Self-Government, Rights and Morality


Conventional modern history, the type taught in schools, is laid out as a narrative, complex but complete within itself. There is no grand design. This reduces the tale to a list of events – which is not a bad way to teach the subject; it allows the random nature of human interactions to appear in plain sight, but with an easily understood structure to organise it.

On one level – the level of ‘real’ events – there is no grand narrative; history really is just one damned thing after another. When dealing with dynastic politics within fairly simple societies, the dynamic of history is clear enough; individuals look after their own interests, and in the case of monarchs, their family concerns are enough to drive political events in a way that is satisfyingly complete.

This style has never been enough for the politically committed. Such an unaccented narrative is all shallow effects with no deep causes, and partisans often want a larger frame to make sense of all the individual events. Historical discussion thus often has an ideological meta-narrative lurking in the background. This has been so from the earliest times, when a descent from former perfection was the theme of all written history.

But there is another way of seeing the totality of historical events that is not so personal, and immediately draws us away from the old ‘good king, bad king’ accounts. Human history is the history of changing groupings, characterised by a constant change in the types of grouping that are allowed to have wider validity. These groups generate political power from within themselves, and stimulate the acceptance, rejection or creation of this power by other groups. These group decisions overlay and imitate each other in a constantly evolving process that is still unresolved. There will be no ‘end’ to history until this process ceases. Which will not be any time soon.

The most important thing about these groups is the way they manage to define themselves collectively, and then convert this self-definition into active, assertive power – what is called authority or even sovereignty. Autonomy is not the right word because small groupings can acknowledge the authority, precedence or seniority of larger groupings. However, at the heart of any group will be some kind of self-identification, some rule that distinguishes members of the group in a particular way, for a particular purpose. Thus some groups are less political than others. Races, nations and classes are the most obvious of these groupings, but there are plenty of others, including gender, faith and sexual orientation.

This may seem apparent and obvious, but it is not something willingly acknowledged by accounts of history that place certain types of grouping into good and bad categories, judged as part of a process issuing in good and bad outcomes.

The most powerful human groups coalesce around what amount to moral values, and therefore human history is a map of human morality and its development. Another point to be made here is that morality and groups are in a mutual process of definition. Neither the groups nor the values are absolute. Stealing, lying and murder have always been condemned everywhere in some way, though the exact definitions do vary, so these very basic moral attitudes do not constitute the kind of moral judgements that institute the formation of groups. The kind of values involved in group conformation include things like the right to occupy physical space, the source of collective community decisions, the way outsiders will he treated, who is equal to whom, or what exactly constitutes wealth, and what it is for.

Answers to these questions, expressed as ‘values’, are never the same over long periods, and vary with time and space quite markedly. This obvious fact is generally disguised within religious accounts, which always like to claim that morality is static. It is also underemphasised within modern ideological accounts, which always privilege one set of values over others. Societies change, morality changes. This is not a theoretical process but a very practical one, because it directly affects the common purposes that communities develop, and these purposes again help define and refine actual communities. At a primal level, morality is simply what ‘we’ do.

One of the most basic values here is the attitude to the occupation of land. The oldest human conflict is between nomad-herdsmen and settled farmers. This conflict appears as early as Cain and Abel and passed through all of antiquity. It destroyed the Roman Empire, and it has come down to modern times in a variety of forms, especially within imperialist expansion. The fighting in Darfur, the panic about convoys of New Age Travellers in the 1980s, and the continuing problems experienced by ‘travellers’ within the UK, never mind gypsies in Eastern Europe, demonstrate that we have not, as human beings, yet managed to work out an easy conviviality between static and mobile people. The notion of the ownership of land, the right to cultivate, the exact division of the produce (through rents or taxation), are still active issues.

The morality of owning land and the right to occupy physical space still perplex us, and on an increasingly crowded planet our difficulties are not going to diminish. The entire problem of immigration and nationality is the same problem writ larger.

Morality changes and develops in all areas. The ancient primacy of religious authority is still with us, but it does not help, and arguably never has done. It is proving less helpful as refined issues of morality, connected with advanced medicine and science, increase. Religious expertise in these areas has never been uncontested, and religious experts have an unsettling habit of arguing among themselves. If ‘religion’ spoke with one voice, things would be rather easier, but this is a problem that religious people have never solved, and are never likely to.

This points at another level of change within human society. Religions change all the time, and it has always been a pressing need for religious vested interests – denominational structures – to disguise and deny this process.

The grand narratives offered by partisans all come within these wide explanations. The real process of history is driven by subjective moral evaluations and their complicated relationship with the formation of collective purposes within groupings we can recognise as ‘communities’. The abstract, intellectual struggle between values, and especially the physical struggles these values have fought out by proxy through communities, are what has driven history. Not class or race, or even nations, now that so many types of sub-national militant activity are under way.

Human ambition and the protection of family interests and wider kin are cause enough for disputes over scarce resources – wealth, land, food, water and status. This is the surface level of historical activity. But simply learning about these individual struggles is not very edifying; it is the same tale told over and over with different particular circumstances and a new cast each time. What makes a difference within this tale is that occasionally the struggle was about something larger. Not very often, but at occasional moments it was.

