mormonism *and* genre fiction (these people have a *silly* religion so they write *silly* books).
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at 23:39 on 09-11-2013, Dan H
@Arthur: Fair enough. I've seen plenty of arguments that no, civil disobedience/nonviolent resistance doesn't actually require your opponents to empathize with you, and no, the Nazis weren't nearly as immune to nonviolent resistance as commonly portrayed.


Or perhaps to put it another way, unsuccessful attempts to resist the Nazis were not as uniformly nonviolent as they are presented as being.

I remember a while ago somebody (Alisdair?) mentioned a book called Selling the Holocaust and I was sufficiently interested to read large chunks of it on Google books. One of the things that jumped out at me was the way that armed resistance against he Nazis by Jews is consistently downplayed in European and American accounts of the war, because we're more interested in a narrative in which we swooped in and saved everybody with our spitfires and flying fortresses, while it's apparently strongly played up in Israeli accounts.

I think in general there's a tendency for most conflicts of this sort to get labelled as either violent or non-violent depending on who we are supposed to think the good guys are, and what we are supposed to think is good about them. So for example we ignore acts of violence committed in opposition to British rule in India, or Apartheid in South Africa, because we want a narrative about dignity in suffering. We strongly emphasise acts of violence committed in opposition to British rule in Northern Ireland because we either want to present (as many Americans do) a narrative of heroic struggle or (as many Brits do) a narrative of vicious terrorism. We sometimes even treat violent and non-violent forms of protest as equivalent, if the protesters are people we really don't like - a Muslim cleric who preaches against the West is seen by many people as no different to a terrorist who bombs a police station.
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at 23:19 on 09-11-2013, Michal
The New York Times tells us why Mormons can't write serious fiction.

Because there wasn't any possible way this would come across as facile or offensive. And I say this as someone who despises Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson's work.
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at 18:30 on 09-11-2013, Robinson L
Arthur: even if nobody actually turns to banditry, how do you guarantee that at least a subset of the population won't turn around and organise themselves into a state because they genuinely believe it would yield better results?

Good question. Another issue I have with Parecon, actually, is that it's pretty homogenous, and I can't see a free/non-coercive society working without massive heterogeneity which might (or might not) include communities where people genuinely want to live by decidedly non-anarchic principles. I tend to assume that if humanity has the creativity to get itself that far, it'll have the creativity to accommodate people who want to live within a state structure while preventing them from exercising coercive force over anyone who doesn't want to (without the need for Dick's anarchist police, though that still sounds like an interesting story).

Good points about Madagascar, both.
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at 18:20 on 09-11-2013, Arthur B
It's also worth noting that there's a distinction between "the recognised government of this particular state doesn't actually exert much authority in this region" and "nobody exerts any authority in this region". Coercive power as a concept doesn't go away just because the tax man doesn't visit.
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at 18:13 on 09-11-2013, Shimmin
Anthropologist David Graeber has also written about present-day Madagascar, where in many parts of the country the state maintains only a token presence.

I don't pretend to be any kind of authority on Madagascar, but my brother did live in remote areas there for several years. I can say that Madagascar has its own set of problems that you probably can't divorce from state/nonstate issues, not least that subsistence farming is still widespread (which means low tax revenues for anything) and basic infrastructure is often appalling. When (I hope) these things improve, it will probably also mean a closer relationship to the state with things like taxes and infrastructure maintenance coming into the picture. As I understand it there are also tribal issues which may (or may not) become more prominent as travel and trade increase.
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at 16:03 on 09-11-2013, Arthur B
The goal of any utopian movement, as I understand it, is to find a way that those values/needs are met for every person, not just some people, and then find a way to organize enough people around it to make the change happen.

And the big stumbling block is typically "what happens to the people who do not want to live in your utopian/anarchist society?"

There's the other issue with anarchism - even if nobody actually turns to banditry, how do you guarantee that at least a subset of the population won't turn around and organise themselves into a state because they genuinely believe it would yield better results? Dick's Last of the Masters scenario where you have an organised nominally "anarchist" police force that try to coercively stop people from forming governments ("It's for your own good!") seems suboptimal.
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at 15:30 on 09-11-2013, Robinson L
@Arthur: Fair enough. I've seen plenty of arguments that no, civil disobedience/nonviolent resistance doesn't actually require your opponents to empathize with you, and no, the Nazis weren't nearly as immune to nonviolent resistance as commonly portrayed. I find many of these arguments convincing, but again, not going to try to convince anyone here. (And even if I were so inclined, I think the conversation would quickly grow excruciatingly dull for anyone not mad-keen on the topic to begin with.)

