Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Pub Talk

It is May 1929, you’re in a bar in Düsseldorf and a Communist is talking to you.  Ah! Hampstead! (He knows it well having been there to see Karl).  You talk about Goethe and Byron, the flatlands of John Stuart Mill, but, although he likes you, tonight he wants to provoke: all that English liberal sentiment.  Blah!  So he asks your opinion of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; which you know of vaguely, some odd fellow with mobile features…  you mumble away, and tail off, unsure what you’re saying.  He smiles, and nods – he walks arm in arm with History -, and he tells you a little more: the anti-semitism, the thuggery, the hate; the big conspiracies.  And then he says, your Lord Grey was worse than that!  And he talks over your stupefaction, reminding you of the dead on the lord’s hands – how many did he kill?  Your Liberal Party worse than the Nazis!  Can this be true?

Words are slippery things, like snakes they slide through our reasoning.  A statement can both be true and false, depending on the context, and the material it includes within its premises.  Those premises – how much they can conceal!  Thus our German friend is able to utter a seeming truth by highlighting one fact, and building an argument around it; although ignoring the wider reality.  The wider reality?  The world of business and power, with its competing forces that sets the limits within which politicians can operate.  He would have you believe, or at least his argument assumes, that politicians, unlike the rest of us, can act freely all the time; as if a passenger can just walk out of a moving train.

If you widen the context, as of 1929 (we don’t have to jump to 1950, when the argument completely disintegrates), the comparison begins to crumble.  The British government had the choice not to go war, but this wasn’t a completely free decision, for in large measure it was conditioned by the facts on the ground, and which pushed them in a certain direction – they had a choice, but it was limited and difficult. 

…there was the large group of waverers, reluctant to accept involvement, hopeful of finding a way out of the nightmare, reluctant to face a final decision.  Lloyd George, who might have organised an opposition, was not untypical.  He was in close touch with Scott of the Manchester Guardian and the Liberal opposition.  He had not expected war and did not want to fight.  Yet he shared Grey’s view of the German menace and knew how important the first few weeks of war would be.  After the 29th, he seemed to waver though there was no clear casus belli.  Belgium would be for him, as for almost all the others, a way out of an impossible moral dilemma.  It would allow him to abandon whatever traditional radical principles he had inherited… without ceasing to claim that heritage.

Events moved rapidly; ministers felt they were living in a world created by H.G. Wells.  But the Cabinet’s hesitations arose less from a sense of helplessness than from an understandable unwillingness to face the ultimate question.  Confusion and lack of leadership prevented the emergence of an anti-war party; the rapid plunge into actual war, amazingly fast by contemporary standards, made rational thought difficult…. (Zara Steiner)

This captures the messy world of politics very nicely.  The hard decisions that have to be made quickly; and the tendency to temporise over the really big questions, with their potentially catastrophic results, and for which answers are complex and unknown.  Abstract this scenario from its context, isolate a few facts and have them discussed like a dialogue between Plato and Aristotle, and you remove entirely the reality of the situation.  It all becomes so rational; the guilt so easily allocated…

Of course, we can criticise them for not being Bertrand Russell or Karl Liebknecht, and all the other people who campaigned against the war. But this argument is a quite different one; for it’s about ambition and morality, and the career paths of politicians.  To become Prime Minster or a CEO of a multi-national corporation you have to jettison certain values, and you must act in the interests of the powerful.  If you don’t you will be removed from office.  The first criticism of a career politician is that they are sacrificing moral values for power, the wider community for their own self-interest.  This is a valid and just argument, but needs to be qualified – clearly there is a difference between H.H. Asquith and Tony Blair; the latter wanted war, and the glory that goes with it.  That is, once we have accepted that our rulers are not free moral agents, and that they will be dominated by events and outside forces, and will act accordingly, we must distinguish between those who are power mad and those who are not.  At a superficial glance the actions of the two may appear similar, but the motives, and thus the moral character, can often be very different.  Compare a person who unprovoked punches someone in the face, with another who does so in self-defence.

