December 13, 2011

Old Soldiers and women

I noticed in browsing tonight an interesting case at the Old Bailey from 1735. As usual it is interesting for what it doesn't say rather than what it does. The indictment is clear: three men, Charles Hooper, Thomas Baugh and James Farrel robbed a third John Wood. The robbery was performed with masks- though Wood was able to identify Farrel and at gun point. Hooper and Farrell were found guilty when Baugh turned the King's evidence and they were sentenced to die.

That isn't what I found interesting. Two things in particular struck me about the case. The first is this, Farrell was wearing according to Baugh a red waistcoat because he was in the third regiment. Farrell called some witnesses up to the bar to give information about his character. John Postern, Joseph Walker and Francis Patterson all testified that he had had a job, making earthen wear pots but had enlisted recently. Baugh also testified that he, Hooper and Farrel had met that evening to go out to rob. The picture we get from this small fragment of evidence is that Farrel had enlisted in the army following an unsuccesful career and now was on the way out to rob. That tells us a lot about the life of a soldier in the eighteenth century.

The second interesting thing about the case is that there was a dispute between Wood the victim and Baugh the witness. Wood deposed that he had been wandering about on a field near Highbury around 3 or 4 in the morning when he was robbed. Baugh agreed with him but said that there was a woman there with him. Wood states as soon as Baugh gave that evidence that the woman was with the gang not him and the trial leaves the matter unresolved. What's so interesting is the vehemence with which Wood rejects the allegation. All we have here is a fragment and there is no way of saying who that woman was or what she was to the gang or to Wood, but it is an interesting detail none the less.

One might speculate about what more it tells us about Wood and his encounter with the gang on the field near Highbury that the court never heard.

November 26, 2011

Bismark's ideology

Democracy encourages truth telling by politicians about their priorities. We'll hear a lot in 2012 about flip flopping- especially if Mitt Romney runs for the Republican nomination and a fair number of people on the right in the UK deride David Cameron as a communist, just as I'm sure the knives will be out for Ed Miliband should he win an election. Those perceptions may well be fair- and there are good institutional reasons for wanting politicians who believe what they say before the election and then do it after the election. Often one way of ensuring that is obtaining people with a strong ideology whose ideology frames both their rhetoric and their politics: to use a phrase beloved of a conservative friend of mine, if someone is 'sound' they are more likely to be predictable in their political conduct and if you believe in the ideology that probably will make them more effective too.

The interesting thing is what this leads us to underrate- political flexibility and nous. The career of Bismark illustrates this perfectly. According to Jonathan Steinberg's recent biography, when Bismark was first selected for a political career he was brought in by the influence of the hardline conservatives in the Prussian state. This influence guarenteed him his first job and guarenteed him his Chancellorship in 1862. Bismark though was never a real conservative: he was in favour of breaking the German states and was capable of appealing over the heads of the pro-Austrian princes to their subjects. In the late 1860, his mentor Leopold von Gerlach wrote to Bismark saying that 'It depresses me that through your bitterness towards Austria you have allowed yourself to be diverted from the simple choice between right and revolution'. Bismark had nothing but contempt for conservative solidarity though: 'The system of solidarity of the conservative interests in all countries is a dangerous fiction' he wrote ' we arrive at a point where we make the whole unhistorical, godless and lawless sovereignty swindle of the German princes into the darling of the Prussian Conservative party'. The gap between these two writers- the first who wishes to side with anyone who opposes the French Revoluton and the second who sees ideology as unimportant in foreign policy is largely a division between someone for whom ideology is a central principle in foreign policy and someone for whom that central principle is statecraft.

