Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book Review: Cosmopolitanism, by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Although it was first published in 2006, I only recently became aware of this book. One advantage of being so late to the party is that I had plenty of reviews to look at, and so could judge what others think of the book before trying it. And the judgements were varied and interesting. Many of them, indeed, told me as much about the reviewers as they did about the book itself. Those on the political left tended to be dismissive of both its substance and its style. Of the rest, some seemed bemused by it, but many were enthusiastic. So, as the subject is in an area of great interest to me, I decided to read the book and add my twopennyworth.

Kwame Anthony Appiah is certainly well qualified as a cosmopolitan. Born in London of aristocratic Ghanaian and politically connected English parents, he was brought up in Ghana and schooled in England, then studied philosophy at Clare College, Cambridge. As he is a year younger than I am, his time there probably overlapped my own at Trinity College a couple of hundred yards away. Since then, he has spent most of his working life in US universities, and is currently a professor at New York University. And he is sufficiently well accepted in establishment circles that in 2016 he was invited to give the BBC’s Reith Lectures.

The book is not long. It has less than 200 pages of text, excluding references and index. For the most part, I found Appiah’s writing style excellent; straightforward and clear, and even the longest sentences read easily. He is no Germanic bafflegabber or bullshitting postmodernist! The one exception was the chapter on moral positivism, which did leave me a bit cold.

A cosmopolitan, Appiah tells us, is one who thinks of himself or herself as a citizen of the world, rather than of a particular city or country. He traces the idea back to the ancient Greek Cynics and Stoics, and mentions its influence on the Enlightenment. Indeed, in Tom Paine’s “my country is the world, and my religion is to do good” from that time, I find a fine statement of cosmopolitan sentiment. And Appiah says that cosmopolitanism begins from: “habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association.”

I confess I find this idea of cosmopolitanism rather attractive. Partly because over the decades my work has taken me, for periods of months or more, to places like the Netherlands, the USA, Indonesia, Italy and Australia; and I enjoyed most of them. And partly because the idea holds out hope of a way forward from the current, failed political system of nation states and super-states.

In the Introduction to the book, the basic ideas of cosmopolitanism come thick and fast. That we have obligations to others, which go beyond our kin or our fellow-countrymen. That people are different, and the differences are worth exploring. That there's no necessary conflict between local tastes or customs and a universal morality. That “we neither expect nor desire that every person or every society should converge on a single mode of life.” That we shouldn’t expect everyone to become a cosmopolitan; there will always be hold-outs. That “there are some values that are, and should be, universal, just as there are lots of values that are, and must be, local.”

The first two chapters of the main part of the book, in comparison, I found disappointing. On the first chapter, indeed, I made only one note. That was an apparent small error: “recognition of our responsibility for every human being.” At which I thought, surely he means to every human being? Responsibility for the conduct of everyone on the planet would be a heavy cross to bear.

The second chapter, the one which aims to knock down moral relativism and positivism, I found the hardest going by far. I had hoped for strong, clear arguments in support of the existence of both universal and local moral values. After all, this corresponds very closely to my own ethical view. I found myself disappointed.

On to the third chapter, on facts. Now, I’m a believer in the objectivity of truth. For me, a particular truth or fact may be unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, or disputable, at a particular time. But all truths can, in principle at least, be discovered. The scientific method is the best way we’ve found so far of finding out truths about our physical surroundings. And it’s helpful in seeking truths in other areas such as economics – though it can’t always do these things on its own. If that makes me a positivist in Appiah’s terms, so be it.

I do, in fact, agree with Appiah that believers in witchcraft don’t deserve to be singled out for criticism as irrational; though they may deserve sanctions for what they do to those they believe to be witches! But this, for me, is merely because religion is by its nature not amenable to reason. Religion, I find, is a thought process that exists right down at the level of metaphysics or basic world-view, thus below the level of the rational mind. Therefore in religion, tolerance is the only sane attitude.

But when I come to Duhem and Hanson, and opposing views on scientific thinking, Appiah doesn’t manage to persuade me out of my putative positivism. For me, there are many reasons why scientists may disagree on facts. They may include ambition, confirmation bias or politics. And when, at the end of the chapter, Appiah says that nothing guarantees that we can reach agreement on facts, I respond: That’s because facts and perceptions of facts are different things.

The chapter on moral disagreement is where the book starts to get really interesting. I liked the discussion of “thin” and “thick” moral concepts. And the example of the matrilineal society, achieving the same moral value (good parenting) by a different means from the Western nuclear family, is a very good one. The discussion of taboo is also good.

On the Golden Rule, I have a difference with Appiah. He correctly calls out the standard negative form of the rule for failing to take into account that the values or tastes of the person, to whom you’re deciding whether you may do something, may be different from yours. It may be OK, for example, to whip a masochist, but not to whip a normal person. But he doesn’t mention the far more serious flaw in the positive form of the rule – at least, in the Christian version which he quotes. This is that, taken literally, this form of the rule requires you to act well towards others, even when they act badly towards you. An extreme interpretation would, for example, forbid you from using violence to defend yourself against an attacker.

The next chapter, “The Primacy of Practice,” puts forward the idea that we can often agree on what is to be regarded as right and wrong, even if we don’t agree on the reasons why. This is good, because it greatly increases the chances of agreeing on which moral rules should be core (Kant’s universal maxims, as discussed in the previous chapter). But there will always be moral issues on which differences cause deep divisions – abortion and gay marriage are cases in point.

