Thursday, 29 April 2010

Early society and its ideas (Part 2)

In the first part, I looked at the nature of early society, such as we would find in England in Anglo-Saxon times and the early Middle Ages, in the Scottish highlands until the 1745 Jacobite rising, and in other parts of the world until much later than this. Such a society lingers on longest in regions which are hard for central government to control: mountain areas, dangerous frontiers and other lawless parts where armed raids and violent feuds are common. The American "Wild West" retained some typical features, and they continue in urban gang culture even now. In this section, I shall suggest what political and ethical ideas are prevalent in such a society.

1. Right and wrong.
Because the central government is weak, and loyalties are personal and local, violence is prevalent. The isolated individual is powerless; everyone's prey; and in self-defence everyone must join a group of some kind, the stronger the better. This imposes certain obligations and leads to a distinct ethical code. Three qualities are particularly admired: physical courage, faithfulness, and generosity; and their opposites are regarded as particularly despicable: cowardice, breaking one's word, and meanness. Other issues considered important in more civilised societies, such as cruelty, are less regarded. The reasons behind this are that in conflict the king, nobleman or gang chief is expected to lead from the front and set an example to his followers by his skill and bravery on the battlefield (this makes sense in a primitive society, where the nobles possess much better weapons and armour than the commoners). Any leader, be he king or gang chief, who shows weakness in battle will not last long: either his followers will desert, or in self-defence they will replace him by a better leader. By the same token, a woman or a child could not rule: competence being far more important than any legal or hereditary claim to authority under these conditions. It is a sure sign that society is becoming more sophisticated when a woman, a child or a deeply incompetent king can retain possession, or when a king can safely leave someone else to command his armies in battle.
Early or lawless societies are held together by mutual loyalties. The people promise to follow and support their chief, but equally, the chief promises always to safeguard his people's wellbeing. In this kind of society, what matters is not how much money you have, or what title you hold, but how many people will turn out to fight for you in a tight corner: this holds good for both Highland clans and street gangs. A man who cannot be relied upon to keep his promises of support in times of danger is worthless. Thus, a gang boss must avenge any insult or injury done to a member of his gang, otherwise his followers will wonder whether it is worth while being in his gang at all. Even a bloody defeat will be less damaging than a weak withdrawal.
Finally, a chief is expected to reward his followers for their pains. A chief who is mean with money, and keeps the profits to himself, will quickly forfeit respect, and his followers will drift away in search of a more generous leader.

2. Social contracts
Such a society's structures are based on bargains. A subject promises to obey a king, but in return the king promises to be a "good lord" towards his subject, to defend his interests and treat him justly. This bargain might be broken by either side, and a king who oppresses his subjects can face justified rebellion. Mediaeval writers drew a sharp distinction between a king who ruled justly and kept the laws and a "tyrant" who did not, and who had thus forfeited the obedience of his subjects. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century felt resistance to tyrants was justified. Three English mediaeval kings were deposed on these grounds: Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI; though in each case the main issue was incompetence as much as alleged tyrannous rule.
Mediaeval monarchs were quasi-elected by their nobles, and in some countries, notably the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) and Poland, actual elections took place until early modern times. In most cases, if the late king had a grown-up son to succeed him any election would be purely nominal, but perhaps there might not be. The word "peers" for noblemen means "equals": the "peers of France" were the equals of the king of France, and had the right to choose the successor to the throne. This had to be exercised in the 14th century, when all three sons of Philip IV died without male heirs, and there was a disputed succession which resulted in the Hundred Years' War.
The notion of an elective monarchy developedinto medern ideas of a social contract between rulers and ruled. The laws passed in Britain after the overthrow of James II in 1688 clearly established that the British monarch is subject to Parliament, which can depose a king and nominate a successor.

