Calais and Constancy

 German Jews Pouring into this country

The Calais crisis, the tail end of a migration of people displaced by war and other geographic misfortune, is not a crisis of demography whatsoever; it is a crisis of Britain’s rectitude. It is a crisis that asks us to remember. To remember the Foreign Protestants Naturalization Act of 1708 in which two perspectives were voiced about the fifty thousand Walloons and Huguenots fleeing French persecution: that a ‘conflux of aliens’ was dangerous to our insular isle or that ‘the increase of people is a means of advancing the wealth and strength of a nation.’ It asks us to remember the Continental Jewry fleeing fascisms and Nazism, being met by Daily Mail reports of ‘German Jews Pouring into this Country’. It asks us to remember the atrocity of the Évian Conference, when Adolf Hitler made his position clear:

I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships

We refused this chance to avoid his die Endlösung der Judenfrage, in which two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe were brutally annihilated. This moment also asks us to remember our European ancestors’ indignation on seeing Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. More than anything, however, it asks us to remember the spiritual values that define the best of Britain. How Celtic Christianity was persuaded at St. Hilda of Whitby’s famous Synod to embrace the Universalist current and telos of their faith. It asks us to place no value on a nation-state built from the ruins of Roman Conquest, the subjugation of Norman Conquest and the self-mutilating treachery of Dutch Conquest.

The monstrous Hitler once called us out on our hypocrisy. Today, other monsters are calling us hypocrites, those who recall apartheid not with horror, but the sickly nostalgia of the aristocrat. They accuse us of doing what we would not permit of them; we should never allow monsters to indict us. The question, again, is simple: will Perfidious Albion keep to its duplicitous script or live up to its proclaimed toleration? In truth the world is changing, there will be more people coming; we have both the imagination and resources to unite with Europe and embrace a shared humanity, but we also have a long record of ethical infantilisation.

At its height our empire, the largest in human history, covered nearly a quarter of the Earth’s landmass, ‘the empire on which the sun never sets.’ Such was the appetite for conquest retained by our aristocratic conquerors. They polluted the religious truths of the Venerable Bede who ended his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the foundational text of our current culture, with the ominous ‘What the result of this will be the future will show.’ He was right to strike a cautious note, even though he was far from witnessing 1066 or 1381 or 1688. Alain Badiou is not a philosopher with whom I broadly agree, but he sees the real threat facing Europe is not the bogeyman influx, but a sterility that breeds nihilism:

Let foreigners teach us at least to become foreign to ourselves, to project ourselves sufficiently out of ourselves to no longer be captive to this long Western and white history that has come to an end, and from which nothing more can be expanded than sterility and war.

At the Synod of Whitby Britain once learnt to be foreign to itself, but can it accomplish that feat again? Currently it looks unlikely that we can be saved from our errors, but it looked bleak for Augustine of Canterbury too, landing on the coasts of a land of bitterly feuding kingdoms in which tribal identity mattered more than neighbourliness.

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Dear Eileen, on British politics, history, nationalism, &c.

Dear Eileen,

First of all thank you for your question about Corbyn, it prompted a lot of thoughts on a wider range of subjects. I apologise for the length of my ranting response and hope it contains enough insights to interest you and other curious readers. I’m an amateur in most of what I discuss, an avid amateur perhaps, but an amateur nonetheless. Prone to mistakes and simplifications, and worst of all to narrativisation. I welcome critique from anybody, although I may not be able to address all of what’s said in response. That might be vain though, as I will probably get almost no response to a blog of over three and a half thousand words!

Suffice to start, there’s a hell of a lot to say. On most matters I broadly agree with your friend Martin, but I would make other points and corrections. However, I want to initiate by acknowledging that Martin is right about  the potential political shifts in the UK after five more years of deepening austerity. There is also the chance of another global recession. But, I disagree that people are broadly satisfied with the conservative’s fiscal policies to date. Polling shows that support for austerity is superficial. And Thatcher’s legacy cannot be summarised so sweepingly as Martin attempts; she is so divisive a figure in the UK that after her death Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead topped music charts, which, however distasteful, symbolises her symbolic value. And she was evil, not only in the way she destroyed unions, increased homelessness, decimated manufacturing, &c. but even in her unconscionable support for the murderous tyrant Pinochet. There shouldn’t be any controversy on this; Thatcher is one of the most vile politicians of recent western history.

To begin let me get some simple untruths out of the way. Rumours that Labour is being filled with entryists are nonsense; I like the Trotskyites, but they don’t wield that much support (I wish they did!) and some whom I know quite well would not join the Labour party out of principle, or even touch it with a ten foot barge poll. And for good reasons as will become apparent. Additionally, those with other party affiliations cannot easily join and existing members outweigh those few who might get in. Moreover, the majority of the Labour Party’s union members support Corbyn and if it were just up to these people, as it should be for a democratic union based party, Corbyn would be a shoe-in; as things stand it could go either way. Nor do I accept Martin’s claim that the Guardian is hyping Corbyn; evidence suggests the opposite, they’re systematically undermining his campaign. They just happen to suck at agitprop.

A lot have been said about shy Tories, closeted Tories, &c. in the last GE, and while quiet Tories may be a reality, the full truth of that awful election is more complex. When you discount non-voters, only 66.1 of people voted in one of the least representative elections of post-enfranchised British parliamentary history. Intelligent conservatives are aware of this fact, and they’re scared of the risk of authentic popularism. Only 24.3 of eligible voters picked the Conservatives, and that’s still not including people who either can’t or didn’t register! The reason there seems to be so few Tories is that there are few Tories; closeted Tories are a minor factor. It’s also wrong to say the electorate has consistently rejected the left, if anything the left-right binary has been consistently ignored.

