Listening in at Hobsbawm conference

As a philosopher rather than an historian, I came along to Brighton University’s conference on Eric Hobsbawm who died just recently to listen rather than take active part. Also I had to leave promptly at the end, so I am using cyberspace to make two particular comments which occurred to me – only one directly connected to Hobsbawm himself.

First, the point was made by Mark Perryman that Hobsbawm believed that patriotism could run along with militant class consciousness (on Marxist lines) and that he had opposed Scottish nationalism. Tom Hickey, another contributor, objected that patriotism can never fit the Marxist bill because it is always linked to tradition and history. Now, whilst I would agree with Hickey on that theoretically, it needs to be remembered that most, if not all, Communist and allied movements in fact tried to combine patriotism with their other aims. This applied not only to regimes in the Communist world (we need only think of the Soviet designation of their war against Hitler as The Great Patriotic War) but also to those ‘national liberation’ movements in Asia, Africa, or central and south America during the 1950s to 1970s which clearly appeared as patriotic as well as Marxist in their ideology. In their case the chief problem was probably that the combination with patriotism made it even more likely that these movements would turn into tyrannical dictatorships if they gained power than the Marxist ideology alone would. That is a different problem from that of conservatives who try to fight the social problems of modernity with patriotism only to find they have to modernise in order to hold onto their identities and traditions in the first place, although again tyranny can result therefrom.

Second, in talking about student protests of 2010 rather than Hobsbawm himself, Lucy Robinson suggested that in some situations it might be important not to tell the truth, but to ‘make the truth happen’ as she put it. I have to say this seems to me to be an incredibly dangerous position to take. To begin with, any black propagandist from Goebbels to McCarthy would be delighted to find such a notion of truth accepted – simply there would never be a problem with being accused of lying or deception whatever you say or do; all you are doing is trying to make truth happen (for you). In addition, it is probably fair to say that none of the various philosophical theories of truth would accept such an idea. However, a danger with the pragmatic or coherence theories is just that they could lead in that direction because in reality it is impossible to be sure that the rational and expert judgment which those theories rely on is really as trustworthy as they need it to be. That is, the thought sequence ‘Let’s make the consensus and then we make the truth to fit what we want’ is a possibility in these cases; for instance, because experts can be misled, bribed or intimidated. So, I would plead with Ms Robinson to think again.


Round and around we go

Far be it from me to be a scientist, but I notice that the wheels of orthodoxy are turning once again. During the 1930s revulsion against eugenics and the real or supposed discoveries of anthropologists turned educated opinion toward the belief that our lives and behaviour depend on our social environment. Little need to worry about ‘human nature’; with the right nurture and education we’d get there in the end. Other views, even of Freud and his followers, were supposed to have been cast into history.

By the 1970s, the emergence of genetics and ‘sociobiology’ with Desmond Morris, Wilson, Dawkins, and others started us on a return to heredity. Again politics lay in the background (it always does), and the doctrines of Marxists (no such thing as human nature) or Left/liberal social reformers who assumed we would respond the right way to social support became progressively discredited. The exposure of Margaret Mead in 1983 as a simpleton helped the process on its way.

Now in 2012, I realise we have begun to head back in the reverse direction once again. Partly, this is good science once again: I remember myself being startled by the sudden reduction in the number of genes we are thought to have, down to roughly the same as a mouse (20,000-25,000 genes instead of 100,000). Now we may be finding that gene expression is what really counts. Plasticity is the new watchword here. But may I suggest that politics comes up from the depths yet again; the current and long-lasting economic crisis is discrediting ‘neo-liberal’ (or ‘neo-conservative’ – at this rate we will run out of labels) sociology as well as economics and more of us are looking for something different to do with the underclass – and the rich. That was not expected when the scientists persuaded the American and British governments to support the Human Genome Project in the 1990s, but one of the best things about science is that it can produce unexpected results. Yet another reversal in the old issue going back at least to the 17th century between human nature and human moulding looks all too predictable; the last reversal began roughly 40 years ago and the one before roughly 40 years before that. On this performance we would expect to start accepting heredity and human nature again about 2050. Or will science surprise us and jerk us out of the routine?