3. The "organic society", hierarchies and paternalism
We find little trace of individualism as an idea in early societies, either in the form of individual human rights, of human equality or of humans being in individual competition with each other. This is understandable: if the primitive economic system means that the vast majority of people are poverty-striken peasants, what room is there for individualism? Furthermore, peasant farming works on a co-operative rather than a competitive basis: all the villagers work together to plough their fields and build their huts; nor could anyone imagine that things could ever be different. Contemporary thinkers would liken society to a human body, where each organ had its own part to play and all worked in co-operation: the eyes saw, the heart beat, the legs walked, and so forth. In no sense did they compete, and furthermore, it was futile for the toe to wish it could be an eye! Similarly in society, the peasants ploughed the soil, the priests prayed, the merchants bought and sold, and the nobles ruled. Society worked because there was co-operation and everyone accepted his role. All roles had a function, though some were superior to others. Without the acceptance of these hierarchies there would be a breakdown.
The ideal society was thus seen as consisting of kind lords governing loyal and obedient peasants, and indeed this paternalistic approach is probably the best that can be expected in such circumstances. But the primitive economy and static society would leave little scope for an ambitious young peasant, frustrated in his home village. If he wished for a better life, or simply a less constrained one, his only option would be to run away and become a bandit, and indeed in lawless societies this almost ranks as a sensible career-choice. (See my earlier piece on American gangsters for a modern parallel)

4. Tradition and law
Early societies are governed by tradition. As far as anyone knows, things have always been the same and always will be. There is no expectation of progess towards better times: "progress" as we understand the term only became a concept at the end of the 18th century. Wisdom consists of experience rather than of new ideas, and is therefore found mostly amongst the old. Laws are also ancient and unchanging; probably instituted long ago by God. When our ancestors talked of "laws", they meant not things which get altered every year by government, as is the case today, but something much more like the U.S. constitution, establishing the way of doing things for all time, and not to be altered lightly. The revolt against Charles I was in many ways a conservative revolt, against a king who was said to governed in a new and undesirable manner.

5. Social criticism
There are occasional peasant revolts, but, although violent, these lack effective leadership and clear achievable goals, and are always bloodily suppressed. This is not surprising, since no real revolutionary ideology is ever available to the rebels. Any social criticism is voiced in religious terms; usually on the lines that the current state of society and the conduct of the nobles is not in accordance with Scripture ("When Adam delvwd and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" asked John Ball in 1381). Again, this is not surprising, since even for the small minority who can read, there is very little available for them to read apart from religious texts. Nevertheless, in the absense of any other material, religious teachings can always have a subversive element

6. What's missing
Several ideas thar are very important in the modern world are wholly absent in primitive societies. One is the concept of nationhood. The idea that we are primarily English or French or whatever, as distinct from inhabitants of a particular district or followers of a certain lord, does not exist in early societies. The idea of nationalism begins to emerge in early modern times, initially amongst the educated classes, and only slowly speads to the peasantry. It has been suggested that the ordinary French peasant only starts to identify himself as a Frenchman some time in the 19th century, and that the idea was unknown to Russian peasants as late as the 1st World War: if questioned as to their identity, they would have described themselves as "Christians" or as "the people of a certain village" rather than as Russians. Nationalism does not really come to the consciousness of the mass of the people before the coming of railways and national newspapers.
There is no concept of a common humanity, with all peoples meriting equal treatment. In a primitive society, especially the tribal societies of the mountain districts, the people in the next valley are traditional enemies, and raiding their cattle or cutting their throats are not wicked deeds but positively meritorious, to be celebrated in story and song. This attitude can still be seen in a few troubled regions, usually mountainous, such as the North Caucasus and the "tribal areas" of Pakistan. It could of course be argued that all that has happened in more advanced societies is that this denial of common humanity has been transferred to people of other countries, religions or ideologies. It would appear that Christian teaching that all souls are equal in the sight of God, and all are capable of salvation, has very little impact on people's conduct.
There is of course no notion of equality between the sexes. In tribal societies, women do almost all the work, while the men spend part of their time fighting or hunting, and the rest telling stories about fighting and hunting.
Finally, there is no concept of progress: that society can and is developing into something different and better. This is ingrained conservatism, and indeed, without major economic changes, society always will be the same. Writing before the Russian revolution, Trotsky pointed out that mere overthrow of the aristocracy and confiscation of their wealth would in itself achieve nothing. If you seize a million roubles from a nobleman and share it around between a million peasant households, nothing meaningful will have changed! Only an industrial revolution, Trotsky argued, could eradicate the poverty and ignorance of peasant society: he was of course completely right.

