Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Third Option Has To Be Revived

a society based upon individual autonomy, to be achieved through policies of government that by act or omission enhance the specific, tangible material well-being of individual people, by creating or protecting conditions of life that enhance vigor and morale.  These include education, fair wages, wholesome food and water, and reasonable hope for one's children

In several of my recent posts I've rejected the nearly ubiquitously political analysis that places fascism and Marxism as polar opposites on a line of political identity, calling to attention the numbers of corpses which those have both produced.  You would think that mountains of murdered humans, numbering into the tens of millions would be the predominant feature of governments that produce them, overshadowing any merely theoretical assertions put forward as to intentions and motivations.

But in the academic analyses of political theory, it's the would be scientific abstractions and asserted intentions - even less often realized than under democracy -  that rule the analysis.   Our academic habits lead us to look past the carnage that governments do to something that is deemed to be more important in judging them.   I think in that oversight there is a lot to be learned about the limited value of academic theory as compared to real life and practical politics.  I proposed that real liberalism, that real democracy is characterized by its rejection of murder, by war, intention, neglect or mere indifference or it is not democracy in any meaningful way.   A real democracy would include real and effective measures to prevent industrial murder of individuals through pollution, selling dangerous, poisoned and infected drugs and anything else which leads to death by profit.

Marilynne Robinson's third option outlined by her in the words above seems to be to be a far better description of the polar opposite of fascism and Marxism.  If it were to be turned into a formula, I  would add the word "equality" to it because without equality the equations will always tip to the side with more power and more money, though it is clear that equality is a given in her statement.  The line of political identity should be based, first and always, on whether the results are of more people standing alive and well in an environment that can sustain life or people dying in misery in a depleted, poisoned, destroyed environment that risks extinction.  Both fascism and Marxism, as practiced, are on an extreme opposite end of that from the best results of democracy.  The line shouldn't be thought of as a segment ending at any status quo which has ever existed or which has been imagined by academic scribblers but of a progressive movement in the direction of equality, well being, of the moral obligation to respect the inherent rights of all people and the well being of the environment, which will be a challenge enough to match human abilities to partially achieve it.

The great question in the United States in 2013 is the extent to which Barack Obama and the congress will save our endangered democracy, our great liberal tradition of movement towards Marilynne Robinson's formulation of good government, and, in fact, the very basis of human life on our planet.  The signs aren't good.  Barack Obama has appointed a series of treasury and economic officials and an Attorney General whose every impulse is to the protection and promotion of oligarchy.  His choices in replacing Geithner and Summers have confirmed suspicions  that is what he intended to do.   His continued support for Eric Holder and his Department of Justice, encode Holder's reluctance to challenge the enormous banks and the enormous fortune which are becoming the de facto government of the United States, to an extent they haven't since the most corrupt periods of our history.

The austerity which is presented by Barack Obama, as well as the majority in the congress and by the media, as the only obvious course in an economy in which a tiny but growing number of billionaires confiscate the largest, by far, percentage of the wealth produced by labor, amassing insanely huge fortunes in legalized theft on a scale that would make the ancient Roman super rich envious.   There is no austerity at the top, that is left for the overwhelming majority of The People.  To a great extent this has been accomplished through transferring jobs to foreign populations living under despotic governments, without real political rights or the ability to organize to demand their rights.  Free trade has produced the dream of all aristocrats, the ability to amass wealth without having to have to deal with the laborers who produce that wealth.  The mass of the American people are superfluous to the huge banks except as needed to bail them out when their plunder has been excessively undisciplined.  The spectacle of nearly complete housing developments being torn down, never lived in, of houses repossessed to be resold at a loss or to be allowed to rot unoccupied, is a good example of the perversion of an oligarchic economy funded by the government with taxes payed by people whose ability to pay is diminished by the economic system they live under.   Whatever relief that the government has provided to the destitute and those just above them is what the allegedly liberal government in office proposes to put on the chopping block in order to rescue the situation.

Barack Obama's economic policies are more like those of the opponents of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal than they have been any other Democratic president since Cleveland during the gilded age.  He doesn't seem to be able to imagine really disturbing the tranquility of the super rich, the mega banks, the academic and media mouthpieces that they fund or the legal hacks who they have funded.   In the fifth year of his presidency, for him to put the legacies of Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson on the cutting table while presiding over the continued enrichment of the already obscenely  filthy rich, made legally impune by the disinclination of his Attorney General to prosecute,  leads one to suspect he doesn't intend to do anything but participate in the destruction of that American political option that Robinson points out.


Marilynne Robinson cites Lincoln's famous statement of a black woman's absolutely equal right to the bread that she earns by her own hand.  A fuller quote will show that it was an extremely radical statement for his day, while one with troubling content for us:

Now I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. I need not have her for either, I can just leave her alone. In some respects she certainly is not my equal; but in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of any one else, she is my equal, and the equal of all others.

In a statement, in answer to one of the typical assertions of racism, an accusation that he wanted to "mix the races" by asserting their equality,  he begins by asserting agreement, stating that black women were "in some respects" "certainly not my equal."   He did that, plainly, to diffuse what would have been a politically untenable idea in the 1850s, interracial marriage.  Any discomfort we have to his assertion of inequality is due to our quite different thinking and a changed world.   But Lincoln then turned the tables to say that in the crucial matter  under discussion, economic justice, she was absolutely equal to all others by virtue of her having produced wealth.

Mary Frances Berry,  the most prominent member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in its history among the best experts on civil rights as they really are in real life,   wrote in 1980  about this and related passages to show how Lincoln advanced equality over the course of two of the most troubled decades of U.S. history.

Politicians in their speeches, writings, and actions must, as Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum recently stated, "strike the proper balance between a naive idealism and a craven pragmatism." Abraham Lincoln was a politician who understood that political action is compromise. But the highest calling of the expert—successful—politician is making compromise creative and not corruptive. It is proper that successful politicians have always wanted to be both popular and political. Being popular is easier; it is accomplished by telling audiences what they want to hear—something that touches a responsive chord because it is consonant with their own personal experiences and beliefs. Being political is more difficult. It requires telling people what the politician wants them to hear in a way that they will be inspired to think differently and more sensitively about things. As we consider Lincoln, the successful leader and politician, dealing with the civil rights of Negroes, let us ask two questions. How much did he tell people what they wanted to hear, and how much did he give them a new sense of direction? Did he strike a proper balance between idealism and pragmatism? I believe he did.

Since the matter is about politics, it is inevitably caught up in what was currently possible and achievable, the question is moving towards an ideal, not the impotent insistence on making it real immediately.

For the first years of the Obama administration it was still possible to suspect that he was trying to play some kind of chess game to move things forward, in the face of a Republican party, a Republican majority on the Supreme and other courts, and a corporate media which used the most primitive forms of racism to destroy him and his administration.   It was possible to believe, even with Obama's obvious intellectual brilliance, that he was playing a weak hand in which he had to court and not alienate the very corporations and billionaires he could win over in order to make any progress at all.   It has been a given since his election that his opponents would use racism as a tool to organize and to fight him, and they have.  It was a given that they would use everything they threw down to impede and destroy President Carter and Clinton and even more.