“Imaginary Strangers” answers a variety of questions about and objections to the cosmopolitan idea. I’ll comment on only one. Some make out that people can only care about those with whom they share some kind of identity, for example national or religious. And that such an identity always requires an out-group as well as an in-group. But for cosmopolitans, for whom the in-group is “humanity,” there can be no out-group. Appiah answers this objection by stressing the importance of shared identities between individuals, rather than dividing everyone into groups; and I agree with his point. But in my view, there's another and much stronger answer. There is in fact an out-group; the enemies of humanity. Back in the chapter against positivism, Appiah identifies one proterotype of this group as “the Tormentor,” someone that thinks it is good to be cruel. But for me, the out-group is wider than this. It consists of those that fail, seriously or persistently, to live up to basic standards of humanity – the core moral rules that distinguish human behaviour from sub-human. (Elsewhere, I’ve called them “disconvivials.”) In terms of specific individuals, it has included Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and many others I won’t name.

On “Cosmopolitan Contamination,” I’ll again offer only one comment. That is to quote Appiah on preserving diverse cultures: “There is no place for the enforcement of diversity by trapping people within a kind of difference they long to escape.” To that I say, Amen.

In “Whose Culture Is It, Anyway?” Appiah addresses the taking of cultural relics from one culture by another, and the calls for restitution that we hear so often. And, it seems to me, his position on this matter – not even to try to demand everything back, for marketing reasons – is very reasonable.

In “The Counter-Cosmopolitans” he discusses a group of religious, and particularly Muslim, enemies of cosmopolitanism – “neofundamentalists,” he calls them. And he warns against the wrong kind of universalism or uniformity. “Universalism without toleration,” he says, “turns easily to murder.” But he also makes it clear that there are limits to cosmopolitan tolerance. “Everybody matters; that is our central idea. And it sharply limits the scope of our tolerance.”

In the final chapter, “Kindness to Strangers,” Appiah demolishes the ideas of philosophers who think that everyone should give away most of their money and property to “good causes” like Oxfam and UNICEF. And in passing, he dismisses the idea of world government: “It could easily accumulate uncontrollable power, which it might use to do great harm; it would often be unresponsive to local needs; and it would almost certainly reduce the variety of institutional experimentation from which all of us can learn.”

I generally agree with the views expressed in this chapter, though on a couple of things I would go further. Firstly, for me the obligations of human beings to others divide into two types, negative and positive. We should fulfil the negative obligations, such as not supporting warlike aggressions against innocent people, to everyone without exception. But for the positive obligations, given that we have limited resources, it is up to us how and whom we decide to help. Giving to UNICEF rather than going to the opera, an example Appiah uses, might actually be a very bad thing if the result is that the opera company has to close for lack of business. Secondly, while I entirely agree with Appiah’s stance against world government, I think that his arguments can just as well be applied to many national governments; and to the EU, too.

To sum up. There are some very fine ideas and expositions in this book, despite a few chapters that are relatively dull. There’s much food for thought, too. One impression I had, though, is that Appiah does sometimes seem to pull his punches. It’s only in the last chapter that he stops jabbing and really unleashes the left (or right) hook. But that’s probably because he values his status among the establishment, and doesn’t want to make too many enemies!

The book is available on Amazon now for a little less than its cover price of £10.99. It’s worth the read, if only for a different perspective from those we usually encounter in Western liberal philosophical and political writing. And it may turn out, once I’ve digested the ideas a bit further, to have been worth more than that. For now, I’ll give it four stars out of five.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Political community and the Anti-Enlightenment

It’s plain that there’s a lot wrong in politics today. Our prosperity, our lifestyles, our rights and freedoms and our sanity are all under assault by the political class and their hangers on. So today I’ll ask: What has gone wrong?

I’ll state my conclusions up front. I see two strands of mishap, which together have led to the present situation. The first is weakening of the bonds that ought to hold political communities together. This, I think, has led to the decline and consequent failure of the nation state as a political system. It has also aided the rise of internationalist and globalist schemes, such as the European Union and the United Nations.

The second strand is a climate of thought, shared by many in the political class and among their cronies, which rejects the values of the 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment. It rejects ideas like human progress, reason and science, objective truth, universal natural law, tolerance of difference, and the rights and freedoms of the human individual. Instead, it resists progress, denies the value of facts and rational thought, promotes moral relativism, and aims to politicize everything and to impose a suffocating conformism on everyone.

Along with this anti-Enlightenment backlash goes an activist agenda, that seeks to force authoritarian policies on all of us. Its proponents include: A global cadre of unaccountable élites. Most intellectuals in the humanities, and many in medicine and the sciences. Most of those that self identify as environmentalists. Feminists, social justice warriors and other practitioners of identity politics. Socialists, fascistic types, and wannabe totalitarians. Petty tyrants and jobsworths, that get their kicks out of making life difficult for people. Many, if not most, in the mainstream media. And the great majority of politicians, of all factions.

While some like to call this agenda “cultural Marxism,” in my view it’s rather broader than that. I see it as mixing elements of three political ideologies: socialism/communism, fascism and conservatism. If I had to pick a single word to encapsulate it, I’d call it illiberalism.

Individual, partnership and family

I’ll begin my account of political community with the smallest community of all; the individual.

Human beings are individuals. That’s a biological fact. Each of us has our own body and our own mind. And yet, we are social too. Man is a convivial animal. Convivial literally means “living together.” But it has also a secondary meaning of living well together. It’s in our nature to live together, and to build communities and societies for mutual benefit.

The smallest multi-person society is the partnership, and specifically the partnership of two. Two adults of opposite sexes can provide the zygote, if you will, from which a family can develop. The resulting “nuclear” family, of two parents and their children, is the canonical formulation of the next social unit up the scale. Beyond this, individuals can form and can join societies for many other purposes, like recreation, wealth generation and mutual defence.

The individual is the fundamental unit, from which all societies are built. And the family is of fundamental importance, too. For the family is the smallest social unit which can survive indefinitely. Moreover, it’s important to note that the individual and the family are different in kind from all other social units, because they are not voluntary. Each of us is born with a particular combination of characteristics, of talents and disabilities, of strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, each of us is born into a family, which has its own traits, both good and bad. In both cases it’s up to us, as individuals, to make the best we can of the hand we are dealt.

