The Porter Zone

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Category Archives: Politics and society

After the referendum – competing views of Britain

Immediately after the shocking result of Britain’s ‘Brexit’ referendum, and the decision to leave the EU, many Britons, particularly those who had supported, or campaigned for, the ‘Remain’ cause were deeply depressed.  I myself was one of them; I had contributed to he ‘Remain’ campaign, and was shocked and distraught at Britain’s apparently perverse decision.

However, having had time to consider, and to see the astonishingly childish behaviour both of ‘Remain’ supporters on this side of the English Channel, and of political elites on the other side, I have come to realise that ‘Brexit’ was the right path for Britain to take.  A major part of this realisation came when I decided to reconsider the messages of the two camp, ignoring all of the emotive name-calling that bedevilled the campaign itself.  It turns out that they demonstrate two radically different visions for Britain and, once this is understood, ‘Brexit’s’ victory is clearly seen as inevitable.

‘Remain’ : a pessimistic view

Even ignoring the infamous ‘project fear’, the ‘remain’ campaign’s message was unremittingly negative.  Not on the surface, of course, but what did all of those warnings of inevitable disaster should Britain leave the EU tell us?

  1. Britain is useless: we, as a nation, have had our day, and we simply cannot survive in the modern world without the support of the continental powers.  Despite having the second largest economy in Europe, the largest military, highest rates of innovation, etc, Britain is basically a paper tiger.
  2. The only future lies with the project: there is a grand plan, run by the masters of the European Commission, and that is the answer.  Everything must be planned and follow the rules in as machine-like a way as possible, regardless of what elected governments or populations might think.
  3. We should obey our betters: we may think that the EU was imbalanced, and that a Union whose President had beggared the Greeks to prove the important of the rules, and then blithely allowed the French government to ignore the same rules because, well, they were French, was stupid.  But the wise people of Brussels and elsewhere told us otherwise, and President Obama even flew in to tell us how very, very unimportant we were, and how we must do as told.

Recall that Britons, especially the English (who, after all, voted overwhelmingly for ‘Brexit’) have a strongly anti-authoritarian streak, are naturally pragmatists rather than theorists, and are generally not enamoured of rhetoric.

‘Leave’: muddling through

Now look at the ‘Leave’ campaign’s underlying message, and we see something much more positive:

  1. Britain is not rubbish, in fact we’re pretty good.  So, yes, there may be some problems leaving, but the basic point remained that Britain’s economy is growing faster than most of the continental powers’, the continental EU seems to be sliding towards economic meltdown, and yet the differences in system that make Britain healthier are precisely those differences that are meant to be bad.  Saying that Britain can go it alone, and no, allies won’t dump us, is a much more positive thing to say.
  2. We don’t have a plan, we’ll wait and see.  One of the core characteristics of the English psyche is the preference for ‘muddling through’.  Not for Britons the grand theoretical frameworks of Descartes; our national philosophy is a proudly empirical Hobbesian pragmatism.  So openly saying there is no plan appeals directly to this: Britons have been muddling through for centuries, and probably will be for centuries after the EU has been forgotten.
  3. Who does that President Obama think he is then? Britons do not like being told what to think.  Faced with President Obama’s assurance that a Brexited Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ when it came to trade deals, most Britons, naturally, labelled him a liar.  Which, it proves, was quite correct, given that within hours of the result being announced, he was asserting that he had not really meant it, and Britain would be at the front of every queue he could think of.  Compared with ‘Remain’s cadres of authority figures, ‘Brexit’ had a bunch of bufferish upper-class types who admitted they had no idea what was going to happen, but thought we ought to all pull together, what?

Conclusion

‘All pull together’ is another key English characteristic, along with ‘Muddling Through’ and ‘Mustn’t grumble’.  And grumbling, it has to be said, is what the ‘Remain’ team have been doing a bit too much of since the result.  This, coupled with the childish behaviour of those EU governments that wish to see Britain ‘punished’ (or, rather, the EU government that does), the astonishing contempt for democracy and even the rule of law demonstrated by the Commission President, and the fact that all those big companies who said they would leave Britain have come back with huge new wodges of cash and apologetic expressions on their faces, does suggest that, when the British people reacted to all those dire threats with ‘you’re having us on’, they were not wrong.

So, I am afraid, it seems that Britons did not vote to leave the EU because we are (collectively) petty-minded racists who live in the past.  It was, I would suggest, because we detected the smell of death hanging over the EU, and being proud, unencumbered by theory or reverence for our betters, and willing to take a risk, responded to the campaign that actually allowed us the right to make our own future.

Why the state should not be a service provider

It is often observed that private enterprise must, inevitably provide higher qualities of service than the state.  It is also observed that for the private sector to provide basic services is somehow immoral, because to profit from serving people is wrong in some way.  It is also observed that, though all of this may be true in theory, in general public-private partnerships succeed no better than purely public-sector services.

It turns out that the problem lying behind all of these contradictory positions lies in the fact that they all miss the point.  What matters is not what is right or wrong, or whether or not the state is irredeemably inept: the underlying issue is a simple economic argument, which we outline below.

The argument

Any business is dependent, for its continued existence, on its paymaster, that is to say the individual(s) who provide the money that it needs to keep operating.  Therefore, the prime responsibility of any business is to guarantee that its paymaster will continue to give it money.  The success of a business therefore depends on the paymaster’s criteria for choosing to do so.

For a conventional business, existing in the private sector, the paymaster is, in effect, the consumers, that is to say the individual(s) who purchase products or services from the business.  Their criteria for continued consumption will, essentially be, that they like the services or products, and want to continue purchasing them.

For a state-financed business, on the other hand, the paymaster is the treasury.  Its criterion is very different and much simpler: it has no interest in the quality or otherwise of the business’ products, or of its consumer’s attitude towards it.  Rather, its sole criterion is this: has the business spent all of its allocated budget?

This means that, whereas a purely private-sector business has to do everything it can to make its consumers like it, all that a state-funded business has to do is to continue to spend at least as much money as it is allocated by the treasury.  Quality of performance, as measured by its consumers (if there are any) is if no importance.

Consequences

Observe that this argument says nothing about the quality of civil servants as opposed to private-sector workers, their moral qualities or their competence.  It says nothing about the moral qualities of the state as an institution.  It is based purely on the observation that if a business’ paymaster is disconnected from its consumers, then it has no reason to concern itself with meeting its consumers’ expectations.

This means that any business which adopts this model is bound to provide poor consumer service, providing a neat explanation of the well-known effect that private businesses that are entirely capable of providing how quality services or products in the private sector, when co-opted into working on contract to the state, end up producing work of the same low quality as that done by civil servants.  The state funding mechanism acts as a weight that drags all engaged with it down to the same level.

On the other hand, it is notable that in situations where the state does not provide direct funding to institutions, but instead provides consumers with vouchers, or acts as their underwriter of last resort, then private enterprise is capable of providing services of the high level one would expect.  This is because the natural link between paymaster and consumer has been restored.

Conclusions

It turns out, interestingly, that the argument relating to the morality, or otherwise, of profiting from service provision comes closest to the truth, in observing that the issue is about how services are funded.  However, morality is not, and should not be an issue, save perhaps for the question (often ignored, for some reason) of the morality of choosing to place ideology above the quality of service provided to citizens of the country.

What do the protestors want?

I write a day after a massive protest in the Centre of London at which, in addition to causing considerable disruption and unpleasantness for those of us who merely live here, anything up to a quarter of a million people gathered to protest against – what?  And here we run into problems that are the cause of my deciding to write this piece.  Though I suspect the genuine motivation, as captured in the phrase ‘kick the Tories out’ that seemed to be making the rounds, is the dismay of those who had deluded themselves into to thinking themselves political leaders, at discovering, when the people of the UK spoke, that actually they were political irrelevances, it is still of interest, I think, to consider their ostensible cause.

What do they want?

Essentially, it would seem that they do not like a situation in which it is possible for some people to become much richer than others, in which business (which is always ‘big’, and therefore, apparently, bad) is free to exploit people by selling them products that they want (but that their self-appointed guardians assert are bad for them), or in which any form of private enterprise be permitted to provide any form of service to society.  This can be summed up, pretty well, by saying that they object to being expected to live in an open society with a free economy, whose composition is determined based supply on demand, as opposed to centralised planning.

What they would prefer instead is less clear, and many of them, and their leaders seem to find it hard to articulated with any degree of clarity what their idea society would look like (that this may be, at least partially, caused by the undoubted fact that many of their leaders are clearly not unduly blessed with intellect, is an interesting question).  However, one can deduce a certain amount, if only by contradiction with what they don’t want.  So, the economy must be regulated, with businesses only permitted to be active in areas deemed suitable by some authority.  Likewise, business profits must be regulated, so as to ensure that income, etc differences do not exceed some defined threshold.  Moreover, innovation must be constrained, due to the unfortunate fact that it tends to close down old economic sectors as it opens up new ones, and is clear that one thing the protestors do believe in very strongly is that no business should be allowed to fold simply because it is no longer profitable.  All services should be state-delivered, and no effort should be made to cater to the needs or desires of their consumers, for that way lies the crime of elitism.

Simultaneously with this apparent embrace of the state, however, is a strand of strong distrust of the state.  Thus, any form of surveillance is unacceptable, police are always heavy-handed, justice is always biased and so on and so forth.  To mention how this impacts attitudes on international relations would take us too far afield: the spectacle of hordes of more-liberal-than-thou ‘peace’ activists howling down the oppressed while cheering on their oppressors is only one of the more puzzling aspects of modern-living.

Where does this lead?

There is a curious contradiction at the heart of all this.  Let us start from the demand for what is, essentially, a command economy, where freedom to produce and consume is replaced with strict regulation of what may be consumed, what may be produced and how it may be produced.  Now, it is common to argue that this is doomed to fail for any number of sound economic reasons, but I want to take a different tack.

A command economy is dependent on being a closed cycle.  As wealth generation has been deliberately prevented, producers produce what they are permitted to, and consumers consume what they are permitted to.  Therefore money simply circulates through the system and becomes essentially irrelevant.  Therefore a truly closed command economy could become the nirvana of the more idealistic protestor, a moneyless society.  Unfortunately, for this to work the system has to be static.  Any imbalance, any change in means or production or the profile of demand, any change in employment, or productivity or profitability, throws the equilibrium of the closed cycle out.  Before you know it, either wealth generation starts happening, or else your economy crashes, or else you have to open to the outside world, to rectify the imbalance.

What this means is that therefore the state must act to completely ban the black market, or private transactions, or private business of any kind, and this ban needs to extend to ongoing detection and prevention.  Moreover, innovation must be prevented, because innovation brings new ideas, new products and changes the nature of supply and demand in unpredictable ways.  Finally, fashion, or any kind of personal taste or preference must be banned and controlled, so consumers only want that which the state sanctions the supply of.  Otherwise, consumer discontent with what is on offer will breed either innovation, or black market activity, or political unrest, with all the dangers that implies.

So what, as Lenin asked, is to be done?  The answer is very simple.  As Orwell predicted, and as the great totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th and 21st centuries have shown, a command economy can only exist if it has Thought Police.  Without total penetration into and control of every individual’s activities and thoughts, the state cannot guarantee the economic stability that is so important to its survival.  Therefore it must be a surveillance state, dedicated to removing any hint of individuality from its citizens.

In conclusion

This, then, is the paradox, the protestors in London talk constantly about liberty, and the need to end state intrusion into their private lives, and yet their ideals can only be achieved by a totalitarian police state.  I suspect that many of them would be absolutely in favour of such a thing, on the understanding that they were part of the Central Committee that told everyone else what to do, but it is in the nature of true totalitarianism that there is no Central Committee, and that everyone oppresses everyone else.  Therefore, let us hope that some effort is made to help them learn that libertarianism is not love of the state.

More on objectification

Introduction

As I fear was to be expected, my recent piece The New Objectification has received criticism to the effect that I am wrong in asserting that some (at least) women willingly embrace objectification, and seek to maximise their adherence to misogynistic models of woman.  The criticism is that in saying that a socially excluded group will connive in its own exclusion I am attacking the innocent victims rather than than their vicious oppressors.

That this criticism is fallacious hardly needs be said.  It is an observable fact that many women do embrace objectification.  It is also the case that the willing adoption of the stigmata of exclusion by the excluded is a well-known phenomenon in sociology.  However, it occurred to me that there is yet another argument against this accusation that is based in the development of social groups as driven by Darwinian processes.  That is to say, a completely abstract Darwinian argument can show that it is, in some sense, optimal for members of an excluded group to define themselves in terms of those characteristics that led to their exclusion.  In this essay I present this argument which I believe is rather powerful, because, first, it is entirely value free, so the question of the morality or otherwise of the original exclusion plays no part in it, and second it is a nice demonstration of the power of the Darwinian argument as applied to a system developing without overall control or direction.

Darwinian processes

Before I provide the main argument, it is worth giving a brief overview of the general Darwinian process.  We are accustomed to its use in formulating arguments about biological evolution, but much of its power comes from the fact that it is, in fact, not a statement about biology or evolution, but a statement about change over time in populations of similar but not identical individuals, where there is no overall plan or control directing change.  Once we have realised that then we can apply it to any system having these properties.

At its simplest, say we have a population in a changing environment.  The principle of the Darwinian process is simply in the absence of any ‘grand plan’ or controlling force, individuals will adapt so as to maximise benefit in response to changes in the environment, and these adaptations are passed on through time.  Individuals whose adaptation gives greater benefit are favoured in that those adaptations are more likely to continue, while individuals whose adaptation gives reduced or negative benefit are disfavoured.  Thus in time the whole population will tend towards becoming optimally adapted to its environment.  More succinctly: adaptations that benefit their adopters survive better and eventually dominate the population.

A couple of points are worth noting.  First, it is absolutely important that there be no ‘grand plan’ or collusion between the individuals in the population.  If there was, then individuals might actively choose non-beneficial adaptations because though they may not be beneficial, they are congruent with the ‘bigger picture’.  Second, it is important that the individuals vary, as this is what allows sufficient variation in approach to adapting to the environment to guarantee that an optimum will be achieved.  If they all react in the same way then there is no winnowing process by which different approaches are compared and evaluated.  So if a population consists of individuals constrained only by their environment (over which they have little or no control) but otherwise free to act, then the Darwinian process will favour eventual adoption by the population of an approach that maximises adaptation to living within the environment.

Application to social exclusion

Let us say that in the wider population some one group has been socially excluded, or otherwise set apart.  This is tantamount to saying that the remainder of the population has imposed a particular environment on the excluded group, consisting of expectations as to its place in society, how it should behave, what it should be permitted to do, etc.  Assume also that the exclusion is artificial that is to say it is not based on any real difference, but is purely a result of ideology or prejudice.  This now meets the criteria of a Darwinian process: the environment cannot be controlled by the excluded group, and they form a diverse collection with no real commonalty.  Therefore over time the members of the excluded group will adapt to a maximally beneficial accommodation with the facts of their exclusion.

What form will this adaptation take?  A simple answer is impossible, as contingency can lead to many possible outcomes, but we can say what form it will not take.  Any activity that challenges the basis of the group’s exclusion will be maladaptive, because by challenging the exclusion it involves behaviour that does not make best use of the environment as it is.  This is where the fact that there is no grand plan in place is so important.  If the group could band together and set about following  plan to challenge their exclusion through coordinated action, then they could potentially mount a successful campaign to change the environment.  But so long as they act as uncoordinated individuals, there is nothing they can do to change the environment as defined by the excluders, and so long as the environment is a given, then the only option available is to accomodate to it.  Behaviour that does not accomodate to it, such as by challenging the basis for the exclusion, will, if effected on an individual basis, only result in individuals who challenge the status quo benefiting less than those quietists who comply with it, and so such behaviour will be maladaptive and be strongly selected against.

Therefore, socially excluded groups will, in the absence of concerted action against their excluders, tend to adapt themselves as far as possible to live within the bounds of their exclusion.  Not only does this mean that they will tend to adopt the stigmata of exclusion, but moreover the group will act to penalise individuals who do challenge the status quo.  Any such challenge will be a threat precisely in so far as any challenge must bring with it a non-zero probability of reprisals, and a worsening of the terms of the exclusion.  Thus, in time, the excluded group will actively select for stereotypical behaviour as defined by its oppressors, and against independent behaviour (this is, of course, no more than a special case of the well understood dynamics of group formation).

This brings me back to my original contention.  Out groups, be they women who appear to aspire to the status of a sex-toy, or minority groups who have allowed themselves to become convinced that they cannot succeed in academic studies, will always converge on a majoritarian behaviour which lives out the myths promulgated by the in groups that excluded them.  It is only by means of concerted action that any change can be effected.