On a closely related matter, it now does look as though American social conservatives are (or have become) political losers. On the nature/moulding cycle they should be back in strength for 2052 or thereabouts. Or will liberals finally realise that social conservatism is no alternative at all, because it must pursue affluence (resulting from hard work and patriotism) at all costs, and affluence makes social discipline difficult, if not downright impossible? Were that miracle to happen, science might be left to take its own course.

Inner outlooks, banks, capitalism and what else?

Sometimes I do have to compliment The Times on their variety. On the very same morning that they reported the Bishop of Durham and favourite for next Archbishop of Canturbury, the Right Rev Justin Welby, urging that a new banking Act should replace the system destroyed in 2008 with something ‘…dedicated to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity’, Tim Montgomerie quoted Gary Streeter, MP, saying a new Archbishop should end all clerical attacks on politicians and believe that if you ‘transform a person’s inner outlook then their political manifesto, business behaviour or parenting will take care of itself’. Now, these two things need not be contradictory, at least in terms of pure reason. But at the very least, proposing legislation about the organisation of banks and finance – a central part of a capitalist economic system – on grounds of the common good and solidarity implies a belief that legislation can play a part in framing people’s ‘inner outlooks’. Once governments are involved with that in any way, their policies become, on Montgomerie’s and Streeter’s own premises, a matter of direct concern to the clerics. In theory, they could, as Streeter wishes, just whisper in politicians’ ears behind the scenes. But we all know that publicly controversial matters do not stay behind the scenes, whilst covert lobbyists are a favourite object of suspicion and distrust – the last thing a churchman would want.

Montgomerie and Streeter display a typically conservative delusion that political life can stick to bread-and-butter issues because religion will take care of everybody’s spiritual needs and moral concerns. Banks and organised capital in general provide as good an illustration as any of why this won’t wash. The notorious liability of capitalism to periodic crises is not altogether a bad thing; it helps to prevent the rich winners under capitalism turning into a sacerdotal caste which imagines itself superior to the rest and which stifles social mobility. But it does mean inherent instability and insecurity. Further, if we are to limit speculative crises in particular, as well as protect ecologically sensitive areas like the Arctic, we are likely to need a curb on pursuit of patriotic pride and identity through economic competition. That would, persumably, mean a change in people’s ‘inner outlooks’ that most Conservatives and their equivalents around the world would dislike to put it mildly.

I have managed to follow Streeter’s advice (to Christians) in one important respect so far. I have not said one word about sex. The issues around capitalism demonstrate that there is plenty of scope for religion and politics to brush up against one another without sexual matters appearing at all. Oh, and what about Islamic finance?

Now for an informal route to peace?

Given the parlous state of the European Union and the abject failure of UN even to formulate an agreed plan for Syria – let alone carry it out – it is natural to give up on any internationalist hopes such as many once had. The best we can aim at in dealing with the world’s growing stack of trouble spots from the Middle East to the Falklands to the south China sea is practical diplomacy, and even that looks hard to get off the ground. The twenty-first century world displays a strange mix of global economics, charity, travel, and cultural interchange with retreat into local and parochial concerns as international cooperation and its institutions struggle to keep even a ramshackle show on the road. Yet that mix has a vague consistency in its chaotic anarchism. Not only that: it also shows up where past efforts at peacemaking went disastrously wrong and still do so.

More than two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant’s prescription for perpetual peace already pointed up certain assumptions which have proved sadly in error. Kant recognised there was no chance of a world state or government, but he still set his project on the basis of a formal institution or ‘pacific federation’ probably more far reaching than the United Nations or League of Nations ever were. Moreover, Kant insisted that individual states should have a ‘republican’ constitution where the consent of citizens would be required to go to war. Of course, Kant assumed these two stipulations would fit together, but more recent history tells us that may not be so. It should already have been apparent from events after the First World War that reliance on formal institutions without drawing in consistent popular support is a sure path to failure. The very fact that some of UN’s best work carries on behind the scenes, cooperating with local administrations or charities, emphasises the point.

