Having become engrossed in Second Life (see below), I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read through Our shared future, the report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion about which I was rather rude the other day.
I have, though, been thinking about why I dislike its approach so much; it is, I fear, yet again another example of our old friend well-intentioned managerialism, at work. The way I look at the question is this; by and large, most people are tolerant by default. That is, in most counties — and Britain, thank God, is certainly one of them — people are really primarily interested in getting on with their own lives in their own way and aren’t particularly bothered one way or the other about other people might be doing so long as it doesn’t adversely affect them too much. We’re all of us members of umpteen overlapping, and at times conflicting, ‘communities’ — the area in which we live, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our partner’s family (oh, dear God… quote from my late wife, shortly before she died — ‘at least I’ll never have to put up with my brother again, and you won’t have to, either, after the funeral’ — a somewhat unchristian remark, but people like Anna’s brother were the reason the word ‘nincompoop’ was invented), other members of social, political or religious organisations to which we may belong . None of them define us; and through our experience of belonging to them, we’re all of us perfectly well able to deal with people we might not particularly like or who seem to us rather odd (my sometime brother in law, for example).
If there’s someone you don’t like, or who doesn’t like you, you either avoid them or, if circumstances — work, in particular — throw you together, most of us learn quite early on how to deal with such situations. And we do because we’re sensible adults who’ve learned how to conduct our lives so we can concentrate on pursuing, in our own ways, those ends that seem important to us, with a minimum of frustration. When conflicts arise, as inevitably they do, they’re normally between individuals, not communities — though they might well be between particular individuals who, for their own motives (usually political and financial) claim to speak ‘on behalf of’ particular communities.
Now, it seems to me that, in this fallen world of ours, conflicts between individuals are inevitable. Sometimes they can be solved by more or less amicable negotiation, but sometimes they can’t and that’s when the civil or criminal law comes into play. But for government to say, ‘conflict is undesirable so we’ll do our best to ensure it never arises’ is not only deluded; it’s downright dangerous.
Totalitarian is a much misused term, to my mind; a mere synonym for ‘repressive’. As I understand it, it was originally favoured by the Italian fascists, who meant by it something rather different. Their complaint about the existing political parties was that they represented sectional and regional interests — capital, labour, agriculture, various regions of Italy and so on. No one, complained Mussolini and his comrades, would speak for the whole, the totality, of Italian society — so that’s where they came in. The fasces, the axe bound with rods, appealed to them not only because it was the ancient symbol of the authority of the Senate and People of Rome, in the person of the lictors, but because it contained old image of sticks, individually weak and easily broken, becoming strong and resilient when bound together*.
The trouble with this, of course, is that it doesn’t work. As this blog’s intellectual hero, Michael Oakeshott, put it,
for the most part, we pursue happiness by seeking the satisfaction of desires which spring from one another inexhaustibly. We enter into relationships of interest and of emotion, of competition, partnership, guardianship, love, friendship, jealousy and hatred, some of which are more durable than others. We make agreements with one another; we have expectations about one another’s conduct; we approve, we are indifferent and we disapprove. This multiplicity of activity and variety of opinion is apt to produce collisions: we pursue courses which cut across those of others, and we do not all approve the same sort of conduct. But, in the main, we get along with one another, sometimes by giving way, sometimes by standing fast, sometimes in a compromise. Our conduct consists of activity assimilated to that of others in small, and for the most part unconsidered and unobtrusive, adjustments.
Why all of this should be so, does not matter. It is not necessarily so. A different condition of human circumstances can easily be imagined, and we know that elsewhere and at other times activity is, or has been, far less multifarious and changeful of opinion far less diverse and far less likely to provoke collision; but, by and large, we recognize this to be our condition. It is an acquired condition, though nobody designed or specifically chose it in preference to all others. It is the product, not of “human nature” let loose, but of human beings impelled by an acquired love of making choices for themselves. And we know as little and as much about where it is leading us as we know about the fashion in hats of twenty years’ time or the design of motor-cars.