The new objectification

Introduction

It is scarcely news that objectification is rampant in our culture.  The treatment of women as sexual objects has become so commonplace that it is now scarcely even worth noting any more when yet another ’empowering’ film or book or TV show turns out to just be an excuse for wall to wall tits and ass.  This piece by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times manages to be both hilarious and depressing at the same time in that it shows that the (generally male) creators of these shows tend to claim that they are depicting strong female characters, and yet what those female characters spend their time doing is, well, giving us as much jiggle and joggle as possible.  And though it is mildly comforting to learn that the proposed Wonder Woman show never actually got aired, because it was too bosom-fixated even for TV executives, it is not at all comforting that now an empowered woman is defined as being one who goes out of her way to become a sexual object.

Now, I could go on about what this says about male attitudes to women, and male attitudes to sex, but I have covered those subjects before, and at some length, most recently and comprehensively in my piece Rita Hayworth, the Male Gaze and the Unconscious Mind.  What I propose to do here is to discuss the more complex question of women’s attitudes to this objectification.  This is a complex topic, as the standard myth of our time is that men sexually objectify women, while women object like anything, but cannot do anything about it due to the dead weight of the patriarchy.  This is, in bare bones, the base of Laura Mulvey‘s ‘male gaze‘ theory, that is to say, that men objectify women and women suffer objectification.  The reality is more complex.  First of all, to say that women do not sexually objectify men is nonsense.  However, there are a number of pointers to something deeper and more disturbing.

First look at the strange world of the modern romantic comedy.  As I noted in a piece I wrote some time ago, the standard current romantic movie portrays women as helpless things who are basically miserable until they find a good manly man who will make them his sex-toy and absolve them from having to think, ever, ever again.  This might be taken as being pure male chauvinistic fantasy about what unrepentantly sexist men would like women to be, only these films depend on a largely female audience, and surely if they didn’t like the message they wouldn’t go to see them?  In answer one only has to cross media and look at the amazing success of the Twilight franchise, which proposes that the correct role for a modern woman is gazing adoringly at her perfect man, while doing whatever he says and showing no independence of spirit or mind.  Again, it is women who consume (and produce) this pabulum, so it can scarcely be the case that they object to being objectified.

Therefore the Mulvey theory, and the myth are false: at least some women seem to embrace being treated as sexual playthings.  This seems inherently wrong: why would any woman want to be reduced to a mere breast-transportation device when she has the chance to go out there and have a life not at all dependent on her sexual attractiveness?  The rather frightening conclusion that I work out over the remainder of this piece is that any marginalised group is likely to end up embracing precisely the stigmata of its marginalisation as a part of its identity, and this positively welcome and encourage its marginal status, leading to an unholy feedback loop.  Thus Christina Hendricks turns herself into little better than a walking bosom, Amanda Conner cheerfully produces quantities of grossly objectifying comic book art, and Stephenie Meyer tells young women that they just want to be door-mats.  They would all be interpreted, according to the myth, as being dupes or agents of the patriarchy, but the awful truth is that they are not, and probably seriously believe that they are doing their bit for women everywhere.  For by the lights of the group of women who have come to identify with that which is used to marginalise them, they are.

About objectification

Though is common currency to use the words ‘objectification’ and ‘objectify’ as meaning ‘bad’, in fact objectification is not only a very natural thing to do, it is a very necessary part of human intercourse.  When you or I interact with anything – your computer, a pet or another person – the interaction is mediated by a mental model that we have of that thing.  That is to say, when I interact with someone I know, I do not approach the interaction as if it were our first.  Instead I bring with my my mental model of that person based on all our previous interactions, and I am liable to interpret everything they say and do in terms of that model.  So if someone has a particular verbal tick, or has a tendency to express themselves somewhat gloomily, then I will respond to their statements differently than I would to someone who could announce their impending demise as if it were good news.  This model is therefore an extremely valuable thing, as it allows me to take short-cuts, and use previously acquired knowledge to gain a better understanding of what is going on than I would if I were to be ‘unprejudiced’.  But this means that in fact I am interacting with the model rather than the person, because I say what the model tells me I should say in order to make my point, and interpret what they say based on the model.  In other words, I interact directly with the model and only indirectly with the person, so I have objectified them, in that I am replacing them with my model.

Now it could be argued that this is not quite the same kind of objectification as is treating a woman as nothing but a sex object, but a little thought shows that in fact they are exactly the same thing.  If I treat a woman in a way that represents her purely as an object of sexual desire, then that means that the model which intermediates all of my interactions with her is based purely on her sexual allure and my reaction to it.  So when I turn a woman into a sexual object I am merely applying the same mechanism whereby in all interactions we represent people as private models which become, for us, those people, and taking an extreme approach in terms of those of her characteristics that I consider memorable.  Viewing a woman as nothing but a mind, and ignoring her sexual nature would be just as much a distortion.  So objectification itself is not a bad thing.  Problems arise only when we do not allow our model to reflect all the information we have about the person, but choose only to represent certain characteristics.  Again, we all do this to some extent, but the greater the mismatch between our representation of the person and the actual person, the larger the problem, and the greater the extent to which we do indeed negate their personhood and make them into an object purely of our own construction.

The problem we face then is this: many men, for one reason or another, find it hard to treat women as their coequals, and prefer to model them purely as sex on legs.  The curious thing is this: we would always expect a small number of women to play along with this (there have been gold-diggers down the ages), but we seem to find large numbers of women who enthusiastically embrace the role of man’s brainless sexual object.  Simple logic says that this should not be so, but it manifestly is so, and the reason why is my next topic.

Embracing the oppressor

As I said above, one only has to look at the utterly mystifying enthusiasm with which large numbers of women of all ages have embraced the Twilight phenomenon to see that the role of being an object of the male gaze and no more is actually quite attractive to women.  It is worth observing that the reasons aficionados give for this (in so far as they do articulate them) appear to be something along the lines that it would be so wonderful to be so desired, to be loved by so wonderful a man, and that that is enough.  In other words, becoming a sexual object is not a problem so long as one receives the tribute of the whole-hearted adoration of a good, or exemplary, man.  That this is wish fulfilment is obvious, but it is a very strange kind of wish to have.  Obviously being in a position to have somebody else take over managing all of life’s little inconveniences for one is superficially attractive, for who has not felt the urge to just let go and have everything done for one, but to extend this from a passing hankering into a permanent end state of pure passivity, in which one only has to be in such a way as to satisfy the male gaze’s requirement for sexual excitement, is not so obvious a goal.

Moving on, the modern movie romantic comedy preaches a basically anti-feminist message, telling us that what women really want, if only they can be honest with themselves, is to forget career self and any form of ambition other than the ambition to find a real manly man who will give them so many orgasms that they need never care for anything again.  It is fashionable to explain this as the back-lash of the misogynists who run movie studios against uppity women, but this explanation forgets one basic fact: if the men who run movie studios go so far as to have an agenda, it is that making money is good.  If there was a market for intelligent films about women, then Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would have been one of the biggest grossing films of 2011, whereas in fact it failed to recoup its extremely modest production expenses.  The simple truth is that many women choose of their own free will to go and watch sexist drivel for the same reason that they choose of their own free will to read Twilight.  Clearly the idea of being a woman who has nothing to do but be a sexual object is attractive.

As evidence for this hypothesis that the attraction lies in being able to merely be, that being a sexual object is better than being an active agent, here are some examples from the world of comics.  Now, comics are generally a male preserve, but there are a few characters and comic series that have appealed to women.  Let us start with Harley Quinn, about whom I have written in this piece.  All that we need to know is that Miss Quinn started out as a villain’s girlfriend, in a highly abusive relationship, but eventually she went independent.  Now I observed in the referenced piece that there are essentially two versions of Miss Quinn: the utterly dependent girlfriend who sticks by her man no matter how much he abuses her, and the forceful (if deranged) woman who runs her own life.  What I found strange was that observation of comments by woman fans showed that they largely preferred the abused girlfriend version, the reason given (indeed, given in some comments on my essay) being that that relationship involves a great love, and that being with such a great man she had to expect that her ego would be destroyed and that she would be dependent, and that his trying to kill her from time to time was just something she should tolerate, because she had found true love.  So, once again, but now in even more extreme form, we find women actively preferring what they should recoil from, because a great love, and becoming the lover’s object of affection, is the best thing a woman can have, and compensates for all else.

Objects by their own will

We see a theme emerging here.  It is that there is a clear belief among a large number of women that being a man’s sexual object, and being utterly dependent on him, is life’s only legitimate career goal.  Now, we could see this as a form of Stockholm syndrome, with the oppressed woman identifying with her oppressor’s view of her, much in the way that (say) many Saudi women seem to have convinced themselves that the fact that their lives are utterly circumscribed shows how special they are, because they have to be looked after at all times.  However, Stockholm syndrome only works as an explanation if the sufferer has no option but to go along with an imposed reality.  In spite of the dire warnings of those feminist critics who see oppositionism as an end in itself (which is, dare I suggest, just as much a distortion and a form of objectification as is seeing being a man’s sex toy as an end in itself), the cultures of Western Europe and North America do not on the whole prevent women from exercising basic freedoms.  What we see here is not conditioned adoption of an enforce abnormality, but deliberate retreat from reality into the self-created abnormality of desiring to become a sexual object.

To see why this might be the case, let us look at one last example.  The character of Lois Lane, Superman’s girlfriend, needs no introduction.  From 1958 to 1974 she had her own comic, titled Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane (note that her name comes second).  The stories are largely light froth, but, as I discussed in this piece, they are notable for their extremely misogynistic tone.  They read as if they were written by a typical chauvinistic 1950s man, which was in fact the case.  And yet women bought the comics in sufficient numbers for the series to last sixteen years.  What I concluded was happening was that women were saying to themselves: ‘Look at that, Lois Lane has everything, but even she has to put up with stuff from men that I do; obviously my life isn’t that bad after all.’  Now, that might sound just like a natural precondition for Stockholm syndrome, but what comes next is the distinguishing factor.  If a group has been socially excluded on some grounds or other, then the only way its members can achieve any form of social stability is for the group itself to cohere.  But now, the only factor that its members have in common, the only thing that makes the group make any sense, is precisely the factor that led to its exclusion.  So, American women in the late 1950s were a hugely diverse lot: scientists, secretaries, housewives, actors, writers, academics, politicians, musicians, etc.  The only things they had in common were the stigmata of misogyny: the idea that women were silly, childish and frivolous, and obsessed with getting their man.  And so, the one factor promoting cohesion, the cause of the exclusion, becomes not just a factor imposed from outside, but a way of defining the group.  Women, in order to define their own in-group ended up embracing the 1950s male idea of women as their banner, and could then look down on those women who refused to play with any categorisation and insisted on being themselves.

My thesis is, then, that what we are seeing in the curious embrace of sexual objecthood is simply the definition of an in-group of women who obtain social cohesion from maintaining and emphasising outmoded traditions, and who look on those who do not play along as being some kind of enemy of stability.  For being a sexual object is the great leveller: anyone can do it.  All one needs to be a sexual object is to have a body and to be prepared to allow men to use it.  Making ones own path is much harder and requires work and talent.  So young women queue up to prostitute themselves to unpleasant young men on television programmes, and others flock to absorb regressive piffle, not because of a conspiracy of men, but because of a conspiracy of women.

The illiberal nature of modern liberalism

Introduction

My title seems nonsensical; surely liberals must be liberal?  Is that not a tautology?  And yet modern self-described liberals seem to be moving further away from what we might expect to be liberal positions such as respect for the rule of law, the concept that human rights are indeed universal, and the championing of those, at home or abroad, whose rights are under attack.  One can more or less guarantee that in recent years, whenever action is taken to curtail repressive acts by a dictatorial regime, liberal intellectuals have lined up to condemn it. So Robert Fisk writes a piece in which he seems to argue that it would have been much better to leave Colonel Qaddafi to get on with massacring the Libyan people, irrespective of their request for help.  Similarly, liberal luminaries have argued that Slobodan Milosevich et al should have been left to do their thing, in spite of the fact that evidence suggested that their regimes were not very nice, and as a reductio ad absurdum of the whole sorry story, in 1990 Margaret Drabble announced that she could not possibly support action to repel the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait because – wait for it – Baroness Thatcher was in favour of it, so it must be wrong.

One would expect such a position of libertarians: libertarianism as it is currently expressed, with its insistence that the sole organising principle of society is the liberty of the individual, is fundamentally selfish.  But liberals are meant to care about things like human rights, and to get distressed if people of any nation are not given the chance to exercise them.  So why this strange convergence of attitude between liberals and a political group with which one would expect them to be at variance?   Why it is that  action has become so utterly unacceptable in liberal opinion that literally anything is preferable.  And before I am called on this, let me point out that I have seen one ‘liberal’ writer claim that it would have been better if the Allies had not fought the Second World War, because the Nazi regime would probably only have lasted a century or so, and obviously a Europe (or possibly a world) under the Nazi yoke for a century was preferable to the unspeakable moral stain of going to war.  So when did liberals become so selfish?

This mystery is the subject of this essay.  I will start, as one should, by very carefully defining liberalism and associated concepts.  I will turn to the central question of what ideas turned the liberalism of Hume and Gladstone into the bastard child of corporatism and libertarianism that is called liberalism today, or, more exactly, social liberalism.  I had originally intended to discuss such canards as the claims that Christ would have been a pacifist; that his followers should reject any exercise of force that is not purely defensive (the Archbishop of Canterbury says so!); that in order for any action, no matter how trivial, to be morally justified, those undertaking the action must themselves be of absolute moral purity (this relates to the first point, as it seems to derive at least partially from a radical misreading of the incident of the woman taken in adultery); or that a liberal society can be entirely inward-looking, and not concern itself with injustice elsewhere.  However, fascinating though this may be, it would take me too far afield, and so I dangle before you the hopeful idea of a sequel in which I ask ‘Was Christ a pacifist?’.

What is liberalism?

In order to define liberalism properly I will set about characterising a number of political philosophies, both those similar to liberalism and those antithetical to it.  The reason for this is that we will see that what is called liberalism today is generally not liberalism at all, but rather a mixture of libertarianism and corporatism.

Existing political philosophies

Fascism / corporatism

Before it became a term of general abuse meaning ‘anyone who disagrees with my political views or thwarts me in any way’, fascist meant something very specific.  In general a fascist state is one that is totalitarian and corporatist.  As totalitarianism is essentially a strengthening of corporatist ideas which emphasises the state as the sole source of authority, I shall concentrate mostly on the corporatist aspects.

The essence of corporatism is that the basic unit in society is the society as a whole, and it is treated as (appropriately) a single body, in which individuals are organs who act in ways specified by the brain that is the leadership, the intent being that these actions will benefit the social body as a whole, even if they do not necessarily benefit the individual.  Therefore such concepts as individual freedom are meaningless, as what matters is the state and its survival, not the individual, who is impermanent.  The surprising thing about corporatism is that it is not the preserve of any one part of the social spectrum, as this system of thought is as characteristic of the extreme left as it is of the extreme right.  We can even see it in moderate form in the protestations of those who decry the involvement of the private sector in activities that are ‘naturally’ the preserve of the state, such as health-care and education.  It is, in fact, a terribly seductive idea that can, to a greater or lesser extent, take root whenever we debate the balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the state.

How do we escape from this conundrum?  My solution, which I will describe in detail in the section about liberalism below, is that in a liberal society we should never, ever justify any proposal in terms of the needs of or the good of the state; every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom.  That sounds paradoxical, but it turns out that it is not.  It also sounds rather libertarian, but it is not, for reasons I will now discuss.

Libertarianism

Libertarianism stands at the other pole from corporatism, in that it argues that the sole organising principle for society should be personal liberty.  That is to say, society should do nothing that infringes the freedom of the individual, which is taken as paramount.  A very important point to note here is that this is freedom construed as freedom to and not freedom from, that is to say, it is about my freedom to do that which I will, and it is not at all about my freedom from your interference in my freedom.  Possibly the reason for this is that freedom from is only properly expressible in terms of rights, but libertarianism does not know of the concept of rights.  Rights flow from law and law constraints natural liberty and hence is the enemy in the libertarian model.  With its emphasis on the innate liberty of the individual, libertarianism is, in fact, surprisingly close to Nietzsche’s concept of the  übermensch:  the higher person who knows no external law or morality.

