April 22, 2010

Stolen quote

A friend of mine had this on her facebook page:

In our time, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism. It is a provincialism, not of space, but of time (...).
TS Eliot

Its a really interesting quote. The idea isn't individual to Eliot either- C.S. Lewis used the same comparison of a historian to a traveller in his Pilgrim's Regress. I wonder if the attraction had something to do with the growth of mass travel in the early part of the twentieth century- anyway its a great quote!

April 21, 2010

Gran Torino

An Englishman's home was his castle, for Walt Kowalski (an American) the outer border of his castle is his lawn. He greets any attempt at incursion with a threatening stare and a raised shot gun. Kowalski sits on his front porch every day, can of beer in one hand, and gun lying over his lap supported by the other. An ex-soldier he looks out on a changing world, changing for the worse he thinks. His family are all fat wimps, investment bankers and girls desperate for ipods. His neighbours are gooks and chinks (his language not mine!), all the Americans have moved out of his community. Like a Daily Mail reader with a gun, he sits there scowling at the universe which has moved beyond him. And all the time he feels pestered, in particular by a Catholic priest. His wife told said priest to save his soul, but Walt thinks that with his gun and his beer and his sacred lawn there ain't much soul to save- all that he needs help with is the scars from the wars he served the US in, and those scars are not going to be healed by a priest with all the experiences of a 13 year old straight from seminary. Gran Torino is a story about an image, and that's the image, Walt (played by Clint Eastwood) sitting on his porch, gun in his hand, beer in his hand and watching his Gran Torino and his lawn.

So what happens? The dynamic part in this film is not some liberal dream- Walt doesn't decide he has fallen in love with his neighbours, nor is this a tale of religious redemption. Racial and religious softening do happen though but they happen within Walt's character, not against it. On the first hand, Walt's lawn and Gran Torino are challenged by a group of Asian youths who decide to steal his car, they recruit the unwilling Thao who lives next door. Walt disrupts this activity, takes on the youths, stops Thao stealing his car. He then is asked by Thao's sister Sue whether Thao can become his servant for a month, to expunge the disgrace of the theft. Walt recognises the values of this request and accedes to it, setting Thao to work on his own and then his neighbour's houses as a builder. Slowly a relationship between Thao, Sue and Walt develops: the relationship is built upon Walt's grudging kindness and their willingness to respond. Walt is still a racist- he still calls Sue dragonlady and Thao a gook- but he likes this dragon lady and values this gook. This is a fable about how racism can be overcome and it is not by losing racist attitudes, but by liking through the racist attitudes.

The trajectory of Walt's religious views is similar. Again experience comes to certify that the great lesson of Christianity, to turn the other cheek, is true. Walt begins this film as a pagan war god. When Sue is attacked by some black kids and her white boyfriend can't handle it, there is Walt scowling in the car threatening to shoot the kids' brains out with a very plausible sneer. The gang that persecutes Thao are humiliated once and again by Walt's ability to cow them with a glance and threaten violence they find shockingly plausible. And yet, what Walt does is merely fuel a cycle of violence that comes back. In the age old conflict, Gran Torino is a film in which the men of the long robe victor over the men of the sword: the priest is ultimately right about revenge and the story of the film proves to Walt that this is so. Christianity here is the revolutionary force that it was when it emerged: a creed which advocates non-violence and forgiveness even in the worst circumstances and in that sense the end of Gran Torino is truly Christian.

