Beauty: more than the eye of the beholder (part 1)

In my estimation there is no more perverse doctrine than that which states that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Not because it is not true that the experience of beauty is apprehended and appreciated at the level of individual perception, which is, in some sense, a redundant observation, but because of the reductiveness of identifying beauty itself with its mere apprehension. It is perverse, and not just mistaken, precisely because it refuses to accept the reality – and by that, I mean the real existence – of beauty and therefore its possibility of being analysed and understood, communicated and becoming once more a central part of our cultural narrative, repudiated as it was for a large part of the twentieth century.

The perversity of the reduction of beauty extends beyond ontological and epistemological concerns, though, into the social; it implies that we cannot refine our own sense of the beautiful through meaningful interaction with others; and it suggests – or even mandates – that we dare not teach the young about what is beautiful, as this would imply a denigration of some culture and cultural forms as inferior. The abandonment of a commitment to beauty can be seen in the parlous state of our culture in the West today, which increasingly celebrates the ugly in all its forms, or else, in reaction to that, the twee and insipid. It is perhaps an artefact of the infantilisation of our culture that the space for the mature appreciation of beauty is being squeezed to the margins, displaced by the unenviable choice of teen rebellion or kindergarten sensibility.

It is true that the apparent relativity of the beautiful seems to be confirmed, not only by the fact that we individually assert different things to be beautiful, but by the change in the perception of beauty over historical time. I will argue, however, that this is best understood as the process of the discovery of beauty, in the unfolding of the nature and structure of beauty’s constituents with the passage of time, to which various civilisations have contributed their own insights. I will also argue that the beautiful cannot ultimately be separated from notions of the true and the good and predict that the closer we come to an encompassing theory of beauty, the more that will become apparent.

The historical semiotics of beauty

Some time ago, while out driving, my wife and I witnessed a glorious full moon, hanging clear and limpid above the horizon. My wife was the first to spot it and commented how large and beautiful it was. We decided to pull over and spend some time just contemplating it. Being so inclined and interested in things astronomical, I mentioned that sometimes the moon is closer to the Earth, which makes it appear larger to terrestrial viewers, referred to as a supermoon. She refused to be impressed by this information and merely wondered whether such a sight had been seen in the remote past. I was not quite sure what she meant by this, but set forth again what I considered to be the interesting and salient fact that in the past the moon had been much closer to the Earth, that Earth’s day had been much shorter and that over time the drag of the moon’s gravity had caused the Earth’s spin to slow down and days to become longer. The imparting of this wisdom was received in silence.

Looking back and reflecting later, it became apparent that compared to the empirically-rooted but rather banal information I was supplying, my wife’s question was far more perceptive, as it could be excavated to reveal a richer stratum of ideas. For example, a thousand years ago, in what we for so long have referred to as the Dark Ages, would people have seen such a sight? The question is not about the physics of light or the biology of perception; it is about meaning, interpretation and social possibility. In our modern intellectual sphere, we have the possibility of a choice of epistemological perspectives: instrumental or structuralist, phenomenological or evolutionary, for example. For a medieval peasant, we suppose, not only did those terms, or their equivalents, not exist, but we doubt whether even those perspectives, which those terms denote, existed.

In all probability, the medieval peasant, farming a strip of land on the estate of the local lord, had a well-developed semiotics, but it was one rooted in the cycles of nature and of the agricultural cycle, tied in to the festivals of the Church. The priest as the most educated local would have been on hand to explain, or dismiss, the questions of the curious, almost certainly with reference to church teachings. According to Eco (1986): “The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders and overtones of Divinity, manifestations of God in things. Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth.” Nature was full of signs, and in many ways the medieval peasant, being much closer to the natural world than we are generally today, would have had a more detailed knowledge of its practical processes and warnings, but not the theoretical insight to the interconnectedness of all nature that we would perceive today through our embedding in a scientific worldview. However, for the medieval peasant the signs were infused with symbolism through which they lived simultaneously in a mythopoeic reality, a Christianised revival of the sense of awe and wonder that had so characterised the Classical period of antiquity (ibid).

Could a peasant farmer appreciate the beauty of a full moon or a sunset? The barrier to such knowledge is almost as impassable as the attempt to recreate the prehistoric mind, or that of another species. As peasants were universally illiterate, they did not record their thoughts; as they were uneducated, poor and powerless, neither did anyone evince any interest in what they thought or experienced. Today, revealing the prejudices of our own age, we assume their consciousness was similarly constructed to our own, but we have no evidence for this. The closest we can get is through the theologians and poets of the era. This reveals some differences from modern consciousness. According to Myers, Pastoureau and Zink (2017), medieval nature poems “combine a myopic attention to what is close by – branches, blades of grass, the banks and hedgerows – with the pleasures of the other senses – the song of the birds, the rushing waters of the spring, the scent of the flower, the caress of the breeze – that are made possible by this very proximity and intensified by the limited vision”.

This suggests that the medieval idea of beauty was less conceptualised than that of the Greeks (at least the Greek philosophers) and less holistic than today, but sensually richer. The medievals saw the underlying unity of things in theological terms, the ‘Great Chain of Being’ and their own immersion in nature, but they lacked the framework of objectivity, to the extent of lacking the concept of ‘landscape’ (ibid). We surmise that the medieval peasant, in common with most pre-modern peoples, would have been in awe – that curious mixture of apprehension, wonderment and intoxication – at the sight of a supermoon or anything that strayed from the mundane and regular and, lacking knowledge of causes, would have fallen back on a supernatural explanation. This could be totally wrong; perhaps they were simply indifferent to nature or incapable of an aesthetic appreciation. It is unlikely we will ever know.

Part 2 will consider the evolution of the perception of beauty


Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (Originally published as: Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale, in Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959.) [Trans. Hugh Bredin] New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Nicole Myers, Michel Pastoureau, Michel Zink (2017). Art and Nature in the Middle Ages. New Haven: Yale University Press


The value of the self: three views on privacy in the digital age (part 2)

“All that is solid melts into air” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

The most fundamental revolution and radical transformation of human nature and society may already be under way. The last vestiges of organic society are being eroded from human experience as we move towards becoming a totally virtual society. The organic ties that have bound us together have been loosening since the Industrial Revolution, but they have never been superseded to the extent that that are being now. This is just the beginning of the process. It is not just jobs that are disappearing, but a way of life that brings people into daily contact with each other; just as the earlier technological revolutions reduced the need for manual labour, so digital technology is eliminating the need for human expertise of all types and also eliminating the need for human relationships as they have been experienced hitherto.

In the past, and still in organic society1, social bonds are built on trust and the basis of trust and of identity itself is personal knowledge of people. Identity is established in a mind-network of the people one knows, whether intimately, as family or friend, or more passingly, as neighbour, acquaintance or colleague. As populations have grown, people have become more uprooted and cities more impersonal, people more opaque to each other; the term ‘community’ has been redefined from its organic sense into a socio-political concept and, subsequently, subject to dubious claims of ownership and representation. Moreover, many of our interactions are now with people that we communicate with on a single occasion in order to, for example, purchase goods and services, and whom we never meet face-to-face. This process only looks to accelerate.

These changes have been and are being driven by the relentless logic of economics, the ruthless pursuit of efficiency and profit with little consideration of the human cost. Within this fundamental shift there are, it is true, the seeds of a new economy. It is one, though, that necessitates a transformation in our conception of what it is to be a social being, including all our fundamental values, our moral codes and even our idea of truth. In part I of this essay, I considered the meaning of privacy in organic society. In the digital age privacy is inverted and is commoditised like everything else, which requires that the elements of the self are fragmented and digitised. Without a fundamental re-evaluation. the existential dilemma this raises will ultimately only be solved by a totalitarian digital state.

The Commodification of Privacy

The great hope has been that the digital era will create the potential for the monetisation of personal information and, in fact, this could become one of the principal sources of income. This can only become a reality, though, if individuals retain (and increase) power over their own information. The alternative and, unfortunately at present – unless the threat can be faced down – more likely scenario, is that powerful emerging interests will usurp for themselves the economic value of the individual in the name of a purported collective good.

The basis of privacy lies in mythic narratives of the self, and manifests itself as the protection of intimacy, the concealment of transgression and the nurturing of identity. Our sense of self and concepts of privacy are nurtured by deep cultural traditions, which is a perspective that would probably be congenial to both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysts. Although the arrival of the digital age is transforming many aspects of culture, its mythic basis remains fundamental; indeed, it is, I would argue, the only basis upon which we can meaningfully talk about privacy as the psychic space of individuality. That said, the full-blown information age that has arrived with digital technology, allows us to consider privacy from a different perspective, as a commodity.

What transformations have taken place that enable the commodification of privacy and thence its monetisation? The first transformation must be the vertiginous growth in the amount of information, which is not increasing arithmetically but geometrically. Information, unlike natural resources it seems, is increasing in value as it becomes more plentiful. The reason for this is that demand is growing faster than supply. Every area of life, and particularly the economy, is driven by information and the more information there is the faster growth accelerates. Closely related to that is the digitisation of information. In the pre-digital age information could be separated into various types (verbally communicated information, written information, visual information), but now almost all information is, or soon will be, reduced to binary code. Money is, or is well on the way to being, similarly transferred totally into a digital format. Therefore, the barrier to transition between these different formats is becoming invisible.

Beyond these technological parameters, though, a social transformation is taking place. The digital revolution is democratising mass communication. In the organic society communication was close and personal. Basic technologies allow communication at a distance, but it remained overwhelmingly personal. The advent of newspapers, radio and television allowed really for the first time the possibility of mass communication; however, it was limited to a communicative elite. Through digital technology everyone with some digital literacy has the possibility to communicate with millions of people. This has its obvious downsides, as the ubiquity of trolling and online abuse and bullying confirms, but it is also opening up new areas of economic, political and humanitarian activity facilitated by mass communication.

But these changes externally in technology are not enough to explain the path towards the commodification and monetisation of privacy. I think two things have happened regarding thinking about the self and individuality: the first is that people in the west (but other cultures are on the same trajectory) are gradually losing their ability to mythologise their interiority, through the decline of sacred discourse and through the decline of the mythic imagination; the second is through the changing complexion of the transgressive. Popular culture, encouraged by new communication technologies, is increasing privileging externality over interiority.

The Culture of Externalisation.

Privacy requires a strong sense of self and of an interior space, which is created reflectively, sustained through mythologised narratives of the sacred and its protective barriers. For the emerging homo digitalis interiority is something to be feared, avoided, suspect even. Increasingly, the technological infrastructure of the digital age, rather than being the midwife of a revolution, is becoming its prevailing obsession. Into this existential vacuum pours the anxieties of the age, augmented by the interconnectedness of the digitised world. This generation is the first without an identity in the sense that it would have been understood in a previous age and must, therefore, seek to assert selfhood and the vanquishing of emptiness through extreme physical transformations and through assuming extreme identities, abetted by social media contagion. Shared experience, the fundamental mode of social being and the basis of our social values, has become weaponised. Without the dialectic of experience and reflection, mere experience overwhelms individuality.2

For the fundamental values of the near future look to celebrity culture. The celebrity is the avatar of the digital age. The celebrity represents the evaporation of character into image, that which can be pixelated and reproduced infinitely, becoming a potential commodity. The celebrity ‘famous for being famous’ is no longer the butt of ridicule, but the exemplar. The fact that the virtual celebrity offers nothing but the possibility to be celebrated is their virtue, not their limitation or their failing. It is not even about beauty, because the icon can be endlessly manipulated, endlessly creating desire and feeding it. Pornography raises this idolisation of form to a higher level still, to the perfect geometry of ecstasy, that will culminate in its total mechanisation, with the advent of robotic sex. The deceptiveness, the tromp l’oeil of celebrity beauty converge on the monotony of the infinitely repetitive, the uniform, and the detestation of difference, of divergence from the formulaic ideals, which will lead eventually to the clone culture.

