I will probably be unable to update this site regularly in the next few days.
As political actors, human beings are composite, not monolithic. We are consistently variable, and there are plenty of ways in which we actively enjoy this. No one likes to feel that they are beyond persuasion, i.e. beyond the capacity for judgement. Nor does anyone like to feel that they are purely in the grip of their own, crude self-interest; we treasure the idea that we can serve higher purposes, show loyalty to others, have strong convictions, serve the community and so forth. All of these attributes, though, are just milder versions of the things that drive fanatics.
Fanatics have strong internal motivations, but they also have very strong, usually distorted views about what other people think, and even what other people really are.
Take the gradient/spectrum of patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is attachment to one’s homeland, love for its distinctive scenery, flora, fauna, customs and so forth. Patriots like their own countries best, and by extension they like the people who live there. This does not involve harbouring resentful thoughts about other countries.
Contrast this to nationalism, which carries all the same loves of land and folk, but with an additional abstract layer concerned with rights, conferred by the mere possession of territorial locality and heritage. Patriots may or may not have a generalised dislike of foreigners in their country, but nationalists can express this feeling as a matter of rights, not interests or opinions.
Once the idea that a nation has the right to rule itself takes hold, the idea that this right might be taken away or flouted can also take root, and after that, enemies are not difficult to identify. Nations are set up in competition as a natural by-product of national distinctions. Fanatical nationalists, who have been responsible for an enormous amount of the world’s terrorist atrocities, are only a little further along this line.
Fanatical beliefs are not very different from standard ones. They are a bit more lurid, and are more fiercely held. The picture they convey is recognisable, but with the contrast turned up and the voice-over shouted.
In the mind of a true fanatic, the main difference to be found is that the whole conception of means and ends is very different. In the minds of terrorists, opinions and identities part company from interests, which are no longer considered in the same way. Such minds strongly believe that they are acting from consideration of wider interests, and not merely their own. This denial is at the root of terrorist behaviour. The noble cause terrorists adopt allows the demonization of others coupled with the sanctification of self. A life of deprivation, even one’s own death, become worthy things. Everyone else is on a lower plane, less important, and hence disposable.
All of this, worryingly, is not so far from what we all believe about much less important things.
The three-layered model of human political motivation I am proposing seems to me to be an improvement over existing models in several important areas, which I am happy to enumerate.
The first is that it treats humans as multi-faceted, which we are. The problem with very schematic thinking, from Hobbes onwards, is that it assumes a uniform quality within humanity that is not very apparent in real life as we live it. Human diversity in large and small things is constantly renewing and extending itself.
If we take one single explanatory motivating factor – be it the drive for profit, as it is for the economic right, or fear, as it was for Hobbes – we unrealistically restrict the range of situations we are explaining, and thus deny the range of responses they draw from us. We are not machines, and we do not react to everyone else in the same way all the time. Sometimes we think of direct personal benefits (interests), as we perceive them in context, sometimes we use wider experience (opinions), and sometimes we respond to the likeness or unlikeness of the people we are dealing with (identities) leading to prejudice.
In modern societies we can change our opinions and even our identities (or substantial elements of them). We cannot change our interests very easily, as defined by occupation or socio-economic class, but we can change the way we perceive those interests. All of these mutations are observable all the time in modern, pluralistic democratic societies. Nor are these alterations, or degrees of flexibility, such a bad thing. They must be there within any democratic society to prevent electoral processes becoming merely an occasional census.
Humans as political actors are composite, not monolithic, and we are constantly variable. Democracy fundamentally requires it, and any democratic theory must recognise this. Single source explanations for our behaviour, especially the kind that eliminate or despise our higher feelings and loyalties, cannot match well to human experiecne. Why are some people perpared to die for their beliefs, if we all rationally calculate our interest in monetary terms at all times? Or if self-preservation is always our greatest perceived ‘good’?
On this site I am trying to work out a different view of humans in larger groupings. This is conventionally the area of political science, and I have a series of problems with the way this ‘science’ is currently conducted. I am trying to find a more realistic and less dogmatic descriptive model of humans and their active beliefs, a model that does not share existing self-supporting ideological obsessions, with homo economicus on the right, and homo rationalis on the left.
