To Hay-on-Wye the other day I went, to the more intellectual of the two festivals, the one with music as well, the festival gnomically named How The Light Gets In by its creator and benefactor Hilary Lawson of the family Lawsons. Of Nigel, once Chancellor of the Exchequer and Boom and Bust and latterly of Global Cooling, Nigella cooking beautifully on the telly, and lovely witty Vanessa married to A. J. Freddie Ayer of Language, Truth and Logic.
Having tired out myself and my temper at 10 am and thereafter in my philosopher’s report to a large audience on what it was for them to be conscious, unaided in my report by the audience lecture handout that did not find its way to the tent despite having been sent to Hay in advance three times, I found myself in another tent at 12 considering another subject, or anyway words. These words were as follows.
“Once we paraded grand visions of the future, now such goals are more typically left to the fanatical fringe. With economic and cultural growth in the East, what vision does the West have to offer? Do we need new fantasies to meet the challenges of the 21st Century or is our scepticism a sign of wisdom rather than decline?”
The other panellists were two. Edwina Currie, the Conservative M.P. and Junior Health Minister renowned some years ago for an episode having to do with the hatchery industry and salmonella in eggs, and David Aaronovitch, political columnist for The Times, The Times which is opened by me only before occasional lunches at a gentleman’s club, The Times owned by the electioneering Rupert Murdoch of The Sun etc, The Times of a fixed and recorded single-minded history of politics of the Right.
Mr Aaronovitch distinguished himself principally by insisting that he is no Conservative or conservative, since he was a Communist in his boyhood 40 or 45 years ago — that he is no Conservative or conservative despite his present employment and its conditions of work. And, as he seemed at one point to confess or imply, and as had occurred to me in advance, despite his having himself proposed or inspired the subject of the discussion, including the fanatical fringe. It had a journalistic ring to it, and was suggestive of certain refrains in Conservatism.
Ms Currie distinguished herself principally by sitting on the platform giving off sounds suggestive of a desire to lay something, which suggestion must have occurred to many others many times in her career. A friendly mistress of prate. Still, some sounds were approximate to the truth that she is indeed a Conservative. Perhaps she too had been tired out giving an earlier presentation at Hay, conceivably on what it is not to be conscious.
I set out to propound 14 fantasies, and got through some of them.
Fantasy 1 is that we do not live in an oligarchic democracy. We do. One of those is one where the best-off 10th in society has 5,233 times the political power and influence of the worst-off 10th. Wait for less inumerate political theorists and scientists to confirm it.
Fantasy 2 is that we are making or anyway have an understanding of making some progress towards equality, now more deeply understood as social mobility. No, in place of progressing, we are reducing life-equality in the name of austerity. Soak the poor.
Fantasy 3, usually concealed in No. 2, is that what is important about inequality is the relational fact. It is not. What is important is immiseration, the absolute condition of those at the bottom, people made miserable by intention, by reasonable foresight, on the part of other people among us who know, like, and know how to defend their own better condition. They slide past the violation, the deprivation, of the lives of the bottom tenth. Even The Guardian, save for such of its columnists as Polly Toynbee and Seumas Milne, sometimes forgets about that absolute non-relational fact.
Fantasy 4 is that we are a free society. That is more boyish self-deception, particularly for any liberal who takes his party’s traditional line that equality is the or an enemy of freedom. I remind you, for a small start, that if you and I are unequal in that I have a gun and you do not, or in that I have men with guns on my side, you are unfree.
Fantasy 5 is about fairness. It is that fairness is cutting welfare benefits rather than adding up who gets what in terms of total expenditure of the oligarchic democracy, say for a start just in terms of the social institution of the law.
6 This fantasy is that of the moral intelligence of conservatism, of which the best that can be said is that it is the politics of desert, people getting what they deserve. But that something is right because it is deserved boils down in 2 minutes, as Nigella might do it, to something is right because it is right. Read a book on conservatism equally validated by both the approval of Michael Foot of the then Labour Party and, in The Times, by the denunciation of Enoch Powell M.P., best known for rivers of blood — the deunciation that a philosopher’s book is no good because Conservatism is ‘a song’, of which he declined to sing any on that occasion.
7 There is also the fantasy of the moral intelligence of English liberalism. Its intelligent credential comes from John Stuart Mill, who said in a right society no one harms anyone else, but if they do they can be stopped by the state. Mill then started progress towards liberalism’s zenith in the careerism of one Clegg by going on to fail to say what harm is. Just bumble instead about quality as well as quantity of utility or satisfaction.
