Truth is multifarious, you say, and is understood only via the singular and the concrete. You are an artist of course, wary of all generalisations and scientific laws; such knowledge outside your compass. Oh! I should try applying Boyle’s Law to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant? Ha! So… what are you telling me? That science is concerned with its own special layer of reality, a simpler, less individuated one than art’s, which is more contingent and diversified, and which requires techniques that are wider and more flexible to capture it. I see… Oh, you want to carry on? The truth of art lies in the unique work of art, through its details and integrative form. That’s good, my friend. And these geniuses… A genius isolates the individual detail, and grasping its significance he turns it into a universal truth.1 This is excellent stuff, even if you do sound like a lecturer from the Open University. So art will never been made into a science? Oh! It will one day? But then it will no longer be art. Ha! Of course! You are very good aren't you? I believe you can help me. The men I mentioned: can you sum up the differences between them? I need to be more specific? Ok. Think about Effi Briest. Why does Fontane’s book feel so different to Fassbinder’s film? You can tell me? Using just one scene? Ok. Off you go.
‘A little story, quite short. There was a war somewhere, a winter campaign, and an old widow who lived in great fear of the enemy prayed for God to “build a wall round her” to protect her from her country’s enemies. And God had the house buried in snow, and the enemy pass it by.’
That such repressive measures come from British political culture is to be expected. The political elite of that country cling desperately to 17th century feudal traditions. Grown adults who have been elected or appointed to nothing run around with a straight face insisting that they be called “Lord” and “Baroness” and other grandiose hereditary titles of the landed gentry. They bow and curtsey to a “Queen”, who lives in a “palace”, and they call her sons “Prince”. They embrace a wide range of conceits and rituals of a long-ago collapsed empire.24Out of this work of social destruction a new kind of middle class was forming; a class that now manages the Western world.25 It is a class with its own culture and its own spirit which it is trying to instil inside the institutions it governs, the reason it can feel extremely oppressive - it is a “hot” religion.26 How best to describe this class? It is technocratic and commercial and heavily bureaucratic; suffused with the ideas of cultural equalitarianism and meritocratic elitism. It feels both soft and hard at the same time; the language is New Left; the practice is Radical Right; the modern CEO a dictator in a tie-dye t-shirt.27 Essentially they are bureaucrats who run organisations for profit and growth; the worse of all possible worlds for those with independent spirit and aesthetic taste.28
‘You are in the process of being indoctrinated. We have not yet evolved a system of education that is not a system of indoctrination. We are sorry, but it is the best we can do. What you are being taught here is an amalgam of current prejudice and the choices of this particular culture. The slightest look at history will show how impermanent these must be. You are being taught by people who have been able to accommodate themselves to a regime of thought laid down by their predecessors. It is a self-perpetuating system. Those of you who are more robust and individual than others, will be encouraged to leave and find ways of educating yourself - educating your own judgement. Those that stay must remember, always and all the time, that they are being moulded and patterned to fit into the narrow and particular needs of this particular society.’ (Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook. The introduction was written in 1971.)38
(Review: Effi Briest)
An obsession with life’s oddities is the origin of all true creativity, which both notices the anomaly and tries to make it meaningful; which it does by fitting it into some wider conceptual framework (such as a work of art or a new scientific law). A technician, in contrast, can only tinker with the accepted forms and formulas; for they lack the insight to intuit the essentially weird reality that underlies all intellectual theories and art works. You want a pithy statement? The genius creates the law, the rest follow it.
2. In the book this story is described as having “associations of help and protection”.
3. Fassbinder’s Effie Briest is both more passive and more active than Fontane’s. More active in the sense that she creates the atmosphere that allows Crampas to seduce her, more passive because she allows this situation to develop to a point where she can be seduced. That is, her desire is stronger and more easily stimulated in the film than in the book. It is possible Fassbinder equates such desire with freedom. And yet Effi’s ability to reject Crampas is what truly makes her independent - because she can resist the demands of the outside world, that stimulus to all desire.
4. “Many people are aware of their own capabilities and needs, yet acquiesce to the prevailing system in their thoughts and deeds, thereby confirming and reinforcing the system.” This argument suggests that Effi’s encouragement of Crampas is an example of justified rebellion, which fails because she doesn't go far enough. That is, she should have treated the affair as a liberation.
5. See my Fictions Kill for further commentary.
6. The phrase is Ballard’s, and I use it advisedly. For Ballard this meant an escape into madness; the only freedom that was now left (see particularly the short story The Overloaded Man in the collection The Voices of Time). It is a sign of just how powerful society was perceived to have become by the 1960s. It had even got inside our minds.
7. They were right. But not in the way they imagined. For the real revolutionaries see Adam Curtis' The Mayfair Set.
For the mistaken assumptions behind much of the revolutionary rhetoric of the Left see my The Religion of Revolution; a review of Fassbinder’s The Niklashausen Journey.
8. See Dream On by Adam Curtis.
By now mainstream society was perceived as a sort of monotheistic God. During the 1960s there was a religious war to dispose of him, which may offer a partial explanation for the efflorescence of alternative religions at this time. For a wonderful account of this phenomenon see Robert Irwin’s Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties. He notes that the majority of the adepts of these new cults were from the aristocracy, which is suggestive of the spiritual crisis of a ruling class whose ethos was collapsing. And what was that ethos? David Marquand calls it Whig Imperialism (Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy), which in the 1960s was being replaced by a more technocratic vision of Britain.
In the early 1970s a new ethos was emerging, which is captured at the end of Angus Wilson’s As If By Magic, where the tycoon fuses with the Eastern guru (actually German) to form a new kind of capitalist - aggressively commercial and oddly mystical. In the 1990s the content of this religious mentality had changed; “The Market” had become the new God, with economics providing the metaphysics for the ruling class and the theology for the intellectuals who validated their rule.
9. For good accounts of the bargain that was struck between organised labour and organised capital see: Keith Middlemas, Politics in an Industrial Society: The Experience of the British System Since 1911; Andrew Shonfield, Modern Capitalism; and Barry Eichengreen, The European Economy Since 1945: Coordinated Capitalism and Beyond.
10. Of course we don't have to accept the almost certainly false assumption that the working class was a revolutionary vanguard. One doesn't have to go any further than Lenin, who had no respect for either trade unions or parliamentary socialists, to realise that the idea was a useful myth for radical orators and professional revolutionaries. (See Adam B. Ulam, Lenin and the Bolsheviks)
11. Similar views were held by the radical Right (see Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares for a brilliant exposition). Both the Islamic Fundamentalists and the Neo-Conservatives were opposed to the liberal consumerism of this period. That is, all the intellectuals, on both the Left and the Right, weren't too keen on the real men and women who shopped in the high streets and watched TV in their living rooms. They wanted to turn them into abstractions, and they have since succeeded to a surprising degree.
Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a revealing insider's view of what the workers really thought. Although Arthur Seaton complains about the system he actually likes it a lot. It provides him with plenty of money, sufficient free time, and a comfortable routine in which to work with ease and freedom. He is inefficient at his work bench; loud and aggressive outside the factory gates; and likes sleeping with other men’s wives (because he doesn't want the responsibility of family and kids). He has his merits - he is not stupid and he has a rich imagination - but from a middle class perspective he is a thoroughly unattractive proposition. He drinks too much. Fights too much. And sleeps with too many loose women… There is something both unpredictable and unteachable about him, although at the same time he is very conformist - we imagine his future little different from that of his father’s. He is no revolutionary. He is no English yeoman. He is no religious puritan. No wonder all the intellectuals hated him: he’s not interested in ideas and he is not civilised and safe like their middle class acquaintances. He is a wild animal that needs to be tamed.
