The Liberal Delusion: a retrospective

In the 9 years since publication, The Liberal Delusion by John Marsh is as relevant and insightful as ever. At the memorial service for the author on Saturday I was struck by how much of the character of the man went into his masterful analysis. He was not an author – this was his only completed book – but he was a great thinker and a historian.

In latter years, the stream of neo-liberal thought has taken a weird turn not anticipated in the book, but the author does show where the philosophy went wrong so as to produce these abominations.

I have a lot for which to be grateful to John Marsh. I always found his robust, infectious cheerfulness and enthusiasm a delight; it drew you in and provoked mischievously.  This enthusiasm and his iconoclasm and plain common sense in the face of nonsense, all these come out in his book, and they inspired in part the creation of this blog: while it is based on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, I have always been aware that the philosophy of the nature of humanity is in Hobbes indeed, with a debt to Anthony Burgess, but filtered through the clarity with which John Marsh expressed his fundamental concepts.  His central argument is the central argument I have adopted in a number of my posts here.

The malaise of these days is recorded in many a book and for the most part it is little more than a jeremiad, an impotent lamentation. The Liberal Delusion is very different, for while it does recite laments, its concern is finding and extirpating the root of society’s failure, finding it in a failure of modern liberal philosophy: this is the Liberal Delusion.

The book takes aim at a single flaw which is at the root of modern liberalism. From that one error follow conclusions all based on that error. If you make a wrong turn on the road, however boldly and logically you follow the lanes ahead of you, you are going in the wrong direction, and can only go right it you start again where you went wrong. His provocative question is this: ‘Is western civilisation based on a mistaken understanding of humanity?‘  Yes, it is.

The flaw of liberal philosophy is the first of the delusions listed: “Human Nature is Good and Rational”. It is frightening to think that is not the case, because if man is a venal animal driven by emotional impulses then the beast may burst out at any moment – but man is an animal, and fundamental nature is evil: this is made clear in the Bible, and in the evidence of our own eyes. In the stench of the camps, or the gulags, or Afghanistan, could anyone really believe Rousseau that ‘Mankind is naturally good’? If we do not recognise the uncomfortable reality, then we cannot form society so as to restrain the beast.

Society can be too far restrained, and in most of the world it is. Only freedom enables development, innovation and the creation of prosperity. Freedom based on a cautious understanding of what lies in the heart of man is positive, and drove the prosperity of the modern age until liberal philosophers took a grip. Freedom itself is not the issue. Mankind is the clay of society, and misunderstanding the nature of the material, any structure must collapse.

The book examines ten specific delusions of the liberals; amongst them that mankind is good; that more freedom is always good; that morality is unnecessary; science is benign and religion harmful, and all that leads from these.

This is not enough though – the historian asserts himself and in the second section “The Dark Side of Liberalism” shows the direct result of these ideas since the Enlightenment. Some consequences and event are known to us and make us shudder still. Some, like the mass-murder of the Vendée after the French Revolution, have slipped from the collective memory and deserve recall. (History books are written by academic historians, much given to finding patterns where there are none, and fudging out events which disprove the pattern or the heroism they have attributed to men who were monsters; as are we all under the skin.)

The book is not long: the author resisted the temptation to pad it out just to be impressive.  It says what it needs to say, shows you why it is true, and no more. If only other writers would adopt that approach.

At the launch, the publisher was keen but cautious about the arguments, and it was only afterwards that I thought about this: a publisher will praise the industry and insight of his author but no one expects him to agree with everything written, but here was a book so intense in its insistence that he could not help but be drawn in. I hope that other readers will also be, and I would certainly urge our politicians to buy a copy and to digest it, considering whether, in fact, they have got something wrong.

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Books

Wonder of the Peak 0: introduction

De Mirabilibus Pecci is one of the lesser works of Thomas Hobbes, but influential, as others have followed him to explore and describe the Seven Wonders of the Peak. Over the next seven days (if I can manage it) I would like to look at them too.

William Camden may have been to record the tradition of seven wonders in the Peak District:

There are in High Peake wonders three,
A deepe hole, Cave, and Den,
Commodities as many bee,
Led, Grasse, and Sheepe in pen.
And Beauties three there are withall,
A Castle, Bath, Chatsworth.
With places more yet meet you shall
That are of meaner worth.

The Peak District is a wonderous place, certainly, and choosing just seven places for a list is limiting. The list, by Camden then by Hobbes, is fixed now, and ranges in themes that explore the eclectic nature of the Peak District.

