Long before Karl Marx wrote about it at great length in Das Kapital and other works, the well to do had realised that there was a problem with the workers who serviced them. They and their families eat into the profits of the comfortably off. In the opening scene of Coriolanus, the proud hero’s friend, Menenius Agrippa, avuncularly chides the famished plebs for growing mutinous. He tells them an Aesop fable (borrowed by Shakespeare from Plutarch) about how the whole body collapsed when its members, tired of slaving away to satisfy the wants of the belly, decided to go on strike. The body stands for the State, the belly for Rome’s storehouses, and both, of course, were controlled by the patricians through the Senate.
The common people of Ancient Rome had no share in governance, only the right to petition through their elected Tribunes. Yet here is a lesson for today, for our time of no work to go to or shrinking wages, welfare cuts, food-banks, and evictions, since these are just a few of the things that bring into question the value of a vote that entitles us to play a petty part in who is going to govern us. Considering how much has gone awry in the world of politics in recent times (especially since we entered what had been heralded as a brave new millennium), and considering how little the ‘ordinary’ man or woman can do about it, widespread political disengagement – not so much from politics as such (remember the million-or-more march against war in Iraq?), but from parliamentary politics – is no wonder.
Talking of ‘the universal malaise that has infected political and economic accountability in Britain’, Deborah Orr calls ‘for us to reach some kind of agreement about the world we want for ourselves and our children’ (Left and right are united in distrust of the state. So, anarchy then, yes? Guardian, 9 November 2013). If only! Such hopes could only be based on a failure to recognise (to borrow Professor Trevor Hussey’s words in commenting on another article) that ‘the power of international capitalism … is in the process of destroying democracy’ (Guardian Letters, 11 November). But, astonishingly, capitalism, the puppet master of us all, does not get a single mention in Orr’s article.
Perhaps her failure to notice what Professor Hussey multiplies to a whole ‘herd of elephants charging through’ the room, explains her profound misconceptions about the nature of ‘left individualism’ as distinct from ‘right individualism’, and of how that difference signifies absolutely antithetical reasons for their shared ‘distrust of the state.’ The common assumption is that, however much such distrust can be criticised as unconstructive, at least it demonstrates a commitment of individualists, whether of the left or the right, to freedom. But that is not so at all. Truly to value freedom entails an honest concern for the freedom and well-being of all one’s fellow beings, a genuine belief in equality. What individualists of the right stand for is privilege; they crave the liberty for people of the better sort, like themselves, freely to fleece lesser beings. And as the scornful assault on the concept of consensus politics and all its manifestations since Margaret Thatcher hijacked the Conservative Party so clearly shows, far from wanting the State to be abolished, they want it to be used as an instrument the better to carry on fleecing us and bossing us about. Think Cameron and Osborne, think Gove, think Lansley and Hunt, think whoever amongst that most select crew now on the bridge of the Ship of State, and don’t be taken in by querulous voices from their right. They are only urging on their team captain and his lieutenants to get a move on in handing out the privileges.
So it is a grave mistake to conflate such self-regarding individualists with individualists of the left, who distrust the State because they are all too well aware of its proneness to oppress the people, whether the party holding power purports to be of the left or the right. Seven decades of so-called Soviet Communism have amply demonstrated that State Capitalism poses an even greater threat to the individual than the capitalist-dominated state. Yet superficial thinking, and a shrinking of the boundless world of politics and participation to watching the Westminster ‘pantomime’ (to borrow the image Jeremy Paxman used in his Newsnight spar with Russell Brand), allows Deborah Orr to slander outrageously a left disenchanted with our shadow-puppet version of democracy but passionate about so many issues that inform the story of our age.