This myth of rightwing supremacy in the UK is largely predicated on three errors: 1) Thatcher’s ‘victories‘. 2) Blair’s victories, as a centre-right Labour PM. 3) Miliband’s defeat. Reason 3) is the easiest to attack when you learn, not only all that I have said about the Tories above, but also what I am going to say about UKIP. It is also wrong because of two more facts. First, Miliband represented austerity, only slightly more tempered than the Tories, which is why he lost Scotland. And second, Miliband increased his support over Gordon Brown despite loosing the election. There were also the Greens to contend with, who presented a more stridently anti-austerity agenda, although less leftwing than sometimes advertised. They mopped up a lot of the left student vote with 3.8 of the electorate supporting them. That isn’t game changer on account of the Greens poor leadership, but it does reveal the leftwing distrust of Miliband.

Reason 1) ignore how Thatcher’s victories, which never persuaded even half of the electorate and saw a declining majority, came about through various factors; her contrived grossly-patriotic Falkland’s war, Labour’s self-mutilating expulsion of it’s hard left (Militant) and suppression of its soft left reformists (the Bennites, which is Corbyn’s tradition) and the damage caused by the Labour centre-right Social Democratic Party (SDP) splinter, which came about from within the American Tendency of the Labour Parliamentary Party (PLP). With respect to this SDP history, some ‘Labour’ supporters in the media currently undermining the Labour left, like Polly Toynbee, were members of the SDP who helped Thatcher secure and retain power. Robin Ramsey looks at this in his The Rise of New Labour. Toynbee is also a critic of Trotskyism, and generally opposed to real leftwing power.

Reason 2) to discount rightwing popular hegemony is more tricky.  Blair won after the abject failure of the Thatcherite consensus on a tidal wave of trust and hope. That was quickly betrayed when Blair strengthened Thatcher’s policies, first by abolishing Clause IV, that central plank of the Labour movement: ‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’ Blair’s popularity also dwindled during his tenure, as the Iraq war, soft privatization (through failed economic policies like PFIs in the health-service) and so on pushed him more and more to the right.

New Labour, the so-called third way in politics, combines the advantages of a socially left government with the wealth of a freed up market. This ideology, partly inspired by Clintonism, liked to purport to be post-ideological. It is now completely dead in the water. The Tories, who matched Labour spending and supported bank deregulation, never substantively opposed the third way. But after the 2008 recession, when Brown was shown to be wrong for predicting an end to booms and busts, both the Blairites and the Tories have surrendered on the idea of combining the best of socialism and capitalism, and become more inclined to market fundamentalism under the guise of austerity. Corbyn challenges that narrative, but even he won’t bring back Clause IV and he is an incredibly moderate socialist. And much like Labour socialists of the past I don’t imagine Corbyn will welcome the likes of Militant into the new-old Labour family.

If the current media picture is to be accepted, Labour per se are doomed because they would need to be more leftwing than the SNP to win in Scotland and more rightwing than the Tories to win in England and Wales, and cannot win without making gains everywhere. There are reasons to discount this narrative, however welcome it might be to an anti-reformist. It is true that just over half of those who voted in the 2015 GE chose traditionally rightwing parties: Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP, the last of which are a quasi-fascist Irish unionist party, beneficiaries of protestant oppression in Ireland and the 1688 Dutch invasion. However, only 36.9 of those chose Tories (30.4 picked Labour), 12.6 chose UKIP and a poll shows the majority of UKIP supporters (wrongly) believe the party is to the left of the Tories. Even more damning for the Tories, their victory was predicated on serial lying so chronic it is shocking even by the standards of our party politics, which is cynical to its Labour-Tory entrails.

UKIP only won one MP on 3,881,099 votes, but they increased their vote share everywhere except Scotland. And, defying predictions and the belief that UKIP only posed a risk to the Tories, Labour support bled into UKIP. As contradictory as it seems for an internationalist socialist to be appealing to the supporters of a nationalist capitalist party, Corbyn is the most popular Labour candidate with UKIP voters out of all the Labour leadership contenders. This indicates what I have believed for a while, which is that the undeniable xenophobia of UKIP is really a symptom of economic malaise and that these people, many of whom once supported Labour, can be brought back to socialism. This is a controversial claim, because many on the left just want to shun nationalists completely. It’s an understandable stance, but it’s a mistake. However, let’s take an important, semi-autbiographical digression on my politics and British nationalism.

In my long political journey I have always been anti-nationalist. As a Christian Socialist nationalism offended my belief in the community of Christ; as a brief rightwing libertarian in my early teens nationalism offended my blind faith in laissez-faire, invisible hand of the market nonsense; as a secular socialist it offended my egalitarianism; I ended flirtations with anarchism precisely because I saw how many of them ended supporting tribal politics and my attraction to Marxism was partly rooted in its internationalism. And even the weird heterodox Christian universalism of Slavoj Žižek, who seems to have fallen out of vogue lately.

UKIP in every sense represent my polar-opposites. The love of my life is foreign to Britain and so their ideas are personally offensive, but we nonetheless need to win them back to a universalist ethics of the left. Still, we need to do so without capitulating to nationalism, which is the desired path of New Labour careerists ever on the look out for the pragmatic centre ground. Just to take the example of my place of birth, it is obvious the nation-state is a grotesque historical fabrication that should be outright opposed, without any hesitation.