Since the 1990s, and especially the Iraq war, the ‘democratic peace theory’ has quietly walked away in disgrace. Even if megalomaniac dictators are fortunately rare, we cannot expect ordinary people in any country to support international institutions over and above their own homelands. The way the Olympic ideal of bringing countries together works in practice should make that clear. For this simple reason, any international peacekeeping, or still more peacemaking, effort must involve talking to ordinary people and taking their concerns on board. The European project, from its earliest inception in the 1950s, never did this. The natural result we now see is a set of institutions confronted with a long running crisis whilst unable to call upon reliable popular support in any member states – even Germany with its central position and the stark warning of its own history.

If internationalism and peacemaking could only be about formal institutions, I would dismiss it as a hopeless cause. Yet, despite popular loyalty and historical traditions, any idea of individual nation states being able to cope with any of the global challenges we face in the this century, from financial instability to migration to climate change to religious conflict, seems downright absurd. There has to be, and there will be, international cooperation on an informal basis driven along by other global players such as corporations and NGOs as well as the sheer demands of survival. But there is no reason to suppose that such informal internationalism will be democratic or democratically accountable. Only if ordinary people get involved and find peacemakers talking to them is there any chance of that.

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

We are half way through that Olympic period when we were instructed, in a particularly crass piece of short-termism by the Times leader writer, not to discuss things which might go wrong.

To be fair, that same newspaper did not break this injunction by commenting (Aug 4) on Shafilea Ahmed’s parents conviction for murder since that was not an Olympic event, but it bears more deeply on our culture than the Olympics could ever do. One of the articles was sound enough, in my opinion, in pointing out that the political Left refused to challenge forced marriages and honour crimes because they were afraid of being tarnished with the racism slur. Indeed, the Left were displaying the self-same psychology which family honour/shame grows from, and now in areas typically Labour. But there is much more to family honour than forced marriages.

Which is why the jury’s decision and the 25 year minimum sentence from the trial judge amounts to more than merely an order to the Asian communties to integrate with British culture as critics of the Left might imagine. For there is also the question of what the Asians are to integrate with. The court’s decision amounts to an instruction, equally commanding, on that question too.  British culture must be and must remain modern culture, stripped of one of its (and Europe’s) pre-modern elements, namely, the shame culture conception of the family as a collective which matters more than its individual members. That in turn represents an order to leave parts of our cultural heritage behind as historical only. For instance, Shakespeare, author of the poem ‘The Rape of Lucretia’, is ordered to roll over.

As regards the Olympics, until a few days ago I had no whinges to offer, whether about security or anything else. Even the overblown stuff about Britishness was harmless enough in relation to what is, after all, a sporting event, not a moment in history. Syria’s civil war is the moment in history. (Europe’s economic crisis is more a period in history.) But when columnists start talking about tribes uniting (around their heroes/heroines of course) and collective thrills, we move into more sinister territory. The absence of a race ideology is not enough to deny that my mother’s generation shed blood and treasure fighting that sort of thing.

I’ll end my party with a cheer rather than more tears. For the second time in 5 years, Britain’s spring and summer weather has busted the simplistic notion that only winter rainfall matters for water supply. April did not start the wettest drought in memory, it ended the drought.

Two ways to overspend

The sort of stuff we are hearing from some of the participants in The Times CEO summit about slashing taxes and government spending, or flat taxes is very plausible, not least because it would be more effective than the familar alternative. Business leaders cannot be blamed for having swallowed the same implicit doctrine as everyone else. Namely, the only alternative to a ‘New Right’ free market style agenda for the combined financial and economic crisis is an old style socialist programme of public investment and measures aimed at raising the spending power of the poorer groups in society (who usually spend most of any extra income they receive). Most of us have absorbed the lesson from history that the state is not a canny investor, and that it is important for the poor themselves that welfare systems do not prevent them from seeking work. Part of the lesson is that socialist governments have tended (with a limited group of exceptions, chiefly in Scandanavia) to come to grief quite quickly.

It is therefore only too easy to imagine that the ‘let the market rip’ alternative is safe and sound. No, it is not. True it is likely to take longer to fail than the socialist path, but fail it will. Naturally, business people trained to please – and never to argue with or criticise – the customer will find it hard to think in terms of private overspending and indebtedness even when we have already experienced that as well as the governmental version. From a psychological standpoint, this is a similar delusion to that of trade union activists or poverty campaigners who cannot come to terms with a society where only a minority struggle for the necessities of life. Yet experience from the 1950s to 1960s, and then more sharply from the 1980s onward shows that an expanding private sector and affluent populace will eventually shade over into overspending of resources. The impact of status competition and ‘keeping up with the Jones’ is very effective at casting aside any limits here. This means overspending in straightforward economic terms reflected by balance of trade and/or levels of personal (including family) debt, without worrying about the environment. For a time a policy of cutting government spending and taxes means a free ride for a majority of the public (which socialism cannot match, even temporarily) but free rides ultimately come to an end.