It seems at first glance that the concept of privacy is redundant in the culture of externality, as potentially every part of life has been digitised and commodified. There is no intimacy that is not available to the public (for a price); there is no transgression to be hidden, as the transgressive has become the new normal3. Privacy, which was ultimately the realm of the mind, has become meaningless when we are continually bombarded with information that absorbs all our attention – the most private realm is dominated by public theatre. Privacy becomes inverted under such conditions: it becomes the insulation of the individual from the physical presence of others. We come to occupy the same physical space without occupying the same social space, while we occupy the same virtual social space without occupying the same physical space.

Wittgenstein considered the status of private language, which was reviewed in part 1 of this essay. I had occasion to critique this idea from a philosophical perspective, but the culture of externality forbids the existence of such a notion as dangerous. Our thoughts and desires increasingly converge on what is deemed acceptable by those with their hands on the levers on taste. But it becomes more insidious than that, which, after all, is hardly a new phenomenon. The moral keepers of the new culture accuse us, knowing us and our interiority better than we know ourselves, of ‘unconscious bias’. Even the ramparts of our very self, that interior monologue, which is even only half-formed even to our own conscious mind, is treated and stained by ‘awareness’ advocates, thin-sectioned by the scalpel of ideological rigidity, and magnified to utter transparency by the preening self-righteousness of moral certainty.


The New Digital Powers

As the digital revolution has proceeded, questions have arisen about the ownership of information, such as how much information we are obligated to share with others who are providing a service and how we can protect our privacy and information from those who would abuse them, but the awareness of personal information as a commodity is only – belatedly – growing as we become aware of the growing value it has in the economy to governments and businesses, who have been using it as an open resource. Private companies now hold a great deal of our personal information, which they have accessed for free. This is enormously beneficial for them, with no reciprocal benefits to us, at least no equivalent benefit. Finally, we are beginning to ask the right question: do the benefits we get from a largely free internet equate to the benefits that accrue to companies’ use of our personal information? As the recent inquiry into Facebook shows, there is a growing awareness of the issues of ownership of information that has too long been taken for granted by the internet giants.

Whereas we are uncomfortable with businesses possessing our information, most would accept that the state does have a right, at least to basic information about our identity and history, as a quid pro quo for the goods and services that it provides, in terms of protection against external enemies, public order, health, education and welfare. Since the delivery of these good is not increasing exponentially – in some cases is falling – yet the amount of information about each one of us is growing exponentially, the question arises when the state may go too far in its acquisition of information. Moreover, we can legitimately ask at what point the data on identity becomes information of an intimate nature, that we have a right to protect or to profit from, if we so choose. The only basis on which the state might legitimately strip us of this right to our own information is when we have transgressed the laws of society. The spectre haunting society in the digital age is that of a state which can demand total transparency of information by treating citizens as potential – if not actual – transgressors. This could be accomplished by expanding the realm of the transgressive and the state of heightened dependency. These are issues that I will deal with in the third part of this essay.

For the wealthy and the powerful, the nomenklatura of the digital age, there is the option to retreat behind physical and digital walls, where the reach of prying eyes and of the ubiquity of the digital world. I am reminded of the high Party member O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984, who is able to turn off the ubiquitous screens. Today, these are the elite who create and control the infrastructure and products of the digital age. They are the ones who forbid their children to interact with digital technology or severely control access to it. They read books rather than text messages and emails, they visit museums, parks, concerts, mountains and the sea, rather than look at them online and they join clubs rather than online communities and play sports or music rather than play video games.

For the proletarian masses their occupation is increasingly only an interaction with digital technology. We see it already in every place of work: the serried ranks in open plan offices chained to their computers nine-to-five, managers who are never out of office, even at home, evenings, weekends and holidays. The digital age does not bring release from work or greater efficiency; it creates its own work, to which we are indentured; the broader the bandwidth, the more sluggish the response, such is the detritus of mediocrity it fosters. It promises freedom of choice but binds us with ever greater regulation of our lives. For the proletarian, privacy is the retreat into social silos that can be personally curated. However, this privacy is largely illusory, firstly because it is externalised and shared with the world and, secondly, because the commodification of data means that the personal space is constantly monitored. This is the first generation for whom there is no inside; there is nowhere to retreat to. Moreover, there is no desire to retreat, because as knowledge of interiority has been lost, so has desire for it also vanished; we cannot desire what we do not even know we have lost.

The prophets of doom warn us of the dangers when artificial intelligence achieves the ‘singularity’ of surpassing human intelligence, but few are warning of the almost certainly greater danger when we abdicate our own interior life and our sociality for the unutterably vapid world and empty promises of the digital age. A computer, in its many forms and together with all its paraphernalia, is a tool, and not a particularly good one. However, at present it is being treated as if it is the panacea of human problems. This is infecting us with a type of solipsistic nihilism which is eroding social ties and the idea of a shared culture. Short of us being able to contextualise this technology within a perspective of human interiority and sociality4, the inevitable descent of society into anarchy will only be solved by the state assuming totalitarian control of the means of digital production and dissemination.


1.By organic society I mean the forms of society in which relations between people are largely direct and unmediated by technology, by which I mean specifically the technology of the digital age, that is mediation through screens and the deconstruction of individuality into online content. Of course, every technology, including writing, the telephone and television, has introduced an element of mediation and subtly altered the nature of human discourse and community. However, in order to explore the nature of privacy in the digital age, it is necessary to first establish the meaning of privacy in forms of society as near as possible to the organic within the living experience of most of those living today. This was explored in part 1 of this essay.

2.What is the distinction between the self, individuality, identity and privacy? The self is a neutral term that denotes the fact that we are constituted individual physically and experientially. Individuality is more of an evaluative term, that is, the self has a value as an individual, because of its uniqueness, its non-replicability. Identity is the most ideological of the four, in that it is asserting a category (or a set of categories) onto innumerable individuals, for philosophical, administrative or political reasons. As categorisation is an infinite exercise, it is the most dangerous of the concepts, as it is the most open to systems of ideological manipulation and the institution of bureaucratic control. Privacy is the sphere of individuality, its space and the protection of that space.

3.The only thing that could potentially, usefully be hidden is breaches of the law, but within a few years, such is the acceleration of data mining, even this will become virtually impossible. That is not to say that such breaches will be punished; the descent into lawlessness is already under way; in many cases the police have abdicated responsibility for solving crime. Crime and punishment will be decided by the online mob, driven by ideological extremism. In some cases, the police are already more alert to breaches of cultural sensitivity than they are to actual crimes, such as theft and assault.

4.Based on the theories of George Herbert Mead, Habermas (1984) developed a theory of intersubjectivity based on language. According to Habermas (ibid, p.390), ‘Mead elevated symbolically mediated interaction to the new paradigm of reason and based reason on the communicative relation between subjects, which is rooted in the mimetic act of role-taking, that is, in ego’s making his own the expectations that alter directs to him’, which is to say that reason (hence subjectivity) emerges from the sharing of and response to signs and sign acts. There have been a number of critiques of Habermas’ idea of intersubjectivity. Frie (1997) delivers what I think must be a fatal blow when he claims that recognition of the signs others make presupposes subjectivity; it is not the basis of subjectivity.

In my view intersubjectivity is probably a philosophical cul-de-sac. Yet I think that Habermas is partly right. Signs conveying meanings between us are the only basis on which we share our experience (which, after all, is the essence of our subjectivity – indeed the case can be made that it is our subjectivity). While it is incorrect to say that our subjectivity emerges from such interactive sharing, it is certainly true that knowledge, and hence functional rationality (if not essential rationality, such as proposed by Descartes et al), do. Intersubjectivity is conceptually incoherent. Subjectivity is individual, a property of the self; it cannot be shared. However, experience can be shared, that is the properties of my subjective experience can be shared with another, to the degree that the other can experience an empathetic identification with my experience. This is not experiential identity, as this is impossible, but understanding to the degree that is likely to result in strengthened social bonding. A case can be made, therefore, that increased dissemination of knowledge, which is what culture, particularly forms of education, undertakes, increases social bonding overall.

A more rational account of ‘intersubjectivity’ would be Popper’s concept of World 3 culture, the shared world of ideas, theories and cultural artefacts. What I find missing in Popper’s account, though, is the basis of societal interaction in which such a world of culture is embedded. Paradoxically, knowledge can only exist where there is a foundation of social bonding.

Selected Bibliography

Jurgen Habermas (1984), Theory of communicative action, volume one: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Karl Popper (1972), Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michael Betancourt (2015), The Critique of Digital Capitalism: An Analysis of the Political Economy of Digital Culture and Technology. New York: Punctum Books.

Roger Frie (1997), Subjectivity and intersubjectivity in modern philosophy: A study of Sartre, Binswanger, Lacan and Habermas. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ellis Cashmore (2006), Celebrity Culture. Oxford: Routledge.

Antagonistic Tribalism: the cement of political extremism

The social psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has achieved a certain internet notoriety recently, through his lectures on the analysis of cultural myths and stories and, in particular, his moral opposition to mandated speech in Canadian law and the encroachment of the radical left in academia and social institutions in general, has, it seems to me, struggled to find a conceptual language in which to position himself as a politically neutral arbiter, amid claims that he is a ‘right-wing’ or even ‘alt-right’ ideologue. He claims that it is easy to distinguish when the right has gone too far – when it makes claims of racial superiority – but the consequences of pushing a radical egalitarianism, which is what Peterson identifies as the distinguishing mark of the left having gone too far, are less obvious to many, despite the millions of corpses sacrificed to this idea in the twentieth century.

While Peterson’s formulation captures something of how the extremes of right and left are bad in different ways, it doesn’t in my view capture the way in which they are fundamentally similar: both right and left – and, indeed, all other forms of extremism, such as religious and environmentalist extremism – are committed to a form of tribalism that negates the developments in individualism that are the hallmark of the modern world of individual liberties, relative prosperity, relative peace and relative freedom from suffering. The forms of society either envisioned by or instituted by extremists offer no such relative bounties, but unbounded and, therefore, unrealisable visions, resulting in social catastrophes when they are forced on recalcitrant populations.

It is important to analyse the aetiology of extreme tribalism, because humans are tribal by nature. Although we are physically constituted individual, we are social beings, and this is manifest at a fundamental physical level, in our genetic makeup and in our hormonal responses to others. At the psychological level, we are attuned to seek tribal allegiances, which can be interpreted liberally to include everything from family, to ethnic identity, profession, religion, political affiliation, nationality, football or baseball team, hobby clubs, and so on. One of the features of social media sites is the emergence of spontaneous tribalism among those who find common identity in a shared interest. I drive an older car and have noted the tendency among drivers of the same model (me included) to acknowledge each other on the road, establishing an immediate if evanescent identity. We have a capacity for tribalism, both profound and trivial.

Tribalism means more than just a sense of identity, though. To belong to a tribe also involves a value judgement that the tribe with which we identify is ‘better’ or ‘superior’ in some sense. Henri Tajfel, a French social psychologist and pioneer of social identity theory, claimed we make a distinction between an “in-group”, to which we belong, and an “out-group” to which the rest of the world belongs, privileging the former as the basis of our social identity and sense of worth. This is the unassailable logic of the tribe; from this it is not difficult to see wherein many social tensions and conflicts have their root. What mitigates this in modern developed societies is the existence of multiple belongings, riding on the individualism which has emerged in modernity, but which has a long pedigree in the West with roots in antiquity. In the modern developed society, characterised by a high degree of political emancipation, economic autonomy and liberal education, the individual is not beholden to a single, totalising identity, but is free to build a complex self-identity through belonging, whether profoundly or superficially, in multiple in-groups, which has the effect of fracturing the monolithic cohesion of the out-group.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that individualism is universally accepted or necessarily a stable element of liberal democracies. The criticism is often raised that individualism is just an excuse for selfishness, that it is fundamentally immoral or amoral. I would counter that selfishness is inimical to the individual and to the idea of individualism, which has at its foundation the well-being and enhancement of the individual. Nevertheless, there is a justified concern that the focus on the individual in society undermines the cohesion of the broader society by a focus on the desires and interests of individuals to the detriment of duties and responsibilities to others. For this reason, I prefer to speak of transcendent individualism, which specifically includes sociality and areas of spirituality as dimensions of human development. Most advocates of individualism are in fact advocates of transcendent individualism. Yet, the widely-held misunderstanding about individualism and the minority of people who justify the bad choices they make, in terms of their health, education, prosperity, relationships and happiness within an individualist framework, declaring themselves to owe no duty to anyone else or to any moral standards, makes the philosophical foundations of individualism particularly prey to absolutist and tribalist critiques.