The British Union is an entity borne out of waves of oppression directed at Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Ireland, including the linguistic imperialism (also seen in France with Brittany) that helped produce the birth of compulsory schooling to suppress regional languages through a campaign of child abuse and the wholesale destruction of communities. The rarefied identity of even England, however, is not a benevolent one; no ratification ever is benevolent. It has its origins in the Roman conquest of AD 43. After Rome retreated we had the invasion and settlement of the Anglo Saxons and England was divided into separate kingdoms, the Heptarchy; most of those divisions (East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex and Wessex) endure in some form, especially in the split between North England and South England, but also in the splits along a lot of the coast.

England proper was beginning to come into being in the Norman conquest of 1066 and it was much later solidified in the already mentioned Dutch invasion of 1688, which bolstered the legacy of Norman rule against the threat of the Catholic Jacobites and their support for the unquestionably legitimate King, if one allows that any monarch has legitimacy. The Hundred Years War, WWI, WWII, British Empire all played their loathsome parts in the formation of rightwing identitarianism. And the British aristocracy has always been radically opposed to democracy and essentially fascistic in its composition. The birth of British fascism, indeed, is an awakening of the squirearchy (the landed rich) to its real interests. Keep in mind that after suppressing the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the poll tax riot of its day, King Richard II later opined:

You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still: you will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful. Choose now which you want to follow.

The leader of the first British fascist group, the British Fascisti, was Rotha Lintorn-Orman, as Wikipedia notes, ‘Born as Rotha Beryl Orman in Kensington London, she was the daughter of Charles Edward Orman, a Major from the Essex Regiment, and his wife, Blanch Lintorn, née Simmons. Her maternal grandfather was Field Marshal Sir John Lintorn Arabin Simmons.’  Other senior members included Neil Francis Hawkins, Maxwell Knight and Arnold Leese, who were all upperclass. Meanwhile in Spain, Italy and elsewhere fascism was arising with the backing of various desperate aristocracies. The great exceptions are the agrarian Romanian Iron Guard, which was a literally crazy, cannibalistic organisation of Gnostics (not an exaggeration) and Germany, where radical movements gave birth to the bizarre chimera that is Nazism.

Nazism needs to be distinguished in many respects, as Sebastian Haffner perfectly puts it in The Meaning of Hitler, ‘Nothing is more misleading than to call Hitler a fascist. Fascism is upper-class rule buttressed by artificially manufactured mass enthusiasm. Certainly Hitler roused masses to enthusiasm, but never in order to buttress an upper-class.’ This is pretty much my whole thesis about English fascism; it’s not middle-class or working-class, it’s the second estate. Admittedly, much like popularist Bonapartism and Nazism it takes heavily from the lumpenproletariat and dissatisfied lower working class support, but unlike even Bonapartism (let alone Nazism) its ideas are all purely Ancien Régime in origin.

By far the most famous historical fascist in the UK was Oswald Mosley, or, to use his full name, Sir Oswald Ernald Mosley, 6th Baronet. Now here’s where things get weird, because Mosley’s British Union of Fascists drew heavily from the generally white upperclass Suffragettes like Norah Elam too. And as is evident in even Shelley’s book The Last Man, many of the best of this first wave of feminism (unjustly used to attack the supposedly bad contemporary feminists) had a natural inclination towards reactionary sentiments despite professing a thin egalitarianism. More contemporaneously, Nick Griffin (Oxbridge educated) was, ‘The son of former Conservative councillor Edgar Griffin and his wife Jean’. Nigel Farage, whose brand of right-popularism is something a bit different again, a sort of fascist, hawk-libertarian cocktail of crazy, is also upperclass in origin, ‘Farage was born on 3 April 1964 at Downe, near Sevenoaks in Kent, to Barbara née Stevens and Guy Justus Oscar Farage’ and ‘was educated at Dulwich College, a public school in south London.’

This is even reflected in current voting, as was proved by the Henley by-election in Oxfordshire. And amongst working class people with strong nationalist sympathies, like Enoch Powell, the ideology of the English aristocracy is completely in evidence. As Wikipedia puts it, ‘Powell’s ambition to be Viceroy of India crumbled in February 1947, when Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced that Indian independence was imminent. Powell was so shocked by the change of policy that he spent the whole night after it was announced walking the streets of London.’ Before modern fascism William Cobbett perfectly understood this emerging ideology when he wrote in defence of medieval welfare:

The fact is that the endowment [to the Church] was made upon the condition that the priest should expand a fourth in his own way; a fourth was to go to the Bishop of the diocese; a fourth was to maintain the edifice of the church; and a fourth was to maintain the poor. For a long while there was no general law for the yielding of tithes; but when that change was legally imposed on all the lands, the poor were, of course, everywhere entitled to this fourth part. Villeinage being at this time greatly diminished, it was proper to provide a resource for helplessness other than that of the tables of the lords, and, therefore, this species of hospitality was transferred to the Church, from which the poor had a right to demand maintenance, and from which they received it, too, until the robbery of the poor (which has been called a robbery of the church) took place under the reign of King Henry the Eighth.

