Rationality and World History

Irrational rationalism

Gwydion M. Williams argues that Conor Cruise O’Brien book ‘On the Eve of the Millennium’ shows a basic confusion between rationality and establishment vanity. Wider problems of economic development and the roots of science are considered.

As we approach the Third Millennium of the Christian epoch, we have choices. We could chose a peaceful and a prosperous world for everyone, in which the life of an Asian or an African or a South American is seen as equal in value to the life of an European or North American. Or we could ruin the whole world in a greedy effort to stay ‘top dog’. Or finally we might start a conflict with East Asia that would ruin everyone’s prosperity.

It is a great simplification to think that Western prosperity is dependent on the poverty elsewhere. Europe might have had its industrial revolution with no external trade, probably slower, probably far less painful for us as well as the rest of the world. Britain’s basic industrialisation happened in the North. The key advances occurred well away from the London-centred financial merchant and imperial complex. It had no need of the social classes that interacted with the world beyond Europe and grew prosperous by contact with foreign cultures. Likewise Scandinavia and Switzerland, prosperous and peaceful and admired nations, managed fine with no colonies at all.

Europe had the initial good fortune to be set relatively close to the New World, a vast territory that could be exploited by the ruthless military technology developed in the Old World. The very existence of these previously unknown lands also showed that new knowledge was at least as good as old,. A point Francis Bacon Lord Verulam emphasised in his New Atlantis, an improvement on Plato set beyond the Pillars of Hercules. Bacon’s vision inspired the Royal Society and fuelled a continuing desire for a new world full of startling technologies. It was part of the common ground between Cavalier and Roundhead, and thus survived all of the civil wars and upsets of the 17th century. So that when Industrialism developed in the late 18th century, it was seen as broadly positive despite all the filth and suffering it also brought.

The gaining of colonies boosted the experimental expansionist spirit in Europe. But this same spirit had existed since the 10th century. It was expanding to create modern science even without the impulse of foreign knowledge. Overseas territories soaked up people and resources that could have been used at home. Europe’s main advantage was a mass organisation of work based on the division of labour. Even without overseas territories, a vast increase of wealth was possible. Just as it carried on happening after every available colony had been seized.

The essential breakthrough into industrialism is commonly dated between 1780 and 1830. It happened before large sections of the world had been much touched by European colonialism. And if it were true that the capitalist system had to expand territorially or die, then it would have died decades ago, since it has nowhere left to expand to. That empires with a strong military-mercantile complex chose to engage in further expansion is not so surprising. But it was a conscious and avoidable choice, not any sort of necessity.

Europe’s best period, 1950 to 1975, coincided with decolonisation and with considerable gains in wealth in most of the Third World. East Asia, with no colonies and often a history of being colonised, was able to fully catch up with Europe in this same period.

Life is not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s gain need not be our loss. When international relationships are put on a sound basis, as they were from 1950 to 1975, everyone can be the gainer. Things only started to go wrong when the oil price rose so fast that everything was put into flux. And then the money-speculators managed to break the rational financial regulations of Bretton Wood. Ordinary people in Europe were not threatened by the poorer ‘Underclass’ masses in the rest of the world. They were messed up by their own rich and irresponsible ‘Overclass’.

It is quite possible for a society to get richer while many or even most of the people who constitute that society get poorer. Imagine that one considered the population as ten bands of ten per cent, ranging from the 1st and richest to the 10th and poorest. Allow for non-economic factors like security and stability, as well as purchasing power. One might then see several possible alternative future, different scenarios that might be opted for:

1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th Total
20 15 12 11 10 9 8 6 5 4 100 Initially
110 23 14 12 10 9 8 6 5 3 200 Scenario A
40 30 24 22 20 18 16 12 10 8 200 Scenario B
40 35 27 23 21 19 16 9 7 3 200 Scenario C
70 45 25 15 12 10 8 6 5 4 200 Scenario D
75 52 22 15 10 9 7 5 3 2 200 Scenario E
30 23 18 17 15 14 12 9 8 6 150 Scenario F
35 28 23 22 20 19 17 14 13 11 200 Scenario G

Scenario A represents one extreme, the entire gain going to a rather small section of the population. It is probably what happened in England during the first and worst period of industrialisation. Or it might have been more like scenarios E or D or even C, with a rather wider group sharing in the new prosperity. The change in world-wide wealth over the past couple of decades is most likely on the lines of scenario E, with a top third making progress, a middle third holding its own and a bottom third suffering some decline. It would of course make a big difference if you consider each state as a unit or else look at populations within it.

The progress of both Britain and Europe between 1950 and 1975 was more on the lines of scenarios B or G. Scenario B merely preserves existing inequalities whereas scenario G reduces them. Even if this did damage overall growth, as in scenario F, a large portion of the population might be the gainers. Not that there is the slightest evidence that allowing the rich to take more actually does help overall growth. ‘Trickle-down’ was a piece of nonsense invented in the early years of Thatcherism and Reaganism, when people were less confused and needed to be told that they personally would gain from free gifts given to those much richer than themselves. It no longer seems necessary, people have got so demoralised they no longer notice they are being robbed.

Scenario A is the actual position of the United States over the past couple of decades. The rewards for work have remained static, so that only the richest tenth whose main income comes from ownership have had any benefit from economic growth. Britons are not such mugs. Middle-income groups, the C1s and C2s, are not noticeably worse off than they would have been without the massive redistribution from poor to rich. The British position probably resembles scenario C, where only 30% of the population definitely lose when social justice breaks down.

Conor Cruise O’Brien does not consider such complexities. Poor people are a threat, and he does not conceive that there might be ways for everyone to improve their lives in harmony. Rather, he has wilfully shut his mind to it, since he must have heard just these arguments during his time with the United Nations. He is depressingly true to his origins in a rich risen Irish Catholic stratum that would have been the local ruling class if Home Rule had come off and made Ireland a contented Dominion within the British Empire. As Catholics, this class went with the rest of the nation into Nationalism when Britain mishandled the 1916 Easter Rising and helped cause the spectacular Sinn Fein electoral victory in 1918. O’Brien’s class were left stranded as a more popular and religious and democratic form of Catholicism came to dominate. Then and now, they must have bitterly blamed the world for failing to meet their expectations of it.