(Still to come: the fundamental ideological division of Court vs Country)

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A thought about human evolution

Some time ago I watched a TV wildlife programme in which a troop of chimpanzees saw off a leopard by throwing sticks and stones. These only went vaguely in the direction of the enemy: it was essentially an aggression-display. I was later told that no chimpanzee had ever been taught how to throw missiles attempting to hit a target, which is after all a very sophisticated concept.

This set me wondering whether, when our remote ancestors descended from the trees out onto the savanna, they had already acquired this skill, or whether it came later. Consider the advantages of being able to throw things accurately. If you can throw a stone the size of a cricket ball straight enough to hit a hyena at twenty paces, you are infinitely safer than if you cannot: even a large predator such as a lion my be deterred by a few well-thrown missiles. There are also huge advantages in the gathering of food: humans cannot run fast enough to catch even a rabbit, but accurate throwing greatly increases the chances of killing small game, not to mention making it much easier to bring down fruit and nuts from high trees. Also, a bipedal posture balanced on the hind legs does not bring many advantages to humans, but it greatly facilitates the throwing of stones.

From stones we can develop into spears, and, because suitable missiles are not always available, to the creation of some kind of bag to carry a supply around. This is a highly sophisticated concept, involving foresight and planning. I do not know whether this matter has been properly investigated, but it strikes me as being very important in the history of human cultural evolution.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Some thoughts on M.P.s and their expenses

I sometimes think I must be the only person in the country not getting all hot under the collar about M.P.'s expenses. I shall explain why.

The first point to make is that Members of Parliament and government ministers are not paid much by executive standards. A back-bench M.P.'s pay is similar to that of a senior housemaster at a major independent school, and well below that of a headmaster. Here in Staffordshire, no less than four of the directors of the county fire service earn more than a cabinet minister. About 50 BBC executives earn more than the prime minister (to say nothing of the high-profile stars!), as do many local government chief executives. When we read denunciations of "political corruption" in the press, we should bear in mind that journalists on the national press are much better paid than those they are denouncing. (Why should you want to become prime minister when you can earn vastly more money sneering at the prime minister in a tabloid newspaper?)

This comparatively low pay for politicians is a recent phenomenon. In the past, govenment leaders were some of the highest-paid people in the country.It was a characteristic of early modern societies that just about the only way to make a lot of money very quickly was to get into government and so get hands into the public coffers. This applied in England from late in the middle ages until the early 19th century, and I think it has left a residue of contempt for politicians amongst the population (I shall develop this point in my next blog entry, looking at "court vs. country" ideas). One of the few sensible comments on current scandals was made by William Rees-Mogg, writing in the "Times". What was the pay of the prime minister a hundred years ago, he asked? The surprising answer was that in 1900 the prime minister's salary, allowing for inflation, was the equivalent of £900,000 today! The Lord Chancellor earned more, but both were dwarfed by the earnings of the Archbishop of Canterbury, which came to £1.3 million! Today's holders of these posts are very poorly renumerated by comparison!

We all know the saying, "If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys". The extremely high pay of bankers, footballers and Jonathon Ross is always justified by citing the need to attract superior levels of talent. So why does the same logic not apply to politicians? Presumably we want our government leaders to be people of high ability. Members of Parliament constitute the very narrow pool from which all prime ministers and almost all cabinet ministers are selected, and this has been the case for well over a century. But how do we propose to attract very able people into Parliament when they can earn very much more in other jobs?

There is a widespread contempt for "professional politicians". This too is strange, because in other walks of life "professionalism" earns praise. It has long been the case that anyone hoping to become prime minister needs to enter the House of Commons before the age of about 35, which does not leave much time for a high-level career outside politics. This applied in the past to such leaders as Gladstone and Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill,and Margaret Thatcher, and what were these much-admired leaders if not professional politicians?

