National sovereignty considered as a rule-based game

catalonia

The Cambridge dictionary defines sovereignty as “The power of a country to govern itself”. As opposed to what? the power of a country not to govern itself? Defined in this way, the idea of sovereignty is a tautology; power, nationhood and government are effectively a closed loop. This historical weight of sovereignty is the conundrum that lies at the heart of every movement for secession, call for regional autonomy or declaration of independence, that is, the authority to declare sovereignty is predicated on the prior existence of that sovereignty. That is also why secession tends to be such a fraught issue, because it is played out as a struggle over power as a zero-sum game: if I gain, you lose; if you gain, I lose. In the worst-case scenarios winning and losing are calibrated by acts of violence by a perpetrator on a victim, and the final tally is reckoned in standing armies, cowed populations and territory held.

The breakup of Yugoslavia was the exemplar of this worst-case scenario occurring in Europe within recent memory, though, further afield, the creation of South Sudan and the suppression of the Tamil independence movement were events notable for their savagery. Generally, democracies manage secessionist tendencies rather better, as negotiation and concession are built into their modus operandi. Yugoslavia, held together by the iron grip of Tito in the orbit of the Soviet Union, had never developed the democratic traditions as an independent nation to cope with the centrifugal forces operating on its constituent parts post-Tito. By comparison, Czechoslovakia, after a few brief years as a democratic entity could negotiate a peaceful divorce (assisted by statesmen of real stature to be sure). For all the wind and thunder churned out by the mass media, the referendum on Scottish independence and even the Brexit negotiations have been carried out peacefully and with a sense of decorum.

Given this, the present standoff between the Spanish government and the Catalan authorities is unique in recent European history and extraordinary for a modern democratic nation. Having no vested interest in the struggle being played out, my natural inclination is to side with the argument that in any sovereign democratic state there are laws governing the distribution of powers in society, which applies also to the powers ceded to regional authorities; within those laws negotiations can take place on the balance of that distribution. At a level more removed, there is a case for the negotiability of the laws themselves, if they are considered unjust, but this is a case for extreme constitutional discretion. Democracy is never just about voting or “the will of the people” – the war cry of demagogues – it is suffrage under the rule of law. Since the supreme court of Spain has effectively denied the legality of the Catalan referendum, it is within its constitutional right for the national government to suspend the region’s autonomy and dismiss its elected government (although it seems only the latter is being proposed).

We can usefully lean upon Kant’s categorical imperative in this and other questions of secession: “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” If Mr Puigdemont were to achieve his aim of an independent Catalonia, would he countenance the further sundering of his independent state, given that the majority of Catalonia’s population did not vote for independence (the turnout was 43%) as the referendum was boycotted by pro-union parties? The question is purely rhetorical, of course, as secessionists are openly on a quest for sovereignty, i.e. power, nationhood and state governance, not for the enactment of abstract philosophical principles.

Yet, the dissembling and hypocrisy of secessionists is only one side in the game of sovereignty, in the political reaction to and decision-making about regional claims to power and the precedents thereby established. In a democracy, unlike an absolute monarchy, or socialist and fascist republics, in which power is centralised and total, the state has a duty to make judgements about the just and wise distribution of power. Thus, in the UK, calls for a Cornish state, the mutterings of the Wessex Independence Party* and the proclamations of the self-declared Kingdom of Hay-on-Wye can safely be ignored. Welsh and Scottish regional autonomy, however, cannot. Even though these identities are largely literary creations, they exert a real influence on the imagination of populations in regions that are geographically, and historically distinct. There is a fine judgement about when and to what extent to concede authority when demands are made. Too little risks resentment; too much fuels the ambitions of the unscrupulous and sets a precedent for those with less justification. In the case of Catalonia, the intransigence of the Rajoy government fails to accommodate the need in any dynamic society to be responsive to the genuine aspirations of a significant segment of its population. Politics is less like chess, the rules of which have been codified and frozen for centuries; it is more like music or architecture, in which the most interesting things happen in moving beyond the accepted conventions and structures.

The broad thrust of history seems to have been the absorption of lesser kingdoms and fiefdoms into sovereign nations. Since in most cases the boundaries of nation states are accidents of history – the shadow of battlefronts or the ruled lines of imperial surveyors – it seems a dogmatic article of faith to claim that the sovereign nation state is the immutable and ultimate legitimate player in international politics. A greater law of history, if there can be such a thing, is the chaotic nature of change and the unknowability of the future. However, as rational beings we can mitigate somewhat the turbulence of change through dialogue and negotiation. All people, as free individuals and as individuals identified by their various belonging, desire empowerment and the ownership that gives them over their lives, their community and their environment, something that the great centres of power ultimately need to recognise.

 

*Wessex was a medieval kingdom, resurrected as a fictional county in Thomas Hardy’s novels; I came up with the name for a projected satirical article, then checked it – the Party actually exists.

 

Advertisements

The Korean Dilemma

Never formally concluded, the wound of the Korean war has been festering for over 60 years; but quietly sidelined by matters considered more geopolitically important, the two Koreas now threaten to be the ground zero of a nuclear Armageddon. The hateful totalitarian nightmare of North Korea has nothing worthwhile to offer the community of nations and its continuing existence in the modern world is an affront to all right-thinking people. Politics, however, is the art of the possible. Given the utter disregard the regime has for the suffering of its own people, there is no pressure that can be brought to bear that might divert it from its goal of acquiring full nuclear capability. The best policy under the circumstances is to let it acquire that capability.

The reality of nuclear weapons and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction has been one of the decisive factors in maintaining the balance of power globally and regionally since the end of the second world war. North Korea, reflecting the Kim dynasty running it, manifests an enormous inferiority-superiority complex, born of its disastrous economy and continual humanitarian crisis, while at the same time in the grip of a maniacal self-belief and belligerence towards its ideological enemies, which includes just about every nation in the world. Acquiring nuclear capability is the only strategy the regime has to bolster its self-esteem. Despite the impression portrayed in the Western media, it is unlikely that Kim Jong Un is actually mad, so the likelihood of him launching a first-strike nuclear warhead at the United States, South Korea or Japan is remote. He understands that it would be all over in that event. While I have some sympathy for Donald Trump’s response, which has certainly not been less effective than Obama’s aloof indifference, or ‘strategic patience’, I think that repeated warnings of the dire consequences of the North’s repeated violation of every norm of international relations devalues a currency that is already worthless, and makes America look impotent. Neither is diplomacy the answer. Every concession made to the Kim dynasty in return for compliance to nuclear non-proliferation has been a veil behind which they accelerated their nuclear programme. Sanctions also clearly have not and do not work, and, moreover, they rely on the wild-card of Chinese compliance, which is unlikely to be forthcoming, given their own strategic interests in the region and their fear of further destabilising the North.