It need not be said that libertarianism begs any number of questions, such as exactly how a large-scale libertarian society could  function with no state to, where necessary, compel individuals to do that which they do not wish to do.  The answer, if it comes, always seems to be that somehow people will solve their problems together in a sensible way with no need for compulsion, but such an optimistic view of the essential goodness of humanity, laudable though it may be, fails to take into account the fact that even if people are on the whole good, they are easily led into bad, and far too many individuals exist who are not motivated by good will, and who are not susceptible to reason.  Thus, libertarianism seems to be doomed to be, beyond the very small scale, doomed to be at best a theoretical model.  It is, however, an interesting theoretical model for it shows how a purely ‘liberal’ society, where we trust to the good will of the individual, is bound to fail.  We need some additional mechanism: the freedom from as well as the freedom to, and that is what we will discuss next.

Classical liberalism

Classical liberalism is concerned with the freedom of the individual.  Therefore it espouses limited state intervention in individuals’ affairs, the rule of law and the principles that all are equal before the law and the state’s actions are predictable and transparent.   This is the liberalism of Hume, Smith, Hayek and Popper and also, surprisingly in view of the way they have been co-opted of late by libertarians, the Founding Fathers of the United States.  However, what is not clear is exactly how this differs from libertarianism.

Let me explain.  I said earlier that in a liberal society every proposal to limit the freedom of individuals must at some point be turned around and justified in terms of preserving that freedom, which sounds nonsensical.  But consider the following.  Say we decide that such and such a freedom should be guaranteed to individuals.  This is freedom to: the freedom to exercise guaranteed freedoms.  But now, others may try to impede my freedom to; as the state has guaranteed this freedom, therefore the rights of those others must be limited so as to prevent this.  But now, all things being equal, as all are equal before the law, my freedom must be limited in the same way, so that I cannot impede others’ freedom to.  This is freedom from: the freedom from interference in the exercise of guaranteed freedoms.  So the state intervenes to limit the freedom of individuals precisely when their freedom, unlimited, would impede the freedoms of others.

In this model, therefore the state acts as the guarantor of individual freedoms.  This there is fundamentally different from libertarianism in which the individuals are guarantors of their own freedoms.  Whereas the libertarian believes that individuals are basically good and capable of living together peacefully without coercion, the classical liberal agrees with Hobbes that the state is required to protect individuals from themselves and one another.  In other words, it takes a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature and adopts the minimal approach required to rectify that fact.  Corporatism, which also takes a pessimistic view adopts, instead, the maximal approach of dictating what each individual shall do, while optimistic libertarianism presumes that everything will work out in the end.

Modern day liberalism

Most self-proclaimed modern liberals are social liberals, their primary concern being not the freedom of the individual but the rather ill-defined concept of social justice.  I say ill-defined because this is not any form of justice defined in its usual sense of being the machinery of law and its application, which is clearly defined and known to all.  Rather it is a set of beliefs about the way that society ought to be structured.  Consequently, social liberalism extends the role of the state from being the guarantor of freedom to  managing economic and social issues so as to realise these ideas, so it intervenes in individuals’ lives in order to promote an idea of the way society ought to be.  So what is good for society is good for the individual.

Now this can be said to be a non-minimalist version of classical liberalism, but there is a crucial difference.  In classical liberalism the freedom of the individual is only limited in so far as it is necessary to do so in order to guarantee the free exercise of guaranteed rights.  Thus the state may define laws and may define standards for those offering services to others (if I set up as a water supplier and elected to use only lead pipes then I would be limiting my customers’ right to good health).  However, in social liberalism things go further.  In social liberalism the freedom of the individual may be limited even if it does no actual harm to any other individual, but because it does perceived harm in causing the structure of society to deviate from the preferred model.  In other words, social liberalism indulges in social engineering, the shaping of society to meet an idea.  And where does the idea come from?  The idea comes from the state.

We can also look at this from a point of view of the extent to which the state intervenes in individuals’ lives and the message that it sends to them.  In classical liberalism we say that so long as individuals do not interfere with one another’s rights then they are free to be themselves.  In social liberalism that is not enough: people must aspire to a higher standard.  We want to make people better, and so the state intervenes in their lives so as to bring them in line with the desired goal.  Now again, this could be viewed as a difference of degree, but there is also a fundamental difference of attitude.  Classical liberalism’s attitude is summed up best in Crowley’s famous maxim: ‘do what thou will shall be the whole of the law provided it cause no harm.’  Social liberalism, on the other hand says ‘be what I want’.  Bluntly, classical liberalism is about what you do while social liberalism is about what you are.  To that extent, it is almost a religious position, with social justice replacing God as the object of veneration.  Indeed, if one examines recent pronouncements by senior clerics one might be forgiven for thinking that this substitution had been formalised.

All of this means that social liberalism is very far from being anything that a classical liberal might recognise as liberalism.  In fact, it appears to be a form of corporatism with a left-leaning veneer.  However, things are more complex, because though an enthusiasm for state control of education, culture and the microeconomy is characteristic of modern liberals, this is generally combined with a belief, again almost religious in its fervour, that the state is the enemy and is basically up to no good Paranoia about ‘the man’ or what ‘they’ might be doing and an absolute conviction, worthy of a libertarian, that those organs of the state that carry out such basic functions as managing the rule of law are acting against the common good is therefore combined with a belief that the state should be the sole supplier of any number of services.  Interestingly, it seems that modern liberals insist that it is wrong for the state to undertake any of the functions that a classical liberal would expect of it, and yet consider it only right and proper that it should intervene in any number of areas that in classical liberalism are none of its business.  Thus modern liberalism is in fact not just different to classical liberalism, it is antithetical to it.

Whence liberalism?

Compassionate liberalism

Let me start by dealing with some possible criticism of classical liberalism.  It is argued that it is very rule-based and not sufficiently compassionate.  Social liberalism likes to claim that it, on the other hand, cares for people rather than abstract notions such as ‘justice’.  This is both true and not true.  An approach to running society based on emotion rather than reason might be very satisfying for those exercising the emotion, but it is scarcely the way to guarantee that the state is genuinely impartial.  But this is, we are told, also a bad thing.  Rather than ensuring that none have privilege in their access to law, it is argued that societal circumstances should be taken into account and that the ‘disadvantaged’ be given special treatment, thereby making them the advantaged, and creating a new privileged group.  Thus egalitarians end up, in the name of equality, creating precisely the kind of bias they claim to decry, only as it is their bias it is apparently different.  Classical liberalism, of course, knows no concept of egalitarianism.  All are equal in the eyes of the state, but as the state is not concerned with what they do, save it cause no harm, that does not mean they are equal in any other sense.  Social liberalism’s great fallacy is the attempt to shift this equality from being an aspect of how one deals with the state to being an aspect of what one is.

To return to compassion, some critics appear to believe that classical liberalism is compatible only with robber baron capitalism, and hence has no concern for people.  And yet, under robber baron capitalism it is actually quite hard for individuals who are not robber barons to exercise their rights with any degree of vigour.  The critical difference between a classical liberal and a social liberal is that a social liberal would tend to view success in a capitalist economy as being not very nice, whereas a classical liberal would wish that everyone could achieve it.  Thus a social liberal indulges in dangerous tinkering with the economy (such as the Clinton administration’s downright reckless interference in the mortgage markets) while a classical liberal regulates it.  Again, this distinction may seem small, but it is the difference between telling individuals what are acceptable economic activities and trying to push individuals in particular directions, and indicating to individuals how they should comport their economic activities so as to do no harm to others.  This extends to other areas.  The social liberal asserts that any private education or medicine is an affront to the dignity of man and offers instead a mediocre state-controlled egalitarian approach.  The classical liberal does not care how either is obtained provided that education or health-care of a defined standard is available to all.  Regulation – the setting of standards – is strangely anathema to social liberals, who appear to think that there is more to health-care than making people well and more to education than giving people useful skills, but who do not appear able to define precisely what this more is.  And yet, for example, actually guaranteeing that all schools met the same standard of education, coupled with regulation of university selection, would surely be a far more effective way of ending educational privilege than abstruse schemes to bias the system in favour of the ‘disadvantaged’?  Better by far, one would have thought, to ensure that they were not disadvantaged in the first place.

This, I think, underlines a key shift in ideas from classical to social liberalism.  Classical liberalism contains a very clear set of ideas that one can act on to build whatever kind of state the people happen to want.  This is its strength: provided the state is fair and impartial and just, the individuals who make up its people can make of it whatever they want.  This is also a potential weakness, of course, as without sufficiently strong institutions it is not hard to turn a classically liberal state into a corporatist state, as happened in Germany at the end of the 1920s; the remedy for this is to ensure that the people want to live in a liberal state.  In social liberalism, on the other hand, there is a well-defined ideology of what the state ought to look like and what kind of thing the people ought to want (or be allowed to have), but it is generally expressed so vaguely that it is not at all clear how this ideology is to be realised other than by faith or compulsion.  There is no need to worry about whether a socially liberal state will become repressive, because it already is.  Indeed, some social liberals even question the value of abstract justice, in the sense of an abstract impartial system of law, on the grounds that it does not care about the underlying problem, whatever that means (generally whatever the social liberal in question happens to be upset about today) but is only concerned with preserving order.  So this is a shift from precision to vagueness, from the machinery of government to quasi-religious ideology, from treating individuals as adults free to make their own lives to treating them as children needing to be led.  In fact, in the transition from ideas to faith and partnership to direction one might as well drop the ‘quasi’ and say that we have seen a shift from the world-view of the Enlightenment to that of authoritarian religion.

This is where social liberalism wants it both ways.  While claiming to be permissive and compassionate, it wants to be didactic and prescribe everyone’s behaviour, but it does not consider those  in power as being fit to be so.  One might be cynical and argue that their lack of suitability is based not in the fact that they are provably bad but rather in the fact that they are provably not the sort of people social liberals invite to their dinner parties.  In other words, we have the classic cultist’s belief system: things would be so much better if only I were in charge, and none but I has a legitimate right to rule.    Hence the apparent paradoxical combination of opposition to established power and an extremely repressive ideology, and once again the threat of religious extremism.

Social liberalism as cult

Examining the thesis of social liberalism as a quasi-religious cult, it is clear that there is considerable evidence in its favour.  To start at the beginning, the ideology is founded on assertions that are claimed to be self-evidently true, but which turn out to be muddy, ill-defined and most-likely mutually contradictory.  As I have said, the concept of ‘social justice’ is more or less impossible to define, but it generally seems to come down to some vision of the way society ought to be and the way it ought not to be.  This vision itself generally derives from a number of more basic ideas, like radical egalitarianism, redistribution, social engineering, pacifism and libertarianism.  Now, none of these is self-evident, and it is indeed very far from self-evident how egalitarianism can be reconciled with (say)  a redistributionism which requires the existence of a super-class to make decisions about who is and is not deserving.  Therefore, the ideology is founded on a collection of assumptions which are themselves complex, in that they are not at all well-defined, and which are insusceptible to argument; they can only be asserted.  Contrast this with the situation in classical liberalism, where the basis is the idea that for every right granted, certain rights must be rescinded in order to protect the ability to exercise that right.  This is simple and susceptible to logical analysis; once one accepts the concept of granted rights, it follows more or less as a logical truism.

What we see here is a clear example of the difference between religion and science.  Science is based on well-defined premises that are subject to verification.  Religion is based on dogmatic assertion that must be accepted in an act of faith.  In view of this, clearly classical liberalism is scientific in its approach, while social liberalism, with its motley collection of vague but unquestionable beliefs, is religious.  So, for example, we recently saw in the UK an argument put forward by  economists that the highest tax-band was economically harmful.  A leading ‘liberal’ politician rebutted their argument not on economic grounds, but because removing said tax-band would be ‘morally repugnant’.  He did not argue that their proposal was economically harmful, but that somehow social justice demanded that it be ignored.  In other words, he took a technical proposition based in the language of economics and attempted to rubbish it using a quasi-religious appeal to a woolly concept that has nothing at all to do with economics, and he clearly saw no need to make an economic argument.  In religious terms, he used the familiar get-out-of-jail-free card of declaring the idea anathema: if one can say that an idea is heretical there is no need to understand it or answer its questions, it is just wrong and it should not be posed.

Another aspect of religious thinking is the establishment of an elite or priestly caste whose function is to interpret dogma for the masses and to provide leadership and direction in establishing the way that society responds to the dogma.  Now, again, if the dogma consisted of self-evident, or at least simple and arguable, principles there would be no need for such a caste, as one could be reasonably certain that all individuals would be able to interpret the principles in a consistent way, and so such enforcement mechanisms as are required would be those required by the principles themselves.  So in classical liberalism, once the granted rights and the penalties for interfering with those rights are defined, there is no need for further discussion or interpretation: an individual knows that if they interfere with others’ exercise of their granted rights they will be subject to a defined penalty, and that otherwise they are free to act.  In a system based on dogma, however, even if everyone knows what the principles are, as they are unclear or ill-defined, they need to be told what they mean, resulting either in an ever-expanding commentary on the law or in case-by-case special pleading.  We know that social liberals, with their notion that abstract justice must be modified to consider individual circumstances, would support the special pleading.

As evidence of priestly thinking it is worth noting the often rather condescending attitude of professional social liberals to the people as a whole.  They are not content to accept that if people want something and it doesn’t actually hurt anyone then they should be allowed to do it, for it may be ideologically wrong.  Hence the rather regrettable fact that modern action movies appear to be no more than cinematic noise and fury is generally condemned as a bad thing, with little attention being paid to the fact that these films are incredibly popular.  The people who flock to see them are clearly misled, and so not to be trusted to have the right taste; such decisions should be made by an elite (people like us).  The same attitude is to be seen throughout coverage of culture and even politics where, for example, many social liberal thinkers appear to have yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that though they despise Tony Blair, polls made it clear that had he still been leading the Labour Party, it would have won the 2010 general election.

If the people cannot be trusted, then clearly their ideas on what society should do cannot be trusted, and so there is the need for a caste of thinkers and commentators to make decisions for them.  This might well go some way to explaining the social liberal’s loathing of the state’s machinery: politicians have the inestimable disadvantage, as compared to journalists, academics and think tank members, of having to mix with the people and pay attention to what they say.  Thus they can claim greater legitimacy than the social liberal luminaries, but they are infected with the heresy of pragmatism, and so hostility is inevitable, reminiscent of the hostility between King and Pope.  Thus, just as the Popes did in the past, social liberalism insist that they have the sole legitimacy, setting themselves up as a unique source of untainted truth.  The fact that they cannot justify any of their beliefs (including this one) only makes their legitimacy the greater.

Returning to the example of the movies, we see an interesting fact.  It is not enough to say that tastes change and that people really like mindless violence, so what are you going to do about it.  That would be akin to accepting Hobbesian pessimism about human nature rather than Rousseau’s optimism.  If people are basically bad and stupid then anything is possible and one and the same person can be a great writer and a moral pygmy.  However, if one has it as an article of faith that people are basically good, then there must be something more sinister at work: the temptation of the world.  And so we see that far too many critics insist that modern movies are pretty dumb because studio bosses are deliberately ‘dumbing down the medium, which is ridiculous, because studio bosses are interested in one thing: making money.  If there was as much money to be made with movies like Last Year at Marienbad as there is with Transformers 4: Here we go Again then Hollywood would be churning out complex, ambiguous, stylised art movies by the ton.  But this argument does not work for the critics, because instead of accepting that nearly everyone is pretty dumb but only a very few people are really bad, they prefer to see movie-goers as sheep to be led, and the studios as demonic tempters who are leading them into sin.  This attitude, again, generalises.  In political debate their opponents cannot be mistaken, they have to be wrong, almost morally wrong.  Pragmatism (allowing the sinful world to enter into the paradise garden) is the ultimate evil: it is not sufficient that something work; sooner it fail entirely than it work but be impure.

This disdain for the practical has another effect.  The dogmatic beliefs making up social liberalism must be absolute; if they admit any restraint, moderation or regulation, then they are rendered impure.  Now, in classical liberalism, everything is subject to regulation, from individual rights to the system of justice itself, as it is accepted that everything needs oversight and that any absolute can in itself be harmful.  In the Manichean world of the social liberal this is no longer true: rights or facts can be established as being unquestionable.  And as such one ends up creating an über-class which has rights not available to others.  For example, social liberals (probably because many of them are journalists) are adamant that journalistic protection of sources must be an absolute right.  Now, it is a quite reasonable right, but why should it be absolute?  And, more to the point, should we not be concerned that, by making it an absolute, we have now created an über-class of journalists who are accountable to none, who basically have the right to dictate to the justice system what it may or may not know, and who therefore stand above the law?  This looks very much like authoritarianism under another name.

A liberalism for the selfish

Of course, one characteristic of the more cultic kind of religion is that it tends to distinguish very clearly between the esoteric and the exoteric, between true believers and outsiders, and, on the whole, is largely uninterested in the welfare of those outsiders.  They are also generally strongly hierarchical, with obedience to the leaders emphasised.  As we have seen, social liberalism strongly manifests this latter tendency, so the obvious question is whether it also manifests the former.