However, as Oakeshott warned — having in mind the then very recent totalitarian regimes in Italy and Germany and the still very current one in the Soviet Union —
Surveying the scene, some people are provoked by the absence of order and coherence which appears to them to be its dominant feature; its wastefulness, its frustration, its dissipation of human energy, its lack not merely of a premeditated destination but even of any discernible direction of movement. It provides an excitement similar to that of a stock-car race; but it has none of the satisfaction of a well-conducted business enterprise. Such people are apt to exaggerate the current disorder; the absence of a plan is so conspicuous that the small adjustments, and even the more massive arrangements, which restrain the chaos seem to them nugatory; they have no feeling for the warmth of untidiness but only for its inconvenience. But what is significant is not the limitations of their powers of observation, but the turn of their thoughts. They feel that there ought to be something that ought to be done to convert this so-called chaos into order, for this is no way for rational human beings to be spending their lives. Like Apollo when he saw Daphne with her hair hung carelessly about her neck, they sigh and say to themselves: “What if it were properly arranged.” Moreover, they tell us that they have seen in a dream the glorious, collisionless manner of living proper to all mankind, and this dream they understand as their warrant for seeking to remove the diversities and occasions of conflict which distinguish our current manner of living. Of course, their dreams are not all exactly alike; but they have this in a common: each is a vision of a condition of human circumstance from which the occasion of conflict has been removed, a vision of human activity co-ordinated and set going in a single direction and of every resource being used to the full. And such people appropriately understand the office of government to be the imposition upon its subjects of the condition of human circumstances of their dream. To govern is to turn a private dream into a public and compulsory manner of living. Thus, politics becomes an encounter of dreams and the activity in which government is held to this understanding of its office and provided with the appropriate instruments.
The problem is that when government that purports to not only to govern according to, but also to inculcate in those whom it governs, ‘A shared national vision’ (in the words of the report) finds this isn’t working — as, inevitably, it won’t, since we’re all of us pursuing potentially conflicting personal ends rather than (except possibly in times of all-out war) ‘a shared national vision’, and will thus inevitably come into conflict with each other — the government is at a loss to understand this. In practice, such conflicts can only be interpreted as the work of outside forces — enemies of the nation, be they foreign, or foreign-influenced, enemies if you’re one sort of totalitarian or class enemies if you’re a different, though equally nasty, flavour. Such governments can’t accept that conflict is an inevitable part of life, since they’re predicated on the idea such conflicts and collisions can be done away with — which is why, inevitably, totalitarian does end up as a synonym for repression. Conflict has to be repressed, since it’s the work of outside forces.
As I skimmed through the report, which I do intend soon to read more fully, time and again I saw individual ideas and proposals that were either unexceptionable or even rather good. But they were contained within a vision of an overarching state apparatus — and a quango, at that — that was charged not with helping people solve problems or dealing with the results when they happened but with trying to make sure that we live our lives in such a manner that the occasion for conflict won’t arise in the first place.
It will, though, as surely as night and day follow each other. And it’s what happens then that worries me, particularly if Mr Brown continues with his predecessor’s alarming delusion that all social problems can be solved by the increasingly injudicious — in the literal sense, since the government does much like getting judges involved in such matters as they notoriously ‘just don’t get it’ — use of the criminal law to solve all social ills.
Like most people, I think, I need neither a shared national vision nor a government initiative to make me do my best to get on with people, even though I may not have much in common with them nor even much like them; a combination of common decency, self-interest and inertia (since compromise is normally less effort than fighting) sees to that. Once, though, we get a government department in charge of making us all behave well towards each other, though, then I really fear for the consequences.
*Historical footnote: This image appears in the dumb-show at the beginning of Gorboduc, the first tragedy written in blank verse in English, as I vaguely recall:
First the Music of Violins began to play, during which came in upon the Stage six wild men clothed in leaves. Of whom the first bore in his neck a fagot of small sticks, which they all both severally and together assayed with all their strengths to break, but it could not be broken by them. At the length one of them plucked out one of the sticks and broke it: And the rest plucking out all the other sticks one after another did easily break, the same being severed: which being conjoined they had before attempted in vain. After they had this done, they departed the Stage, and the Music ceased Hereby was signified, that a state knit in unity doth continue strong against all force. But being divided, is easily destroyed. As befell upon Duke Gorboduc dividing his Land to his two sons which he before held in Monarchy. And upon the dissention of the Brethren to whom it was divided.