What would a nuclear capable North Korea mean for the international community? There are both potential benefits and potential dangers. One possible benefit is that the North might stabilise geopolitically, having achieved a major strategic goal; its new-found self-esteem and confidence might induce it to be less belligerent to its neighbours as it could boast being amongst the minority of nuclear powers in the world. Moreover, it could have the confidence that its political system, though the most regressive amongst the world’s established states, would be safe from external threat. This could – even though unlikely – initiate a process of economic reform and a lightening of the burden on its people, following the course that China has followed since the death of Mao. The opposite could happen, of course, such is the unpredictability of the regime. It could use its nuclear threat to blackmail other countries in the region. It could become an exporter of nuclear technology to terrorist organisations such as Al Qaida and IS. Therefore, acceptance of a nuclear North Korea should be backed by siting nuclear weapons in every surrounding country which is presently non-nuclear – South Korea and Japan (China and Russia would object, but China particularly would be threatened by a nuclear Pyongyang), and imposing a blockade on all its shipping and air freight and a total travel embargo on all North Koreans. The nuclear balance should be permanent, the other measures dependent on the North meeting its obligations to coexist peacefully with its neighbours.

America, at the moment, is attempting to control the situation. This is impossible, given that there are no constraints that might plausibly be effective. It is possible, though, to manage it. The management of conflict, rather than the idealistic and impractical goal of eliminating it, is the only form of peace that is likely to be realised on the Korean peninsula in the foreseeable future.

The Limits of Tolerance

Attacks like the one we saw in the heart of London last week always set in motion a series of political spasms on the right and the left, the right decrying the lack of calling a spade a spade in the establishment media, in that the danger is posed not just by Islamist terrorism, or by fundamentalist Islam, but by Muslims in general who are here in too great numbers, the left by denouncing any questions or criticism directed to Islam or the customs and practices of Muslims in the UK or elsewhere as ‘Islamophobia’ and thereby beyond the pale and to be dismissed without consideration.

Beyond this predictable ruckus, the response of the country, the political classes and the media by and large have been measured and proportionate. But for the long term to preserve the peace and the arc of social development the nature and role of tolerance needs to be explored and buttressed with more considered arguments and perspectives than are normally encountered in political soundbites and the media.

This issue has become one of some urgency for democratic cultures which are under assault from two very different sources. One is the more obvious influx and settlement of cultures with a rapidly growing demographic profile – specifically, though not uniquely, Islam – which have little or no tradition of liberal democracy, have a generally low tolerance for dissent, and at their most extreme actively call for the abolition of secular institutions and the imposition of religious or other alien laws. The other is a hypertrophied form of tolerance ideology which has taken over large parts of the left, displacing the traditional championship of the working class with that of ethnic and lifestyle minorities, and threatening fundamental rights such as freedom of conscience and free speech, and thereby eroding the basis of real tolerance. Both these threats have been cited as important factors in the rise of populism.

Tolerance has long been touted as a particularly British virtue; however, all established democracies by their nature must have learned to value and to nurture it. A democratic culture cannot really be embedded in a nation unless people have made accommodation with fundamental difference of belief, outlook and lifestyle for the sake of a higher good – that is social peace and stability, which are fundamental conditions of prosperity. To underscore that point, it is only necessary to look at the lamentable state of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the institutions and practices of universal suffrage instituted by the Americans and their allies are permanently undermined by tribal affiliation and ethnic hatred based on religion, which reflects the broader conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam. Throughout the region this hatred spills over into local and regional wars, mostly proxies for the major Islamic powers.

Clearly, then, tolerance is a good thing for society. But are there any limits to tolerance? The philosopher Karl Popper claimed that for the sake of tolerance it is necessary to be intolerant of intolerance. This perhaps establishes a logical benchmark without, however, taking us very far along the road of realistically understanding what tolerance is as a positive concept. This, however, has become the fundamental stance of British politicians in the post-9/11 era and time of mass immigration.  As the historian Eliane Glaser notes: “In recent years… the celebration of British tolerance has carried a coercive undertone. Indeed tolerance bears a growing resemblance to intolerance, as in a 2006 speech by Tony Blair in which he warned: ‘Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here’” (Glaser, 2014).

The situation is made more complex by that other form of intolerant tolerance on the political left, which embraces multiculturalism and identity politics. This form eschews the term ‘tolerance’ altogether, preferring words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. This terminological difference is important for two reasons. One is that it separates these political standpoints from the older, religious context in which notions of tolerance developed in the UK, that is a specifically Christian context, and so frees them from the theological and moral baggage which that carries. Secondly, it is able to divest itself of the tone of disapproval implied by ‘tolerance’ and promote the virtues of acceptance, ‘embracing’ and even celebration.

Having, as it supposes, established an unassailable moral position, the advocates of multiculturalism and identity politics feel justified in compelling absolute conformity to its dictates and denouncing, with an endlessly extendable bastard lexicon, even the mildest criticism or deviation as forms of intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia , disphobia, and so on. This denunciation even extends to welcoming and genuinely embracing the customs and traditions of outsiders, as ‘cultural appropriation’. This latter, if nothing else, reveals the Machiavellian heart of its politics, which is to champion distinction and separation, to perpetuate and elevate the status of victimhood, and to fragment the normative sense of national cultural identity.

For the reasons outlined above, I find the notion of tolerance defined as the negation of intolerance unsatisfactory. To understand the nature and limits of tolerance we can do worse than start with Aristotle’s concept of the golden mean. For Aristotle every virtue lies on a midpoint between vices defined by paucity and excess; for instance, bravery between cowardice and foolhardiness, or generosity between meanness and extravagance.  Tolerance, then, can usefully be understood to lie between the extremes of hatred of the other – genuine intolerance – and licentious indulgence of that which is exotic or transgressive.

It is also necessary though to explore the meaning of tolerance from the inside. It is often – it has become – confused with approval, but this is certainly not what tolerance implies in its original meaning. One may strongly, even violently, disapprove of someone’s beliefs or lifestyle, but suspend the impulse to coerce conformity, or even in extremis eradicate the irritant, for the sake of the greater good. It is a fact that the impulse to identify difference, which is the basis of all prejudice, suppression, oppression and ultimately ethnic cleansing and genocide, is unquenchable. Since this impulse cannot be eliminated individuals, communities and nations must learn and implement the practice of managing and controlling it. This is fundamentally what tolerance is.

Tolerance, though, does not exist in a vacuum, or without certain conditions. Interestingly, Japan, which is a stable democracy, one in which freedom of religion and political belief is institutionalised, is nevertheless not particularly tolerant of dissent at a societal level and a high premium is placed on conformity. Japan is almost an entirely monocultural society, whose religion is syncretistic, and has very low rates of immigration. This is definitely one route to stability, though it is increasingly rare in a highly mobile world; moreover, in the case of Japan this social stability is being maintained at the cost of economic stagnation and a moribund society. However, there is an important lesson to be learned from Japan: conformity to certain cultural values seems to be entirely compatible with tolerance of idiosyncrasy in other areas of life – indeed, there is a rich tradition of eccentricity in Japan, as there is in Britain, though it is rarely commented upon – and a case can be made that such conformity may be one of the important conditions of tolerance.