8 This is the fantasy that capitalism, and the form of it that is profitization, occasionally known as privatization, is a kind of medical ethics. It is what will save the National Health Service for us. Capitalism cannot be detached from conservatism and indeed liberalism and of course New Labour as we know it. What all of it amounts to is organized and in part self-deceived selfishness, degrees of greed. The fantasy more generally in its inanity is that capitalism is necessary, including the delusion that it is the only way to make the worst-off as well off as they are. Mr Aaronovitch embraced or implied the delusion as personal truth in passing.
9 This further fantasy is one to which my two fellow panellists may have some connection by family as well as by independent judgement, despite the wonderful authority of Noam Chomsky and so many other honourable Jews in Jewish history, including Miliband Senior. The fantasy is that the latest rape of Gaza by neo-Zionism was honourable self-defence rather than dirty international politics, the vile attempt to bring to an end the feeble opposition that keeps all the rapes in view or anyway memory.
10 There is the fantasy too that we have nothing to do with Islamic State. We only got Sykes and Picod to draw those lines in the sand after the First World War and we are friends with Saudi Arabia which is clean bedsheets despite its connection with 9/11, and we only do humanitarian killing. More precisely, we have nothing to do with Islamic State savagery despite imperialism, colonialism, post-colonialism, victimization, Palestine, oil, the lying war on Iraq, a million dead, Blair sincere, etc. That is a waking dream, more Freud merde. We have more and different to do with the savages than our missionaries about others a century ago. It is good that we have two more journalists beyond the worth of books, Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk in The Independent.
11 This fantasy is legalism. It is the calm or excited idea, dear to dim magistrates, profitizers, dreamers about international law, and oligarchic democracy, that what is right is what is legal. It forgets, among so many other things, that there was a Nazi law about revealing the whereabouts of Jews in hiding.
12 This is the fantasy that the fundamental moral truth is definitely not something in particular — it is definitely not a general humanitarianism unattached to passing disasters. A general humanitarianism that has nothing to do, of course, with our ideological humanitarian air war on Libya and hence the destruction of a society, even a people. This general humanitarianism isThe Principle of Humanity. It is this: Take all and only rational steps, all steps rational in the means-end sense, to get people out of bad lives. Bad lives defined in terms of deprivation of six fundamental human desires. Decent length of life, bodily well-being, freedoms and powers, respect and self-respect, the goods of relationship, the goods of culture including religion. No prattle in that, no House of Commons braying, no Clegg moving his lips as he reads.
13 There may be a momentary fantasy, in this Hay-on-Wye tent and time, about the choice between Verbiage, Salmonella, and Philosophy. The fantasy is that here in Hay-on-Wye, even if you have been saved from the condition of rural idiocy that the industrial revolution somewhat reduced, you should still vote Salmonella or Verbiage. No, think instead.
14 There is a real problem that the liberal John Rawls of Harvard maybe called the problem of mode of address, including language and style and indeed respect. It is differently considered by Herbert Marcuse and others in A Critique of Pure Tolerance. Should we, or more to the point should I, in this darkening time, be governed by the restraint of parliamentary language, or academic dignity, or respect for all views, or deference to all adversaries, even journalists and elected runners-down of hatcheries? I am not sure of a general solution to this question, let alone a particular one for application to today. I am sure it is a moral fallacy that we should unthinkingly join the constraints of any discourse that was brought into being by adversaries of humanity — or even just carelessly. You can think about that even if you are also in my state of disgrace, that of having never read a word of Marx — despite having firm views against Jerry Cohen’s resurrection of his theory of history
You will want a summation of all this. Here it is. Despite the existence of truth, and the beauty of this corner of Wales, and the endearing amateurism of this festival with respect to handouts, our societies are such in their fantasies that about the only thing they can be defended against by argument and fact is the Islamic State.
Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol, said ‘Never apologise, never explain’. I propose to you a longer piece of advice. ‘Never restrict yourself to the denial of inquiry and debate and truth that is the way of, say, the revolving momentary enemy of the hatchery industry and the journalist who remains somehow or other true to his boyhood Communism while finding fantasy on the Left.’ At the common table of that gentleman’s club, they don’t discern his boyish past.
Many thanks for listening. More for thinking.
Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London and the author of various books on consciousness, determinism and freedom, right and wrong, and terrorism and Palestine. Two edited books are The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and Philosophers of Our Times.