History is bollocks: moral politics and other fairy tales

Striking workers and police apply 'moral force' to each other

Oh dear, this one’s a bit long and factually based. I apologise for that.

I still remember a series of books in my school filled with morality tales for children. One that sticks in my mind was the story of some kids who, despite being told by their parents to stay away from the railway track, went and played on it anyway and were electrocuted to death. Why anyone thought a 9-year-old kid needed to read tales of sudden death I don’t know but if the aim of those tales was to give me nightmares they definitely succeeded. There was another one about a girl who put a garden fork through her foot because, against her parents’ warnings, she decided to work in the garden on a Sunday. A fork through the foot doesn’t seem like the end of the world now but it was made much more horrible by the fact that it was punishment. Those stories were extreme but Disney does morality tales too so we’ve all been exposed to them.

Morality tales all tend to have one major problem: they are mostly untrue and even actively dishonest. They are not true in a very particular way, in that there is usually little or no connection between the claimed moral cause and the ensuing effect. The girl didn’t put a fork through her foot because it was Sunday. Probably she did it because she was pissed off that someone was trying to impose stupid rules on her so got distracted while forking the garden. It’s easy to challenge the poor causal linking in morality tales. So it’s interesting that we are told a whole series of morality tales as kids that we mostly accept when we get older, even though they have the same basic structure as those specious frightener tales. We tend to take them more seriously because they are called ‘history’.

We are taught, implicitly if not explicitly, that a whole range of important historical decisions were made for moral reasons. Giving men the vote for example, happened because after the upper class cocked up so badly in the form of WWI they saw that there was a moral duty to share power with the people they had decimated. People cite similar beliefs about the institution of the welfare state after WWII. The start of WWII would be another – people vaguely imagine reasons from the desire to defend Poland to the desire to defend the Jews, or the necessity of self-defence. Or how about the Civil Rights Movement? And this is the one that really got me thinking, because there has been a small clamour of voices among anti-cuts campaigners to keep protests peaceful. And when asked what proof they have that peaceful protests works they always cite the Civil Rights Movement.

So, starting from the top, why did men get the vote after WWI. Well, it’s complicated. I suspect the forgotten Great Unrest might have something to do with it. There were even strikes during the war. The British ruling class had to fight while being undermined from within by its own people, who already hated the them so much before the war started that there was some serious revolutionary talk in the air. And they organised their hatred to oppose their rulers.

Similarly it could be said to be fear of the masses that caused the welfare state to be implemented. The 1926 General Strike was still pretty fresh in the minds of politicians, and here were millions of demobilised unemployed men who were pretty pissed off they’d had to go to war at all. Spending lots of money wouldn’t have come top of the list of a broke government’s priorites after the war for purely moral reasons. I’m not saying that politicians are bad human beings (that’s for another post) but they occupy positions that very, very rarely allow them to think in moral terms.

As for why WWII started, the British establishment didn’t give a toss about the Jews. They didn’t give much of a toss about the Poles either. As for the notion it was a war of self-defence, Hitler had not planned to take on Britain and was said to be rather surprised when the invasion of Poland brought Britain into the war. Hitler was a great admirer of Britain and didn’t plan to destroy such a fine example of the superiority of the Aryan race. So why did Britain join WWII? While Hitler didn’t plan to invade Britain, he did plan to build an empire. And as far as Churchill and his class was concerned, there was only space for one big boy in Europe. Britain went to war mostly to defend the empire from a competitor. The moral justifications came afterwards.

And so to the Civil Rights Movement. Firstly, let’s get the facts straight. This was not simply a movement of peaceful protesters against an oppositional state. Read the history of the Selma March and you realise that local and national governments were pitted against each other. The triumphant peaceful marches in the end got the protection of the state. In other words, they had the central government on side almost as soon as they began. The reasons for the central government’s stance? The moral upstandingness of the protesters? Maybe. Or maybe the Democrat party saw a massive voting block that would forever move the vote in their direction. Who knows? But is it true to say it was peaceful protest that did it? Perhaps it helped, but there was a lot more going on, including more aggressive black power politics and political shenanigans in Washington.