As a starting point, it is easy to see that the prominent social liberal are themselves selfish in their application of social liberalism.  The most egregious evidence of this is the apparent belief that use of force is such a moral stain on the character that one should tolerate anything in order to avoid it, including ignoring actual requests to exercise it by those who are being deprived of many of the more basic rights (such as to live) that we tend to take for granted.  Indeed, we see the somewhat comical spectacle of a current Archbishop of Canterbury and a former Pope flatly contradicting Jesus Christ on the the subject of intervening in others’ affairs.  So it seems that what matters is that I and my friends be okay, and ‘other’ people can suffer deprivation of all those social benefits I claim to be in favour of, because, well, I don’t know them, and I might have to get my hands dirty in the process.  That this is selfishness goes without saying: what matters is me and my moral state, and when I claim to be interested in social justice I define society in the narrowest possible sense so as to exclude, strangely enough, often those in most need it.  We also saw this in reaction of to the recent English rioting.  In order to promote their own agenda, they made a case that the rioters were those of the dispossessed working class made desperate by the evils of the police, the free market and so on and so forth.  In the process, they privileged the rioters, who actually turned out to be anything but dispossessed workers, and themselves dispossessed the large numbers of genuinely working class individuals who stood with the police against the rioters, and argued that the well-being of the rioters counted for more than that of the genuine workers whose livelihoods they destroyed.  Thus they created a deserving and undeserving poor based not on any true concept of social justice, but rather entirely on which group it most suited them to appear to side with in order to achieve their own ends.  This is selfishness again, in that the rioters and their victims become playing-pieces in a game between social liberals and their enemies.

Now, it is a truism that the selfishness of individual social liberals does not make social liberalism selfish, and yet it is very uncommon to find a social liberal who does not subscribe to the kind of error I described above.  Abstracting, we see that two points emerge.  First, in Manichean fashion, the world is divided into those who count and those who do not, so society is not totality, rather those whom one wishes to benefit with social justice are a distinct subgroup.  Second, what really matters is the promotion of an agenda, whether it be personal moral purity or state ownership of public services, that has little real basis in any benefit to society, even that part of it that one cares about.  It is clear that if one subscribes to these points then one will inevitably be selfish, because the people who do not count do not concern one, and the people who do exist only to serve one’s will.  But, once again, we are in the world of cultic religion.  Let the liberal elite be the priesthood, those who count be the believers and those who do not the pagans, and the agenda (whatever it may be) the dogma.  With those definitions, my two points become inevitable: cultic religions define a very clear division of humanity into us and them in which the out-group is of little of no significance and all that matters is the benefit of the in-group;  moreover they have ineffable and inviolable commandments that the in-group must obey; and, most important, the priesthood get to define us and them and what the commandments are.  We concluded above that social liberalism is, in fact, a cultic religion, and so the two points apply automatically.  Therefore social liberalism is selfish.

 This goes a long way towards explaining some of the more mysterious features of social liberalism.  Given that so many of its proponents claim to take inspiration from the grand universalist philosophies of Marx, their cheerful tendency to ignore entirely the well-being of anyone it suits them to seems somewhat mysterious, as Marx was quite clear that he was talking about the World, not one group in one country.  And yet, if social liberalism is a cultic religion which uses the language but not the ideas of Marxism, such anomalies as Sartre (rightly) condemning atrocities committed by the French in Algeria while (wrongly) cheering on even worse atrocities in the USSR become at least comprehensible.  Sartre was not a Marxist; he was a priest of a religious cult that co-opted Marxism for its own ends.  Classical liberalism, such as in the abolitionist campaign, is universalist.  If social liberals had been around at the time they would probably have found a reason why only some slaves were men and brothers.

Philosophical aspects of anarchism

Introduction

In this time of riots and general law-breaking, I thought it would be interesting to discuss precisely what it is that anarchism entails, and whether this much misunderstood political theory is, in fact, viable.  I say much misunderstood because, though it seems positively de rigeur to claim that one is an anarchist, it is very obvious after a quick flick through the writings of many self-proclaimed ‘anarchists’ that few, if any, of them actually know what anarchy means.

I thought it would be interesting to see if there is anything to anarchy other than a rallying-cry for antisocial malcontents, and, if there is, whether it could be applied in practice.  It turns out that there is: I call it philosophical anarchism, which is really a theory of leadership that embodies an extremely radical democratisation of the decision-making process.  It has even been used as a basis for running at least two states.  However, those states were short-lived and degenerated from true democracy into authoritarianism.  General analysis shows that philosophical anarchism will inevitably be unstable and collapse into authoritarianism on any but the smallest of scales.

This means that as a theory of the state, anarchism is a dead duck.  However, as a model for organisations, and in particular for relations between decision-makers and workers in businesses or bureaucracies, philosophical anarchism is a useful ideal, even if it cannot be applied in its pure form.

What anarchism is not

In the popular mind, anarchist is seen almost as an absence of order.  Indeed, we often take the word ‘anarchy’ as being synonymous with ‘disorder’.  And yet ‘anarchy’ literally means ‘without a leader’, which is not the same thing at all.  As I shall discuss below, there are several examples of large-scale leaderless states which must count as strictly anarchic, and yet in common usage they would be seen as not being anarchic precisely because they are orderly.

Moving to the political arena, examination of the pronouncements of contemporary anarchists makes it clear that for them anarchy is about removing a state that they consider to be illegitimate.  So they take ‘without a leader’ in an extremely broad sense as meaning that they desire a state of affairs where there is no authority that has the right to tell them what to do.  Such a state of affairs will, inevitably, degenerate into genuine disorder.  Indeed some anarchists seem to positively embrace disorder, apparently wishing to overturn any structures that prevent them having or doing whatever they want, up to and including property rights.

Now, it is not my purpose in this essay to expose what is wrong about this political vision.  That it is manifestly nonsensical, and that such a society could not function in a stable way on any scale larger than the village is, I would hope, obvious.  However, it is my purpose to comment on the abuse of the word ‘anarchy’.  I believe that in fact many of those who proclaim themselves anarchists are, in fact, extreme libertarians.  This is not hard to see, in that libertarians also preach the illegitimacy of the state and believe that somehow or other a society can function without any law or state apparatus to protect the weak from the strong.  Many extreme libertarians do indeed reject the state and attempt to dissociate themselves from it.  The only real difference between them and the ‘anarchists’ is that they do seem to have reasonable respect for individual property rights, and have none of the anarchists’ desire to cause harm and damage to others.

Modern anarchism is also, of course, influenced by half-understood Marxist doctrine, so mixed in with the libertarian anti-statism we get a strong admixture of class warfare and some ideas along the lines that private ownership of anything is somehow an affront against – and here we run into the major intellectual incoherence of this system of thought, in that the anarchists are attempting to overthrow the current regime in the name of something they proclaim to not believe in, that is to say a supra-personal collective entity.  In other words, modern anarchism seems to be an incoherent mishmash espoused mostly by those who feel their position in society should be other than it is, and who find destruction more appealing than constructive effort.

The only positive strand of though that I can mention is that espoused by Alan Moore in his novel V for Vendetta, where he makes precisely the point I made above: anarchy does not mean no order it means no leader.  He proposes the vision of a leaderless but orderly society but, it has to be said, rather ducks the question of what such a thing might look like.  Let us turn to considering just that.

Philosophical anarchism

Theory

I wish to propose my concept of philosophical anarchism.  This is essentially a theory of leadership and what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate leadership.  It is simple to state.  Say I want you to do something.  There are two possibilities:

  1. I assert that because I am your leader you must obey me in everything; you have no right of comeback, and if you refuse sanctions can be taken against you.
  2. I explain  why I am asking you and am prepared to answer any questions you might have about my request; you then have the right to do what I ask, to propose a modified version, or to refuse outright.

The first approach is the very aptly named fuehrerprinzip and is essentially an authoritarian approach where leaders have coercive rights over followers.  It is, in fact, not all that uncommon even in open societies.  For example, some business leaders positively boast of following it, and it is also commonplace in large bureaucracies.  The second approach is philosophical anarchism.  Why do I call this anarchism?  Essentially it is because this approach is an absolute denial of leadership.  Rather than I having coercive power over you, we are placed in an association of equals, where you are free to act as you will, I am free to persuade you, but that is all.  So neither of us is placed over or beneath the other.

How might this work?  First of all, let us make it clear, this does not mean that you have no decision-makers, and that there is no distinction between those who set the direction of an organisation and those who do the work.  The point is that in an enterprise run along philosophically anarchic lines, decision makers still make the big decisions, but they must be accountable to the workers.  That is to say, if a decision has been made and workers dislike it, the decision makers do not have the right to say ‘we have decided, your opinions count for nothing, obey us or leave’.  They do have the right to say ‘we are sorry, but for the following forty-seven reasons we have to do this, even though we acknowledge that your complaints have merit’.  In other words, decision makers can still make uncomfortable decisions, but they cannot lie to their workers about those decisions, and they must be prepared to do what they can to alleviate workers’ concerns.

As I said in the introduction, this is actually a very radical form of democracy, in fact its ultimate outcome, in that we establish that people no longer have different roles because one is better than the other, only that they have different aptitudes.  Such ‘leaders’ as there are in a society run along philosophically anarchic lines are at best provisional, and have no right to expect unquestioning obedience.  The concept creates a fundamental equality between those who make the decisions and those who implement them.

Historical examples

In fact there are a number of examples of philosophical anarchism in action.  Perhaps the purest instance is the classical Athenian democracy of the fifth century BCE.  This was a society which quite literally had no leaders.  Decisions were made by the demos, the assembly of the people.  Aristophanes, who appears to have been part of the group around Plato who were anti-democratic,  satirises the tendency of Athenians to expect to have everything explained to them before they will agree to do anything; he complains in Wasps that democracy has become so endemic that whores refuse to take up positions in which they have to take a subordinate role.  In other words, philosophical anarchism was in full play.  The seemingly trivial jibe about the whores and sex positions shows a radical democracy in which any assumption of superiority or inequality is questioned.

Now, charismatic individuals emerged and took on temporary positions of influencing decision-making. Cleon and Pericles became powerful in directing the state, but their power lasted precisely as long as they were able to convince the demos to go along with what they proposed; the moment it lost confidence in them, they were finished, in the case of Pericles with positively catastrophic results for the demos.  But by and large we see, for example in the extraordinarily convoluted mechanisms for counting jury votes in trials, and the fact that the jury was constituted of anyone who happened to turn up that day, extreme devotion to the principle that all are equal and none has the right to require another (so long as they be free, a man and not a foreigner, of course) to do anything.

The other example is the Roman Republic.  Ideally this was a society in which none had de facto special status (ignoring the peculiarity of Patricians versus Plebians which is a complication but does not change the argument) and anyone could, if they were sufficiently successful, be elected to pretty well any position of state.  There was some complexity as regards elegibility for Senatorial status, but this was mostly related to property rather than anything else.  The rich-man’s Senate was balanced by the poor-man’s Popular Assembly, at which Tribunes of the Plebs could introduce laws.  Moreover, the Tribunes could over-ride the Senate: they had the right to attend its meetings and any of them could demand that the session end immediately, thus effectively vetoing whatever legislation may have been under debate.

In addition to this finely balanced system, the main Roman relationship between individuals was that of patron and client.  Not leader and follower.  The client undertook to carry out certain actions for their patron in return for assistance of some form or other and, critically, both parties were bound by whatever agreement they came to.  So the arrangement was contractual rather than dictatorial.  And, of course, the client always had the right to say ‘no’.  This notional equality was very important to the Romans, who saw all of their society, even the army, as an association of free individuals working together, rather than as leaders and followers.

Outlook

One might think that Athens was some kind of paradise.  In fact, if you were a woman in Athens you had two choices: you could become a prostitute or you could enter a life so secluded and hemmed in that it would be comparable to life as a woman under the Taliban.  On the other hand, in authoritarian, strongly centralised Sparta, women were highly valued members of society and more or less equal to men; Spartan women were, in fact, noted across Greece for their forthrightness and blunt way of speaking.

Similarly, the Roman Republic was ostensibly an extremely egalitarian society.  In practice, a few powerful families arranged things so that they achieved almost total control, and manipulated the system so that the people never had a chance to actually use their notional powers to prevent legislation that benefited the few at the expense of the many.  Indeed, whenever any Senator or Tribune tried to redress the imbalance in the system they tended to die quite quickly.  It took the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the subsequent monarchical empire to make the system as fair as it claimed to be.

So a decentralised ‘egalitarian’ state isn’t necessarily good and an authoritarian state isn’t necessarily bad.  This is a critical point: philosophical anarchism, like any political theory can be applied for good or for bad; it is no guarantee of a fair and free society.  This fact is often overlooked by adherents of liberal politics, who appear to think that provided the ideas are liberal, the execution of those ideas must also be liberal.  This is not true.

As soon as you have an in-group and an out-group then the notional egalitarianism of philosophical anarchism is disrupted.  In the case of Athens, the in-group were the adult non-foreign free men of the demos, in the case of Rome it was Patrician Senators and their conservative hangers-on.  In general, the disruption creates an imbalance, and naturally the in-group will act to advantage itself at the expense of the out-group, and so things will go on until a notionally egalitarian system has turned into an incognito oligarchy.  We see this in the United States, where the claim that all are equal is regularly demolished, as can be seen in the absurd racial imbalance of prison inmates, or the equally absurd way that titles relating to a role or job appear to stay with the one-time holder of that role or job for life.

So the question is: is the formation of in-groups and out-groups avoidable?  Here there are no simple answers.  My belief is that it is provided that there is constant vigilance by all involved in the society to ensure that none are allowed to introduce imbalances.  However, this is incredibly unstable.  What I mean by that is that it is very easy to knock the system off balance and turn it into an unequal society.  For example, all it takes is for a majority to decide to disenfranchise a minority and we have an out-group.  Provided enough people come to agree with a proposition, no matter how vile it may be, they can make it happen if there is no restraining mechanism. However, we need to be careful: some action against minorities is justified, e.g. punishment for misdeeds.  What we need to avoid is letting these justified actions result in the creation of defined out-groups.  So, for example, criminals are punished, but they are not then (as, for example, is the case in the United States) treated as outcasts.

So what is the appropriate restraining mechanism?  It’s fairly easy to see that one needs a way that minorities can push back against majorities.  But this has to apply with all sizes of minority.  So one has to have a mechanism somehow built into the society that any one individual can, if they wish, thwart the will of all of the others.  That is a recipe for deadlock.  It is also nonsense (it means that one cannot, for example, take any sanction against criminals).  Moreover it is a reversion to the libertarian self-centred form of anarchy, where nothing can be done unless all will it.  So it seems that philosophical anarchy will inevitably collapse into popular anarchy: a condition of the absence of order.

There is one possible way out.  Instead of preventing the majority from acting against a minority by providing a way for the minority to inhibit action, what about a way of making it less likely that majorities will, in fact decide to victimise minorities?  If the society is small enough this might work simply because all individuals will know a sufficiently large sector of the total population that virtually everyone will be a friend-of-a-friend.  It is very hard to decide to demonise your friends, or your friends’ friends, and so this should act to inhibit the formation of exclusionary ideas.  So, more formally, if the average distance (in terms of number of acquaintances required to get from one to the other) between any two individuals in the population is small (I would guess less than three) then philosophical anarchism may be stable.  Indeed, it seems to be more or less stable in village / small town environments.  However, as cases such as Salem show, even these may be susceptible to instability.

So, in conclusion, philosophical anarchy is a nice idea, but it seems that unless it is propped up by some fairly strong state-like machinery it will eventually break down.  It may, however, be usable as an organisational technique for businesses where, used with discretion, it could reduce the employee disaffection that the current cult of the leader inevitably creates.

Post-neo-apres-Keynesian economics

Introduction

In these times of massive recession and general tightening of credit, popular discourse is rediscovering the joy of Keynesian macroeconomics, in particular Keynes’ views on how to stimulate an economy that is underperforming.  What this generally boils down to is a call for protectionism (consider, for example, the US administration’s woefully misguided ‘buy American’ policy), restriction on free movement of labour, and for the counter-intuitive nostrum of increased spending, as a means to stimulate business performance.

In this essay, I’m going to take a look at these measures and investigate them from the point of view of a more modern view of macroeconomics, and a first-principles analysis which fully understands its presuppositions, unlike the proponents of this neo-Keynesian thinking, who do not seem to be fully aware of theirs.  I will conclude that of the three measures described above, the first two are totally misguided, while the third may have limited applicability if used correctly.

I will start with a discussion of general macroeconomic principles, with an aim to exposing my assumptions.  After that I will discuss the neo-Keynesian measures in turn giving reasons why they should be set aside or modified.  Finally, I will make a tentative proposal as to what a viable economic stimulus package could look like.

