Carolinkus is convinced that Satan is making her blog. It’s taking up so much time that could be devoted to more worthwhile things, like spiritual contemplation. It’s a familiar feeling for most bloggers, though most of us probably wouldn’t put it in quite those terms. Blogging is addictive and intensely frustrating, and an amazingly powerful time-waster.
But that consciousness hasn’t stopped me from blogging, and it hasn’t inhibited Carolinkus so far either. She’s merely disabled her comments facility and hit counter, so she can continue writing and posting without cross-chatter or worrying about how big her audience may be (or even if it exists).
I share her reaction to hit counters, but I would find blogging very unrewarding without the interactive debate the comment box provides. Discussions are sometimes abusive and unpleasant, and often sterile and unproductive, with most people adhering rigidly to their long-entrenched prejudices. But genuinely creative dialogue, where you meet new ideas and have your own constructively challenged, happens often enough to keep me interested. For me that’s a large part of the point of blogging, along with the release of getting things off my chest and inflicting my opinions on an audience (however select). Of course I can (and do) inflict my opinions on a captive audience of law students every week as well, but somehow it’s not the same.
Carolinkus also mentioned that she’s recently read Bertrand Russell’s famous 1917 essay Political Ideals. I read it years ago, but Carol’s note inspired me to refresh my memory. (*The photo is of Russell, not Satan)
Like the dreaded Clive Hamilton (though Hamilton is marginally more circumspect), Russell was a socialist who believed strongly that capitalism was evil and that attachment to material wealth and possessions was a big mistake that diverted human beings from the path of true happiness. Russell believed that capitalism should be abolished.
Like Hamilton, Russell conceded that reasonable material comfort and security were prerequisites to happiness and the good life, but that obsessive, greedy pursuit of them after a certain point not only failed to add to happiness but was actively conducive to increasing the sum total of human misery.
Unlike Hamilton, however, Russell believed in classical liberal ideas of individual freedom in all but the economic sphere (perhaps not surprisingly given that the great liberal reformer Lord John Russell was his grandfather and John Stuart Mill was his godfather). He attempted to reconcile the apparent contradiction between a coercive approach to matters economic with a libertarian ethos on the social and interpersonal level, by advocating devolution of the economic coercive power of the State to the local community and enterprise level. This, he thought, would counteract the twin dangers of statist coercion and tyranny of the majority that just about every political philosopher from John Locke to Mill himself had foreseen It was a sort of early 20th century hippie vision of Nimbin-like communes, where happy workers would live together in free co-operative bliss.
I can only presume that Russell seldom if ever (before 1917 at least) became actively involved in local community or sporting associations, school councils, trade union or political party branch meetings, or strata title body corporate affairs. If he had, he would have known with an awful clarity that devolution of power to a local level does nothing at all to reduce coercion or gross unfairness. In fact, without the mediating influence of government checks and balances and regulatory oversight, devolution of power to the local level actually makes oppression, coercion and unfairness even worse. Petty dictators, control freaks, pompous pedants and lovers of rules-for-their-own-sake run rampant and reign supreme in all such organisations, driving the sensible and well-adjusted to retreat into an increasingly narrow zone of personal freedom.
No, I’m afraid Russell’s hybrid vision of classical liberalism in the social sphere with devolved localised economic socialism is just as dangerous and impractical as Clive Hamilton’s more Statist socialist ideal. The only safe political model is classical liberalism with a modest overlay of state-administered social democracy to the extent necessary to maximise equality of opportunity, sustained by a sceptical scientific centrist conviction that we need to be permanently vigilant to keep the bastards honest, along with a humble realisation that the bastards potentially include ourselves and everyone else.
Nevertheless, and despite all those reservations about Russell’s essay, it contains some worthwile insights with which I wholeheartedly concur:
We may distinguish two sorts of goods, and two corresponding sorts of impulses. There are goods in regard to which individual possession is possible, and there are goods in which all can share alike. The food and clothing of one man is not the food and clothing of another; if the supply is insufficient, what one man has is obtained at the expense of some other man. This applies to material goods generally, and therefore to the greater part of the present economic life of the world. On the other hand, mental and spiritual goods do not belong to one man to the exclusion of another. If one man knows a science, that does not prevent others from knowing it; on the contrary, it helps them to acquire the knowledge. If one man is a great artist or poet, that does not prevent others from painting pictures or writing poems, but helps to create the atmosphere in which such things are possible. If one man is full of good-will toward others, that does not mean that there is less good-will to be shared among the rest; the more good-will one man has, the more he is likely to create among others. In such matters there is no possession, because there is not a definite amount to be shared; any increase anywhere tends to produce an increase everywhere.
There are two kinds of impulses, corresponding to the two kinds of goods. There are possessive impulses, which aim at acquiring or retaining private goods that cannot be shared; these center in the impulse of property. And there are creative or constructive impulses, which aim at bringing into the world or making available for use the kind of goods in which there is no privacy and no possession.