Re: non-voting as protest/voting as protest
See my previous comments about "no good answer to the 'how would not voting actually help anything?' question." I still feel like it ought to (and not because of how the political candidates feel about it), but I don't have a rational answer I can articulate to myself, much less anyone else, which is why I keep voting.

Janne: that I think is wrong with the dichotomy of ordinary people and everyone else, or in for example ordinary people vs. militias and warlords.

Oh, you're completely right, that's a massively over-simplified construction.

In any society, there will always be differing view points and some of them will be diametrically opposed and everything between, when it comes to values.

Yes, this is completely true. On the other hand, there are some values which pretty much everybody can sign onto (wellbeing of self and loved ones, for instance); perhaps "needs" would be a better term. The goal of any utopian movement, as I understand it, is to find a way that those values/needs are met for every person, not just some people, and then find a way to organize enough people around it to make the change happen. How to do that is a question which activists and proto-activists have been working on probably since the invention of coercive governance circa 10,000 years ago, I don't think we'll get a neatly satisfactory answer anytime soon. (In the meantime, we have what Gandhi referred to as "experiments with truth.")

In what way is the democratic system corrupt? I mean, is it the gerry-mandering, the way seats are filled in the legislative branch? Can it be changed? The way voting is organized or registered for?

If it were anything that simple, it could be changed within the system. All those are symptoms, but I would argue the problems go much deeper. It's analogous to asking how, say, patriarchy or racism are perpetuated within a "democratic" system - does that make sense?

an anarchis like society might be workable, but it would be nice to know more. It's a shame that Makhno's Ukraine went the way it did.

And the Paris Commune, the Spanish Revolution, etc.

The most comprehensive picture of a speculative anarchic society I've ever seen is Michael Albert's Parecon. It's pretty good as a thought experiment, but I wouldn't put much store by it as a blueprint for how we should expect an ideal society to function (which is how Albert regards it). It's a bit too rigid and bureaucratic and conformist for me, and so obsessed with insuring that absolutely no one can game the system I think most people would find it stifling. It also doesn't take into account how changes in technology (or any other field, for that matter) lead to changes in how society is organized, it's a rather static vision.

Anthropologist David Graeber has also written about present-day Madagascar, where in many parts of the country the state maintains only a token presence. The picture he paints is not even faintly romantic (and a far cry from what I would consider ideal), but useful for thinking about how people and communities can work absent a state structure. (I don't think that case provides a good answer to Arthur's question of what happens if heavily armed brownshirts roll into town and try to take over, though. The communities Graeber describes are fortunate in that so far, no one appears to have tried such a thing.)
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at 13:28 on 09-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Also, I'm very much of two minds about the "lesser of two evils" notion.

I only know of the US system from an outside perspective, but as powerful as the president is, he(at the moment he) is not all powerful, so a lot of the disillusion with any president is no doubt a result of the system being built in a way that changes slowly so that any change has to go through all the branches of the government to have effect. I suppose the option to the two party system, where the parties begin to resemble each other too much, is the multi-party system, but that can result in political gridlocks and conformism too. Hereabouts, we did see the status quo of three big parties upset in the last parliamentary elections, but it was the xenophobic reactionary nationalist party who got a huge victory.

And while I don't want to really get into the matter too deeply anymore than anyone else, that I think is wrong with the dichotomy of ordinary people and everyone else, or in for example ordinary people vs. militias and warlords. There might be an elite and we might be able to make statistical distinctions between people, but I think it is wrong to assume that there is a mass called ordinary people who all share values and would be motivated behind a common goal automatically. In any society, there will always be differing view points and some of them will be diametrically opposed and everything between, when it comes to values. And as there is no automatic way to know before hand what values are the right ones, it will be a matter of politics to see which value(s) gets the most support. Democracy in its varied ways is not ideal, but how can move from the current system to something else, if the change itself does not have legitimacy through democracy? I guess if the non-voting part of the population gets big enough and as a result the ones in power make laws that are increasingly unfair, this might lead to a situation where the matter has to be forced. But for this change to result in a stable situation, one would have to assume, that the non-voting populace or the population as a whole actually has the same values and goals, which is not an assumption that can be made. Historically, this sort of situation, where there is wide spread disagreement and a lack of institutions to control it, has resulted in bad results.

I hope there are options, but it would be a good idea to have a credible platform and a simple enough option to agitate people to the side of the change, before the issue becomes so serious that it has to be forced. And if someone can rally enough support, they would be able to get through democratically too, before it can be forced.

Although I might be a bit too meta. In what way is the democratic systewm corrupt? I mean, is it the gerry-mandering, the way seats are filled in the legislative branch? Can it be changed? The way voting is organized or registered for? I don't know, an anarchis like society might be workable, but it would be nice to know more. It's a shame that Makhno's Ukraine went the way it did.
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at 13:21 on 09-11-2013, Arthur B
Assuming, of course, that there's no way for ordinary people to defeat militias and warlords without mobilizing their own militias and military officers in response. Which I don't. We've had this argument before, and I think it comes down to incompatible worldviews - which we're neither of us going to convince the other out of over the internet, so I won't try, but I did want to throw this out here.