The interesting thing about Bismark's attitude is that whilst he won the battle (surviving in power whereas Von Gerlach did not), he has not won the war. In Bismark's lifetime he never managed to sustain a political party with even a fractional support base. There have not been many Bismarkian politicians since- Henry Kissinger is a possible candidate and there will be others- but they are few. Most politicians today appeal to their electorate's interest or morality overseas- few see statecraft as a species of separate activity. Bismark's politics therefore died possibly when democracy was installed as the governing mode in the West. But its interesting nonetheless because I think his behaviour throws into relief the kind of politician that a democratic society finds difficult to sustain.

October 24, 2011


Kirsten Dunst is said to be a candidate for an Oscar for her performance in Melancholia, the latest film from Danish director Lars von Trier. She deserves the accolade but it says something about the film that the first thing to admire, the first thing I felt when I left the cinema, was admiration and pity for the actress who played in what I had just seen. For Dunst is the vehicle with which Von Trier takes us on a journey right into the heart of a particularly desperate depression. Dunst's character is implicated in two narrative arcs, the second of which takes place days after the first. The first concerns her character- Justine's- wedding to Michael (played by Alexander Skarsgard). The second concerns Justine's relationship with Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), her sister, and Claire's husband and son as a planet, Melancholia, heads towards the earth for a collision which will end everything. There are three interesting films at least here- one about depression, a second about a bourgeois wedding and the third about the day at which the world ends. The real issue that Von Trier faces throughout the film is how to draw these three films together. He does it, if he does it through the relationship between the conventional Claire and the depressed Justine.

That contrast runs through the film. It could be Trier wants us to understand Justine's predicament: I'm not sure that without understanding whether his portrait of depression is accurate, I can draw useful lessons about depression from the film. I am not a psychologist and therefore cannot really comment on how depression works in this scenario. What I think is more interesting is the set of questions that Justine's behaviour pose about our own conventional society. During the wedding her listless behaviour mocks the ceremony surrounding her. One of the comic master pieces in the film comes from Udo Kier, a wedding planner, who won't look at Justine because she has ruined his wedding! But there is a sense in the wedding scene that Kier's character is not alone. All these middle class sophisticated individuals are not demanding that Justine and Michael marry but that they satisfy their expectations of how you marry. The theatre of the wedding is important to them. Justine's behaviour turns those expectations on their head and you feel the embarrassment of the guests as she and her family manage to destroy their theatre. Nowhere is this frustration more evident than in John Claire's husband who like a stage director imagines the wedding as his production and is furious when Justine mangles her lines.

The second story line about the planet is equally a stage production and this time it is nature not a woman who fails. John has designed a scientific (it could be a theological, historical) explanation about why Melancholia won't hit the earth. Again he is trying to stage manage and control the world. Again he fails. His response is fatal. His wife's response is to retreat into anxiety. Justine though becomes calmer and calmer, more and more sublime, till at the end she creates a religious retreat- a golden cave- for her family. In this sense the conventional pieties cannot protect the other characters. Claire who has so much to lose- a husband, a son- cannot relinquish her ideals about life. Her very kindness acts against her- as she prepares to greet the end of the world with a glass of chardonnay. Two situations reveal the powerlessness of the bourgeois individual: in the first human artifice can be undermined, in the second natural forces twist the carefully created bourgeois world apart. Artifice hence becomes as Trier argues the centre of the world that we all believe in: the world of jobs and marriages is a world of human creation and due for inevitable destruction- the paths of glory lead but to the grave.

This is a nihilistic film. There is no hope for humanity post the apocalypse and all our creations- divine and scientific will fall before the end of the world. It did make me wonder, what it will be like billions of years hence when your and my children look out their windows to see the Sun expand in fire or die in silence. This is a beautiful film but its nihilism makes it incredibly hard to watch.