Bands and tribes

Long ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, the primary social institution beyond the family was the band. Bands consisted of several families, often closely related and usually numbering a few dozen people. And the organization was generally loose; while the band’s elders were valued for their advice, there was no formal power structure.

The primary forces, which bound the band together, were biological kinship and shared interest in finding food. These would have given the members of the band a sense of common purpose or community; and would have led them to co-operate in hunting. For example: “You flush the birds out of hiding, and I’ll kill them.” But they would also have had ties of mutual provision, or trade. Not merely at the level of: “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” But also, as Adam Smith put it: “Give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want.”

Thus, the binding forces of a band are three: kinship, community and trade. There are ties of kinship from the individual to the family, and from the family to the band. There are ties of community, which bind each individual to the band as a whole, and vice versa. And there are ties of trade between the individual and other individuals and groups, in both directions.

Sometimes, bands would join together into larger units, commonly called tribes. They might have a formal group of elders, making decisions on behalf of the whole tribe. For example, on where to go to maximize the chance of finding prey at a particular time of year. And particularly among larger tribes, they might be ruled over by a headman and his advisors. Such systems are still used today in some traditional African societies.

When a tribe was well led, this could provide it with a fourth binding force, of leadership. The members of the tribe would acquire respect, and perhaps even love, for the individual or individuals who led their tribe, and brought it success.


Another binding force in a tribal society may be a shared religion. The people of the early tribes usually believed in many gods. And, one presumes, each tribe would have had its own set of gods, differing in one way or another from those of other tribes. They also had a priesthood, an early example of a privileged class. These officiated at the festivals which were held in honour of the gods; but they also often performed skilled services, like medicine and counselling.

In such societies, religion could supply a fifth binding force, beyond kinship, community, trade and leadership. The gods, interpreted by the priesthood, would have strongly influenced the conduct of individuals within the tribe. And they would also have had a strong effect on the headmen or elders, and so on the conduct of the tribe as a whole.

Land and people

About twelve and a half thousand years ago, a great change took place. Groups of people, in several parts of the world, abandoned the traditional hunting and gathering. Instead, each group settled down in one place, and began to cultivate crops and to domesticate animals.

When conditions were benign, the new approach allowed the populations of these groups to increase. The result was the rise of the Neolithic village. But not every year brought a good harvest to every village. In such times, groups that were short of food would seek to use force to take for themselves the product of the labours of other villages. Thus was unleashed on humanity the scourge of war.

Now, a political state isn’t an inevitable result of social systems like the villages of Neolithic times. Indeed, the earliest states only appeared several thousand years after the Neolithic revolution. Nevertheless, the territorial state seems to be an attractor point, towards which political societies are drawn.

There are several theories as to how the first states came about. Of these, Robert Carneiro’s seems to me as believable as any. Where arable land was scarce and its area circumscribed, when there was famine and so wars between villages, the losers could no longer flee to a new territory. The conquerors would soon have worked out that they were better off if they didn’t exterminate the defeated. Instead, they subjected these villages to taxation in the form of their produce.

This had two consequences. First, the size of the political unit increased, from one village to many. And second, within such a unit there would have arisen two classes. A ruling class, formed of the strongest warriors and their cronies and hangers on; and a productive class, subjected to the ruling class. The state was up and running.

As time passed, a variety of social structures evolved. But most had one thing in common. That is, that power was in the hands of a small, élite minority, who did not contribute to food production, and thus had to be supported by the labours of the ordinary people. Furthermore, in many cases accession to the élite was hereditary. More often than not, there was a single individual at the top of the pile – a chieftain or king. And the chieftain was surrounded by an aristocracy of senior members of select families.

Those chieftains who ruled and judged well, and benefited the group members as well as the group as a whole, would have been seen as great leaders. So, despite the inequality pervasive in such a society, people in these chiefdoms would still have felt bound to the group and to its leaders. And they would also have felt an attachment to the territory of the chiefdom, and even more to the particular parcel of land which they farmed. Thus, their society would have acquired a sixth binding force, which I’ll call proximity. And individuals would have acquired a strong sense of we; a love of our land and of our people, or what we would today call patriotism.

The city state

The city state of ancient Greece was a great advance on what preceded it. It was the environment in which the first codes of law, and some of the first examples of money, were introduced. The city state began as a mutual defence society. Indeed, it was a community in the sense of the Latin com- and munire, meaning “sharing fortifications.” But it went further. For, inside the walls of a city state, there was time and opportunity to experiment with ways of organizing the society.

Each city state was different. Each had its own culture and values. Athens, for example, had a culture which valued rational thought. And it encouraged skilled and talented foreigners to settle there. Aristotle was one such. Furthermore, it had a system called democracy, in which all members of the privileged class of full citizens could speak and vote in the assembly, and so have a say in the doings of the city as a whole. Sparta, on the other hand, was a militaristic oligarchy, closed to most foreigners, and not allowing its own people to travel.

But there were similarities between the city states, too. Wars among city states were in those times all but endemic. All the city states relied on the institution of slavery. While many cities in theory allowed political rights to all male property owners, in practice only a minority of the residents had full political rights. And the cities, like the earlier chiefdoms, were often dominated by aristocratic clans. Yet in its heyday, the city state was seen as like a family. And those without full rights, even women, slaves and immigrants, nevertheless felt bound to the people and the culture of the city they lived in.

Thus the city state added, to the six binding forces of kinship, community, trade, leadership, religion and proximity, a seventh: a shared culture and a shared set of values. The people of a city would have felt attachment to their culture, and to the values which it promoted.

Cultural nationalism

I’ll skip now over approaching two millennia, to the beginnings of nationalism. I’ve heard it said that scholars place the origin of nationalism anywhere between the 8th and the 18th centuries. I put my own pin firmly in the middle of that period, at the end of the 13th century. And I credit the Welsh with being the first nationalists. For, once Edward had conquered them, they knew they were no match for the English on the battlefield. So they made the best of a bad job, treasuring their culture and their language rather than political ambitions.