To leap forward a hundred years, this misunderstanding about politics, and the powerlessness of individual leaders, is what lay behind the wild expectations over Obama.  As a politician he can only act within a very tight frame of reference, because he is heavily constrained by the powers that surround him: can one man cannot take on Wall Street, the Pentagon and Big Pharma?  Whatever his personal qualities, the amount of progressive change he can achieve is quite limited, even if he had the will, for without the backing of a mass party, or some other centre of power, the changes he makes can only occur if they don’t conflict with the wealthy and privileged, and with prevailing trends.  For the higher up in a democracy you go the less room for manoeuvre you have; especially if you want to redistribute power.  Thus a Bush will always have an easier ride, will have more freedom, than a Jimmy Carter.

Insert some of this context, add more material, and the statement begins to wobble; for now you have to judge between a party and a leader that consciously wants to discriminate against people, and that worships destruction, to one that uses power, and likes its trappings, but doesn’t want it to kill people for the sake of it; and is itself constrained by laws, conventions, and liberal sympathies.  To use Bertrand Russell's distinction: there is a difference between old and new power, between one that is clothed (in privilege and wealth) and one that is naked.  The latter is different from a ruler dressed in the most fashionable finery; civility can disperse the power urges: for people want to be liked, to have good food, to be cultivated; that is, they want power for the status and the things it gives them, rather than for its mere exercise.  The power fanatic tends towards asceticism: the only thing that matters is his religion.

Hitler reached the summit of his life not in the years of his chancellorship (the duties of which soon bored him), nor even in the first two years of the war (the period of his greatest military successes), but in the first years of the Eastern campaign, for now at last he was able to indulge to the fullest extent his destructive passion without as yet having to bear the ultimate consequences of it.  This destructiveness had always been near to the centre of his picture of the world, and at this time, during those years in the shadow of catastrophe, when his means of gratifying that passion had increased immeasurably, it came to displace all other motives, considerations and ambitions. (J.P. Stern)

We return to that bar in Düsseldorf.  Our Englishman, recovering from the shock, gathers himself together…

Yes, the Cabinet made the wrong decision; and it should be criticised for it.  But it’s outrageous man! To compare these men to a party that believes in violence and thuggery for violence and thuggery’s sake.  What will they do once inside the Reichstag, when they can play with tanks and aeroplanes?

The Communist smiles and reiterates his point.  He has certainty on his side: the argument, based on the limited facts, and restricted premises, is correct; on its own terms.  It has the power of 6 + 6 = 12.  Our English friend disagrees strongly – this merely a logical argument, a provocation; a piece of rhetoric.  For to establish a just estimate of the truth, the reasoning has to be more complex, and it must include many more facts; and thus, yes I agree Herr Vladimir, it will be liable to error and uncertainty: I cannot know for sure what the Nazis will do, if they come to power. But I can guess and make sound judgements, based on the characters and their actions  - a thug doesn’t change, whether he beats up a shopkeeper or a small country. Because we can, and we have to, make judgements based on personality and motivation, irrespective of the size and significance of the event…

But really, mein Herr, we’re talking about two different ways of looking at the world.  My friend Mr David Hume explains it well:

All the objects of human reason or enquiry may naturally be divided into two kinds, to wit, Relations of Ideas, and Matters of Fact. Of the first kind are the sciences of Geometry, Algebra, and Arithmetic; and in short, every affirmation which is either intuitively or demonstrably certain… Propositions of this kind are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe…

Matters of fact… are not ascertained in the same manner…  The contrary of every matter of fact is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction, and is conceived by the mind with the same facility and distinctness, as if ever so conformable to reality.  That the sun will not rise to tomorrow is no less intelligible a proposition, and implies no more contradiction, than the affirmation that it will rise. (my emphasis)

The world is messy, and we must try to understand it through acquiring the facts, through argument, and through our experiences; all of which can lead us astray…. Is certainty better? But how much must we give up, to acquire it?

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