My assumptions

Assumptions

The health of the economy is measured in terms of its ability to create wealth

Basically, Adam Smith got it right first time: macroeconomics really is about the wealth of nations.  Wealth (which isn’t the same as money) is a direct measure of how much economic production there is going on.  Creating wealth / growing the economy means that there are more jobs available for people to take up, because there is a greater need for people to assist in the creation of wealth.  Therefore, if wealth grows, unemployment falls, while if wealth shrinks or stagnates, unemployment rises or stagnates.  Moreover, as wealth grows people become better off.   Wealth arises from the exchange of money for services, and this money flows round to those who help provide the services.  And, in a neat feedback loop, people being better off and willing to spend means that more services are required, and so wealth grows.

The free market is the best judge of a business’ success

It is a key truth that free markets, provided they remain free, are extraordinarily good at ensuring that businesses flourish precisely when they have something to sell that people want, and (via free competition) that the correct price is achieved for all services: correct here meaning the maximum price that consumers are prepared to pay for the service.  Now, note that there are several provisos here.  The reason why some ostensibly ‘privatised’ businesses have manifestly failed to find the correct price (e.g. privatised railways in the UK) is that there is not free competition to provide services: each route belongs to one company, so in fact there are a number of mini-monopolies.  Likewise, it is necessary that government regulate the market to ensure that it does remain free and fair, precisely so as to avoid monopolistic behaviour.

Discussion

These macroeconomic assumptions are quite orthodox, but are not especially favoured in popular discourse.  First, there is a common belief that failing or uncompetitive businesses should be supported because if they went under then jobs would be lost.  But what would be the macroeconomic result of that?  If uncompetitive businesses are artificially preserved, then in fact they will be made artificially competitive, and so will be able to prevent new, innovative businesses from acquiring market share.  Therefore, in fact what will happen is that the economy will start to stagnate, and eventually shrink, because consumers will go elsewhere.  And so, the stabilisation plan of preventing short-term unemployment will eventually lead to recession.  And if there is already a recession, it will make the recession that much deeper.  Unfortunately, the macroeconomy is a rather Darwinian creature, and surviving in it is a matter of adapt or die.  Rather than artificially prolong the death-throes of a moribund business, we should be ensuring that the economic climate (in terms of regulation, taxation and legislation) favours the establishment of new, wealth-generating businesses.

Second, wealth is often confused with riches.  The wealth of a nation is not measured in terms of the size of the money-bags of a few plutocrats.  Plutocrats, like the poor, are always with us.  Wealth is about the ability of individuals in the economy to create marketable services for which people are prepared to pay and so is in the hands of all of us.  Individual wealth (if one can apply a macroeconomic indicator to an individual) is a matter of how much one puts directly into the economy in the sense of how much one enables production of services.  And moreover, wealth directly benefits all in the economy, because they share in the value of the services they help create.  Therefore, contrary to the rhetoric of anti-capitalists, wealth is a very good thing.

Third, and returning to the market, in an extension to my first point, there is a popular tendency to get over-attached to whole economic sectors.  So, cultural conservatives complain because the UK’s economy is now largely post-industrial, and similarly in the US, which is undergoing the transition from industrial to post-industrial.  But, to look at it in larger terms, why does a country need to have any industrial sector?  Provided it is possible to buy the necessary services from elsewhere, and provided the country can function with a growing economy without an industrial sector, why should it matter?  Well, the obvious objection is that losing the industrial sector causes unemployment.  But note that I just assumed that the economy could maintain a growing post-industrial economy.  This means wealth is still being created at (more than) the old rate, and that there is increased demand for jobs.  Unless one takes a rather essentialist view of what people are and are not fit to work on (which I find offensively prejudicial) then there is no reason why unemployment should rise provided workers are prepared to be flexible.  Therefore, we conclude that any country will retain a residual industrial sector, consisting of those services that cannot be sourced from abroad, but that there is nothing to fear from the transition from industrial to post-industrial, just as there was no need to fear the transition from agrarian to industrial, and there will be no need to fear the next paradigm shift.

Neo-Keynesian assumptions

The goal is to create jobs, not wealth

This is, in fact, the fundamental fallacy of what one might call folk-economics.  It largely seems to result from the confusion discussed above between wealth creation and plutocracy. But there is a crucial point here.  As I said above, wealth creates jobs.  Jobs do not necessarily create wealth.  To see this in its crudest form, imagine a scheme in which we had the ministry for digging holes and the ministry for filling holes in, whose work teams followed one another round the country.  This would undoubtedly create jobs, but it would do nothing whatever to grow the economy.  In fact, the situation is worse than that.  By pulling people into economically unproductive labour, this scheme would reduce the workforce available to do economically productive work.  Moreover, by paying people to do (essentially) nothing, one slows down the motion of money between suppliers and consumers of services, by introducing a whole new class of non-producers who only consume, and so effectively the money supply is reduced.  Therefore a deflationary contraction of the economy is likely.

This example is deliberately contrived, but a very important point follows from it.  If people are doing work that is not economically productive, then they have at best a net neutral impact; in fact they are likely to have a small effect.  This is not to say, as some might have at the height of the monetarist craze, that therefore nobody should be paid to do unproductive work.  There are clear benefits in terms of culture, knowledge and future potential to having some unproductive work.  However, in a time of recession, when one is considering means to stimulate the economy, creating new unproductive jobs is a fatal error.  Which means that in a time of recession, the emphasis should be firmly on looking at ways to promote the creation of wealth, knowing, as we do, that to create wealth you need people, which means jobs, and more wealth means more people, which means more jobs.

Neo-Keynesian cures for a recession

During a recession, market freedom should be limited

The argument here is more or less that local businesses will not be able to compete with those abroad, and that therefore a deliberate imbalance should be introduced into the economy (in the form of tariffs, for example) so as to make them competitive, and hence more likely to survive, guaranteeing that jobs will be sustained.  I could repeat the argument from above, but there’s an interesting alternate viewpoint.  Suppose I do sustain uncompetitive businesses using tariffs or whatever; how do I ever emerge from recession?  Because now there is no incentive either for the uncompetitive businesses to improve, become competitive and start generating wealth, or for new businesses to arise to replace them.  In fact, there is an extremely strong risk that in propping up uncompetitive businesses I will stifle innovation at home, and in fact prevent the economy from growing.

Let me run through that more slowly.  I would only impose a tariff if my local businesses could not compete internationally.  Now, the thing to remember here is that they have internal competitors as well, in the form of other businesses in the same market segment, or of start-ups.  Now, if I bias the market in favour of existing non-competitive businesses, it will be very hard for start-ups to gain market share and start generating wealth.  Moreover, there is no incentive for the existing businesses to make themselves competitive, and hence start generating wealth.  But if I am ever to emerge from recession I either need new, strong businesses to replace the old, weak ones, or else I need the existing weak businesses to become strong, and I have just created a strong disincentive for either of those outcomes to occur.  Imposing the tariff can only work if the economy depends on ‘national champions’: businesses which are the sole player in their respective market segments.  It is not, therefore, surprising that an enthusiasm for Keynesian thinking often goes together with a touching faith in the merits of nationalisation.

During a recession, free of movement of labour should be limited

Note, by the way, that all of these arguments apply equally well to protectionism involving the restriction of free movement of labour.  Protecting the ‘native’ work-force simply institutionalises those features that made it non-competitive in the first place.  As a result, there is no incentive to (say) acquire new skills or shift to developing market segments, because everything is comfortable just the way things are.  And so the measures become self-reinforcing and, with time, the economy becomes moribund.

Large-scale public sector investment will stimulate the economy

This is another idea that only really works if the state and the economy are one.  But to start from the beginning, investment to stimulate the economy is not a bad idea, but one has to be certain that the investment has the right result.  For example, investment in the hole digging and filling businesses described above would result in zero net benefit to the economy, and so would be money down the drain.  What is needed is investment that incentivises existing businesses to generate more wealth, and new businesses to start up and add their wealth-generating capacity to the economy.  Therefore a system of, say, tax incentives for new businesses, or grants for innovation would work (note, by the way, that this is not a tariff, as this is not incentivising businesses to stay the same, but actively incentivising them to change and grow), as would large-scale procurement programmes.

But the idea is strongly embedded in the public consciousness that investment in the public sector is de facto good for the economy.  Of course, it creates jobs (so we’re back with the jobs not wealth fallacy), but what does it do to create wealth?  Well, assuming that we actually have an open economy, and not one tilted in favour of state-owned enterprises (in which case we are in trouble anyway, as described above), then the public sector is (with the exception of spending departments, of which more below) not a producer of wealth.  This is not to say that it is unimportant.  Health-care, education, regulation, etc are all vital functions of the state, and have long-term macroeconomic implications (an unhealthy and ill-educated work-force is not a productive workforce) and so there is a strong argument for sustained investment in these services regardless of the state of the economy.  But if we are in a recession, there is nothing that extra investment in these services can do to get us out of it.

Now, what can be done?  We can do a number of things, for example start procurement programmes, or sponsor research and development, with an aim to growing new capability in the economy.  Though it is not especially fashionable to say so, investment in defence spending is probably a good move in times of recession, especially if it can be used to spur new developments (this is not to say that non-productive research should be cut, but it is not a good target for investment specifically aimed at getting the economy out of recession).  Likewise, sponsoring applicable research, indeed providing funding for transition from research to production, is sensible.  More indirectly, funding  to promote retraining and skill acquisition, giving people an incentive to move from moribund market segments to more productive ones, will be effective.  So we can say that public sector investment can be effective, provided that investment is used to enable business development and hence creation of wealth.

So what can be done?

We have seen that the Keynesian views on how to stimulate an ailing macroeconomy range from the outright dangerous (interfering with the freedom of markets) to the simply wrong-headed (public sector investment is the answer), and yet they remain startlingly popular.  Why is this?  I think there are several reasons, all rooted in folk economics.

Equation of wealth with plutocracy

As I noted in the discussion of the Keynesian fallacy that what matters is creating jobs, not wealth, this idea is popular because when one starts talking about wealth with non-economists, the almost automatic response is for people to start thinking about the obscenely rich and start frothing at the mouth about the inequities between rich and poor.  But, as I said (again), wealth is not money.  Wealth is, in a sense, the potential to create money, and it belongs to everyone who plays an active role in the economy.  Which means that we all have a stake in making sure that there is as much wealth in the economy as possible, because it is something from which we all benefit, not just plutocrats.

But, if we follow on from the equation of wealth equals very rich people, then it becomes almost logical to conclude that wealth is a bad thing, and that rather than striving for wealth, we should strive for some intangible concept such as quality of life.  Indeed, we hear people complain of politicians who talk in terms of economics that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  But what is value?  Who defines value?  How can we be sure that my idea of what constitutes value is commensurate with yours?  There are as many definitions of value as there are people.  This is the problem: if something cannot be measured, then it is well nigh impossible to tell whether you are delivering it, and therefore how to deliver it.  Wealth, on the other hand, is susceptible to an agreed on definition and it has the inestimable advantage that it enables all of us to acquire the value we want.

Failure to grasp pain for gain

The problem, I believe lies in basic facts about understanding of risk.  It is well known that risk is not a concept that is easy to understand, or that many people do understand.  Two particular aspects of this are as follows.  First, people are very poor at quantifying risk.  Second, people are risk averse.  So if doing nothing carries no obvious immediate risk, whereas taking action does carry immediate risk, then people will almost certainly prefer to do nothing, even if in the medium to long term doing nothing carries very high risk.  In other words, people do not readily grasp the pain for gain principle: in fact one can almost guarantee that they will do almost anything to avoid the short-term, beneficial pain, even if they know about the long-term consequences of their choice.

When applied to macroeconomics this notion is very powerful.  We see immediately why there are outcries whenever moribund industries die, and calls for government to bail them out.  People see the short-term loss of jobs, and ignore the long-term economic benefits of letting the business die and disbenefits of sustaining it, because keeping it going avoids short-term pain, and the macroeconomic arguments in favour of allowing the market to have its way are somewhat abstruse, dealing with abstractions like markets, wealth, and so on and so forth, and if there is one thing folk wisdom is worse at than understanding risk, it is understanding abstractions.  Indeed, in the somewhat anti-intellectual atmosphere of many Western cultures, the mere fact that economists can present well-rounded theoretical justifications for their claims will actually tend to count against them (and, unfortunately, this is not limited to economics).

Hankering for paternalism

It is only if people are (pace Thomas Jefferson) left free to pursue wealth that they will be able to obtain happiness.  If the state decides what constitutes ‘the good life’ then one is essentially removing the element of freedom of choice from the vast majority of people, and therefore edging towards totalitarianism.  And yet in spite of this, an awful lot of people seem to have a hankering for a situation in which the state is expected to take macroeconomic decisions on their behalf, even though they would not trust it with making personal decisions for them.  But the expectation is that those macroeconomic decisions should be based not on economic indicators but on the ideas, following from failure to grasp pain for gain and general dislike of abstract thinking, that failing industries should be supported, jobs should never be lost in any market segment, and what matters is value, not wealth.

This is, needless to say, a contradictory position.  When Keynes was active, the idea that the state should somehow determine what industries should exist was intellectually respectable, and, after all, it did have a history going right back to feudalism.  What is amazing is that even now, when the folly of attempting to control the market (which is, after all, a chaotic system, and so insusceptible to control – though susceptible to gentle pertubation) should be clear to all, not only do some governments still maintain that it is right and proper to do so, but a large number of people who really should know better seriously argue that capitalism, and with it the idea of the free market, is dying.  And so we have the simultaneous, and rather bizarre, belief that the state and those of its servants who make sure that it continues to tick over, and that currency still means something and so on and so forth are the enemy, while the public sector and publicly owned businesses are the salt of the earth.  So we have healthy individualism mixed with a yearning for the state to be our parent, absolving us of any responsibility to behave like adults.

It is time to leave the nursery.

Charlie Sheen, Societal Roles and Transgression

Introduction

In recent days it has been very hard not to be aware of Charlie Sheen and his curiously uninhibited life-style; indeed the media coverage of his each and every action or utterance has been such that even one so generally ignorant of popular culture as I has (eventually) noticed that something excitingly strange was going on.  And I was struck, rather forcibly, by the nature of much of the commentary on Mr Sheen, which, I felt exposed certain structural features of our society.  And, indeed, of any sufficiently large society.  So that is what I am going to write about.

Now, before you get all happy and excited, I am afraid that I do not intend to delve into Mr Sheen’s unconventional sexual arrangements or to attempt to understand what it says about his psychology that he describes his concubines as ‘goddesses’.  Nor do I intend to discuss ‘tiger blood’ or a drug habit that Hunter S Thompson might have envied. No, this is going to be a simple philosophical piece about societal roles, and what transgression of said roles means.

The reason, before we go on, why I shall not delve into the ‘goddesses’ (and that double entendre was entirely unintentional) is not that I have any objection to discussing attractive women (rather the converse), but simply because they are just one of many symptoms that go to mark out Mr Sheen as a role transgressor.  Likewise, I shall make no moral judgement about his behaviour; the details of what he does are unimportant for my argument: all that matters is that (in a telling phrase) he is a ‘bad role model’.  

Societal roles

What are societal roles?

We all play out roles.  Some roles are very explicit and deliberately assumed, like the doctor’s bedside manner, but the roles that are really interesting are those that we don’t think about.  So, for example, there are gender roles or stereotypes.  Men, we are told, are emotionally null, logical, aggressive and goal-oriented, while women are nurturing peace-makers, concerned with feeling and emotion.  Men like to get drunk and watch sports.  Women gossip and talk about their children, while men talk about sport and exchange crude sexual banter.  Likewise students are radical drunkards who take drugs by the ton and have sex with everything that moves; their parents are conservative conformists with empty lives of quiet despair; their grand-parents are (depending on which stereotype you’re using) either sclerotic, racist, sexist fascists or wild party animals.  There are even roles based on jobs: secretaries are air-headed young women who wear very short skirts and plunging necklines and are generally assumed to be sexually available to anyone who asks; anyone doing anything faintly scientific has no personal skills, has dubious personal hygeine, looks strange, is probably male and will never, ever get off with a girl.  And so on and so forth.

Now, in daily life we will normally deploy one or more roles at any time (so the aggressive executive who talks corporate-speak by day might morph into a party-animal male by night).  And that’s just fine for those people whose psychological make-up makes them comfortable with the existing portfolio of societal roles.  But say somebody doesn’t?  What is to be done by (or with) a man who loathes all sports, doesn’t enjoy being drunk and who finds sexist banter offensive?  Well, what generally happens is that the unhappy individual builds a protective shell which enables them to function socially by appearing to fit their expected role, while protecting their true self which is hidden underneath.  It need hardly be said that this is not necessarily psychologically healthy.  And in very rare cases, an individual (like Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Katharine Hepburn, Freddie Mercury or Mr Sheen) decides to ignore the roles and be in public what they are in private.  So they become transgressive.