Something similar happened with the Scots, although their brand of nationalism was more Gaelic than Scottish. The English and the French, too, were not immune from such feelings; probably because for many centuries they were at so often each other’s throats. And so, gradually, senses of nationhood and civil society grew among different populations in Europe.

The Westphalian nation state

By the 16th century, there was a problem. With the split between Catholicism and Protestantism, religion had not only lost its ability to bind people together, but had become a disruptive force. The solution to this seemed to be separate those of different religions into different territories, on the model of cuius religio, eius religio.

In such an atmosphere, fresh ideas were needed. Enter Frenchman Jean Bodin, and his concept of sovereignty. In Bodin’s scheme, the sovereign prince has many powers over the people within his state or territory. He has power to make laws to bind them. To make war and peace. To appoint the principal officers of the state. To be the final judge of appeals, and to pardon those convicted if he so desires. To issue a currency, to levy taxes and impose duties, and to exempt those he wishes from such taxes or duties. Further, the sovereign prince is above the law. He isn’t bound by any of the laws he makes, he bears no responsibility for his actions, and he is only accountable to God, not to any human being.

One can be forgiven for thinking that Bodin merely took up where Machiavelli had left off, and that his scheme is no more than a recipe for tyranny; as it indeed has often proven to be. Bodin was, after all, mainly seeking to increase the power of the French monarchy. However, he did make it clear that the acts of a sovereign prince must always be based on justice and natural reason. And that such a prince is always subject to what he calls the law of God and nature.

By the 17th century, Bodin’s scheme had become the basis of the “Westphalian” nation state. Such a state claims sovereignty over a territory, and a right to order all affairs within it. It claims rights to make laws, to go to war, to tax, to be the final arbiter within the territory. And – though many will try to deny it – state functionaries still retain, to a greater or lesser extent, immunity from responsibility for acts carried out on the state’s behalf.

Even today (parliaments, democracy, bills of rights, constitutions and other bags on the side – even the EU and UN – notwithstanding) this is still the primary form of political structure in the world. Yet in terms of binding forces, the Westphalian nation state adds nothing beyond those of the city state of old: kinship, community, trade, leadership, religion, proximity and culture.

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries affected primarily the European Christian cultures, and those derived from them. It was not, at the time, a world-wide phenomenon. Though it spread to the Jews within a few decades, and its knock-on effects reached places like Japan and much of the Islamic world during the 19th century. However, its ideals set the tone, over two centuries and more, for most human societies.

The Enlightenment freed human minds from shackles both religious and political. It promoted ideas of advancement and human progress. And it supported a belief in the inherent goodness of the human mind. One of the most fundamental Enlightenment ideas was that of reason; that is, thinking in orderly, rational ways, and of using logic to build and to judge mental models of reality. The Enlightenment celebrated reason, and the independent use of it by human beings. And it brought to the fore the idea of reasonable thinking, argument and behaviour – not extreme, not excessive, but in accordance with reason.

Another fundamental idea was that truth is objective, independently of what people happen to think about particular truths. And as a result, we can discover truths; we can use our reason to build up as objective as possible a picture of the world around us. Therefore, the Enlightenment put a high value on rational thought; and on the scientific method, which uses observations, hypotheses, experimentation, reason and logic to seek to build an objective view of our surroundings. Further, it encouraged the application of reason to areas of thought beyond the physical and scientific, including ethics, politics and economics.

In religion, many Enlightenment thinkers sought to make the exercise of faith less confrontational than in earlier times, and so promoted religious tolerance. Others went further, seeking to lessen the political power of organized religion, or even to eradicate religious authority entirely.

In politics, the Enlightenment brought the idea of a civil order based on natural law. Along with this came ideas such as the natural rights and natural equality of all human beings. Of a social contract, to enable people to live together in a civil society and to protect their natural rights. Of individual liberty, and the right to do whatever isn’t explicitly prohibited. And of freedom of opinion, speech and thought. The new practical ideas in politics included: constitutional government, separation of powers, separation of church and state, and that government must be for the benefit of and with the consent of the governed. On the more radical margins, these ideas even included some kind of democracy, and a government of laws, not of men.

In economics, Enlightenment thinkers laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. They sought to promote the market mechanism and what became laissez faire capitalism. And at around the same time, the development of colonies by several European powers began the long process of breaking down barriers of culture, language, geography and religion.

A time of revolutions

Good ideas have consequences. And these were no exception to the rule. The American Revolution was perhaps the embodiment of Enlightened politics; though its roots can be seen in the earlier ideas of John Locke, who had helped to secure the Glorious Revolution in England.

The French Revolution, on the other hand, went badly sour. Though starting with high ideals of individual liberty, equality and fraternity, it de-generated into a tyranny. What seems to have happened is that, in their eagerness to up-end the existing order, the revolutionaries tried to use the political state to do it. That’s like trying to fight fire with fire. And the results – bloodshed, war and eventually dictatorship – should have been predictable.

As to the causes of the failure, scholars differ. But there’s a point of view, in which I find some weight, that the revolution became corrupted away from its own professed values because some of its philosophical leaders were not quite what they appeared to be. I’m thinking in particular of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The more I read about the man, the less I like him. Certainly his conception of a social contract, in which individuals must surrender their rights and be forced to obey the “general will,” is far more collectivist than John Locke’s idea of people voluntarily forming a society to protect their rights. There’s a case to be made that, far from being a progressive and a supporter of individual rights, Rousseau was actually a big-government shill.

Political nationalism

Whatever one may think of the French Revolution, one thing it did was inspire people to look for a political set-up, which could satisfy the desires and interests of individuals as well as of the group as a whole. Thus were born the modern ideas of nationalism and the nation state. The idea of popular sovereignty, too, grew out of the revolutionary ideals. No longer were people willing to kow-tow to the arbitrary dictates of some king or ruling class. Instead, they sought to allow every member of the community a say in how the nation was ruled.