My model views individual political actors as concerned with three interrelated factors; interests, opinions and identities. The first is very ancient; the other two are modern constructions. All three can be rational, and opinions obviously feel the most rational. But all can be very self-serving, and stubbornly non-rational. Looking for strictly rational explanations of belief systems and mass politics in action is to impose too much artificial ordering on what we as humans actually do.
Despite our inconstant commitment to rationality, we flighty humans are not stupid either. Rather we are variable, which is what makes the ‘science’ part of political science so problematic. The main problem is that our beliefs spring from both cognitive and emotional processes.
All this will take some time to work out in detail, but I am not daunted. Short musings in progress will appear here on the front page; longer, more analytical sorties will appear on the sidebar.
The first truly modern element within modern political philosophy was the proto-liberalism that emerged during the eighteenth century. What was different about it as a view of politics was its insistence that certain universal political rights a) existed, and b) were conferred regardless of social status.
Along with this went a new view of economics, based on the idea that self-interest (selfishness) could be a positive factor in human affairs, and not simply a vice. This was a very great step, and one that many on the political right, especially in America, are completely blind to. Such people feel that individualism, with its concomitant political and economic privileges, is completely natural. It isn’t, as the entire previous history of the world can testify.
Where this new doctrine came from is a long story and one that is not entirely clear. But a combination of Protestantism and the sceptical rejection of religious dogma both had a role in its development.
Once liberalism had appeared, much else followed very swiftly. Hard on its heels, and from the same intellectual quarter, came socialism and nationalism, both also based on individual rights. These two – socialism based in economics and nationalism based in essences – became the two most influential collective philosophies of the last two centuries, and the most lethal. Both entirely changed, shaped and remodelled our collective thinking, along lines of class and kin/nation. Once these two genies were out of their bottles, a vast range of new possibilities opened up.
The grim consequences were reaped by the unfortunate great-great-grandchildren of the revolutionaries of the eighteenth century.
How can a small band of highly motivated people change the course of history? Easily. By rewriting it. The other option is terrorism, which is more difficult, and less effective.
The writing of history is a much better area for wish-fulfilment than politics. In politics you have to get large numbers of people to agree with you to effect change. With history you don’t. You just open for business, write your self-published book, or make a tedious Youtube clip full of captions.
Politics is long, dull, hard work, demoralizing and often humiliating. Not so the retelling of history. Democratic politics is, by definition, a dead end for a minority – and how much more so for an extremist minority. History is a less resistant field all round, and can be recruited to supply the kind of help that funding cannot provide.
Minorities (élites excepted) cannot hope for domination, with or without the ballot box. What they usually want is rights, and rights come from identity, and identity comes from history. And if history does not support a claim to rights, then history can be made to comply. So glorious histories, and especially histories of injustice, are erected. The claims of others, meanwhile, can be presented as fraudulent.
Bigotry, bias and prejudice are labour saving devices. It saves a lot of time if you can make up your mind about someone without bothering to meet them. A lot of effort can be avoided if you know that you dislike some idea without finding out what it actually is.
Labour saving devices are welcome and pleasant additions to our lives when they wash dishes or beat meringues. But in the case of history, bigotry, bias and prejudice are less benign. The labour they save us is essential; they remove the basic caution that enormous quantities of data should instil in us. To simplify out all the things that we do not wish to acknowledge is in a way pleasant, but it is a royal road to distortion.
What we know as the left-right political spectrum has been with us for over 200 years now. It is a staple of political commentary and has become thoroughly accepted as part of the political furniture. It has thus become another convention that sustains its own supportive and unquestioning environment.
There are three general things I would like to say about this spectrum:
1. It is a top-line description of one political polarity, and there are many others.
2. It was originally named and determined in relation to attitudes towards the French monarchy, but went on to be about self-government.
3. It makes no sense without the concept of self-government. Without a state to argue over, without neighbours to whom one is yoked, it has little useful function. In areas expanded beyond where these two essentially local conditions apply, as in international relations or environmental issues, it makes progressively less sense.