This observation holds both for the New Left and the New Right; the former, for all their bourgeois-baiting, actually wanted to turn Arthur into a member of their own class. But here we have to be careful. These intellectuals were both part of the bourgeoisie and also a particular subset of it - more closely related to the public sector professionals than to shopkeepers and accountants. Once this is recognised their class war rhetoric becomes far more complicated, and strange. For the problem of the political rhetoric of this time was that too often it was too broad and too clumsy to capture the reality of the social relations of what had become a highly complex society; the 1960s more of a battle within the different sub-classes of the bourgeoisie than a class war between the latter and the workers.
This was a decade that saw the rise of the multi-national corporations, the new technologies, the financiers, the public sector professionals, the shop steward movement, and the students; all of whom were fighting it out with the older industrialists, the aristocracy, the trade unions and the petty-bourgeoisie, who fought a rearguard action that they all lost to some degree. Out of this battle the Neo-liberal order arose in the 1970s and 1980s, and triumphed in the 1990s.
Of course I am running the risk of projecting the British experience onto Germany, a country that has a history of training up a highly skilled workforce and encouraging close cooperation between unions, employers and the state. Surely these workers were more conscientious and more ideological than their British equivalents? My instinct tells me that whilst there are significant differences fundamentally the same conservatism applies to the German workers as to the British, despite all the dissimilarity in culture and political rhetoric. Richard J. Evans appears to confirm this in his In Defence of History, where he notes that the records of the Social Democratic Party show that its members tended to more interested in entertainment than politics. And this was the most politically active section of the working class.
In his classic The Englishness of English Art Nikolaus Pevsner makes a distinction between the national spirit and the sprit of age, and argues that both will act on a country in any given period of history. In the modern world one would expect the zeitgeist to have an increasing influence, and indeed Barry Eichengreen argues that the 1950s and 60s saw a convergence between America and Europe in the techniques of mass-production and industrial management. Given the importance of heavy industry to post-war Europe the standardising effects on the culture were going to be enormous. Nevertheless, Pevsner’s distinction remains; Germany has retained a national identity very different from Britain’s. The purpose of this piece is not to look at these differences, but to bring out some general cultural trends that have been caused by fundamental changes in the zeitgeist.
If anything the changes in the zeitgeist have been strongest in Britain, which since the early 1960s has moved closer to the American and European idea of the nation. Andrew Shonfield was writing at the moment this change was taking place:
“[O]ne can readily see why any political construction which emerges out of a deliberate act of will - the founding of a new nation, the setting up of a federation of a new number of states, the making of a revolutionary constitution… [will] depend heavily on statements of general principle and on agreements about board objectives… In the United States… the Supreme Court…ultimately has the task of interpreting these principles [and] fulfils in some periods of history an extremely radical function - pushing the interpretation of Federal laws well beyond the consensus view of the American public…
“How is one to explain the tenacity of the quite different British tradition [where law tends to follow social practice]? Its defenders would no doubt point out, quite fairly, that it has not been notably less efficient in safeguarding the liberties of the individual. I think the deeper answer lies in a basic assumption which affects so many aspects of British public life; it is that we live in a very homogeneous society. This conviction is, I suspect, so deeply embedded in our minds that we are rarely prompted even to think about it. But if one considers some of the most characteristic and precious elements of British practice - for example the fact that in the face of considerable risks the police, exceptionally in this country, continue to go about their ordinary duties unarmed - it becomes evident at once that they would make no sense at all unless it were assumed that the overwhelming mass of people were in active agreement in wanting to maintain the same basic set of rules.
“That is plainly not an assumption that can be made in a very heterogeneous society like the United States. Indeed the whole American approach to law is coloured by the aim of achieving a modus vivendi with the minimum of trouble among people who are expected to be heterogeneous. Of course the British principle is much more comfortable to live with. But there is a price to be paid. It takes time for general standards of behaviour to evolve spontaneously in desired directions; and waiting may be expensive when the conditions of society are themselves changing very rapidly. It should be noticed, further, that when a heterogeneous element was introduced into our society, as a result of large-scale Commonwealth immigration, it was found necessary to change the style of law-making in order to cope with the problem. The Race Relations Act is more like the tutelary kind of law, of the non-British type; it looks to the establishment of more exacting standards of behaviour than those which were current when the law was passed and it penalises people for doing and saying things which would encourage others not to accept these standards. More recently, the Industrial Relations Act of 1972 seems to fall into a similar category; at any rate, it depends on the acceptance of norms of behaviour on the part of organised labour, quite different from those which are generally accepted today.” (Europe: Journey to an Unknown Destination)
What Shonfield is describing is a tighter social realm. The risk of this piece is that I may be exaggerating the changes in other countries by projecting Britain’s unique experience of cultural transformation onto them. For since 1960 Britain has been racing to keep up with the modern world they had already entered.
12. The moderate Left thought this was the solution to their own dilemma of how to make capitalism socially just without destroying it, or forcing it into a violent reaction. They believed that by making capitalism run more efficiently growth would replace redistribution as the means of securing a fair deal for the poor and the disadvantaged. (For an excellent account of these views, and how they began to disintegrate in the 1970s, see Radhika Desai’s Intellectuals and Socialism: "Social Democrats" and the Labour Party.)
13. If it is possible(!) I am using the term neutrally. In Nazi Germany or Communist Russia a citizen’s “inner space” may have been freer, as fewer people were likely to have identified themselves with the regime.
14. See the David Hawkes’ quotation in my Can I Have A Flake, and Chocolate Sauce With That? It is a succinct expression of this view.
15. Do you see? The process of thinking radically (Lessing gives examples in her introduction) has been replaced by the mere acquisition of radical content. This is the major change of the 1960s. Quite ordinary middle class students came to believe that to speak radical thoughts was the same thing as to think them; the phrases of a Laing or Marcuse treated as if they were facts - as simple information - to be learned and regurgitated. They had missed entirely the craft of thought; this craft the source of the radical element in any kind of intellectual exercise. The result is the Radical Conformism of the New Democrats, of New Labour and of the New Conservatives.
What has occurred since the 1960s is that this non-thinking intellectualism - which depends upon learning, copying, and espousing fashionable ideas, and is more concerned with understanding and memory than actual thinking - has emptied out the radical content from the original concepts until they have been turned into vacuous phrases; thus the term radical can now be applied to anything: from a political programme to a new kind of packaging for breakfast cereal.
16. For acute commentary on Laing see Adam Curtis’ extraordinary The Trap, a documentary that argues that since the 1960s a new kind of human being has been created in the West.
17. Flexible production, new technology, the media, computers and a new finance industry (Eichengreen is very good on the latter, relating the growth of new financial products to the rapidly growing Eurodollar market in the 1960s).
18. The end of the sixties… Somewhere around 1975. For the pessimism of the even the most revolutionary Left see the discussion of the alternative economic strategy in Andrew Gamble’s Britain in Decline: Economic Policy, Political Strategy and the British State One set of radicals believed it couldn’t succeed, the other thought that it might, but only after a vicious civil war.