But political nationalism had many negatives, too. Religion and culture, which had originally been binding forces, could easily become divisive and destructive. Political societies were larger than those of earlier times. So, divisions could easily appear between classes with different aims and aspirations. Worse, the idea of “my country, right or wrong” placed the nation, and so the state, above moral principles; even those like “Thou shalt not kill.” And so, nationalism spawned wars. And wars enabled the state steadily to increase its powers over people.

Three centuries of ideology

In Enlightenment times, there were in essence just two political ideologies: liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism – what we would now call classical liberalism – was a bottom-up view of politics. Liberals saw the institution of society, and therefore political societies, as being for the benefit of each individual. And they promoted the new, progressive ideas of reason, tolerance and natural rights. Conservatives, on the other hand, took a top-down view. They saw the state, and its powerful élites such as kings, nobles and church leaders, as possessing both authority and immunity from being held to account. And they resisted change, seeking to preserve the existing order both religious and political. Along, of course, with their own privileged positions in it.

Things became more complicated in the early 19th century, with the advent of socialism. One of the difficulties in discussing socialism is that there is no clear, widely accepted definition of it. For some, it means collective ownership and control over the means of producing, distributing and exchanging goods. For others, it means a social organization with an egalitarian distribution of wealth, and no such thing as private property. My 1928 dictionary calls it the “principle that individual liberty should be completely subordinated to the interests of the community with the deductions that can be drawn from it e.g. the State ownership of land & capital.” One thing all socialists seem to share, however, is a burning desire for political change in a socialist direction.

To be fair to them, the earliest socialists weren’t all top-down statists. Often, they sought to create model communities, bound together by shared ideology. Robert Owen’s community at New Harmony, Indiana was an example. Of course, most – if not all – of these communities failed. And so, by the 20th century, socialism had degenerated into a militant collectivism, in which Society and the socialist agenda are paramount, and the individual is of no significance.

Another ideology, which began to grow at much the same time as early socialism, was anarchism. The distinguishing feature of anarchism is its opposition to the state and to political government. Anarchists prefer to associate into non-hierarchical communities, each with its own style. And in many cases, these styles run parallel to those favoured by socialists. But the big difference between anarchists and socialists is that most anarchists don’t want to force their ideology on anyone outside their own communities. Except, of course, for those 19th century anarchists, who sought to use violence to get rid of the state and its ruling class.

Then came Marxism and communism. Marxism claimed to be scientific socialism – an attempt to apply the scientific method to social and political ideas. But the results, when it was put into practice, were not good: famines, massacres and mass deportations, to name but three. And the Marxists saw capitalism – that is, ownership of property and of the means of production by individuals and by voluntarily formed groups – as a system that led, not to prosperity, but to systematic inequality and instability. Supporters of Marxism and communism therefore sought to overthrow the capitalist system, and to impose state control on the economy.

That had two bad effects, at least. First, the Marxist promotion of class war between working people and the (not very well defined) classes they called “capitalists” and “bourgeoisie” wasn’t very helpful in binding people together, was it? And state control over the economy weakened, bit by bit, one of the most important binding forces of all; trade between individuals.

Yet, while Marxists predicted that the state would wither away, they also set out to capture the state and to use it to achieve their objectives! No wonder communism turned out to be so evil. No wonder the societies it led to were ruled by small minorities that brutally oppressed everyone else. No wonder communism caused nearly a hundred million unnecessary human deaths.

Also closely associated with socialism is egalitarianism. In its weak form, it seeks equality of opportunity; in which all individuals can achieve preferment according to their demonstrated abilities, not based on – for example – race, religion, gender or nepotism. But many egalitarians today favour a stronger version of this idea; equality of outcome. That is, similar rewards for all, regardless of talents or application. Egalitarians, therefore, hate able people, particularly those who develop their talents to the full. And most of all, they hate individuals who are economically competent and independent. Yet they seem blind to the fact that to enforce such an equality requires extreme inequality in political power. As Friedrich von Hayek put it: “A claim for equality of material position can be met only by a government with totalitarian powers."

Then came fascism. In some ways, it’s hard to separate fascism from communism. In their heydays, both shared an attachment to dictatorial power, extinguishing individual freedom, forcible suppression of opposition, social indoctrination and a lack of ethical restraints on the state. But in some respects, fascists went further. They hated anyone who was different, particularly in race. They sought to make groups of people into scapegoats, and wanted to purge those they considered to be inferior, such as Jews. They valued duty and discipline, glorified violence and war, and gave hero status to the ideal of the warrior. On the other hand, fascists didn’t so much want to destroy the capitalist system, as to turn it to their own advantage. It was possible to get rich under fascism, but only for those that unceasingly sought to increase the power and well-being of the fascist state.

In the course of the 20th century, other evil ideologies also sought to establish themselves in various parts of the world. Notable among them have been racism, as in apartheid South Africa and Idi Amin’s Uganda; theocracy, as in Iran; and dictatorship, as in North Korea. Each of these ideologies was and is, at root, a perversion of one of the binding forces of human societies. Racism is a perversion of kinship, theocracy of religion, and dictatorship of leadership.

Then there’s welfarism, also known as nanny-statism, an ideology which led the ruling class to try to bribe people into believing that the state is a benefit to them. They set up elaborate, re-distributory schemes for welfare, or health, or education, or whatever else was flavour of the month. And they commandeered the resources necessary to implement these schemes. But the main effect of such schemes has been to drag down into dependence on the state many who, if allowed the chance, would have been well able to prosper through their own efforts.