Here’s what they don’t like to teach us about history in school: it is mostly about power, not morals. All the above examples are about organised power blocks going up against each other. And the main reason to pretend it was morality that won out, rather than naked power, is that you can then claim that the current state of affairs, the status quo, is a result of a history of morality triumphant. The lesson of the morality tale is: this world we offer to you is a good and moral place, so all you have to do is behave well and a good world will become even better.

It’s a nice tale, but it’s a fairy tale. It may not be as pretty to believe that history is a consequence of power struggles, and therefore the status quo is the result of power struggles, but it is an important thing to believe, because it leads directly to an interesting conclusion: There is nothing inherently moral about the status quo, and if we want to pursue our own ethics, we will have to do so by the use of power. Behaving well so as to generate some mythical ‘moral force’ has nothing to do with it.

Some might go further and say that the idea we should protest within certain respectable limits is about preventing us from generating any power that would threaten those who have power right now. At the very least, lets think about the fact that if your form of protest is approved by those in power, it can’t be threatening their position very much or they would cease to approve of it very quickly.

I wonder if, somewhere at the back of our minds, as we consider asserting ourselves against the status quo, we are worried that, because we are abandoning the moral demands made by a fairy tale history, we’ll get a fork stuck through our foot. Lose your fear of a fork in the foot I say! (Or maybe it was only me that had that fear, but you get my point). If the fork gets stuck in your foot, it won’t be because morals demand it, but through a careless application of force that could happen to anyone. The moral of the story of the girl who worked on Sunday could equally have been: Apply force, but carefully.

Reasons to…burn books and go on your first protest

You're the firestarter, twisted firestarter

This is a post about why everyone should burn books. I’m serious about this. I really think it would be good for people. I know that sounds a bit wrong, but bear with me.

“Do you think I could do some Morris Dancing here?” you say to someone in the park.

“It’s a free country,” they say, meaning that they are free to think you’re a twat as much as you being free to dance there.

And it’s a nice thing to say. It feels good. “It’s a free country.” It rolls off the tongue. It reminds you that the secret police aren’t sitting at the next table, or that there is not, as yet, a law against Morris dancing, despite the offence it causes.

“It’s a free country,” you say, even though you’re a sophisticated person who recognises there is no such thing as absolute truth and that ‘freedom’ can’t be strictly defined.

And even though when you walk into work in the morning you switch into work mode. You may be luckier than most people, but for most people work means not being yourself. It means presenting a polished version of yourself for the approval of your superiors and colleagues. Smile sweetly at the boss as he says something particularly moronic. Shut up about the idiocy of the direction your organisation is going in. Or hint at what you think and be frowned down by the person who controls your wage packet. Pretend to agree with your incompetent boss, then do what it takes to get the job done anyway. Put up with the patronising attitudes of managers, or the insulting and arbitrary pissing around with your wages as a temp worker.

In a country full of people who pride themselves on being individuals I find it weird not that people bow to what their superiors want – you’ve got to put food on the table after all – but that no one seems to notice they are required to give up their individuality when they enter the workplace. “You’re the boss,” we think with a shrug, “Even though you’re a bad boss.” But we don’t say what we think, we feel unable to so. And mostly we do what we’re told, like a bunch of little kiddies. We even convince ourselves that disciplining ourselves to follow the boss’s line is the real maturity.

And maybe you think it’s fine, and maybe you think it’s necessary for organisations to work that way (I don’t), but you can’t pride yourself on being such a fucking individual at the same time. That’s 8 hours a day 5 days a week when you shut your mouth and do what you’re told by people who got to their positions through a bunch of decisions and processes so arbitrary you might as well have picked their names out of a hat. In fact they’d probably be better if they were chosen that way because they wouldn’t be so good at licking the arses of the equally incompetent and/or abusive senior management.

So I was thinking about these contradictions while talking to people in Deptford today about the upcoming demonstration on March 26th and was struck by the number of people who wouldn’t even consider going on a demonstration. They didn’t agree with the cuts, but they just didn’t see themselves as the type of people to go on protests. Which is interesting, because in theory we’re free to say and do whatever we want, in practice the idea of expressing that right on the streets seems almost repellent to many people.