The mistake of the Left is to speak of capitalism as if it were a single entity. It is not. It changes its nature in just about every generation (in about thirty to forty years). Thus by the 1960s capitalism had become highly socialised, having absorbed significant elements of socialism over the previous seven decades. Since then certain elements of this socialised economy have been progressively emptied out, as state socialism is transferred to inside the individual firm.
Interestingly a Right wing thinker like Roger Scruton seems to make a similar mistake; he thus overlooks how what were once Left-progressive ideas, such as cultural egalitarianism, have now become corporate shibboleths. The Gramscian socialism of the 1960s has merged with the new capitalism to create a contemporary capitalist culture which in its essence is philistine. John Halle is closer to the truth when he lambasts both the rich capitalists and the “vampire Left” who attack cultural excellence.
What does this mean? That despite the mythology of Left defeat the radical Left has been enormously successful in helping to engender, shape and transform modern capitalism, mostly by destroying the cultural legitimacy of those classes and institutions that have acted as a bulwark against it. In particular, it is the egalitarianism that has been so useful to a capitalism which requires that individual humans be turned into mass units - for the purposes of both production and consumption. Indeed Ernest Gellner argued that egalitarianism is one of the fundamental forces driving the modern industrial world (see his Nations and Nationalism). He is right. Modern capitalism depends on equality, of a certain type.
19. It is interesting to compare the working class Arthur Seaton with the Oxford educated Charles Lumley in John Wain’s Hurry on Down. It is only the latter who hates the system and tries to escape from it. Why? Because he doesn’t want a middle class career and doesn't want to marry his girlfriend. Both signify a culture which he feels powerless to change; the reason he runs away. This is a very odd behaviour; it is like a Welshman running away from Wales because Wales itself is suffocating him. That is, Charles Lumley is looking to escape from an abstraction - the Middle Class Future. Arthur, in contrast, would have ditched the girlfriend and changed jobs, and remained living happily in the family home.
How did the bourgeoisie get turned into an idea, and how did this idea take on such a powerful and negative and teleological connotation?
In a brilliant article Roger Scruton suggests an answer to the latter question with reference to the creation of a radical establishment that took over French intellectual life in the 1960s, and which later migrated to the anglophone world. What he describes in this essay is an almost religious hatred of the bourgeoisie (which in another article he argues has disappeared). Although a character like Charles Lumley not only predates this intellectual event but is completely outside of it I believe his angst is in some way related to this student rebellion. The link is his education. Or to be more precise: the particular form of his education; his mind trained to think in simple and quite narrow abstractions, which he then equates with life itself (few people have the detachment to think of ideas dispassionately). Charles Lumley, after all, is not only running away from his future he is also wanting to have ”real” experiences, which he believes he can only find in a working class milieu.
But can we really attribute such anti-bourgeois attitudes to (particularly higher) education? After all, Matthew Arnold describes a similar middle class appeal to such abstractions a hundred years previously, while he himself was highly critical of this class. Here’s a suggestion for one possible causal sequence: in the 19th century a strata of the middle classes pushed for an expansion of education. In the process they produced an education system largely in their own image. However, later generations, although they imbibed the forms of thought that such an education creates, changed both its content and value judgements; the resentment of the son and daughter against their plutocratic father now refashioned into revolutionary theories and radical abstractions. Over time this becomes the conventional wisdom and is fused with the orthogenetic culture of an expanding education system; both feed a generational battle, where the real freedoms of the university student were pitted against the dull routine and repressive authority of the adult official they were to inevitably become. The explosion occurs in the 1960s just at the moment the certainties of the adult world are crumbling…
(For a similar but slightly different take to Scruton’s on Deleuze and Guattari et al. see my Dropout Boogie.)
20. They remained far stronger on the continent than they did in Britain.
For an insightful commentary on this form of capitalism and the one which replaced it see Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism.
21. See Harold Perkin's The Rise of Professional Society: England Since 1880. The works of Angus Wilson are a comprehensive account of the rise and decline of this immensely influential social class; see in particular his Late Call and The Old Men at the Zoo.
For an expression of the aloof and very confident professional attitude:
“It is in any case a rather curious fact that philosophy in general should be made so often a target for public complaint or criticism… Why are philosophers not thus allowed to go their own way? No doubt there are many reasons. But one, I think, is this. There is a sense in which philosophy has only rather recently achieved professional status… Philosophy has not yet been accepted as a subject which its practitioners should be left to practice. There lingers a certain sense of the old, kind days of amateurism, the days, as it were, when anyone could join in, could have his own say, and could expect to be listened to. Those who have not moved into, or have moved out of, professional circles have, perhaps, still a sense of a certain deprivation, a vague feeling that the total amateur ought not to be disqualified from engaging in what was, so recently, an amateurish pursuit… On the professional side too there is perhaps a certain nostalgia. The old amateurs were occasionally conspicuous public men. Their cogitations were of interest to, and rightly or wrongly were thought to be of importance in, far wider circles than would now be likely to be reached by even the most admirable of contributions to philosophy. Thus, perhaps, it comes about that certain philosophers deplore the present aspect of their own subject, and that, more commonly, certain non-philosophers discuss philosophy with a plaintive and patronizing impertinence which they would not dream of displaying towards any other subject in which they were admittedly ill qualified. There is not much need to worry about this. The present state of affairs is doubtless temporary and transitional; and in the meantime the complaints that are made are quite certain to be ineffective.
“For my own part I am inclined to think that they only need feel strongly hostile to contemporary philosophy who have cause to fear or dislike a clear intellectual air and a low temperature of argument. It seems to be true that the contemporary philosopher’s eye is characteristically cold and his pen, perhaps, apt to be employed as an instrument of deflation. It is largely for this reason that, however narrowly technical, however refined and minute and even pedantic, the pursuits of philosophers may be or may become, any age or society in which those pursuits were wholly neglected would be, in my judgement, seriously the worse for that. In our own case we have, at present, no ground for apprehension.” (G.J. Warnock, English Philosophy Since 1900; originally published in 1958, this edition 1969)
This accurately describes the tension both within the profession and between the profession and the lay public. It also accurately predicts the future - philosophy will be left alone to become an almost completely self-insulated subject.
Its glorification of technique and reason shows its essentially bureaucratic nature (it displays what Bernard Williams, in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, calls "bureaucratic reason"), and is a somewhat different from the craft of the earlier 20th century philosophers that Warnock almost mentions in his book:
“…where Mill, Huxley, and Leslie Stephen had published their articles in the ordinary reviews, Bradley, Moore, and Russell published theirs in the philosophers’ professional organ or in the Proceedings of the philosophers’ metropolitan forum. This new professional practice of submitting problems and arguments to the expert critics of fellow craftsmen led to a growing concern with questions of philosophical technique and a growing passion for ratiocinative rigour… Philosophers had now to be philosophers’ philosophers….” (This quote is from Gilbert Ryle.)
Russell is a classic example of someone who did not write just for philosophers; a tension within his personality between the kind of professionalism of which Ryle speaks and the amateur world that Warnock disdains. Once that tension is gone, we have the indifference of the outside world and the narrow self-referentialism of the insiders, with their tendency is to over stress technique and reason. Warnock describing a transitional time before philosophy escaped from the public’s eye entirely. Only then could it truly be safe.
Warnock’s remarks are revealing in another way. They too suggest a culture in transition - the amateur intellectual scene collapsing under the weight of specialisation, which naturally “deflates” (that is eviscerates) the generalities and conventional wisdom of the host society; for these are based primarily on custom and history, not on reason. In his (very) small way Warnock was also chipping at the foundations of social democracy.