Having asserted that political extremism of both the left and the right share a commitment to tribalist ideology, despite obvious ideological differences, it is necessary to distinguish the tribalism of such extremism from the natural tribal affiliations we all experience. I believe that can be summed up in two words: stance and strategy. The stance of extremists is antagonistic: they revel in hatred and conflict, whatever fine justifications they may dress it up in; they develop a hypersensitivity to perceived injustices, whether personal or against the group they identify with; they categorically reject the safeguards to extreme stances which the culture around stable democracies have built into them – tolerance, dialogue, the willingness to listen and learn, respect for truth and evidence, compromise, perhaps even a willingness to change. The strategy is the polarisation of society into antagonistic tribes and the elimination of the ‘other’, the out-group, using the power of the state.

This road to the tribalising of erstwhile democratic society can be considered to take place through four stages. The first is the identification of a cause. Usually, it is a particular grievance held by one section of the population. This is frequently, though not invariably, associated with a pre-existing identity, such as a religion or an ethnicity; if such a correlation between identity and grievance does not exist, it must be manufactured. The second stage is the gradual identification of the individual with the cause and the withdrawal from multiple belonging which we said is characteristic of societies that have individualism as their basis. This is accomplished simultaneously through polarising propaganda which draws a clear line of demarcation between the virtuous “we” and the inauthentic, suspect or heinous “other”. Obviously, in such a confrontation the subtleties of complex social problems and the complexities of self-identity through multiple belonging are lost. The third stage is then to enter a period of increasing insulation of the tribe from reasoned debate and engagement with, and increasing hostility towards, the identified other. This is also marked by the maturation of the political culture of the tribe. The fourth stage is the overthrow or subjugation of the state – whether that be through a campaign of terror, a putsch or a ‘long march through the institutions’ – to capture the instruments of state power.

The outcome of a society overturned by such antagonistic tribalism does not have to be theorised, as the evidence is abundant in history, ancient, modern and contemporary. It is worth noting some of their common characteristics: suspicion of and hostility towards outsiders leading to frequent warfare; expectation of absolute conformity to traditions or the ruling ideology and ruthless suppression of dissent; the practice of barbaric forms of punishment, including mass killing of their own people; changes in power through violent removal of incumbents. Should the argument be made that these are the perversions of the ideology rather than the successful embodiment of it, one only needs to point to the same features in primitive tribal cultures – only the scale is different. These are not features of the developed democracies we generally inhabit today, because the development of an individualistic culture has mitigated the worst features of tribalism. However, the persistence of unresolved problems and the emergence of new ones in imperfect societies create conditions under which ideologues, rather than attempting to solve real problems, can promote absolutist fantasies as remedies to problems they have augmented or exacerbated.

The role of the state in a democratic society to counter such tendencies should be to maintain the basis of individualism within society, in order to maintain and develop the foundations of freedom, knowledge, well-being and prosperity. It is this foundation that encourages multiple belonging and the growth of complex identities across and transcending narrow sectarian ones. There are certain things a government should not allow: the existence of alternative (religious) systems of law or education that undermine transcendent individualism and multiple belonging and entrench tribal identities; political, religious or other ideological groups that operate on an exclusionary principle and advocate hatred of others and incite violence or the overthrow of the state; and any moves to suppress freedom of thought and speech.

This last point, freedom of speech, needs to be addressed in particular. We have moved from a society in which there was a consensus across the political spectrum that freedom of speech was a fundamental right, to one in which this is considered to be a right that advantages the dominant oppressive class in society, by both the far-left and, increasingly, the far-right. The left maintain, with some plausibility, which makes it difficult to see through the sophistry, that freedom of speech can be a cloak for permission to engage in ‘hate speech’ against unpopular minorities. True, if one is inciting violence against a person or group, but that is a crime under existing law (and has been for a long time); however, ‘hate speech’ is a term of such vagueness and elasticity that it encompasses everything from genuine incitement to violence to any opinion that might make someone feel uncomfortable (i.e. that they disagree with) or vicariously consider may be demeaning to a particular (vulnerable, so claimed) minority, as a precursor to the victimisation/oppression of that minority. There is evidence that rightist groups have started using the same strategy, particularly on campuses that are dominated by left-wing academics and students.

In psychology this chain of assuming the worst possible outcome on the slenderest of probabilities is known as ‘catastrophising’ and is a vector of mental illness. Nevertheless, the passionate intensity with which such scenarios are portrayed – in the language of risk assessment, high impact, without the concomitant low probability being considered – is such that an increasing number of academic institutions have been convinced to dismantle their commitment to genuine free speech. The danger for society is that free speech underlies the mechanism of the growth of knowledge and the identification of error, upon which the universities have their rationale, debate takes place in public and in the media, and which forms the basis of the other freedoms we enjoy.

There is a dimension of personal responsibility to this. Being that we are tribal in nature and have lived in tribal cultures for far longer that we have lived in individualistic ones, there is a strong propensity to be swayed by appeals to tribalistic urges, including negative propaganda, negative rumours and negative stereotypes. Sometimes we need no external catalyst, but are primed to categorise someone and assume the worst of someone on the basis of a perceived shared identity, ignoring and collapsing the likely complex self-identity of individuals on the basis of limited information and experience. This tendency is countered most effectively by personal knowledge of people from many different backgrounds (interestingly, opinion polls – in the UK at least – show a consistent trend of the greatest opposition to immigration in areas that have very little of it). Sometimes this is not enough; when social stressors are high, such as terrorist attacks or the pernicious influence of political propaganda, there is a strong reversion to antagonistic tribal mentality, projected onto individuals symbolising the ‘other’. At such times it is particularly important to remind ourselves and others of our cultural and philosophical commitment to individualism, multiple belonging and complex identities – our own and probably that of the individual we are in danger of pigeonholing and disparaging.

Has the postmodern revolution gone full circle?

By Colin Turfus

While discussions about the philosophical foundations of judgements of right and wrong are often framed in terms of rational versus irrational perspectives, viz. those based on the enlightened values of science and reason as opposed to those based on authority or faith, this is not altogether an accurate view of where the real centre of moral debate currently lies. The game-changer has been the arrival of postmodern ideology and the hegemony which it has established over most debate about public policy and morality. This assertion may come as a surprise to many who are aware of the existence of a philosophical perspective called “postmodernism” but do not see it as having much to do with how they frame their moral judgements or how society around them is ordered. They would I suggest probably be wrong to believe so.

In understanding postmodernism, it is important to recognise that it arose not as a logical corollary of the efforts in the “Enlightenment” period to establish a rational foundation for addressing moral dilemmas and resisting the tyranny of religious and traditionalist worldviews in the 18th and 19th centuries, but as a rejection of that project. While Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Hume, Kant, Hegel and Feuerbach vied with one another to provide a theoretical foundation for moral discourse, ultimately none was able to prevail.

The great prophet who was ultimately to sound the death-knell of the enlightenment was probably Friedrich Nietzsche in his portrayal of the madman running around with a lantern proclaiming that God was dead. His suggestion was that the madman represented the enlightenment philosophers who, in their critique of traditional values, looked to construct in their place a system of values which pared away the superstition and retained the essence; but that there was no such essence. Freed from the constraints of the prior expectations of our peers, we are free to steer whichever course we choose.

Postmodernism builds on this insight pushing the corollary that there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only differences of perspective. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them. This means that the discourse of modern science, when considered apart from the evidential standards internal to it, has no greater purchase on the truth than do alternative perspectives, including (for example) astrology and witchcraft. Postmodernists sometimes characterize the evidential standards of science, including the use of reason and logic, as “Enlightenment rationality.”

This point of view is often portrayed as moral relativism, but to do so is to miss an important feature of the postmodernist position: although it holds that there is no one correct point of view on questions of right and wrong, all points of view are not necessarily equal in validity. Indeed, echoing Orwell’s critique of communist society in his Animal Farm, some points of view are in practice “more equal than others.” For, as stated above, values are seen as arising in practice in “discourses” taking place in different social groups or communities. And some groups have greater power or “hegemony” to impose their view on other relatively disempowered groups. Without taking a position on whose views are more correct between the relatively more or less powerful group, postmodernists argue that it behoves us to take the side of the relatively disempowered group so as to help redress the intrinsic injustice of the situation.

So, the conversation moves from one about being right to one about having rights. While a traditional perspective on human rights would be to argue that all human beings possess rights equally, the postmodernist position is that greater rights have to accrue to the relatively disempowered and so greater emphasis given to defending their values. Thus, is born the concept of group rights: women’s rights, gay rights, transgender rights, black rights, Muslim rights, etc. It is one of the great achievements of the postmodernist agenda that, without any need for moral discourse, it has become possible to dismiss almost any moral position which is portrayed as disrespectful of any of those group rights, particularly if that moral position can also be portrayed as promoting the interests of some relatively more powerful group.

Not surprisingly, this approach leads quite quickly to inconsistency and even incoherence. For example, it is often argued in the corporate environment that “diversity” policies are necessary to ensure that the best people are chosen, by which is meant a sufficient number from relatively disempowered groups. But if that is one’s position, one needs to argue that members of different groups bring different talents and perspectives to the table by virtue of their belonging to those different groups, so there is a fundamental inequality between groups that demands to be recognised. This it would appear is acceptable if one were to suggest, say, that women bring a greater degree of empathy into leadership than men and should on that basis be favoured more than at present. But if one were to say something suggesting that men by virtue of being men are more likely to have some quality or qualities that qualify them for leadership, there would be outrage and claims of sexism or misogyny. Whether any of the supporting claims has a basis in truth or not is entirely irrelevant. The morality of the issue is determined by whose interests are served by taking a claim seriously.

Thus, is the new irrationalism born, where matters of fact and evidence are swept aside in favour of identity politics which is elevated as the determining principle in all disputes between competing moral perspectives. Just as within 19th century European society, as Nietzsche argued, Christianity exercised hegemony on the basis of authoritarian structures enforcing a morality which society internalised as the natural order of things, postmodernism has, by virtue of backing up its strictures with laws and regulations which carry stringent penalties and ensuring that its point of view is taught in all educational institutions, often even to the exclusion of parental rights to assert an alternative position, achieved a similar hegemony.

Basing its power on an enforcing authority backed up with persistent indoctrination, it has effectively managed to marginalise dissenting opinions and severely curtail moral debate in the public space. It is the new orthodoxy with divine-like authority to make truth claims on the basis of consistency with its asserted principles which are immune to disproof or falsification by reason or evidence. Indeed, those seeking to bring evidence to contradict its claims are routinely vilified and marginalised. Thus, have we come full circle in recreating the very conditions that the Enlightenment set out, but on its own terms failed, to address.