In this regard, it is sometimes said that Britain – particularly England – lacks a visible national culture to which we cleave, which is not true, although we do not have the overtly vibrant and colourful panoply of costume, dance, food and music that others share. However, Britain does have a democratic culture which goes much deeper than the periodic ritual of voting in elections, which even autocratic regimes mimic in an attempt to legitimise their uninterrupted rule. This culture rests on three largely invisible pillars of our culture which uphold our democratic way of life, and the democracies which have derived from the British tradition: the scientific method, individual liberty and the rule of law. In fact, these are not uniquely or characteristically British (although Britain was, by historical happenstance, an important crucible in their development), but requirements for anything that pretends to being a universal culture. They are also the foundational principles around which a debate about tolerance and intolerance can be drawn up.

Around these three principles I would say, there is absolutely no discussion and they should be the bedrock of our educational system and social institutions without compromise. However, while affirming those principles absolutely, that does not mean that there is no movement within them. Participation within the life of society means contributing to the actual content that they embody, ensuring the continual development of the society and its culture.

For example, there is a clear distinction between the scientific method and scientific knowledge. The content of scientific knowledge is continually updated based on research, and even longstanding and respected theories are challenged and overturned. There is no sacred knowledge in science. However, the scientific method is fundamental to the acquisition of valid knowledge. Although there are philosophical debates about the exact nature of the scientific method, there is no dispute about the fundamental role of theory and evidence, developed and applied with a rigour concomitant with the character of the research in question.

Similarly, we uphold the principle of the rule of law, which means that no one, however privileged, wealthy, famous or powerful, is above the law or beyond its reach. Yet, clearly the law evolves over time to reflect the changing complexion of society, its priorities and developments brought about by new technologies and changing demography, to update the concept of justice. While never perfect, there is a system of checks and balances in place, which means that the law attempts to serve the common good rather than the interests of vocal minorities. Clearly injustices occur, and sometimes these are systemic, but the system is self-correcting over the long term.

Democratic societies are by their nature highly individualistic. Contrary to the criticisms of some collectivist cultures, this does not mean that they are selfish and hedonistic; in fact, democratic societies are marked by a highly developed spirituality and morality in which respect is conferred to the individual soul, which is considered free and responsible. It is this concept, though, which is continually under attack from the enemies of democracy, who believe we must act and even think in accordance with their precepts, whether they be religious or political. For example, a lot of religious and political capital – on both left and right – has been invested in the hijab, as symbol of women’s oppression or expression of religious freedom. To this I would only comment that if designers were to make the hijab a fashion choice freely and widely adopted by British women based on beauty, style and convenience, I cannot see how anyone could reasonably object.

What should we do in the face of intolerance, of the kind that believes that a life not dedicated to their ideology is a life of no value, such as we saw demonstrated last week on Westminster Bridge? We should do as we have done: review our security arrangements and carry on as normal. Apply the law rigorously in the prosecution of illegal action. We should continue to apply our scientific reason to illuminate the dark areas of the soul in which irrational superstition can fester. Above all we should carefully apply the principle of individual liberty. Individuals are free and responsible for their actions, not their family, community, religion or ethic grouping. Even if all terrorists were Muslims, which is not the case, this does not carry the implication that all Muslims are terrorists. To reach that false inference is not just a breach of logic, but does violence to our democratic culture and its belief in individual liberty.

Are there limits to tolerance? Fundamentally, I would say no, as tolerance defines the sort of society we would like to continue to live in. Tolerance does not mean we agree and it does not mean we approve; but it does mean that we keep our disagreement, dislike or disgust of the other in check for the greater good of peace and stability in society. It is the function of the law, not my conscience, to determine where acts against the common good have been committed and to prosecute such acts. I also have my prejudices and my ignorance, which it is the role of evidence-based inquiry and rational discourse to dispel. But no law should compel me to love my neighbour, respect his beliefs or approve his lifestyle. These may come through engagement with individuals from diverse backgrounds, which any rational education should encourage us to do, but compulsion is toxic to the very concept and social realisation of tolerance.

 

Reference

Eliane Glaser, ‘Tolerance and Intolerance’, History Today Volume 64 Issue 2, February 2014.

 

 

 

 

The rise of populism considered from the perspective of evolutionary constraints on our moral choices

May you live in interesting times (Confucian curse)

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites (Edmund Burke)

A scholar of impeccable academic credentials once suggested to me that revolutions are spaced about the average lifespan of a human apart, about 70 years. I was sceptical, as this sounded like numerology, but I did some digging and there are indeed some interesting patterns: the French Revolution (1789) to the European uprisings of 1848 is admittedly only 60years, but if the American Revolution (1776) is counted in, that is about 70; from there to the communist revolution in 1917 is roughly 70 years; and from the revolution to the fall of the Soviet Union (1989) is about 70 years. Of course these events are selective, and I am not suggesting there is a grand plan. However, they may point to an underlying truth: that real social change occurs in a highly disruptive manner, not as a result of gradual progress, and that this change is generational, as it takes the space of about two generations for the contradictions implicit in any system to become apparent and momentum for a new direction to grow to a critical point.

The historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn loaned the term ‘paradigm’ from the obscurity of the social sciences and controversially applied it to revolutionary changes in scientific outlook, in the process reinvigorating the concept, redefining and enlarging it and, admittedly, setting it on course to become the de rigeur cliché for any and all sorts of change; it is surely, though, something that corresponds closely to a paradigm shift that we are living through. We are now, in the West, standing about 70 years on from the end of the second world war, from a time when a transnational consensus was established around such institutions as the United Nations, NATO, the beginnings of the EU, the welfare state in Britain, the founding of modern Israel in the Middle East, the demilitarisation of Germany and Japan, the growth of the military-industrial complex in the USA, a period of US economic and political hegemony in general. Within this span many changes have occurred outside the western democratic sphere: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of China as a communist nation and then as an economic superpower, the resurgence of Islam as a powerful political idea in the Middle East and beyond, the stirring of real political and economic progress in parts of Africa and in India. In the West itself cracks are beginning to show in many of the post-war settlements and institutions, while there is a pervasive sense of economic stagnation and the loss of international leadership, manifest in the seeming inability to deal with the crisis of migration and endemic war in the Middle East. It is against such a background that we are seeing the arrival of a new kind of politics, anti-establishment and populist in its appeal.

The spectre of populism seems to alight on its most prominent figures, such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders, focussing on their oddity, unsavoury characteristics or questionable beliefs. Although in the main it seems to be a manifestation of right wing politics, there are also populists on the left, such as Bernie Sanders, Podemos in Spain, Beppe Grillo and the Five Star movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece, as well as Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour party. It is interesting to note that a significant number of voters in America switched from Bernie Sanders, an anti-establishment left-winger, to Trump, rather than Clinton, an embodiment of the liberal elite. Populism has perhaps less to do with the particular political flavour than its anti-establishment stance and the identification, even if to some extent a fabrication, of grievance and loss within a significant proportion of the national population, a loss – whether of identity, jobs or prestige – caused by the policies of the liberal establishment, an establishment, moreover, that has profited by and large from these same policies. However, I want to propose a hypothesis that even underlying these more obvious political triggers, there is an actuality – not a perception – of moral decline that should be worrying us far more than it actually is.