Critics of our political leaders speak as if it is somehow sordid and disreputable of them to be trying to make more money. But it is a basic principle of free-market economic theory that people are motivated primarily by a desire to better themselves, with making more money being an obvious aspect. Do we expect our politicians to behave differently from everyone else, and if so, why? We are often told that politicians ought to be motivated not by financial gain, but by an idealistic desire to help their country. I have a simple riposte to this: if the speaker is a conservative, I reply, "You mean, like Lenin?", and to a left-winger I reply, "Like Hitler?"

A final point: it is said that the background to the expenses scandal is that some years ago M.P.s decided not to award themselves a pay rise because it would be unpopular with the public, but instead opted for an open-ended system of expenses with no questions asked, and that this is what has led to the current situation. If true, then they are well punished for their cowardice. After all, who would care about moats, duck islands, or even soft-porn videos, if they were paid for out of salary? Indeed, it would be no-one else's business what the money was spent on. But I do not think anything will be gained by forcing politicians to live off less.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Early society and its ideas (part 1)

Following Engels, we can accept the suggestion that it is impossible to say exactly why certain ideas, political, social or religious, originate when they do, but if these ideas "catch on", become widespread and begin seriously to influence people's lives, this can only be because social and economic conditions are in some sense ready for them. Thus, in a very broad way, the classic Liberalism of Locke and his followers was appropriate to a time when trade and manufacturing were becoming increasingly important, the rise of Socialism was plainly linked with the appearance of a large urban working class in the 19th century, and Fascism only became significant through the turmoil and dislocation resulting from the First World War.

In this essay I shall be looking at early, pre-urban society and the ideas appropriate to it. This outlook can be called "conservative",though it hardly constitutes a systematic ideology: ideological Conservatism (with a capital "C") only comes into being in reaction to the French Revolution.

The chief characteristic of a pre-industrial society is that the vast majority of the population (as many as 90% in some cases) will be peasant farmers working on the land. Sometimes these will be independent proprietors, sometimes they will be outright slaves, most likely they will be semi-free serfs; but in any case they will be extremely poor. Agricultural productivity will be so low, and technology so basic, that it will take seven, eight or nine people tilling the soil to feed the minority who do something else. There will be so little surplus accumulated that a single bad harvests will bring hardship; a series of them could lead to outright starvation. Furthermore, many of the non-agricultural minority will be economically unproductive: warriors or priests. It is inevitable that the peasant majority will be illiterate and ignorant of the outside world. Even if they should be able to read, there will be hardly anything in their villages for them to read. This is what Marx meant when he wrote of "the idiocy of rural life", from which modern capitalist industry had liberated society. Many writers have idealised peasant life, but it was noticeable that when in 19th century Russia well-meaning young reformers tried going amongst the peasants they found them brutal, drunken, superstitious, deeply suspicious of outsiders and stubbornly resistant to any new ideas. (In many cases, the peasants simply handed their would-be helpers over to the police!)

Almost all wealth will be linked with farming. The vast majority will own nothing of value except their farm animals and a few tools, mostly locally made. Trade will be small-scale and mostly local, and very little cash will be involved. The wealth of the rich minority will consist almost entirely of the land which they own, and this ownership will give them power over the peasantry who work the land. In societies of the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages, even this powerful ruling elite are not necessarily literate: the art of reading and writing may be confined to the clergy: hence the word "clerk" comes to mean either a clergyman or someone who earns his living by writing.

The basic social division in such a society is between those who are obliged to get their hands dirty by working in the fields, and those who are wealthy enough to be able to keep their hands clean. The latter class can be labelled the "gentry", or nobility. It is very noticeable how many terms of abuse originally meant merely that the person so labelled was a working farmer. To call someone "villainous", "churlish" or "boorish" mean in derivation that the person so described "behaves like a farmer" In the later Roman empire the working farmers were the "humiliores"; in the Scottish Highlands the lowest rank of clansmen were the "humblies". By contrast the landowner was a "gentleman"; he would expect to be addressed as "my lord" ("sir", "monsieur", "mein herr" etc), and in later Rome he was a "honestiores". As time progressed and society became more complicated, the question arose as to whether lawyers, rich merchants and so forth counted as gentlemen, until in the end it attained its present meaning of merely someone who has nice manners.