Moreover, every nett benefit to a Paul or Paula must be paid for by some Peter. And Peter must also pay for the bureaucracy that maladministers the system, and the politically connected cronies that feed off it. Thus welfarism, far from helping the poor as its supporters claim, actually re-distributes wealth from the politically poor to the politically rich. Worse, Paul and Paula don’t know that Peter is the one who is providing for them. And so Peter doesn’t receive, for his pains, any thanks or appreciation at all. Thus welfarism weakens the bonds of trade, community, proximity and even kinship, which should have held together Peters and Paulas, Pauls and Petras. And it impoverishes both its apparent beneficiaries and their reluctant benefactors. That isn’t a sustainable set-up.

Then there are warfarism and its comrade, the security state. A warfarist state behaves like a school bully towards those outside it, and often towards those inside it too. It seeks to interfere in people’s affairs, in ways almost always damaging to those affected. It instigates “war on drugs,” “war on terror” and the like. It seeks any excuse to use its military forces. And often, while decrying terrorism, it encourages – and even carries out – terrorist acts. At the same time, it pries into people’s lives, and monitors and records their actions in ever increasing detail. And like fascism, it often seeks to make scapegoats out of people who may (or may not) have committed some small misdeed or irresponsibility in their past.

Then there are feminism, affirmative action, the authoritarianism of “social justice warriors,” and other manifestations of what has come to be called identity politics. In this kind of politics, individuals identify themselves with groups who have, or have had in the past, some real or perceived grievance; women, gay people or black people, for example. And they advance political positions that seek to empower these groups relative to other people. At the same time, many of them seek to promote political correctness, and to stifle the freedom of speech of those who disagree with them. And they see people, not as people, but as members of groups. Thus the rights of the individual get lost in the noise.

Then there’s what I call social engineering fever. Those affected by this particular ailment seem to think that they possess a right to interfere in others’ lives, for no better purpose than their own social goals. These zealots like nothing better than to “intervene,” seeking to change people’s behaviour. Their targets range from users of drugs and prostitution, to smokers, alcohol and pop drinkers, car drivers and many more. And they are adept at using state dominated education and politically correct media to promote their nefarious schemes.


But among today’s ideologies, pride of place for sheer evil goes to environmentalism and the green agenda. At one level, it’s a perverted religion. It worships the planet and “nature” as if they were gods, and shows contempt for human beings, both as individuals and as a species. At another level, environmentalism is like a mix of communism, fascism and conservatism.

The green agenda is like communism, in that it seeks to destroy our free market civilization, and to deny its fruits to the people of the world. But it also seeks to trash our Enlightenment heritage of reason and searching for truth. Its promoters spout lies, misrepresentations, bullshit and unfounded scares. They falsify past records to try to make their case. They misuse the scientific method, and present chicanery as if it was science. They call anyone who opposes them nasty names like “deniers.” They claim their science is settled, when in reality it is suspect or dubious, or at least highly uncertain. Many of them can’t, or won’t, debate the facts objectively. They invert the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof, and require those they accuse to prove a negative.

The green agenda is like fascism, too, in that it seeks to take away our freedoms, and to impose on us arbitrary and ever tightening personal and collective limits on what we may do. Among much else, it wants to force us to: Stop smoking. Walk, cycle or use public transport instead of driving cars. Cram ourselves into compact cities and high-rises. Recycle religiously. And dismantle our affordable, reliable energy infrastructure, and replace it by energy that is expensive, intermittent and requires gigantic solar arrays or ugly, noisy wind farms. Moreover, the greens like to make scapegoats out of those who, through no fault of their own, have been led into actions deemed environmentally incorrect – for example, drivers of diesel cars.

But the green agenda is also ultra-conservative. Its promoters seem to fear any kind of change that isn’t part of their agenda – including “climate change.” They babble about “sustainable development,” but they don’t seem to want us to develop much at all. They want to destroy dynamism in Western economies, and to slow or halt human progress. Indeed, many of them want to force us back into a pre-industrial age. And they even try to make out that our activities are damaging the planet by extinguishing species – of whose very existence we can’t be certain!

What the greens actually want to force on us is not sustainability, but stasis. But stasis can never be sustainable. Indeed, stasis is death.


Meanwhile in many countries, beginning in the mid 19th century there grew up an institution called democracy. But that’s a misnomer. For this scheme isn’t like Athenian democracy at all. It’s really just a sham.

Instead of having a real voice in political affairs, each of us is merely permitted to cast a vote for one (or occasionally more) of a field of candidates, that claim that if elected they will “represent” us (whatever that means). And these selections, totted up in more or less complicated ways, are used to determine which of a number of criminal gangs called political parties is to be granted licence to rule over us for the next several years.

I suppose that, initially, many people thought this system might give them a voice in how they were governed. This phase, which I call democracy-1, must have felt like something of a honeymoon period. But it wasn’t long before there emerged political factions, looking to take advantage of the situation; as James Madison warned way back in 1787.

In this phase, democracy-2, two factions (or, rarely, three or more) attract cores of support, and promote policies designed to favour their own supporters. People who don’t feel a strong attachment to one faction or another will tend to vote for whichever side seems less evil at the time. And this, as often as not, is the faction currently out of power. So, power tends to swing from one side to the other and back again. The social fabric becomes more and more stretched, and the tone of politics nastier and nastier.

But there’s worse. When a faction receives a democratic mandate, that gives an apparent legitimacy to whatever policies it promotes. So, democracy can easily arrive at the so called tyranny of the majority, in which 10 people can gang up on 9 people, and steal their resources through targeted taxation; or tell them what to do, however unreasonable, and back it up by threats of violence. Democracy-2 can even bring about the tyranny of a minority. For factions often acquire power, based on the support of less than a quarter of those eligible to vote.

What kind of labels do these factions pin on themselves? Some identify as liberals, yet their policies are anything but liberal. Most of them seem to be merely socialists that don’t have the guts to admit it. Some call themselves democrats, a code word for “we want to use the system to benefit our supporters at the expense of everyone else.” And “social democrats” are socialists to boot. Others – such as greens – call themselves progressives, yet their policies are fascistic and ultra-conservative. Meanwhile, many of those that bill themselves as conservatives turn out, on examination, to be warfarists, racists, religious zealots or some combination of these. None of the factions are what they claim to be. And none of them are worth voting for, anyway.