October 13, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

One of the odder things about talking to people about politics today is the sharp generational divide. There are people who became politically aware before 1990, who remember the Soviet Union and there are those who became aware in the 1990s and 2000s. It seems almost amazing now, looking back through depression and terrorism, that in 1990 the world was transfixed by the fact that President Gorbachev had been kidnapped in his dacha and that the Soviet Union might be whirling back into disaster. The geopolitics of Brezhnev and of Stalin seem far off- shadows that have faded into the past and the haunting fear of the bomb has been replaced by the fear of the reemergence of the 30s. Keynes has replaced Kennan as the intellectual de jour. In that context, it appears strange that the political film of the year focusses not on tax and spend and the consequences of depression, but on intelligence and super power politics. John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor was dramatised brilliantly in the 1980s on the BBC of course- it returns to a very different world and its lessons are perhaps different.

The story of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was modelled on Le Carre's experiences as a British agent in Berlin in the 1950s when Kim Philby defected. Those shadowy events are transferred in the film to the 1970s and based around the character of George Smiley. Smiley the deputy to C, Head of the Secret Intelligence Services of the United Kingdom, is sacked with his master when an operation to find out the mole is botched. Years later, he is recalled to the Circus (the code name for MI6) to find out who the mole is. The story is convoluted and worth watching as a thriller. This is not a mindless film though. It leaves the viewer in no doubt what the cost of a double agent is: he spends not merely his treachery to his country but also his treachery to those he knows and loves the most. Matt Damon in another film dealing with the Philby episode said to the Philby equivalent that after betrayel he would always be alone. That truth is what Smilley and the others know about their double agent.

They also know it about themselves. This is a darker film than the original series. In that original series Alec Guiness fenced in the dark mentally with his Soviet opponent, Carla. In the film, Gary Oldman's Smilley does not fence intellectually: he sits like a Spider, like a Domitian in the centre of a vicious web of torture and broken images. There is no doubt in this film that Smiley is cruel. He lets people know that he knows their weaknesses- he reminds one not so much of a distinguished Oxford academic as of a deranged Strangelove. Gary Oldman's performance in this film is the supreme opposite of Guiness's performance: Guiness made Smilley a hero, Oldman makes him an anti-hero. Smilley has lost any sense of a private life and private redemption: we never see his estranged wife in the entire film, even Smilley's memories have cut her out- we see her back, we see her hair but never her face. Its significant because Smilley never shows himself to love or respect any other man or woman.

Loneliness is one feature of this adaptation but so is viciousness. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a post Guantanamo adaptation of the novel. The British agents in Soviet hands are tortured and we see it. A Soviet defector's guts spill into his bath- and the audience briefly sees his intestines flowing in the water. Smilley smiles as his friends cry. The mole maintains his sang froid as he sends his friends to hell of the Lubyanka and we are left in no doubt of what he has done. In that sense the film represents a time much more disposed to confront rather than endure its suffering- the rhythm of the 1980s was, for good or ill, different to that of the 2000s. Post Diana, Britain has changed: we are no longer a society in which it is axiomatic that agents are tortured and killed, but one that requires to see that torture, that death. This brutality reinforces the earlier theme: if Smilley must always think of darkness, then his character, smiling under its glasses becomes darker. Guiness's Smiley remained avuncular, Oldman's Smiley is vicious.

I think the medium of film suits this new darker Smiley. He is given fewer words to say, fewer things to understand. The social atmosphere of the series- the Oxbridge sophistication of the higher circus- has disappeared. Class is absent. Films cannot be as subtle or as drawn out as tv serieses but this leaves the characters within the film exposed, they can no longer talk to hide what they do. They have less time to give us excuses, to make us forget in the complexity of the character the simplicity of the role. Perhaps as well there is less time to develop the sense in Tinker Tailor of the ideology of the thirties- that low dishonest decade which created Philby and the rest was a profoundly serious decade. There isn't that sense of the disillusion with the West, of old men grown old who were once picked for their idealism and their youth but have now grown wrinkles over both the idealism and the youth. That's not there in the film and it darkens further the picture.