As his first term continued, as he refused to use his position to force the Democratic Senate to move his own agenda, as his and Harry Reid's dithering left hundreds of bills the Democrats in the House passed to die, as he lost the House in 2010 and he faced an explicitly threatened, oligarchy financed, right wing insurrection, he continued on in the same way.   Like Bill Clinton in 1996, Barack Obama's political luck in reelection was that Republicans put up an extremely bad candidate who a majority of voters rejected.   Like his policies and appointments, the best thing that can be said for him was that the alternative was demonstrably worse on most issues, equally bad on others.

What Barack Obama and his administration has done so far isn't even adequate.

In order to save democracy, in order to save the middle class, in order to move things as entirely important as progress in halting global warming, more than what Barack Obama has done is necessary.   His political gaming hasn't been to move things forward, when possible, it has been to move it to a slightly modified status quo.  That new status quo will not allow even his signature achievement, a moderate, corporate friendly health care expansion, to remain as a good for the large majority of The People.   As even Adam Smith acknowledged,  private capital will always seek ways to extract money wherever they can.   His health care system will be plundered as every other marginal attempt at reform has been in the absence of an effective countering force in government.

In all of this I see the erection of peculiarly American forms and, more importantly, cultural and intellectual thinking that are documented in Mother Country.   That is why it is such an important essay, that is why it could not be allowed to become widely read.   What the American oligarchy wishes to destroy, it, first, mocks, second prints a negative review of in the New York Times, thirdly merely marginalizes and ignores.


I have asked some of my friends who consume enormous amounts of British literature and its history and culture as presented by the BBC and others who export the stuff to America if they'd ever heard of the Poor Law or the New Poor Law mentioned in any of those.  Not a single one of those educated Anglophiles, devoted to all that is British,  had,  that they could recall.

Since the provisions of the Poor Law were a massive presence in the life of most of those in England and then Britain, that omission is, in itself, extraordinarily important to understand.  In that clear effort to ignore or forget a major atrocity in the history of one of the major world powers,  to suppress mention of it, we see a model for the imposed ignorance of the American People since the introduction of TV.

One of the most fondly, frequently recycled stories in the American media is how ignorant Americans are of their government, the world, history, etc.  Those media corporations were given rights under the Bill of Rights in exchange for them informing The People, the only legitimizing force behind government and, in fact, the very constitution,  so they could make informed choices.  To have them mock the ignorance of The People, something that is the result of them reneging on their part of the deal contained in the First Amendment, should be intolerable.  It would certainly be an intolerable situation to real American style liberals, who would see that the real good, an informed people governing themselves, as at least as important as the corporate right.  A real liberal would see press freedom as an inferior right granted to artificial corporations as opposed to the right of that informed people to self-government.  But liberals have been duped out of valuing things of real value in favor of entertainment.  I blame PBS, the BBC, and the other media corporations for that as much as I do overtly commercial networks.   I certainly blame them for promoting the likes of  Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, the members of the corrupt D.C. based media and the Anglophile propaganda that has contributed in the corruption of the American common consensus, such as it is, in their audiences.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Electricity Flickering

We seem to be getting the snow storm they say we were going to miss and I'm not confident the electricity won't go out.

A year or two ago someone angrily asked me if I was telling them they had to be polite to "stupid, fat, NASCAR fans",  the answer was that you had to if you wanted them to vote with you.   Which is, it would seem, a point too subtle for so many leftists with clean fingernails and a college degree to understand.

I'm afraid that increasingly, people on what gets called "the left" in the United States are the same kind of elite snobs who have disdain and a hatred of poor people which, at times, more than matches the right wing desire to exploit and use them.  One of the conclusions I've gotten from watching American politics, on the failure of the left to win over larger numbers of poor people, especially poor white people, that they have been successfully sold on the image of liberal elitism that looks down on poor people with "blue collar" lives.  I'm sorry to have to say that, especially since going online and reading the unedited thoughts of so many on "the left" it's not entirely untrue.  It's a disdain that is frequently expressed and those who express it clearly delight in the opportunity to declare their own superiority to poor people.  Poor white people, most often, but I really can't imagine them putting themselves out for the garbage collectors who Martin Luther King jr. died for.

In those comments from the "left" as it is manifested on so many leftish blogs, I see the same attitudes and ways of thinking that allowed the British elite to do the terrible things they did while feeling such a sense of personal virtue and rectitude.  It's a difference of accent, not of substance.

Here is a piece I wrote in my earlier, more innocent, days as a blogger, back when I believed so many of those I read wanted real progress more than to feel superior to the majority of people.  Note that I still used the term "working class",  I hadn't had my consciousness raised by reading Mother Country yet.


You've heard the question, why are working class people hostile to the left, the side who have brought them the five-day week and just about every economic benefits they have? Why do they think that we are elitist snobs? Well, some don't. Contrary to the Republican medias' line there are lots of working class people who do favor the left and are quite aware that we are the ones who support them. You might even want to prepare yourself to be stunned, there is no exclusionary principle that keeps working class people from being genuine, full-fledged, leftists. But we do have a problem with those who don't trust us. For starters, they are too often too many for us to win.

Like most everything favoring conservatives, a lot of working class hostility to the left is founded on a lie. As a life-long leftist from a left leaning, working class family I know that leftist snobbery is a lot less common than asserted. The policies are the best proof. Those are generally working class friendly, or used to be before the beltway triangulation fad took hold. But I'll tell you up front, there is way too much class snobbery on the left and unless it is dropped the charge will stick like 100% polyester on a humid day. The problem for the left is real, the political results are plain. It's not an easy issue to define so a complete analysis will take too long. We need to fix this quick.

Stop to consider how a remark or exclusion makes the recipient feel and if the perceived motivation for it requires the slight. Sometimes the slight is unintentional, sometimes given out of habit. I can guarantee you that things like correcting grammar or spelling, especially while ignoring the substance of what was being said, can buy you a life-long enemy, mocking religion even more so. I'm pretty thick skinned about my spelling, most people aren't. If there isn't any problem with the sub-standard usage or religious issue it's just not worth the price to point it out. To make it more complicated, sometimes it is worth it. I don't know when the cost of a grammar issue is a bargain but would fight for evolution to the end. One is formalism, the other is truth. I assume we can all agree that mocking taste in clothes and entertainment is clearly not worth the price.

Attacks from the likes of the blog trolls are the time to get the brass knuckles out. That's not a class issue. It's one of those brawls mentioned here a couple of weeks back and just about anything goes.