O’Brien takes the rentier view, supposing that prosperity comes from ownership and will vanish if rich do not remain privileged. ‘We are actually in the position of the people in that lifeboat which I referred to earlier. Hands are clutching at the sides of the lifeboat, and the captain, with or acquiescence, is cutting off those hands to save our lives as well as his own. Such incidents have often happened in the history of seafaring.’ (Page 146, Free Press paperback edition.)Thus goes O’Brien’s malignant fantasy. A properly equipped ship has lifeboats for everyone, though it needed the force of law to stop ship-owners gambling with other people’s lives. In the case of the Titanic, there were indeed not enough boats for everyone, so only the richer passengers were saved. But things were made worse by lifeboats being sent out with less than their maximum by people who seemed totally indifferent to the lives of the poorer passengers. Although O’Brien’s hand-cutting fantasy seems to be just a literary malignancy; he had earlier described it as a metaphor developed by André Gide (ibid, p 132).

It is a very shallow sort of ‘tough-mindedness’ that allows a disaster to develop and then hangs on ruthlessly to scarce resources that need not have been scarce at all. Price competition in the absence of strict regulation leads to naval disasters, as with the various ferry ‘accidents’ that were the predictable result of overstretched crews and inadequate safety. A repetition of the same folly on a world-wide scale is possible. And O’Brien seems to be all in favour of it, supposing that this is some sort of superior tough-minded perception.

The world could in fact afford to share. We cannot sensibly allow unlimited Third World immigration. But most of those people would not wish to come here if life back home were decent and sensibly improving. Assuming we do not wish to continue Thatcher’s nihilistic denationalisation of Britain, we could chose to put some modest portion of our wealth into those societies, instead of making them subsidise the rich through debt repayments.

Europe has a responsibility. Industrialisation was the natural consequence of science applied to the problem of manufacturing. But Europe used this newly won strength to kick its way into the wider world. Europe and America forced their way of life upon societies like China and Japan that were quite content to stay in traditional poverty and isolation. Yet though the West prevented those societies carrying on as they wished, it also did its best to stop them reforming their own way. When the Tai Ping tried to solve China’s crisis by the traditional Peasant Revolution combined with an odd but flourishing form of Christianity, the ‘Christian’ powers stepped in and saved China for Paganism. And when the Protestant Christian and democrat Sun Yatsen tried to make China even more European than the Tai Ping had envisaged, Europe stepped in again and saved China for Warlordism and chaos. When the Chinese then opted for Leninism and a deep distrust of the West, Western observers found this utterly astonishing and unexpected. Proof that those damn Chinks had been irrational all along.

Europe and America continuously evade their social responsibility. Laissez Faire is the stated principle. Magazines like The Economist promote the happy conclusion that there are no social responsibilities and that any attempt to help people will ruin them. Except that this wisdom is never applied to the voters who can make or break Western governments. The Economist would like in principle to rob the American voters of their ‘pork’, but does not advise any politician to try it. The USA is a land of subsidy and massive state intervention. Free-trade rhetoric is only seriously applied for the plundering of those too weak to hit back effectively.

Laissez Faire is really Laissez Moi, I alone shall do as I please, and will not allow strangers the same tolerance I show my own kind. It is never based on the honest application of any particular principle.

We in Europe might have been better off if the snares of apparent wealth overseas had not been there. Marx reckoned that Victorian Britain was putting ten pounds into India for every seven it got back, an opinion that most people calling themselves Marxists have carefully avoided. Yet Marx may well have been right. Since different interests were putting the money in or getting it back, this procedure was not as foolish as it sounds. The colonies were also a convenient dumping-ground for the unwanted, and allowed the ambitious to dream of making their fortunes and coming back rich and privileged. It was the equivalent of today’s National Lottery. Like the Lottery, it may well have been a net consumer of wealth. But its existence suited a lot of people very well.

Europe could just have gone its own way and left the rest of the world to follow or stay separate, just as those people pleased. If they had stayed separate, it would matter no more than the non-existence of the lost continent of Atlantis, or the Great South Land that Captain Cook was sent to find.

If we must interact with the rest of the world, then self-interest as well as sympathy should make us keen to make them prosperous. Planning to remain an island of wealth in a sea of poverty is not only immoral but stupid. Our best period was 1950 to 1975, when fear of World Communism led the ruling class to stop trying to cheat and exploit and scared them into simply working for the general prosperity.

Interestingly, the West is much more egalitarian than poor and stagnating nations. Impoverished countries have a much larger gap between rich and poor than we do. Dynamic East Asia is more egalitarian that comparable Western societies. If we are to be One World, then it self defeating to try to keep a privileged position. As a former State Governor in the American South once noted, you can not keep a man down without staying down with him.

Europe industrialised first, and had brief massive advantage in the 19th century. This has been eroding all through the 20th century. The period 1950 to 1975 saw the biggest closing of the gap, and it was also the best and fastest-growing period that Europe had ever had. Co-prosperity works better than oppression. One of the things that helped mess us up in the 1970s was a greedy antagonism to the loss of privilege. Despite which, we are now moving towards an historically more normal situation with East Asia and West Europe at much the same level. Thus:

GDP per head in dollars GDP growth per head in 1996
Nigeria, 310 3.0
India, 360 5.0
China, 720 8.7
Indonesia 1,210 7.1
Egypt 1,220 3.9
Algeria 1,530 5.5
Thailand 3,250 7.7
South Africa 3,130 3.0
Russia, 3,550 -1.00
Malaysia, 4,543 8.5
Brazil 5,450 2.2
Czech Republic 5,570 7.0
Saudi Arabia 6,800 0.3
Argentina 8,470 1.3
Portugal 9,700 2.5
Taiwan 14,090 5.8
Spain 15,522 2.2
UK 20,900 2.2
Hong Kong 27,130 4.0
France 27,600 0.9
USA 29,600 2.3
Germany 30,300 0.8
Singapore 32,878 8.8
Norway 35,710 4.2
Japan 38,120 3.9
Switzerland 42,350 0.8

The World in 1997, The Economist Publications.