Jonathan Meades describes what happens to less rarefied professions.
“…the sartorial dreariness of that almost entirely male audience, which was almost entirely dressed in the drab suits of high street tailoring. Was I in the presence of some sect that worshipped at John Collier - ‘the window to watch - or at Hepworths, or Burtons? No, this was architecture’s rank and file. And although it may be foolish to judge by appearances it is even more foolish not to judge by them. A familiar and reassuring figure of my childhood and adolescence had vanished: the flamboyantly bow-tied, floppy-haired chap with deafening tweeds and yellow socks…
“That generation of architects - now dead, and by the time of that grim conference mostly on the point of retirement - dressed as though, at the very least, as arty folk. By 1979, however, architects had come to think of themselves as technicians, as members of a profession, as businessmen. An architect with the temerity to regard himself as an artist was by then a laughable and immodest dinosaur.” (Museum Without Walls)
A profession tends to filter out idiosyncrasy, the most common source of the completely new insight of the kind Russell describes as essential to knowledge. For creation depends largely on intuition, an essentially irrational process. Once conceived a revolutionary idea needs trust and a significant degree of suspension of judgement to allow it to reach maturity. Too much “professional” reason at an early stage may kill it off. Thus what Warnock describes as “deflation” is the use of reason as a kind of weed killer to eradicate those odd and unknown flowers before they have the chance to blossom. The result is a rather static and sterile subject area.
(For insight into how a brand new field is created see the MIT Infinite History Project interview with Noam Chomsky.)
22. Ralf Dahrendorf’s New Liberty: Survival and Justice in a Changing World has some good things to say about this: the old institutions created a new society which found the culture associated with these institutions too restrictive; the reason they tried to destroy them.
Adam Curtis’ The Mayfair Set argues that it was the financiers who where the main demolition men. This argument needs to be modified by watching three other of his documentaries: Century of the Self, The Trap and All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. The Trap shows just how much the radicals of the 1960s shared the mindset of their corporate opponents. All of them were essentially technocrats. Thus both Laing and Robert McNamara used game theory to demonstrate and prove their qualitatively different theories.
23. For the story of how British capitalists made capitalism humane see Victorian Cities by Asa Briggs. This major social change depended on exceptional characters; mostly businessmen who took their religious views seriously; translating their own brand of non-conformist faith into socially progressive schemes. Here was the the origin of municipal socialism, which grew out of a liberalism that was changing from a narrowly individualistic creed to one believing in a national community. (L.H. Hobhouse's Liberalism, a historical document in its own right, is a very clear account of this transformation.)
What replaced them from the 1960s was a mixture of monomaniacal capitalists - such as the financier Sir James Goldsmith -, corporate bureaucrats, and entrepreneurs selling the new technologies, particular computer software. It was a return to an older style of capitalism (thus the trumpeting of Victorian values, which actually weren’t Victorian at all), but with one significant difference - this was a world dominated by corporate institutions; the “free market” a semi-monopoly of commercial bureaucracies competing with each other to acquire the largest market share. This capitalist revolution occurred when new kinds of financial products and new technologies emerged to undermine the existing industrial arrangements - the managed economies of the immediate post-war period. Intimately linked to this was the cultural clash (or religious war), in which both the Left and Right radicals attacked a mainstream society they both held in contempt.
24. Until the 1980s Britain had a relatively liberal political culture; while 17th century feudalism (a very strange description) has almost nothing to do with the illiberalism that the writer attacks. Britain is more authoritarian today precisely because the institutions Greenwald ridicules have been emptied of power. Today what these gowns and nomenclatures hide is the capitalist bureaucrat underneath. This is the explanation for the contradiction in Greenwald’s paragraph - if Britain were really acting like a 14th century feudal kingdom then the designations Prince and Baroness would have real meaning. The fact that they do not have such power is the reason why he can condemn them for fatuity.
25. Its spirit is marvellously caught in Jonathan Raban’s Soft City. Forty years on this is what they look like…..
26. That is: evangelical and zealous. This religion is an odd mixture of corporate management speak and the language of equal opportunities, which although it speaks of diversity actually discourages it. The purpose of this evangelicalism seems to be to instil a corporate purpose and a corporate identity into the organisation’s workforce, by breaking down the individual’s own individuality. The company a sort of church were the CEO preaches the gospel to her employees, who have been turned into a congregation.
27. "Half a century ago, in the 1960s… serious young radicals took aim at institutions, in particular big corporations and big government, whose size, complexity, and rigidity seemed to hold individuals in an iron grip. The Port Huron Statement, a founding document of the New Left in 1962, was equally hard on state socialism and multinational corporations; both regimes seemed bureaucratic prisons.
“History has partly granted the framers of the Port Huron Statement their wish. The socialist rule of five-year plans, of centralised economic control, is gone. So is the capitalist corporation that provided employees with jobs for life, that supplied the same products and service year after year. So also welfare institutions like health care and education have become less fixed in form and smaller in scale. The goal for rulers today, as for radicals fifty years ago, is to take apart rigid bureaucracy.
“Yet history has granted the New Left its wish in a perverse form. The insurgents of my youth believed that by dismantling institutions they could produce communities: face-to-face relations of trust and solidarity, relations constantly negotiated and renewed, a communal realm in which people became sensitive to one another’s needs. This certainly has not happened. The fragmenting of big institutions has left many people’s lives in a fragmented state: the places they work more resembling train stations than villages, as family life is disorientated by the demands of work. Migration is the icon of the global age, moving on rather than settling in. Taking institutions apart has not produced more community…
“Yet the past half century has been a time of unprecedented wealth creation… a generation of new wealth deeply tied to the dismantling of fixed government and corporate bureaucracies. So too has the technological revolution in the last generation flourished most in those institutions which are the least centrally controlled…
“Only a certain kind of human being can prosper in unstable, fragmentary social conditions. This ideal man or woman has to address three challenges:
“The first concerns time: how to manage short term relationships, and oneself, while migrating from task to task, job to job, place to place. If institutions no longer provide a long-term frame, the individual may have to improvise his or her own life-narrative, or even do without any sustained sense of self.
“The second challenge concerns talent: how to develop new skills, how to mine potential abilities, as reality’s demands shift. Practically, in the modern economy, the shelf life of many skills is short; in technology and the sciences, as in advanced forms of manufacturing, workers now need to retrain on average every eight to twelve years. Talent is a matter of culture. The emerging social order militates against the ideal of craftsmanship, that is, learning to do just one thing really well; such commitment can often prove economically destructive. In place of craftsmanship, modern culture advances an idea of meritocracy which celebrates potential ability rather than past achievement.
“The third challenge follows from this. It concerns surrender; that is, how to let go of the past. The head of a dynamic company recently asserted that no one owns their place in her organization, that past service in particular earns no employee a guaranteed place. How could one respond to that assertion positively? A peculiar trait of personality is needed to do so, one which discounts the experiences a human being has already had. This trait of personality resembles more the consumer ever avid for new things, discarding old if perfectly serviceable goods, rather than the owner who jealousy guards what he or she already possesses…
“A self orientated to the short term, focused on potential ability, willing to abandon past experience is - to put a kindly face on the matter - an unusual sort of person. Most people are not like this; they take pride in being good at something specific, and they value the experiences they’ve lived through. The cultural ideal required in new institutions thus damages many of the people who inhabit them.” (Richard Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism. My emphasis. Since Sennett wrote this book one could argue that the new technological industries are themselves losing their freedom and flexibility. For just such an an argument see Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet: And How to Stop It. It is possible that the industry most closely linked to this mentality is the new financial services, what Susan Strange calls Casino Capitalism.)