I would like to think that some speakers at the CEO summit, be they politicians or, better still, business leaders themselves will be wise enough to take note of this. Sadly, the signs are that the dogmas of both left and right are too ingrained in our culture for that to happen. The Liberal Democrats used to pride themselves on being neither right nor left. How about starting to define what that might mean by working out an economic strategy that would not lead to overspending in one form or other, or indeed both?

Get the family connections right

No one is going to deny that cases like the Heywood and Rochdale sex exploitation one are painful, emotionally as well as in every other way. But that is all the more reason to understand them properly. David Aaronovitch (Times, May 10) himself makes the (psychological) connection with honour killings or forced marriages, and indeed with backward or rural cultures. He thereby spikes his own case for bidding us to accept the link with Muslim migrants – other than as a temporary problem. So far as it goes, Aaronovitch, Mohammed Shafiq, and the trial judge are correct to say the problem of street grooming is one of Asian communities in particular, but that very fact is an accident of history rather than a characteristic of Asians or Islam as such.

Aaronovitch also acknowledges that Britain (and he could well have said Europe) has experienced similar attitudes to those of certain Asian communities in the past. Indeed,  social anthropologists such as Campbell and Pitt-Rivers have documented family honour in all its forms persisting in village communities in southern Europe as well as elsewhere during the latter half of the twentieth century. It is a deeply disturbing fact that the very modern urban and suburban culture which carries so many diseases with it and is so unsettling for ordinary living, appears to carry a cure for that emotional plague that was capable of turning family life into a desperate struggle for power and prestige between the minature states which are families or clans in such conditions. Very often women are the principal casualties just because child bearing (and therefore the status of marriage) is crucial in that struggle. Modernity does not really cure the emotional plague, however, but transfers it to both modern states with their power plays and to material possessions which modernity produces en masse. Thus modernity makes men more likely to be the principal casualties. May we expect that given a protracted stay in British towns and cities of the twenty-first century the Asian communities will begin to copy the natives?

It is no accident that I have not needed to mention religion in this, and social anthropology gives it only a secondary role in analysis of family honour and related conduct. The harsh truth is we do not know when, or how, family honour first grew up (perhaps when humans began farming – hunter-gatherers seem to live rather differently). But we can be sure that it makes the world’s religions youthful innovations by comparison. The prophet Mohammed indeed devoted his life to seeking peace and reconciliation between Arabia’s feuding tribes, but he could not stop rivalry for status/honour amongst families in Arabia or anywhere else. It is modernity alone with its contempt for female modesty that could do that. Religion simply carried on playing happy families whether that fitted to reality or not.

One other thought comes to mind with this. Many of those great writers and artists who created the ‘classics’ we were wont to prize, including Homer and Shakespeare, wrote much about honour in all its forms – domestic as well as martial – simply because it played a major part in the worlds they portrayed, and long before the Victorians or Muslim migrants were heard of. Just why did all those products of classical education over the centuries apparently pay so little attention to what these writers actually have to say to us?

Can we square moral education with dark spirits?

In his characteristically honest and (mostly) intelligent piece in The Times of May 4th, Tim Montgomerie threatened us with a reawakening of a dark spirit in our culture: the Conservative Party’s reputation for ruthlessness.

I would not cavil at Montgomerie’s assessment of the dangers facing Mr. Cameron. (Mr. Clegg faces somewhat parallel problems with his party, but both for demonology and practical politics that is rather different). But when we listen to those calling for sharper emphasis on ‘Tory values’ a problem of both presentation and content arises. One of the alleged distractions for the Government from ‘Tory values’ is the proposal for gay marriage. This is not the place to debate the merits of adjusting the concept of marriage, but it is the place to note that ‘Tory values’ are meant to carry moral content. That applies indeed to pusuit of jobs and economic growth, which conservative apologists will tell you is about supporting hard work, discipline, enterprise, and support for one’s family. (Left apologists will almost certainly tell you that pursuit of jobs and economic growth is about something else.)