For some it's not as much a style issue as it is a problem of courtesy or respect for perceived inferiors. If that is true for someone it goes a lot farther down to the real commitment to the commonly held leftist agenda, I don't trust them. But if that isn't the case it's a matter of changing a bad habit. Getting it right without perceived condescension isn't always easy but, again, unless the necessary skills are mastered any slights will be taken as confirmation of the worst stereotypes. It paints us all. Common politeness, not dismissing the point that is being made, asking politely for clarification when needed and showing respect will get you a lot farther than the most brilliant and factual correction even when coolly delivered.

It's a question of what results you want. You want us with you or against you?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mother Country continued

Following on from the last excerpt posted yesterday, it describes situations in the late 1980s when the book was written but there is a lot that sounds like current discussions in the United States.  A similar scheme of youth employment has been discussed in some states, even as education,  social services and welfare are cut.

So very much depends on a poor man's wage.  At present there is a Youth Training Scheme in Britain to absorb the energies of unemployed school-leavers.  Industries are encouraged to take on trainees in place of regular hiring.  These youths are paid by the government at wages that about equal the dole.  In other words, the government donates to industry the free use of unskilled labor.  Without reference to the wealth these young people produce, their subsistence is counted as welfare spending, and they are thought of as the beneficiaries of this arrangement, from which it is hoped they will learn the value of honest work.

People in their teens are historically the most coveted workers in the British economy.  They are relatively healthy, and from the government's point of view, they are cheap, because they have no dependents and normally live with their families.  This scheme merely reproduces the ancient pattern, severing work from pay, making the wage a charity, while reducing work to an escape from the opprobrium of idleness.

Britain invests more money abroad per capita than any other country, and invested more in absolute terms, util Japan surpassed it in this decade.  Those who control capital,  whether banks or industries of the government itself, have always  had the means  to punish or starve policies they disapprove of,  or to crown with success policies friendlier to their interests simply by leaving money at home or by siphoning it off to the United States or to South Africa or elsewhere.

Mrs. Thatcher was described in an essay by Bernard D. Nossiter in The New York Times (June 15, 1988* as arguing to a church assembly "that abundance, the rich, were blessed while poverty, the poor were not, and Creation proves it."

She has her reward.  Britain is experiencing economic growth, of the hectic, selective, up-market kind which does not threaten to drive upward the cost of industrial labor or the demand of social services.  British economics is a game of keep-away.  Whence all the jiggling of statistics - it is easy to get a big percentage increase from a very small base, as in calculating wages and pensions, and it is easy to take away with one hand what is given with the other, to raise wages a little and cut benefits more, and it is easy to increase rates of saving and contribution to private pension plans by reducing benefits for the elderly or cutting back on the administration needed to deliver them or adding to the obstacles involved in obtaining them or threatening to phase them out altogether, as the Thatcher government has done. 

Ralf Dahrendorf, in his book On Britain, quotes respectfully as follows from a book titled Equality, coauthored by Keith Joseph, an important figure in the Thatcher government:  "Ultimately the capacity of any society to look after its poor is dependent on the total amount of its wealth, however distributed."  One might object that the way in which wealth is distributed determines, in a society, how numerous "its poor" will be.  To distribute wealth away from employed people, as the British do, creates poverty, which must be looked after, perpetuating the ancient relation of those who work to those who employ, which has analogues, or cousins, in slavery and forced labor.

Marilynne Robinson's contention that the Poor Law is still present or, at least, always threatens to be resurrected in Britain is clear.   The language of it seems to be almost unconsciously encoded in the way we talk about work, wealth and economic rightness.  We seemed to be learning new ways to think about those and talk about them, to break out of the Poor Law form of slavery.  My fear is that has been regaining a presence in American thought since the Reagan administration and that, now, our "liberals" in the Democratic Party sound like conservatives of the 1930s.

This week as Nancy Pelosi proposes to raise the minimum wage again, to certain opposition with the usual arguments that paying a fair wage inhibits employment, as the stock market floats to new highs over the stagnant unemployment figures and in a week after we found out who the worlds biggest billionaires are (with some having more than fifty billion dollars in personal wealth),  How we've gotten to where we are and the kind of barely realized assumptions that allow us to tolerate it are worth thinking about very hard.


I've decided to remove the restrictions on comments, for the time being.  I will go back to moderating comments if there are problems.  As always, I will remove any comments that are abusive, dishonest or otherwise what I choose to not have on my blog.

The Atheist PR Machine is Kicking Around Mother Teresa Yet Again

Having been busy, I hadn't come across the information that the atheists are kicking around the corpse of Mother Teresa again until I went looking for Alexander Cockburn's obit of Christopher Hitchens yesterday.   I'll post the piece I looked it up for later.

From what I can gather this innings in the game centers around one Serge Larivée, a figure in the Sceptiques du Québec,  a local parish of the pseudo-skepticism industry, itself a branch of the atheism industry.   He and Genevieve Chenard, one of his co-authors both work in the Department of Psychoeducation* at Université de Montréal, the third author, Carole Sénéchal, works in the Department of Education at The University of Ottowa.  I haven't been able to find out anything else about them.  The paper which contains their charges against Mother Teresa is behind a pay wall so I haven't been able to read it.  Apparently neither have the people who wrote most of the stuff I've read online, much of it posted before the article was published, that looks like it's the  typical  product of the online atheist grapevine.

Also from what I've been able to read, most of that from the usual atheist sources, it looks like an update of Christopher Hitchen's hatchet job explicitly with the goal of supporting what he said.  With his hit job on M.T.  Hitchens became a figure of atheist adoration.  Figures of atheist adoration enjoy a similar status to the most popular of saints.  Having called attention to some of the very unsavory, not to mention corrupt, aspects of Hitchen's career in my blog brawls with atheists, they will hear nothing said against him.  Consider that one of the reported bases of the Larivée case against Mother Teresa are some of the unsavory political figures she took donations from and allegedly consorted with.  In light of that, their reliance on Hitchens is entirely hypocritical.  There was his conversion from Trotskyism (a pretty violent and anti-democratic ideology) to his fawning, adoring Thatcherism and onward to his further descent into American style neo-conservatism during the Bush II regime and his massive media presence as a major promoter of the illegal invasion of Iraq,  Hitchens has more of that kind of political filth on him than Mother Teresa does by a factor of hundreds of thousands of times.   Pointing that out will get these same atheist nun-bashers  in a lather of indignation that anyone should look critically at their idol's record, most of it completely documented in his own, published, writing.   Anticipating my next post, you can read about a bit of the underside of Hitch in Cockburn's obit.

One of the odd things about the continued use of Mother Teresa is that last time around the atheist team was hooting that M. T. was, covertly, one of them.   Then it was the publication of her diary in which she revealed that she had profound doubts about the reality of God, going on for decades, that she felt no presence of God in her life.  Many of the same blog atheists were crowing, then,  that Mother Teresa was an atheist, a hypocrite and any number of other things.  And including using her as their new found atheist tool to slam the Church.  Hitchens, the media's go-to man for everything anti-M.T.,  joined in the crowing:

So, which is the more striking: that the faithful should bravely confront the fact that one of their heroines all but lost her own faith, or that the Church should have gone on deploying, as an icon of favorable publicity, a confused old lady who it knew had for all practical purposes ceased to believe?