Since such a hypothesis is going to enrage some people even before it is explained, let me first set out what I am not saying. I am not saying that people now are worse than they were in the past; human nature does not change much over time; however, the general belief is that we are much better, and this is an illusion. We may kill people less, at least in the developed world, but this is because of advances in wealth, technology, political structure, religious belief and law. We may believe we are more generous, and cite increasing donations to various causes, but altruism is a natural human trait which is found across all cultures and has no correlation with money (although self-congratulation may). In this context, it is worth noting the rise in xenophobic attacks with the EU referendum vote and with Trump’s election, which demonstrates how shallow the shackles of self-restraint are. Or the pervasive maliciousness of the online world which exists outside conventional social restraints

The roots of moral life from an evolutionary perspective lie in our sociality, and the natural institutions that both create and emerge out of that sociality. By this I mean those social bonds that are rooted in our biology: physical survival, protection, reproduction, genetic inheritance and genetic closeness. These are the underlying infrastructure – if one can call it that in want of a better term – of our sociality and the institutions of family and community, such as marriage, parenthood, kinship, friendship and economic occupation (which includes any activity to support the family and have standing in the community, whether that be hunting, farming or banking). There is no human society in which these things have not been fundamental, despite whatever other advances or changes have occurred. Societies have always flourished at a time when these institutions have been strong; and no society historically has flourished when these have been weak, neglected or under attack.

Moreover, in evolutionary terms, beyond our mere physicality we have an ‘excess’ in our neurological constitution (which we variously refer to as mind, soul or spirit) in which we entertain beliefs about the world of our experience. Interpretations of what this means for our self-understanding vary enormously – my own view is that in the primal state this is a survival mechanism – but whatever the ontological reality of our beliefs, they must not fatally undermine our natural sociality; if they do they will be eliminated by natural selection (on this point I am closer to Richard Dawkins than to Julian Huxley, Darwin’s ‘bulldog’, who believed that we have transcended natural selection). This selective process eventually manifests through the political process, particularly in times of upheaval.

The crux of my argument is that the liberal establishment has allowed and even facilitated the erosion of this evolutionary infrastructure of sociality, and that this has had a disproportionate effect on the less well-educated, less mobile and less wealthy sections of society, who in any society constitute the majority. Liberalism has not simply allowed the export of blue collar jobs abroad where labour is cheaper (to be often replaced by jobs that pay insufficiently for a person to buy a home, marry and raise a family), but, more seriously, has persistently undermined the foundations of family and community which enable the emergence of social solidarity. Economic hardship alone, while an important contributing factor, is not sufficient to accomplish this. For the past 50 years the liberal establishment, consisting primarily of academics, the media, and the entertainment industry, has moved forward an agenda of undercutting the foundations of social solidarity: marriage as the unique core of family life, the historical narrative of national identity, and also religion as one of the core facilitators of communal life. This agenda has gradually been institutionalised in education, law and politics. Whatever one’s political views, when teaching children gender fluidity becomes a greater priority than ensuring a sound basic education for all, when celebrating diversity becomes more important than celebrating full employment, we are entitled to wonder whether liberalism has reached its hubristic apotheosis.

As much as I am an advocate of maximising human freedom, freedom comes with its own built in constraints, an internal logic that freedom cannot undermine itself, that is, allow actions that result in its own destruction. These constraints are those determined by our evolutionary heritage and the institutional structures that emerge from them that constitute our social being, referred to above. That people choose not to marry or become parents, or choose not to marry but have children, or choose to divorce, or choose an alternative lifestyle, these are individual choices and rights in liberal democracies. Nevertheless, they have social consequences, and if these tendencies become prevalent they have demographic consequences. The influx of immigrants into Europe, for example, is agued by some as a necessity given the population shortfall created by a low native birth rate. This, of course, is not what people want to hear. We have become used to thinking about our sociality in purely individualistic terms, in terms of our freedoms and rights and of the social reality in which we want to live; but just as for all our cleverness and ingenuity we cannot ignore fundamental forces such as gravity, so for all our social experimentation we cannot ignore the evolutionary parameters of our being without consequences.

It is at the interface between individual choice and social necessity that the most interesting political choices are made and the most virulent arguments take place. It is likely that this argument will never be finally settled, as this dynamic of competing views is at the heart of democratic culture and ensures its adaptability to changing circumstances. Excessive liberality is bad for societies, just as excessive authority is, and when pushed to one extreme a counter-force inevitably appears. Populism, therefore, can be seen as a collective, unconscious reaction to the ills that plague modern liberal democracies. If it had not been Trump, Farage or Le Pen, other figures would have arisen with similar grievances and similar policies.

Therefore, to categorically assert that populists represent the doom of democracy is to be entirely enclosed within a dying paradigm and to misunderstand the underlying dynamic of the paradigm shift that they represent. To accuse them of being by definition anti-democratic is to have forgotten that democracy was, in the ancient world, and has been in modernity, a revolutionary force, representing more closely the wishes of the mass of people than any other system of governance that has existed. It is also to be wilfully blind to this system having been gradually hijacked by self-perpetuating elites who have empowered and enriched themselves. As long as people generally felt that they were making progress they were willing to acquiesce to the elites in Washington or in Brussels, but since the financial crisis in particular, and the increasingly widening gap between rich and the poor, or those simply struggling to stay afloat, there has been a growing anger on which populism has capitalised.

Nevertheless, there is a great deal of uncertainty and potential for danger in these developments. In a recent article, the author Robert Harris argued that the political situation today resembles that of the 1930s more closely than any time since. I do not think we are even close yet, but the signs should serve as a warning. Berlin in the 1930’s was not only a time of great social unrest, economic turmoil and political agitation, but a byword for moral turpitude. Lest people think that these factors are unconnected, the National Socialists made great play of their intention to clean up Germany morally, which was one factor in their gaining popular support. The present populists are hardly moral paragons and tend to be morally liberal on the whole, but they advance authoritarian policies which could be a step in allowing more extreme policies to follow.

Karl Marx expected the communist revolution to take place in Britain, the most industrially developed country in the nineteenth century; that it did not may be due in part to great reforms in the Victorian era, in particular on the spiritual, educational and economic conditions of the working classes. The populist platform today could be derailed by centrist parties having the courage to undertake reforms of similar magnitude. Having said this, I have no expectation that people today will willingly change their behaviour, as it is human nature to resist difficult choices, moral or otherwise, unless circumstances force our hand. My hope is that our existing institutions are strong enough to withstand the uncertain times into which we are moving and that we may be able in hindsight to view this period in history as a time of readjustment in the balance of freedom and moral obligation within democratic society rather than the beginning of a civilisational holocaust from which we must build anew.

 

Capital Punishment: Marx, Markets and Mortgages

By James Walker

James Walker is the editor of the literary graphic novel Dawn of the Unread. It was created as a response to alarming literacy statistics in young people across the UK. Now what alarms him is how a changing labour market is making it impossible for his son to get on the housing ladder. What is required is greater economic literacy and to do this he’s joined a reading group exploring Karl Marx’s Capital Vol.1.

First off, let’s have a few statistics about the miserable mess we’re in. I’m not talking about Brexit, Trident or Sam (Big Sam) Allardyce becoming the England manager. I’m talking about two four letter words that define our lives: work and home.