The real gap may be smaller than that. China may be three or four times better off in terms of real living standards. And where the extended family has not been broken by commercial pressures, much less has to be paid for and will not be included in GNP. There are also huge internal differences in the larger societies. There can also be a big difference between perceived wealth and real wealth. Saudi Arabia is normally thought of as fabulously wealthy, yet its inhabitants appear to be poorer than the Portuguese!

Year to year comparisons between The World in 1997 and The World in 1996 are confusing. The Economist is much less well-informed than its brash conceited manner would imply. Nigeria was rated at 210 in 1996 and 310 in 1997! 3% growth seems to be combined with a near 50% increase in this case. Likewise China had 38% growth in 1996 if you take the two yearbooks literally. And Iran according to The Economist Publications went from an economy equivalent to 59.8 billion dollars in 1996 to 97.7 billion in 1997, while being credited with a modest 1.6 growth. And it is interesting to note that if one set The Economist’s figures from last year against their figures for this year, the U.K. would share the near zero growth attributed to France and Germany.

But this is not the time to discuss the biases of The Economist, nor the real problems involved in measuring such values. No doubt their figures are guesses and often revised. Yet the broad picture of a merger of ‘European’ and ‘Third Word’ must be correct. O’Brien is quite wrong when he sees a vast hopeless Third World with an exploding population, set to overwhelm the prosperous and enlightened West. He had learned nothing and forgotten nothing since the 1950s, when many people saw things that way. What has actually happened is that population is levelling out. And many nations that were poor in the 1950s have now reached Western levels of sophistication. O’Brien’s ‘tough’ vision is not just cruel but also ignorant.

Third World immigration was specifically encouraged by the West in the 1950s. People managed to believe both in work-free future based on automation and in a sinister ‘labour shortage’. On the basis of the second of these illusions, Britain asked its Indian and West Indian colonial subjects to come to Britain as cheap and docile labour. Britain had imposed on the West Indies a culture which taught them that Britain was their mother country, yet accepted no corresponding duties. Mr Enoch Powell was a member of the Tory government that began the process, and yet somehow manages to see it as neither his fault nor his responsibility.

O’Brien in that same era was controversially involved in The Congo, now Zaire, where America was abusing the United Nations’ peacemaking function. To defend the interests of a few US corporations, and to put down mildly leftist regimes, the US intentionally undermined democratic governments. It was made clear that International Law would be a hollow sham except where it happened to serve US interests. And then in Vietnam these same characters showed that they were not up to fighting a decent-sized war against a strong and determined enemy. US arrogance and lying almost lost the Cold War for the West: Western interests were saved by the fact that the former USSR was even worse and more arrogant.

Like his namesake in Orwell’s 1984, the great humanist Conor Cruise O’Brien is a nice-sounding plausible but deeply irrational defender of Airstrip One. A clever upholder of an unjust irrational system. America is not seen as a blundering unreliably offshoot of European values, a dubious vain unpredictable ally used wisely and with care when Western Europe was under threat from the Soviet Block. For him, America is the Great Defender of all that O’Brien holds dear. He also goes along with the ruling class view that sees life as a regrettable burden on money.

O’Brien actually references Orwell, but shows no understanding. ‘The year 1994 is more like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four than the real 1984 was. In 1994, we are beginning to understand the full force of the Orwellian slogan, ‘Peace Means War”. (Ibid, page 43.) Orwell’s super-state had the slogan War is Peace. It is a description in fiction of the limited Superpower struggle that came to be called the Cold War in real-world history. Orwell correctly anticipated that the Superpowers would not directly attack each other, but instead sponsor a series of limited wars in the Third World. This struggle was still going on in much the same terms in the real-world year 1984. But by 1994 we were into a new phase. Russia had abandoned the struggle. America was behaving as a Superpower Terrorist and refusing to allow any coherent New World Order to be built. O’Brien mangles Orwell from an inability to see any fault in the USA.

The man does not grasp much history, despite his pretensions. On page 69, he puts the division of Roman Empire into Eastern and Western back to time of Augustus. He seems to have muddled the temporary division of the empire under the Second Triumvirate with Diocletian’s permanent division some three centuries later. The split between Augustus, Lepidus and Marcus Antonius was just one of several temporary divisions of military resources. A carve-up between rival warlords who were briefly in alliance. Diocletian did something very different, voluntarily splitting an Empire he reckoned too large and overstretched for a single Emperor to run effectively.

Cruise O’Brien also shows the regrettable West European habit of regarding ‘the world’ as just Europe plus bits of North Africa and West Asia. This region was just the western end of a broad belt of civilisation that ran ribbon-like through Mesopotamia and Persia, southwards to India, South East Asia and Indonesia, and then up again with China and Korea with an Eastern terminus in Japan. That was the real civilised world, as it eventually emerged after its Mesopotamian origins. Yet Alexander is still popularly supposed to have regretted having no more worlds to conquer, when his actual Empire stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to some western parts of India.

China under the Han dynasty was as large and coherent an Empire as Rome. This was well explained by H.G.Wells’s History of the World back in the 1920s, but has not yet got through to most of the West European ‘intelligentsia’, which remains more Western than Intelligent. The two Empires did not interact much, the almost empty grasslands between them being considerably larger than either. But there was trade, with China getting rather the better of it , causing a drain of precious metals that caused alarm in Rome. Gibbon in his Decline and Fall supposed that the Chinese by pushing the Huns away from their frontier caused a chain reaction that brought the Goths and Vandals finally crashing down on Rome. The real situation was more complex, but China fared better and was more successful against them, and some of the Huns did undoubtedly move west.

The 18th century Enlightenment very much admired China. It fitted their model of the world, with enlightened philosophers at the top and vulgar superstition for the masses. Privileged status was mostly inherited, but could also be acquired through merit in the competitive examinations. It was not Atheist, any more than most of the Enlighteners were. But they like the Chinese Mandarins had a vision of God as a remote inactive benevolent being. A Deity who could be stood on the mantelpiece to lend dignity to what might otherwise seem empty lives.