A new class made up of these unusual sorts of person emerged in the 1960s, and has since taken charge of our institutions (particularly from the 1980s and 90s). Who are these characters? They are the radical students and their offspring that Sennett writes about, and which Fassbinder describes so acutely in The Third Generation.
They are essentially a middle class elite that have been educated to think in rather simple abstractions, and who have the ability to live inside them as if they were real things. For them such ideas are more important than people.
This class is the product of the great expansion in university education after the Second World War. For the students this was a time when they could experience a few years of real freedom, and which encouraged in the more radical great swathes of free floating thought (see Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols for the reason - different types of society create different forms of thought). It is these radicals that ushered in the new capitalism; and it is their children who manage it, although over time the nature of the younger generation has changed markedly; for while accepting the content of the ideologies their parents created they actually think and work like typical bureaucrats (by now the new capitalism is as embedded in the culture as the old - the destruction of the 1960s through to the 80s needed a different kind of character, one that was more critical and more free, more entrepreneurial in thought and action). It is this combination of “radical” thought and bureaucratic practice that makes this class so peculiar.
Many of these characters work in organisations that are not at the cutting edge of technology; what happens here is that the language of change and innovation replaces the practice of innovation and change. This is very evident in particularly the public services, which are now incurably infected with business management speak - the current legitimating ideology. This creates a curious situation, not unlike that of the Soviet Union, where practice and propaganda radically diverge, the latter taking on its own life, and swallowing up increasing amounts of resources. The result is that image becomes more important than reality. For it is the image that is sold to what are essentially ignorant clients. Once again we have returned to simple abstractions and the people who are comfortable with them, and who believe them to be true. These are the people who rule us now. They are supremely self-confident; very articulate; (Instrumentally) Mystical (for them certain words, such as “efficiency” and “facts”, carry a strong metaphysical meaning - think of the faith that was for a time invested in the idea of The Brand); unstable; populist; and authoritarian.
To see how close these characters are to the Radical Left read Andrew O’Hagan’s piece on Julian Assange in the LRB. Assange shares many of the characteristics I have quoted, while O’Hagan makes the telling point that he is not like any Left wingers he has met - he asks no questions. Assange is essentially a technocrat. And like the new CEOs and political leaders he already knows all the answers. It is interesting to compare Assange with Jim Jones (in Shiva Naipaul’s Black & White). They are appear to be very similar characters, even though the content of their ideology has significantly changed - for Jones it was apocalyptic Christianity, for Assange it is technological libertarianism (thus the reference to Ayn Rand in O’Hagan’s piece, a revealing giveaway). O’Hagan’s essay is revealing in another way: his backers: Bella Freud, Jemima Khan, Bianca Jagger, Mathew Mellon… This is a particular stratum of the ruling elite, which mixes radical ideas with great wealth, and is parasitic on corporate capitalism while being highly critical of the state. Is it Left wing? Is it Right wing? Only one thing is certain: it depends on the media for its success, and together they form their own very special sub-class.
Matthew Arnold described them well. He also highlighted a paradox:
“For a long time, as I have said, the strong feudal habits of subordination and deference continued to tell upon the working class. The modern spirit has now almost entirely dissolved those habits, and the anarchical tendency of our worship of freedom in and for itself, of pure superstitious faith, as I say, in machinery, is becoming very manifest. More and more, because of this our blind faith in machinery, because of our want of light to enable us to look beyond machinery to the end for which machinery is valuable, this and that man, and this and that body of men, all over the country, are beginning to assert and put in practice an Englishman’s right to do what he likes…” (Selected Prose)
Arnold then goes onto to say there is a conflict between reason and freedom (or at least the kind of freedom described above, one without a guiding and therefore restraining intelligence).
What Arnold is describing is the freedom of the machine… Start up a conveyor belt and the conveyer belt is free to do what it likes for as long as the button is switched to On. This is the kind of freedom we have to today, and it is believed that this is the most rational state of affairs. Of course the mistake is confuse a very narrow idea of freedom - to live within the limits set by a particular kind of reason - for a much wider one that encompasses all of the human psyche.
The consequence is that freedom has become an authoritarian concept. As the writer notes, Assange believes that all those who work with him should obey him, O’Hagan himself treated as a servant. Assange’s freedom is very different from that of artist’s, as O’Hagan is at pains to show, the latter’s free play of thought far closer to the conventional view of the term. Such freedom is impossible for a character like Assange, whose mind thinks like a mechanical device. His campaign to acquire state secrets is like Google’s constant quest to find everything about its users. In this case freedom has been reduced to the freedom to acquire information, which in turn has been reduced to a commodity; Assange essentially a consumer addicted to acquiring data (leaks). He is not interested in thinking, the reason why doesn't write his autobiography or work with writers to put the Wikileaks data into some narrative (and thus comprehensible and critical) form.
According to O’Hagan Assange behaves very badly, and acts like a spoilt child. This is the real meaning of freedom today: the freedom to act as the whim takes us. It is a culture designed for naughty children. It has absolutely nothing to do with freedom of thought, which requires tolerance and restraint and an intellectual sympathy for ideas different from one’s own. Freedom has by now changed its meaning. It has left the headpiece and migrated to our bodies. And what monsters it creates! For a free body means an enslaved mind - think back to Fontane's Effi Briest; her freedom is demonstrated by her willingness to first resist Crampas’ advances; yet this can only be done by controlling her own desires.
28. John Halle’s comments on this new class are accurate as to their cultural attainments, but he misses what goes on inside the institutions themselves (see above). Compare his comments with those of Mathew Arnold, who lambasted the philistines who dominated mid-Victorian England (Selected Prose).* The cultural revolution of which Arnold was a forerunner has been rolled back to a position far more primitive than the one he attacked; this is because the religious impulse has been almost completely eroded, something that Arnold regarded as the essential precursor for the civilised society. The result is no restraint on the body or on the mental reflex.
In a very real sense modern society is creating the kind of mind that David Hume described in A Treatise on Human Nature - an Oxford Street where thoughts roam around almost at random. And the reason why this has occurred is explained by Hume’s subtitle: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects. For what the experimental method of reason does is to break down reality into analysable chunks of data, which then have no intrinsic connection with each other. In effect reason atomises nature, whose individual elements are then connected only through the reasoning process itself. To return to Oxford Street: the individuals on that road are utterly separated from each other, but they are brought together by an activity external to themselves: shopping.
This is not to say that religion doesn't exist in today’s society. We are saturated with it. However, today’s religion is not a transcendental one like Christianity or Judaism, but rather a sort of modern paganism that seeks meaning only in material existence. The Body or The Market or Truth (or for the less sophisticated: the Facts) are the new Gods now. Of course, once they become gods they take on their own metaphysical reality and engender new faiths.