According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) there were 10,732 repossessions of rented and mortgaged homes by bailiffs between January and March. Although this was down by 123 during the same period in 2015, it was up by 479 for the final quarter of 2015. But we should be grateful as The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) believe if repossessions continue to drop at the current rate we’ll be at our lowest annual numbers since 1982. Back when houses were affordable.

There are some reasons to be cheerful in terms of buying a property. The standard variable rate for a mortgage has plummeted and a rise in stamp duty has slightly halted property developers from  swallowing up entire streets. But this has been offset by the ridiculous increase in house prices that simply make it impossible for anyone to save up a deposit, let alone get a mortgage. I bought my first home when I was twenty-one and it was roughly 3 times my annual wage. My current home is 7 times my annual wage. The house is the same size.

This may explain why rents in both the social and private sectors have risen this year by around 7-9%. The landlords who’ve had their wings clipped by the Chancellor are passing this cost onto those who can’t afford to get onto the property ladder. According to the MoJ there were 10,636 evictions during the first quarter of the year. Expect this to increase, as the cap on housing allowance kicked in at the beginning of April. Then there’s the 7.2million, according to Churchill Insurance, who have moved back in with the parents because a relationship ended and are too poor to rent alone.

For those without the luxury of parents, there’s the streets. You always know when the privileged are in power because the number of people ‘begging’ zooms up. On an average walk across town I probably get stopped between 5-10 times for ‘a spare bit of change’. Expect more of this as hostels, Citizen’s Advice, and public sector support service staff increasingly begin to evaporate.

What we really need is change.

Speaking of which, banks have a lot of loose change at the moment. They’ve saved a bundle in wages by adopting the trend set by supermarkets and kitting out their stores with self-service machines. The unidentified item in the bagging area is staff. People are losing their jobs in every area of work as technology slowly takes hold. Ring up for a taxi and you’ll no longer be put through to a call centre of eternally bored operators. Instead there’s an efficient automated service that tells you where you want picking up from before you’ve even said a word. And you know things are seriously wrong when Waitrose gets in on the trend and dismisses checkout staff in favour of self-service machines.

Banks need to cut back on wages because they’ve finally been caught with their pants down. According to the CCP Research Foundation the top twenty banks paid out £252bn in conduct charges over the past five years, such as the six banks fined a record £4.3bn for rigging foreign exchange rates and Lloyds £4bn penalty for mis-selling of payment protection insurance. So why exactly did we bail out the banks again?

According to the Sutton Trust, the poorest British students will graduate with debts in excess of £50,000. (In the US, by contrast, where students study for an extra year, the average debt at a private for-profit university is £29,000.) Although state-sponsored loans are linked to future earnings, these debts are subject to inflation so the money keeps going up. Students who studied a decade or so ago will tell you that although their debts were a lot cheaper, the loans have been sold off to debt agencies, despite the promise that they wouldn’t be, and now fear earning a penny above a certain threshold because it will trigger larger repayments.

For those of us fortunate enough to have a job there is the constant restructuring of departments and the shoehorning of two jobs into one, and for an added bonus, with reduced hours. Some of us have had our wages frozen for so long we have to put gloves on when we draw money out the bank. We’re told we should be grateful that we’ve got a job, and expected to smile when we receive the ‘Happy Friday’ email wishing us the very best for the weekend and remembering not to be late back in on Monday.

For adolescents who’ve skipped further education there’s the temp agencies where you’re guaranteed the minimum of work for the minimum amount of money. One lad I spoke to told me he had to drive to Grimsby to do a two hour shift and he wasn’t paid for his petrol or the four hours the round trip took. He had to do it because if he refused they wouldn’t consider him for other work. Work left him out of pocket. Of course this is completely illegal but it goes on all the time. ‘Calm down and carry on’ is the expression. This translates as ‘Shut up and do as you’re told’.

Zero-hours contracts are the reality for most of us now. University lecturers are paid by the term and join an expendable workforce who can be got rid of with the flicker of an eyebrow. And this is where the Big Society steps in. The volunteers who run our libraries. The volunteers who cut down the forests. The volunteers who write for free for magazines because they have the deluded idea they can make a difference. So in some respects we’ve been complicit.

All of which finally gets me to my point. If we are expected to live flexibly in a big society on zero-hours contracts, isn’t it time we had a more flexible mortgage, a ‘zero-hours’ mortgage, to reflect the reality of our lives?

A zero-hours mortgage would work exactly like a zero-hours contract. If there’s no work, there’s no mortgage payment. Simple. It’s not your fault that you’re losing your job in the call centre to the latest Siri. If you do work a few hours then you pay a proportionate payment. Yes, calculating this could be tedious but isn’t that better than repossessing a home and putting a family out on the street, which is ultimately more costly for society?

A university lecturer told me recently that universities need to throw out all of their liberal newspapers and stock the Financial Times. He said that’s where the power is, in the things people don’t understand. The things that are deliberately made complicated. For this reason he believes economics should be at the heart of everything that it is taught, no matter what the discipline. It’s for this reason that I’ve joined a reading group where we are slowly working our way through Karl Marx’s Capital volume one, reading one hundred pages per week. It’s complicated, but far more humorous and literary than I would have imagined. I don’t believe in communism, and I certainly don’t believe in capitalism in its current manifestation. All I know is that something isn’t right at the moment and the system needs a bit of tinkering. Hopefully this book group – comprised of PhD students, unemployed, artists, etc. – from Manchester, Mansfield and other places not necessarily beginning with M will help me figure it out.

 

(James Walker is a lecturer and journalist. He won a 2015 Guardian Teaching Excellence Award for his efforts to improve literacy through the online graphic novel Dawn of the Unread. He has sought to promote Nottingham’s literary history and was the last person to interview the acclaimed novelist Alan Sillitoe. He was also director of Nottingham’s successful bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. www.jameskwalker.co.uk @TheSpaceLathe)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Banality of Madness

Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad                                                              (Longfellow, The Masque of Pandora)

History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce                                                              (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon)

 

For the modern world that does not believe in evil, but only in blame and victimhood, the currents of the present must augur an existential crisis; for we lack the language and even the thought to encompass the monstrous nature of events such as that which took place in Nice on Thursday evening. Families out enjoying a celebration are now the targets in an asymmetric war in which the mundane becomes the source of terror and mayhem, and in which fellow citizens become a proxy army infected as by some alien virus.

Without mitigating in any sense the awfulness for those involved, there are reassurances in all of this. It becomes clear that this has little to do with Islam, a religion with a long and noble spiritual history, so, perhaps after a period of doubt, we can embrace our Muslim neighbours and compatriots as fellow sufferers and accept their condemnation at face value and not as merely self-serving platitudes. For finally, the heart of IS is revealed not as piety but as pure evil, the offspring of madness and criminality. As their so-called caliphate is losing ground in Syria and Iraq, their remaining currency is only death, indiscriminate death to as many people as possible. For in their logic everyone is an infidel; whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist or of no religion, if living in the lands outside the caliphate or if not at war with their own country.