Unsaid in this was that if she was guilty of all of those things Hitchens,  Larivée et al are accusing her of, neglect of the dying beggars she'd taken in from the street, medical and clerical incompetence and implied corruption, then, according to them, it was an atheist pretending to be a religious person who committed those wrongs.  I wouldn't say that, myself, but I'd like to know how the same atheists would confront that point.

While she was hardly someone I'd consult on matters of reproductive rights, modern medicine or administration,  one thing is clear, that in the decades before she was made famous, she was trying to do what later made her famous,  pick up dying beggars from the street and do something for them.  Pretty much on her own for a good part of it, going on doing that, without world wide acclaim, for years on end.

She was a very unsophisticated person who was doing what none of her sophisticated, affluent, atheist critics seem to be doing, trying to serve some of the most destitute people on Earth.  I would like to know how many atheists have continually done what she did in the years before she became the center of a rather vulgar and overblown cult of personality.  

That personality cult might be usefully compared to a somewhat similar one, that of James Randi, who is a sleaze,  a documented serial liar, a fraudster and a criminal.   I'd like to know where the millions of dollars that go to his "educational foundation" go.  There must be millions, he's the one who says he's got the money to cover his phony "challenge" at the ready.

I'm not a fan of  the Mother Teresa cult.  As someone who the Church still considers to be a Catholic,  I'm entirely against the saint-making machine the Vatican installed under John Paul II, something that went crazy during his pontificate, though somewhat slowed during that of Benedict XVI.  It was frequently a scandal, part of JPII's own publicity machine.  The guy loved to dress up and make a spectacle of himself for the TV cameras.   I don't think the Vatican should be in the saint making business, at all.   At the very least,  a generation or more should pass between the death of someone and this kind of thing.  It often takes longer than that to gain some kind of perspective on the life of a person held up as a saint or, on the other hand,  smeared as a deeply flawed human being.  If you're going to call someone venerable you owe it to those you want to venerate them to make sure they are.

This is not going to be the last atheist use of Mother Teresa, they've raised up an anti-MT franchise business,  it's something they'll be doing for decades.   There will always be minor figures in semi-pro atheism who will be looking for publicity.  I will just about guarantee you that Larivée will be a headliner featured in future atheist conclaves.  I don't have any problem with an honest criticism of Mother Teresa, anyone held up as a hero, never mind a saint, should be looked at fully.   I don't even mind atheists doing that if they're honest.  But this criticism doesn't seem to be that one, the promotion of it by the atheist PR machine certainly isn't.  It's their usual ideological smearing.

*  I'd never heard of "psychoeducation" before this morning and was unaware that such a thing was being taught at universities.  I might look into its "scientific" foundations but the little I've read makes me very skeptical that it's an advance on other sects of that pseudo-science.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Continuing on

It is tempting to go on with that last passage but I will jump ahead.  After a long and fascinating passage about Americans in the period around the Civil War and the role Karl Marx certainly played in the thinking of American figures as iconic as Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe Marilynne Robinson continues:

I am haunted by the sense that a changeling has been put in the cradle of American culture.  Adam Smith, the supposed capitalist, whose influence among us is notorious, developed an economic system in which prison, the poorhouse, and starvation have no role and in which the flourishing of the people ( a term he prefers to "the poor") is the desired end.  Compare the Fabians, those most sedulous of strainers of mercy, Why are Smith's proposals for public projects to enhance the economy, taxes that weigh less heavily on the poor than the rich, and education to alleviate the effects of industrial work, called capitalist, while subsidies of the cost of labor and visits of inspection to the homes of the poor to assure that their destitution was perfect before they were relieved - that women had sold their wedding rings, for example - are called socialist?  Why do the Land Grant Act, the Homestead Act, and the G.I. Bill, three distributions of wealth to the public on a scale never contemplated in Britain, have no status among political events, when the dreary traffic in pittances institutionalized as the British Welfare State is hailed as an advance of socialism?

We must find a political and moral clarity that will enable us to address the starkest problems of survival, if the world is to have any hope.  For a long time now, socialists have claimed an exceptional interest in the well-being of the generality of people, a special inclination to humanize collective life.  But the history of socialism is disheartening.  It is too strongly associated with repression, and these ties are too casually dismissed, for socialism to be conceded the special virtues it claims for itself.  Plutonium manufacture and radioactive waste dumping are enterprises for the British government, and as good a proof as one could wish that government ownership in itself means nothing.  The pattern identified by Adam Smith and Karl Marx, the accumulation of capital through the destruction of wealth is fully present in Sellafield.  British socialism has always been no more than the left hand washing the right, and yet for years it has compelled the admiration of American socialists, who can find nothing in their own tradition to compare to it for moral grandeur. 

The mainstream political tradition in America is represented insistently now as unrelievedly "capitalist" whatever Marx might have said about it, and as compromised  grubbing and mean-spirited because of the supposed relative prevalence of "private property" - whatever Marx might have said about that.  On both the right and the left, capitalism, not democracy is represented as the basis of our institutions.  If Sellafield is sometime sold to private owners, as the government has long intended that it should be, then overnight it will become a classic capitalist enterprise by Marx's definition. 

There is a third option, however, described by both Smith and Marx, and , as luck would have it, indigenous to America, of a society based upon individual autonomy, to be achieved through policies of government that by act or omission enhance the specific, tangible material well-being of individual people, by creating or protecting conditions of life that enhance vigor and morale.  These include education, fair wages, wholesome food and water, and reasonable hope for one's children.  These things correspond in a general way with what Americans consider to be "Western values," yet they have have never described, and do not now describe, the condition of life of ordinary British people.  To the inevitable reaction, that people do not miss what they have never had, that the austerity of their lives has spared them the corruptions of materialism, that legal protections are needed only where society is a war of each against all that there is the dole to assure them security from cradle to grave, however tedious the passage, or however swift, the reply must be that the history and present condition of ordinary British people make it clear enough how they have been used and in that spirit, by capitalists and by socialists, in tacit or declared collaboration.  The best American political impulses occur outside this sham opposition.  'they need to be rediscovered as valuable impulses.  Certainly we need to rediscover the complexity of our own political history, which deserves vastly better than to be seized upon by capitalists or dismissed by socialists. 

When Abraham Lincoln said of a hypothetical black woman that "in her natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands ... she is my equal, and the equal of all others,"  he expresses an economic proposition which is by no means the commonplace or inevitable.  Lincoln based the woman's rights on what she earned, not what she needed, a departure from "subsistence theory" and an implicit acknowledgement that labor creates value - that is, a margin between the cost of the worker's subsistence and the amount of wealth she creates - and that she has a right to share in this overplus.  One learns from Adam Smith, Thomas Carlyle, E.G. Wakefield, and others that subsistence was assured to slaves as it was not to free workers.  In Britain before the Second World War, employers still felt day laborers' arms before they hired them, so that men who were frail or malnourished could be turned away.  Under ordinary circumstances slaves would have had as much as economic theory, up to the time of Beveridge, promised or allowed fully employed working people in Britain - enough to maintain them in a condition of physical efficiency.  Lincoln made the case, successfully, that in justice more was due anyone.  If he had used Marx's language, he would have declared the right to "self-earned private property."    Against a history in which vulnerability triggered the crudest abuse - the history of the British poor, into which Africans were swept up fairly late - so modest a statement as Lincoln's sounds like beatitude. 