Where do they come from?

I’ll come back to being transgressive in a moment.  Before that, let’s see where roles come from and why it’s so important to society that people act them out.  In small, static societies, like, say, a pre-industrial revolution European village, where one may encounter at most a few dozens of people, and new people arrive only infrequently, it’s possible to interact with people on a basis of knowing them as individuals.  That is to say, if the list of ‘people I know’ is small and changes slowly, I can interact with each person based on my detailed knowledge of them.  However, in large, dynamic societies, like a major metropolis, one can encounter hundreds of people on a regular basis, and the roster of people one interacts with is constantly changing.  And in this case, one cannot rely on knowing everyone well.  So, if society is not to fall apart, it is necessary to have a relatively simple way of classifying people one encounters casually so that one knows how to relate to them.  And thus societal roles are born.

So, we can see why it might be good to have stereotypes or roles that help you relate to people you don’t know very well.  How do we get from that to people actually living the role?  Well, it turns out that there’s actually an advantage in acting the role too.  Because if you don’t clearly signal to someone how they should treat you, then they won’t know how to interact with you at all, and most likely anything you might have hoped to gain from encountering them will be lost.  So, just as you seeing someone else acting out a role helps you relate to them, which is good for you, you acting out a role helps them relate to you, which is also good for you.  

This means that there is a feedback loop, which has three main drivers.  First, that the roles should cover sufficiently much of the available space that most people should fit in at least one, second that there should be a relatively small number of roles (so everyone can learn all of them), and third, that they should be clearly identifiable, so you know which one applies when.  So the first driver promotes creating lots of very specific roles, while the second driver counteracts that by driving their number down, and the third driver ensures that they are fairly generic and clear-cut.  And that is precisely what we see: the roles are almost Platonic, extracting the essence of the normative behaviour of their respective group.

When do they break down?

Now, you’ll note that I said that the first driver was to cover nearly everyone.  Clearly any categorisation as crude as subdivision into a small number of roles cannot hope to cover everyone.  But, given that society has a huge investment in the roles, largely because its smooth functioning is predicated on their continued effectiveness, there is pressure for even those individuals who are not covered by any of the roles to conform to some role.  And usually that is what happens, the end-result being that the aberrant individual becomes just a little less well-adjusted than they might be.  But sometimes people transgress.

So what happens when an individual transgresses, and so insists on behaving as they want to, rather than how society says they ought to given their categorisation?  Well, it’s fairly obvious, really.  If you don’t fit, society doesn’t know what to do with you, and there are two things that can happen.  The easiest approach is to marginalise you – squeeze you out – so you become isolated from the mainstream of society: in a rather exact analogy, this is like the formation of a pearl around an irritant.  And, not surprisingly, we find that a lot of non-stereotypical people live alternative lifestyles and are more or less divorced from mainstream society.

But some individuals, whether it is due to the extreme nature of their transgression, or simply because their sheer ability makes them impossible to ignore, cannot be marginalised and rendered safe.  They are a threat to the stability of the system of roles, because if one person can get away with transgression, then the precedent is set for others to follow and simply be themselves.  Organisms (and we can view society as a meta-organism) tend to respond to threats in one of two ways: retreat or attack.  In this case, just as with a body responding to infection, there is nowhere to retreat to, so the only option is to attack.

And this, regrettably, is precisely what we see: Wilde and Crowley were vilified and hounded during their lives to an extent quite disproportionate with their (really rather tame) exploits.  Indeed, what are arguably Crowley’s worst acts (his irresponsible imperilment of fellow mountaineers) tended to be ignored entirely in favour of hysteria over his largely harmless magickal activities.  Hepburn was just too great a talent and too popular post 1940, but the near-terminal collapse of her career in the late ’30s and the post mortem revisionism that she is now subject to are clear evidence of society objecting to someone who defiantly created her own role.  Freddie Mercury was vilified in his lifetime, but he was loved by millions, so the forces of normativeness had to wait until after his death.  Mr Sheen is no Hepburn or Mercury, so he is attacked as a lunatic, etc, etc, etc and, of course, an unfit role model.

Which is where we came in.  Transgressive individuals suggest the need for new roles to add to the existing system.  But the system has huge inertia, and is (as we noted above) resistant to creation of new roles.  And this is its great weakness.  For transgressive individuals should be seen as a safety value.  They point to failures of the normative typology, and hence ways it could be improved.  And if the typology were the result of intelligent action that is, no doubt, what would happen.  But, of course, there is no intelligence at work, just an emergent structure deriving from the chaotic interactions of millions of individuals.  So, unfortunately, unless the millenium comes, we have to live with a society in which we are pigeon-holed into roles which fit some of us better than others, while only the occasional individual braves society’s ridicule by being themself.

 


 

 

Tucson and the idea of the state

1 Introduction

 On 28 January 2000, Nigel Jones, Member of Parliament for Cheltenham, was holding one his regular surgeries (sessions where constituents could bring their problems to him) when a member of the public (who turned out to be mentally ill) attacked him with a samurai sword.  The attacker severely injured Mr Jones and killed a local councillor.  This was a tragedy for those involved and their friends and families, and created a nine-days wonder in the local press.  Nationally it caused scarcely a ripple; life continued just as before.

On 8 January 2011, representative Gabrielle Gifford was holding a similar event in Tucson, AZ, and was attacked by a member of the public (also alleged to be mentally ill) wielding a gun.  The attacker severely wounded Ms Gifford and thirteen others and killed six more individuals.  Again, this was a tragedy for those involved and their friends and families.  What is different is the reaction.  The United States seemed to enter into a collective emotional melt-down.

From an outsider’s perspective, the reaction to this event seems excessive.  In what is one of the most violent societies in the developed world, surely it should be expected that sooner or later someone would empty a magazine in the direction of an elected representative?  And yet, what is even more unusual is the rhetoric that has emerged in the days since the shooting.  If we set aside the political point-scoring, then there has been a striking common thread in what has been said by all involved, from President Obama down.  There has been a general agreement that this event is the collective responsibility of the whole American people, that it belongs to all of them, and that they must (in some undefined way) purge themselves so as to make the United States into a better place, where this kind of event cannot happen again.

This speaks of politics at a far deeper level than the recriminations as to whether Mrs Palin did or did not stoke up hatred, or which party Mr Loughner supported.  It speaks even at a level deeper than the (necessary) debate over gun ownership and treatment of the mentally ill.  It suggests a strongly collectivist conception of nationhood, an idea of political perfectibility that is crucial to the idea of American Exceptionalism, which claims that the United States is, or should be, unique and best among nations.  It is this idea that I wish to discuss. 

As a final point before I get going, I should point out that though this piece is highly critical of the current establishment of the United States (both in government and opposition) it should not be seen as anti-American.  Americans stand proud among the world’s artists, scientists and thinkers.  Rather, by analysing and attempting to understand that which makes the United States see itself as unique, and which seems to hold back its development as a nation, it should be seen as a small means of helping the great American nation to find its equilibrium and so play its proper part as a leader among nations (rather than as an exception differing from other nations).

2 Source material

I am now going to quote a certain amount of commentary on the attack.  It comes from the US media and, primarily and most importantly, President Obama’s speech in Tucson.  That speech is critical, not only because it sets out the mythic framework within which discussion of the event exists, but also because of the extraordinary reaction to it by the US media.   

I am aware that the media sources I have picked come from the left end of the spectrum.  I picked them because they said most succinctly what was inherent in all of that part of the reaction that was not concerned solely with political infighting.  However, it is critically important to note that reaction to President Obama’s speech was uniformly positive; for example Glenn Beck observed (somewhat obtusely) that Mr Obama truly became President by virtue of making it.  Thus, though commentators may have differed in detail, there was general approval of and agreement with Mr Obama’s words.

Therefore, I shall treat Mr Obama’s speech as the key source, using it to derive my thesis.  The commentary material is used to bring out specific points from the speech and to examine the shape of the larger partisan debate, going beyond gun control, campaign propaganda or Mrs Palin’s bizarre rhetoric, turning instead into a debate on the nature of the United States. 

I present the material as a series of numbered quotations without commentary: that will follow in the next section.   Italics are mine. 

2.1 President Obama’s speech

(1) As Scripture tells us:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

(2) On Saturday morning, Gabby, her staff, and many of her constituents gathered outside a supermarket to exercise their right to peaceful assembly and free speech. They were fulfilling a central tenet of the democracy envisioned by our founders – representatives of the people answering to their constituents, so as to carry their concerns to our nation’s capital. Gabby called it “Congress on Your Corner” – just an updated version of government of and by and for the people.  That is the quintessentially American scene that was shattered by a gunman’s bullets. And the six people who lost their lives on Saturday – they too represented what is best in America.

(3) The loss of these wonderful people should make every one of us strive to be better in our private lives – to be better friends and neighbors, co-workers and parents. [ . . . ] It should be because we want to live up to the example of public servants like John Roll and Gabby Giffords, who knew first and foremost that we are all Americans, and that we can question each other’s ideas without questioning each other’s love of country, and that our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations.

(4) I believe we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved lives here – they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.

(5) That’s what I believe, in part because that’s what a child like Christina Taylor Green believed. [ . . . ] I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us – we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations [ . . . ] And here on Earth, we place our hands over our hearts, and commit ourselves as Americans to forging a country that is forever worthy of her gentle, happy spirit.

2.2 Media commentary on the speech

First from the Huffington Post:

(6) Judging from most news coverage, it appears we’ve failed to recognize the impossibility of separating the killer from the rest of us. If we just blame Jared Lee Loughner, we’re committing what psychologists call an “attribution error”. That’s when an incident is blamed on the individual instead of the situation — or the system. 

(7) Arizona is a laboratory of today’s USA, it has a large population that mixes politics, race, poverty, wealth, urban and rural lifestyles. It is probably the state with the most potential to create a new American myth. Or destroy it. Will Arizona succeed or fail? More precisely, will America become a modern and prosperous democracy?

(8) At the present moment, we all live in Tucson. Our country is the Arizona of the world: scared, tense, armed and not communicating well. Can our system integrate the vast pressures pulling it apart? Can we be present and powerful in a different way in the world? Our challenge on the road from Tucson is not just wither America?… but whether America.

Now from Religion Dispatches: 

(9) In this sentiment, the president accentuates the best of an American idealistic tradition that acknowledges the existence of evil while maintaining hope that the nation can find the collective will to gain a higher moral ground and eradicate it.

(10) For Palin and others on the right, there is an acknowledgement of the losses in Tucson, but these events are just minor blips on the radar that requires only that we carry on believing in the inherit goodness of individual liberty. No doubt this rhetoric appeals to the conservative ethos of freedom and individual responsibility, but it is a rhetoric that lacks any sense that some collective response is required of us—some sense of repentance. Although many conservatives praised Obama’s Tucson speech for not associating the violence of Tucson with the contemporary political climate, they missed the ways Obama attempted to set a penitent tone, calling Americans to a higher level of moral accountability.

(11) Some commentators on the left might be taking the argument too far when they lay the blame for the shootings on the politics of conservatives like Sarah Palin. Yet the angry responses of the Palins, Glenn Becks, Mike Huckabees, and Rush Limbaughs after such a tragedy accentuate a divide that goes beyond any particular political perspective—they reflect a moral worldview that makes no room for collective culpability or a language of national repentance.

 3 The theocratic state

3.1 The President’s speech

3.1.1 Quote 1: the city on the hill

Quote (1) is clearly critical for two reasons.  First, because it is the only explicitly religious reference in the entire speech (not counting some cursory mentions of heaven and the final invocation of God’s blessing) and certainly mention of scripture.  Second, because if its context: it doesn’t have one.  In the text of the full speech, it appears out of nowhere, being unrelated to the preceding paragraph, and the next paragraph does not depend on it in any way.  Thus it stands apart as a significant statement of some truth, backed by the authority of scripture.

For ease of reference, here it is again: 

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.

Why would President Obama quote these particular verses, which affirm that the city of God will not fall, but will be helped by God?  The only conclusion, given the context whereby he is speaking at a ceremony commemorating what he has turned from a local to a national event, is that he is identifying not Tucson but the United States with the city of God, the dwelling place of the Most High.

That this could be said by the leader of a modern state, and with no significant voices raised in opposition, may seem strange.  Certainly all countries have their own millenialists (e.g. Blake with ‘Jerusalem’) but they are seldom so firmly in the mainstream.  And the mainstream is what this is, for we have just tapped into a rich vein of American mythology, the idea of the city on the hill, that America is a shining idea for humanity, in a sense the ideal state.  This American Exceptionalism (as it is known) runs throughout the speech and the media response and will be critical to my argument.

3.1.2 Quote 2 : mythologisation of the state

I included quote (2) mostly for its humorous qualities, but it does have something valuable to say.  Humorous, for what else can you say when an ostensibly educated man speaks of the ‘democracy envisioned by our founders’, when it is a matter of historical record that the Founding Fathers feared democracy, or that he should believe that a scene of rulers meeting the ruled is ‘quintessentially American’.  But in fact we can draw some critical points even from this.  

First, there is mythologisation: Mr Obama does not refer to the real Founding Fathers, who were, in essence, oligarchs, but the Founding Fathers of myth, who set out to create the greatest democracy on Earth.  The mere fact that he speaks of ‘our founders’ involves the mythologisation of complex politics into a quasi-magical founding event, like the crossing of the Jordan.  So the American state is given a mythical status, with appropriate foundation myth, and hence set apart from mere ordinary states, subject to the vagaries of history.  

Second, note the way that he takes what is a rather humdrum part of politics – the petitioning of ruler by ruled – and turns it too into myth.  Ms Gifford meeting her constituents, it is clear, is nothing so mundane as what happened when Mr Jones met his.  Mr Jones was just doing his job, while Ms Gifford is made to play a role in what almost feels like a sacred drama.  Once again, American  Exceptionalism comes into play: events that to non-Americans seem everyday, are in the the United States given an almost numinous quality.  

Hence we can recast the often rather infuriating American habit of claiming that the United States is best at this that and the other (consider, for example, then Senator Obama’s frankly bizarre claim that his story could have happened in no other nation on Earth) as being the sacralisation of history; it does not matter if the claims are made are not historically accurate, for they have the truth of myth.

3.1.3 Quote 3: the American dream

In quote 3, the crucial words are these:

our task, working together, is to constantly widen the circle of our concern so that we bequeath the American dream to future generations. 

The idea of a national task or destiny was relatively widespread in the nineteenth century (‘the civilising mission’) but has rather gone out of fashion on this side of the Atlantic, and it is rather surprising to hear the head of state of a major modern nation using it today.  But think about what it means.  It means that the nation is not the servant of the people.  Rather the people are servants of some some undefined master that has set them a task, and they will be held accountable (again, by whom it is not clear) if they do not deliver accordingly.  And it seems that the master is the state, created by its Founders with a specific goal in mind, that is for its people to work to create a ‘more perfect union’.

Now, setting aside its ahistorical aspects, this is, when considered dispassionately, quite a strange idea.  Apart from anything else, it implies a strong belief in the concept of progress, a strong attachment to the rightly derided Whig view of history as a constant and purposive progression from worse to better.  It also means that when anything bad (like, say the Tucson shootings) happens, then it cannot be dismissed as being simply an unfortunate event of the kind that are bound to happen even in the best run societies, because to say that would be to admit that there is no progress, there are just events.  So the bad event must itself be purposive, a result of a failing of the people in their mighty task, to which they must therefore be rededicated, suitably chastened. 

So what is the task?  It is the protection of an idea: the American dream.  Now I do not want to get drawn into a discussion of the American dream, as reams of print have poured over it with little enlightenment emerging.  I will note merely some key points.  First, the American dream is a concept that seems to be meaningful to all Americans and largely incomprehensible to everyone else, which we should take as suggestive.  Second, it is clearly not a thing, but an idea, an article of faith; one that somehow has power to grant to believers some ill-defined benefit (that this is not always positive is trenchantly pointed out in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins).  And third, it is somehow up to the people of the United States to ensure that it remains intact, which means that it is not an ordinary idea.  Putting all of this together, it is clear that what we have is a sacred task: to preserve the faith and pass it on.  And if the people do this then good things will happen to them. 

3.1.4 Quotes 4 & 5: belief in perfectibility

In quote 4, President Obama says that he believes that the American people can be better.  Now what does that mean?  Better than what?  Measured how?  And by whom?  This is not just an espousal of the Whig view of history, this is an outright statement of faith in its central tenet of  purposive progress.   There is no room here for doubt, or for the possibility, say, that sometimes bad things just happen, because to accept that would be to deny the American dream.