As the shock of repeated tragedies wears down our vocabulary of outrage and horror until they become clichéd, we risk not indifference or terror, but levity. The spectacular insanity of Nice, in betraying our expectations of reason, humanity, compassion and mercy, cannot be encompassed by the rational mind, but only by something like absurdist theatre. Cartoonists understand this well and frequently tread the fine line between humour and offense. There is, of course, an antidote to this: as the ghost of Marley reminds Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, mankind is our business and the common welfare.

The indiscriminate nature of such acts means we are all potential targets, but there is something comforting at the same time in knowing that this madness has taken on the whole world as its enemy and is unlikely to irrupt in our vicinity, or only as likely as anywhere else. We expect our government to take the necessary steps to protect the population, just as we would be wise to be more vigilant. We are going to have to live with this as the new reality for the foreseeable future, and factor in this risk as we do others in going about our daily lives. Otherwise, we should offer an empathetic Gallic shrug and get on with our business.

Postscript to the Referendum: the Continuing Case for Reform of the EU

 

This article updates and replaces the article “The EU: Neither Remain nor Leave – Reform” posted before the EU referendum

Amid the celebrations, dejection, hopes, foreboding, possibilities, instability, treachery, transformation and general uncertainty that has followed the outcome of the EU referendum, one thing has been generally overlooked, which is unsurprising as it hardly featured in either the campaign to leave or to remain: the desperate need for fundamental reform of Europe’s political institutions. This imperative would not have disappeared if the decision had been one to remain (which it could so easily have been, given the very small margin), but it has not disappeared either with the decision to leave. Reform of the EU is possibly the only hope for a peaceful and prosperous Europe in the future.

There was something demeaning, lazy and spiteful about the way in which the campaigns leading up to the referendum were run; the incessant focus on whether we would be better or worse off financially had a distorting effect on our judgement, forcing us to see everything in terms of self-interest, both individually and as a nation. This is no doubt a contributing factor in the rise of xenophobic abuse since the vote. Like it or not, regardless of the outcome, we are bound to Europe through geography, ties of blood and history, and the fate of Europe is one that we will share. The case for reform of the EU remains as compelling as ever.

I believe the Remain camp lost in part because it was so complacent about one of the most corrupt political institutions that has ever been foisted on a population. We may have had a pax Europa for the last 50 years, but at what a cost! We have been offered bread and circuses while our fundamental freedoms guaranteed by such things as the supremacy of parliament and an independent judiciary have been systematically undermined by the existence of an unelected European Commission, a rubber stamp European Parliament and a European Court of Justice that has arrogated to itself the right to override any legislation passed in individual states (Evans-Pritchard, June 8th, 2016).

One the other hand, the Leave camp blithely proclaimed that the successful future of a small corner of the European continent would be guaranteed, supposedly on the basis of its past imperial glories, shorn now of the troublesome ties of Europe. They reimagined themselves in the romantic past of British pomp which they projected as the future; this in a world which is profoundly interconnected and which is becoming more so. The past week has presumably had a sobering effect on their short-lived exuberance. In the long-term they might be proved right, but it is already falling to steadier hands to make the reality match the promises. Part of that will be to negotiate a new relationship to Europe. Even though Britain has been protected from many of the currents of mainland European history because of its island status, it has always been affected by events there and usually involved. Is it imaginable that the EU could collapse catastrophically and the UK remain untouched? However, it should be incumbent on whatever government negotiates terms not to go with a begging bowl but to demand fundamental democratic reform.

All European nations have had appalling histories, but Britain has been a particularly successful model of political evolution. By the end of the 17th century, through the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, the political structure of Britain changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy based on the supremacy of parliament. It is the idea of parliamentary sovereignty which is the basis of modern democracy in the UK, a model much copied around the world. Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle which “makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law” (parliament.uk). Moreover “…the courts cannot overrule its legislation and no Parliament can pass laws that future Parliaments cannot change” (ibid). It is on the basis of the British model of parliamentary sovereignty that fundamental reform of the EU’s institutions needs to take place. The relationship of the Commission and Parliament must be reversed so that law is made by elected representatives to Parliament and the Commission or its replacement, whether elected or not, functions as a corrective, revising body. National bloc voting should be replaced by genuine trans-national political parties. The European Court should be confined to a constitutional role in interpreting acts of a European parliament. This would not be the end of reform, but unless such a fundamental change is instituted there is little future for European democracy.

Of course, it could be that the future of Europe will be different and that it will revert to a nineteenth century model of independent states and principalities in constant tension and shifting alliance. I doubt this though; the geopolitical and existential threats facing mankind require new forms of European – and global – cooperation. The EU has been a way station on the road to the emergence of a permanent European political and economic alliance, which is necessary if there is to be permanent European peace and the creation of a shared prosperity. At its best the EU has contributed to a more open, internationalist and mobile population. However, the EU has stalled and declined precisely because it is the wrong model. The right model necessitates giving real democratic power to European institutions, making them fully accountable to the people of Europe. The question remains to what extent nations would tolerate any further loss of sovereignty that this might entail.

The UK has decided in the referendum to claim back its sovereignty ceded to the EU over the past 40 years.  It now finds itself in a state of flux in which it has not yet begun to find its new place in the world. Its great strength is its particular form of democracy, which should never again be compromised in any negotiation, and commitment to reforms along similar lines should be a required condition of all those with whom it negotiates. The best outcome would be the emergence from this crisis of democratically accountable European institutions with a flexible membership policy. That is something that I could imagine the UK might be willing to rejoin at some point in the future.

References

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Britain’s defiant judges fight back against Europe’s imperial court. The Daily Telegraph.

Parliament.uk, Parliamentary Sovereignty. Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/how/role/sovereignty/

Related Articles

Timothy Garton Ash, As an English European, this is the biggest defeat of my political life. The Guardian.

Michael Petley, The vote that ended whingeing to eternity. The Daily Telegraph.

Mary Dejevsky, The leadership vacuum following the Brexit vote shows the UK is not as stable as we like to think. The Independent.

George Greenwood, Can the EU survive Brexit? CapX

 

The Intransigence of the Absurd: the Discourses of Racial and Sexual Identity in ‘Identity Politics’

There has long been popular and scientific fascination with feral children, reared and cared for by animals and with no contact with human society, that behave like the species that they live among and, we assume, identify themselves as. Such behaviour is not limited to humans; there are many examples, particularly of domesticated animals, that are adopted by another species that come to assume some of the characteristics of that species. This suggests that what we call identity is a universal of higher intelligence and that it is fairly plastic.

Humans, though, as is often the case, test this theory to destruction. An American woman, Rachel Dolezal, was recently denounced for identifying herself as black and living as a black woman, when her parents were both white, yet men who declare themselves to be women, dress as women and even undergo gender reassignment surgery are increasingly celebrated and accepted on their own terms, such as the much-publicised Caitlyn Jenner. Those who do not react viscerally to this conjunction and implied equivalence may be as puzzled as I am; but even those who do should reflect why these two cases should be considered so different.