Hobbes was born, of course, in Wiltshire, but he travelled widely, and lived for many years as a guest of the Earls of Devonshire, his patrons. He composed De Mirabilibus Pecci (‘Of the Wonders of the Peak’) as a grateful tribute to the 3rd Earl, his former pupil and his patron (who owned much of the Peak). It is a long poem, in Latin so I cannot comment on the quality of the poetry. The quality of the seven wonders he listed however I can explore. Mercifully for readers, I will do so in prose.

See

0 Introduction – 1 Chatsworth2 The Ebbing and Flowing Well3 Eldon Hole4 St Ann’s Well5 Poole’s Cavern6 Mam Tor7 The Devil’s Arse

I always side with the Morlocks

In The Time Machine, H G Wells drops his character, the Time Traveller, into a very different world, in the year 802,701.

If you have not read the book, it imagines humanity that is no longer human. Some great, decayed buildings still stand but mankind which built them has gone. There is a great sphinx monument, and across the landscape there are well-heads (or so they seem) but the human race as we know it is no more. At a past age it had bifurcated into two species: surface-dwelling eloi and subterranean morlocks.

It s a well-crafted book, written before Wells ‘sold his birthright for a pot of message’, so it need not contain a political or social point – just the author’s brilliant imagination giving a radical possibility for the future.

The Time Traveller is charmed by the eloi and repelled by the morlocks. The eloi amongst whom he finds himself, in their bright, carefree, arcadian lifestyle, gathering flowers, eating the fruit of untended trees and doing no manner of work, with no machines or science or writing, childlike in attitude and stature, seem to live out the dreamed ideal of mankind. The morlocks dwell in tunnels beneath the ground, where there are machines beating unseen in the dark. They are white-skinned and pink-eyed, and malevolent. They emerge at night from the sphinx and the wells and hunt for their meat – the eloi. The eloi fear the dark.

The BBC has (or had) a weird and worrying children’s television programme, called ‘Waybuloo’ (which was apparently Buddhist propaganda, not that the Beeb ever noticed) portraying childlike creatures living such an idyllic life with no cares and no work, living on wild fruit. I saw it, and knew instinctively that someone has to be doing all the work that they could live, and I could hear in my mind the thumping of the machines in a deep, unseen cave and the morlocks waiting the harvest the Piplings they had cultivated above. Don’t tell the children.

I still prefer the Morlocks. The Eloi are clothed and fed by another’s work and sustained just as cattle in the field. They have lost all the attributes of humanity. They have a simple language, but little reason for it. They know no past nor future and do not even look after each other – Weena was left to drown in the stream without a thought. The morlocks however take a hand in their own preservation and prosperity. They work, they have machines. They are curious, carrying off the time machine to study it. They farm the eloi as a food source, and so the eloi depend on the morlocks, though little realising this. The morlocks impliedly built the sphinx so that all who see it know who is superior. The eloi neither build nor preserve anything. The eloi are a disgrace to their distant ancestry: they are mere animals. The morlocks alone continue the human story.

Wells, through the voice of his Time Traveller, supposes that the morlocks were descended from the working men forced underground to toil, while the eloi came from the masters in their airy villas who banished them, only to lose their vitality through indolence. Any division like that would be self-correcting in our world, as the vigorous class became masters over the useless. The world of 802,701 imagined by Wells had reached not a new equilibrium but a position between two separated species that had to be maintained by the constant work of the morlocks.

It is possible to read too much into The Time Machine by reference to the radical political ideas later espoused by Wells. His visit to Bolshevik Russia in 1920 may have been a turning point for him, seeing it as a science fiction writer might, for the imaginary being turned into a reality, and ignoring inconvenient subplots like the induced mass poverty and starvation, repression and massacres. During the Great War he had come to express radical ideas, spurred by a hatred of the Hun and their industrial violence, but the development of his political ideas through fiction can be traced back earlier. The War in the Air (1907) is more soundly Hobbesian in its concept of how the world would turn out if civilisation were to smash itself. The Time Machine (1895) looks far further forward, deeper into humanity and sub-humanity. Maybe this is what pushed him over the edge.

The world portrayed in the book is not really about the future: it is more personal and internal. Victorian philosophers used to talk of a good and an evil side to each of us (as expressed in Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but that is another article): the eloi and the morlocks represent those sides. Perhaps instead though they represent on one side the child’s happy dream and on the other are the monsters imagined in the dark. In waking, it may contrast the idyll of childhood summers against the toil of adulthood; or the ideal we dream of and the reality in which we find ourselves. The eloi are compared with children, in case we had not picked the clues up.

