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

Absolute Soveraignty

As I have heard some say, that Justice is but a word, without substance; and that whatsoever a man can by force, or art, acquire to himselfe, (not onely in the condition of warre, but also in a Common-wealth,) is his own, which I have already shewed to be false: So there be also that maintain, that there are no grounds, nor Principles of Reason, to sustain those essentiall Rights, which make Soveraignty absolute. For if there were, they would have been found out in some place, or other; whereas we see, there has not hitherto been any Common-wealth, where those Rights have been acknowledged, or challenged.

Wherein they argue as ill, as if the Savage people of America, should deny there were any grounds, or Principles of Reason, so to build a house, as to last as long as the materials, because they never yet saw any so well built.

Time, and Industry, produce every day new knowledge. And as the art of well building, is derived from Principles of Reason, observed by industrious men, that had long studied the nature of materials, and the divers effects of figure, and proportion, long after mankind began (though poorly) to build: So, long time after men have begun to constitute Common-wealths, imperfect, and apt to relapse into disorder, there may, Principles of Reason be found out, by industrious meditation, to make use of them, or be neglected by them, or not, concerneth my particular interest, at this day, very little.

But supposing that these of mine are not such Principles of Reason; yet I am sure they are Principles from Authority of Scripture; as I shall make it appear, when I shall come to speak of the Kingdome of God, (administred by Moses,) over the Jewes, his peculiar people by Covenant.

 Objection From The Incapacity Of The Vulgar

But they say again, that though the Principles be right, yet Common people are not of capacity enough to be made to understand them. I should be glad, that the Rich, and Potent Subjects of a Kingdome, or those that are accounted the most Learned, were no lesse incapable than they.

But all men know, that the obstructions to this kind of doctrine, proceed not so much from the difficulty of the matter, as from the interest of them that are to learn.

Potent men, digest hardly any thing that setteth up a Power to bridle their affections; and Learned men, any thing that discovereth their errours, and thereby lesseneth their Authority: whereas the Common-peoples minds, unlesse they be tainted with dependance on the Potent, or scribbled over with the opinions of their Doctors, are like clean paper, fit to receive whatsoever by Publique Authority shall be imprinted in them.

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From disaster we must build

Twenty years and the dust was still falling, not even settling, and the nation beneath it coagulating, uniting. It began though an age of nations dissolving.

America is blessed.  In the dust of the disaster, they had unity of purpose and the structure of the nation and the government was unshaken – no one could take advantage and Osama Bin Laden’s boast that the United States would become Disunited, is bizarre. It is a fractured society today in a way it was not twenty years ago, true enough, but that has nothing to do with the events of that day, and it is fracturing of ideas, not of the nation itself.

Other nations are not so blessed. Tumult has destroyed many states in the last twenty years and it is naïve to think that dissolving a tyranny will ensure a free democracy will arise naturally from its ashes. Mankind does not work like that, which millennia of experience should teach us, but we are foolish optimists. America after the chaos of revolution, rose with a working, peaceful and largely democratic state, but that was only possible because the colonies had enjoyed a century and a half of democratic engagement on their own shores born of a centuries-long English culture of freedom and participation and pew-level Protestantism and the education it brought. Without that, chaos breeds only chaos.

Democracy is unnatural: an accident sprung from circumstances of the time in a few lands and surviving only through inertia and necessary myth. It is a strong myth in nations long bathed in it, as the English-speaking word is, but we cannot assume that of other nations.

It is a necessity a Law of Nature in Hobbesian terms, that we seek protection for ourselves and our families and in this is the necessity of creating a Common-wealth. Into this step adventurers. It would be lovely to think that would-be rulers will be benevolent princes accepting the responsibilities of government for selfless reasons, or that liberal democracy would spring up naturally. As we saw though in Afghanistan and in Iraq and in Libya and elsewhere, it is just whoever manages to slay their way to the throne.