Something I read a few years ago struck me then – as it still does – as so outrageous that I struggle to convince myself that it was not an imagined memory rather than an actual one. It was a brief article in some sort of educational magazine, a serious article, not a spoof to the best of my knowledge. It stated, as proof of commitment to the principle of inclusivity, that a particular school was being kept open at night because one of the students, a girl – let us call her Samantha – was a vampire, and could only work at night. Putting to one side the issues of the veracity of memory, journalistic objectivity and the wisdom of local education authorities (their respective dysfunctions are legendary), the central issue is not whether Samantha was a vampire, because clearly she was not, but why some assertions have assumed the power of fact, when the only fact is the fact of assertion.

Throughout history people have always sought to establish and assert their identity, but this process is complex and its focus has shifted over historical time among the kaleidoscope of possible markers such as region, religion, wealth and education. However, the fundamentals of identity are always the same: a playing out of our twin desires for individual freedom, particularly that of expressing our individual difference, and belonging, in which we find and sustain our similarity with others. This process can occur at several levels, as part of our individuality derives from belonging to a hierarchy of in-groups, such as our specific family, neighbourhood, city, region and country, in distinction to a series of out-groups characterised by otherness. Importantly, the precise definition of the other – as outcast, rebel, stranger, outlaw, scapegoat or victim – has a role in our self-definition as not-other.

On the other hand, sometimes our individuality is itself a form of self-imposed otherness, where we alienate ourselves from the mass to which we implicitly belong, in an act of self-exclusion that arouses, at the best, a sneaking reflexive admiration for the outsider hero – oneself – or, at the worst, self-pity for the identification of oneself as victim. Paradoxically, this self identification can become the basis for delusional group identity, in which there is a curious but toxic admixture of feelings of inferiority and superiority.

On one level it is strange that race is such a sensitive issue. After all, the boundaries of race are rather fluid, and science has never managed to establish a consistent or agreed definition. There are genetically homogenous groups such as Icelanders, Ashkenazi Jews and Japanese, but this is due to geographic and cultural isolation, and these pools do not correspond to what we normally call race, but the more limited concept of ethnicity. Race and ethnicity are actually complex cultural artefacts, and this is no more so than when we talk about the labels ‘black’ and ‘white’. From an evolutionary perspective the terms are nonsense; the only people who perhaps have the right to a generic and widespread genetic distinction are aboriginal Africans, but not because they are black in colour – the !Kung bushmen of Namibia, for example, have a reddish skin – but because they do not have the 1-4% of Neanderthal genes that the rest of mankind has inherited from prehistoric interbreeding between the two  human species. Mixing of peoples in the West, particularly in the Americas, means that genetic makeup and skin colour is on a spectrum of continuous variation; a surprising number of white Americans have some black ancestry.

Nonetheless, we can discern that the problematic nature of race does not reside in biology but in history, and that what we call black culture is really a shared history, a history that includes slavery, prejudice, apartheid, persecution, ridicule, drudgery and social deprivation, but also the enormous personal, communal and political forces that have forged great social and cultural gains from such a disadvantageous position. What we see, in fact, is a historically subjugated part of a heterogeneous population seeking common cause to overturn past injustices, rather than a distinct and homogenous entity. But in identity politics the narrative has assumed the status of a categorical assertion, wherein being ‘black’ is recognised as a necessary and sufficient condition for identifying oneself as part of a wronged community, which has become, perversely if understandably, a badge of honour. In its most radical form it assumes that dangerous polarisation of simultaneous inferiority and superiority referred to above, in which the mantle of the suffering victim and outsider can symbolically be asserted, not on the basis of experience necessarily (although many young black men can testify to being the subject of police harassment, known as ‘arrested for being black’), but simply on the basis of the colour of one’s skin. This was Rachel Dolezal’s perceived moral transgression: she assumed a badge of honour to which she was not entitled.

Interestingly, the older generation of radical feminists, such as Germaine Greer, apply much the same criterion of exception to transsexual women, as pretend women who have no right to assume the innate moral superiority of real women achieved through resistance to male domination. Now they find themselves sidelined and – in a recent neologism – ‘no-platformed’ by the younger generation of activists. This disparity in the reception of the trans-racial and the transsexual is hard to explain on the surface. It may be partly due to the great strides that have been made in women’s equality in the last generation, which have defanged the political radicalism of the earlier feminism, whereas racial equality lags behind, but I do not find this a persuasive answer.

I believe that underlying  this phenomenon is something that we could call the intransigence of the absurd, that is the assertion of something for which there is no scientific evidence, but which must be uncompromisingly defended by rhetoric and the layering of myth, most forcefully, naturally, by those who seek political leverage. A prototypical example of this is the assumed historical destiny and moral superiority of nationhood by nationalists of all stripes. The notion of race is one such absurdity, including that of being ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘Asian’, which must be vociferously perpetuated by all those seeking to take advantage of individuals who need to ground their tenuous sense of self by ascribing identity or otherness to individuals who bear a passing similarity or difference to themselves, a notion, moreover that must then be imposed on those who wish to make no such distinctions.

The reception of transsexuals into the community of women is based on a different narrative logic. The status of male and female sexual identity is so firmly established in biological reality, that a man believing himself to be a woman (or vice-versa) and acting the part is a patent absurdity recognised as such by everyone. Therefore, the deception has a theatricality that is acknowledged on all sides, as it has been throughout history in many different cultures. There is a twist to this, however. There is no political leverage in mere acceptance of this theatre; therefore, human sexual differentiation has been mythologised in the notion of gender, a radicalised state of indifferance and a socio-political chimera that fuses two notions of moral transgression: that of non-acceptance of the myth; and that of the traditional boundaries of the sexes, which must be preserved in order to be wilfully flouted.

The exact sociological function of race and gender finally diverge. Race is about belonging and exclusion, while gender has become about inclusion and freedom, specifically the freedom to define one’s sexual identity. Both notions are part of the narrative of how we establish social identity in a complex world, and should be tolerated on that understanding. However, we should never lose sight of their fundamental absurdity in inverting reality. That absurdity correlates strongly with an intransigent defence of the absurd; having abandoned evidence, it is not too great a step to abandon reason, openness and a willingness to entertain alternative viewpoints.

Asserting identity should be – as the word implies – about seeking universality above all, as a basis for accepting diversity. Identity politics does precisely the opposite. By repeatedly invoking historical injustices and incubating the fragmentation of human experience to create new forms of victimhood, it promotes belligerence as the essence of the shared social space, inclusion as a tool of exclusion, and the eternal past as the future.

(Note: the term ‘indifferance’, a play on Derrida’s concept of ‘differance’, denotes the prescribed ignoring of difference, distinction or differentiation, leading to moral indifference, rather than toleration, which recognises both difference and moral boundaries.)

 

We are subject only to the rule of law

I had not thought much, until recently, about how meaningful it is to live under the rule of law, although this is a pillar of our democracy. Even in the world today it is unusual to live under the rule of law. All countries, barring failed states, have laws, but many legal systems exist to cement the status of a ruling class, ethnic group or political party, not to protect the interests of the nation as a whole. In China, for example, the common law is inefficiently and inequitably applied to ordinary people, but not the ruling elites. That is why until recently corruption was rife among the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Now under Xi the corrupt are being jailed, but also critics of the government. This is not the rule of law; this is the exercise of arbitrary power to consolidate political position. Such has been and remains the experience of most of mankind throughout history.