We've had it out before on this point but I may as well reiterate my stance on the subject: most forms of peaceful protest only really work if the warlords and militias in question a) give a fuck about the opinions of others, and an anarchist utopia whose peace is guaranteed only by threats of violent outside intervention if people start being beastly to each other isn't much of an anarchist utopia, or b) have qualms about exterminating large numbers of people, and if you're already a warlord you probably don't.

At the risk of Godwinning: the Nazis would have laughed in the face of peaceful resistance, not least because they didn't respect anything except force on an ideological level. And to use a later example, Communism wouldn't have fallen in Eastern Europe as quickly and easily as it did had the Soviets not made an executive decision to stop sending the tanks in whenever it looked like a Warsaw Pact government was having a bad day.

RE: not voting as protest/voting as endorsement - that literally only works if the political class see it that way. As it is, they only see voting as endorsement if you vote for their guy - David Cameron's little heart does not glow when a first-time voter votes Labour - and tend to interpret non-voting as apathy, not protest. If you want to use your vote to protest against the present system, vote for a comedy candidate (or, in the US, go for a write-in if available).

Or you know, just vote how you want and then loudly claim you spoiled your ballot. Then you get to influence the present system at the same time as you're protesting it.
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at 03:30 on 09-11-2013, Robinson L
Adrienne: his stuff is sometimes full of fail in various ways (sexism, racism, etc.) his worst stuff is worlds above Heinlein's best on that front, in my opinion -- but it seems worth warning people about.

Thanks for the heads-up, that's about what I would expect from him. Fortunately for me, I tend to have a high personal tolerance for social justice fail in an otherwise well-executed work.

Thanks also for the recommendations. I find it helpful when embarking upon the works of a prolific new (to me) author to have one or two good starting points rather than "look at this vast field and pick one."

Re: Russell Brand

Speaking as resident leftist wingnut, I thought Brand's piece was great (goofy metaphysics notwithstanding), whereas I couldn't finish Webb's because I found it so point-missy.

Arthur: Lots of revolutionary sorts talk a bit talk about getting some sort of non-coercive non-authoritarian governance by consent, I just haven't seen any version of that which couldn't be quickly trashrolled by a gang of brownshirts with sticks.

Ah-ha, a challenge!

anarchism is fun precisely up to the point where the first militias and warlords appear, at which point it immediately becomes terrible.

Assuming, of course, that there's no way for ordinary people to defeat militias and warlords without mobilizing their own militias and military officers in response. Which I don't. We've had this argument before, and I think it comes down to incompatible worldviews - which we're neither of us going to convince the other out of over the internet, so I won't try, but I did want to throw this out here.

Re: elections

It's been a while since I read it, but I don't recall Brand bashing "political participation" but rather voting, which is a subset thereof. And speaking as someone who has voted in every major and minor election of the past five years (including by absentee ballot in last year's presidential election), his argument is one I have a great deal of sympathy for.

In the US (and from what I've picked up, the UK), the two major political parties are in near-perfect agreement on most of the issues I care about (at least from the perspective of someone so far removed from either of their positions), and solidly in support of a politico-social-economic situation with which I have become thoroughly disenchanted both in terms of its ability to provide the base minimum across-the-board living standards (and ecological and foreign policies) a sensible society can and ought to, or to correct itself within its own system of rules and laws.

Voting for any candidate is an implicit endorsement of the system which I regard as fundamentally broken (though, granted, not nearly as broken as it could be). Therefore, I personally consider voting in US elections to be one of the most nihilistic things I've ever done.

So I'm quite taken by the idea of non-voting as protest (which is a far cry from apathy). Unfortunately, I've never been able to come up with a coherent answer to the "and what would that accomplish?" question to placate the rational side of my brain, which is why I keep voting.

Also, I'm very much of two minds about the "lesser of two evils" notion. Take US Presidents (the field I'm most familiar with): would Gore really have been significantly better than Bush? My dad thinks so, but after seeing Obama, I'm not so sure. Would McCain or Romney really have been worse than Obama, on balance? (Would they have the political clout to, for instance, overturn Roe v. Wade, one of the relatively few major political differences I do see between the two parties at this point?)

Working off of Andy's point, I've seen it suggested among some radical commentators here in the States that the austerity measures Obama has supported and may support over the next three years could only come from a Democratic President because a Republican would produce much more resistance (I don't know if this is actually true, but it sounds plausible). I've already heard at least one person invoke "Only Nixon could go to China."