October 04, 2011

Fire in Babylon

Cricket has often become a metaphor for politics- it did so in the 1930s when the famous Bodyline series became part of Australian national identity and Sir Donald Bradman the first Australian icon. Its done so several times on the sub continent- I was at the Oval Test Match this summer to see Tendulkar score 91 and saw a devotion to him that eclipsed the purely sporting. Fire in Babylon is about another such moment- when West Indian cricket came to dominate the sport for a twenty year period. Led by their thoughtful captain Clive Lloyd the West Indies moved from being a team of talented individuals to becoming a team of amazing players who bonded and played together like a team. Having been scarred by Australia in 1976, Lloyd found a group of fast bowlers- famous names that will endure- Holding, Croft, Garner, Marshall, Roberts and the rest who put the world's cricket teams to the sword. Just look at the clip above where Brian Close confronts HOlding at the Oval: you can feel the aggression in Holding's bowling.

Fire in Babylon tells the story of the transition from Calypso Cricket to this new more fiery and determined West Indian side. It puts it into the context of the racial and colonial politics of the late 20th Century. The story suggests that West Indian cricket was partially motivated by a national struggle to put the West Indies on the map. Independence was only managed in the late 1960s so the teams that played England in the seventies and eighties were teams that came from a very new set of countries. Furthermore they were filled with the ethos of the American civil rights movement. Interview after interview- particularly with Viv Richards- proclaims the importance of Luther King and of Bob Marley. These men when they came to England or Australia were racially abused by the crowds who would shout insults at them: some of which stunned a West Indian team brought up in a newly independent world. They knew about South Africa and events happening under Apartheid. They understood themselves in some sense as messengers from the third world, coming to beat the first world English and Australians. Part of the story of the cricket of that generation was as Michael Holding argues, putting their cricket up with English and Australian Cricket: saying to the English and Australians that West Indies Cricket had to be taken seriously. Fire in Babylon is metaphor used by a rastapharian member of the Wailers and friend of Richards to describe what the cricketers were doing. Running through the film are interviews with Richards’s teacher, with the Wailers, with others who were involved at the time.

This part of the story was definitely there- you can see it in the interviews with Roberts and Richards and the rest- they cared and thought about this stuff and were politically motivated. The film neglects though to develop two important angles on the cricket of the time. The first is that it doesn’t show that the West Indies were a clever cricket team. This wasn’t just a matter of getting together four guys who could bowl at 90 m.p.h: that’s happened before and will happen again, it was that these young men were intelligent cricketers. They could think as well as blast batsmen out. That cricket sense is actually not given the attention it should have: consequently you don’t develop during watching the film the admiration you should develop for these guys. They aren’t political philosophers- their political theory is bound to be less developed- but they were amazing cricketers so should be interviewed about how they worked out how to get batsmen out and intimidate bowlers. It wasn’t just brute strength. Secondly the political aspect isn’t allowed the complexity it needs. There are hints during the film that things were not so straight forward. Colin Croft and Clive Lloyd toured South Africa in the early eighties- they aren’t allowed to explain why. There is a political edge that some of the interviews belie. Furthermore lots of the politics comes from those who were hanging around Richards: its not to deny that it was there but equally the multiplicity of experience that went to make up that team has to be appreciated.

Fire in Babylon is ultimately disappointing because it doesn’t focus on the cricketers and the cricket enough. It presents a story whereby West Indian nationhood was remade by cricket- that’s partly true and its important that the West Indian team demonstrated that a third world, black team could play the white first world teams at their own game and win. It was a reminder that its not the colour of your skin, but in this case the content of your cricket character that determines your life. But its also important to note that the team was not a political movement but filled by individuals who had different perspectives on their times. What propelled them to the top wasn’t just their brute strength and speed, it was skill and intelligence. Ultimately these men were phenomenonal- just look at the clip above again, when you see Close duck and dive you are seeing the last of the cricketers of the 1950s dive out of history and when you see Holding bowl, you see the twenty first century. That the twenty first century cricketer was created not in England, nor in Australia or South Africa or India, but in a set of small islands out in the middle of the Caribean is testament to the brilliance of the individuals who performed that task. In that process they overcame the hideous racism of the cricket establishment and also assisted in the creation of nations in the Carribean (and it would be interesting to know how the different islands saw the team- something the film doesn't get into). Ultimately though I wanted more cricket and less politics.