Under the rule of law, no person, class or party is above the law. In the UK we are not ruled by the monarch, the Church of England, Parliament, the military, the judiciary, the Tory or Labour parties, the rich or the aristocracy. We, and all the above, live under the rule of law. The proof of this is the very cynicism with which we regard all forms of power, as we are fed a daily diet of the misdeeds of the rich, powerful, influential and famous. For, gloriously, we have a genuinely free press; and I mean a free press constituted under the law, not the mob rule of social media; as we have seen in countless countries, where the ‘citizen press’ has been hailed as the harbinger of greater openness, no sooner does it expose the naked corruption of the ruling elites than it is ruthlessly suppressed. Only where the rule of law, and with it the freedom of the press, does not apply is there unbridled and uncritical admiration of the great and the good, as it is constituted essentially of fear and ignorance.

These thoughts were sharpened recently by comments made by some radical Muslims that participation in democracy is un-Islamic and the only law that should be obeyed is the law of Islam. They are only the most recent and egregious of a long list of democracy-deniers that has included fascists, communists, Trotskyites, anarchists, and an assortment of religious extremists who believe that they, and only they, have insight into a truth that is so self-evident that this places them beyond the considerations of abiding by the law, and frees them to act in ways to achieve their political goals only limited by the extent of their imaginations. For, make no mistake, these people only want one thing: to accrue political power over others. Let me repeat that, for it is something that is frequently overlooked in the rhetoric of religious doctrine or political philosophy: the intention of those who denigrate democracy and the rule of law is to exercise absolute power over their fellow citizens by violent means.

This should remind us why the rule of law is so important and needs to be vigorously proclaimed. Firstly, it protects our fundamental freedoms and rights to safety and security, not only to protection from criminal activity but also unwarranted intrusions of the state: our freedom to conduct business, to associate, to express our views, to make contracts that are binding, to enjoy ourselves through leisure pursuits, to have our marriages and family life recognised. Secondly, it imposes limits on what we can legitimately do, which keeps us within the norms of socially acceptable behaviour and within that to tolerate the many differences amongst us, be they differences of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, political creed, sexuality, lifestyle or simply character. The rule of law is the manifestation of the will of a people to live in a free and tolerant society.

The law also sets out a minimum standard of life and responsibilities as a citizen of the society. No one, and no religion or political creed has the right to challenge this, because the law is fundamentally the settled will of the people, manifested through their representatives, about the type of society they wish to live in. For example, I might feel uncomfortable about the idea of gay marriage because of personal inclination, religious conviction or because I feel it fundamentally alters the meanings we have traditionally attached to the concept of marriage in our culture; however, through the constitutional process, this is now recognised in law. Increasingly, discriminatory practices based on personal preferences are illegal and it cannot be denied that this makes our society fairer. Democracy, after all, is not the dictatorship of the majority. But while personal conviction can never justify breaking the law, there is nothing to prevent us living beyond the minimum requirements of the law, whether that be acts of piety, charity, love, compassion, forgiveness, volunteerism, enterprise, invention or inspiration. The law requires none of these, nor does it forbid any.

There are, of course, laws that are bad and need to be challenged and there is a fine distinction between the need to uphold the rule of law and challenging unjust laws, and this frequently involves a considerable degree of self-sacrifice, whether voluntarily chosen or imposed. An oft-cited example is Martin Luther King who broke the segregation laws of Alabama in the 1960s and went to prison as a result. Rather than expressing resentment King accepted that it was right that he was jailed, because he had broken the law, even though it was an unjust law. The moral philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg held this up as an example of the highest order of ethical perception. In a modest way we have seen an example of this in recent days of the quiet dignity of a released inmate of Guantanamo, Shaker Aamer, seeking no revenge, but only to reintegrate into British life and campaign on behalf of the remaining inmates, despite 14 years of imprisonment and torture in a place where the rule of law and natural justice was suspended, a situation with which the British state possibly connived.

When Words Fail

There is nothing in principle to stop me picking up a spade and burying it in the head of my neighbour or driving my car into a passing stranger; or, for that matter, given the opportunity and the wherewithal, defacing a masterpiece or blowing up a holy site. The fact that I would not consider doing any of those things – would positively recoil from them – is either a piece of extraordinary good fortune for the world or the normal condition of humanity. In either case, unfortunately, there are those who do commit such acts and they fall basically into one of two types: those who commit them under the compulsion of some mental illness and those who countenance and commit them in the furtherance of some ideological cause. In the latter case there might be the smallest mitigation if these acts were carried out with a measure of regret for the suffering they cause or the loss to humankind; but on the contrary, we witness that they are announced in a celebratory and triumphal manner unassailed by remorse or doubt.

I have often been struck by a fundamental imbalance in the order of things, that it takes so long to build something up and so little to destroy, whether that be one’s personal finances, a marriage, a work of creation or a human life: a rash investment, a brief affair, a bonfire, or an indiscriminate shooting can see the end of all these. The strict reductionists will already have reached for the answer to that, which is that it is, of course, embodied in the principle of entropy. But that is an answer which explains everything and means nothing; it is like saying that a terrorist act like that committed yesterday evening is nothing more that the movement of fundamental particles, rather than being a violation of our common humanity and the trust upon which society is built, which is of course its aim. To speak of “atrocity”, “evil” “cowardice” “determination” and the like is understandable, when one must say something for which there are really no words; someone must speak and act on our behalf to express the collective revulsion, desire for peace and security and will that those responsible be punished. But these words are inadequate in the face of a brutal nihilism and an irrecoverable loss.

Even though we understand much about the psychology of victimhood and its manipulation by charismatic demagogues to advance their own political platforms, the geopolitical turmoil that gives rise to lingering resentments, and the pressure to conform in closed tight-knit groups, it is difficult for us to comprehend the journey that someone must have taken to arrive at a place where they deny their own future, their family’s love and hopes, their own religion’s universal values, the humanity of their victims, reason and logic, to embrace death and destruction. There are no words that will persuade them – even if they were to be heard – to turn from this path and rejoin humanity. For the mind and heart has closed in upon itself, in a tight circle of self-reinforcing justification. The mind, the person and the collective has become a black hole in the human constellation. The only recourse in defending an open society against such threats is the full force of the law.

In the film Unforgiven, the central character William Munny says, “It’s a terrible thing, killing a man. You take away everything that he has”. In the pursuit of rhetorical expressiveness, he can be forgiven the paradox that if someone is dead there is no longer anything to take away nor anyone there to possess the things ripped away. We understand the point. For each of those people killed in last night’s attacks in Paris there was a history which is a part of the shared experience of humanity, including those who carried out the attacks, those who today view them with horror and those who thoughtlessly celebrate them. It includes a birth to parents who were probably delighted at their arrival; taking their first steps and speaking their first words; years of play and study and work; maybe a struggle with teenage insecurities, identity issues, or coming to terms with a disability; appreciation of nature or books or music; first love; maybe setting out on their own journey of raising the next generation or building a life with someone; indeed, now all has been taken away, all gone. Our revenge is to live our lives for those who no longer will, with scant regard for those who have chosen to inhabit the darkest places in the human soul.