This system allows no voice at all to those who cherish Enlightenment values, or who are liberals or progressives in the true senses of those words. Nor, indeed, does it offer anything to those who simply want to mind their own businesses and live their lives in their own ways. Thus many who oppose socialism, fascism, welfarism and warfarism, the green agenda and the like, have felt impelled to vote for “conservative” politicians, thinking perhaps that they are the least of many evils. But regrettably, these voters are in error. For even the least of several evils is still an evil.

Meanwhile, in many places – particularly in Europe – democracy-2 has moved into the next stage, democracy-3. Here, different political factions may spout different rhetoric; and their policies may, perhaps, be a little different around the edges. But their ideologies are essentially the same. Welfarism and environmentalism, for example, are at the roots of the policies of almost all parties that have any realistic chance of power. Moreover, the system tends to elevate the worst, the most dishonest, devious and psychopathic, into positions of power. So, most policies in democracy-3 are directed to strengthening and expanding state power. They are made, not in the interests of the people, but to benefit the political class and their hangers-on, and to satisfy the agendas of special interest groups. Thus, under democracy-3, most of us are forced to live our lives under political ideologies that are distasteful or downright hostile towards us.

Further, democracy as it exists today has a dramatic negative effect on the binding forces of political societies. Leadership becomes perverted into the imposition of bad policies. Those, who suffer under the rule of political parties hostile to them, lose all sense of common purpose and community. For those that support harmful policies are, in effect, assaulting the victims of those policies; and in a particularly dishonest and cowardly way. Moreover, to the extent that the political state controls and distorts the economy, it also weakens the binding force of trade. And those, whose values conflict with the political correctness du jour, feel alienated from the culture they live in. Far from promoting social cohesion, today’s democracy destroys it.

There’s a fourth stage of democracy, too; already into some countries, like Greece. In democracy-4, the political state reaches a critical mass. Those dependent on the state, either for work or for benefits, become an absolute majority. Thus under democracy-4, a single interest bloc can forever outvote, and so oppress, everyone else. Democracy-4 is a terminal social illness.

The decline of religion

All this has been accompanied by a weakening of the binding force of religion. In and of itself, I’m not too concerned by the decline of religion, a credo which I outgrew at age 16. For I find religion to be a thought process that exists at a level lower than the rational mind. So, it isn’t amenable to reason. And therefore, the only sane attitude to religion is tolerance. Except, of course, towards those that want to browbeat or to force their own religious views on to others.

But the decline of religion has had, indirectly, a very great negative effect. For it has taken away the sense of accountability to a higher authority, which was supposed to restrain the conduct of those in power in the state. A godless sovereign prince has no-one to answer to. So he can do what he wants, however unjust or unreasonable. Moreover, a godless political state recognizes no limits to its authority. So it can do whatever seems expedient to the rulers, however evil and destructive it may be. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that, in the minds of many in the political class and among their hangers-on, the state itself has become a god.

The failure of the nation state

To sum up nation states and their politics today. We’re still using a 16th-century political system. Isn’t that crazy? We don’t use 16th- century medicine any more, or 16th-century farming techniques, or 16th-century transport. And we’ve been through the Enlightenment since then, for goodness’ sake! So why are we still suffering under a system that not only allows, but encourages, an élite to do to us exactly what it wants, with no accountability or come-back?

A government that does its job properly ought to be a benefit to every individual among the governed; real criminals excepted, of course. It should be like an impartial umpire. But today’s political governments drain fairly earned resources from people, and use them for selfish, immoral, destructive political schemes. They are no longer umpires, but have become vampires. We live today, not under John Adams’ vision of government of laws not of men, but under the rule of bad laws made by bad men.

The Westphalian nation state is out of date. It’s no longer fit for purpose; if, indeed, it ever was. Over time, it has atrophied the binding forces, like community, trade, leadership, proximity and culture, which ought to hold its people together. And democracy has not only failed to deliver its promise, but has made and is making things worse. Thus nothing remains to hold nation states together, except fear of being targeted by state violence or theft. That’s not sustainable.

Internationalism and globalism

The ruling élites know, of course, that nation states have lost most of their former ability to bind people together. So, they continue to seek new excuses to keep themselves in power and to increase their power. And these include international political schemes and globalization.

Back in 1999, the green socialist spinmaster Tony Blair spoke of a doctrine of international community, in which “we are all internationalists now.” The label “post-Westphalian” was subsequently applied to this idea. At the time, this sounded like typical socialist claptrap; for socialists have long been internationalists. But it seems, in hindsight, that it was mostly an attempt to justify Blair’s subsequent warfarism.

International politics shows at its worst, though, in the shape of the European Union and the United Nations. I’ve always been leery of words like “union” and “united” when used in a political sense. For they represent centralization of power, and the suppression of the individual which usually accompanies it. (That goes for “United Kingdom” and “United States,” too). It isn’t in jest that some of my friends refer to the EU as the EUSSR!

Up until about 1991, I thought that the Common Market, or European Economic Community, was generally a good thing. But when I first heard the words “European Union,” my alarm bells went off. What had been sold to us as an economic project, had morphed into something very different; a political federation, with the EU making directives to bind national governments. If the people of Europe had been told this was the objective back in the 1970s or before, I doubt they would have gone along with it. If only because having a third party like the EU making national policies contradicts any idea of “democracy,” which many still believed in back then.

And then there’s the UN. In its first incarnation, as the League of Nations, it may have done some good in its attempts to prevent war, although it ultimately failed. Even in the early days of the UN, some good things were done. The 1948 Declaration on Human Rights, for example, is well intentioned; though I find it like the curate’s egg, mixing genuine rights with socialist claptrap like social security and “free” education. And UN peacekeepers do some useful work in places like Cyprus.