China was not a bad model to look to. For most of history, this vast empire had contained maybe one third of the total human population, even though it had nothing like one third of the good farming land. Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations noted that China was richer than any part of Europe, but also that it was static whereas Europe was progressing. He did not however take the extra step of noticing how Europe was going beyond all known parameters of advanced civilisation.

A cultural framework that had begun in Mesopotamia culminated in China. And there it stuck, for it could never produce anything better than a sophisticated elite living on top of an uneducated peasantry. Yet this framework was gradually transcended in Georgian England, which has working and profitable steam engines before Watt, a developing clothing industry before Arkwright.

Nietzsche once expressed regret that Europe had not turned its labouring classes into the equivalent of Chinese peasants and coolies, docile hard working and uncomplaining people. I suspect that O’Brien would come out with some similar sentiment if he could ever bring himself to think about the matter straightforwardly. People who belong to elites or who identify with elites find it very hard to comprehend that you can not hold a man down without staying down with him. Ruling classes dependent on an unenlightened population can never be much more than barbarians themselves. Barbarians with swords and cannons, or barbarians with webs of tricky words. But held down by their efforts to dominate those they see as inferior yet dangerous.

It is to the credit of some of the Enlighteners that they were ready take a chance and see where greater freedom and tolerance would lead them to. It led to modern Western civilisation, the Enlightenment as modified by the French Revolution. It was a bold experiment, and so successful that it made its originators almost obsolete.

O’Brien notes on page 107 what many before him had seen, that Burke in his Vindication of Natural Society correctly forecast that ‘the attempt to uproot religion would result also in political and social revolution’. Yet what was the alternative? Should the Enlightenment have settled for telling lies and hiding truth? Should it have saved a corrupt old politics and social order? Tried to dishonestly save a world that badly needed reform or complete overthrow?Connor Cruise sees himself as a product of that original 18th century light. But like the spider-monsters in Tolkien’s mythology, he sucks in light and vomits out dark cobwebs. It is just not true to say that ‘the Enlightenment tradition of the English-speaking world is one which as coexisted, amicably but never uncritically, with religion’ (Ibid, p 108). And it is superficial to blame this difference for the excesses of the French Revolution. O’Brien confuses cause with effect. Catholicism had kept a formal link between cynical rulers, a devout middle class and a traditionalist peasantry. In Britain these had been fractured, with different Protestant denominations as hostile to each other as to Enlightenment values.

In the English-speaking world, a handful of clever skeptics or atheists could play the different Christian factions one against another. Whereas Catholicism was a single organisation and had to be attacked as such. In England, one could easily evade official Church of England authority. Likewise in Scotland, Adam Smith’s protege Wedderburn defended the philosopher David Hume against Presbyterian rigour by saying that Hume was no Christian, and thus no more their concern than a passing Jew or Muslim. He got away with this odd argument, so that Hume was pretty much left alone, free to write histories that undermined both Whig and Tory illusions of historic past virtue. His less outspoken pupils like Adam Smith remained influential enough to shape all modern thinking on economic life. In France or Italy, there was no such tolerance. And passing Jews or Muslims were subject to some regulation, with anyone born a Christian forced to remain such. It was necessary to be determinedly anti-clerical to establish what are now seen as basic human rights.

The early leaders of the French Revolution had tried to reconstitute French Catholicism as the Church of France. They wanted a moderate rational religion that would have served the nation. The Papacy held out, forcing the French Revolution to extremes. Just as King Charles’s resistance to Constitutional Monarchy had forced the English Revolution to extremes.

In both the French Revolution and the English Revolution, there was a massive disruption of established norms, followed by a consolidation under military leaders who curbed the most radical forms. If the process consolidation was slower and messier in France than England, was this just French wilfulness? Or was it historic accident?Oliver Cromwell was an experienced politician who had also earned a large military reputation when the stubbornness of the King gave the revolutionaries a simple choice between extremism and abject surrender. Cromwell was already dominant when Charles the First was beheaded. Napoleon was barely known at the time Louis the Sixteenth was guillotined.

O’Brien praises Burke for his insight into how the French Revolution would unfold after his death, the expectation of a drift to military rule (ibid, 120 to 121). But Burke could have got all that by simply assuming a broad repetition of English Revolution. There were some amazing similarities, including the things that Burke did not predict, the return of the old dynasty and its displacement within a generation by royal relatives more sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. Spookily, both Britain and France had first the restoration of a King (Charles II, Louis XVIII) and then a rebellion against the King’s much more extreme and confrontation-minded brother (James II, Charles X). There were of course many points of difference, including the fact that France was conquered while England arranged its own Restoration. But if the House of Hanover was to prove more durable that the House of Orleans, that may be because the Republican ideal was openly proclaimed in France, and had moreover been shown to be viable in the United State of America.

Burke did specifically deny a similarity between the French and English revolutions. But Burke was a politician rather than an historian. Had he accepted both revolutions as equally virtuous, he would have been a Jacobin. Had he rejected both revolutions as equally wicked, he would have made himself a Jacobite well after it had ceased to be practical politics. Only by drawing an unreal distinction could Burke create a serious conservative position that also allowed for the continuing Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Burke identified with the English aristocracy that had dominated the society after the brief outbreaks of democracy in the English Revolution. America he saw not as a new democratic outbreak, but as a freedom-loving gentry resisting monarchical power. And in the short run this was true enough. The new American Republic was governed by its own gentry . It rejected ‘democracy’ in the sense of popular power. It was only in 1801, amidst the dramatic changes sparked off by France, that ‘Jefferson and Liberty’ triumphed and democratic values began to be seen as respectable. Even then, it was also an odd sort of liberty by modern standards. Their war-cry should have been ‘give me liberty and give me slaves’. A position that would have seemed sensible enough to the Republics of Classical Greece and Rome. That something new had begun was not at all obvious, and might not have been true had the French Revolution not disrupted everything.