There is something worrying there too. The only named character of the future age is Weena. In the classic film adaptation she is portrayed as a lover. In the book her position is ambiguous: she is more like a clingy child, but the Time Traveller is not unreciprocating as he ‘returned to the welcome and the caresses of little Weena’. Not too childlike, I hope. (There are men who seek utterly limp and submissive women, but such men deserve no respect, and I pity the women concerned.) I will be generous and assume that in this case the man finding himself the only human being in the world needs some innocent, reassuring company.

He meets the morlocks in the tunnels beneath a well. In the dark there are just looming shapes, a mass of figures, the meat on a table, the huge machines of unknown function. Fingers paw at him, exploring, then seizing him and he wrenches himself away. Is it an attack or a desire to know more of this unknown being who has stepped amongst them, just as they wanted to understand the machine? We cannot know.

The night will come though, and it does, even as he and Weena are far from the communal hall of home, and the morlocks emerge. It is perhaps the first time we see them with characters of their own. They are still for the Time Traveller an anonymous swarm to be rendered no pity even as they scream in terror of the approaching fire. he does not see them as being closer to him than is the eloi girl in his arms, or maybe he does but does not want to know himself. He is as far as he can be from the comforts of that Victorian withdrawing room from which he stepped, but it has not left him. The eloi are comforting; the morlocks a deadly threat, but back in London men in the shadows are no less a threat.

In the book, the morlocks are observed as ugly, evil monsters, without any redeeming feature, and the eloi are beautiful perfection. However they morlocks cannot be all evil any more than people are. They must co operate and have a society in order to build and to thrive on limited resources.

All this analysis can be pushed too far. I might read the book for my own reading of it, or as the average reader (if there is such a thing), or the way Wells intended. As you wish.

What I take from it, which Wells did not intend, is that of the two species descended from mankind, the Eloi are lovely but a dead-end, unable to develop or even to survive on their own. The Morlocks look after themselves and each other, they plan ahead, they build, they are curious and accordingly they can develop and adapt. The future is theirs. I must always side with the Morlocks.

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Books

In praise of plagiarism

Many books, poems and art are fine, but in need of improvement by a more skilful hand, or just a different voice. Some great authors have built monuments which define style and art, but most have slips that could benefit from a brush-up or are in places a semi-tone off. Another hand could step in and make it perfect, but modern sensibilities condemn this as a cheat’s trade.

Without constructive plagiarism, we would lack several great plays by Shakespeare: Hamlet was a complete lift from Thomas Kyd’s version, which itself was from Saxo Grammaticus; the Merchant of Venice is largely swiped from Marlowe’s grim The Jew of Malta. Each was written when the original writer was barely cold in the grave, but each was turned inside out and improved immeasurably.  Bach swiped others’ tunes continually and magically transformed them into something new. A great artist need not be completely original when he can be an alchemist, performing transmutation of weak material into gold.

In the modern day though, this treatment of another’s work unless radically undone and rewritten is looked down upon as if it were a sort of theft.

We do permit radical film adaptations, because it is such a different medium. I never hear complaints against Coppola that he stole from Conrad when he made Apocalypse Now, because it is a new work of art adopted from Conrad’s work. It can be an improvement: Ray Bradbury said that the changed ending in the (original) film version of his most celebrated novel was possibly a better conclusion that the ending he wrote. (That is a curse for a writer who creates such perfect fluidity of plot – how can it end? The ending is where many great works fail.) As a book, I would count Fahrenheit 451 amongst those great works which should not be bowdlerised, of which it would otherwise be in danger because at least a shadow of it has become part of common culture, and because what was when written a work of wildly fantastical dystopian fiction is becoming, horribly, prescient. For film adaptation, changes are necessary for the medium.

Not all works deserve such reverent preservation: the books that fade out in the middle; the poems that have a couple of great lines and an idea but then turn mediocre; the film which wastes its premise; the music that find a pretty section and repeats it endlessly for want anything better – I would argue that we should be happy for an artist to improve on these.

It is part of our preconception of art and literature that it should be a single, inspired piece. That is an attractive idea, but I would say it comes more from a superstitious desire for purity than from rational consideration. As we know though, the love of purity is at odds with the creative spirit.