*(Arnold argued that for an individual to achieve excellence they had to activate their best self, otherwise they would think and act like their ordinary self, a self synonymous with banal thoughts and the conventional wisdom of their own class. What Arnold was describing was a separate group of people, he called them aliens, who transcended their social background; and who were to later form a class of their own. It is this class that created the high culture that we call Modernism, and its decline into professionalism and specialisation is what has wrecked not only Modernism but high culture as well, as the techniques and abstractions of the profession replaced the feeling for art. Once Art’s legitimacy is eroded it is then easy for the rich folks to kill it off (Arnold saw this too - he called the aristocrats the Barbarians).
For the history of how the art bureaucracy took over the art world see Harold Rosenberg’s Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations.)
29. But see Herostratus. A warning if ever there was one!
30. Shiva Naipaul’s Black & White captures the time when this shift was taking place. Adam Curtis’ A Century of the Self has an excellent section on this period.
31. Curiously this is just the conclusion O’Hagan comes to on Assange: he is only interested in fame.
32. See James Wood’s remarks about a particular kind of middle class eccentricity that is no longer so prominent in the universities (On Not Going Home). These characters have been largely managed out. For pertinent remarks on this transformation see Stefan Collin’s review of a biography of H.L.A. Hart.
“In 1945, Herbert Hart was a 38-year-old London barrister who had spent the previous six years largely working in military intelligence. What could be more obvious, then, than that he should be thought the perfect candidate for a full-time teaching position at Oxford in philosophy, a subject with which he had had no sustained connection since it formed part (though only part) of his undergraduate degree sixteen years earlier? Similarly, in 1952 Hart was a 45-year-old philosophy tutor who had by that point published only three essays and two book reviews. Self-evidently, he was the ideal man to elect to Oxford’s Professorship of Jurisprudence.
“By the standards prevailing at the beginning of the twenty-first century, these two appointments are bound to seem scandalous, perhaps even barely intelligible. Yet they launched the academic career of the man whose work had perhaps a greater impact on the philosophy of law in the English-speaking world in the twentieth century than that of any other….” (Common Reading)
Once the university system expanded beyond a certain size the culture that could allow such appointments evaporated. For now there had to be some external and highly visible means of selecting the appropriate person; a system of selection that could decide between strangers. When this moment occurs a culture is turned into a profession, and that culture’s internal content is downgraded in favour of professional form - such as qualifications and a CV of approved publications. That is, an essentially open elite is transformed into an essentially closed guild of self-selecting professionals who rely on a series of shared symbols to identify each other and each other’s worth. Sokal and Bricmont have detailed the result: a guild where all that matters is that one speaks the same language as the profession. The actual content of that language is irrelevant.
33. In the older bourgeoisie religious ideas were more entangled with life. This was because religion forced moral judgements to be made on everyday conduct. This could create a complex and quite unstable world where people believed in ideas they failed to live up to (at least for some of the time). Joyce Cary’s A Prisoner of Grace and Except the Lord are brilliant studies of this kind of mentality; one that he associates with the new Liberalism which grew up in the latter decades of the 19th century, and which reached its apogee just before the First World War.
O’Hagan is puzzled by the gap between Assange’s ideas and his practice:
“I could never fathom the distance between Julian’s idealism, on the one hand, and his wish to exploit vulnerability, on the other.”
This distance seems commonplace to me, having seen it so often - Assange belongs to a class where ideas, although they profess to be about the world, actually float free of it. It is a phenomenon that the internet encourages. On the internet all of us are turned into an idea; O’Hagan’s last image of Assange a wonderful metaphor for this process - the writer's physical presence is literally erased by Assange's computer screen.
But these are ideas of a very particular kind. For Assange ideas are merely data. They have no interior life and no real meaning, because to have this life and to have this meaning they have be really thought about, not just copied, stated and applied. To make them live we have to add our own thinking and our own personality to them, enriching them with own minds and our own mental experiences.
“Another afternoon, I was trying to get him to stop his undergraduate lecturing about freedom. I knew there was nothing I could use: it was all standard-grade Voltaire with a smattering of Chomsky.” (O’Hagan)
The reference to “undergraduate” is again telling. Assange is the perpetual student who actually believes life inside the lecture room is the same as outside of it. The consequence is that knowledge is confused with nature; thus the naive view that knowing our rulers’ secrets will make us free (that is, the free flow of information is equated with human freedom). Information, in this view, has a magic property - it alone can dissolve power structures. What this view misses is that information is simply a tool for government officials, and that for most of the public it is either meaningless or irrelevant unless it can turned into some meaningful story. It ignores completely both the process of power - how institutions work - and the process of submission - why citizens allow themselves to be ruled. To believe giving people information will make them free is like saying the student who copies out his professor’s lecture has actually written it. To acquire knowledge is a very different exercise from creating it. To learn that our governments’ lie has almost nothing to do with actually making them tell the truth.
Universities are a preparation for life, not a replacement of it. The lecture hall is a place where you learn about things but don’t really know them. It is this gap between reality and ideas, life and knowledge, that gives the unreal quality to Assange’s idealism, and empties it of all meaning. When we leave university we are not expected to apply what we have learnt to our first job; at most all we can do is adapt that knowledge to the work at hand. Assange is the economics graduate who tries to sell lingerie on Beckenham High Street in accordance with the theories of Milton Friedman.
With a technocrat the relationship between university and employment can be significantly different, because for them it may be possible simply to apply their knowledge, or even create a new type of job out of what they have already learned. The fundamental mistake of a technocrat is to assume that the rest of life is like this. It is not. Such ignorance can lead to authoritarianism as the technocrats try to the make the world fit into their own image. This is precisely Assange’s problem. His ideas are radical, but his personality is totalitarian, because it has the logic of a machine. The result is that the idea of freedom is actually used to control everyone around him. And he has to do this, because everyone else stops him from being completely free (for like Fassbinder he believes in absolute freedom).
In The Trap Adam Curtis shows how this occurs in the society at large. A system is set up to act like a machine, such as performance targets of the NHS or the self-assessment questionnaires of the American psychiatry profession. However, since a large part of the measurable phenomena are subjective and relate to conditions outside themselves (if someone suffers from anxiety it could reflect mental illness or bullying at work), the machine, which relies on very simple inputs and outputs, must heavily constrain human behaviour for it to be able to function. One result is that the machine itself becomes increasingly irrational, as the employees inject their own self-interested actions into its processes; thus in order to meet performance targets the data used for measuring them are reinterpreted in favour of the member of staff and not the system as a whole (Barry Eichengreen gives some fascinating examples in Eastern Europe under Communism). One consequence is that an idea that was conceived to make bureaucracy more flexible actually makes it more rigid, as the machine finds ever more narrower ways to measure individual performance.
The upshot is that the world John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown created is very like the one the Bolsheviks produced in the Soviet Union, and for the same reason - they are both too rational and therefore too inflexible to allow the public services to fully evolve through free individual action and independent initiative. Instead the institutions become stronger as the practices on which they are run dominate all aspects of their administration and management. Efficiency replaces the personal touch, although the propaganda talks about bespoke and sensitive services.
What is rational for an organisation - encouraging young people to get drunk in order to make high profits - is irrational for the society as a whole, which is gradually losing the resources to tackle them; for democracy itself is increasingly run like a machine, the politicians and local leaders themselves subject to laws and rules of procedure they can find very hard to change. Democracy has become a process, and can only be transformed through organisation, an insight of Robert Michels, over a hundred years ago (Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy). The result? Outside a very narrow range of actions - shopping, complaining, doing leisure - the individual has less and less freedom, for in nearly all the fundamental aspects of life he has to submit to bureaucratic rules over which he has no control.