So why, in the light of all of this, do I think it is one of Corbyn’s most redeeming features that he appeals to UKIP support? Firstly, precisely because fascism is properly an aristocratic ideology, parasitical in its origins and nature; it should and can be cured in the body politic. I want to illustrate this point with an anecdote. One of my neighbours was, right up to the 2015 GE, a die-hard fan of UKIP. Then he had an abrupt change of mind. What caused this? Simply the fact that Farage said he might support a coalition with the Tories. This man is from an old mining community, hatred of the Tories is in his DNA. And so secondly, because UKIP supporters are not Tories, they are not apart of what I call the Whiggish consensus of the upperclasses in the UK; they are therefore theoretically amenable to radical change. Because the truth is that the rightwing, capitalist drift of the Labour party is just a rehashing of the prior liberal, capitalist drift of the Tory party. There may be some confusion as to what I mean by liberal here as that ideology is so monstrously successful that it represents a plethora of competing tendencies. A quote from Walter E. Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind (thanks for that recommendation) is quickly informative:

In the new liberal theory all men were free, politically and economically, owing no one any service beyond the fulfilment of legal contracts; and society was simply a collection of individuals, each motivated—naturally and rightly—by self-interest. The result was described by Carlyle’s Teufelsdröckh: “Call ye that a society,” he cries again, “where there is no longer any Social Idea extant; not so much as the idea of a common Home, but only of a common over-crowded Lodging-house? Where each, isolated, regardless of his neighbour, turned against his neighbour, clutches what he can get, and cries ‘Mine!’”

Toryism was originally the ideology of Catholic and Jacobite sympathisers, but in lieu of effective Jacobite militarism, Toryism lost its raison d’être. Its reinvention was its Whiggification, in which the forces of capitalist change disguised their ‘creative’ destruction, or the primitive accumulation of atrocities like the Enclosures Act, behind the veneer of pseudo-traditionalism; nobody is more responsible for that obfuscation than Edmund Burke, now the great hero of Tory intellectuals and increasingly the reactionary go-to guy of pseudo-communist China. That is why we no longer have a Whig party in the UK; not because they lost, but because they completely won. The Labour Party is a Whig party; the LibDems are a Whig party, the Conservatives are definitely a Whig party and even many Whig assumptions about the market have found a home in UKIP and the Greens.

We are a one-ideology state, There Is No Alternative (TINA) if you will. High Toryism, the conservatives prior to the contradictory conservative alliance with the capitalistic middle-class, is not an ideology I like at all. Nonetheless, this conservatism is nothing like what we now call conservatism, either in the States (or Canada, Australia) or in the UK. And the new conservatism was created by Whig infiltrators of the Tory party; Chatham, the aforementioned Burke and additionally, kind of, Malthus, who was among the first to find pseudo-scientific, demographic justifications for vilifying the poor. Here G. K. Chesterton’s A Short History of England is very instructive:

if anybody deduces, from the fact that the Whig aristocrats were Whigs, any doubt about whether the Whig aristocrats were aristocrats, there is one practical test and reply. It might be tested in many ways: by the game laws and enclosure laws they passed, or by the strict code of the duel and the definition of honour on which they all insisted. But if it be really questioned whether I am right in calling their whole world an aristocracy, and the very reverse of it a democracy, the true historical test is this: that when republicanism entered the world, they instantly waged two great wars with it—or (if the view be preferred) it instantly waged two great wars with them.

To return to your actual question: some of the fear over Corbyn is sincerely about electability, which is a long shot under any prospective leader. But many senior figures, especially Blair, have said this is only a secondary consideration and they object to the Left in principle not merely in viability. Despite claims to the contrary, the pseudo-left media like the Guardian (who supported the rightwing Liberal Democrats in 2010 and helped the Lib-Con Coalition into power) and the Independent (who even supported the Tories against Miliband) are genuinely against a revival of the old reformist left. This is unsurprising as the fourth estate is mostly a sinecurist dumping ground for the less intelligent children of the upperclasses, that squirearchy again, torn between fascism on the one hand and Whiggism on the other, who attain their status and wealth via connections, unpaid internships and advantageous tax laws. People like Toynbee whine about what the Tories do to our country, but they fear socialism more.

Where does this leave us in predicting what happens next? Precisely nowhere. Some macro events can be vaguely foreseen. A lot of people outside of the economic orthodoxy foresaw an inevitable recession: post-Keynesian Dean Baker, Marxists like Nick Beams and César Uco and people of a more Austrian bent, like political maverick Ron Paul. That is because these huge events are always overdetermined, but even then prediction is far from an exact science. Small events, like the rise of Corbyn and, now, whether or not he will succeed, what that even means, are utterly beyond human powers of insight. So much so I am convinced even people who get it right are broadly just lucky gamblers. And in any event, what does a Corbyn victory mean?

Perhaps nothing. Corbyn is a reformist, and in my opinion does not go anywhere near to correcting the economic woes of our country. Nor would state power grant him the ability to correct the economic woes of the world, whatever ideology is professed about said problems. Corbyn is still undoubtedly hostile to the hard left, albeit slightly more inclusive. And Corbyn will be opposed by most of the PLP, pretty much the entirety of the media and, were he to become PM, by the majority of Britain’s ‘key’ allies too, including the USA who would be appalled were we to (I believe justly) disband the Trident nuclear weapons system, the cost of which would be expulsion from NATO.

Again, thank you for your question on Facebook. I hope I haven’t overwhelmed you in my reply.

Your friend,

Rowan

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The Spectacle of Lord Freud

Sophists do not win by persuading you to accept their specific arguments; they win by persuading you to accept their general methodology. They win by transforming every newsreader into a self-professed pundit. This is the minor misfortune of the blogosphere, which gives a slightly wider platform that degenerates into a vulgar, second-hand form of the narrowest fourth estate. Sophistry thrives on the ephemeral, on the permanently new and the ceaselessly recycled; id est. sophistry thrives on the news. It does so irrespective of medium.