The most difficult struggle of our civilization has been to find the means to create autonomy for ordinary lives, so that they might not be plundered or disposed of according to the whims of more powerful people.  Ideas like civil rights and personal liberty come directly from this struggle, which is not terribly well advanced at best, and which is untried, failed or abandoned in most of the world. 

There has not been a president in fifty years who was more fitted by history to restore that characteristically American ideal than Barack Obama,  it is doubtful that he will do it.  Summers, Geithener and, now Lew, are not going to do it.  I suspect that Obama's education, as the one I got, indoctrinated him out of either a knowledge of it or a serious consideration of it.  I think, though, that in it lies a way out of the stalemate he finds himself in, in which he aspires to nothing more than a more efficient expression of neo-classical economics.   Robinson's remarks about Adam Smith indicate how much of a distortion of his ideas "capitalism" in the modern style are.  Thatcherism-Reaganism,  millennial austerity... are bound to enslave us, the pseudo-socialism that has been seen as an alternative is, in fact, just the left hand washing the right, as it is so wonderfully put above.   Life for middle class Americans is, ever more, resembling the dispirited, desperate condition that Marilynne Robinson prophetically held up for us to see almost a quarter of a century ago.

Mother Country continued

We have never ceased to talk about overpopulation, though true instances of it seem very rare.  The English workingman Francis Place, having contrived to educate himself under astonishingly unfavorable circumstances, became the first writer in English to argue for birth control.  He accepted Malthus's view that workers were poor because there were too many of them, and he argued that their improvement lay in self-restraint.  Of course, like poor people almost everywhere, they had children for their economic value.  As late as the present century the prosperity of a family fluctuated with the number of employed people in it, and the early redundancy of the father, as well as such vicissitudes as sickness and injury, were more easily borne the more shoulders they fell on.  Any glut of labor was the result of employing people from childhood, for sixteen hours a day or more, at wages that denied them any possibility of withholding their labor.  A higher wage would have relieved the glut by allowing women to stay home with their new infants, or allowing families to keep older children at home to attend to younger children.  Physical efficiency would have been enhanced at the same time.  
But "working class" is the primary term in British social thought.  The coercive implications of the phrase are glossed in every version and institution of the Poor Laws, right through Fabianism and the Welfare State, which is only the latest version of the ancient view that what the worker earns, his wage defined as subsistence, is not his by right, as property.  The welfare system indeed assures that the wage will never amount to any specific sum of money but will be nuanced to provide subsistence itself, not in a money equivalent, however calculated.  In other words, workers earn their existence by working.  At the same time, their employment exists at the pleasure of those who employ, first of all, the government.  The Welfare State, being designed for the employed, is designed for the less necessitous   Those who do not work are historically regarded as a sort of scandalized aversion, exactly like people without caste in a society based on caste.  

Place accepted the blame for poverty on behalf of the working people, and accepted the notion that there could be an excess of people relative to their economic usefulness, and that that excess should be eliminated by sexual abstinence so that it need not be carried off by disease and starvation.  He accepted the notion that there was a natural balance, a marketplace of survival glutted with laborers. 

Darwin was likewise indebted to Malthus, and freely acknowledged his influence.  Overbreeding relative to available food sources harrowed out those less well adapted to survive, in Darwin's view.   Herbert Spencer, who was to Beatrice Webb as Aristotle to Alexander, seized upon the ida immediately as a model drawn from nature, which justified just such horrors as had been Malthus's point of departure one hundred years previously.  Competition supposedly described the hard scrabble existence of the laboring classes, who sold their labor by the day and were constantly thrown out of work by a change of season or fashion, or the invention of a new machine  It was a commonplace that they helped one another as best they could thorough these disasters.  The idea nevertheless had great impact because it made death a legitimate part of the social and economic order, a function rather than a malfunction of political economy  a measure of the extent to which the new industrial society cleaved to the ways of nature rather than departing from them.  It affirmed the idea that there exited a human surplus, whose survival could only be secured at the cost of creatures worthier to survive.  In such a context subsistence would be a positive reward, easily withdrawn, as in Darwinian nature. 

The penchant for developing theories to account for the suffering and death proved useful.  Press and parliamentary reports of the Victorian period describe a system of exploitation which ravaged the culture, extruded every ounce of labor from those able to work - including small children and women recently delivered -  starved them, beat them, poisoned them, housed them in cellars into which sewage drained from the streets, taking from them everything that could be taken,  turning every good thing into a mode of extaction. 

If you read the passage above and noted something that seemed uncomfortably familiar  you've been paying attention to the political and economic reports.  The language is more modern and less explicit but the trend is to reenacting British social policy in the United States.  Even as innocuous seeming a concept as Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" divides the deserving from the "undeserving", it sets even the deserving against each other in a competition for meager resources as a means of exacting an alleged benefit.  The extent to which that kind of elite British thought pervades the ruling, Ivy League educated elite of the United States,  from which our "liberal" ruling class is drawn, should be troubling.  Read the speeches of Barack Obama and compare them with those of Lyndon Johnson to see how far the American tradition of liberalism has been overrun with a similar concept of the world laid out in these excerpts.  

The Republican accusation that Obama is too European is, of course, ridiculous.  If anything he's too British.

As an aside, it's pretty telling that in the thousands of hours of British costume drama that PBS and the movies have presented to us, I don't recall the Poor Law being mentioned once.  Not once.  Considering the totalitarian impact it has had on the lives of the large majority of those who lived under it, you have to wonder why it's so effectively swept under the rug.  Clearly, it's seen as something to be hidden.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

More from Mother Country by Marilynne Robinson

The First questions that arise in attempting to understand Sellafield, and more generally the nuclear and environmental policies of the British government, are:  How have they gotten away with so much? and Why on Earth would they want to get away with it?   To put it in other terms, why should the relationship of those who govern Britain to its land and population be that of a shrewd adversary contriving to do harm for profit?  For decades the British government has presided over the release of deadly toxins into its own environment, for money, using secrecy, scientism, and public trust or passivity to preclude resistance or criticism and to quiet fears.  Such extraordinary behavior cannot have a motive in any usual sense, since it is in no one's interest   It has, however, an etiology and a history, in which the institutions which expedite it and the relations it expresses evolve together.  This is of more than casual interest to Americans, because there is no stronger cultural force than atavism.  our past is a good commentary on the future we seem to be preparing for ourselves. 