There is a last set of ideas that the film plays with and those are about masculinity. Throughout the film, Walt plays the role of an assertor of a particular type of masculinity and by the end of the film he has everyone's respect. That masculinity is assertive, hostile and defensive. It is shaped by war. It is both barbaric and heroic. His sons have become true Reagen Americans, softer, concerned with respectability and wealth. Thao's decision between Walt's masculinity and that of the gang that torment the community is an easy one- it is the decision between constructive and unconstructive heroism. The film has two messages about this decision: the first is that Walt's masculinity is the only one that offers Thao a route out of the problems that he confronts. A young boy with an immigrant heritage pestered by gangs needs strength and the ferocity to take those gangs on, he needs bravery and skills. Equally though Walt's masculinity is inadequate: one of the funniest scenes in the film has Walt teaching Thao how men speak to each other, it is a foreign language for Thao and for most men. Ultimately Walt's masculinity is that of the hero, the uncivilised and damaged hero, it is enough to get out of the world of the slum but not neccessarily enough to enter into or create civilisation.

We have three strands- race, religion and masculinity- all coming together into this film. Within each notice the opposition between Walt's protective figure with his beer and his gun and the reality of urban civilisation. The world we have created was created by people like Walt, fought for by people like Walt, but cannot be lived in by people like Walt. The lesson of Gran Torino is ultimately the lesson of There will be blood, the world of Walt is fading, that of religion and liberalism supplants it and the gods of the copybook headings for a while withdraw to their caves.

April 20, 2010

Kant on Socrates

I've just been reading Kant's lectures on anthropology. One of the things that astounded me about what Kant writes is his description of reason. Kant makes a distinction between what he calls common sense or le bon sens and academic science. The first he tells us is the application of general rules to particular circumstances, the second is the definition and questioning of those general rules and he suggests that the faculty which leads to the one is not the one which leads to the other. So much so unsurprising. What is interesting though or was so for me was what Kant furnishes as an example of common sense: I quote the entire passage, he is talking here of sound understanding which he has previously equated to le bon sens,

It is strange that sound human understanding which is usually regarded as only a practical cognitive faculty is not only presented as something that can manage without culture, but also something for which culture is even disadvantageous, if it is not pursued enough. Some praise it highly to the point of enthusiasm and represent it as a rich source of treasure lying hidden in the mind, and sometimes its pronouncement as an oracle (Socrates' genius) is siad to be more reliable than anything academic science offers for sale... sound understanding can demonstrate its superiority with regard to an object of experience, which consists not only in increasing knowledge through expereince but also in enlarging that experience, not however, in a speculative, but merely in an empirical- practical respect. (Louden ed., Kuehn intro., Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View 28)
Kant's distinctions may not seem so odd here- but he does not scatter an example like Socrates into his text without thinking hard about using him. Kant wants us to think about that example and to make us realise it is not arbitrary, he elaborates upon it a couple of pages later

it is true that there are judgements which one does not bring formally before the tribunal of understanding in order to pronounce sentence on them and which therefore seem to be directly dictated by sense. They are embodied in so-called aphorisms or oracular outbursts (such as those to whose utterance Socrates attributes his genius) (Louden ed, Kuehn intro., Kant Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View 36)
Again the point seems logical, but why bring up Socrates?

There are two reasons for so doing- the first is a simple historical reason. Socrates did refer to his daimon who helped him solve problems (the Greek daimon has the same etymological route as our demon but not the same sense). But Kant doesn't just do this for a historical reason: he is interested I think in doing something else. Part of Kant's interest lay in discussing what reason was and how much it could do. Socrates was the first proponent of the idea in Plato's dialogue that reason could do almost anything: for Plato's Socrates to behave badly was to make a mistake, to behave well was to think well. These points about Socrates being the epitome of common sense suggest to me that Kant was offering a reappraisal of Socrates's project. His marginal comments were a reminder that even Socrates had not been able to purely reason- even his thought was derivative from oracular outbursts and common sense observations. The little mentions of Socrates are Kant's way of suggesting to his reader that philosophising about some subjects starts from commonly agreed principles and cannot be a priori- as even the father of a priori philosophy was himself the servant of the daimons of his past.

