Book Review – How to Live Forever or Die Trying, by Bryan Appleyard

It’s a sad fact that my first book review on this blog is of a book that I really didn’t like.  So many books I read are good, a few are indifferent, a few are brilliant.  But this book got the reviewing juices flowing.

The book appears in three parts.  The first and the third parts concern themselves with the trashumanist movement, particularly the elements that concentrate on  attaining immortality.

It is fair to say that I am in general agreement with Appleyard’s distaste for the movement to make immortal humans (or transhumans).  Given the ways that the human experience and the organisation of society would have to change as a consequence of the achievement of immortality either by a minority or everyone, I would not want to live in such circumstances.  This utopia of American neo-liberal technophiles is my idea of hell.

The first and final thirds of the book are the more tolerable.  They contain some fairly interesting accounts of some of the advocates of immortalism, and their projects and ideas.  But these parts are written in a journalistic way, and there are serious lapses in accuracy.  The oldest ever human, Jeanne Calment, did not die in 1977, she would only have been 102 then, not the 122 she reached.

When he deals with science, and the history of science, falsehoods and myths are created and perpetuated.  To pick just a few of the worst, his characterisation of Darwin and evolution.  First of all, Darwinism was not opposed to Lamarckianism.  In many respects, Darwin was a Lamarckian.  Secondly, Evolution is not the same as natural selection – natural selection is merely one of the mechanisms by which evolutionary change occurs.

Thirdly, the following on page 191:

“Occasionally, however, a cancer suppressing gene may be knocked out.  Cancer is clonal, it starts from a single cell. The damaged gene grows uncontrollably and ultimately, forms a tumour. This is an improbable chain of events but it only needs to happen once and there are trillions of cells in the body.”

The confusion of terms here, and knocked out genes suddenly resurrecting themselves and forming tumours, demonstrates a lack of basic understanding.  Tumours are formed by uncontrolled cell division.  There usually have to be multiple mutations in certain genes over generations of cells.  And the various methods organisms have to prevent or deal with uncontrolled cell growth have to be compromised or ‘outfought’ in some way.

I could outline the various other historical and scientific howlers that I encountered, but I think the point is made.

And that was the relatively tolerable part.  The middle section was what can only be described as 115 pages of tedious waffling about death and mortality, where he makes the claim (espoused even more tediously by the weirdo Enlightenment-basher John Gray, whose endorsement of one of Appleyard’s previous books should have warned me) that belief in scientism (that science and technology will inevitably by itself make the world a better place, a view I do not hold) is a faith.  Given that faith is also a key part of religion, this makes scientism a religion.  Now not only does this not follow, it helps underpin his argument for a definition of religion so broad as to be utterly meaningless, and unrecognisable to those who would call themselves religious and those who would not.  He makes some decent points about the medicalisation of death, but this is buried in so much pointless material that these points failed to have the impact that perhaps they deserved.

Not content with flawed reasoning and waffling, he wildly mischaracterises the Enlightenment, and Marxism.  The latter exemplifies the main, fatal flaw with the whole book.  Not the ridiculous distortions about Marxism, that is par for the course for a lot of writers.  The libels that Marxism is a ‘faith’, ‘utopian’ and ‘devaluing human life’ are nonsense, but are just yet more examples of a lack of accuracy.  No, the fatal flaw with this book is exemplified in the part where he discusses Marxism.  It is the utter humourlessness and miserablism that pervades the book.

The following passage from page 128 demonstrates this:

“after a drunken night, some hard Marxist student friends parted company with my own ideologically vaguer group.

‘Where are you going?’ I called across the street.

One of the Marxists thrust his fist into the air. ‘Where the struggle leads us!’

He was not joking.  It was, for me, an epiphany, a revelation of an utterly different type of imagination, one that saw a continuous flow of meaning and justification in every event and in every individual action.”