O’Brien has some of this but gets it all muddled. ‘It may seem odd, at first sight, that the class of people in the United States which was most enamoured of the French Revolution was Jefferson’s own class; the slave-owning aristocracy of the South’. (Ibid, page 51) But the plantation-owners were no more genuine aristocrats than Walt Disney’s ‘Aristocats’. The Plantation owners were bloated small men grown rich on the labour of slaves. Speculators and entrepreneurs who had done well by supplying goods to the developing world market. The whole ‘aristocratic’ world of the American South was a mere dependency of the Lancashire Cotton Industry.

The world of the Southern Gentry was totally commercial. It also had the aristocratic pretensions that successful business people have always hankered after. Unlike Britain, there were very few real aristocrats to teach the newly rich how to give some sort of substance to the pretence. Very few of those characters could have found a distinguished ancestor; they had at best been in the New World a couple of generations longer than their neighbours. Not many were authentic gentlemen by English standards. By French standard, none at all.

It was quite understandable that the Jeffersonian ‘aristocrats’ welcomed the fall of the authentic old French aristocrats. Characters who were obsessed by differences rooted ten or twenty generation in the past, and who would have rated the southern ‘gentlemen’ at about the same level as their footmen.

The US Constitution as originally written accepted slavery and other forms of bonded labour. It says nothing about race. In practice, it was impossible to keep white people as slaves or even serfs. Public opinion would not allow it. White runaways asserting their human rights would find many friends and helpers. By the same token, Free Blacks were mostly treated with great hostility even though they had theoretical equality. And the white owners of black slaves had the vast bulk of Southern public opinion on their side. The Quakers and a few others tried to be serious about the universalism of Christianity, which clearly upheld the inherent equality of all believers. But otherwise the black population was just not wanted, except as cheap labour.

‘The American Constitution is the greatest institutional repository and transmitter of Enlightenment values, not merely in America, but in the Western world..’, says Conor Cruise O’Brien (Ibid, p 64) The American Constitution is pompous nonsense, I must reply. Even as a legal schema to define the rules for a working government, it is defective. It evades one key issue, the nature of the Union. It is unclear whether the states are bound or remain sovereign, so that there was no clear right or wrong when it came to Southern secession. And the Bill of Rights means that the American Constitution proclaims a series of ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ that have always been interpreted in tricky and evasive ways. However risky and undesirable it may be for the whole population to arm themselves, this is undoubtedly just what the constitution does permit and expect. There is just an ambiguous requirement to serve in a Militia, which no government in fact wants to be bothered with.

Freedom of Speech as guaranteed by the Constitution did not in fact mean particularly free speech, not until America had been subverted by contact with Europe. America up until the 1960s was much worse that Britain in its prudery and nosy-parker morality. An absolute right to freedom is rather useless when freedom is only allowed to mean what a noisy intolerant section of the population decide it ought to mean.

When racial segregation was the popular will, judges had no trouble in finding it totally constitutional. When educated Americans began to get embarrassed by it, it was suddenly discovered that a constitution made and defended by racist slave-owners gave a guarantee of racial equality. But then when mainstream America decided that it did not want to take responsibility for poor people who were no longer content with poverty. It was then discovered that quotas and the like were not constitutional, even though quotas and shares for other ethnic groups were the established norm for as long as blacks were kept in segregated inferiority.

‘Hypocrisy indeed is inseparable from all forms of social life’ says O’Brien (p 101), presumably unable to completely ignore such absurdities. I must reply that hypocrisy is only necessary for a society that wants to set up grand principles but not be burdened by applying them seriously. When a neighbour of Mark Twain’s declared that he was going to go to Mount Sinai and recite the Ten Commandments, Twain replied that the man would do better to stay at home and keep the Ten Commandments. Proclaiming noble principles can very easily be a defence against really attempting to live by some serious morality. Proclaiming noble principles which are then ignored should not be tolerated. Societies can be exactly what they seem to be, and live very much according to their stated principles. The Western Latin Christian tradition has been much worse than any other civilisation in keeping theory and practice in some sort of harmony. A society that cannot attract the loyalty of its cleverest people is in trouble. From about the 10th century, there was a visible gap in Latin Christianity. A system of morality that was visibly not practised. A Church that sincerely believed that it was entitled to lie, cheat and promote cruelty on behalf of God.

O’Brien correctly notes that ‘the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States are both Enlightenment documents, and also (paradoxically) sacred documents of the American civil religion’ (p 151). There was nothing paradoxical, these ideas were the best that could be agreed upon by a mixed bag of Puritans, Moderate Christians, Enlighteners, Freemasons and a broad mass indifferent to religion. But this ‘civil religion’ was hollow, dependent on the meanings put on ambiguous words like Freedom, Liberty, Equality and Justice. Later generations were to give these words meanings which the original highly privileged and often slave-owning Founding Fathers had not intended.

The United States was defined as Nowhere-land, a place where The Individual could live a perfectly abstract life with minimal government interference. But it was always run as WASP-land, a place dominated by the white anglo-saxon protestant values of the founders. The Individual was deemed to be a WASP male with an independent income, and everyone else was expected to match this ideal as best they could. Serious candidates for US president have so far one women, no blacks and no Hispanics. Kennedy remains the only Catholic to have made it, Reagan made much of his Irish roots but was a Protestant. Whether 21st century will see a Catholic have a full term remains to be seen. There have also been no Jews among the serious candidates, unless one counts Barry Goldwater whose ancestors were Jewish converts, and who was exceptionally unpopular among almost all strands of Jewish opinion.

WASP-land not yet dead. But it has somewhat revised itself to become WAC-land, white Anglo-Celtic, with an uncertain second tier of Jews, Italians, Poles etc. Hispanics are only doubtfully seen as fit to be decent specimens of The Individual. As for Afro-Americans, it was definitely established under Reagan that the USA can not be held responsible for the existence of a population that the founders of US culture created as part of their tobacco and cotton industries. Under no circumstances may Americans ever be held responsible for the predictable results of their own actions.

Like his namesake in Orwell’s Airstrip One, O’Brien believes in rights of rulers. He has been a supporter of Superpower Terrorism. America bombing Muslims or Muslims bombing America should be seen as much of a muchness, but of course it never is. The USA has decided that anything anywhere can be deemed a threat to US interests. But it will accepts no responsibilities to match these powers.