The reason for that? Just habit maybe. Because there are certain things you do and certain things you don’t. And let’s not ask too many questions about why. Perhaps that habit got ingrained with some help from an education system that taught us to be passive and workplaces where we can’t speak our minds. But why worry? It’s just not my thing, that’s the point.

Which is why I think everyone should burn books. Because it’s one of those things you just don’t do. The fact that it’s one of those things nice liberal people don’t do is irrelevant. It’s not the done thing so I think you should do it. I mean, yes, book-burning has a history, but if your choice of books to burn is arbitrary, not censorial, and if it deprives no one of reading material, then what harm does it do?

It’s a free country, they say.

Sort of, I say, piling books on the fire, but if you’re going to follow your habits and call it freedom, I’m going to burn books and suggest you do it too. You’ve had a habit of not burning books. By all means choose Dan Brown to burn. By all means raid the boxes of books even charity shops can’t sell and that would have gone for recycling. The point is, after dancing naked (did I mention that bit before?) round a pile of burning books you might choose never to do it again, but at least it won’t be out of habit.

“This is slavery, not to speak one’s thought.” — Euripides

What to say when people say…I vote Tory because I believe in individual freedom

Is this a criminal justice protest or did I just like the photo?

This is a post about what I have in common with Tory voters. I’m honestly not trying to be sarcastic or anything. I do have something in common with Tory voters, quite apart from having, say, lungs (I was going to say heart, then brain, but didn’t want to make assumptions – I’m pretty sure they have lungs, right?). It’s not a small thing I have in common with them either. There is a problem though, which I’ll explain later.

A lot of people vote Conservative because they believe in individual freedom and they think Labour politicians are authoritarians. And they’re right. I agree. Labour under Blair and Brown produced a raft of knee-jerk authoritarian legislation to use against suspects, against protesters, to enable government spying on people, to stop people taking photos. They tried to curtail anti-social behaviour by force. They introduced ID cards no one wanted for no explicable reason. It felt like they just liked the idea of calling the entire population into registration centres to be photographed and recorded, or just wanted to keep an eye on us all on general principles.

They produced a lot of what can only be described as authoritarian liberal legislation, trying to defend people against discrimination while not understanding that the law doesn’t actually challenge bigotry. I don’t think the government should use their vast resources to attempt to shape people’s thinking and behaviour. Yes, I know that in reality they do that all the time, but the principle of it is screwed up and Labour made more of an effort to do it than anyone in the UK since Philip II of Spain tried to invade.

The only behavioural legislation that seemed reasonable to me was making violence against children illegal. I don’t think children should have less rights than adults just because they’re smaller and the adults can get away with it. That law I saw as a correction to an obvious anomaly. The rest seemed, ironically, like a scolding teacher finally getting annoyed with us for not listening – and picking up the cane in a threatening manner.

Most of all, Labour passed laws at the drop of a hat. They passed laws for pretty much anything. If they had woken up one morning thinking wet wipes were inadequately sized they would have passed a law to specify the correct way to make wet wipes. They couldn’t help themselves. Their response to every problem was to legislate. They had the hearts of authoritarians and the souls of…. Actually there is no way to finish that sentence. According to the Torygraph:

In his 10 years as prime minister, Tony Blair presided over more than 3,000 new laws, more than 1,000 of which carried jail terms; Gordon Brown added hundreds more. Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, […]

So there you go. I do have something in common with Tory voters – or a lot of them anyway. Labour’s assault on individual freedom made me feel kind of sick, then kind of pissed off, then very pissed off, then really vomit-hurlingly ill.

There is a problem however. Quite a big problem. And it’s this: the Tories don’t believe in individual freedom either. I’m pretty sure they don’t believe in anything much except their own wealth and power. Their pretence to be lovers of freedom is something they stick to for as long as they think it’s a votewinner, then oops, the mask slips. You’ll note the quote above has […] at the end because it is incomplete. Here’s the complete sentence:

Labour created new offences at twice the rate of the previous Tory administration, which had been bad enough in this regard.