Happily, the inconsistency and incoherence of the postmodernist perspective is increasingly being challenged by a new generation of thinkers from across the political spectrum. For example, Ken Wilber in his Trump and a Post-Truth World notes how postmodernism has played itself out and in attempting to create a new basis for determining truth has ultimately undermined it:

And thus, postmodernism as a widespread leading-edge viewpoint slid into its extreme forms (e.g., not just that all knowledge is context-bound, but that all knowledge is nothing but shifting contexts; or not just that all knowledge is co-created with the knower and various intrinsic, subsisting features of the known, but that all knowledge is nothing but a fabricated social construction driven only by power). When it becomes not just that all individuals have the right to choose their own values (as long as they don’t harm others), but that hence there is nothing universal in (or held-in-common by) any values at all, this leads straight to axiological nihilism: there are no believable, real values anywhere. And when all truth is a cultural fiction, then there simply is no truth at all—epistemic and ontic nihilism. And when there are no binding moral norms anywhere, there’s only normative nihilism. Nihilism upon nihilism upon nihilism—“there was no depth anywhere, only surface, surface, surface.” And finally, when there are no binding guidelines for individual behaviour, the individual has only his or her own self-promoting wants and desires to answer to—in short, narcissism. And that is why the most influential postmodern elites ended up embracing, explicitly or implicitly, that tag team from postmodern hell: nihilism and narcissism—in short, aperspectival madness. The culture of post-truth.

Wilber looks forward to an evolution beyond postmodernism to a developmental model which is more “integrated” or “systemic”. His view is that when a system is broken, as ours currently is, it reverts back to the last point at which it functioned effectively. Let’s hope he is right. Such ideas are a welcome breath of fresh air in a political culture in which the discourse revolves less and less around facts and evidence and consists more and more of ad hominem attacks on detractors and dissident voices launched from within the relative security of group identity siloes. Voices of those who like Wilber are critical of the failings of postmodernism and emphasise the need for new ideas are increasingly being heard, particularly on social media where many of the new currents in popular thought are increasingly finding receptive audiences. It will be interesting to watch how all this plays out.

The Just Society: Equality or Freedom?

In A Theory of Justice John Rawls conducted a famous thought experiment. He asked, if we were to imagine, behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, being born into a world in a position somewhere on the scale of unalloyed privilege and crushing poverty, what would be the type of social system we would advocate. Rawls assumed it would be reasonable to choose a society in which economic justice of a distributive nature prevailed, on the likelihood that we would be more likely to be one of the multitude of the poor than the small fraction of the privileged.

Rawls attempted to derive in a purely rational manner the proper balance between freedom and equality. This has, indeed, been the central narrative of political discourse for at least the last century. It has been assumed that the rational position is a centrist one, forging a middle point somewhere between the two poles of freedom and equality. Although in American terms it was considered radical and A Theory of Justice is considered a liberal left academic touchstone, from the perspective of the present Rawls position seems mildly quaint. The middle ground is now largely out of favour and this is perhaps a timely moment to reconsider the prevailing political narrative. I happen to think that Rawls is wrong: from a point of logic, ethics and the facts of history.

To begin with, the contiguity of freedom and equality is the wrong juxtaposition. Freedom and equality are not opposite ends of a spectrum in which the Aristotelian mean is the just position; they are contradictory ideas which compete for the same space. Therefore, it is impossible to derive a stable balance between them. Logically, if you favour freedom, you cannot accept the idea of equality; similarly, if you favour equality, you cannot logically tolerate freedom. Some, like Rawls – though, I suspect, fewer than in the past – argue that we need to compromise: we accept limitations on our freedom for the sake of some equality (although, strangely, I never hear people arguing the opposite; it seems the argument only goes one way). However, the reality is that the advocates of equality are never content with some equality. In the end, everything must be levelled, to the point of absurdity. It would be reasonable to assume that this might have less to do with the idea of equality as an abstract principle than with its advocates; but even this obsession can be explained by an analysis of equality.

Freedom and equality are, in fact, only related by the concept of power, and who holds it. In freedom, power is distributed; so, the closest we get to equality is when we are free. In equality, power is concentrated in the hands of a few, and even the few controlled by the most powerful; so, the only sense in which we are equal is an equality of powerlessness. To paraphrase Orwell in Animal Farm, everyone is equal, only some are more equal than others.

Despite freedom and equality (or their advocates) competing for social space, there is an ethical difference between them, which to my mind is like the difference between light and darkness. Belief in freedom must logically be accompanied by a belief in tolerance. If I believe in freedom, I do not believe in it only for myself, but for everyone, because the fact that it is distributed guarantees my own freedom. Just as I have a right to my thoughts, words and actions, so do you and everyone else, except inasmuch as the exercise of your right would deprive me of mine, for example by intimidating me or killing me. This is a perfectly reasonable and realisable state, in a society in which everyone shares that fundamental belief. It does have vulnerabilities, though, to pathological liars, the intolerant, those living at the extreme and those whose tendency is to usurp power.

That vulnerability is exploited by ideologues, who manifest all the traits just described. The love of freedom grows out of the philosophical discovery of ignorance, expressed eloquently by Socrates, but reaffirmed in the scientific revolution and accompanying Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. Ideologues first trait is absolute certainty. That means, bluntly put, they believe a lie, as truth is an evolving quality, ever pursued but never finally attained. If you are certain of something, there is a tendency to think everyone who disagrees with you is a fool or a rogue. There is, of course, a reasonable degree of certainty, which anyone having a point of view is expected to possess (otherwise we would have nothing to say), but it is tempered by an openness to correction and development. The ideologue, though, cannot bear correction and hates the open debate of ideas. The more unreasonable the belief the more vociferously its opponents must be attacked, and in the most extreme cases, be silenced. That is why the ideologue loves power, because it is a means of controlling knowledge and protecting certainty.

The belief in equality is an ideological position tout court. There is no equality either in nature or human society. The Procrustean critique of equality is already so well established that it needs no repeating. The socialist dogma of equality of outcomes is just an economic version of such crude egalitarianism and is impossible to realise where any spark of human creativity and freedom remain. It has been shown in practice not to result in greater equality, except in misery and fear for all but a tiny privileged minority. The liberal fudge of equality of opportunity is no more realisable, though a worthwhile goal if pursued intelligently, pragmatically and gradually. I will suggest such an approach (at least the theoretical foundations of such) towards the end of this article.

Being an ideological position, and embodying a fundamental untruth, any programme to implement equality must resort to lies, the denigration of critical voices, the capture of the levers of power in any society, and the use of those powers to force conformity to the dictates of the ideology. This is both the logical necessity of equality and the actual practice of its advocates. This is most obvious in totalitarian states of the left, though it is also manifested in totalitarian states of the right that have policies to ‘equalise’ society by removing undesirable elements. However, it is also seen in otherwise liberal democratic societies where the equality agenda proceeds stepwise by advancing the cause of groups that are proclaimed to be disadvantaged, less by addressing the root causes of their disadvantage, but by political activism and entryism to tear down the normative values of those societies and to brand the relatively advantaged as oppressors. Each step proceeds by labelling the cause promoted as addressing an ‘injustice’. However, the final result is not equality but conformity and the rule of a powerful minority.

If there is one sense in which I would accept the notion of equality, it is that we are at a deep metaphysical or mystical level of equal value as human beings, and that as members of the species homo sapiens we have a value above all other species. I would qualify that by saying that in a secular context our assessment of the value of any specific individual is driven by a host of symbolic, aesthetic and practical concerns, such as who they represent, how they present themselves and how they act. Nonetheless, a transcendent sense of human value, in which we feel called to work for the betterment of humanity and, particularly, for the lessening of inhumanity, is not only compatible with freedom; it seems to me to be the essence of freedom.

Turning then to freedom, it has become an accepted orthodoxy that science has demonstrated the non-existence of free will. This is only true, however, according to the canons of positivistic reductionism, and I’m not even sure of the status of this assertion in the light of quantum theory, which portrays indeterminism at a very fundamental level. Be that as it may, the experience of freedom is real at the human and social level; we know when we are free and when we are not free, because it is felt at the level of our perceived status in the social order and our experience of relative power or powerlessness, which is even manifested as a physiological response.

The moment I think or move of my own volition, I assert my freedom and my difference, which is manifest in the world, multiplied infinitely by all the individuals in the world. In the way I am, think and move I create inequality. Naturally, I am better at some things than any other random person and worse at some; which is true of all people, everywhere. Some of these attributes lead to power, influence and wealth, some to mediocrity and some to ruin. This effect is multiplied across all societies and creates the turbulent history of the world, an uncomfortable truth of how individuals, peoples and nations prosper, stagnate and decline.

The true dilemma of justice is not in the clash between freedom and equality, but the subtle negotiation between freedom and responsibility. Freedom guarantees the possibility of doing anything within your power. This is an exuberant, exhilarating, addictive human experience, and one in which individuals can blossom emotionally and intellectually and achieve unimaginable things. On the societal level it enables the conditions under which real human progress can be made. It also, of necessity, allows bad choices to be made, individually and socially. That includes the freedom to act criminally and psychopathically and endanger the lives and possessions of others. It also includes the freedom to be obnoxious or simply insensitive and offend others. It may also just include acts of kindness in good faith which are, nevertheless, unwelcome. It will inevitably include choices which impact on our health, education, career, livelihood, prospects for love and family, and overall happiness and quality of life. Since the outcomes can be so different, it is important to understand responsibility and the part that it plays in freedom.

Responsibility is not well understood, because few people think about it, and it is not part of our social discourse today, apart from sniping asides from the fringes of moral commentary. If most people have heard of it, it is probably as an admonition to bend to the will of the commentator rather than to act on their own will; that is, it is perceived as a threat to, or an imposed limitation of, one’s own freedom. It is true that the word is often uttered as a reactionary shibboleth without, however, having any specific content. This is to misunderstand the role of responsibility.

Responsibility is not the inhibitor of freedom, it is its guarantor. The first stance of the responsible person is to accept that they are free, in both an existential sense and as a social actor making choices. Without this affirmation there can be no responsibility, only obedience, and at worst, slavery. The great tragedy of much of human history and still much of the world today is that social conditions do not allow people to be free and, therefore, not responsible, though this number is, arguably, diminishing. The human thirst for freedom is unquenchable; we always choose it as an alternative to tyranny, especially when we have experienced the latter.

The second stance of the responsible person is to accept that their choices and the acts that flow from them all have consequences, for good and ill, for which they reap the benefits and the costs. With experience comes a greater ability to discern between the two and the wise person will not only make better choices but also choose to impose limits on their actions. The actions that destroy, deplete and offend are the ones that are most likely to result in a reaction that aims to curtail the freedom of the individual for the protection of the common good. For this to happen, the power of the community or the state must be invoked. Every invocation of the power of the greater collective or its authoritative representative entails a diminution of the freedom of the individual, which itself informs the state of freedom of the society. Consequently, that which guarantees the freedom of society is an act of self-limitation imposed on oneself for the sake of the greater good. It is something that emerges from the realisation and experience of the actual and potential consequences of one’s actions in the world and the harm that may occur because of them.

The third stance of the responsible person is to work for the common good, which is as close to a definition of social justice as I would allow. A commitment to justice in this sense is not a commitment to equality, but it can be compatible with a commitment to reducing inequality, particularly of opportunity. Justice, we might say, is relative freedom (rather than absolute freedom). Justice is the addressing of actual injustices, where there is the absence, limitation or oppression of freedom. It is not attempting to equalise everything by limiting the freedom of the majority in favour of a minority. People are not, and never will be equal in freedom, but it is not unreasonable to address that issue by increasing the freedom of the less free. One of the ways of doing that is education about freedom and the values of freedom, that come through a grounding in science, the humanities, arts and ethics. Another is through strengthening the character of people to be self-reliant and resilient, as well as generous in spirit. Physical disadvantages can and are increasingly be addressed through technological development, empowering people who have life-limiting conditions.

It would be naïve to think that we could do without laws and rely simply on the self-realisation of all the individuals with whom we share a society. There is an argument to be made, though, that justice and the common good can only emerge when there is a keen sense of individual freedom and a commitment to be governed by a state that protects and fosters that sense based on an evolving notion of truth. An over-strong state or community has ideological motives, degrades its commitment to freedom and replaces it with coercion, precisely because it cannot command assent. In a free society, the justification for the state is that it protects the freedoms of the people that it represents, internally and externally, and not the interests of a ruling faction.