Then in quote 5, he speaks of forging a worthy country.  Once again we see the imagery around progress, and the task of the American people to build this uniquely special state, one worthy of children, and worthy of the American Dream.  

Thus again, the American people are set apart.  Other peoples labour in service to an idea, so it is necessary to distinguish why the American idea is right, while (say) an Islamic theocracy, is not.  American exceptionalism comes to the rescue again: the American idea is the right idea simply because it is American, and America is not like unto other nations.  It is therefore not surprising that events mundane in the rest of the world have special significance in the United States, and the idea of America is held so high.  For if the United States is not the city on the hill, is not the shining example that all else wish to emulate, then this whole cult of the state will come crashing down.

3.2 Underpinnings of the President’s speech

3.2.1 The United States as theocracy

Let me say immediately the word that was held back throughout the last section.  What we clearly have here is a secular religion, with the President as high priest, and the deity being represented by the great idea that the people must serve.  We do not have to look very far for sacred texts either.  The extraordinary reverence with which Americans treat their Constitution is always very noteworthy.  

Consider, for the example, the debate (if such it can be called) over gun control in the United States.  Sooner or later (generally much sooner) it comes down to this: person A makes the case for gun control, person B cites the Second Amendment and then person A either plays word games with the Amendment’s text (which, though they may be valid, is not a winning strategy) or gives up discomfited.  It never seems to occur to person A to make the riposte that perhaps the Founding Fathers got it wrong.  And yet that is such an obvious thing to say, or rather it is if you have not been indoctrinated to see the Founding Fathers as eternally wise guardians of truth and liberty, and the constitution as not an instrument of the state but as a perfect blueprint for the perfect state (apart from the bits about slavery, of course).  

This is not a normal attitude to constitutional law, but it is the normal attitude to scripture.  Realising this, so much makes sense.  The refusal to accept that the Second Amendment no longer works comes from viewing it as holy writ, rather than simply as a law which is hence infinitely malleable.  Similarly, the regular impasse over whether to legislate on such and such or so and so could easily be circumvented if only it were possible to accept that laws founding a small, predominantly agrarian and static society may no longer work for a huge, increasingly post-industrial and highly dynamic society.  Or if legislators could bring themselves to accept that gridlock is endemic not because their opponents are bad, but precisely because the Founding Fathers deliberately designed it into the Constitution in a bid to prevent change.  For that would require accepting that the Founding Fathers were men with their own political agenda (to ensure their own hegemony) and not demigods serving a higher purpose. 

3.2.2 The nature of the theocracy

In fact we can say more about the theocratic regime I have just described.  It is a very specific form of theocracy: that is to say, it follows the form of scriptural Judaism.  A group of people (usually the children of Jacob, here the people of the United States) are set apart from the rest of humanity by virtue of their being chosen as worthy of the beneficence of a god (usually JHVH, here the idea of the American Dream).  A group of mighty culture heroes (usually Moses and the early prophets, here the Founding Fathers) create the law (usually the Torah, here the Constitution) that the people must obey in order to continue to be smiled on by the god.  They are told that other peoples are lesser than them, and the world is theirs to exploit, but that they must keep the law.  And there is a covenant: so long as they keep the law, the god will give them good things, but so soon as any one of them breaks the law, then the wrath of the god shall be visited on (crucially) the whole people.  When this happens, what is required is an act of collective penance, and reaffirmation of the law.

If we look at the narrative of the historical books of Scripture, we see this pattern over and again.  The people of Judah or Israel do bad things in the eyes of the Lord (usually by worshipping foreign gods, which perhaps have as their analogue ‘un-American’ ideas), generally under the rule of a bad king.  Then the king is deposed, a good ruler appears, leads the people in penance and a return to primitive values, and the Lord’s blessing is restored.

Looking at the American model, and specifically at the events at Tucson, the parallel is disturbingly clear.  We clearly have the idea of the United States as different, set apart, special, better, a land in which concepts that work perfectly well in the rest of the world simply do not apply (e.g. the observation that more guns make more murders) or cannot possibly work (e.g. comprehensive tax-fuelled health-care).  In fact, they cannot work in the United States precisely because they do work so well in the rest of the world, for that marks them out as being un-American (just as anything non-Jacobite peoples did was bad in the eyes of the Lord and should be shunned).

And now, in Tucson we have an event that is clearly incompatible with the American Dream, which  obviously doesn’t involve guns bought over the counter from actually being used to, well, kill people.  And, exactly as we would expect, given the Scriptural analogy, the reaction was incomprehension followed by a national collapse.  The extraordinary national reaction to what should have been just a tragic local event follows because it cannot, within the Scriptural analogy, be seen as a random bad event, a sign that we live in an imperfect universe.  To accept that would be to deny the ultimate perfection of the universe, and hence deny the god / American Dream, which is unthinkable.  The shooting had to be of significance: it was a sign that the god had turned on the people, and that the people as a whole were being punished for some infraction of the law.

And so the people sinned and must make penance.  Now, this is what the right had been saying for some time (e.g. the touchingly naive claim that Obamacare is socialist, and hence un-American), and from them we heard the call for a return to the virtue of strict adherence to the Constitution (except for the bits about slavery).  This is little different from the perpetual plaint of the Prophets that children of Jacob must turn again to the Lord.   President Obama obviously had to make the case that he was the true prophet, and very cannily, in language reminiscent of a preacher, he, as we have seen above, recounted the founding myth of the United States and made a case that by following him in an act of mass repentance, the people could regain the blessing of the American Dream. 

So, the narrative underlying the Tucson shooting is that of a chosen people who see in a bad event the sign that the blessing of the idea they follow has been withdrawn, and who are seeking a way to regain it.  The centre and the right may disagree on what constitutes the best way forward (President Obama’s agenda of masterful inaction or the right’s constitutional fundamentalism), but they clearly agree on the covenantual American myth, and the need to renew the covenant through a collective act of the American people.

3.2.3 Implications of the model

It’s instructive to look at implications of the model of covenantual theocracy, to see if they match with what we know of the United States, both as a test for the theory, and as a way of explicating aspects of American culture that may seem baffling to outsiders.

Consider the mythologisation of virtually every aspect of American life, and the urge to ritualise everyday events.  For example, sporting events acquire a whole penumbra that makes no sense whatever if they are viewed just as sporting events, but which makes a lot of sense if they are instead to be seen as ritual actions.  So whereas in the rest of the world, on the whole teams are content to get on with playing the game, in the United States the players are only part of the team: there are the mascots and the cheer-leaders, and they have by now become an integral part of the event itself.  Sport, is, of course not the only ritualised aspect of society.  So apparently ordinary an event as the spring vacation has acquired a special cultural status and the life of a student consists of negotiating a succession of rites which are hallowed because, well because they are.

This makes perfect sense in terms of the model.  If a people is sacred, then all its acts must have significance, and its collective activities are essentially religious rites.  Also now explicable is the idealisation of certain aspects of American social history.  So we have the recurrent cultural image of the small town and Main Street, where everyone knows everyone else and no-one has any ambition for change.  This is one aspect of the curious strand of anti-modernism inherent in much American thinking, and most clearly expressed by Thoreau, which leads to another archetype: the self-supporting yeoman farmer, an ideal going back to Jefferson which is extremely important to the modern right.  

These archetypal ideals make no sense if the United States is an ordinary culture: they root it in an unreal past which can only hinder any attempt to accommodate to current reality.  However, in terms of the covenantual theocracy they are easily comprehensible.  Just as the inhabitants of Israel and Judah looked back to mythical times when things were better and the Lord smiled on them, the people of the United States mythologise the ideal society in which the American Dream is achieved.  Thus being anchored in the mythic past is precisely what is desired, and accommodation to current reality is shunned, as that would entail accepting that the law is other than perfect. There is even a clear parallel between the myth of the stout yeoman, who lives at peace with his neighbour and is unbeholden to government, and the myth of the time of the Judges, when Israel and Judah had no monarchy and the people lived in harmony. 

This line of thought chimes with a long-standing theme in American political culture which asserts that the state essentially has no business getting involved in the lives of individuals.  It firmly rejects the notion that the State acts as guarantor of their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, seeing these rights as inherent in the individual, and seeing it as the individual’s duty to protect them.  As I said above, this idea enters American political discourse at the very outset of the Republic, with Jefferson’s vision of the yeoman farmer, and it continues to this day, as motivation for those groups that believe that the United States government is illegitimate, and has entered mainstream political discourse: an oft-cited justification for gun ownership is for protection of the individual from the overweening power of the state;  similarly, one argument put forward as to why universal free health-care is a bad thing is that it infringes the individual’s liberties.  

All this means that the state is seen as a bad thing, as it stands between the individual and the realisation of their rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.  And this is exactly paralleled by the attitude to the state found in the books of Judges and Samuel: the state takes upon itself the role of leadership that is the Lord’s alone, and so it is illegitimate (until the Lord specifically says otherwise); hence the divine anger at Saul.  The analogy extends even to the belief that individuals should protect themselves rather than rely on the state (police-forces or armies) to do so.  So once more there is an exact parallel between one of the (many) mystifying features of American culture and the scriptural theocracy, with JHVH replaced by the nebulous ‘American Way’, and the Constitution as the Law.  This renders any man-made law an abomination, for divine law – in the form of the Constitution – is the sole law, and human law-making is encroachment onto the prerogative of the divine, as expressed through the Founding Fathers / prophets.

Thus we see one of the deep paradoxes at the heart of American culture (and indeed, Biblical Judaism): a culture that emphasises the role of the collective, in that crimes against the law lead to collective retribution and require collective penance, and which emphasises that the people as a collective are set apart, also emphasises that any attempt by the people to define their own collective structures is trespass upon the prerogatives of the divine (and will itself be punished).  So the theocratic culture is at once deeply conformist (one must obey the law in all things) and strongly anti-statist.  In the case of the United States this paradox is only deepened by the fact that the role of the divine is filled by the American Dream, which is not a dream of social harmony, but one of individual fulfillment.   And so, just as the Old Testament praises those heroes who took the law into their own hands in defence of Israel and Judah, as we shall see below,  American society has always contained self-empowering defenders of the law, from the rough justice of the old West to the anti-statist terrorists of today.

Moving on,  American society’s deep-seated xenophobia coupled with the urge to say, as regards any topic, that the United States did it first, does it best, is better than the rest of the world and so on and so forth (even, indeed, especially when it is not true) is quite mysterious if the United States is viewed as a normal modern state.  But if it is a sacralised theocracy everything changes.  Foreigners then become not just other people, but those who deny the truth of the law and god.  And clearly no unbeliever can do anything better than the anointed people; in fact it is impossible that they could. 

This mind-set is set out clearly in the Old Testament, and is found in theocracies around the world today.  So it is not surprising that we have on our hands a state even whose most liberal thinkers seem unable to conceive of the fact that international law applies to them too.  Indeed, the universal horror at the idea of American soldiers being tried for war-crimes in a foreign court becomes much easier to understand within this context: for how can those who are doing the work of the god be held to account by the god’s enemies?  Similarly, there can be little benefit from working with foreigners, as is seen, depressingly clearly, in the pay-off phrase of President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address: ‘We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the world.’  Obviously the idea of mutually beneficial co-operation is unthinkable: what can unbelievers have of value to offer to the chosen people?  And equally obvious,  America must be first or nothing, for to not be first would mean that the favour of the god has been withdrawn. 

Which leads on to the most unpalatable consequence of the model.  Any act undertaken by one of the chosen people in the name of the god is justified if it serves the god’s purpose.  Thus the Old Testament repeatedly tells of atrocities committed by the children of Jacob as a whole or by individuals which, had they been committed by foreigners, would have been considered abominable.  And, very regrettably, we see only too clearly in the modern world, evidence of the belief that anything that an American does in defence of the American way of life is considered acceptable.  Thus indefinite internment without trial is acceptable if the individual interned is foreign (Guantanamo detainees) or has made himself an outcast (Bradley Manning).  

And, most pathological of all, the actions of Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter, most if not all of those who have attempted or succeeded in political murder in the United States, and terrorists like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, are based in precisely this belief coupled with the radical anti-statist strand of American thought noted above.  The state has rendered itself outcast by passing laws contrary to god’s law, and following false gods, and so it is the individual’s right and duty to strike against it.  Thus the myth of the upstanding individual and group casuistry result in the American polity devouring itself.

3.3 Reaction to the President’s speech

Looking at the reaction to President Obama’s speech from the left, we see that it conforms absolutely to the theocratic model.

3.3.1 Quotes 6, 7 and 8: collective penance

Quote 6 deserves to be reproduced again in full: 

Judging from most news coverage, it appears we’ve failed to recognize the impossibility of separating the killer from the rest of us. If we just blame Jared Lee Loughner, we’re committing what psychologists call an “attribution error”. That’s when an incident is blamed on the individual instead of the situation — or the system.

This can be read in several ways.  Surely, Loughner was influenced by the commons of ideas within which he existed, and, whatever the NRA may say to the contrary, such crimes as his would be much harder to commit if firearms were not so readily available.  And yet to deny him individual responsibility for the act, to (as this author seems to) ignore the fact that he suffers from severe mental illness and had of his own free will entered into that nexus of ideas that forms the extreme anti-statist part of American culture, is to convert him from a human being into an empty vessel into which one can pour ones own obsessions and beliefs about what is wrong with America.  In other words, it is to do to him precisely what he did to Ms Gifford. 

But we can read more from this quote, for its author clearly wants us to accept that guilt for Loughner’s act belongs to each and every American, and that ‘the system’ is responsible.  This is precisely covenantual thinking.  ‘The system’, which I take the author to be the state of affairs in the American polity today, and the people have sinned in deviating from the way things should be in America, and Loughner’s crime and the dead innocents are the punishment of heaven for this deviation.  And so America must do penance, reform and return to the true path.  

Quotes 7 and 8 make this quite clear: quote 7 says ‘More precisely, will America become a modern and prosperous democracy?’ and quote 8 says ‘Our challenge on the road from Tucson is not just wither America?… but whether America.’  In both cases the survival of the Republic as a whole is linked to a proper response to Tucson, and this precisely parallels the way that the Lord allows Judah and Israel to fall because they have turned from him, and only allows the restoration after a suitable period of penance. 

So, there is clear evidence here for a theocratic narrative.  It is the only way of making sense of what must otherwise seem wildly hyperbolic reactions to what, in a nation where there are tens or murders every day, was not a particularly unusual crime.  For to link the future of the republic to this shooting seems a gross over-reaction.  Unless, that is, it is seen not as the product of a deranged mind, but as a sign of divine anger.

3.3.2 Quote 9: the higher moral purpose

Quote 9 more or less spells out my thesis for us:  ‘the president accentuates the best of an American idealistic tradition that acknowledges the existence of evil while maintaining hope that the nation can find the collective will to gain a higher moral ground and eradicate it’.  If the nation acts properly as a collective then it can overcome evil.  This is simply extraordinary; this is no mere denial of theodicy, it is the assertion almost that it is America’s destiny to conquer sin.  And this gives an important pointer to the next stage in my argument: such a sentiment can only emerge from a world-view that believes that we humans are perfectible, that evil is not inherent in human nature, but rather an expungable stain upon it.

But for now the more interesting, and worrying, part of this statement is that relating to gaining the higher moral ground.  As we note above, the belief by many Americans that they do inhabit the higher moral ground, simply by virtue of being American, and that their higher morality does not need to coincide with non-American definitions, has led to more than one abomination.   We are not told what the higher moral ground consists of, or whether it involves Americans limiting their actions so that they will be moral.  Rather it seems that an act of collective will makes open a space where America is morally higher by default, and that anything Americans may do must conform to this higher morality.   We are back with group casuistry,  which maps precisely onto the Old Testament model.

3.3.3 Quotes 10 & 11: more collective penance

We now return to collective penance, but with a twist.  Quote 10 starts off by saying that ‘No doubt this rhetoric appeals to the conservative ethos of freedom and individual responsibility, but it is a rhetoric that lacks any sense that some collective response is required of us’.  This is interesting, because it shows an example in action of the tension I noted above between the individualist and collectivist sides of the American coin, which are falsely labelled ‘right’ and ‘left’, when in fact both are clearly extremely conservative, merely differing in what they consider to be the correct way of returning to primal purity.  Again, this is a key pointer to the next stage in the argument.

The quote continues: ‘they missed the ways Obama attempted to set a penitent tone, calling Americans to a higher level of moral accountability.’  And once again we get the mystifying assumption that all Americans should be held accountable for the actions of one individual.  Or rather, mystifying unless understood within the model of the theocratic state.  The people have sinned (presumably this writer would say by placing too much emphasis on ‘freedom and individual responsibility’) and have been punished, and now all must do penance.