I feel a little mean in writing this review.  I have attempted to tone down my criticisms, and try to focus them on the book, not the author.  It was because the topic of the book is interesting that I am so disappointed with it, and felt the need to go to town on it.  I believe that potentially promising subject matter was let down by inaccuracies and mischaracterisations, and the tone and style of the book.  Bryan Appleyard picked a great topic, but he wrote the wrong book.

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Exams should be abolished – part 2

I dealt with some of the justifications outlined for ‘high-stakes’ testing, and the testing culture, in the previous part.  In this part, I want to peel back the surface justifications, to deal with the real reason why formal examinations – and qualifications – are deemed such an important part of the education system.

A capitalist society is one in which there is hierarchy, and scarcity.  There are good jobs, bad jobs and no jobs.  You can go to an ‘elite’ university, a merely ‘good’ university, an also-ran or not to university at all.  Creating this hierarchy (and resulting from it) is the limited number of people that can fill the ‘good’ jobs, or go to the ‘elite’ universities.  There therefore needs to be a sorting mechanism.  Without underplaying the ‘old school tie’ factor, which is as strong as it ever was (look at the proportions of lawyers, judges, top journalists, bankers, politicians etc. who went to private schools), examinations perform  the function of sorting applicants, by assigning to them letters or numbers – grades and UCAS scores for instance.

I outlined briefly in the previous post how these letters and numbers give us an inadequate view of ability and potential.  It should suffice to simply add that success in one educational context (formal schooling) will not necessarily ensure success in another (the freer environment of a university), and the same applies for the world of work.  Employers and universities need quick and nasty ways to sort people, and these methods are inadequate, inefficient and take no account of the individual’s development and potential contributions.

A far better system would mean acting as if both individuals and society mattered.  Individuals have a need for meaningful study and work.  Society needs to ensure that it gets from individuals their best.  These goals can coincide.  But they cannot in an anarchic, self-interested short-termist system like capitalism.  Treating individuals as complex wholes, with various capacities and potentialities, interests, motivations and talents at varying degrees of development, rather than abstract things to which numbers can be attached for the purposes of fitting them into probably ill-suited roles, would be good for the health and functioning of a society, as well as the health and wellbeing of individuals.

In what seems to be a developing theme across some of my posts, I state that actually, rather than privileging the collective over the individual, Marxism, in it’s goal to abolish capitalism, actually resolves the contradiction between collective and individual.  The bourgeois idealists (champions of individualism!) ended up creating a system which depersonalised and gutted the individual, while simulataneously creating problems – and offering precious few solutions – for the collective, for society.  Marxists see the development and progression of individuals and the collective as two sides of the same coin.

That’s why I want to abolish exams.  Because I would like to live in a society where the society creates well rounded, healthy, happy individuals who are able to develop themselves to the fullest extent for their own and society’s benefit.  Exams – those crude sorting mechanisms borne of a socioeconomic system based on and generating hierarchy and the scarcity of routes to the good life – are too vulgar tools for such a task, and will not be needed.

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Exams Should Be Abolished – Part 1

Public exams, whether they are the National Curriculum Tests (SATs), GCSEs, A-Levels or similar, should be scrapped.  These exams, and all the associated paraphernalia of league tables, performance pay, should go.

This is not an argument against any sort of testing in schools, when done in the proper way, regular testing of pupils gives teachers a valuable insight into their progress, strengths and weaknesses, provided the limitations of the test and its results are fully understood.  Such data can also help towards a teacher’s professional development, as they can see exactly in what ways they are proving effective, and where there is room for improvement.

This is an argument against high-stakes testing, where the pupils are not the beneficiaries.  High stakes testing is where the test scores are used by various organisations or individuals for their own purposes, and where these data are used as a proxy for other, less quantifiable, things.

These high-stakes exams (I’ll just refer to these as ‘exams’ from now on) are used for a number of purposes.  They are used by employers and Universities to select employees and students.  Whe converted into league table form they are used by parents looking to pick a school for their child, and by Ofsted and the Department of Education as a stick to beat schools with.  Schools will then likely use them as a stick to beat teachers with.