When very strong collective identities have been forged, the results have been the great historical moments when deeper questions were at stake – not ‘who should be king’, but ‘why do we have kings, and are there not better ways to avoid human frailty?’ Monarchy, as an idea, is designed to play to human strengths – wisdom, fairness, the recognition of superior talent – but too often it turns out to be a way of permanently imposing human frailties on wider society, through vanity, intrigue and the sanctification of mediocrity. The foundational moments of great dynasties rely on the highest virtues of monarchy, and act as its best advertisement. The fall of dynasties exactly reflects all the worst elements of monarchical power, and act as its worst indictment.

The concept of monarchy rests on a dense set of related moral judgements about human beings and the nature of power. Not all societies have kings, and many that do, choose them in different ways and give them different powers. These differences arise out of collective decisions, and in turn they affect the way communities see themselves, especially after any one group has been blessed with a particularly talented and vigourous monarch.

It is instructive to dwell on monarchy for a moment, for several reasons. One is that, while it is very easily comprehended as a political system, it is also easy to show that not all monarchies were the same through history. It is also useful in that is it is directly opposite in important ways to modern notions of community power and representation. Democracy was always contrasted to monarchy in the ancient world, and although our modern polities can combine the two at times, the direct opposition of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ political authority is most starkly revealed. The wider point is that ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ ideas of sovereignty are clearly diametrically opposed, and rely on different moral judgements, not different experiences of either system. Utility is not the issue; both systems can work well enough, in the right circumstances. The virtue of democracy is that these circumstances are vastly wider.

Another telling point is that not all democracies are the same in detail, although their basic assumptions are usually very similar. How each individual democracy got its particular form is a matter of specific historical context. This is the grand narrative. Contingency – chance, or random circumstance – has always been the historian’s bugbear. There are few neat patterns available in the raw data of state formation. There are few laws of war that reliably predict and explain the outcome of particular wars. The British should have beaten the Boers easily.

Random chance and circumstance are part of the deeper process of the formation not just of states, but of local variants within general morality. Not all societies are patriarchal, though most of the ‘successful’ ones are. Not all societies, even so-called despotic societies, have had the same attitudes to the holding of land. In Mughal India, a theoretically absolutist system, what was recognised was not the right to own land but the right to cultivate it, so the idea of buying or selling land had no real meaning. The land was purely a background factor within agricultural production, which was real wealth, and could be divided up. Unoccupied land had no value, because it had no output.

Ideas of ownership are absolutely central to the whole field of human political theory, because the central question as to who owns ’us’ is a question that demands an answer. Slave-owning societies have to make a distinction between people who do not own themselves and those that do. What exactly it is that is being owned or not is eventually resolved into the right of self-ownership, which contains at least some degree of autonomy, meaning the ability to shape (though not precisely determine) one’s own destiny. Eventually, the idea of self-ownership resulted in the very powerful idea of individual rights, particularly the right to have a say in one’s own political arrangements and a say in political decisions that affect oneself. This has never been a smooth process, and competing claims within collective bodies constantly confuse it.

Fortunately in the modern world we can now live under several authorities at once, and exercise different types of rights in different arenas. Modern society has bred a very large, and growing, number of competing identities that all of us hold. It is the great triumph of human political thinking to have arrived at such a point – offensive though it may be to political purists. Under favourable circumstances this poly-identity helps us to feel fully developed and fully expressed. Only in the last few decades has a sexual element been allowed to enter this world, which previously was confined to the grand ideological categories of race, nation and class, with a few provincial or kinship add-ons.

But this development is not secure, and there are strong forces, violent forces, that wish to restrict or deny us this multi-layered life. Many of these opponents point out how this system, the bedrock of democratic ‘rights’ culture, does not work well in stressful conditions. Indeed it does not, but no political system anywhere has ever worked well under adverse conditions. Adverse conditions are never conducive to, and are nearly always inimical to, wide collective agreement. War, famine, natural disaster, recession – these adverse states test all our carefully assembled political constructs to the limit. Bluntly, good times are good and bad are bad.

Peace and love are nicer than war and hate – for most of the time. But occasionally war and hate seem like better options. The broad liberal project will not change this. All it can hope to do is to create circumstances within which peace and love can flourish, and under which they continue to look like our best option.

The grand narrative of history shows us how far we have come in this quest for moral development, as expressed though political principles themselves expressed through institutions. Our politicians are as corruptible and fallible as ever; decision-making is still hard, and wielding authority continues to present a huge range of temptations to advance one’s self-interest. These things will not change.