And there is something else… most of us are not even aware this is happening. A good example is Barry Eichengreen, whose book is an excellent survey of the European economy since 1945. However, when he writes about bureaucrats he thinks they exist only in the state. This is one of the reasons why the central thesis of his book is almost certainly wrong - that relative to the US the European economies suffered since the 1960s because they were too state orientated and therefore lacked the flexibility to fully take up the intensive and innovation based industries of the new technologies, which only small entrepreneurs could create; bureaucrats being too dull and risk adverse. Eichengreen argues this case despite noticing that US government spending on R&D played a significant role in the development of this technology (actually he underplays it). What Eichengreen misses is how the modern corporation is itself a large bureaucracy. Each one is a mini-state.
Just like ideas, these organisations float free of a society which is increasingly seen as not existing. In Curtis’ film James Buchanan, a big influence on the thinking of the New Right, says the idea of the public interest has no meaning for him. Exactly! Only things that can be measured and calculated exist. Only facts and data are real. As Curtis notes this is the mind of a psychopath; the most rational person on the planet. Bertrand Russell, a man that can hardly be called stupid or irrational, argued that reason was only a tool, and that the most important knowledge came outside of it, from insight (see my Dear Mr Albert… for quote). He was right. And yet we now live in a society which believes that it should be run on wholly rational lines. We must give ourselves up to reason! It is like farmer running his farm on behalf of his combine harvester.
Feelings, thoughts, communities, nations, events… today none of these exist unless they can be turned into measurable data (see my The Specialist for a crazy example). And yet just about everything important in the world is invisible too us - cause and effect is a very obvious example of phenomena that rely almost completely on conjecture. Here is the madness of the contemporary world.
In the minds of Joyce Cary’s characters the invisible world is as important as the materially visible one. This can cause great instability when something unknown and unverifiable is used to justify all and every action, no matter how extreme - such as Chester Nimmo giving up pacifism to promote war. Within small and knowledgeable communities this invisible realm is controlled through custom and individual experience - its mouthpieces, such as the scholar or the local priest, are known to the community’s members, and their words are to a large degree mediated through their conduct. In a modern society there is no control unless the invisible is reduced to the visible and we all can see the data. Thus the remarkable interview in Curtis’ film where a government minister states that his performance will be measured statistically. Only the numbers are real. The invisible realm has been removed.
Cary’s last novel in the trilogy, Not Honour More, highlights the conflict between these two ways of looking at the world. Jim Latter knows the charismatic politician Chester Nimmo intimately and wants to convince the wider society of his nefarious character. That is, he wants to make the general public recognise the truth behind Chester’s appearance and his rhetorical abstractions (his campaigns for freedom, democracy etc etc). He fails because he does not understand that in the public realm language and style are more important than content, because the public will only see the external forms and have neither the time nor the interest to look behind them. Thus he talks earnestly about truth when he should be convincing this public through artful performance and flattery. That is, he needs to make them believe in a fiction so as to convince them of the veracity of his claims. Unfortunately he thinks all fictions are lies.
We have done the loop-the-loop and returned to where we started: success in the modern world depends on making people believe in abstractions, many of which have no connection to material reality at all. That is, the old invisible world, Christianity, has been replaced by a new one, which because it emanates from human society is believed to be concretely real; an advert a true representation of the product it advertises. It is this paradox that makes modern society so peculiar. We live inside a system of fictions we think are a collection of facts. To sum up: we are living inside the world Laing thought existed but which he actually helped to create. We live inside R.D. Laing’s mind!
34. One odd consequence is that this new kind of boss is often at war with the companies they take over; the existing staff and management believed affixed to an old and outmoded culture, which is their duty to destroy. Tony Blair was a fascinating example: it was the Labour Party that was his main enemy (See David Marquand’s The Strange Career of British Democracy for insightful commentary). Revolution has been taken out of politics, and has been translated into the workplace.
35. A better designation is perhaps Radical Liberalism.
36. The current favourite seems to be paternalism. The ideological assumption behind this attack is that each individual knows best (it is further development of anti-elitist ideas). An obvious absurdity, once we go beyond a very narrow range of experience. However, it is one that can be given credence with the internet - by searching Google and discovering a few facts on a subject we can convince ourselves that we know it. A wonderful satire on such confusion can be found in A Serious Man, where a student believes that by copying the metaphors the physics professor uses to explain the equations he knows the equations themselves.*
The historical driver for this populist attack was a genuine concern over the overconfidence of the experts, much of whose knowledge was at best uncertain (See Harold Perkins’ The Rise of Professional Society and Stanislav Andreski’s Social Sciences as Sorcery). However, what was once a valid criticism has been turned into an article of faith; so that one dogma, the expert knows best, has been replaced by its opposite, we the people are the specialists now.
The fundamental insight of modern thought is the recognition of the uncertainty of our knowledge. This conflicts mightily with our human need for stability and security. In a world where knowledge becomes more prevalent, and is intimately tied up with power and profit, it is inevitable that the unstable nature of knowledge will be shaped to meet the needy certainties of the general population. It is this conflict that did for the experts in the 1960s, and which is doing for the general population today, who would rather rely on the certainty of their own opinions than the doubts and qualified conclusions of those who do know what they are talking about. Adam Curtis shows the result: the rise of a class of “experts” who validate people’s prejudices by appealing to science (The Trap).
In the final programme of The Trap there is an interview with Isaiah Berlin, where he talks about the horrors of paternalism. It is highly revealing, and is indicative of a mentality that thinks it can determine the truth on all subjects. And yet, as Ernest Gellner shows in his Words and Things, the philosophical movement out of which Berlin emerged - the Oxford Linguistic School - preferred common sense to specialist knowledge, and tended to either downgrade or entirely ignore the truth claims of science. Gellner argued that these philosophers didn’t understand the modern world and were in retreat from it; an old academic elite who were fighting a rearguard action against a new kind of knowledge - the sciences -that were replacing them in academic and social importance. Seen in this light Berlin’s fear of paternalism is really his own fear of ignorance; his inability to accept that there areas of intellectual life that are impossible for him to understand. Allied to his critical reason, this fear creates a sort of cognitive paranoia that is always wary of being duped. Nothing can be take on trust, unless we work it out for ourselves. And yet even for someone as clever as Berlin this is impossible. We have no choice but to take on faith most of what we believe; thus Conrad Russell notes that we must trust the historians to have copied the primary sources correctly, otherwise we cannot accept their work unless we do it all over again for ourselves (Academic Freedom).
For a wonderful statement of old-fashioned paternalism listen to Norman Finkelstein. During this interview he says that he is less interested in Marx’s conclusions as in the arguments that lead to them. Exactly!
*(For an insight into how knowledge, which depends on a shared culture and whose acquisition is a craft (knowledge is acquired through a process of understanding), is being turned into information see Oliver Roy’s Holy Ignorance: When Religion and Culture Part Ways.)
37. Of course it is the individualistic assumption that is the fundamental error. Since Lessing wrote this introduction we do now actually live in a culture of individualism. However, this has nothing to do with individual human beings. Individualism is simply an abstraction to which we are all meant to conform.