The quest to build an equal society, on the other hand, requires totalitarian government precisely because of its fundamental impossibility. In addition, radical egalitarians feel no need to exercise the type of self-control discussed here in their treatment of other people, and feel free to offend, demean, ultimately to dispossess and eliminate those that they have determined to be the enemies of equality. Of course, this mistreatment of those they consider ideological enemies demonstrates the absurdity of their position, as believers in equality and warps, ultimately, both their sense of and realisation of justice.



Deserved honours and divisive honorifics: respect, rights and freedoms in an era of identity activism

The British actor Ben Kingsley, probably most famous for his eponymous role in the film Ghandi, has, since being knighted in the 2001 honours list, apparently insisted on being referred to as ‘Sir Ben Kingsley’. This is his right and he is, from all accounts, quite offended if the honorific is overlooked. Not all recipients of such honours are quite so sensitive to the proprieties being observed so closely or the impunity of their slight redressed with quite the force of the Kingsley wrath. Nevertheless, although it is his right, we are not obliged to comply with his wishes. There is not a law that requires the satisfaction of any obligation, real or imagined, to address a knight of the realm by their title, outside the laws of polite society, regardless of any damage inflicted on their self-esteem.

I should say I have nothing against the person, the persona or the onstage and on-screen performances of said Sir Ben. I have used him merely as a colourful illustration of the principle that the right to receive a particular good, service or respect does not automatically place upon other members of society an obligation to fulfil that right to the holder’s affective satisfaction. If I have bought a lottery ticket, I have a right to participate in the lottery, but not a right to win. If I have paid for some goods, I have the right to receive them and in good condition, but not to be perfectly satisfied by them. In a court of law, I have a right to hear my case heard, but not the right to receive the verdict I want. And so on. In no case I can think of can the privileges placed upon one by the conferring of a right imply an additional right to be respected or an additional obligation on the rest of us to make the bearer of the right be happy.

Nevertheless, while from the assumption that there is no right to be happy, we cannot conclude that there is no right to be respected, we have travelled from the well-founded and established proposition that the rights of others must be respected to the belief that there is indeed a right to be respected. The confused logic of this pathway is not limited to the layperson; it permeates academia and the judiciary, instigated by intellectual sophistry and compounded by legal activism. The problematic issue, though, from a societal perspective, is not a logical one. It is that the notion of a right and the necessity of respecting rights is so fundamental to legal culture, that anything that can be established as a right has the force of law behind it.

The entire debate has become confused around the conflation of rights with respect. Both terms have also suffered from an inflation of meaning over the past few decades. A right, at least as established under English law, meant a freedom that could not be interfered with by those in authority, such as the state, or by any other individual. These rights included the freedom of belief and conscience, the right to free speech and the right of assembly. Sir Ben Kingsley’s right to his honorific is a right in that mould; he has the freedom to append that title to his name, a freedom which those of us not similarly honoured do not have; it is, moreover, a freedom which he is not obliged to practice but I am obliged to respect. However, and this is the crucial point, I am not obliged under law to acquiesce in, or respect, the choices he makes on the basis of that freedom. I am free to do so, but also free not to do so.

What has happened to the notion of rights in the post-war period is that they have been transformed from negative freedoms to positive goods for the individual, such as education and employment, and then to positive goods for groups, including the protection of identities. With each step there has been a move away from holding the authority of the state to account, towards empowering the state over goods which it is increasingly difficult to guarantee, resulting in it becoming more coercive in its attempts to deliver them.

At the same time there has been a confusion between and a conflation of two meanings of the word ‘respect’. The first of these is defined as the “deference to a right, privilege or privileged position”, the second as “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability”*. These meanings are clearly different, but they have become confused and conflated through the notion of group rights. Such rights are invariably based on ‘identities’, a slippery term as they are largely self-constructed and weakly bounded, meaning they can be restructured and multiplied virtually endlessly. Identity as a self-construction necessarily evokes the sense of worth of the group to which one belongs; and as a right commands deference to that judgment. Hence, the conflation of the two senses.

The particular case I have in mind, because it highlights the extremes to which this idea can be pushed, is the decision by some states in America and Canada – surely to be replicated more widely sooner or later – to give legal force to the concept of preferred names for transgender people; that is, a legal requirement that in any public setting transgender people or people with specific gender identity requirements must be referred to by their preferred pronouns, and not simply by the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ based on a speakers own identification, assumption or assertion of their gender. For those who are not up to date with this area of identity advocacy, this extends far beyond the use of gender neutral terms such as ‘they’ and its lexical cognates (which, despite its grammatical awkwardness, I, like many, have been using for the past 30-odd years when gender is unknown or unimportant). Facebook now lists up to as many as 70 varieties of gender identification.

The first thing to say, as others have pointed out, is that the standard gender pronouns are not an honorific, a mark of respect, but only a mark of categorisation, categories that have emerged organically within the evolution of language. It is an entirely fallacious claim, therefore, that because the use of standard gender pronouns confer respect, the same respect should be extended to any form of gender identification that one can conjure up.

We are used in our society to make allowance for people’s individuality; and, although most of us do not consider this to be entangled with questions of rights, are willing to accommodate people’s reasonable requests in the name of common humanity and shared social bonds. However, the requests – actually, demands – that are being foisted upon those working in the public domain, such as in businesses, schools and universities under those legal jurisdictions, to match every individual’s gender self-identification with their preferred pronoun or other title (and be aware that these include such tags as ‘gender fluidity’ which entail switching gender identity upon a whim), are so outrageous that we cannot help suspect that there is an ideologically driven agenda.

Moreover, unlike the case of the be-knighted Sir Ben, whose honours – though rightly deserved – have mainly the force of tradition and convention, and whose demands for recognition we are under no obligation to meet, or only to the extent that we wish to remain on good terms with him, the case with gender identity is wholly different. There, the right is not predicated on any recognised accomplishment, but is demanded only on the basis of a belief. A specious one at that; one not founded on any credible empirical evidence. Yet it is one backed by the full force of the law. Of course, people have a right to their belief, regarding gender or any other marker of identity, but they do not have the right to respect for their belief, or acquiescence in the charade that their identity is sovereign. All identities are self-constructed and negotiated.

This seems to me to be the point on which legal activism has betrayed the inner meaning of a right, which is that a freedom always comes with consequences, which includes the consequences of disapproval and disavowal. Such advocates have carved out a realm of pure freedom purportedly protected from any consequences whatsoever, on the pernicious premise that the exercise of freedom of others in disagreeing with the social manifestation of their right and, especially, with the coercion of respect for their choices in doing so, can be categorised as ‘hate speech’ or ‘abuse’. The truth is that freedom is never without consequences, whether we choose to believe it or not, and in promoting the idea that it can be they give rise to a realm of chaos, both psychologically and socially.

I have dwelt on the issue of gender identity as a current manifestation and illustration of what happens when philosophy abandons logic and evidence, and the ramifications of that on a societal level.  On a personal level, I have been acquainted with a handful of people with complex gender identities. Some of those earned my respect for being people of integrity, whose character and accomplishments transcended the singular dimension of their gender. I suspect for many more it has become a fashionable eccentricity engendered by the extreme liberality of the societies we inhabit in the West, to which the young are particularly susceptible.  If so, it is a dangerous game that has unchained respect from accomplishment and freedom from consequences, one in which those in academia are particularly complicit.

*Note: definitions are adapted from the online dictionary respect. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved January 31, 2018 from website

Nietzsche and Weber: Transcendent Individualism as Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’ of Bureaucratic Rationalisation.



Modernity has been characterised not only by the great benefits brought by the increase in scientific knowledge and the technologies that have flowed from it, such as increasing wealth and convenience, improvements in health and well-being, and access to enormous amounts of information by ordinary citizens, but also by the increased possibilities for the documentation, regulation and control of our individual lives by governments, corporations or the cooperation of the two which technology has facilitated. This was already foreseen in the nineteenth century by one of sociology’s founders, Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the iron cage’ to characterise the growth of bureaucratic rationalisation in capitalist society. Other writers of the period also perceived this tendency within modernity, notably Friedrich Schiller, and Franz Kafka in The Trial. Over the intervening century the bureaucratic state has slowly but inexorably been stretching its tentacles into every aspect of social life, and this development has gathered pace with the advent of big data. With the convergence of government with big data, such as the establishment of a social credit system in China this tendency is now reaching its apotheosis in the ‘digital state’.

The argument made in this essay is that while technological developments have facilitated the drift towards the digital state, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the promises that the digital world holds, while neglecting the matter of our spiritual being, specifically the rationality, freedom and moral individualism which is the foundation of a sustainable democratic order. While responsibility for this neglect cannot ultimately be laid at the feet of anyone but each of us individually, there are cultural currents that define the social context in which we are brought up, educated and live our lives, and those currents are driven by thinkers of great perception and boldness. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one such thinker. His influence on the twentieth century, if largely unacknowledged, has been profound, as various aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, existentialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. By advocating hedonism as a positive virtue, Nietzsche unleased the genie of irrationalism in Western culture, where it has played havoc with our thinking and institutions since.

I will briefly review four aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy and their influence on European culture1: the Übermensch, transvaluation of values, death of God, and the eternal recurrence. As post-modernism is the contemporary intellectual legacy of Nietzschean philosophy, I will consider how this legacy is taking forward the programme of transvaluation, and the influence that is having on the modern culture and, specifically, on individualism as the bulwark against the bureaucratic state’s total dominance. Finally, I will re-evaluate Nietzsche for insights that might yet reinvigorate individualism and the democratic tradition.

The Transvaluation of European Thought

Like Weber, Nietzsche observed the increasing bureaucratisation of European society and, while like Weber, he saw this as rooted in Christian doctrine and values, unlike Weber, he was not merely content to objectivise these values as structural components in a ‘science’ of society; instead, he called for the wholesale transvaluation of our value system. Under the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, he developed his ideas of the will-to-power. Nietzsche saw the phenomenon of bureaucratisation as a moral failure of Christian civilisation, particularly as represented in the bourgeoise life of the middle classes, and this failure as arising from the weakening effect of Christian values such as humility, meekness, love and charity on the will-to-power. In place of these values, he sought to instil what he saw as the aristocratic values of the past, those of the warrior code of the pagan gods.

Nietzsche stands in opposition to much of what we think of as philosophy in the Western tradition, usually discussed along the dual traditions of rationalism and empiricism, which can be traced back to the debates of the ancient Greeks, although inflected through the ideas of medieval scholasticism. Rather, he made a turn into mystification and mythologisation through the medium of analogy and aphorism. His most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, uses the figure of a hermetic seer, nominally based on the actual founder of the Zoroastrian religion2, who descends from his mountain to speak about the Übermensch (Over-man, more commonly translated as Superman) and announce the death of God to the world.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. Despite the middle classes embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, they are consistently a target for elitist figures, including the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. One can see Nietzsche’s point to some extent; although most of us in the West at least are middle class, to aspire to be middle class is to accept a place in Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of an increasingly regulated existence. To the extent that we are aware of this, we feel a call to resist, and the Übermensch offers us one model of resistance. For reasons that I will develop further below I think it is the wrong model; not wrong absolutely, but too partial to address our current requirements. What it does suggest is that resistance has an element of danger, both risk to ourselves and – at least potential – threat to others.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche believed European civilisation was on the verge of sliding into nihilism. The cause of this catastrophe he argued was that Christianity was effectively emasculating the population; belief in the afterlife, values such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness, and turning the other cheek in the face of hostility, were diluting the will-to-power necessary for the vitality of a culture. As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, announced the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. His riposte to Christian belief was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. This is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, and then imagine living it without a single regret. Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life, but a Dionysian existence of excess without shame.

