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.

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

 

Introduction

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.

Notes

  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): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-surveillance-big-data-score-censorship-a7375221.html

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]. http://maxweberstudies.org/kcfinder/upload/files/MWSJournal/1.1pdfs/1.1%2011-32.pdf

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

National sovereignty considered as a rule-based game

catalonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

May you live in interesting times (Confucian curse)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

Related Articles

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

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

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

George Greenwood, Can the EU survive Brexit? CapX

 

We are subject only to the rule of law

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

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

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

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

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

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