I am not a great fan of the Enlightenment. It was just one link in the general process by which Europe created the modern world. Analytical thought was established by the mediaeval church as a valid source of authority that could override tradition. This served narrow sectarian interests, allowing them to claim rights which were neither traditional nor particularly based on the Bible. But it was also a key step in the development of thought. Science arose as an elaboration of analytical thought, stemming from Thomas Aquinas’s useful distinction between the natural and the supernatural. I do not think any other civilisation had the two so neatly separated, allowing people to sensibly and rationally explore the natural world without open challenge to traditional faith.

The problem with rational exploration of the natural world is that it can easily forget its limitations and deny the possibility of anything existing that it is not immediately familiar with. You get irrational rationalism, where people prefer their own analytical schemas to hard facts. In this spirit the French Academy during the early part of the Revolution denied that rocks could fall from the sky, dismissed repeated sound reports that they did and used its influence to persuade museums to dump collections of meteorites that would have been enormously valuable to future scientists.

In similar logic, the traditional and accepted names for the months were replaced by ‘natural’ names that reflected the seasons. But only the seasons as experience in northern France, which is why that particular legacy did not stick.

The actual process of Enlightenment was a movement by the whole educated portion of the society. Many of most valuable thinkers came from ordinary and often devoutly Christian. Our modern Irrational Rationalist ‘know’ that great scientists must have been great despite rather than because of their faith and their dabbling with mysticism. Thus ‘To support his conviction that the Old Testament is accurate history, Newton worked out an elaborate chronology of Earth’s history, drawing on astronomical data such as eclipses and star motions, and legends such as that of Jason and the Argonauts which he took to be genuine events. With incredible ingenuity he tried to harmonise Biblical history with secular histories of the ancient world. It is sad to envision the discoveries in mathematics and physics Newton might have made if his great intellect had not been diverted by such bizarre speculations.’ (Isaac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist, by Martin Gardner. Skeptical Inquirer September / October 1996) To the rationalists of his day, speculation about ‘action at a distance’ would have seemed even more bizarre than trying to make chronological sense of the Bible. Which is an excellent historic source once you recognise it a piece of ancient and often untruthful religious / nationalist propaganda. A truly skeptical inquirer would not have assumed that Newton was time-wasting, but have asked whether it was useful and even essential for the discoverer of Universal Gravitation to have a mind that sought out secrets in defiance of common sense.

Of the other pioneers of modern science, Copernicus was a timid cannon. Kepler a German mystic who was more interested in his false theory of planetary distances based on nested Platonic solids than his correct derivation of the orbit of Mars and what we now call Kepler’s Laws. Only Galileo was something like a modern rationalist, and it led him to reject Kepler’s correct suspicion that the moon caused the tides. (See Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers for details, an interesting tale well told.) And there are many other cases. Boyle who set the pattern of scientific discovery before Newton became famous was a devout Christian who remained celibate for religious reasons; he accepted the Gospel teaching that the complete avoidance of sex was the ideal. Michael Faraday the pioneer of electricity was a member of a serious Fundamentalist sect, one which tried to live according to the whole Bible rather than quoting odd bits that happened to suit them. Pasteur as a Catholic was led to disprove popular notions of Spontaneous Generation by his belief that only God could create life.

Newton was falsified to make him appear to fit the irrational rationalism of the 18th century. To his credit, Martin Gardner does expose this, saying ‘Newton’s writings on Biblical prophecy are so huge an embarrassment to his admirers that to this day they are downplayed or ignored.. The long essay on Newton in The Encyclopaedia Britannica’s famous eleventh edition devotes only one brief paragraph to Newton’s Bible studies. They are not mentioned at all in the fourteenth edition, and are allowed one paragraph in the Macropaedia of the current fifteenth edition.’ (Ibid.) Newton had initially speculated on a Second Coming in 1867, but later moved it ‘to some time after the end of the twenty-first century.’ Also ‘Like millions of Protestants in the seventeenth century, he believed the Papacy was the Antichrist foretold in the Apocalypse. ‘During the Enlightenment, it became increasingly unreasonably to see the office of the Papacy as either God’s Viceroy or a Satanic Plot. Europe had reached a new understanding of the world that made the rival Christian viewpoints of Catholics and Protestants seem absurdly small and ignorant. Enlightened Autocrats assumed that they had overcome the unfortunate effects of Enthusiasm and that Europe could carry on for ever under their undemocratic and arbitrary but fairly benevolent rule.

The French Revolution exposed the hollowness of this view. It was dependent on the assumptions of Christian past, which were irrational and arbitrary. The French Rationalists were amazed to discover that they stood on the shoulders of mediaeval theologians, and that what had seemed obvious was not so in practice.

The ‘rationalism’ of the Enlighteners was neither very rational nor very truthful. Hiding the truth about Newton was one of many “pious frauds” by Enlighteners, designed to keep the ignorant masses in subjection. Voltaire made good use of the tricky methods of his Jesuit teachers. He failed to notice that Jesuit methods of devout trickery and pious fraud will always fail disastrously when looked at over timescale of generations.

The Enlightenment was a mere half-way house between theology and science. It worshipped Reason, which was very nearly as absurd as worshipping a Golden Calf or a Holy Cow. Reason is a tool that may get you from one set of truths to some additional truth. But also perhaps not, it all depends on your suppositions.

If there were an elite truly worthy of that name, a man like Connor Cruise O’Brien would be no part of it. That he is part of it and even one of the more thoughtful parts of it shows that this elite is based on power and trickiness, not real superior gifts. If he chooses to flaunt himself as an ‘Old Voltairean’, it is worth pointing out what a useless old lot they were even in their heyday. The trickiness of Sir Robert Walpole and his followers made it possible for Britain to avoid a major civil war and progress towards industrialisation. The trickiness of Voltaire and his followers led France into a cul-de-sac from which the developing society could not escape without great bloodshed and destruction.

In no sense was the French Revolution a revolt against Feudalism, which had ended centuries before. As Brendan Clifford showed in Belfast in the French Revolution, the aristocrats whom the Jacobins destroyed were mostly Voltaireans, with Marie Antoinette a sincere admirer of Rousseau.