This is where the trouble starts. Once you start talking morals or ethics we start X-raying you for hypocrisy. So, if you belong to a party which has acquired a reputation (fair or not) for being ruthlessly focused on power and for readiness to stab people in the back beyond the normal call of politics, your moral stance will not be very convincing. Paradoxically, Nadine Dorries might become the one member trusted by the people just because she speaks out in public during an election campaign!

As is so common with social phenomena, there is no way to prove a direct causal connection, but I would guess the causes of social discipline and personal morality were not exactly helped in the post-World War II era by the Conservative Party’s reputation. Montgomerie needs to reflect that one thing the hard Left were not famous for was underestimating the Conservative Party’s ruthlessness.

This is, of course, a peculiar British problem, although global geopolitics probably give it parallels elsewhere. But once we focus on jobs and economic growth we encounter a universal problem. Just how do we set about curbing debt and reviving secure prosperity in the age of the affluent consumer without creating fresh opportunities for people to squander themselves and their assets on hedonism, vanity, and self-obsession?

Back to the Agora

If Professor Douzinas of Birkbeck College (once the home of Roger Scruton) is to be believed, an ancient dream might just be jerking back to life. Most obviously in the birthplace of classical republicanism where the Greek protest movement of December 2008 gave a 21st century twist to ancient practice by issuing randomly selected tickets to all those wishing to speak and confining each speaker to two minutes or so on an equal basis. But Douzinas finds echoes of the same spirit in other recent protest uprisings from the Arab Spring to France in 2005, to the Occupy movement, or even the English riots of August 2011. In addition to the specific demands and grievances sought by commentators, which of course vary widely between the particular cases, Douzinas cites a sense of freedom among groups of people previously invisible to conventional social and political representation. He says they were temporarily constructing a new political reality, a new public space open to them.

Speaking at Brighton University, Douzinas expressed the hope that such movements could create a new world. Only time will tell, but his hope of a new world seems more like a resurrection of something which had seemed dead and gone in the world of the affluent consumer: romantic republicanism. The features in most of these movements which confuse ordinary commentators, such as absence of leaders or even a clear programme of demands, appear in his eyes as positive aspects of a new (or is it very old?) openness. Traditionalists who worry about the social problems of the welfare state and consumerism usually rely on religion for any spiritual life. But Douzinas draws our attention to another ancient dream of spiritual life, with explicit reference to the Agora of classical Greece. This should serve notice to anyone who imagines that dislike of the modern world necessarily has to be conservative in the usual social or moral sense. But we should also remember that romantic/classical republicanism also produced its heroes, and in family honour the family itself is the republic.


Me – the reluctant republican

I don’t need convincing that the era of glamorous republicanism, looking back to the glory days of Athens and Rome, is long gone. Also talk of the ‘hereditary principle’ in relation to a purely constitutional monarchy makes a pretty thin case. But in the case of 21st century Britain, there is a real problem which monarchy may not be able to solve. It is well illustrated by Prince Charles, who takes up some worthy causes, but then runs into problems – or ridicule – because he is simply not trained to make a case against opposition which may have a strong case of its own.

The Queen herself is given the task to ‘advise and warn’ the Government under the traditional constitution, but no one is authorised to return the compliment in a regular way. Tony Blair had, effectively, to instruct the Queen to return to London for Princess Diana’s funeral. Currently, no one is on hand to warn her that to talk of religion as the foundation of our society can give people the absurd idea that if, for whatever reason, they do not believe the religion, they need not take morals or civilised conduct seriously. For what it is worth, I believe we have already suffered with that notion in the past 50 years or so. Yet in a time when we know that, for instance, children suffer grievously with family breakdown there is no need to invoke religion. (Ann Widdicombe could convey the message of her novel Father Figure as an atheist.)

I cannot say whether the monarchy can deal with this problem, but I am not optimistic. However boring, a President or whatever could be more easily prepared for difficulties of this kind, whilst still fulfilling the necessary functions of a Head of State.