April 18, 2010

The radical and the conservative Liberals :Gladstone and the Whigs

The most consistent problem for Gladstone’s agenda in the Liberal party throughout Gladstone’s years of party leadership ( from 1867 to 1894 with six years of theoretical break after 1874) was the Whigs. Until 1886 this was because they were the leading opposition within the party-afterwards when the Whigs left over Home Rule (that is a nearly independent parliament for Ireland theirs and other liberals defection from the party placed the Liberals previous normal majority in severe danger.

The “Whigs" is a loose term for a faction that can be seen as the fairly lineal successor to the party that had provided ( it’s deeper roots in the early eighteenth century are much murkier arguably the “Whig” party of that era is just as much the ancestor of the Tory party). This party had been in favour of oligarchy and the exclusion of the monarchy from party politics and the control of the Royal Prerogative by ministers responsible to Parliament. It had opposed the rather haphazard constitutional settlement and pushed for the narrow but clearer franchise that prevailed after the “Great Reform Act”. It had supported a “widening” of the British constitution to include religious dissenters by holding them eligible for a wider selection of state positions from the bar to membership of Parliament. Generally they took an Erastian attitude to the Church of England that is an attitude that believed Parliament could order the Church of England and it’s property against the wishes of the Church’s officeholders-. They are often identified with a rather sceptical and cynical attitude to religion though it is probably rather easy to exaggerate that –and even some historians who accept that argue that by the late nineteenth century many were in fact pious Anglicans. They generally took a comparatively “reforming” which is to say classically liberal attitude “laissez-faire” attitude to the economy. Tories disagreed to varying degrees with these “progressive” ideas in the early nineteenth century.

Thus in the context of earlier in the century the Whigs had generally (they were never a monolith) stood for a distantly “reforming” or leftwing agenda . Gladstone as a Tory had been reared on wariness of the Whigs and his early high Tory calling for a sanctified state in many ways can be seen as a wholesale rejection of and attack on Whig ideology from the right. But by the late nineteenth century the differences between Gladstone as liberal and the Whigs had grown increasingly hard and relevant. At the same time the issues which had once separated Whig and Tory were now increasingly irrelevant to party politics.

In particular what had formed the core of Whig progressives was a desire to open up the establishment and centres of authority. But this was combined with a support. This even extended to what one might call a "typical" Whig view of marriage. ~The more aristocratic Whigs tended to take a relaxed view of marriage vows particularly after an heir had been secured. However they tended to be fairly hostile to divorce and were at best unenthusiastic about legislation to liberalise it. These attitudes can be seen in the attitude of their last great leader Lord Hartingdon (later Duke of Devonshire) a notorious womanizer who denounced Charles Stewart Parnell's divorce. While by this point he had reasons for taking a hypocritcal attitude I think actualy it was quite consistent with Hartingdon's general ideology to be relaxed about adultery but highly critical of divorce.Thus they had an overall theme- loosening or opening up established institutions was one thing- dismantling them another.

But Gladstone’s reforms went well beyond Whig open to a desire to dismantle these same establishments and centres of authority even to challenge the notions of oligarchy and property that were key to the Whig worldview . This challenged many values that were dear to Whigs; they nearly always supported the continuation of established churches the “hard case” of Ireland gained many rebels when Gladstone disestablished it- . Many of them feared Gladstone’s polices as excessively populist, deep in the worldview of the Whigs was a wariness of democracy and Gladstonians populist appeals and franchise extension stepped on it. Gladstone’s push for reform in the late 1860’s (in alliance with Russell the Whig leader) was stopped by a rebellion among Whigs and his push to extend the franchise in the 1880’s while more successful also was resisted. Increasingly their notions of property were, alienated by Gladstone’s reforms. The confiscation of some of the lands of the Church of Ireland aroused even more opposition that disestablishment itself and there was also great trouble about his land reforms of the early 1880’s. It was Home Rule that precipitated the more or less complete departure of the Whigs- but they departure had been long in coming.