But exam results, however intelligently they are handled in the creation of a league table, are too crude to represent anything more than themselves.  Sets of results do not represent the ability or potential of a student.  Even individual results don’t.  I received an ‘A’ grade for GCSE Physics purely on the basis of a good memory and reasonably good revision.  I do not think like a physicist however much I might like to (not often).

Results for a whole school do not represent anything either.  Often the term used is ‘standards’.  But if you are judging a school on exam results you are not judging the standard of the education provided by that school, unless you define a good standard of education as ‘getting students to get high grades in exams’.  And if that is your idea of a good education, I feel sorry for you.  In fact, the obsession with exam grades above all else has led to a complete distortion of compulsory education.  One effect is a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on the ‘core’ subjects (English, Maths and Science), to the comparative neglect of everything else.  But don’t think those subjects get away scot-free.  Because of the intense focus on these subjects, the pressure to ‘teach to the test’ is immense, leading to an impoverished curriculum likely to put students off these vital areas of study.

Genuine, exciting teaching and learning is replaced with constant, tedious revision of what is likely to appear in the exam papers.  And in the exams, the dullards who have the right keywords and techniques will outperform the bright students who made the mistake of actually being interested in the subject rather than methods for getting marks.

But doesn’t passing exams benefit students?  Only in a narrow sense.  If you get all A grades you are more likely to get into the University of your choice, or get a better-paid job (if you can get a job at all).  But looked at as a whole, raising exam grades for the majority of students is utterly pointless.  It’s what game-theorists call a ‘zero-sum game’ – because the grades have been raised overall, the relative differences between the students will still be there.  So if you might have otherwise got a C, but because of exam-centred teaching you got a B, but all your B-worthy classmates (and others in other schools) instead got an A, you have secured absolutely no advantage.  This example provides an opening to my next criticism of exams – the purpose they serve in a capitalist society riven with scarcity, division and hierarchy.  Part 2 will follow when I write it.  Pay attention, because it will be in the test.

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Privatisation of Schools

Guest post by Dave Clinch, retired secretary of Devon NUT:

This week I’ve been visiting, with a colleague, National Union of Teachers (NUT) members in primary, special and secondary schools in Cornwall.

The purpose of our visits was to find out about issues in their schools and to offer support and training for organisation, and in many cases resistance, to the increasing demands being placed on teachers by increasingly bullying managements.

Most of the schools we visited have converted to independent academy status. This means that they are no longer community schools under Local Authority (LA) control. Instead central government has direct control in the shape of the Minister for Education, Michael Gove. Boards of Governors now have the power to hire and fire without any reference to the LA. They also have responsibility for the buildings and the grounds of these schools along with other matters such as Health and Safety and Terms and Conditions of work, which were the responsibility of the LA. Should the school ‘fail’ in any way the Secretary of State now has the power to close it down or have it taken over by an ‘outstanding’ academy.

The Academies programme began under the previous Labour Government, following their drive to privatise schools via the Trust Schools programme. Devon NUT led a highly publicised campaign, both locally and nationally, against them.

The claim for trust schools and academies by the Blair led Government was that standards, especially for children from deprived backgrounds, would be driven up. These first academies were taken over (effectively handed over) to the likes of Lord Harris, of Harris Carpets, Peter Vardy, a second hand car dealer and Creationist zealot, and Steve Chalk another Christian zealot. Large amounts of money from the government were set-aside as ‘sweeteners’ to encourage schools to change to academy status.

There have been many campaigns nationally to resist these changes. The Anti Academies Alliance (AAA) has regular updates and reports on news and events. There is also much helpful information regarding the arguments against the privatisation of our community schools.

Sadly, a number of academies have been put into ‘special measures’ following the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) visits. The latest is the Sir Robert Woodward Academy in Lancing West Sussex. We do not celebrate at this news, or the fact that in an analysis of the most recent exam results tables by the Anti Academies Alliance over 20% of academy GCSE results either show no improvement or have declined. It is the students who are being let down for purely ideological reasons.