So even the Torygraph doesn’t think the Tories really respect our right to be free from government control. But if you want more evidence, or some things to say to people who say they vote Tory because they believe in individual freedom, here you go:

  • They scrapped ID cards right? Well, almost. They kept them for migrants. Partly because you never can trust those dusky foreigners, but mostly because no one was watching or caring. In Toryland an authoritarian act doesn’t count if no one notices, and particularly if their core voters don’t notice.

  • Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. A despicable piece of legislation in pretty much every regard, though I can’t really argue with extending the definition of rape to include anal rape – presumably everyone had just been too prudish to talk about it before. The Act not only increased police powers considerably, meaning a reduction in rights for ordinary people, but it was also an act of intergenerational authoritarianism passed to appease their core voters who were worried by the youngsters being able to, y’know, have too much fun.

  • Sure, the Tories hated unions, but they never prevented their right to associate, right? They would never go that far, right? Except what they did was pass a raft of legislation aimed at de-politicising unions and preventing them from taking political actions. They used the instrument of legislation to destroy a political opponent. You can associate, they said, just don’t do it politically. Because we don’t like it. But we love freedom, honest.

  • Their foreign policy. Like, forever. After the Bahrain government murdered protesters yesterday, David Mellor came on Radio 4 defending the Bahrain government as a ‘stalwart friend of the West’. By which he presumably meant a stalwart friend of him and his rich friends who’ve made money from them. They pretended they were supporting Pinochet as a bulwark against communism. Except supporting authoritarianism to prevent authoritarianism doesn’t really make sense does it? Does it? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t, unless logic changed since I last checked. It does make sense if what really bothers you – much more than anyone’s freedom – is the issue of whether you can make money with that government.

  • And finally, when they do claim to be putting effort into ‘liberating’ people to do what they want, what they mostly tend to do is liberate corporations to do what they want. They’re good at that. A bit of a shame then that a corporation is an essentially authoritarian structure utterly unconcerned with the rights of individuals.

I do have common ground with Tory voters. Where we separate is the issue of whether the Tories mean anything they say.

What to say when people say… I don’t go on protests because they don’t work

Facts: You are right that marching from A to B in an orderly fashion has rarely caused politicians to come out in a stress rash. The civil rights movement in the US marched, yes, but people also used other tactics that probably scared politicians a lot more than marching. And yet from time to time, when people have had enough of being abused by those in power, they take to the streets in large numbers to try to take back control of their lives. This has worked repeatedly, but it works when people are really pissed off and they don’t much care whether Mr Policeman or Mr Murdoch like what they’re doing. And when they don’t all go home at 5pm. And when there are large enough numbers to cause serious economic disruption and disruption to the messages the politicians are putting out.

Thoughts: It may be that what you really meant was ‘I can’t be bothered to protest’, or ‘I can’t be bothered to think about what would work’. If so, move along, don’t spare it another thought. But if what you really meant was ‘I don’t think we’re pissed off enough yet to cause the serious disruption that would force the hands of politicians or force them out of office’, then why the hell aren’t you pissed off enough yet? Do you think they’re going to start providing a good quality of life for everyone when they wake up one morning full of a new-found benevolent joy that turns them into cuddly teddy bears? They’re not acting for you. They’re acting for the money people. If they are taking things away from you, it’s because you’re letting them. They won’t give you nice pressies freely. You have to take them, by acting together with other people. And if you don’t have the numbers or the organisation to do that, at the very least you can disrupt the illusion that there is any kind of consensus about their activities.

Opinion: We have a government in the UK that, even if you accept our system as ‘democratic’, has very little democratic legitimacy, and they are dismantling public services people fought very hard for, including the NHS – I don’t know anyone who voted to dismantle that. Protests don’t work in the UK partly because people aren’t pissed off enough yet. I recommend getting pissed off. They really will take everything away from you if you let them. You might as well pre-empt the shitty America-lite no-safety-nets, low-quality-of-life state they want and get pissed off now. And when you’re pissed off enough, you might just believe that protests will work. You might take the actions necessary to make them work.

Note: This is a series of posts called ‘What to say when people say…’ Obviously they do not provide the definitive answers to most questions (except the ones marked with an asterisk, like so*). They simply provide ideas, helpfully broken down into Facts about Things People Say, Thoughts about Things People Say, and Opinions about Things People Say.