Outside the culture of the Anglosphere, a disaster may weaken or destroy a government, and they we may fear an adventurer stepping in to take advantage. A dictator is as good as any in such circumstances.

This subjection of an individual to a new government is of necessity. From disaster we must build; build something however grotesque, to provide some common keeping-in-awe for our own protection. Accordingly it is by covenant and not by a right invented by the political ideas of a moment.

So it appeareth plainly, to my understanding, both from Reason, and Scripture, that the Soveraign Power, whether placed in One Man, as in Monarchy, or in one Assembly of men, as in Popular, and Aristocraticall Common-wealths, is as great, as possibly men can be imagined to make it. And though of so unlimited a Power, men may fancy many evill consequences, yet the consequences of the want of it, which is perpetuall warre of every man against his neighbour, are much worse. The condition of man in this life shall never be without Inconveniences; but there happeneth in no Common-wealth any great Inconvenience, but what proceeds from the Subjects disobedience, and breach of those Covenants, from which the Common-wealth had its being. And whosoever thinking Soveraign Power too great, will seek to make it lesse; must subject himselfe, to the Power, that can limit it; that is to say, to a greater.

In the fall of a government, there is desire to create another, but no immediate agreement: Rousseau’s “general will” is a laughable idea. The sceptre is as likely to fall to however first grasps for it, for good or ill. It would seem scandalous to us in nations long used to participatory democracy and equal laws, but not elsewhere, in desperation, and it is not democracy but political wiles which preserve the ruler, just as they raised him to his seat.

In those Nations, whose Common-wealths have been long-lived, and not been destroyed, but by forraign warre, the Subjects never did dispute of the Soveraign Power. But howsoever, an argument for the Practise of men, that have not sifted to the bottom, and with exact reason weighed the causes, and nature of Common-wealths, and suffer daily those miseries, that proceed from the ignorance thereof, is invalid. For though in all places of the world, men should lay the foundation of their houses on the sand, it could not thence be inferred, that so it ought to be. The skill of making, and maintaining Common-wealths, consisteth in certain Rules, as doth Arithmetique and Geometry; not (as Tennis-play) on Practise onely: which Rules, neither poor men have the leisure, nor men that have had the leisure, have hitherto had the curiosity, or the method to find out.

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Books

Let them sing

The Police are on the hunt for a dangerous gang, whose crime is – singing a traditional song.

The press have been reticent about naming the song in question but fans were Rangers supporters and it was the ‘Go Home Song’ otherwise called ‘the Famine Song’; a ditty which has for some years had the police and courts all of a flutter. The tune alone when played has caused apoplexy although it is a very popular song in the Bahamas (‘the John B Sails’).

The Famine Song can be hard-hitting, so I am not going to quote it all here, but it is not half as bad as songs belted out in stadiums elsewhere in the land (if you are of a sensitive disposition, do not listen to what is sung at Norwich City supporters, or between East End teams). Rangers’ song is a deliberate wind-up song aimed at Celtic.  The High Court itself in an appeal from the sheriff ruled upon singers of the song, condemning them for a public order offence.

Perhaps they should have considered more deeply than the faux outrage of insulted Celtic fans. After all, a court of law must recognise that Athenry Mike was indeed a thief.  Whether Large John was in fact fully briefed is an ongoing controversy, but that is another story. While that wee traitor from Castlemilk did turn his back on his own, going to play for Ireland instead of Scotland, it is only ‘traitorous’ in football terms, not legally, but we’re singing about football. The killer, for the court was not the verses about Glasgow Celtic’s great scandal and the misdeeds of the Irish Free State; it is the chorus lines, ending “Why don’t you go home?” Apparently that is an existential threat to all persons of Irish ancestry in Scotland.

A bit of background may be needed.