If a fine house is built, but the garage at the side is poorly proportioned, we do not insist that the whole house be demolished and started from the foundations:  we get a new builder to knock the poor bits down and build then better. If a good book has almost been written but goes wrong somewhere, it makes sense to let someone write it. Editors of cheap novels arrange that more than you might think: they are not daft. In the film world they understand this very well: when a film goes awry, the studio sacks the director or the scriptwriters, but keeps as much as possible of the good work they have already done. (Sometimes they get it wrong, which is why the Director’s Cut is often better than the original. There is, for a true artist, such a thing as purity of conception.)

Shakespeare did not face copyright claims, so he could do what he liked with other people’s work. Today we would need permission, and the profit of any ‘improved’ book would go mainly to the original author whose donkey-work has provided the bulk of it. That accepted, there is no other reason not to revisit works which could be improved markedly by others. I read plenty of poetry I would like to rewrite.

It is not cheating but perfecting; not dishonouring an original author, but making their hard work flower into what it deserves to be.

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Books

Surviving the Stone Age: reviewed

I shamelessly enjoyed Surviving the Stone Age, which finished last weekend on Channel 4 It is the latest example of ‘experimental archaeology’ and far better than the others tried over the years, because they used subjects who actually knew what they were doing.

The Hobbesian attraction of the conceit is clear – this was re-enacting life in the earliest stages of society, not in a state of nature but shorn of all the accretions and presuppositions of developed society, to put the subjects within touching distance of that state of nature.

Yes, it was a bit of fluff to a large extent, as they all are – the ‘tribe’ know they were out in the wild for just a month with hot baths and full larders to follow and they knew that if something serious went wrong there was a camera crew and extraction team, but to their great credit this did not interfere too much.

It was a mammoth’s head and shoulders above previous efforts along the theme. Over the years, the good folk in tellyland have tried several times programmes along the lines “What if we take ordinary people out of their homes, put them in a Bronze Age / Iron Age village and see how they get on?” It was just reality-TV in roundhouses. One of those a few years ago was horrifying: the subjects plonked in the village knew nothing outside the comforts of running water and packaged food and the first time they tried to cook over an open fire, several of them were sent home with food poisoning, while others left after arguments falling just short of a fist-fight. It was just a freak show.

This time though we had something very different. There were no real ingenues: all those taking part were men and women who had taught themselves Stone Age skills and so knew what they were seeing and feeling and what to do. They had two Americans who had each lived alone wild in the primaeval forests and were exactly in their element; glorious. There was a former Royal Marine who had gone wild himself. As their voice-of-the-audience was a charming young couple whom you might imagine coming round to tea, but who were skilled hobby stone-agers. This made for realism and that made it watchable. When they wanted to eat, they had to find roots, berries, fish and flesh. Once they had it, they used every ounce they could, for meat or material.

The constant of life is food. We need to eat every day, and in the wild that means hunting and foraging every day for most of the day, and the only break in the pursuit is after a big kill that may last a few days if properly preserved.

The programme was filmed in one of the few empty lands left in Europe, in the Rhodope Mountains, an arm of the Balkans wreathed in mist and myth. There are no bureaucrats here and no petty regulations like that ruined the ’roundhouse telly’ of past years: they wanted meat so they stalked and shot a deer, or speared fish, without filling any forms in.

The challenge is for us to recognise that even for those hardened to the prehistoric life, that life is hard and precarious, and how could we have survived? Yet man did survive and thrive in the Stone Age. In the hundreds of thousands of years of humanity, all was the Stone Age except the last few millennia. In pockets of the world, as in deepest Amazonia and in the central lands of New Guinea and among the Andaman Islands, the folk live in the Stone Age still. The Stone Age not weird or a passing phase: it is modernity which is weird, and brief so far.

They could not in a month show anything but a glance of Stone Age life. New love, childbirth, injury, death were not going to appear. Neither did they compete bloodily for resources – they did not come across a tribe sent out by Canal+ and fight them with spears for the resources of the land.

War is the Hobbesian reality in cultures from the earliest days to our own. If there can be a state of nature, then it is a state of “Warre Of Every One Against Every One“, but the needs of survival require the formation of clan groups and tribes, which are the first forms of society. They in turn are at war with all others with whom they have no social contract. Within the clan group is all the comfort and support that is available, and anything we have in modernity is just a reflection of that ancient society.

We can shake that out of ourselves in the comfort of our advanced civilisation, or at least what seems advanced to us in this brief generation, with our abundant resources made abundant by the complex organisation of worldwide society, but it is only that society which supplies us and keeps us from what was the reality of mankind for almost all of our existence. We are still those people, the same in frame and mind as ten thousand years ago and more, sitting on a thin crust of civilisation. Surviving The Stone Age was attempting a glimpse at what we are.

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Books