It is often said that Britain has no written constitution.  If a constitution is a body of law that defines the fundamental relations among the elements of a society, then Britain has an ancient one indeed, solidly encoded, enshrined in literature, in history and in the array of institutions.   The core of British culture is Poor Law, which emerged in the fourteenth century and was reformed once, in 1834, when it became the Victorians' notorious New Poor Law.  It remained in force until 1948.  Then it was superseded by the Welfare State, in which its features were plainly discernible. 

In essence, Poor Law restricted people who lived by their labor to the parish where they were born, and mandated assistance from the parish for those who were needy and deemed deserving of help, while wages were depressed to a level that made recourse to such help frequent.  This often meant entering a poorhouse, institutions hose wretchedness made them, over centuries, objects of the minutest study to generations of philanthropists   Working people who were forced to accept parish assistance, and whose destitution was absolute, and who were found otherwise worthy of aid, surrendered whatever rights they may have had.  Or the fact that they had no rights was thoroughly and ingeniously exploited once the accepted this status.  Under the Old Poor Law, before the 1834 reforms that made the operation of the system more punitive and severe, child paupers, that is, the children of destitute parents, were given to employers, each with a little bonus to reward the employer for relieving the public of this burden.  The children would be worked brutally, because with each new pauper child the employer received another little bonus.  To starve such children was entirely in the interest of those who set them to work.  Aside from all the work the child performed under duress, its death brought the reward that came with a new child   The authorities asserted an absolute right to disrupt families, and to expose young children to imprisonment and forced labor.  The invasiveness  of the Poor Laws was never impeded by the development of any system of assured rights, with which the entire institution would have been wholly incompatible and out of sympathy.  Leslie Scarman, a member of the House of Lords and a legal authority, has written:  "It is the helplessness of the law in [the] face of the legislative sovereignty of Parliament which makes it difficult for the legal system to accommodate the concept of fundamental and inviolable human rights."  More to the point, the social history of Britain has never reflected any sense of the unconditional value of human lives or any respect for the modest baggage of person and property, the little circumference of inviolability on which personal rights depend.  

The indigent who were considered worthy of parish assistance were called paupers.  The unworthy, those who were considered able-bodied but shiftless, were not to be relieved, though in fact they were often assisted on the same terms as the "deserving poor," that is, meagerly and punitively, since the system was in any case preoccupied with the need to withhold charity, considered the great source of moral corruption of the poor and therefore the great source of poverty.  So late and well reputed a social thinker of the young William Beveridge urged that starvation be left as a final incentive to industry among the shiftless poor.  Beveridge was to become the father of the Welfare State.  

The mandate of Poor Law charity was only to provide subsistence  because if the recipient of charity were to do as well as the independent worker, the worker too, would become demoralized and slide into pauperism.  At the same time a very important article of economic faith was that the wages of workers could not exceed subsistence - if it did, the depletion of capital would cause a decline in investment and employment that would return the worker unceremoniously to something less than the level of subsistence.  So it was difficult to make the situation of paupers less desirable than the situation of the employed, especially considering the horrendous conditions under which most work was done.  Paupers were subjected to the miseries of the separation of their families and they were auctioned off or forced into emigration, depending on the improvisations of local authorities determined to keep relief recipients to an absolute minimum.  To assure that parish assistance would be limited to those who were qualified by birth or legal settlement to receive it, the movement of workers was narrowly restricted 

One of the great benefits of reading Mother Country is that a lot of what you have read in British literature and history makes far more sense knowing what it contains.  And reading the essay was a revelation in understanding what I had read of Darwin and Huxley and other British scientists even up to W. D. Hamilton.  Knowing how truly horrible the New Poor Law was made my understanding of Darwin's complaint that it kept too many of the "weaker members" of society alive far more complete than if I hadn't read it.

One of the problems in posting these passages is what to choose and how far to go with it.  Every page is of value in understanding the real horrors of the British system but, as Ms. Robinson notes in the first paragraph above, it is also relevant to understanding the United States.   That relevance grew in the 1990s and 2000s to the point where much of the current discussion of "entitlements," the minimum wage, the environment and related issues is stronger than it was when it was written.

I don't know the role that the growth in the promotion of Anglophilia to the popular imagination will have on voters choices.  I suspect that any effect will be a bad one.  It is clear that the journalistic and media elite have fallen into a quite similar mode of discourse.  That Rupert Murdoch has flourished in the United States during that time might be a coincidence, or it might not.  I tend to believe he came here from Britain and was allowed to become a citizen with a  clear purpose.  His record of promoting the far right in Britain was known.  The exact kind of callous indifference to human suffering recorded in Mother Country, of the reduction of people from possessors of inviolable rights to units of commerce has arisen in ways I never would have believed forty years ago.   I find quite a bit of what has come from the Obama administration to be alarmingly resonant with much of such British thinking as is found in that record.  Listening to Jimmy Carter on the radio this afternoon, I can't recall ever hearing those same resounding notes from him.

The Most Common Superstition Among Atheists

It's common as dirt on leftish blogs, making fun of creationism, The Rapture, apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in some food product.  What could be more obvious than the ignorance and credulity of the presumed idiots and lunatics who believe in such things?   What could possibly be more worthy of ridicule and derision by the science based Jesus-bashers who are also as common as dirt on leftish blogs.   Ignored in the jocular fun that accompanies that tedious and daily routine is that those things are not believed in by many, probably most,  religious folks.  Religious folks witnessing the low bill vaudeville act find assertions of these beliefs a personal embarrassment due to the frequent associations made between any form of religious belief and the most risibly superstitious aspects of religion.   How people can be made ashamed of things they reject is a curious thing, one that might make an interesting blog post, I'll give it two paragraphs.

Looking at it analytically, that association between a specific religious superstition and those who reject it is not a real thing, it is an invention made by a third party, who generally claim to hold no faith of that sort, generally for their anti-religious polemical and ideological purposes.  They associate people who reject a belief in apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in tortillas with a belief they don't hold.   Which, in a rational analysis, would be a clear violation of logical coherence, but atheist polemics are seldom an example of logical coherence.

What harm comes from a belief in The Rapture or a visitation by the Blessed Virgin while cooking, seldom comes into the consideration.   If that question is brought up,  some extremely rare instance of harm might be asserted, though it's never been an actual, documented instance of maiming or death, in my experience.  Which strikes me as an important matter.   The harm that comes from holding one superstition as compared to holding another one is something that is seldom considered.   But it's obvious that, through their different results in real life, not all superstitious beliefs have the same presence in the real, observable world.  A belief that a tortilla is a manifestation of the reality of The Virgin Birth (which I don't happen to believe in) is certainly different from the superstition that real believers are required to handle poisonous snakes or drink rat poison.   And even those, obviously, harmful superstitions hold far fewer intrinsic harms than many of the more reputable superstitions that are more widely held.  The superstition that investors have more of a right to the ownership of manufacturing than those who produce the wealth is one such belief.  More widely agreed to will be the observation would be that the belief in the superiority of white Europeans to other groups of people is demonstrably more homicidal,  Though, probably less acceptable is the observation that is especially true in its most developed, science based manifestation.  The body count of scientific racism is in the many millions as compared to the comparable numbers from snake handling.   And even that most malignant of widespread superstitions may be dwarfed by the superstitions that imperil the entire human and all other populations.   I am going to deal with the one of those which is almost universally held by educated people.