But the UN, like the EU, has morphed into a malign and activist institution. The UN is the main driver of the green and “sustainable development” agenda, which it has been pushing since at least the early 1980s. It extends its tentacles into areas as diverse as loans to developing countries, gender equality and public health. Its activists are unelected and unaccountable. And it harbours many that want to set up a world government; and that want such a government to be strong, monolithic and even, some say, fascistic.

As far as economic globalization goes, a world without trade barriers would be a good thing. And international trade between people of different cultures has the potential to provide a binding force, which can help to hold together humanity as a whole. But what we actually have today is quite different from a truly global economy.

In recent decades, it has become obvious that governments and big companies (national and multi-national) have been colluding. Sometimes they seek to harm foreign competition, other times to hobble smaller competitors closer to home. I have reason to believe that I myself am a victim of just such a collusion. Most often, they seek a political deal in which government and the big companies win, and everyone else loses; like using the climate change agenda to drive electricity prices up. Thus, the prospect of gain through political means corrupts businessmen into becoming cronies of the political class, and doing their dirty work. And the political class reward them handsomely for it.


I can’t leave the subject of internationalism without a brief discussion of migration. It seems that on this subject there are two main currents of thought, which move towards opposite extremes. On the one hand, some favour maximum freedom of movement for everyone, regardless of race, place of birth, or received culture or religion. On the other hand, there are those who equate a nation with a race, a culture, a region of birth, a religion or some combination of the four. And who, therefore, strongly resist inward migration by those they consider “foreign.”

Myself, I tend towards the former view. For national borders are, in many places, arbitrary. Often, they are no more than accidents of history. And to allow a state a right to control who may go into or out of its territory, and therefore who may meet whom, seems to me an excessive power to give to an organization that has far too much power already.

That said, though, I can understand the feelings of those who see their culture being diluted, and their ties of kinship, proximity or religion washed away, by mass immigration. And most of all when this migration is encouraged or even deliberately planned by the ruling class, for example in an attempt to shore up an unsustainable welfare system. Or when the incomers seem likely to cause substantial change in the demographics, and so in the longer term the culture and values, of a nation. This problem is not, in my view, soluble within the current framework of nation states and democracy. A more radical solution is needed.

The Anti-Enlightenment

Even setting aside philosophical differences between promoters of the Enlightenment, it had enemies from the start. These enemies saw the failure, and the consequences, of the French Revolution as failure of the Enlightenment ideas as a whole. And in the intervening two centuries or so, the anti-Enlightenment backlash has broadened. One aspect of this backlash, in more recent times, has been the movement called postmodernism. This and similar attitudes seem to have profoundly affected many, if not most, of today’s intellectuals and their followers.

I’ll try, as briefly as I can, to contrast the Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment viewpoints.

Where the Enlightenment view sees human minds, and thus human beings, as inherently good, the anti-Enlightenment sees humans as naturally bad and “sinful,” and needing to be restrained. Where the Enlightenment view sees human social and economic progress as natural and desirable, the anti-Enlightenment resists change.

From the Enlightenment point of view, truth is objective. A particular truth or fact may of course be unknown, or poorly understood, or wrongly apprehended, at a particular time. But all truths can, in principle at least, be discovered. In contrast, the anti-Enlightenment view holds that facts can be different for different individuals, groups or cultures; and that feelings are often more important than facts. In this view there is no such thing as objective truth. And thus there can be no way in which people, when they are divided by differences, can agree on anything by argument alone. Ultimately, force is the only possible arbiter.

Where the Enlightenment view celebrates reason, the anti-Enlightenment is skeptical about it. Where Enlightenment people seek to think and behave in ways that are reasonable, those of the anti-Enlightenment seem to want to go out of their way to be unreasonable. Where the Enlightenment view places a high value on science, the anti-Enlightenment corrupts science by trying to mix it with politics.

In ethics, for the Enlightenment thinker, right and wrong ought to be the same for everyone. And any attempt to judge what is right and wrong must be grounded in reason, and backed up by rational arguments. For the anti-Enlightenment thinker, on the other hand, there is no absolute standard of right and wrong. Ethical rules and judgements may be different if looked at from the perspectives of different people. And so, in the extreme, anything goes; and might makes right.

In politics, the Enlightenment point of view is a bottom-up one. Societies exist for the benefit of the individuals in them. All individuals are naturally equal, in John Locke’s sense: “all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another.” Tolerance of difference, in religion and in other life choices, is a virtue. And every individual has natural rights and freedoms. In contrast, the anti-Enlightenment view is top-down. It puts Society and the state above the individual. It seeks to centralize power in an élite. It is often intolerant of difference. And it leads, in many cases, to a desire to impose an illiberal agenda on everyone.

This agenda, as I suggested earlier, can’t be classified as any single one of socialist, or communist, or fascist, or conservative. But it combines features of all of them. It is in part socialist or communist, in that it seeks to transform society and societies to accord with the desires of its promoters. Welfarism and hatred of the free market are two aspects of this. But the agenda also has elements of fascism, like warfarism and colluding with cronies. And it is conservative in its hatred of change and human progress, and its devotion to the out of date, failed political system we suffer under today.

In conclusion

So, here’s my best shot at diagnosing the political problems we human beings face today.

First, the nation state, which is currently the primary form of political society, has lost its cohesion. The forces which ought to bind together people in these societies – kinship, community, trade, leadership, religion, proximity, culture – have been weakened by bad politics, and particularly by the sham called democracy. Thus, the nation state has failed as a political system. And the internationalist and globalist schemes like the EU and the UN are, if anything, worse.

Second, many intellectuals and their followers, particularly in academe, the media, government and politics, have acquired a regressive philosophical outlook that rejects the liberal values of the 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment. This way of thinking leads them to seek to impose on the people of the world an illiberal, totalitarian order that mixes elements of socialism, communism, fascism and conservatism.

How to fix these problems? That’s a matter for another day.