The consequences have been far reaching. The Tory led coalition has driven the Academies programme via the Education Act, giving powers to the Education Secretary, which for instance, can force a school to become an academy if it is not meeting the so called ‘floor targets’ set by Ofsted.

Furthermore, there is no requirement to consult all interested parties such as parents, community groups and prospective parents, for example, to agree whether or not a school should change its status. No public meeting, no arguments for and against, no ballot. In other words small groups of people on governing bodies with vested interests in moving towards privatisation have been making decisions to take this route without any recourse to democratic processes.

A further difficulty for schools is that the assessment of their ability to deliver the curriculum, as per Government demands, is constantly changing. For example, it was reported this week that the new Head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, says that a school that has been deemed ‘satisfactory’ in the past will now be in the ‘failing’ category.

Here’s the good news though. There are a number of schools throughout the country that have organised opposition to academy status. Downhills Primary School in Tottenham is a wonderful example of the whole school community uniting in their resistance. I recommend having a look at the video of their song Save Our School on youtube. It is so inspiring*.

There is also the spectre of so-called ‘Free Schools’, based on the Swedish move to a complete privatisation of schools. Route 39 is being touted in North Devon by a group of parents. The regulations that usually apply to where children can be taught safely by fully qualified staff are being openly flouted by the odious Mr Gove in his quest to destroy the idea of comprehensive education in a good local community school for all children. Just this week it has been reported that a Swedish Free School has been put up for auction on Ebay. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.

This is a full frontal ideological attack by the Tories, ably supported by their liberal friends, to smash comprehensive education. It is deeply divisive and has already led to further segregation by background and belief.

The fight back continues,however. Several campaigns are running. Some have already been successful. The Anti Academies Alliance has useful information on its website. The National Union of Teachers website has further information by clicking on its campaigns button and then the priority campaigns button.

Last but not least, we in the North Devon Anti Cuts Alliance are contributing to the debate and the fight to retain comprehensive education and to keep it from the profiteering hands of private businesses, religious groups and others.

North Devon Anti Cuts Alliance welcomes anyone who wants to resist the excesses of this government, as it tries to make those who can least afford it pay for the crisis created by their friends in the banks and hedge funds. They see education and students, for example, as nothing more than another business to be exploited for their prestige and profits.

See the website for further information:

*Unfortunately this video is not accessible at the moment, I will post it on this site if I see it become available again – JWEL.

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Argument 6 – Labour’s economic policy is vile and stupid.

I said in the previous piece that I wouldn’t comment on Labour’s new economic policy, but there are a few things I have to say in addition to the previously linked argument for a new workers’ party by Mark Wright.

My argument is that Labour’s new policy is both completely vile and incredibly stupid.

Labour’s new policy, as announced by Ed Balls on Saturday and confirmed by Ed Miliband on Sunday, is that not only will they enter the 2015 election promising more cuts, they will not reverse a single cut made by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in the meantime.  The reason that they are going to do this is that they recognise that the cuts the Government are carrying out will damage the economy so much that, rather than the budget deficit being reduced, it will actually increase.  Therefore, if Labour return to power in 2015 there will still be a budget deficit to deal with, so no cuts can be reversed and more cuts will have to be made.

I hope I don’t have to spend too much time explaining why this is a vile policy.  The Government’s austerity agenda is an attempt to load the cost of the financial crisis onto the people least responsible.  There have been, and will be more, massive cuts to health, education, transport, and other vital services.  Perhaps most disgracefully of all, those on the breadline, and also perhaps suffering from disabilities and health problems, are being ruthlessly attacked, with their already meagre incomes slashed or under threat completely.  This is while the rich and superrich continue to fatten their wallets and more else besides.  To support this, and not oppose a single bit of it, while planning to make even further attacks if they regain office, is vile.  No other word for it.