In one of the numerous brawls  I've gotten into with atheists on leftish blogs there was one I had at Eschaton a few years back that actually made me think through this situation.   The issue began, as I recall, with someone saying that morality was irrelevant to mathematics and science.  Which is probably something most people would agree with.   For some reason the first things that came to my mind were the involved mathematical calculations as to how much coal would be needed to fuel the crematoria at Auschwitz  depending on the continual burning of human fat to effect fuel efficiency    It was mentioned, as I recall,  in Deborah Lipstadt's defense against David Irving's libel charge.  The mathematics of conservation of coal by the continual burning of the fat of murdered humans is mathematics, as it really exists in the real world, observable by documentation, history and science. It is more real than the abstract and useful invention of imaginary numbers.  Its creation was as clear an example of doing mathematics as it is possible to cite and its immorality is clear.  That mathematical act was profoundly immoral, either through malignant intent or the frequently even greater moral atrocity of clerical indifference.   In bringing up this clear example of mathematics as proof that, indeed, morals were entirely relevant to mathematics, that the mathematics involved existed in that context, alone, that those calculations were motivated by some of the clearest moral atrocities in recent history, a brawl ensued.   Making mathematics too real is, apparently, not welcome in the "reality community".   Other brawls related to that issue were also had.

The belief that mathematics and science have some existence independent of human minds is one of the most widespread superstitions among educated people today.   Which is rather astounding as neither of them exist anywhere else.  Neither of them exist without human thought, they are the products of a clear historical development in human culture with many of the inventors of them, especially in the case of mathematics, though frequently also in science,  being nameable.   Neither of them have any existence apart from the human beings, individually and socially, who contain them.  Especially after the early 20th century the idea that either one can be believed to have an existence not intimately tied to human minds is the rankest superstition, more obviously false than that the Blessed Virgin might, for some mysterious reason, appear in the scorch patterns in a tortilla.   You would have to entirely deny the clear human component of that miracle to achieve a similar level of nescience in the matter.

The presumed compartmentalization that keeps mathematics and science separate from human greed, human selfishness, human cruelty and depravity is an even clearer superstition.  It stems from an agreed to fiction that is supposed to remove those from the formal literature of science, an agreed to fiction that frequently has been far more effective in denying their presence than in actually maintaining the purity of science from those most unscientific pollutions.   In no other science has that been as true as in science dealing with living beings, especially people,  In no other alleged life sciences is that more true than in those allegedly dealing with behavior and cognition.   The history of science is replete with violations of its purity pledge and as replete with resistance to having that violation pointed out.

Pure mathematics is generally to be thought of as having some pure existence aside from its applications, which is a denial of the context in which all of mathematics can exist.   It is one of the hardest and clearest of facts about it that all of the mathematics we have today is intimately tied to its historical origins in measuring and counting very real, very concrete objects.   The work of the pure mathematician today uses knowledge gained in what, I'm afraid, many of them would consider somewhat vulgar exigencies.  There is no amount of intellectual refinement that can change that fact.  Nor could it possibly be. The interaction of human minds and the very concrete manipulation of things in the real world are the ultimate evidence relied on to judge the correctness of mathematical assertions and methods.  Pure mathematics is a concept steeped in one of the most transparently false mythologies in human culture.

And the artificiality of the purity of pure mathematics ignores the economic, social and political contexts in which its very existence is possible.   The creation of pure mathematics is possible only through the maintenance of the mathematicians who work at some remove from the creation of their own food, clothing and shelter, not to mention the offices and conference facilities that they depend on.   Their very need for colleagues similarly maintained insures that pure mathematics is, very clearly, reliant on institutions.   The motives in providing pure mathematicians with the considerable leisure from physical labor that their product requires are as sordid as the military and industrial uses that finance most of mathematics and science, today.   I don't have figures to back it up this morning but I strongly suspect that the armaments and petroleum and other extraction industries and the governments that serve their purposes finance many dozens of times more pure mathematicians to support their efforts than those engaged in the unprofitable sciences dealing with environmental protection and public health.  And what can be said of mathematicians can be said of physics, chemistry, biology and most of the science that applies the work of pure mathematicians.

The superstition that mathematics and science have some existence more pure than the, admittedly, sordid and sorry history of organized religion, is remarkable among those with educations.  There is no more obvious fact than that science is up to its hair roots in the industrial destruction of life on Earth.  Even the purest and most abstract of pure mathematicians knowingly make a deal with the devil in order to exist in the modern world.   They exchange their sustenance to do their work with criminal enterprise that kills people in ever more efficient ways (the motive of weapons science) and to extract oil, gas, coal, gold, diamonds, for the most profit, leaving the highest cost to, most dramatically, the poorest of the human poor and all other life on Earth.  The remove of affluence from that destruction used to be almost entirely possible.  With the success of science, which is spectacularly efficacious in magnifying human ability to do things,  and the limits of the Earth that ability of affluence to cushion the effects of science is ending.

The role that the cult of pure, inculpable, science has had in denying the reality of moral consequences is among the most destructive aspects of this superstition.   As I've noted in many other posts, the denial of the reality of moral obligations, due to the complete inability of science to articulate them, is a frequently encountered assertion of the pseudo-left today.  That denial is probably the thing that most justifies putting allegedly opposite political identities that reject morality into the same bin.  Alleged leftists who deny that moral obligations have a real existence due to the real differences in their consequences in real lives in the real world, generally produce results not much different from right wingers who act as if those moral obligations are options they don't choose to take.   The reality coming from the motive of hatred of religion turns out to not really be much different in the real world than the motives of aristocratic greed.

Note:  I thought it was necessary to point this out before going on with Marilynne Robinson's essay.  This cult of scientism is an essential aspect of the things she discusses.  I think it's a typically more American aspect of the same thing, today.   It is like a local dialect of the same language.   The same spirit of the remove of the intellectual from the consequences in real lives of real people is a common feature of both.

UPDATE:  Looking at my old hard drive while researching a related post, I came across the comment thread which had the argument I refer to above. It was not that aspect of the running of the Nazi death machine that I brought up in that argument, it was the mathematics involved in the construction of the death factory.  The point about the economics of coal conservation through burning the fat of murder victims was a different blog brawl.  I'm sorry for the unintended confusion between the two on my part.

