Monty Python’s Life of Brian is a delightful re-telling of the story of Jesus in a secular and historical context, finding its humour in the conflict between orthodox and invariably religious interpretations of the time, and a more ‘enlightened’ understanding, based on archaeology and academic research. As it wends its way through its telling of life in a Roman colony, the real politique is surfaced in the resistance movement the People’s Front of Judea (PFJ). During one of their serious and clearly well intentioned meetings, the leader Reg berates the Romans for their oppression of the poor Galileans, asking in a fit of rhetorical pique ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ One lonely voice suggests ‘the aqueduct’, which Reg grudgingly concedes. Another suggests ‘sanitation’. Several others venture still more technologies, which Reg attempts to summarise thus: ‘All right, but apart from the aqueduct, sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’
Do you know what progress means? Do you know what technology is? Many elements of cultural structure have been so consistent and unchallenged now for so many years that we may have landed in a kind of intellectual stupor. Our self-awareness has dissipated, and our alienation has become so complete that we have almost become meta-brands, brands of brands, images of images, pictures of pictures. Our pandemic mimesis denies innovation and inspiration, and only increases the penalty for deviance, or perversion. Self-knowledge has become a curse, something denies us membership of society, leading us to post-truth, and ‘fake news’.
In trying to construct a progressive, positive view of the future, and design political structures that facilitate such outcomes, there are many ideas. These are the ideas of political philosophy, but they are also the ideas of sociology, economics, psychology, art and literature. When we think of writers like Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce – all of them could in some sense be considered to have made significant contributions in several of those fields. My own attempts to understand State Legitimacy, how the state’s claim to legitimacy can be established and maintained, is in truth a combination of those things as well. Ultimately, all of these pursuits fall back on critical theory: that field of study that attempts to understand who we are as peoples, as cultures. The Italian Futurists, from the first half of the twentieth century, and the (new) accelerationists, from the first fifteen or so years of the twenty-first century, each had a vision. And each was in some ways nasty.
Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military strategist who lived through the French Revolution, wrote in his unfinished book On War that ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. It is of course something of a trite aphorism, and hides a considerable amount of theory and philosophy. Yet as with all good aphorisms, it reveals something important: in this case, that the seeming differences between politics and war are not so significant as we had thought. Politics is about two sides negotiating the distribution of resources, sometimes along ideological lines, sometimes along economic lines; war is not all that different, save insofar as the rule of law is suspended, such as it may have existed before the outbreak of hostilities. Increasingly, we see sporting theatre being usurped for the purposes of political metaphor. The symbolism, and the language, is a kind of double speak that would be shocking in any other context, and useful for democracies, who don’t tend to actually fight each other.
The New York Times recently published a story about efforts to recover the bodies of three Indian men who had died in an attempt to climb Mount Everest. Since the first recorded ascent in 1953, around 280 climbers have died, and as many as 200 bodies remain on the mountain. So why do people climb it? George Mallory, a British explorer who failed three times to climb the mountain and died on the third attempt in 1924, famously answered the New York Times reporter (of a much earier vintage) asking the same question ‘because it’s there.’ Mallory was defiant, almost offended that the mountain would impose itself so forcefully on his world – and it was very much his world.
Two themes that have recently grabbed my attention are those of ‘object-oriented ontology’ and ecology, both extending from my study of the sociology and politics of technology. Because technology is separate from us, as in not-human in its essence, and yet artificial intelligence is trying desperately to make these non-human objects assume human characteristics, it is important, I think, to understand why we would want to do that. Object-oriented ontology seeks to reject anthropomorphism, and instead look upon the world as a collection of objects, with no special status attaching to humans; it is not clear to me if any special status attaches to the subject. Ecology is interesting because it seems to be the opposite of the inclination of technology to unilaterally dominate, to overpower, to understand. Technology extends the human mostly-male power impulse, designed as it is to subdue the environment, to control the world, including human beings themselves. When technology fails, it is entirely bewildering – and men insist on finding the reason. When the light switch does not illuminate the room, the man goes to the fuse box. Finding no answer here, our hero reaches for a torch and finds a spare bulb. With still no resolution, the electricity company is called – and on it goes. The man seeks to resolve the problem not merely because control over the environment is in some sense ‘man’s work’; but because the thought of not finding a rational, scientific answer to why the room remains dark is quite terrifying. The ecological view of the world suggests that there are other reasons as to why the room remains dark, non-scientific reasons, and therefore in some way perhaps unknowable reasons.
How do markets optimise the delivery of social services and social welfare? This question surfaces many of the challenges for the Austrian School, the philosophy that free markets and the price mechanism can do a remarkable job in managing people and their behaviour. While initially Friedrich Hayek’s theorising argued that the role of the State should be minimal, he ultimately conceded that some State regulation was required in order to maintain markets, and some other functions. For example, ‘[t]o prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances, or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the social costs they impose.’ (The Road to Serfdom, p.38/9) The ultimate question of Hayekian liberalism is how much does the government have to interfere? What is the minimum possible function of government?