Is it true that belief in an afterlife encourages apathy towards social development in this world? One can see logically why it could be true, but there is no compelling evidence that there is a causal relationship. The Victorian period in British history was marked not only by a strong religiosity, but also substantial social reform frequently motivated by religious belief. Nietzsche obviously moved in more genteel circles, in which an insipid form of religious observance encouraged passivity rather than social engagement. This coincided with the rise of more bureaucratic states in Europe as urban populations rose with the development of capitalism and industrialisation driven by scientific discovery. Together they created a pliant cultural milieu, in which the individuality of the individual was subsumed in a culture of mediocrity. Against this reality Nietzsche railed and called for a transvaluation of values, something that entailed the wholesale replacement of the Christian virtues and the values arising from the Enlightenment with the pagan virtues of the aristocratic warrior, the elevation of a Dionysian view of human life and potentialities.

One sees something like a need for a Nietzschean reaction to the present-day dominance of illiberal values, which, together with the rise of digital technology, have emasculated the vibrancy of Western and other developed cultures. We are a few steps away from becoming vassals of a totalitarian digital state. The implementation of a social credit system in China is the precursor of what may happen globally if present trends continue, because it has a logical inevitability as well as an intrinsic appeal to the powerful. However, There is a terrible paradox to Nietzsche’s revolt against the Christian and humanist traditions of European culture; standing outside the mainstream and preaching a philosophy of the extreme – a heady mixture of violence and hedonism – against the suffocating dictates of reason and conventional morality, has weakened very core values of European and Western identity and stability and allowed the influx, cultivation and nurturing of extremist ideologies at the very heart of many of our academic institutions.

The Susceptibility of Post-Modern Societies to the ‘Iron Cage’

The ‘iron cage’ of Weber’s imagination is as apt a description of the social trends we see today as it was of his own time. Two new factors have been added: the emergence of digital technology which has accelerated and augmented the bureaucratisation of the state and its intrusion into more areas of individual and family life; the rise of a rights-based illiberalism which necessitates, increasingly, the use of the tools of state power to implement and police its diktats in every corner of society.

How have we been enticed into the iron cage, and how do we continue to live there for the most part unaware of our imprisonment? Answering those questions fully would require a historical and psychological account to be given and I am neither a historian nor a psychologist, but from a socio-philosophical perspective it can plausibly be argued that a Nietzschean transvaluation has in fact occurred. European civilisation has been based upon individualism derived from both classical Enlightenment values and Christian values. This type of individualism has provided people with the tools for both internal resilience, that is inner conviction in an extrinsic truth, and the ability to call out wrongdoing and transgression in the name of a greater good, not only moral but also social. At the same time, it has also bred a belief in fundamental freedom and tolerance, meaning an acceptance of that with which one did not necessarily agree. Beyond this, these fundamental values have provided the basis for a shared understanding and belonging in a web of communities, both secular and spiritual, in which disagreements could be discussed in a more-or-less civilised manner. It is this individualism which has now been severely weakened.

How is it then that a culture that underlay Western individualism has been so etiolated? I think that the seeds lie already in how Christianity and humanism developed through their institutional embodiments. In some respects their positive strengths and values made them susceptible to the enticement of alternative – more extreme – interpretations of their virtues. These forces include the emergence of a culture of groupthink. At some point in the development of human rights thinking, the notion of group rights became accepted. This went against the very idea of human rights in its original form, which enshrined the right of the individual to be protected from the power of the state. The protection of the rights of a group requires and inversion of this priority, that is the interference of the state in the rights of individuals in freely expressing their views on groups considered vulnerable. Of course, it can, and is, argued that this represents progress in social matters; nevertheless, it was a breach in the protection of individual rights. The expansion of this initially laudable idea of the protection of vulnerable groups has continued apace, until it has come to occupy almost the entire discourse on human rights, and where group rights conflict with the individual right of self-expression or conscience, almost invariably group rights – the protection of one’s rights as part of a collective identity – take precedence in any legal judgement.

A second related threat is the progressive undermining of the spiritual and secular values of European civilisation. For reasons that it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider, spiritual and secular values, while often in tension, exist in a symbiotic relationship. It has often been noted that the particular religious legacy of the West has been instrumental in creating its intellectual culture. Attempts to distil the essence of rationality shorn of this historical and cultural context have inevitably run into paradox. At least since the French Revolution, though, the intellectual culture of the West has been increasingly hostile to religion, and this has permeated almost every institution and medium of mass communication. For example, the EU is an attempt to create a European identity based entirely on secular values, without any reference to its shared religious history. To some extent this trend is understandable, as it can be seen as a reaction against the past historical abuses of power of the Christian churches and the wars of religion. However, the lessons of the French revolution should disabuse us of the idea that reason alone is the guarantor of a just social order. I suspect (though I have no evidence for this) that religion creates a context of rules for an extended community in which reason can operate but is constrained; freed of this constraint, reason has nothing to operate on but itself, which at least explains the self-destructive tendencies in the hyper-rationalism of post-modern philosophies such as deconstructionism.

Post-modernism is doubtless the principal contemporary ideology with a Nietzschean lineage.3 Its indebtedness to Nietzsche is two-fold: on the one hand is its clear inheritance of Nietzsche’s diatribes against Christianity and rationality, though reinterpreted through a Marxist appeal to equality to the downtrodden (replacing the industrial proletariat with whoever can conveniently be labelled a victim of western power structures) and the subtle use of dialectic that allows the play of meaning to the verge of semantic nihilism; on the other hand is its incessant narratives and barely concealed love of confrontation and transgression: Foucault’s discourses on power and ‘symbolic violence’ (basically everything), anti-imperialist, radical feminist and queer theorists that subject even science and mathematics to their victimological hermeneutics, to the current vogue for ‘safe spaces’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘trigger warnings’, that foreclose open debate and precipitate pre-emptively defensive acts of violence. Nowhere is this postmodern dialectic more revealing than in its apologetics for radical Islam, despite (or is it because of?) its anti-rationalist and anti-science fundamentalism, its oppression of women, support for global jihad and dreadful human rights record.

Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’

Is it possible to interpret Nietzsche for a route out of the iron cage, towards which, I have argued, he has unwittingly helped entice us, by creating the cultural shift in values that is facilitating the advent of the totalitarian digital state? I believe that a reading of Nietzsche can be foundational to a reassessment of individualism moving into the emerging information age, both of its rationalistic elements and of its Christian morality. I will focus on two of Nietzsche’s concepts, the figure of the Übermensch and the eternal recurrence.

The Übermensch has been criticised as a type of proto-fascist ideal. They live by an aristocratic code of superiority, the will-to-power, which is what attracted the Nazi theorists to the idea and it is certainly true that the Nazis appropriated the terminology for their own propaganda.4 The delineation of the idea in itself, therefore, makes Nietzsche responsible to that extent. That, however, can be said of almost any idea: that it is subject to misinterpretation and misappropriation. A reading of Nietzsche on the subject should be enough to correct that criticism. Fascism is a branch of socialism that identifies the state with national identity rather than the industrial proletariat. The Übermenschen live by their own values, not by the values of the collective. They have no allegiance to the state, to an ideology, to a collective identity or obedience to a Fuhrer, which is where Nietzsche and fascism part company.

I think Nietzsche was right to critique the dominant values of the culture of his time, particularly the way in which Christianity, with its focus on sin and salvation, diminished the image of man and reduced the capacities and potentialities of life in this world with the promise of a better life in the next. He was also right in predicting the slide into nihilism that occurred with the two world wars. It is possible that the very culture of inadequacy and dependence which he lacerated was instrumental in the rise of Hitler, who came as a messianic saviour to the German people. However, the image of the Übermensch should not be appropriated wholesale, but accepted critically as a corrective to the weaknesses of the dominant European culture. Particularly at this time, as people are becoming in thrall to the new digital culture and the possibilities for radical government control over the actions and thoughts of their citizens, Nietzsche’s Übermensch holds out the possibility of the individual citizen becoming more dangerous to the power of the state.

That said, this does not require a total transvaluation of the sort proclaimed by Nietzsche. Many of the values that he criticised have an important place in our culture and our psychology. The fact is, we are physically and morally limited and fail or commit sins. All cultures have evolved methods for individual and societal healing, such as confession, punishment, contrition, mercy and forgiveness, depending on the nature of the crime. I suggest rather than a rejection of the values of the culture of which we find ourselves a part, we should engage in a more critical appropriation and individualisation of those values, accepting the positive aspects and resisting attempts by the state to coerce us into its desired patterns of behaviour. It is to redress the balance in the relationship between the state and the citizen, which has flowed in the direction of state empowerment during the last 100 years. It is not a repudiation of statehood, but of the totalitarian bureaucratic state that is threateningly just over the horizon. It is also to accept the responsibility for becoming a better citizen, who holds the state to account.

The idea of the eternal recurrence (or eternal return as it is also known) is probably the most difficult of Nietzsche’s ideas to fathom. I have offered my interpretation above, and on the surface a more morally odious and nihilistic idea can barely be conceived. Yet I want to turn that on its head now, and consider how that might yet presage an important philosophical turn in European civilisation. The eternal recurrence, on Nietzsche’s own understanding, means to live beyond not merely belief in a life after death, but beyond belief itself, in a world of values. It is to live in the eternal present; not so much to live hedonistically in the present moment as such, but to live one’s values as if they are eternal values. Nietzsche therefore declares that the age to come is the new axial age, in which matters of value, whether they be religious or secular, take precedence over the matters of ontology and epistemology which have hitherto been the central concerns of philosophy.

Just as Nietzsche could not contemplate a transvaluation of European civilisation without a mythological underpinning, so too a reinterpretation of the eternal recurrence as a paradigm shift to values-based culture has its own mythology, which is best described by Maurice Berman’s concept of ‘the re-enchantment of the world’, which  emerged in a book of the same name on the philosophy and psychology of science, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians in the late twentieth century. Coming full circle, it was, ironically, a challenge to Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other. The disenchantment of the world is the spiritual precursor of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationalisation.

The idea of re-enchantment fulfils the need in a thoroughly secularised age for a sense of the transcendent in human life. That could be transcendence in the religion of our own culture, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure, or in love. Seeking transcendence of our ego, our experience of the self, is not only an expression of our freedom and individuality, but also our desire, as an individual, to belong to the human community. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, therefore finds a more benevolent interpretation in what I call transcendent individualism, a philosophy of the self that is at the heart of resistance to the iron cage.

To speak of transcendent individualism as benevolent does not, though, mask its threat to the forces of bureaucratic rationalisation. The modern capitalist society requires us to be good workers and consumers, whereas socialism requires us to be good citizens of the state. Of the two prospects, given the choice, people have chosen the former on the whole, and the former almost universally after having experienced the latter. But the state in either case has no intrinsic interest in us as individuals, only as functional parts of its operational whole; it defends us against enemies, feeds us, educates us, provides we remain in reasonable health, and perhaps employs us, because that is the requirement of its own survival – indeed without doing those things we would call it a failed state. Paradoxically, then, though the state is, in the end, just individuals, as a deontological entity, it abstracts the individuality of the individual and, if it becomes too powerful it crushes the natural state of free thought, free expression, free action and free association that underlie authentic social belonging.

Transcendent individualism, by resisting the encroachment of the overgrown state into more areas of our lives, is the guarantor of the continuing vitality of the society of which the state is an important part. It addresses philosophically an issue which has been neglected in recent debates on democracy, the importance of individualism as the foundation of democratic societies, without reducing it to the consumer of capitalist requirement. It does not shy away, either, from the notion of democracy as a messy, conflict-ridden and sometimes revolutionary force. I do not foresee a reduction in conflict in democratic society in the future, as there will inevitably be clashes of values, but this is the essence of the form of society that builds itself on the value of the individual, one that must be eternally vigilant of collectivist tendencies and the stultifying oppression of bureaucratic rationalisation.