The good news is that history, when told the right way, can teach us several things that can help. One is modesty; we cannot solve everything with easy sloganeering. It also shows us that homogenous societies, the great dream of ideological and religious zealots, are a chimera, a false trail. No amount of exclusion and indoctrination will create human consensus on any enduring basis. We have to live with disputes and disputation; we have to live with difference. Difference, when suitably defined, is something we like for ourselves, but tend to wish to deny to others. The moral basis of politics is at its best when mutuality, reciprocity – or what can be termed the two-ended principle – is most fully in place. We like clear moral rules, but most of all we like a little flexibility, for ourselves principally, and occasionally for others.

It is others that make politics, and communities. We cannot undertake political actions of any meaning as sole agents, and a community, by definition, contains more than one person. The way this works out in practical reality is central to all human political endeavours. And if history is a record of anything, it is a record of collective human endeavours. Politics is one of the fields, but morality is the other. It is deeper, less visible, but it is just as much of a human construct. It changes, primarily because it serves us more than we serve it. Originally it made communities by agreement, and now it makes virtual communities by self-selection.

Holders of any value can now find somebody somewhere who agrees with them. The creation of virtual communities is a very interesting step in human affairs. It can create pro-democracy movements, as in Iran or Egypt, and it can also make paedophile rings and terrorist groups, both of which are highly motivated communities set on particular purposes.

All the conflicts selected by ideological historians, be they overtly political or simply religious, can be reduced to sets of moral judgements, sometimes self-generated, sometimes reliant on ancient scripture. The vital missing ingredient here is what is called legitimacy or, on a wider footing, sovereignty. At what point do the internal rules of a club become laws that are binding? When do states have the right to call themselves states? The Tamil Tigers were physically defeated. What about the Islamist government of Somalia? At what point would the anti-Gaddafi rebels get to call themselves a government? When will the Palestinians be recognised as a nation by the UN?

Technology certainly has had a role in driving history, and it is necessary to place technology and morality in a correct relationship. New moral questions are flagged up by the arrival of new knowledge and new  technological possibilities. There is no instance when new morality has created new technology. Technology, however, is a very broad factor. What new moral dilemmas were posed by the invention of the wheel? We do not know, though in the ancient world questions were certainly asked, and answered, about the formation of large scale irrigation projects, with the consequent rise in agricultural output. Watered fields produce more food, and new political questions arose from that realisation. It would not have been possible to herd human beings together into cities and then invent irrigation as a means of feeding them.

The blurring of the boundaries at both the start and end of life has posed new moral questions. These questions did not create IVF. Human life has always been considered sacred, but the implications of this general principle have ramified. Moral decisions are taken in detail, and are then assembled into generalities.

Morality follows human development; it has never led it. How could it? It was not possible to demand that twenty-four week foetuses be delivered and kept alive before medical science made this possible. The Bible has remained stolidly the same for many centuries, and humanity stagnated intellectually, until other wider circumstances pulled Europe out of the medieval era. Christian, Biblically-based morality actually did a great deal to discourage enquiry.

The constant factor through the development of morality and technology is the way that communities have regarded themselves in different ways. The great breakthrough, the real dawn of the modern world, was the arrival of the possibility of self-government in very large communities, backed up by intellectual value judgements. This arrived at the cumulative peak of Enlightenment thought, as expressed in the French Revolution. That Revolution was not an Enlightenment project; it had direct personal and economic roots related to the French monarchy, but as a mass movement it relied for its intellectual content on the previous hundred years of thinking about individual rights. It was only when these rights could be realised via political documents and institutions – prefigured in America – that modern politics and modern political communities were born.

But it was not ‘rights’ in themselves that made such a difference; rights, previously called privileges or liberties, were an old idea. What made the difference was that communities were suddenly considered to have a ‘right’ to self-government, and each individual within that community also acquired a specific personal right – just by being a member of that community. This is a circular argument, but it became a very powerful one, easily understood, and endlessly adapted. It became the absolute staple of modern political thinking and activity.

Rights and liberalism are inseparable. The birth of liberalism was the allocation of rights to individuals regardless of their personal economic or social status. This made everyone a player in the game, and opened not just the question of self-government; it also allowed the right of your fellows in community, your neighbours, to rule over you. This was a new form of two-ended right and it caused tremendous friction at the time, and continues to do so. At the very heart of liberalism’s dispersed political right to self-rule was another right, directly implied by the distribution of political decision making – that others, of whom there would always be more than you, would necessarily have the right to impose rule as surely as any despot. Collective organisation and collective thinking sprang up in response.

After two centuries we have become accustomed, even blinded, to this process. It has improved the responsiveness of governments, and thus immeasurably improved the lives of nearly everyone on the planet. The queue of people still denied the right to rule themselves, but wishing to exercise it, is long. There is also a constant clamour for the supervision within self-ruling systems to be improved and refined. The central dilemma is that in choosing to be part of a community I not only get to rule myself, I also allow my neighbours, collectively, the same privilege over themselves, and, by extension, also over me. But others will always be in a majority. So, to whom are we willing to give rights over ourselves?

Furthermore, in the same way that individual rights conflict at many points, the larger rights of identifiable communities also intersect and conflict. So, whose claims to ultimate authority are valid, and where and when, remain the great questions of our age.

 Posted by at 6:26 am