Monday, March 4, 2013

There Is No Better Time Than Now to Revive Marilynne Robinson's Great Essay "Mother Country"

Anyone who reads much of what I've written will know that there is no living writer who I respect more than Marilynne Robinson, the great novelist and, I say, even greater essayist.   In her writing the finest style is motivated by and matched with honesty, intellectual rigor and an enormous effort in researching her subjects.   But none of those is an end in itself,  all of that is in service to a deep and simple moral purpose, to tell the truth in service of the common good, to witness to a religious faith that is thoroughly relevant to today's life.   She achieves that relevance not by joining up with some ideological project of modernism but by telling the truth to the best of her considerable ability.  The truth is always and eternally up to date.   When a writer so thoroughly believes in the value of telling the truth, they place themselves above changing fashion and calculations of career promotion.  There is no more worth while writing than that, though it will escape the confines of respectability, it is more likely to get forced out of that cage, the door locked behind it.  And then there is legal suppression.*

Her great, suppressed long essay, Mother Country, indicts the cultural and intellectual conditions that allowed the massive British environmental crime of polluting the ocean with plutonium and other nuclear waste.   Her case, citing the ancient English Poor Law in its several iterations down till today, her indictment of British intellectuals and alleged charities is one of the major revelations of my life.  Her case against the Fabians turns the received, required POV on the left on its head.   Her explanation of how the aristocratic British "radicals" constructed a socialism that had the effect of reinforcing and intensifying the British class system is brilliant and fearless.  She takes down some of the biggest names, including many I have respected in the past.  Those revelations hurt, I will admit it, but it is invariably better to face the reality about people than to admire them on the basis of self-serving PR.  I will excerpt it below in order to promote the revival of the book, its reading and the message it contains.

As the Obama administration seems poised to approve the tar sands oil pipeline, the civil trial of the company formerly known as British Petroleum is beginning and the ongoing human rush to murder suicide, not impossibly destroying life on Earth,  I can't think of a more important thing to do with my week.   

Here is some of  Robinson's revealing, condensed history of British social thought and its real motives.


British social thought can well be imagined as occurring this way.  It takes place in a country house built and furnished to accord with conventions polished by use, a house filled with guests, great and minor luminaries, ornaments of literature, the sciences, the church and of philosophy and politics.   Most of them, not coincidentally, are cousins at some remove.  They are charmed to find in one another just that streak of intuitive brilliance they had always admired in themselves and to be confirmed in their sense that they are true members of a group in which there are no impostors by a very great similarity of taste, of interest  of sympathy.  It is a leisurely visit, some centuries in length, and in due course everyone has confessed his weakness for Hesiod, and admired the garden, and regretted the weather.  The evenings would perhaps have begun to weigh, if someone had not suggested a game called Philanthropy.  The rules of the game are very simple.  One must justify things as they are by attacking things as they are.  It is a philosophic game, perfectly suited to showing off a fine wit.  It has even the thrill of risk, since it invites subversive ideas.  But the point is always, of course, to achieve a resolution that will bring the argument right back where it began. 

This distinguished party warms to the challenge.  And how affecting it is to hear them, one after another, in the language of statesman and moralist decry the sufferings of the poor, until it seems that the very table they sit round must be made into splints and crutches and the topiary garden planted in potatoes.  Then, just when the pleasure of participation in this virtuous fantasy is at its height, that is to say, just when the temptations of virtue are most intense,  then the play er reveals the illusion:  This "virtue" is not a virtue at all, but an evil to be scrupulously avoided.  A little thrill of relief passes over the company when their world is safely restored to them.  But the risk is never as great as it may seem.  Any strategy is sufficient in defending the moon from the wolves.  

It is a distinguished company,  and everyone seems willing to hold up his part in the game.  Daniel Defoe, Bernard de Mandeville, Henry Fielding, Adam smith (who did not understand the point of it, and was given a hearty cheer and sent off to bed).  There is no need to observe chronology,  since at this table Jeremy Bentham might find himself seated by Beatrice Webb, and Herbert Spencer by John Stuart Mill.   This is only to say that their reflections on the subject accumulate rather than develop,  in the manner characteristic of rationalizations.  Their disputations produce a welter of harmonious contradiction,  the sort of thing that happens when any argument is welcome that will prop a valued conclusion.  So the centuries pass. 

The influence of this genteel assembly can hardly be overstated.  Only consider how important the notion of excess population - basically the artifact of an odd and unsavory history - has been to Britain, and therefore to the world.  Malthus felt he observed the fact of population being restored to equilibrium with food supply in the misery of the poor, but at the time he wrote the importation of wheat - bread was the food of the British poor - was restricted,  and land had been converted to pasture which had formerly been used for growing food,  and both industrial and agricultural workers had lost access to independent means of subsistence, the first by being crowded into urban slums where there was no corner of open land, the second by being crowded into rural slums where no bit of land was conceded to them.  Social reformers early in this century wrote dreamily of the little garden plots of Belgian workers, who throve better on, of course, lower wages than their British counterparts.  But the British laborer had no little plot of land.  Irish immigrants shared quarters with their notorious pigs, which they slaughtered for food, but that was considered degraded.  In fact, British workers, rural and urban, died of exclusive dependency on a meager wage, made up in part, especially among farm laborers, of parish relief,  more parsimonious because it was paid by ratepayers rather than employers, and because, being "charity," it always remained discretionary.  The relation of population growth to the productivity of land, which Malthus tidily but meaninglessly described as increasing geometrically in the first case and arithmetically in the second, had nothing to do with the the misery and vice he set out to account for. His was merely an early insistence on the tendency to refer to the consequences of a remarkably artificial situation to the hard laws of nature. 


It is interesting to read how William Cobbett, one of Malthus' severest contemporary critics had to say about the use of barley to make bread instead of the more expensive wheat and potatoes, which he disdained.  Particularly noteworthy is how as sympathetic a writer as Cobbett believed that British laborers, and, especially, their also laboring wives,  were in more control of their meager domestic economy than they could have been.

Unless I get a cease and desist order, I hope to post more long passages from Mother Country, one of the most important and entirely neglected books of the past quarter of a century.  It should be reprinted, at the very least, if not updated.  If I can renew interest in it, the risk is worth it.

I can't think of a book with more to say in a country with a "liberal" administration regularly does the bidding of the banking and oil industry, which has appointed Summers, Geithner and Lew to its top economic posts, which is constantly putting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid on a negotiating table.  The total fraud that the official version of British social reform, exposed in all of its sordid and explicit depravity is being recreated in the United States by the current crop of The Best and the Brightest, who never have to worry about the consequences of its advocacy.  And maybe this is what is needed to cure a self-regarding intelligentsia,of sorts, that has taken Downtown Abbey to its collective breast -PBS and the BBC have done more to paper over the real history of Britain than any overt propagandists.  If that college educated intelligentsia learned the truth about Britain and the real history of American liberalism they wouldn't buy that stuff.

*Robinson has written Mother Country (1989), an exposé of Britain's nuclear pollution of the North Sea and a book which also skewered the environmentalist group Greenpeace to the extent that Robinson was sued for libel by Greenpeace and, rather than retract her statements, saw her book banned from sale in England.