At the summit of the noble class stood the king. In fact, in these early societies, central government had very little independent power, and no king could rule without the consent and co-operation of the nobility. A king had insufficient money to employ a professional army or professional bureaucracy of any great size. The bulk of royal soldiers were supplied by the nobility leading their own followers, and all government officials had to be drawn from the sparse literate classes. With the poor communications of the time, armies could not travel more than about 20 miles a day. Loyalties were local and personal: thus it was said that in the north of England "there was no king but Percy" - the Percy family, as Earls of Northumberland, ruled the Scottish border, and the king was a long way away; and in the event of a conflict of loyalties, the men of the north would follow Percy rather than the king. In mountain areas, such as the Scottish highlands, society was still basically tribal, and the royal writ scarcely ran at all. Until the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 many highland clan chiefs held "the right of pit and gallows": that is, they were entitled to imprison or execute offenders on their territory by their own authority, without any reference to the king's judges! No king could afford to antagonise the great nobility: on occasion a king might be able to execute a rebellious noble, but only if the other nobles agreed that the victim deserved it, and even then they would be well aware that this assertion of royal power implied a threat to them all. In most cases a king contented himself with exiling a delinquent and confiscating his land and then, after a decent interval, pardoning him.

No king could hope to govern the country from a stationary capital. He would always have to be on the move, meeting the great nobles and keeping their obedience by a mixture of blandishments and implied threats. Apart from these considerations, the sheer problem of supplies kept the court in motion around the country. Consider in Shakespeare's "King Lear", where Lear demands to be accompanied by a hundred knights when travelling. Each knight would have to be accompanied by at least one or two servants, and such a vast entourage would soon exhaust the food suppiles in a district and have to move on. It is no wonder that Lear's daughters soon revolted against his demands!

(In the next part, I shall examine the sort of political and moral ideas likely to emerge in such a society)

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Thoughts on the coming election, from 80 years ago

The election campaign of David Cameron appears to be based entirely upon the message, "Elect me, because I'm not Gordon Brown". I have recently seen Conservative posters featuring a smiling Gordon Brown, with slogans such as, "I've increased the gap between rich and poor. Vote for me". It would seem a most bizarre tactic to portray your opponent soliciting a vote, and not one I have ever come across before in such an open form, but negativity has a long history in British electioneering.

Philip Guedalla wrote his essay on Andrew Bonar Law, "the unknown Prime Minister", (1922-23) more than 80 years ago, but it has much relevance to the present Conservative strategy. He begins by drawing attention to the purely negative aspect of campaigning:- "It was, to the public mind, the sole virtue of Mr Gladstone that he was not Lord Beaconsfield (Disraeli); it was the proudest boast of Lord Salisbury that he was not Mr Gladstone; it is the political stock-in-trade of quite a number of living gentlemen that they are not Mr Lloyd George. But perhaps the most impressive demonstration of these somewhat negative qualifications for high office is to be found in the circumstances attending the political advent of Mr Bonar Law". Guedalla then says of Bonar Law's unexpected rise to the party leadership:- "It was for him, in those days, that he was neither Mr Austen Chamberlain nor Mr Walter Long. The claim was a high one ........ It was the leading function of Conservative statesmen at that time not to be Mr Asquith; and if, in addition to this negative, Mr Law could boast that he was neither of the opposition leaders as well, his prospects were demonstrably growing". The essay consludes:- "He became Prime Minister of England for the simple and satisfying reason that he was not Mr Lloyd George. At an open competition in the somewhat negative exercise of not being Mr Lloyd George that was held in November 1922, Mr Law was found to be more indubitably not Mr Lloyd George than any of the other competitors; and in consequence, by the mysterious operation of the British Constitution, he reigned in his stead". On a similar theme, the Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, after a landslide defeat at the general election of 1906, wrote "The greatest election victory of modern times was won on the basis of no policies whatsoever!"

It will be noted that all these examples of negative campaigning were successful. It remains to be seen whether David Cameron does as well.