38. While her diagnosis is correct her solutions are risible (she too mistakes radical content for radical thinking):
“It did look for a while as if the recent student rebellions might change things, as if their impatience with the dead stuff they are taught might be strong enough to substitute something more fresh and useful… During the lively time in the States, I had letters with accounts of how classes of students had refused their syllabuses, and were bringing to class their own choice of books, those that they had found relevant to their own lives.” (Joyce Cary is far more realistic: the original artist is a minority figure who both needs the discipline of formal education and must escape most of its influence (Art and Reality).)
What Lessing has overlooked is that an intelligent and active engagement with old books - in other words tradition - is more likely to make students think for themselves, for it creates a community made up of the past and the present, which produces the free mental space that allows the individual to transcend their own time and environment. However, such critical freedom depends on an intellectual tradition being treated as a craft, and not as an exam to be passed. Noam Chomsky has some excellent things to say about this, and his work is ample demonstration of the power of tradition to be subversive - thus his use of the 17th century Descartes to destroy the 20th century Skinner; and the 18th century Adam Smith to demolish the assumptions behind 21st century Neo-liberalism.
Freedom depends on a particular kind of community, one where the people largely understand and are tolerant of each other. One example is the family. Another is a craft guild, to which academia used to belong (for incisive commentary at the time this was changing, see Conrad Russell’s Academic Freedom).
39. See my Fictions Kill for the reasoning behind this statement.
40. It is interesting to compare Greenwald with Eichengreen. The latter takes it for granted that an efficient capitalism is a universal good and should be a universal goal. This is the problem of founding a society on reason - there are so many of them!
The discussion of game theory in Adam Curtis’ The Trap is highly revealing about the real nature of rationality. What the theory purports to show is that the most rational response to a situation is essentially “fuck you buddy”, the title of the first documentary in the series (which paradoxically leads to cautious and conservative behaviour - instrumental reason like irony makes us conformist). And yet what it actually shows is that reason isolated from context is completely irrational, it is insane. Thus it seems no accident that the inventor of game theory, John Nash, went mad.
The glory of Curtis’ film is to show how this happens. For example, instead of having a real market in the NHS the government created a fake one, just like the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union; and yet the believers in this “revolution” thought they were introducing freedom and capitalism into the system (there is an extraordinary interview with Madsen Pirie where he literally talks like an evangelist preacher about these reforms). Of course what they were creating was an enormous bureaucracy which gives power to the administrators and managers, and that will eventually lead to the corporate takeover of the NHS by multi-national corporations selling health care; bureaucracies far bigger and more powerful than the one John Major inherited in 1990.
We cannot trust the experts, so we’ll put bureaucrats in their place. This increases efficiency but at a cost - to freedom within a profession. Eventually these bureaucrats will impose their way of thinking onto the whole organisation, which then imposes it on the population. The result is a more efficient service, but one from which the odd and the inconvenient are excluded. The result is that the overall order of the society is gradually destroyed by the rational self-interest of each one of these institutions, which are essentially bureaucratic machines. Reason applied to society demolishes it. And all the freedoms that we associate with society as a whole, including the freedom to change it, are lost. The one freedom left is the freedom of individual desire.
Major Crampas is the truly rational hero of Effi Briest:
“Life wouldn't be worth living if conventions were always observed just because they happened to be conventions. The best things are all beyond that. Learn to enjoy them.
“…we must take things lightly, otherwise we are lost poor souls. Frivolity is the best thing we have. It’s all fate. It was meant to be like this.”
Only that which can be seen and touched is real. All convention, that is all those invisibles that bind a society to together, are just nonsense it is our duty to reason away. And this is inevitable... The result? Reason not only destroys the society, it also erases many of our freedoms which depend on some felt (or perceived) value; this is because reason becomes the only standard by which to gauge worth.* Those who fail to make that standard are then condemned and devalued; their currency debased they are easily rejected. Take this curious example, a description of the church at Lourdes:
“It is astonishingly irrational, bewilderingly ugly, one of the most powerful testaments to humankind’s sycophancy to it most enduring fiction…” (Museum Without Walls)
This throwaway comment is one of many that Meades chucks at religion, which he believes is superstitious claptrap. Here he condemns a church because it is irrational. That is, he is equating its ugliness with its poor reasoning capacity. Of course this is insane. Though very effective. Who today wants to be called irrational or stupid?
But then what if we apply this criteria to one of his favourite buildings: the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth? Does he like this building because it is rational or because it tinkles at some aesthetic heartbeat? The evidence suggests the latter: thus his reference to Rodney Gordon's expressionistic devices. And yet its demolition was caused by populist distaste at its ugliness. Clearly if the majority think a building is ugly the most rational decision is to demolish it. Moreover, designing such an aggressive building as a shopping centre could hardly be described as a rational decision, given that it depended on populist sentiment for its success. Meades has forgotten that taste depends on a community, which engenders its own faith; a faith that is vastly more informed than mere opinion, and which can be wiser than reason. Writing about freedom Matthew Arnold sums it up brilliantly.
“For we know that the only perfect freedom is, as our religion says, a service; not a service to any stock maxim, but an elevation of our best self, and a harmonising in subordination to this, and to the idea of a perfected humanity, all the multitudinous, turbulent, and blind impulses of our ordinary selves. Now, the Philistine’s great defect being a defect in delicacy of perception, to cultivate in him this delicacy, to render it independent of external and mechanical rule, and a law to itself, is what seems to make most for his perfection, his true humanity.” (Selected Prose)
A society needs to put a restraint on reason, if it is to remain humane. Of course Arnold argued almost the opposite, putting his faith in a strong state to infuse the society with “right reason”. It was that “right reason” that led to the rule of experts, whose professions expanded beyond their intellectual capacity, and so brought the very idea of an elevated reason into disrepute (today we are left with instrumental reason of the kind Game Theory celebrates).
Buildings like the Tricorn Centre offer us a clue as to why the social democracies, societies whose success depended on the population believing in their expertise, collapsed in the 1970s - it was run by specialists who literally couldn’t care less what the public thought; for as Meades constantly reminds us they are regarded as ignoramuses without taste. Such scum is easily ignored. The consequence? Richard Nixon and Margaret Thatcher.
*(David Hume, who is often regarded as the patron saint of analytic philosophy, was highly sceptical of reason, believing that it couldn't explain or justify the fundamental issues of human life. Thus our sense of justice, in the final analysis, is dependent on our instincts. However, many modern philosophers cannot accept such irrationalism; my Professional Amateurs has some telling examples of misreadings of Hume which try to make him more rational than he actually is.)
41. This seems the message of Herostratus, a curious masterpiece.
42. Fassbinder doesn’t show her gravestone in the bed of flowers; he only describes it in a voice-over earlier in the scene. For Helen Chambers, writing in the introduction to the novel, the gravestone is a symbol of Effi’s indomitable spirit – she will be buried a Briest. The empty swing, in contrast, suggests that she has been completely erased. We are left with a feeling of defeat. A feeling heightened by her parents response to her death – they are surprisingly cool about it; the dog Rollo seems more upset. Fassbinder is buttonholing us: look! look! Effi has lost her battle against the conventions and indifference of her society. Listen to me. She is a victim. Shut up! Listen! Listen! It is the memory of her defeat you must remember. Do you hear me! Good. We are agreed.
43. Things don’t seem to have changed much. For an example of haute bourgeois snobbery towards the teaching profession see Blue is the Warmest Colour.
44. We could also ascribe these differences to the different mediums - there are more restraints on making a movie, the director dependent on many external factors outside his control. And then of course there is the influence of Fassbinder's sexuality.…