Burke pointed out in his Vindication of Natural Society that the aristocracy had privileges as irrational as any in religion. He took Viscount Bolingbrook’s criticism of conventional religion and pointed out that it could apply just as well to politics. That he was engaged in a warning and a parody is not seriously to be doubted, though there were some at the time who took his parody at face value. As do the present-day editorial staff of Liberty Classics, who seem to have more money than sense, but have made available excellent editions of interesting writers like David Hume and Adam Smith.

Burke, Pitt and other 18th century Whigs recreated a ‘Toryism’ that was a rather clever blend of old and new. They wanted the existing social structure, with some improvements but no basic changes. They were all for technological change, but insisted that there be at least some sharing of the benefits. The Corn Laws ensured that British agriculture remained healthy, avoiding for a time the danger of becoming dependent on cheap but unreliable overseas sources. The original pre-workhouse Poor Laws gave at least a basic minimum to those without property or regular work. And culture too could flourish under this influence, with Sir Walter Scott giving sympathetic human portraits of the defeated tribal reactionaries in Rob Roy and defeated Puritan enthusiasts in Old Mortality.

If that elite had kept power, Europe would probably stabilised as something quite different from what we have now. The Empire of the rationalist Chinese Confucian civil service was their most likely model, and was consciously pursued for some time. (Competitive examinations for the Civil Service were a direct British copy of a method that the Chinese had used for more than two thousand years).

As things were, this possible social balance was undermined by enthusiastic 19th century Liberals. Full of a renewed enthusiasm for Irrational Rationalism and blandly certain that they could overcome all possible threats, t hey took away Tory social buffers and allowed the ‘miracle of the market’ to take effect. If the free play of market forces in time of famine caused the disappearance of most of the population of Ireland, this was an eminently satisfactory miracle to the anti-Catholic commercial bland and callous middle class of the ‘great’ Victorian era.

Industrialisation, the creation of British dominance of the High Seas and the conquest of India were all achievements of the Georgians. The Victorians and Edwardians proved unable to keep what they had inherited, nor to let go of it gracefully. The Victorians in particular do not merit the regard they receive in some circles. It was Victorian pride and folly that set the stage for Britain’s painful fall from power in the 20th century.

Enlightenment philosophy was likewise a minor part of a very long rise of Europe from being a backwater fringe of West Asian civilisation, to being most notable product so far of the process that began long ago in Mesopotamia. It was not such a good thing in itself, and is very unhelpful in its residual existence within the US constitution. The USA is living through the impossibility of working a system in which culturally defined values are taken to be Natures Law.

Voltaire etc. had inherited Irrational Rationalism from the Jesuits and Tridentine Catholicism, which used dubious logic to justify extremes. The Enlightenment was plagued by Mandevilment, an unreasonable belief in the usefulness of selfishness and evil. Bernard Mandeville poured scorn on existing morality in his Fable of the Bees. His work had some merit in destroying the remnants of 17th century ‘enthusiasm’. But it was a ‘scorched earth’ policy, pure negative mockery based on a belief that a society can work on selfishness or rational self interest if all of its idealism is swept away. Mandeville’s views – which were recycled in more polite language by Adam Smith – were based on a pure dogmatic belief that these interests can be calculated, or will add up to harmony if calculated.   18th century ‘rationalism’ turned out to be a gutted and ineffective derivation of Christianity. Europe had been made and shaped by Christianity, dragged out of a pagan past that had even more horrors and irrationality than Christianity at its worst. But religions are the mode of existence of a society. 18th century Rationalist Europe broke that mode, supposing that it was a mere distortion of “natural” society. The French Revolution showed them just how wrong they were.

The Enlightenment could not keep its own lights alive. It was bound up with aristocratic privilege. It went running back to superstition as soon as ordinary people asked for the same rationality to be applied in politics as in religion. (As Burke had anticipated.)O’Brien worries that Civilised Enlightenment Hypocrites are menaced by a surging mindless mass of poor papally influenced people. ‘Poor people are trying to move North – out of Latin America towards the United States, out of North Africa into Southern Europe. In Europe, poor people are also trying to move from East to West’. (p 133-134). So presumably some army of thugs will have to be employed to cut off their hands to stop them doing. The Islamists at least confine their hand-chopping to convicted thieves, and properly only to those who stole for profit rather than desperate need. O’Brien does not chose to observe any such fine distinctions.

People move in response to jobs. The rulers and industrialists in the rich world want the people as cheap labour. They do not want them as people. Yet they seem unable to face up to the foreseeable consequences of their own actions. For certain, if it were not for a mass of employers keen to give jobs to docile inexpensive workers, and governments who will turn a blind eye so long as only rich well-connected people are doing it, there would not be much migration.

Punishing poor people is easy and often popular. It is almost always ineffective. Going after the rich is hard and dangerous. If allowed, a free migration would result, not in ruin but a global equalisation with western culture dominant. I do not advocate it, because the immediate losers would be the poorer strata in the richer nations. I myself have marketable skills and no dependents and have little fear for my own personal status. But I would not wish to dump such chaos and misery on those less fortunate.

It would not in any case of a huge mass of population descending upon us. The biggest populations are interested mostly in internal migrations, with China’s poor trying to slip into their more prosperous cities, and similar patterns elsewhere. The states that are truly not working are those that are broadly Western creations. Places like Haiti of the black men dumped into the offshore islands of the New World, first enslaved and then told that they were free and finally made very well aware they were not wanted anywhere in the world order that had brought them into being. Despite the fears expressed a few years back, there has not been any big flood of impoverished East Europeans. Only a specialised market-led demand for prostitutes and rent-boys, plus the entrepreneurial Russian ‘Organizatsia’ or Mafia is getting everywhere.