So apart from hating myself a little for voting for the lesser evil, I'm personally growing increasingly less sure of which evil is actually lesser.
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at 16:23 on 08-11-2013, Arthur B
The idea that politics is something that happens every five years when you get the chance to vote for the party that isn't the Tories is just as simplistic in its own way

It is, so it's a good thing Webb doesn't actually say that. He specifically points out that there's plenty to be done between elections, but he's also making the point that the clout you can exert between elections is hampered if you and the people who are supporting your cause are making a point of not voting.

Also, the pragmatist in me points out that "less nasty" is, in fact, less nasty, and even if the cynics are right and elections do really just come down to a choice between the slightly more nasty party and the slightly less nasty one, isn't it still sensible to vote for the slightly less nasty one simply for the sake of opposing the folk who are gunning for the more nasty party to win?

I mean, it's not thrilling to be in a position where you're voting for the person you hate the least rather than someone you like, but the fact that there is someone you can regard as hating the least suggests that there is in fact actual discernible differences between the parties to a sufficient extent to allow you to decide which you prefer, and since "no government, thanks" isn't actually an option (and would rapidly degenerate into some horrible Randroid nightmare if it was) then refusing to vote doesn't feel especially adult.

Additionally, voting doesn't actually constrain you from agitating against the present system in the slightest aside from losing you some rebel cred, and you can get that back instantly by lying and claiming you spoiled your ballot. Why does it have to be an either/or thing? Why, as Webb points out, can't you be both a voter and an activist? I'd rather not brush my teeth and live in a utopia where specially engineered mouth bacteria keep my mouth deliciously clean and smelling fresh, but that's not presently an option and until the opportunity arises it's best for me to just keep cleaning my teeth, but equally the fact that I brush my teeth doesn't mean I can't also support research for FriendlyMouth bacteria if the opportunity arises.
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at 15:59 on 08-11-2013, Andy G
Whatever the deficiencies of Brand's position, I don't see why that automatically translates into Webb's faring any better. The idea that politics is something that happens every five years when you get the chance to vote for the party that isn't the Tories is just as simplistic in its own way, since it lets Labour off the hook for anything as long as they're very slightly less nasty than the Tories. It means, if anything, that they are held *less* to account for their failings than the "nasty" party - rather in the way that in America, Obama has received nothing like the level of scrutiny and criticism that Bush received while pursuing many of the same policies or worse.
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at 17:55 on 07-11-2013, Arthur B
And what exactly would the alternative form of governemet after the revolution be? A more direct democracy, anarchism?

This is what I usually see such people proposing but a) more direct democracy means there's actually less checks on the majority voting to be awful to minorities if they get it into their head to do that - Switzerland has been a good example of this lately - and b) anarchism is fun precisely up to the point where the first militias and warlords appear, at which point it immediately becomes terrible.
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at 17:40 on 07-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Lots of revolutionary sorts talk a bit talk about getting some sort of non-coercive non-authoritarian governance by consent, I just haven't seen any version of that which couldn't be quickly trashrolled by a gang of brownshirts with sticks.

And what exactly would the alternative form of governemet after the revolution be? A more direct democracy, anarchism? Most real revolutions that actually topple regimes result in power vacuums, which have to be filled with something. So to avoid the jacobins and the bolsheviks, you would need a plan of some sort? And how would the new system be legitimate anyways, they would need a democracy of some sort? I mean, not voting and general apathy is not really an answer or an option really, it's just... well, apathy.
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at 16:55 on 07-11-2013, Arthur B
Violent revolution?

Yes and no. He's responded to Webb in an amazingly point-missy manner wittering about how he isn't personally pro-death camp, failing to grasp the point that it doesn't matter if you're not personally in favour of gulags, what matters is whether your revolution opens the door to someone who is rolling in on the back of your efforts and purging you.

Lots of revolutionary sorts talk a bit talk about getting some sort of non-coercive non-authoritarian governance by consent, I just haven't seen any version of that which couldn't be quickly trashrolled by a gang of brownshirts with sticks.
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at 16:39 on 07-11-2013, Janne Kirjasniemi
Nice response from Webb. It's funny, but even knowing tht Webb's persona opposite Mitchell in their work is intentionally to be the idiot and it doesn't really reflect his real persona, it had still sank in deep enough as an assumption that I was kinda surprised reading that he is quite intelligent as well. It's sort of a shame that Mitchell has evolved into a sort of a public intellectual, while Webb not so much. Or has he?

What exactly is Brand's great practical alternative to parliamentary politics? Violent revolution? What does he think political apathy achieves exactly? Certainly it will not distribute power more efficiently in a society.
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at 14:43 on 07-11-2013, Arthur B
PS: Robert Webb's response is brilliant.
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