It also makes little sense when mixed up with non-western traditions, the most obvious of which is Islam. Westerners are unsure about where to place Islamism in this left-right scheme, as are many Islamists themselves. A creed that can be seen as universalist and egalitarian would seem to fit on the left, but the radical anti-materialism and deep traditionalism of much Islamic militancy relate clearly to right-wing models. As does its overwhelming religiousness. Political Islamism is both quasi-nationalist and fiercely anti-nationalist. So what is going on?
Left-right calibrations can be useful, but they are by no means definitive or universally applicable. We need more than that to understand the modern world.
Here are some outline thoughts on the matter.
History does not repeat itself exactly, but it does resemble itself fairly often.
If there is an obvious pattern in history it is not a cyclic one, it is an oscillation, between big human groupings and small. Reasons of defence, efficiency and other practical and ideological considerations drive this fluctuation. It explains the expansion and fall of empires, the disintegration of over-complicated polities, and the creation of new alliances and new ideologies. Another way of looking at this is the complementary pull of centralism versus localism, an antagonism that is proceeding apace all over the world among both states and corporations.
Anarchy and dictatorship are the perverted versions of this oscillation; medium-sized states dealing with local separatist movements are the norm, and will probably continue to be so.
Localism can only go so far, then small states decide to reunite or combine in some way, or they are gobbled up by a greater power. This has happened repeatedly in Europe over the last century. For example, the Austro-Hungarian empire fell and was replaced by small states, then parts of it were reassembled within the Warsaw Pact. Now we are back to a map boasting Serbia and even Montenegro. Meanwhile Kosovo wanted to leave Serbia, Scotland still wants to be free, and the EU is trying to take in more members.
The problem is that neither big nor small units have all the answers for all situations, so at all times we find people who are preoccupied with solving the most recent problem while not foreseeing the next. Politics is like that, and will remain so.
Nationalism is a kind of ambitious localism, but one not driven by practicalities; it is an ideological variant, and has many disadvantages and failings. It can be seen as a middle-level localism, between imperial ideas and the kind of deep localism that ignores nationalities, or invents its own sub-nationalities.
Nationalism is probably the most transferable and superficially attractive political idea of all time, and it is by now in danger of eating itself. Its very variability is still both a strength and a weakness. Once ‘British’ nationality was a safely agreed and solid idea, but by now it is like a mirror that will crack if we dare to take it off the wall, while something as complicated as American nationality has had to be carefully divided up into hyphenated chunks. The days of grand, ‘hard’ nationality are gone. The modern world has abolished it.
But localism is flourishing. Practical considerations drive localism, and it is a tenable and sensible idea with a rosy future and a respectable past. Nationalism is not like that, and always strains to exist at a level above practicalities. Nationalists say we must be governed by our like, or by our extended kin, because only they can understand us, only they can be trusted – as if Scots or Serbs did not at times have differing interests, both personally and in larger groupings. Nationalism has acquired an increasingly bogus moral layer. Why should persons of the same nationality be in ruling positions? Because we have the right to rule ‘ourselves’; it is right, it is the best thing. Sometimes this may true, if obvious conflicts of interest are involved, as within empires, but it is not a universalizable principle.
Casting practicality to the wind, the Scots will have their own government because that somehow feels right – better. But is it? Pakistan was born of the same rationale.
Democracies run on rights, votes and majorities. But what they actually involve are interests and opinions. These influence each other and both are important, on a personal level. But states – the vehicles for democratic systems – actually rely not on interests or opinions, but on identity. Interests and opinions can change, but identity cannot in the same way, otherwise states would dissolves regularly, like governments do. They do not, and no one seriously contends that we should all be voting ourselves in and out of states on a regular basis. (How? Chicken and egg.)
Any such idea, as regularly floated about the EU, is grounds for dispute, confusion and suspicion.
Our identities, which all have multiple layers, are more permanent than opinions, and supposedly less contrived than economic interests. But we all think about different kinds of identity in different ways. Some identities are suitable bases for state formation, and some are not. Sexuality is not, ethnicity can be, religious belief has always failed to measure up to the task.