Under Anglo-American supervision, the Third World is required to change and also not allowed to change. It must root out cultures that are ancient and stable in a way that feudal Europe never way, yet do so in a gentle non-oppressive fashion the West never managed. Had there been television to show General Sherman’s march through Georgia, I suspect that the North would have sickened of the spectacle and agreed to Southern secession. Likewise Saddam Hussein so far not able to perform a clearance of Kurds equivalent to the English and Lowland Scots clearance of the rebellious Scottish Highlands in the 18th century. And the Highlanders had a far better case than the Kurds: by law and custom, the Stewart dynasty were undoubtedly still the valid rulers who should have been ruling in place of the Hanovarian usurpers.

A few months back, BBC Radio 4’s What If. Assessing Iraq considered what might have been the alternatives to the way history actually went. Some of the same politicians who had helped run Gulf war strongly doubted if anyone could realistically improved on Saddam’s methods. President George Bush seems to have wanted Saddam replaced by someone almost exactly the same, differing only in not being Saddam so that some sort of victory could be claimed. Only Saddam Hussein has a good understanding of such matters and has so far always managed to get his potential replacements before they can get him.

O’Brien believes the myth that this is ‘an increasingly overcrowded planet’ (p 144). Get hold of a good atlas and look at the actual distribution of populations. You find that people are vastly concentrated in Western Europe and East Asia, with some lesser concentrations in the USA. Even in Britain, there are huge areas that have lost population since the 18th century. Much of rural Wales has emptied itself to escape poverty, while the Scottish Highlands were very intentionally cleared.

O’Brien’s own nation is an even clearer case. Ireland has less people than it had at the time of the Potato Famine (when it continued to export food). The English middle class viewed the starving Irish in much the same terms as O’Brien views the Third World. And they were stupid ignorant fools to do so. Britain lost its moral standing and its chance of a permanent world empire by being so visibly immoral. It showed a callous neglect of a population who had been repeatedly prevented from settling matters their own way, but were seen as responsible for their own plight in a disaster resulting from Britain’s bungled social engineering.

Look at a population density map and you will see that huge tracts of Africa are almost empty. The most crowded parts of the world are mostly the richest. The exception are almost all nations and states that were produced by the West and then dumped, notably West Indies.

Life is not a burden on money, money is a legal form that has meaning only because the human population exists and is able to generate and exchange real and useful goods and services. Money is a means to an end, the specialisation of production.

In real-world economies, as distinct from New Right theories, equalisation is mostly associated with general prosperity. Largest gaps between rich and poor are in poor unsuccessful countries. Five to one or six to one between richest and poorest fifth of population is normal in Japan, Germany and Italy, the countries that did best when the world economy was at its optimum. In Britain and America it is more like ten to one, even worse in chaotic Russia and more than thirty to one in Brazil, which has repeatedly failed to tap its vast potential.

There were many misplaced fears about the Cairo Conference on Population and Development. Islam is happy with contraception. It is not as twisty or bitter as those Christian sects who oppose both abortion and contraception, when it is only good contraception that actually reduces the rate of legal or illegal abortions. And of the world’s bog religions, only Christianity has got into an hysteria about sex. Only Christianity insists that it has to be badly controlled and a source of misery. Muslims, though unreasonable on many other matters, are all in favour of sex and sexual pleasure within the proper social framework.

The correct response to Islamists extremists is to say we think their politics is completely stupid but accept their right to go that way. In fact the hysteria about ‘fundamentalism’ has been used to justify some more double-dealing. Countries are neither allowed to be part of the modern Western pattern nor left free to be something else. The real problem is not so large. The Islamist creed has small appeal outside of traditionally Islamic countries, except in Africa where its spread might be way out of what everyone accepts as being a hopeless mess. Islamists want democracy and can link whole population to modern world.

Science stems from some devout Catholics and many Puritans, as well as the non-Christian Enlightenment creed. The actual development of all European nations included periods of what we would now see as Extremism. Had there been some outside power treating us as we now treat the Third World, could Europe ever have developed anything worthwhile? For much of what we now regard as normal, racial and sexual equality, rejection of slavery, freedom to leave the traditional community and seek some new way of life, freedom to produce new goods or old goods by new methods, all of this had its origins in movements that were extreme before they captured the middle ground.

Each era has its own ‘rationalism’, the reasonable middle ground that will include a great deal of nonsense. It will always be in some measure an irrational rationalism, simply because the world can never ever be reduced to neat logical and complete categories. The first people to try were the Pythagoreans of the extended Classical Greek world. They found many valid rational formulas, including the famous Pythagoras’s Law that gave a general rule for right-angled triangles. Yet their mathematical research also proved that the irrational is not avoidable. ‘The side and the square are ‘incommensurable’; their ration a/d cannot be represented by any real numbers or fractions thereof; it is an irrational number, it is both odd and even at the same time… It is said that the Pythagoreans kept the discovery of irrational numbers … a secret, and that Hippasos, the disciple who let the scandal leak out’. (Koestler, The Sleepwalkers, p 40, Penguin Arkana 1989)Koestler also noted that ‘Nobody before the Pythagoreans had thought that mathematical relations held the secret of the universe. Twenty-five centuries later, Europe is still blessed and cursed with their heritage.

To non-European civilizations, the idea that numbers are the key to both wisdom and power, seems never to have occurred.’ (Ibid, p 41). A rationalist structure of thought may be complete junk, or it may be the key to some higher understanding. And some rationalist structures may work fine in many circumstances and then fail, just as Newtonian gravity is fine for sending satellites all round the solar system, but needs marginal corrections from General Relativity when fast speeds and very detailed measurements are involved. Relativity seemed quite irrational compared to the neatness of the Newtonian view, yet it was correct.

Recognition of the irrational is no excuse for being less rational than the known facts allow. O’Brien’s problem is a basic unwillingness to accept that humanity may ever be allowed to develop outside of what he sees as proper methods, wise guidance by people very much like himself. That the West wantonly threw away its best chances to spread its ideology to the rest of humanity, he does not recognise. Nor that those societies that kept their substance despite Western interference are doing very nicely, with East Asia set to return to its normal historical position of equality with or even superiority to Europe. The disaster areas are places like Haiti, where both Europe and America feel deeply that they are not under any circumstances to be held responsible for the predictable results of their own actions.

First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, probably in 1998

Similar items can be found at the Ideas and Ideal Menu.

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