  1. I have referred to European thought and European culture rather more than the more general term Western thought and culture, firstly because this is more representative of the cultural milieu in which Nietzsche moved and wrote, but also because, although there are continuities with Western thought and culture more generally, some of the criticisms, e.g. of the character of Christianity, discussed here do not necessarily apply outside Europe.
  2. The modern-day Parsees of India, a small but influential community, are the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religion, which was once widespread throughout central Asia. Its influence is even apparent in Jewish and early Christian theology.
  3. Nietzsche’s relationship to subsequent developments is disputed and paradoxical, as it seems he is held responsible for precipitating the things he warned against. He likened Christianity to a slave mentality, making a virtue of weakness. Today postmodernism – which does have an authentic Nietzschean heritage – underpins much of social justice rhetoric and activism, yet reproduces this mentality. Similarly, while he warned against nihilism, he is considered by some a nihilist philosopher.
  4. It is known definitively that Nietzsche’s links to Nazism arose through the emendation of his archive posthumously by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was married to an believer in Aryan supremacy, and was later herself a National Socialist sympathiser. Through the bowdlerised works, Nietzsche came to the attention of Nazi theorists and leaders.


Selected Bibliography

Peter Baehr (2001), The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, History and Theory Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 153–169, May 2001

Ernst Bertram (2009[1918]). Nietzsche: Attempt at a New Mythology [Translated by Robert E. Norton]. University of Illinois Press.

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Simon Denyer (22 October 2016). China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives. The Independent (online):

Graeme Garrard (2008). Nietzsche for and against the Enlightenment. The Review of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Fall, 2008), pp. 595-608

Richard Jenkins (2000). Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32].

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Values and Identity

By Colin Turfus

We hear much about “values” and “identity” in discussions in the media these days. Often the debate about values is specifically around so-called “British values”; and the discussion about identity is often in the context of what is referred to as “identity politics.” The discourse on both these topics in my experience tends to be tedious and unilluminating, so I would like to try and consider these topics from a fresh perspective, in particular to look at their relationship and consider what light the one can shine on the other.

What Do I Mean by Values?

In relation to values, it is often assumed that, to be worthy of the name, they need to be universal or universalisable, i.e. worthy or capable of being upheld by all people, conceptually at all times (although this last idea is rather difficult to square with the commonly held perception that values somehow evolve as the human race becomes more “enlightened”). One of the consequences of this approach is that the concept of “British values” becomes almost an oxymoron, and we tend only to list amongst them things like “fairness,” “democracy” and “respect for the rule of law” which we would advocate that all people in all nations should adopt on the basis of their self-evident merit, arguing to that end along the lines of Kant’s categorical imperative.

Personally, I consider Kant’s philosophy to be unduly influential in our public debate, not least in his insistence on universalisability as a means of determining rules for what constitutes the good. While such arguments are helpful if we wish to compel others to adopt a mandated value perspective, or at least to behave and speak in public as if they did, much of what we really mean by “values” is not really universal at all; indeed it is often quite idiosyncratic and personal. Not only that, I would even propose that idiosyncratic value perspectives are crucial in bringing people together in social groupings and enable the members thereof to see themselves as distinct from members of other groupings on the basis not only of what Aristotle would refer to as the telos, or intrinsic purpose, of the group but also of the values to which this telos gives rise.

What I am arguing, therefore, is that we should think of values as inhabiting intersecting spheres, mirroring the fact that as multifaceted individuals we ourselves inhabit separate spheres in our lives, such as work, family, sports clubs, choirs, and discussion groups, each with its own telos and its own values, some of which may be universal and others of which may be highly exclusive. What I want to emphasise is that those which are universal are not necessarily higher or more important than others. Indeed they probably only offer a lowest common denominator. Who would wish it to be said as their epitaph only that they always did what was required of them? Or that they never strayed even once into political incorrectness? Surely a life replete with value has to go beyond the mundane and be infused with some idiosyncratic personal passion?

Problems with Conflicting Values

Another common misunderstanding—and this brings me on to the question of identity—is the opposite one: that when we feel the values of some particular group are antithetical to our own, there is some onus on us to show respect for the values of that group and indeed for whatever is the object of their valuing. To my mind that is not just nonsense but dangerous nonsense. The group and their values are different precisely because they are idiosyncratic, not universal. To demand that we respect the values and the valuing of another group is to suggest that we should adopt in some measure their idiosyncrasies. But in order to do so, we must at the same time relinquish hold on some of those associated with our own group (and identity). Thus we are required to pay homage to the values of groups to which we do not belong, and so to sublimate our own values. Presumably the other group is expected to reciprocate. As can be seen, if we were to take this process to its logical conclusion, our very identity, shaped as this is by the groups we belong to and the aims and activities we share with their members, will be undermined.

Much of such discussion about respect for other people’s values revolves around the idea of rights, which of course are inextricably linked with universalisability. Human rights law does indeed protect freedom of expression and freedom of conscience. Consequently there is an onus on each of us to respect the rights of individuals and groups to hold and give expression to their values, but not necessarily to respect the values (or objects of valuing) themselves. Of course, if the expression of “values” is antithetical to universal rights held by others, or worse illegal, even the right of expression is curtailed.

In summary, “values” may by their nature and the role they play in our social lives divide us as much as they unite us, and to believe or wish otherwise is not just mistaken, but potentially dangerous as it may result in drawing groups into unnecessary conflict and undermining their ethos and the seminal role they play in underpinning civil society. Protecting spheres of value requires a judicious measure of separation to be maintained between social groupings. There can be such a thing as too much “unity”.

Problems with Multiple Identities?

As I have suggested above, the idiosyncratic values we hold to are a reflection of the social groupings we belong to (or used to) and vice versa. These give rise in a natural way to our identity, which will naturally be multi-faceted. This state of affairs and the recognition of the ultimate incommensurability of diverse value perspectives has given rise in the modern era to the postmodernist narrative, or perhaps I should say multiplicity of narratives. (How this squares with the purportedly necessary Kantian condition of universalisability of values has never to my knowledge been elucidated.) In accordance with this perspective, no individual or group has the right to prioritise their perspective or values over any other.

Well that’s the theory. The reality in the UK and indeed across Western society in general is of course what has become known as the multi-cultural society, whereby non-indigenous communities are encouraged to hold fast to their separate identity and culture, express their grievances against the majority community and demand preferential access to resources; and are often permitted, encouraged even, to flaunt the law, such as with so-called sanctuary cities in the US and in refugee camps at Sangatte. Thus we enter the realm of identity politics in accordance with which the basis of this entitlement to assert one’s identity or culture is a sense of victimhood, or the experience of prejudice or microaggression at the hands of the “majority” community. We have veritable industries now established in our universities manufacturing theories and devising ever more ways to fan the flames and identify new injustices which had hitherto gone unnoticed. How this can be reconciled with the idea of a society of universal shared values is hard to fathom.

But it does not even stop there. Under the postmodernist agenda new minority communities are all the time being identified, for example through the agency of gender dysphoria which has gone within a matter of years from being a pathological psychological state to being the major battleground in the crusade to evict inherited/traditional values from their erstwhile home at the centre of society. What was previously referred to as the LGBT community has become a veritable alphabet soup where soon we will be running out of letters to represent all the rainbow of gender perspectives which the theory (or, absent that, the ideology) seeks to accommodate. And don’t get me started on the haves versus the have-nots debate (where interestingly it appears uniquely to be the minority who are deemed to be the oppressors!).

Under this narrative, the authenticity of the perspective expressed is deemed to arise not from any coherent philosophical perspective or historical narrative but from the grievances which are evinced, so civilised discussion is barely possible, only capitulation lest one be seen as manifestly part of the problem and labelled as embodying this or that phobia or -ism.

Where Does This Leave Us?

This whole business seems to me to be a misuse of the idea of identity. From the perspective I outlined above, this should be about shared values within a community or social grouping, not shared grievances and enmities. Interestingly I would see the new revanchist nationalism evident in the US and Europe (it was rarely if ever absent anywhere else in the world, so is seldom remarked upon other than in Europe or North America) as a reaction against the perceived injustice of precisely this privileging of minority over majority interests. Unfortunately the manifestation of this tends all too often to be again through the expression of shared grievances and enmities, which is not really leading towards a resolution.

It would appear there is urgent need to put positive values back at the centre of the concept of identity and indeed of our moral/societal/political discourse.

‘The Re-Enchantment of the World’ as Social Theory and Critique


‘The re-enchantment of the world’ emerged as a concept in the 1980s in the work of Maurice Berman, in a work on the philosophy and psychology of science of that name, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians. Ironically, until now it has not featured much within the social sciences; ironically, that is, because the expression was a challenge to the sociologist Max Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from the poet Schiller, ‘The Disenchantment of the World’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other.

We may ponder the extent to which Weber’s characterisation of his own day has, in fact, become more pronounced over the intervening century, with the rise of consumerism, digital technologies, managerialism, big data and the threats to the environment. The aim in this essay is to begin a discussion about the sociological dimensions of re-enchantment as a critique and alternative to the disenchanted state of modernity. This is not a call for a return to a prescientific, magical or mythical view of the natural and social worlds. Rather, it attempts to undergird theoretically the idea that progress is only measured by advances in the empowerment of the individual, spiritually and materially, against those forces that attempt to block or suppress it. It begins with an exposition and critique of the theory of orthogenesis proposed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890-1955). Teilhard was not a sociologist, but a Jesuit priest and anthropologist. Nevertheless, his fusion of the religious and scientific insights gained through his life experience is a good point of departure for grappling with the idea of re-enchantment.

This essay explores and critiques another theme fundamental to the Western outlook and literary canon, which is the transformative moment in human history. This is biblical in origin, in the narrative of a divine providence, from the myth of the expulsion from Eden to the final judgement of the world. However, this narrative also finds expression in secular eschatologies, such as the Marxist conviction in the appearance of (or return to) a perfect communist society, driven by inherent contradictions in the economic structures and relationships in every hitherto existing form of society, or those social philosophies inspired by Hegel, such as that of Fukuyama, who believe that an ‘End of History’ will be achieved when the social form matches closely that in which the restless desires of humanity can be achieved. Teilhard himself foresaw such a moment, in which the material and divine will be fused, which he referred to as the ‘Omega Point’. I will contrast these perspectives with another, that of the evolution of both nature and society as stochastic, that is, open and random.

I have chosen to focus on these two thinkers – Teilhard de Chardin and Fukuyama – for another reason. Teilhard represents what could be called the enchanted view of the world, one of nature suffused by divinity, one of predestination and essential goodness. However, Teilhard’s vision was marred by his political naivety and his inability within his thought of dealing with the reality of human evil, a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Fukuyama, if anything, presents the completely opposite view: a disenchanted world in which the culmination of historical progress is a disinterested political state, which facilitates its citizens to pursue their individual means to alleviate their ennui. Fukuyama was heavily influenced by the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojève, who saw in the establishment of the European Union, that epitome of a faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, a political terminus, and so renounced philosophy to join its ranks. In addition, a discussion of re-enchantment would be incomplete without a consideration of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose ideas constitute an important precursor. Therefore, finally, I will examine four tenets of his doctrine of the will-to-power, a critique of whose principal motifs will help characterise the scope of re-enchantment.

Differentiation and Integration in Nature and Society

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments he asserted the agency of two types of energy, which he termed radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add two caveats to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life and the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to the second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. However, differentiation and integration should be seen as analytical categories, not as predictive ones.

Freedom and Belonging as Interdependent Values

Shortly after communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe were tumbling, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama produced a seminal essay entitled ‘The End of History’ in which he declared that the cold war had been won and the victor was liberal democracy. This seemed prescient at the time as dictatorships of the left continued to fall and to transform into at least nominal democracies. This declaration was in essence an update of a thesis advanced by Hegel that the liberal state of Prussia represented the terminus of historical development. Over the next decade, developments were to prove that Fukuyama’s assertions were just as premature as Hegel’s had been, with the rise of political Islam, a newly assertive Russia and the persistence in China of a one-party communist state, despite its growing affluence.