The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest. This is no new discovery. The Gospel says: “Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” The thought we give to these things is taken away from matters of more importance. And what is worse, the habit of mind engendered by thinking of these things is a bad one; it leads to competition, envy, domination, cruelty, and almost all the moral evils that infest the world. In particular, it leads to the predatory use of force. Material possessions can be taken by force and enjoyed by the robber. Spiritual possessions cannot be taken in this way. You may kill an artist or a thinker, but you cannot acquire his art or his thought. You may put a man to death because he loves his fellow-men, but you will not by so doing acquire the love which made his happiness. Force is impotent in such matters; it is only as regards material goods that it is effective. For this reason the men who believe in force are the men whose thoughts and desires are preoccupied with material goods.
The possessive impulses, when they are strong, infect activities which ought to be purely creative. A man who has made some valuable discovery may be filled with jealousy of a rival discoverer. If one man has found a cure for cancer and another has found a cure for consumption, one of them may be delighted if the other man’s discovery turns out a mistake, instead of regretting the suffering of patients which would otherwise have been avoided. In such cases, instead of desiring knowledge for its own sake, or for the sake of its usefulness, a man is desiring it as a means to reputation. Every creative impulse is shadowed by a possessive impulse; even the aspirant to saintliness may be jealous of the more successful saint. Most affection is accompanied by some tinge of jealousy, which is a possessive impulse intruding into the creative region. Worst of all, in this direction, is the sheer envy of those who have missed everything worth having in life, and who are instinctively bent on preventing others from enjoying what they have not had. There is often much of this in the attitude of the old toward the young.
There is in human beings, as in plants and animals, a certain natural impulse of growth, and this is just as true of mental as of physical development. Physical development is helped by air and nourishment and exercise, and may be hindered by the sort of treatment which made Chinese women’s feet small. In just the same way mental development may be helped or hindered by outside influences. The outside influences that help are those that merely provide encouragement or mental food or opportunities for exercising mental faculties. The influences that hinder are those that interfere with growth by applying any kind of force, whether discipline or authority or fear or the tyranny of public opinion or the necessity of engaging in some totally incongenial occupation. Worst of all influences are those that thwart or twist a man’s fundamental impulse, which is what shows itself as conscience in the moral sphere; such influences are likely to do a man an inward danger from which he will never recover.
Those who realize the harm that can be done to others by any use of force against them, and the worthlessness of the goods that can be acquired by force, will be very full of respect for the liberty of others; they will not try to bind them or fetter them; they will be slow to judge and swift to sympathize; they will treat every human being with a kind of tenderness, because the principle of good in him is at once fragile and infinitely precious. They will not condemn those who are unlike themselves; they will know and feel that individuality brings differences and uniformity means death. They will wish each human being to be as much a living thing and as little a mechanical product as it is possible to be; they will cherish in each one just those things which the harsh usage of a ruthless world would destroy. In one word, all their dealings with others will be inspired by a deep impulse of reverence.
What we shall desire for individuals is now clear: strong creative impulses, overpowering and absorbing the instinct of possession; reverence for others; respect for the fundamental creative impulse in ourselves. A certain kind of self-respect or native pride is necessary to a good life; a man must not have a sense of utter inward defeat if he is to remain whole, but must feel the courage and the hope and the will to live by the best that is in him, whatever outward or inward obstacles it may encounter. So far as it lies in a man’s own power, his life will realize its best possibilities if it has three things: creative rather than possessive impulses, reverence for others, and respect for the fundamental impulse in himself.
Political and social institutions are to be judged by the good or harm that they do to individuals. Do they encourage creativeness rather than possessiveness? Do they embody or promote a spirit of reverence between human beings? Do they preserve self-respect?
In all these ways the institutions under which we live are very far indeed from what they ought to be.
Quite so, but the realisation that money and property don’t bring happiness can’t be coerced or imposed, either by Russell or Hamilton or any state or local bureaucracy. For most, it has to be achieved by lived experience. Moreover, it’s much easier to achieve the insight that materialism doesn’t bring happiness if you’ve had a secure, happy middle class upbringing yourself and have already achieved a reasonable level of material security. You don’t see too many long-term welfare recipients opting for a mid-life “sea change” (not voluntarily anyway).
Observation of the tiny microcosm of people I’ve known really intimately during my life suggests that people who’ve had a tough, materially and emotionally insecure upbringing find it much more difficult to embrace the sorts of relaxed, creative, non-materialist values that Russell and Hamilton (and me too) see as the ideal. They tend instead to exhibit a desperate compulsive approach to money and possessions, much more intensively and for much longer than objective necessity would seem to dictate. They feel a need to keep storing away nuts and berries for a long snowy winter that they’re subconsciously convinced might arrive at any moment.
Ageing middle class brats like Jen and myself, on the other hand, embrace non-materialism almost instinctively. We believe without thinking that things will somehow always be alright, and that there’s no point in stressing too much about money because we’ll always be able to find enough to do what we want if we really put our minds to it (even if things aren’t looking too flash right this moment).
I’m not suggesting it’s impossible for people with a background on Struggle Street to discover that money (beyond a certain point of reasonable comfort) doesn’t buy happiness, just that it’s a harder-won insight for them. And also that some version of classical liberalism is probably best suited to delivering that certain level of reasonable comfort to the greatest number of people, so that they too can happily embrace gracious, creative non-materialist values without being coerced into them by pompous preachers like Russell and Hamilton who think they know what’s good for us better than we do ourselves.