But stupid?  Not if you read some of the rubbish written by Blairite cheerleaders in Parliament and in the press.  They think saddling the Labour Party with policies that copy the Tories and Lib Dems makes brilliant sense, that it somehow gives Labour ‘economic credibility’ while also provoking a spat with the trade unions.  There are three problems for the Blairites and the Labour leadership here.  They are that the new policy is economically stupid, politically stupid, and it doesn’t actually make any sense.

I’ll start with the last of these.  Some of the supporters of the Eds who have reservations about the new policy (such as the Independent columnist Steve Richards), think the policy is correct, but patronisingly claim that it is too clever and subtle to be understand by the electorate.  Well I’ve thought about the argument they are making, and it really doesn’t make any sense.  Balls makes the correct claim that the cuts are damaging the economy.  This will lead to the budget deficit increasing, correct again.  Where he goes completely off the rails is in claiming that the sensible thing to do is to accept this and carry on with this same failed policy!  These politicians are more like medieval doctors.  One doctor tries to cure the patient by draining blood.  Another doctor takes over, can see that the bloodletting has only made the patient worse, but then declares that given that the patient is so ill, they need to drain more blood.  This is insanity, and people won’t fall for it.

So that seems economically stupid, and just to clarify, it is.  Cuts take money out of the pockets of people for whom it makes a difference.  They do this by increasing unemployment, freezing or cutting pay (particularly when inflation is high, which it is at the moment), reducing pensions and benefits, increasing service user costs (such as rail and bus fares) and increasing taxes (such as VAT).  This means less money to spend on goods and services, leading to problems in various aspects of the economy, such as the retail sector, which then leads to more pay cuts and job losses.

It is worth pointing out that the very unfairness of the cuts – directed way more harshly towards the less well-off – that makes them so economically toxic.  If Government attacks were aimed at the well off, it would not have such a negative effect – take £100 out of our hands, we will spend less and suffer.  Take £100 out of the hands of a wealthy person and their spending will probably not be affected, as they won’t even notice it’s gone.

So it doesn’t make sense, and it’s economically stupid.  What about politically?  Will it restore Labour’s ‘economic credibility’? Will it make them more popular by distancing the party from the trade unions?  The answer to the first question is ‘yes and no’.  In a very narrow sense, in the sense of aspects of the right wing media who think that economic credibility means hitting the poor and rewarding the rich (rather than actually having credible economic policies which as we’ve seen, they don’t), yes.

But the problem Labour have is no matter how unpleasant, reactionary and stupid their policies, they will never appease large parts of the right wing press.  Gordon Brown spent much of his time in office dreaming up ridiculous, illiberal schemes to please the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail but they continued to attack him.  If the media, run either by the State (the BBC, and yes it is run by the State) or the super wealthy (everything else), decide that the Coalition government are going to do what they want (which they very much are), then Labour will never get any decent press anyway.

What of the second point, the distance from the trade unions?  The problem here is the assumption that trade unions are unpopular.  Despite years of declining membership since the Thatcher era, and constant attacks from the Government, employers and press, a substantial proportion of workers in Britain are still in trade unions.  And polling figures show that a substantial majority of the population supported the strike action on the 30th November.  It is fair to say that most people realise the crucial role of trade unions in defending our rights and standard of living even if they are not in one.  So angering the trade unions is not a royal road to popularity for the Labour Party.

In fact, given that most of their voters will either be a member of a union or well-disposed to unions, it seems a strange fight to pick.  Even stranger given that movements in various unions to disaffiliate from the Labour Party and stop funding them will be given added impetus by this new shift in policy.

A further political stupidity is that the old message was actually quite astute.  Ed Balls managed to plant the slogan ‘too far, too fast’ into most people’s heads, and while I didn’t agree with Labour’s old position, I could see that it was working, despite the tailor’s dummy they had elected as a leader.  This well known position has now been thrown out in a heartbeat.  Not only that, but any sort of distance between Labour and the Coalition has now been obliterated.  On economic policy they are the same.  The only difference is now seemingly on crime and immigration, where Labour is more right wing!  The questions of why should anyone vote Labour, and what the point of Labour is, will be asked ever more urgently by many people.