Despite these predictive failures, there is a core of powerful reasoning behind this school of thought. Hegel saw the liberal state of Prussia as resolving the inherent dialectical struggle between the spirit and the material. Perhaps more pertinently, Fukuyama saw in liberal democracy the system in which the eternal struggle for freedom and recognition could be realised most fully. Quite rightly, he saw that human historical destiny is driven by fundamental values that define our human nature, and that any system that thwarts these desires is bound to fail.

Fukuyama asserted that in fact liberal democratic societies manifested the necessary conditions for the realisation of freedom and recognition and that while history, as the unfolding of human events, would continue, ‘History’ as the struggle for a just and equitable society was basically over. This did not mean that he saw liberal democracy as a perfectly good society in which everyone achieved happiness. On the contrary, he saw it as a spiritual wilderness in which we are all responsible for instituting the activities which contribute meaning to our otherwise meaningless lives. While some criticise Fukuyama for being overly optimistic about the prospect for the triumph of liberal and democratic values, I find his view of the destiny of humanity to be deeply pessimistic. Although I accept the premise that social evolution is driven by deep-seated values, I believe that Fukuyama identified the wrong values, and that contributed to his vision of the end of history as disenchanted.

The ideal of freedom has been central to almost all discourses on the nature of our social being, but particularly those that have championed individualism. This has, of course, been primarily a discourse that has occurred in the tradition of Western thought, stretching from the ancient Greeks, through Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus and Luther, the Enlightenment philosophers to the modernists and post-modernists of our contemporary world. Yet even in those cultures that have not traditionally emphasised freedom, the desire for freedom and the yearning to express individuality and to break out of oppressive social constraints or hidebound customs lies dormant or quietly seethes below the surface. Therefore, freedom is arguably more than just a western idea, but a universal value for all cultures and a prime differentia from all other mammals.

But Fukuyama, like others in the rationalist and individualist tradition, committed the error of ignoring the other prime value of humanity, which is the need to belong. Belonging is something that we share with animals, because we are also animals, in our origins and in our instincts. Belonging, to return to the socio-political motifs explored earlier, is the most fundamental way in which the integrating factor manifests itself in human society. Unlike animals, though, our sense of belonging is not limited to an immediate family or troupe, but ranges over a far more extended span of groupings, including imaginary, abstract and mythic associations and constructs, such as organisations, nations, religions and concepts such as humanity.

Human belonging, therefore, is not primarily instinctual – even if it is instinctual in origin and basis – but deontological. That is to say, the forms of life to which we belong are structured by laws, rules, traditions, customs and beliefs, which are ultimately the expression of shared values; values to which we ascribe through willing association. This is as true for those forms of life which we may consider to be instinctive, such as family and tribe, as it is for the more abstract forms. Belonging, therefore, partakes of the freedom which we have already asserted to be a principal value; there is no belonging where this belonging is not fundamentally voluntary. I say ‘fundamentally’ because we are not normally in the habit of reminding ourselves of this on a moment by moment basis, bound as we are by other considerations of belonging, such as love and friendship, respect, duty, dependence, and so on. But any association (between adults, who are morally autonomous) which is not at its basis voluntary, is a form of servitude.

A moment’s reflection will suggest that this relationship between freedom and belonging is not one way. As our spirituality emerges from and matures based on our animal instincts, so freedom, as the basic expression of our spirituality, is given shape and density through our forms of belonging. Freedom without belonging, to the extent that it could exist, would be an evanescent quality, for the nature of our freedom is that we willingly sacrifice a degree of our moral autonomy as free beings for belonging, so that our freedom can find expression in forms of belonging, which might include such transcendent forms as belonging to a loved one, a deity or a country, and will almost certainly include such mundane forms as a profession and leisure pursuits.

Progress and Empowerment

Progress is an idea that comes in and goes out of fashion. It defined the Victorian era, both in terms of technological advance and in social welfare. For much of the past fifty years it is a term that has been associated with the Left, particularly in the areas of social justice. Still the question remains whether there is such a thing as progress, or is there simply change, as one set of ideas, concerns, technologies and problems gives rise to another. That would be compatible with the idea of social evolution, like biological evolution, being open, random and purposeless, in contradistinction to the ideas considered earlier – those of Teilhard and Fukuyama – who see an underlying teleology in human affairs.

Progress is a creed adopted by optimists and by optimistic ages, whereas one would probably characterise our times as pessimistic, despite the huge advances in technology. This pessimism is perhaps a manifestation of the ‘revenge effect’, whereby every advance seems only to create new problems; indeed, much of our pessimism arises precisely because of advances in technology and their arguably deleterious effects: on our health or safety, on our environment, or on our social being. There is a view, championed, for example, by James Lovelock, the proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, that as an evolved species we are constrained by the self-regulating system of the biosphere of which we are a part, and that being out of kilter with nature will only hasten our own demise or, certainly, diminution. In such a view, all our pretence to progress amounts to nothing; we in the developed world have not advanced in evolutionary terms beyond the tribes of the Amazon.

Failing a catastrophic failure of human civilisation, in which case Lovelock’s hypothesis would be vindicated in a world which would no longer comprehend it, I propose a more optimistic view, based on a phenomenological account of the reality of the accomplishments of the human spirit in science, art, religion, politics, economics and technology, one in which our experience of progress can at least be put to the test, rather than simply dismissed. That test would be the extent to which change actually empowers us as individuals. I see this as the single vector by which progress can be judged to have occurred or not. Looking at the scope of historical development, societies emerged in which the role of the individual came to play a greater role and in which, from an objective viewpoint, individuals became more equal and thus more empowered. Clearly, this remains an unfinished task, not only on a global level, but even within developed societies. In fact, I believe this will forever remain unfinished, as it is intrinsically impossible for human beings to be equal by any measure that we care to apply. However, inequalities and the conditions for disempowerment continually arise as society changes, whether that be in life chances, longevity, suffrage, wealth and poverty, health, education and skills, social status and wellbeing that need to be challenged at the individual and the societal levels.

Re-enchantment at this societal level can be understood as the recovery of the heroic and mythic views of human nature, from literature and religion, for example, and their reinterpretation into modernity. However, rather than a Nietzschean interpretation of mythic heroism as the will to power based upon pure physicality and warrior virtues, re-enchantment constitutes a counterpoint in terms of human spirituality and individual empowerment. It is explicitly an anti-Nietzschean stance.

Re-enchantment as an anti-Nietzschean programme

Nietzsche is notoriously difficult to pin down, as his most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which developed some of his earlier themes, and presaged some of his later ones, was written in dramatic aphorisms, which are open to multiple interpretations. There is no denying Nietzsche’s influence on the twentieth century, as different aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. The four ideas to be considered are the Übermensch, the transvaluation of values, the death of God, and the eternal recurrence. Briefly, each will be contrasted with what I understand the implications of re-enchantment to be.

The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeoise middle class person that Nietzsche despised. The middle classes are always a target for elitist figures, despite embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, and the mentality of the Übermensch has undoubtedly seeped into the attitude of the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. Re-enchantment, by contrast, is the empowering of Everyman, the individuals who inhabit real societies, through addressing the symptoms and causes of disempowerment as they occur under existing conditions.

Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche called for a transvaluation of all values, particularly those derived from Christianity, such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness. It was not that he necessarily saw these values as wrong in themselves, but that he perceived European civilisation as weakening through the predominance of these values, and a belief in the afterlife, and in danger of sliding into nihilism. Christianity was effectively emasculating the will to power of the populace. The anti-Christian rhetoric of Nietzsche has been effectively transmitted into today’s western liberal societies, particularly through postmodern thought, which has come to dominate leftist academia and politics. This ignores the significant cultural inheritance of Christian beliefs and history to the development of the ideas of freedom and belonging, referred to earlier, along with the contributions of humanism, which belong to Everyman, not exclusively to the West. Through undermining the foundations of belief in freedom and authentic belonging, the modern Nietzscheans are disempowering Everyman, in preparation for becoming a vassal of the elites and the state.

As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, spoke of the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. Ironically, though, Nietzsche invoked the pantheon of ancient deities in the mythical Übermensch in an attempt to re-enchant the world. This is also notable in the existential philosophy of Heidegger, a disciple of Nietzsche, who in his late works came to deify the concept of Being. It is in the nature of Everyman, as a spiritual being, that we seek the transcendent, whether that be in the religion of our civilisation and forefathers, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure. Seeking transcendence is not only an expression of our freedom but also our desire to belong to the community of our peers.

Nietzsche despised the Christian morality founded on the idea of sin, the apologia for life as lived and the abasement of the self before God, as a fatal weakness. His riposte was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence that is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, would it be possible to live without a single regret? Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life in a conventional sense, but a Dionysian existence of indulgence, and one without shame. There are several things to say about this. First, there is an implicit fatalism in the idea of eternal recurrence, which hearkens back to pre-Christian paganism, although if my interpretation is correct it was probably postulated as an ironic rhetorical device. Secondly, it advocates a form of life entirely without thought of the consequences of one’s choices on others, except inasmuch as the other is the object of the will to power. Thirdly, the recognition of fault, apology and remorse, punishment, mercy and forgiveness are among the intricate processes that have evolved in all human societies to mend breaches in the state of belonging.

By contrast, re-enchantment posits an eternal resistance to the forces of disenchantment in a world which is constantly changing in a manner beyond anybody’s control. Specifically, it is a state of permanent resistance to the forces of disenchantment that are embedded in those institutional structures which suppress human freedom and interpose ersatz forms of association in place of authentic belonging. However, resistance is a subtle stance, in which benefits and risks have to be carefully considered, as do the consequences for oneself and the greater whole. There are selfish rebellions that seek to assuage an immediate discomfort or satisfy a pressing desire, but do not result in long-term benefit to the individual and may add to the bureaucratic burden borne by others if pursued in law. There are revolutions in the name of the liberation of the people, which strip all freedoms from the people and deliver them into penury and totalitarian nightmare. It is impossible to know the exact outcome of our actions, and this should be the first principle of resistance.

Not all institutions are disenchanted, and our resistance may take the form of testing a moral community before immersing ourselves within it. In other cases, we may seek to empower ourselves by evading the reach of certain oppressive powers. In yet other cases, we may seek to challenge those powers by agitating for fundamental change in vested interests, seeking to empower larger swathes of society. In all cases, though, it is the empowerment of the individual in the balance of freedom and belonging which is sought; this should be the second principle of resistance.


The re-enchantment of the world is rooted in a cultural hermeneutics: the reinterpretation of the enchanted myths of origins and heroic figures of the distant or the recent past, for clues to the transcendental meaning and purpose of our lives and the disenchanted state in which we often find ourselves. By way of a detour through a critique of evolutionary determinism (natural and historical) and the Nietzschean will-to-power it has also taken on social theoretical dimensions.

Accepting the view of social evolution as open and random and that, therefore, there is no finality and no determined course, nevertheless it is possible to assert that there is a definite telos to human societies, which is that they should be structured in such a way as to facilitate the empowerment of the individual in an incremental sense. Re-enchantment is not a terminal event in human history, except inasmuch as all desirable outcomes are declarative, if not historical, termini; nor is it, in any real sense, a process, for that also implies an inevitability and a course. Rather, it is a state of perpetual resistance to historically sedimented or newly emerging forces of disenchantment, which prohibit or threaten the individual expression of freedom and the free experience of belonging. The position of women and minorities in various societies is an example with a long history; the societal dangers posed by digital technologies is one that we are beginning to be aware of.

The re-enchantment of the world clearly has sociological and political dimensions, as a critique of, and policy for reform of, social institutions, respectively. In highlighting the central role of the empowered individual, it also has a moral dimension, a duty that falls on every person to resist, in however large or small a measure, the obtrusion of the disenchanted world upon our lives.


Further Reading

Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Francis Fukuyama (1996). The End of history and the Last Man. New York: the Free Press.

Richard Jenkins (2000), Disenchantment, Enchantment and Re-Enchantment: Max Weber at the Millennium. [MWS 1 (2000) 11-32].

Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by  Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961). The Phenomenon of Man. London: Harper & Row, Publishers.

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.



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