Interestingly for all his “radicalism” Gladstone included an enormous number of Whigs in his cabinet- particularly Whig peers (Gladstone’s cabinet tended to be extremely Peer heavy). This is generally ascribed to snobbery to put it harshly or to a belief in aristocratic leadership to put it more positively. Others have emphasised the role of experience though that is a slightly circular argument. I would suggest part of the explanation was to tie leading moderates and members of the Lords which was always the more difficult house for liberal reforms). With them both rewarded by office and invested in the possibility of passage the actual passage of Cabinet legislation was much more likely .This of course meant Cabinet passage was more difficult -but in this Gladstone’s force of personality could play a key role. It’s worth noting that it was after the departure of the Whigs in 1886 over Home Rule that Gladstone’s governments major policy initiatives dried up-it was a lot harder to win elections and even harder when in government to get polices through the Lords . Given this I feel that rational political calculation in Gladstone’s cabinet composition has I feel been a bit neglected.

It should also be noted that Whigs properly speaking were not the only politicians to give Gladstone’s problems from the right. Many who at least originally were not regarded as on the right moved there or were alienated by Gladstone’s further radicalism?.This was to reach it’s culmination in home rule but there were examples beforehand. The classic case was Goschen. A key and rather radical member of Gladstone’s first ministry his ardent nationalism and unbending commitment to laissez-faire moved away from Gladstone even before Home Rule he had opposed regulations of employers and franchise extension (he thought te latter would lead to confiscation of property) . Shortly after his break to Gladstone he was described on Ireland by Lord Salisbury’s niece as “more Tory than uncle Robert”.

Even after the departure of the Whigs and many others there remained something of a rightwing to the liberals including Lord Roseberry himself a man with some Whig tendencies. The “liberal imperialists” were already influential and there was a greater support for military spending than Gladstone found acceptable. It was to be over military spending after all that Gladstone formerly resigned from government for good.

This is a picture of Lord Hartington latter eight Duke of Devonshire of one of hte oldest and richest families in England. He was the leader of the Whigs and a good enough liberal to actualy serve as leader during Gladstone's hiratus. And yet after his departure over Home Rule in 1886 he was to be not just an ally of the Conservatives-but an opponent of those few “progressive” reforms Conservatives could support

“Fructify in the pockets of the people “Gladstone as Chancellor

In the previous series of posts we have looked at Gladstone’s political thought from his pragmaticism to his opposition to government spending. Now we are to look at some of his actions. In particular we are to look at his hugely important tenure as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

There has been a lot of focus on Gladstone as prime Minister. His chancellorship is I’d say much less known. And it was in this period that he fundamentally moved to “liberal” viewpoint and left behind fully his High Tory past. It’s his tenure as one of Britain’s most important Chancellors ever that he forged the power that made him Prime Minister he would never have become Prime Minister.
He was probably the most important single chancellor of the nineteenth century. This can be seen in a number of ways.

Firstly he simply changed the economic and fiscal policy of the United Kingdom the world’s preeminent economic power. Partly this was through the constant application of “economy” and expenditure control. Gladstone’s accession to the Chancellorship marks a halt for several decades of what was otherwise a continuous century’s long increase in regular expenditure and borrowing. In a sense Gladstone’s chancellorship and its imitators (of both parties) managed to halt Gladstone managed to apply rigorous expenditure control. This was combined with a switch away from direct taxation (such as income tax) –though Gladstone’s economy measures were enough that he still cut the income tax in several budgets in the 60’s having previously raised it. It was in indirect taxation that there was a sharp downward trend. Perhaps the most significant single tax change was the abolition of Paper duties which helped spark a massive boom in the British (particularly the provincial) press.