Recent outrage over Lord Freud’s comments is a par excellence example. The claim that some of the disabled may have less market value than the minimum wage is, as the loathsome ASI insist, not the same as stating that the disabled have less moral worth. It’s just acknowledging that’s how some aspects of our economy necessarily treat people.  The logic of the market is all Freud was inarticulately articulating. That he is defending this logic is trivial because so must everyone who accepts the capitalist mode of production per se, whether in good or bad faith. Including most of the thetheatrically incensed hypocrites. It should be equally obvious that much of the liberal chatterati care little for the plight of the disabled. And Labour care only for exasperating said plight.

I’ve no good feeling for Lord Freud and would be glad if this careerist ended in ignominy. He is content to strip the meagre protections many have from the forces he accurately describes. Nonetheless, the reason he’s pilloried has little to do with genuine concern for the disabled or antipathy for his beliefs. To object to Frued’s essential claim here (rather than his superficial wording) would put you far to the left of the opportunistic Ed Miliband. And Ed Miliband is the wellspring of this pseudo-indignation. This is a cleansing ritual and Labour PR exercise, a scapegoating carnival to purify guilt. The scandal has no deeper meaning whatsoever.

The media’s role in all this is primarily therapeutic rather than analytic. It offers a service to its target demographics, be they the right-liberals of the Daily Mail or the left-liberals of the Guardian. It shores up their narcissistic defences against an indifferent reality. It does not shape reality, let alone offer any opportunity to do so. There’s nothing so disempowering as fabricated power; the poison of the click bait, sharing, petitioning, blogging press that’ll have you gunning for Lord Freud while you impotently elect his ideological doppelgängers.

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David Mitchell’s ‘The Right Sort’, a review

David Mitchell is no newcomer to experimental prose forms. Number9dream uses omission to leave a disturbing lacuna; the multigenred Cloud Atlas has a chiastic structure and The Right Sort, his newest foray, is a short story delivered in a string of 280 Tweets. To which my immediate response was: how is that different from, say, emailing Middlemarch to someone chapter by chapter. How does the form structure the story? The answer chiefly lies in the unique pressures of telling a story in 140 character chunks, ‘Leaves blow down from an overhanging branch. There’s more leaves off than there are leaves left. October. The clocks go back tonight.’ Moreover there’s new space for elliptical tension, ‘…’cause there’s no door down here at all. No gate. No ‘townhouse’. The alley turns right, then after twenty more paces, you’re out…’ Additionally, form and content can be made to illustratively mirror, ‘The pill’s just kicking in now. Valium breaks down the world into bite-sized sentences. Like this one. All lined up. Munch-munch.’ Potentially there’s an epistolary conceit to be made, but Mitchell decides against. Having read The Right Sort, the next question: was it aesthetically successful?

There’s a class motif that’s smugly forced in an Ian McEwan kind of way. Especially when combined with the subject of home-education so as to reinforce stereotypes about British home-educators being largely wealthy. This is not a failing of the experiment, though, but only execution. And the narrative about anxiety, valium and trauma is more arresting. The prose is up to Mitchell’s standard—not Michael Ondaatje or Cormac McCarthy, but impressive. And as my extracts hint, he shows what can be done artistically with the medium—better than Stephan Fry previously managed. One curiosity was seeing which individual Tweet was most favourited, recalling those Kindle eBook highlights. The winner was, ‘I get one of those moments that aren’t like other moments, when you’re so aware that the world’s real it feels like you’re dreaming it.’ Ultimately one speculation remains: qua experiment, where to take this idea? It suggests an accessible platform for narrative, but beyond the games of a traditional celebrity print-author, opens the cul-de-sac of online cliques telling obscurer insider tales, potentially deluded on scope and quality by the echo-chamber of their online friends list. 

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Utopias, Anti-Utopias, Dystopias and Cockaygne

There is one tradition in which my reading is obsessive, otherwise I am perhaps too eclectic. And it is also one in which the nuances are frustratingly and commonly missed or forgotten, but nonetheless fascinating. To start with the subtlest, what chiefly separates the anti-utopia from the dystopia is the former was satirical (Erewhon and Gulliver’s Travels) whereas the latter is tragic (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World). There is also an ambiguity and tension between utopias and anti-utopias, in strong evidence in the disputed readings of Thomas More’s Utopia itself, with some taking it as an attack on such dreams while others were inspired to indulge hopes of a better world. My personal take on that scholarly controversy is both/and; despite his loyalties More was a Renaissance spirit who played with aporia as ably as Shakespeare or Donne.

Herein lies the real horror of the dystopian genre: by the conclusion we are invariably left doubtless that society can be opposed to human flourishing and yet achieve structural stability. That the worst of all worlds might command the abiding loyalty of a citizenry too fearful or comfortable to press change. Hence The Iron Heel is properly a transitional novel between the utopia, anti-utopia and dystopia traditions; it might posit a terrible world order, but it also satirises some political goals (the Bishop’s) while making other utopian ends actually inevitable.  We is the proper prototype of the twentieth century dystopia.

None of the anti-utopians believed in a perpetual hell; for them, like Marx, a bad society contained its own undoing. Not necessarily so as to lead to an inevitable improvement, which vulgar Marxists uphold, but certainly so as to undermine the system itself. Only a good society can transcend cycles: for More that meant something like Augustine’s City of God, for Swift the idle fancy of anaemic thinkers and for utopians like Bellamy, Morris, Cabet, Piercy et al. a realisable project. One with various inspirations, which is lately only expressed with an element of embarrassment.