The man who wrote the song is no hot sectarian- he is an Ulsterman, born in a robust city, Belfast, and who grew up with good pals in both communities. He saw the sectarian divide yawning and growing in Ulster: to see it replicated in Glasgow was distressing. In fact there has been a divide in Glasgow since the ships landed in a fiercely Protestant city and disgorged thousands of left-footed Irishmen, but as it should have calmed down in the later end of the twentieth century, it was growing worse, as an echo of Ulster’s troubles.  The song-writer has explained the circumstances leading to his writing it. It was a kick-back response to the sectarians on the other side.

Trying to be more Irish than the Irish is a fault of many living this side of the sea looking back at a mythical past. (I try not to, but the Irish name was lost a couple of generations back so it does not leap out of the page.) The songs sung by Glasgow Celtic supporters were not, are not, direct attack songs, but sentimental songs of Irish nationalism, like the Fields of Athenry alluded to in the Rangers song. Really, the song condemned by the High Court in Rangers supporters’ mouths is not “the famine sing” as if it were the only one – Irish voices and would-be-Irish voices have many songs romanticising the potato famine and blaming all things British for it – that sounds like an attack upon the good citizens of Glasgow to me.

The “go home song” then is a response to the actual famine songs: it says “How much more ungrateful could you be for what your city did for your ancestors?” It does not delight in the dark chapters of modern history, but raises them to burst the bubble of sickly romanticism.

Rage at perceived injustice takes on an irrationality beyond the facts raged against; something we see in many social conflicts of politics, culture, religion or whatever, and reason will not calm the waters but only raise the tumult. I can write my take on the thing, and others will disagree, virulently. They are entitled to, and I can debate or seek nuances and find the common ground or each person’s ideas and unique emphases, because that is how a free and respectful society must work – not with cancellations and bans. You are free to be outraged too, and free to be outrageous.

Therefore, in the name of freedom, let them sing what they like and to mean the words how they like.

As to the line which so shocked Lord Carloway and even UNICEF, I see that as a challenge to the ‘Plastic Paddies’, those who are Glaswegian through and through and still pretend, on the terraces, to be Irishmen: ‘Why don’t you go home?’ has an answer: ‘because you are not Irishmen – you are Glaswegian – and this is your home.’

See also

Of The Beginnings And Progresse Of Philosophy

The faculty of Reasoning being consequent to the use of Speech, it was not possible, but that there should have been some generall Truthes found out by Reasoning, as ancient almost as Language it selfe.

The Savages of America, are not without some good Morall Sentences; also they have a little Arithmetick, to adde, and divide in Numbers not too great: but they are not therefore Philosophers. For as there were Plants of Corn and Wine in small quantity dispersed in the Fields and Woods, before men knew their vertue, or made use of them for their nourishment, or planted them apart in Fields, and Vineyards; in which time they fed on Akorns, and drank Water: so also there have been divers true, generall, and profitable Speculations from the beginning; as being the naturall plants of humane Reason: But they were at first but few in number; men lived upon grosse Experience; there was no Method; that is to say, no Sowing, nor Planting of Knowledge by it self, apart from the Weeds, and common Plants of Errour and Conjecture: And the cause of it being the want of leasure from procuring the necessities of life, and defending themselves against their neighbours, it was impossible, till the erecting of great Common-wealths, it should be otherwise.

Leasure is the mother of Philosophy; and Common-wealth, the mother of Peace, and Leasure: Where first were great and flourishing Cities, there was first the study of Philosophy.

The Gymnosophists of India, the Magi of Persia, and the Priests of Chaldea and Egypt, are counted the most ancient Philosophers; and those Countreys were the most ancient of Kingdomes. Philosophy was not risen to the Graecians, and other people of the West, whose Common-wealths (no greater perhaps then Lucca, or Geneva) had never Peace, but when their fears of one another were equall; nor the Leasure to observe any thing but one another. At length, when Warre had united many of these Graecian lesser Cities, into fewer, and greater; then began Seven Men, of severall parts of Greece, to get the reputation of being Wise; some of them for Morall and Politique Sentences; and others for the learning of the Chaldeans and Egyptians, which was Astronomy, and Geometry. But we hear not yet of any Schools of Philosophy.

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