Part of Orr’s problem in discussing the State and the individual is her free and easy (‘anarchic’ if you like) use of the words ‘anarchy’ and ‘anarchism’. It’s not entirely her fault that we can’t be sure where she’s coming from when such words turn up in her argument. Anarchism (without authority, without a head or chief) was a serious political philosophy back in classical Greece, but those two words from the same root have come to be used interchangeably, even by anarchists, and of course a common meaning of ‘anarchy’ is chaos, which is not at all what anarchist philosophy is recommending. However, the confusion well suits the proponents of authority, which necessarily denies equality in favour of hierarchies; and hence, it could be argued, also denies democracy. As for violence, twin trouble-maker of chaos in our minds, while it clings like a burr to the vulgar notion of an anarchist, so far is this from fact that one of Labour-supporting author J.B. Priestley’s celebrated radio talks back in the late ‘forties was entitled ‘The Gentle Anarchists’. In fact the ranks of anarchists are well infused with pacifists and are wholly anti-militaristic. In any case, the ironic truth is that it is not violence that is almost universally condemned by our society, but unauthorised violence. Terrorist acts of dissident groups are more certain to provoke outrage than is shock-and-awe warfare or death by droning. Yet the muddled-headedness of Orr’s offering on individualists’ distrust of the State is helped on its way to total incoherence by the accompanying sketch of a man holding a couple of bombs in his left hand while spraying an anarchist A on a wall, with a caption beneath reading: ‘The right have always been anarchists, are the left going that way too?’
Orr is not without a vision of a better future, and ventures forth bearing hope. In Oscar Wilde’s words in praise of utopias, ‘seeing a better country, [she] sets sail.’ And in affirming that ‘humanity has never had more opportunity to share ideas and knowledge, to help and support each other, to communicate with each other and discuss their dreams and aspirations,’ she is speaking, in our digital age, in the spirit of mutual aid, title of the most famous work by the anarchist prince, Peter Kropotkin, which was written during his exile from Tsarist Russia in England. In part a response to the Social Darwinist ‘red in tooth and claw’ interpretation of evolution, Mutual Aid also made a cogent case for the primacy of co-operation over competition in human progress. Kropotkin lived in much harsher times for workers in the West, and as an active comrade in their struggles for bread and a crumb or two of social justice, he could have had no illusions about their exploiters. Orr, while her sympathies are undoubtedly for the dreamers, in fantasising about reconciling the irreconcilable, seems unprepared to face up to realities. Individualists of the left have nothing in common with individualists of the right. They are at opposite ends of the pole in the most fundamental respect, how they look upon their fellow men and women: there to be helped to fulfil their every non-predatory aspiration in the one case, to be preyed on in the other.
Of course, it is not the ones who show their teeth who are most to be feared, but those who ‘smile and smile’. Since the extension of the franchise to the hoi polloi, the brighter members of the pampered classes have been well aware of the need to propagate the myth of equal opportunity and to demonstrate its truth by promotion to their ranks of carefully selected aspirants from lower down the ladder. When the boy from the Brixton grammar school was sitting on the top of the pole, clutching his two O-levels, he told us all it showed there were no classes anymore. Now he’s worried that, looking at the hosts of posh people now in power, we may not believe him. Well, make no mistake, the class war to end class war has not yet been fought.
Alongside Professor Hussey’s ‘herd of elephants’ in The Guardian, another professor reminds us that the bottom half of the nation has to make do with 9 per cent of its wealth. The bottom tenth, indeed, has to get by on little more than 2 per cent of the national wealth, while the tenth at the top takes more than half. Yet adults in that bottom half are no less franchised citizens than those at the other end of the pole. So if they are not happy with their lot, what should they do? ‘Use your vote. It was hard fought for,’ the politicians cry. Indeed it was. So once again, in 1996, this magic weapon was wielded by great numbers of the little regarded, to slay the dragon of avaricious individualism. And what did they get? They got Trustmeimtony and the ‘intensely relaxed about people-getting filthy rich’ Peter Mandelson. And, of course, sad Gordon.
So in a grossly unequal society like ours, where the common citizen is primarily considered as an economic unit of production and consumption for the profit of others, with the petty privilege of now and again casting a ballot, what makes best sense when it comes to playing a part, or not ‘being arsed’, in politics? My advice is: use your vote, with your eyes wide open and your brain in gear, to try to bring about the least worst outcome on each occasion, but never delude yourself into thinking that by choosing others to tell you what to do you’re helping to bring about a good society. Then protest in every way you can at all that’s going wrong.
As one who lived, as child evacuee, questing young journalist, and soldier, back in the days when Britain’s life or death hung in the balance, then played my small part in striving with my fellows to build a better country, it has become a painful duty day by day to read the latest tale of how the cormorants are stripping bare the common wealth, cheered on by half the self-styled representatives of the people.