All of these types of writing need to be contrasted with the medieval (and earlier) Cockaygne myths; be this in the form of a pastoral arcadia, a science-fiction post-scarcity society (like Ian M. Bank’s Culture or Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek) or religious origin story (The Garden of Eden, Greek Golden Age or the myriad parallels we find throughout the world). These tell of an entirely different propensity and are either clever allegories about spiritual development or whimsical escapisms that jettison the very material of utopian prose: the capacity to construct an unlimited human order from a limited material basis.

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Listening on Assisted Dying

Like many atheists my stance on assisted dying has been favourable. I also advocated philosophies that defended suicide as a sometimes noble and dignified choice. However, at some point I considered counterpoints. My opinions were evolving before I read Jennifer Michael Hecht wonderful Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, which I reviewed on this blog. Another blog by a friend made me reconsider euthanasia. My views have not wholly reversed, but they have changed. The current British laws are undoubtedly cruel, forcing relatives into difficult decisions with uncertain legal consequences. It is not right people already anguished must be further burdened. I doubt anybody conscientiously involved in matters of sickness, dying and disability want the status quo of neglect, social cruelty and uncertain laws—although this norm feeds anxieties about the background of new laws.

The debate about Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill has reignited the issue for the British public. Even though the bill is tamer and less applicable than widely imagined. Assisted dying has got unlikely support from Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. And public opinion is weighted in favour of change, although I consider such a reductive gauge of opinion inadequate on a topic with as many subtleties. Those speaking against include the BMA (British Medical Association), the Church of England and disability activists apprehensive about what will happen in a Britain already unsympathetic to their plight. It is worth noting those in favour also include HPAD (The Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying) lead by Raymond Tallis, a philosopher I respect and a physician whose arguments in favour of change are considered, reasonable, informed by pertinent experience as well as theory and persuasive.

The informed and delicate debates must be contrasted with the quality of second-hand public quarrels, fuelled by politicians and celebrities. As someone with a chronic illness that may worsen I hope society is sufficiently mature to engage opinion and consider pitfalls when approaching medical ethics. Especially in a political, economic and cultural climate that gives a low priority to helping people live, but is obsessed to help them die. So far I fail to see evidence of maturity. Instead I witness this issue bandied as a pretext for anti-religious point scoring; bypassing qualms about doctor involvement or coercive pressures placed on the dying. Some wrongly invoke the slippery slope fallacy against critics of assisted dying; ignorant that this is only a fallacy if it is a non sequitur. A minority even argue it’s selfish for the seriously ill to keep living. An anaemic society that expects a sufferer to resort to suicide is not reality, but I worry it’s becoming our dystopian trajectory. In truth we have a society deficient in compassion and laws must be made within and for that unfortunate context.

Religious arguments (any argument) should not be accepted carte blanche. And on some subjects (i.e. sexuality) there are reasons for suspicion if not hostility. However, on palliative care, the ethics of dying and disability, the CoE cannot be reasonably excluded. And the attempt smothers nuance and moderation, framing the subject as black and white. For example, when Bishop John Inge wrote for the Guardian drawing on experiences with his dying wife and work in palliative care, eschewing religious objections to confine himself to secular anxieties, comments dismissed him as a worshiper of sky fairies . Too many fellow atheists shore up a broad ideological orthodoxy and stifle dissent. The discussion is not one in which we ought to exclude the religious simply because they are religious.

Moreover, it is not one in which we ought to exclude religious arguments per se. The original theorists of liberalism like Locke were indebted to theology. Our understanding of personhood is indebted to Augustine. Modern universalism (be it liberal, communist or conservative) has a Pauline pedigree. Historically religious beliefs about what we are and our place in an often-hostile world have clearly informed ethics. To flippantly jettison traditions is to impoverish our collective decisions. It’s true people advocating change—especially suffering or personally close to suffering—ought to be given respectful heed, but so should other voices. All involved need a public forum and a public willing to listen.

The CoE wants a Royal Commission. I appreciate some find delay too cruel, but I also believe religious and secular objectors are not unreasonably advocating business as usual. They are trying to find better reforms. Perhaps a sober appraisal could bridge the polarised positions and meet a diversity of conflicting needs. Although there may be no compromise, which is more reason for patience. Sadly it will inevitably all conclude with a vote in the ivory tower of the so-called Commons. Not now, not this time, but eventually. And without an attempt to engage people in a calm setting it will leave many dissatisfied, unheard and cynical about how our society makes these judgements.

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A Critical reading of ‘Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It’

The whole of humanity suffers when someone opts out. p.4

Ideas can take lives and other ideas can save lives. p.6

The kernel of Jennifer Michael Hecht’s thesis is an injunction arrived at after the suicides of close friends, ‘One of the best predicators of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means that suicide is also delayed homicide. You have to stay.’ Hecht suspends euthanasia, which she acknowledges involves different criteria; although she does raise Hippocrates’ opposition. Additionally, she is, ‘attempting to reach those people sufficiently lucid as to be available to be reached through argument.’ (p.11). Her aim in proscribing is not to belittle pain, but praise the struggle and its value, ‘I assign no blame’ (p.12). There does appear a tension; a moral without responsibility? Yet it is justified, touching the complex interplay of responsibility best left to conscience. Hecht begins Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It by elucidating the urgency with reference to social science data (epidemiology, clinical psychology) and returns to this theme later. What she shows is the prevalence of suicide and the ways in which one sparks more, especially amongst the same demographics like in the contemporary U.S. military, which evidence suggests is more a response to a suggestive culture than the horrors of duty. She also sets up what will be the core historical assertion; religious command enforced by postmortem punishment as well as the secular (that is, Enlightenment individualist) insistences on atomised free-choice are wrong, the former inspiring the latter error:

Either the universe is a cold dead place with a little growth of sentient but atomized beings each all by him-or-herself trying to generate meaning, or we are in a universe that is alive with a growth of sentient beings whose members have made a pact with each other to persevere. p.174

The history is sweeping, but engaging. She commences with a motive typography of suicide in the ancient western world: i.e. loss e.g. Cleopatra, Cato the Younger, the daughters of Erechtheus, Icarius’ daughter Erigone, the Sphinx and the Sirens; altruism e.g. Iphigenia, Orion’s daughters, Arria Paetus and Socrates; shame e.g. Samson, Ajax and Jocasta; love e.g. Dido, Narcissus, Mark Antony, Thisbe and her lover Pyramus. Hecht also looks at less common motives: Hercules to prevent unnecessary pain before death; the women of Miletus enigmatic cluster-suicide; Cleomenes I’s madness; Lucretius and Seneca’s possible tædium vitæ; the martyrdom of Jews as in Masada siege. She shows that while attitudes are ambivalent, motives like hopelessness are rarely depicted. Moreover, along with love, endorsed even in older Judaism, Greece and Rome, where enforced suicide is not rare, the ideal was exemplified in the Stoic, Socratic, et al. traditions of calm acceptance. It is also the case that, ‘suicide was less commonly committed against the family than for them.’ (p.19). It is at odds with ‘the alienation and loneliness associated with suicide in the modern world’ (p.43); with Lucretia and her peers, such action was aesthetically, ‘community orientated, and heroic.’ (p.39).

Christianity’s digression from Judaism’s permissiveness about suicide is located in Constantine’s conclusion of the period of martyrdom and the later councils of Guadix, Carthage, Arles, Angers, Orleans, Barga, Antisidor, &c. Basically, they were decisive, frequently, but nonetheless, if we look back far enough, ‘Our earliest records confirm that Christians did not consider suicide a sin; indeed, it could be celebrated.’ (p.45). Hecht’s claim is that after deaths in imitation of Christ became surplus to requirement a need arose to quell it. This is problematised by later sectarian recurrences and fudges what is meant by martyrdom, but the gist is sound. She does even better noting Augustine’s anti-suicide reading of the Decalogue as exemplary of the development of an afterlife, guilt substituting honour and the emergence of the intentional self. Influenced by Josephus’ happy survival of a mass suicide, Judaism also took a strong line against. Islam took much less of a journey, praising endurance and opposing suicide in the Koran and later. All of which, together with the eclipse of Stoicism and Paganisms, meant the Middle Ages retained a consistent pro-life stance, with suicide an instrument of the devil. And Christianity’s particular insistence was aided by Aquinas’ Aristotelian claims for community, healthy self-love, as well as a reiteration of Augustine’s commandment. Such would also be affirmed again by the architects of the reformation, Luthor and Calvin, although martyrdom (see John Foxe) prominently factored again and predestinationism complicated matters.

Despite acknowledging continuities and that the Middle Ages cannot be reduced to a stagnant religious mess, Hecht picks up again with the Renaissance as, ‘a dramatic efflorescence in almost every aspect of human ingenuity.’ (p.63—perhaps the most pop-historical claim.) She is on firmer ground with Petrarch and the revival of the Ancient ethicists’ discourse about suicide; variously amended, censored and reinforced by Christianity. Assumptions were challenged and suicide, if not accepted, was again tolerated; for Robert Burton, it was medicalised. All of which progresses to the Enlightenment of this bulletin-point history, in which Hecht draws the battle lines between a philosophy enamoured with the ancients and a religion that tortures the dead. The impression that Enlightenment philosophy was chiefly pro-suicide is said to be more to do with how shocking the writings of people like Hume and d’Holbach proved. Rather, it is the critique of religion itself (from its moderate sceptics to the apotheosis of libertines) that is said to chiefly open up tolerance for suicide, evidenced by contemporaneous claims from Christians like Berkeley; although Hecht also admits a complex of other causes including private property and medicalisaton and moving away from traditions of Satanic possession to value neutral treatment of melancholia or depression.

Drawing on the history, Hecht turns from descriptive to normative accounts. The most important appeal is, ‘that we owe it to the world and to our community to stay alive.’ We find this in Pythagoras and Plato, who also recommends the virtues of patience and inner strength as Milton would later champion in poetry. Aristotle deals with judicial difficulties, locating the harm in the polis, but Hecht finds less sympathy or nuance. Maimonides’ insistence on interdependence is poignantly persuasive. And Renaissance Humanism is another strand; Shakespeare and Montaigne’s stress of our epistemic and temporal limits, the latter’s insistence on the formative value of suffering, Henley’s insistence on life’s inherent purpose. In the Enlightenment, secularists like Diderot would appeal to social duties, but also duty to oneself, contrasted with religious pro-suicide arguments like John Donne’s Biathanatos.

Hecht takes the appeal to our future self especially seriously and mentions numerous variations; the reasoning reminds me of William Hazlitt’s against egotism; i.e. our relation to our future is as our relation to another with all that normatively implies. Although for Hazlitt the argument meant we should treat others as ourselves, that is better, for Hecht it means we should treat ourselves as we treat others, again better. This shows how such thought produces odd results, but it makes sense when one considers how the targets are different. Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and the early Romantic Rousseau made similar cases. Kant especially formulated his categorical imperative to preclude moral suicide as for him we are objectively humanity and therefore murder humanity with ourselves; positing that the courage to end one’s existence is better deployed in living. Amusingly the deontologist would be echoed by the utilitarian J. S. Mill, who also felt that suicide precluded too much to be justified—as did G. K. Chesterton. And Wittgenstein suggests it even permits too much to be allowed.