Note, parenthetically, how extraordinary it is to find a commentator writing in what likes to believe itself to be the freest nation on Earth, where liberty is a prime virtue, and criticising an ethos of freedom and individual responsibility as if it is a bad thing.  But even here the theocratic model is of help: in the Old Testament it is repeatedly made clear that the children of Jacob are free only in so far as they do the Lord’s will, and there is repeated imagery which rams home the fact that the Lord takes responsibility: his people’s role is simply to passively do his bidding.

And finally, in quote 11 our author condemns the ‘right’ in what he seems to think are the strongest possible terms:  ‘they reflect a moral worldview that makes no room for collective culpability or a language of national repentance.’  Such a worldview would, of course, run counter to the entire theocratic enterprise.

3.4 Conclusion 

So, the conclusion from all this is that many of the features of American culture that make little or no sense to outsiders (especially the mystery that is the American Dream) make no sense because we are looking at the United States through the wrong conceptual scheme.  Viewed as a modern, open society, the United States is strange, even pathological, but when viewed as a secular recreation of the Old Testament theocracy, where every action becomes sacred and is therefore made into myth, it becomes explicable.  Clearly other nations should bear this in mind when dealing with the United States, for otherwise only confusion can result.

4 Ideas of the state

4.1 Introduction

Now, I am fairly certain that it was not the intention of the Founding Fathers to create a theocracy with a secular state religion.  However, it is clear that whatever was their intention, it provided a seed-bed in which theocracy could grow very successfully.  And it to the nature of this seed-bed that I want to turn next, for it turns out that some aspects of the theocracy do derive directly from the founders’ intentions (e.g. Jeffersonian anti-statist individualism) while others were enabled by them.  

In this section I therefore re-examine the theocracy by considering what kind of ideas about the nature of society had to be current in order for it to come into being and thrive as it has.  The conclusion highlights two very different models for society based on different views of human nature: the American or ‘optimistic’ model results in a collectivist illiberal state, while the European or ‘pessimistic’ model results in a communitarian liberal state; the separation seemingly arises out of very different conclusions drawn at the end of the second world war 

I should add a disclaimer at this point.  I personally espouse the pessimistic view and the concept of the liberal state, and as such I find it hard to be dispassionate when comparing and contrasting it with the optimistic model.  However, with this bias understood, and the reader forewarned, we can proceed to the analysis.

4.2 The United States and Rousseau’s natural man

4.2.1 Optimism in political philosophy

Let me start by making it clear that in the context of this discussion, ‘optimism’ does not have its normal informal meaning of having a generally positive outlook on life.  Rather, it is a specific technical term defining a particular school of moral and political philosophy, which believes that the tendency to commit bad acts is not inherent in human nature, but is rather a consequence of the perversion of our naturally good nature by the unnatural strictures imposed upon us by society.

Optimism is most commonly associated with Rousseau, who is perhaps its most notable proponent, but, as we shall see, it stretches back to antiquity.  Let me recount the basic thesis.  The theory sets up a basic antinomy between the good, which is natural, versus the bad, which is unnatural.  These implications are equivalences, so not only are bad things contrary to nature, but anything contrary to nature is bad, while good things are natural and all natural things are good. 

At first sight this merely looks like anti-modernist, if somewhat naive, conservatism, but now consider the status of humanity within this model.   People are, of their nature, natural things.  And thus, according to the model, should be naturally good.  This is manifestly untrue.  Rousseau solved this problem with his key insight: the theory of the natural man.  According to this, humans are naturally good, but the culture of existing societies is corrupt, and so corrupts that natural goodness.  Which leads to the interesting question of how corrupted societies could have come about as a result of the actions of naturally good humans.  The answer appears to be that for some reason or other, people were tempted to start to behave in an unnatural way, and so, because the unnatural is bad, were themselves corrupted, and then subsequent generations were corrupted by being born into an already corrupt society.

Therefore, Rousseau advocated overturning the established order and reverting to the state of the ‘noble savage’, where humanity’s natural goodness would once more come to the fore.  The political impact of this is epitomised by the famous statement ‘man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.’  Humanity must return to primal freedom.  So, rather than a complex state, there should be a collection of free individuals.

This is where Rousseau runs into problems.  If the individuals are all free of any unnatural constraint, which means, amongst other things, free of law, then as they have free will, what is to prevent them from running riot?  Two answers to this have been given.  First, that the natural man has no inclination to do bad things.  But if that were so, how did corrupt, unnatural societies come to be in the first place?  Second that the individual is subjugated to the collective, in that the individual is free to do only that which the collective permits.  So there is no law, but there is a means of collective social control, and only by submitting to the collective will can people become truly free.

That this theory is singularly naive and bears no relationship to the world as we know it should be self-evident (it is hard to view the manifestly natural behaviour of our closest relatives as being very different from that of modern humans, which is, according to Rousseau, bad).  Two other points worth noting are as follows.  First, the ostensibly godless Rousseau has, in his theory of the natural man, simply recounted the Biblical narrative of the Fall.  Second, the paradoxical celebration of the individual’s freedom, coupled with that individual’s subjugation to the collective will is almost the defining feature of fascist regimes from Sparta to the twentieth century dictatorships and today’s pseudo-Islamic extremist hegemonism.

4.2.2 Optimism in the United States

Looking at this theory in the light of our discussion of the United States, it should come as no surprise that Rousseau was a major influence on the Founding Fathers.  The Jeffersonian yeoman farmer model clearly derives from Rousseau’s natural man, who makes his own law.  And we see in the theory precisely the tension we saw in American society between Jeffersonian individualism and collectivism.  Even the anti-modernism chimes with the idealisation of an unreal past that we have noted.

Thus it is clear that the United States is founded on a basis of an optimistic view of human nature.  This is, indeed, probably a necessary precondition for the theocratic state, for if the people were not naturally good, there could be no millenial hope of perfectability, and they would not obviously be set apart from the corrupted other.  Indeed, it is probably not surprising that it is particularly in the United States that we see evolutionary biologists who seriously claim that homo sapiens alone among species has no biologically determined aspect to its behaviour (for if it did, then that would imply first that the species is not perfectible, and second that its members are not naturally good). 

4.2.3 Other political optimists

What is surprising, and rather amusing, is to consider which other political groups espouse a similar optimistic philosophy.  The first, and most obvious, case is communists.  Rousseau’s influence on Marx is manifest, and the ideas of perfectibility and that the natural human is a tabula rasa are common in communist thought, as also is the paradox of promising individual rights while subordinating them to an all-powerful state.  The other group is the pseudo-Islamic extremists.  In classical Islam, jihad is waged based on a consensual decision of the members of the polity; the extremists replaced this communitarian approach with a Jeffersonian one: the individual has the right to decide for themselves what jihad should be waged, and then to do it.  Moreover, the lifecycle of an extremist (self-radicalise via Internet, break with conventional society, commit acts of terror) is startlingly similar whether they be pseudo-Islamists or home-grown American terrorists.  

Thus it seems that the very groups that successive American leaders have labelled the greatest threat to the American way of life (note: it is not the American polity that is at risk,  but a model for how to live) are precisely those with which America has most in common.  This is probably not surprising.

4.3 The alternative

4.3.1 Hobbesian pessimism 

Thomas Hobbes, the crucial modern pessimistic political philosopher, has received something of a bad press, largely because people like to think of themselves as being Rousseau’s naturally good individuals, and so like to formulate political and social opinions based on ideal cases, and so dislike the reminder that in reality ideal cases scarcely ever happen, and that it is better to be prepared for the worst than to be caught napping when the bad happens.  However, his philosophy is hugely important for, as I shall show, it is the basis of the modern liberal open society.  It is, as I have said in the introduction, an amusing apparent paradox that an optimistic view of human nature leads to fascism, while a pessimistic view leads to liberalism.

The basic difference between Rousseau and Hobbes is that Hobbes has no truck with the idea of the innate goodness of humankind.  He insists that we are all imperfect beings, largely motivated by self-interest, and that people doing bad things to one another is something inherent in human nature.  So for Hobbes there is such a thing as human nature, there is not the optimist’s blank slate.  This view is, of course, much more in accord with reality than the noble savage theory.  Again, our closest relatives have all of our foibles and readily commit violence, rape, murder and even (it seems) war.

The next observation is this.  Societies exist because people can co-operate to their mutual benefit.  That is obvious, but note mutual benefit: here we have no idea of action out of pure goodness.  But now, as soon as we have societies then there is the possibility for individuals to exploit others; they take but not give.  Exploitation is clearly beneficial to the exploiter, so there is an incentive to exploit, and so exploitation will spread until either the society becomes unstable and collapses (because a huge superstructure is dependent on exploitation of a tiny foundation) or else warfare breaks out.  Either way, an unregulated society will collapse into chaos, which negates the point of forming a society.

So, society must be regulated in order to maintain stability, which means that exploitative behaviours must be prevented.  But note an absolutely critical point, which underpins the distinction of this model from the optimistic model.  The purpose here is not to dictate what is good; it is to prevent that which inhibits people from making best use of their abilities for mutual benefit.  So whereas the optimist says: ‘People are inherently good, therefore the collective can determine that which is good and then everyone should follow that diktat’, the pessimist says: ‘People are inherently selfish, therefore to prevent selfishness from causing catastrophe we will limit specific selfish behaviours’.  The optimist defines a goal and then dictates that all must work towards it; the pessimist limits negative behaviours, but leaves individuals free to find their own goals. 

So we have the central paradox.  The optimist claims to speak for the individual noble savage, but shackles that individual to a collective agenda.  The pessimist speaks of the benefit of society, but leaves the individual free to act, so long as they do not exploit others.  Bluntly: the optimist is a fascist; the pessimist is a liberal.

4.3.2 Pessimistic states

What defines an open society has been clearly set out by Popper and Hayek.  There are four key points.  First, there is a clear and strictly-defined system of law which the state abides by, so any individual can tell in advance whether any proposed act is legal or extra-legal, and whether or not they risk state intervention.  This does not mean that the laws have to be ‘nice’ or ‘moderate’.  All that matters is that the individual knows that if they do not commit any explicitly outlawed act, then the state will have no interest in them.  Second, the system of law must be deterministic.  That is, two individuals accused of the same infraction will have the same standards of proof applied in the determination of guilt, and, if found guilty, will incur the same penalty.  The law does not care who you are, it cannot be bought off, and it cannot be swayed by external considerations.  Again, this does not mean that the justice system has to be particularly ‘liberal’, merely that it is impartial and not subject to political interference.  Third, outside of acts specifically outlawed by the system of law, the state has no interest in an individual’s actions.  That is, any act that is not illegal is permitted.  There is no concept of a ‘greater good’, or of a model of behaviour to which individuals should aspire.  Fourth, and most important of all, the state is held accountable for its compliance with the first three points.

Looking at the definition, it is clear that an open society is pessimistic.  A succinct way of expressing the fundamental principle underlying the pessimistic theory is that the state exists as a means to protect people from one another.  So, it is accepted that bad behaviour is inevitable, and that the state should intervene to limit certain disruptive behaviours.  and so it is determined which behaviours are injurious to the stability of society, these becoming the subject of the judicial system.  But now, as the state is concerned solely with maintaining social stability, once this list of injurious behaviours has been determined, any action not on the list has been deemed  uninjurious, and so is of no interest to the state.  As the purpose of any justice system is purely to maintain the stability of society, rather than to serve a higher goal, there is no purpose to it being anything other than deterministic, for there is no value in treating A differently to B when what concerns one is not the purity of an ideal, but the injurious act that (it is claimed) was committed.  And finally, the principle that the state must be held accountable follows automatically once one applies pessimism to the state itself: its behaviour must be limited just as must that of individuals. 

Now, I have observed that it is not the laws themselves that matter, but rather the way they are applied.  The same is true of the mode of government, for, contrary to common myth, there is no law of nature that states that in order to be liberal a society must be a democracy.  It is, after all, arguable that Rome was at its most liberal, in the sense of respecting the right of the individual to self-determination within the law, under the imperiates of Augustus and Vespasian; certainly the Republic was very close to being a closed society: indeed, one of the main charges made against Caesar by the likes of Cato was that he was ambitious!  On the other hand, the Athenian Republic, though in fact a democracy of a very pure kind, was the state which invented ostracism, which subjected ‘decent’ women to a regime equalling that of the Taleban in severity (though, strangely, allowing considerable freedom to prostitutes and hetaira), and which judicially murdered Socrates for corrupting youth and impiety – both crimes that can only exist in a society where that which is good has been defined. 

4.3.3 The United States as a closed society

Consider the United States as measured against the four principles defining an open society.  First, the system of laws is reasonably well codified, but in some places is now so complex that it is hard to determine what is lawful and what is not.   Second, the judicial system is notoriously non-deterministic, given (a) the undue preponderance of poor, black men in the prison population, (b) the system’s unusual habit of judicially murdering people for crimes that it has been proven they did not commit, (c) the clearly documented fact that money and influence talk, (d) whether something is or is not a crime, and what sentence will be applied if one is found guilty can vary depending on where one is tried (to the extent that prosecutors shop around for locations to hold a trial, so as to gain the maximum punishment), and (e) the lack of sub judice laws, which effectively allows cases to be pre-judged.  Third, indeterminate detention without charge means that the state can deprive an individual of liberty without having to give a reason.  Moreover, many ‘national security’ measures have the effect of reversing the presumption of innocence.  Thus the state can intervene whenever it wishes, and does not need to account for itself when it does so.  Finally, the system is (as we have just observed) unaccountable.  In one particularly interesting case, a group of convictions were called into question when it was discovered that they all derived from the work of one police officer, who stood accused of entrapment and falsification of evidence.  One or two of those imprisoned have been released, but there has been no general review of the convictions, and the individual in question still works in law-enforcement.  The United States is not an open society.

Looking at the world today, the pessimistic open society is most clearly realised in modern Europe (excluding, of course, Russia, and with the proviso that the Code Napoleon has optimistic tendencies), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Japan and South Korea, and it is the basic model for much of  South America and parts of Africa.  This range of examples shows quite clearly that open societies can cover quite a range of social models.  This is not, of course, to say that the open society is realised perfectly in any of those societies; however it is clear that the intention is for society to enable the individual rather than constrain them, so, in as far as an open society can be said to have aspirations, their aspiration is to become more open.  On the other hand, the bastions of the closed society are (former) communist states, Middle Eastern dictatorships (though that is changing) and the United States of America: all states which (to a greater or lesser extent) have a theocratic myth.

4.4 Optimisim and pessimism as systems 

It is safe to say that in Western Europe the second world war killed political optimism.  The abominations committed by the Third Reich stem from the fact that it too was an optimistic, secular theocracy, which set the ‘aryan’ people above all others and worshipped ‘racial purity’ as its god.  Indeed, the horrors of the Holocaust can be seen almost as a grotesque, modernistic rewriting of the early parts of the book of Joshua.  Thus, before the war there may have been talk of ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘the white man’s burden’, but that was all put to a very firm end as one of the many lessons learned from the war.

Strangely, this lesson was not learned in the United States.  It seems that there the lesson was seen as being that the horrors had happened because Europe was priest-ridden, king-ridden, class-ridden, undemocratic and basically un-American.  Thus, America could never suffer from its own horror, because it, by virtue of its ideal society, was set apart.  In other words, the myth of American Exceptionalism led to the belief that the United States was somehow inoculated against fascism, which in turn strengthened the Exceptionalist myth, as one does not react to the prevalence of a disease by reducing the dose of the antidote.

The theocratic exceptionalist myth is self-reinforcing.  The pessimistic world-view can accommodate bad events because it is predicated on their possible occurrence, so they are accepted as just something that happens and have little long-term effect.  However, in the optimist’s world such events should not occur, and so when they do there must be a cause or reason.  And as the only available reason is failure to properly serve the collective good (the god of the theocratic state), the only possible reaction is to redouble efforts at serving that good.  Now, optimism has no basis in reality, and so bad events will continue to occur, and each time the optimistic society will become that bit more extreme.  This means that the pessimist’s response to any crisis of trying to find a workable solution is impossible, as technocratic solutions constitute by their nature a denial of the notion of a right path.  And so the centre-ground is abandoned as factions move to greater and greater extremes. 

This is absolutely what we see in the United States today, with extremism on both ‘left’ and ‘right’, and any attempt at centrist compromise lambasted from both sides as a betrayal.  And so, in the end, all that America’s leaders can offer to their people is hope.  And that is the last thing any society needs, for hope, a promise, a dream, breeds only disappointment, dissatisfaction and despair.