This policy will mean that the weak, pathetic, half-hearted opposition that Labour has so far displayed in Parliament, will now be replaced with no opposition at all.  There will be no change in council chambers up and down the country though, as Labour councillors had been merrily voting for huge cuts anyway.  In fact, when one Labour councillor in Barking and Dagenham recently dared to vote against cuts, the party expelled him!

I really cannot for the life of me understand why people continue to prop up this moribund, moronic and malevolent organisation any longer.  We don’t want one Tory party, having three of them is just taking the biscuit.  It is time for trade unions, workers, the unemployed, pensioners and students to form a new party which is dedicated to serving the interests of the many, and not just the rich, privileged few.

The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition is one step towards this, and I hope that those disillusioned with Labour start to join the building of this.

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They put it better than I ever could…

…some links to posts that I either couldn’t have written, or don’t need to write now they’ve done it so well.

Mark Wright makes the argument for abandoning any idea about somehow ‘changing’ or ‘reforming’ the Labour Party.  Personally, I don’t see what stops all three of the main parties from merging.  You once could only put a fag paper between them, now Eds Balls and Miliband have ripped away the fag paper and scutched up to Cameron, Osborne and Clegg.  What is the point of the useless, spineless creeps that constitute the parliamentary Labour Party, or Labour councillors?

A thoroughly positive example of an elected representative, who fought for his constituents while fighting the broader battle for socialism, was former Socialist Party Coventry City councillor Rob Windsor, who has died tragically young at the age of 47.  Here is Coventry Socialist Party’s obituary, ‘The Man Who Helped Melt the Iron Lady’.

Words cannot adequately express how disgusted I am with the suggestion that £60 million of taxpayers money be used to buy the Queen a yacht.  That’s more than the cuts made to Devon County Council’s budget last year that has resulted in so many jobs and vital services lost.  Here’s a mischievous article from the Weekly Worker comparing the British monarchy to the Stalinist silliness in North Korea.  I don’t agree with a lot in the Weekly Worker, but I reckon they’re onto something here…

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Guest post – Education, Tory style – Echoes of the Victorians

Guest post by Dave Clinch, retired secretary of Devon NUT and anti-academies activist.

Michael Gove is planning to have teachers sacked even if they are ill.

At Tavistock Community College, one of the largest Community Colleges in the South West, they have just emerged from special measures after two years. The Head’s proud boast on local TV yesterday was that eight teachers were asked to leave and some ‘difficult’ students were expelled to achieve this category of ‘satisfactory’.

I see this as anathema to what education is about. The Head has ruined certain teachers’ lives on the grounds that ‘the children’s education is paramount’, via the so called ‘capability process’, meanwhile certain children have been expelled.

What happened to the idea of genuine support that existed in teaching before the twin tyrannies of the National Curriculum and Ofsted? Support’ is now the veil that wraps the mailed fist of ‘capability’, the third gross tyranny in education. I had the misfortune to witness at first hand the effects of this process on teachers whilst serving as Devon NUT Secretary. It was utterly destructive and sought merely to highlight any negative aspects.

‘Passionate’ is a much overworked word, but I am passionate about taking the fear out of teaching. The bullies are stalking the corridors on their micro observations which masquerade as ‘learning walks’ etc. It was something that the Head of Risinghill Comprehensive School in Islington, Michael Duane, was determined to challenge. Tragically, it cost him his job and the school was closed.

Now it seems that any school merely fits itself into the Government template, divesting itself of any ‘difficulty’ instead of developing the students and the staff to their considerable potential and teaching all the children who pitch up there.

What happened to the idea and aspiration of teaching all who cross the threshold of a Comprehensive, Community School? Of course it requires more resources when students have real problems. They are not monsters, neither are they fully mature human beings. Some indeed may need off-site provision, until they can be reintegrated. What will happen to the eight teachers who were so glibly spoken about? How will their lives be affected by this action? Who cares?

Is it ‘out of sight out of mind’? This really is the pits. Education Tory style. Echoes of the Victorians.

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