As Hecht moves further into modernity she looks at an argument exemplified differently by Schopenhauer and D.H. Lawrence; namely, that suicide offers no escape from suffering, as no ‘you’ endures to escape; peace, calm, detachment, the ideals of the Stoics, can only be attained and are worth attaining in this life. She mentions Freud’s idea that the suicidal is internalising and misdirecting anger and Emanuel Levinas’ that ethics is the first philosophy and commitment to the irreducibly different and Other is primary. In chapter eight she singles out Emile Durkheim and Albert Camus as the major Twentieth Century voices on the subject; both decidedly against. The formers typography of suicide was groundbreaking; egoistic, lack of community; altruistic, lack of self separate from community; anomic, social disorientation and fatalistic, inescapable negative thought patterns; all of which stem from a profound uprootedness that needs correcting by new modes of collective living. Camus starts from absurdity, but takes the contrarian position that meaninglessness is liberating and can supply a reason to live rather than suggest suicide. More interestingly she refers to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s work on honour; suggesting that social mores are most shaped and reshaped by this psychological factor. Hecht suggests the suicide survival could be thereby encouraged.  She also critically skims Cioran, who rejects suicide despite his pessimism; Foucault, who lauds suicide after the Ancients and Thomas Szasz, who argues against the existence of mental illness and that suicide is a basic right.

Stay directly touches on the ethical debate between Aristotelianism and Stoicism over what the latter called indifferents, but fails to explore this crucial debate amongst its historical examples. For Stoics virtue is the sole good, which is why suicide is valid in many instances and a calm, detached life is best. For Aristotle circumstances matter too as the community and its ties sustain virtue. She locates her arguments more eclectically, sometimes borrowing liberally from philosophers more of the Stoic bent such as Schopenhauer, but her belief in the weight of community and opposition to suicide is Aristotelian, which deserves acknowledgement. What she draws from Plato was developed by Aristotle; when she cites Aquinas she is citing Aristotle by proxy; Henley’s teleology is Aristotelian; Durkheim’s communitarianism is very much vulgar Aristotelianism, &c. Hecht even identifies how Milton’s thought on the cathartic usefulness of tragedy was from the Poetics, but she seems reluctant to identify too strongly with one tradition, instead jumbling ideas as though quantity were more important than consistency. This in part comes from the ambiguity of a methodology that is not ethics, history or even normative history, but jumps between the three approaches at whim.

There are other minor omissions and errors. Hecht sadly neglects to address more sophisticated works tolerant of voluntary death, like concentration camp survivor Jean Améry’s phenomenological study—although his On Suicide is obscure. A little more seriously she never examines what is meant by a prescriptive God other than eternal punishment; as if a divine ban were purely instrumental, a kind of Platonic lie. Her Nietzschean genealogical dismissal of religion as grounded in pain relies on a selective and surface reading of history. She falsely identifies Camus with Sartre’s existentialism, indicative of superficiality. And along that pattern, following Diderot’s lead, she takes Donne’s Biathanatos as a straightforward, ‘defence of suicide from a religious perspective.’ (p.84) ignoring how it was an example of a Paradox, a devil’s advocate genre of rhetoric. And although she acknowledges that the Eighteenth Century English malady is merely alleged, too much of her historical thesis about the period nonetheless relies on this tenuous explosion of suicide. Most grievous is the poor evidence supporting the oft repeated claim that Christianity’s arguments failed because of an over insistence on the Decalogue to the detriment and overshadowing of more nuanced reasoning, which were consequently cast aside with Christian barbarism; a baby with the bathwater scenario. Yet surely Aristotelian appeals to community are even more antithetical to the Enlightenment and modernity than theism per se and would be asides from medieval brutality?

I suspect Hecht the secularist is moved to shield the Enlightenment from the kind of scathing critique a philosopher like MacIntyre might level; precisely that ethics suffered a collapse so catastrophic we no longer have any fixed criteria on which to start to think about these kinds of interpersonal problems. Instead the consistent message is that the religious are still to blame for pro-suicide positions, ‘The extreme position of those who would prohibit all [euthanasia] suicide sometimes has the effect of pushing those on the more tolerant side of the argument to a broader stance’ (p.224) She hints a better critique when writing more generally about modernity’s liminal flux, ‘individual people’s crimes and punishments were increasingly seen as matters belonging to them personally rather than to the community in general.’ (p.62) And again when she drifts from praising Sartre and Camus’ anti-suicide ideas to not so approvingly observing, ‘they do consider it each person’s right, precisely because for them there is no God and no outside meaning, no framing significance that comes from outside the self.’ (p.206) Had she gone further against modernity it would have been a more interesting book, although it would have opened up a larger array of difficulties and ambiguities and might have prevented her so liberally switching between schools of thought to collect philosophical arguments as one might Pokémon cards, to be deployed with chief regard for utility rather than truth.

None of my criticisms undermine the inestimable value of Stay. Hecht’s prose is clear; her scholarly scope is humbling and her message in favour of life, optimism and community very requisite. From the first chapter to the last she demonstrates sensitivity borne from serious consideration and I feel better for having been exposed to her thoughts. As an atheist at odds with so much nonbelief it is profoundly reassuring to find a popular atheist writer taking the time to say that, ‘staying alive though suicidal is an act of radiant generosity, a way in which we can save each other.’ (p.154)

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