Nor was strict fiscal policy the only area where Gladstone had an enormous effect on direct policy. He also was possibly the prime force in the Anglo-Franco trading treaty. This saw mutual reduciaons in tariffs by both Britain and France. yet
Britain was seen then (and since) as the epitome of free trade ideology and France as a relatively and somewhat ideologically Protectionist state. The cynic might say that it was inevitable that the fiscal reality was that Britain’s real tariffs were higher against France’s than vice versa –because their restrictions on wine were on a major import while France’s tariffs were overwhelmingly on relatively minor imports . Gladstone used the treaty to push down trade barriers. But it also represented an early version of his “Cobdonite” international vision whereby trade and international agreement could replace military force and empire ( much more enthusiasm of the great Liberal though barely liberal statesman Palmerston who was Prime Minister for much of this period). It did indeed spark a whole series of multilateral trading treaties-though ironically some argue that in turn helped inaugurate the end of the free trade era.

From a longer perspective the modern Treasury was also in large part the product of Gladstone’s Chancellorship. The institutional obsession with a balanced budget and low spending that lasted well into the twentieth century (and many would argue well beyond) owed a great deal to the powerful ethos of Gladstone. Similarly The modern Chancellor’s budget – in it’s use as the single seminal moment of the fiscal year ( which has started breaking down in recent years) is in many ways the product of Gladstone’s desire both to control the whole fiscal operations of government as a cohesive whole and his public showmanship. Finally dominance of the treasury among departments and control over spending dates in it’s fullness from this period.

One reason why Gladstone was able to have such massive and lasting policy and institutional effects as Chancellor was his huge political success. His economic agenda was genuinely popular. IT’s worth remembering that taxation was regressive in this period and very little expenditure whet on welfare (and that which did was mostly the poor law whose recipients were disenfranchised). Gladstone’s reforms represented a direct rise in the real incomes of virtually all voters and most adults-and were rewarded at the polls. Similarly the burden of debt through taxation (from the Napoleonic war) had caused strain for decades so minimising it was cherished. There was a widespread political demand to keep taxation and debt low.

What was at least in part new was that Gladstone achieved enormous political dividends through the assurance that he would actually deliver on such demands.
Partly for this reason his chancellorship also saw the liberal party change from a coalition of somewhat free trade groups to a party (it was coalescing in this period) where free trade was a supreme dogma. Free trade sentiment even experienced a strong pull on the Conservatives – though they had more or less abandoned protection towards the early 1850’s just before. However it was though the fiscal, political and perceived economic success of Gladstone’s chancellorship that a very strong consensus was forged across the parties on the permanence of free trade-the elections of the 1840's had contrary to myth been far from unambiguous on the subject. This consensus was not to be shaken till the 1880's , not to be broken till the 1900's and not to lead to the formal abandonment of free trade till the 1930's and the National Government inaugurated a new era of “preferential trade” that lasts till this day. Gladstone did not only increase free trade directly but indirectly through building a new fiscal architecture with free trade as a fundamental building block.

The popularity of Gladstone’s record also made him a huge popular and public figure in a way he had not been before. He nurtured this through the provincial press. This was strongly sympathetic to him-partly because his abolition of paper duty had been of such economic benefit to them and partly because of it’s ideology-it was mostly strongly liberal in a rather “Gladstonian” way. There was also of course a role for great national papers including the new rising star of the media firmament-the Telegraph. Gladstone gave a large number of speeches in this era including in the provinces. These were extensively reported by the press and in combination with his record built up a huge political following.

It was this following that was to make him Prime Minister. It was because of this that when Russell retired in 1866 Gladstone was the inevitable successor. This was not because of his support among the Parliamentarians of the Liberals , among whom he was respected but also regarded as eccentric and increasingly as excessively radical. It was because his public profile and support was so much higher with Russell gone than any other liberal mp that he was the inevitable candidate.
Thus for a whole number of reasons Gladstone has to be regarded as a monumentally important Chancellor up there , David Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain and Gordon Brown. Indeed he arguably exceeds them all in importance.

This is a picture of Number 11 downing Street- the residence of the office-the Chancellor of the Exchequer which owes so much of its modern importance to Gladstone.