September 29, 2011

Secularism or how to change the subject

One of the great myths of modernity is that the battle between secularist politics and religion is a battle in which one side roars about evolution and science and the other counters with revelation and faith. To argue this is to frankly misunderstand the nature of both secularism and religion. It is not conclusive but often instructive to look at the origins of discussions. Mark Lilla in his study of the rise of secular politics identifies the important switch as being made, not by those who opposed religion, but by those who wished to ignore it. Lilla's argument is that the seventeenth century thinkers who created modern secular politics- specifically Hobbes and Locke- did so by suggesting that those who discussed the nexus between religion and politics did not offer the wrong answers, they got the questions wrong.

The traditional set of questions about the interrelationship between religion and politics focussed on the divine nature of rule and rules and the roles of church and state within an entity that recognised the authority of God. Calvinists and Lutherans alike wished the realm to be based upon divine law- or as William Sedgewick said for example to create an English or a European Isreal. Hobbes in Leviathan- according to Lilla- said that the problem with this wasn't that it was wrong but that it answered the wrong question. For Hobbes the sixteenth and seventeenth century had shown that polities built upon religion swiftly became polities built upon confessional identity. He argued that the real question for men to understand, if they were to enter politics, was not how religion and politics should relate, but what were the reasons that men believed. He turned the study of the relationship of politics and religion from a question of theory- a question of bringing theology into the world- into a question about anthopology, a question about how religion influenced the world.

Lilla's complication of the secularist narrative is not enough: I reccomend Katznelson et al's recent volume on the subject. However I think it is important because it establishes a feature of secular thinking that is less understood today. Grotius famously argued that his theories were independent of his own religious beliefs. He argued this, and Hobbes argued this, because they believed that conflict over religious belief had rendered European society after the reformation impossible to live within. You may disagree with their point of view- however the historical change caused by their reaction to the English Civil War and Thirty Years War is profound. The profoundity is not caused by either thinker's attack on religion (Hobbes's religion is a fascinating subject) but by the fact that what they were interested in was religion's role in politics. In this sense, they pick up on the interest of Machiavelli centuries earlier who also was interested in asking the question, what does religion do to society, rather than asking the question, what would God ask me to do within politics.

I think Lilla is right to mark this as an important move in the argument. As my citation of Machiavellli suggests- there are antecedents to this train of thinking. But the suggestion that secular politics represents not so much a change of thought as a change of subject is one that I think is interesting and worthy of consideration. Definitely looking at today's politics and seventeenth century politics, the main difference I can see is the refocussing of the subjects that politics talks about. One of the difficulties of working on earlier periods is looking across that chasm- between a politics of economics and society to a politics of confession and godliness.

September 25, 2011

The Glamour Boy

In the 1930s, Conservative MPs would refer to Anthony Eden and his coterie of friends as glamour boys, good looks but not many accomplishments to back them up. Whether you think that's true or not of Eden, its something that Peter Green argues is true of Alcibiades, the Athenian politician. Green doesn't think much of Alcibiades- the great defector of Athenian politics, the designer of the Sicilian expedition- who seduced everyone in Athenian politics, bar Socrates, and never, according to Green, succeeded in any of his projects. Alcibaides is an interesting figure- he is an important character both in the history of Thucydides and in the philosophy of Plato. What I find fascinating about Green's article though is how the glamour of Alcibiades has lingered down the years, warping the analysis of the historians who have studied the politics of the late fifth century BC.

I find this fascinating because I think its something that effects us all as we look at the past. Strong images and attachments form as you read about actors within history. Anyone who honestly confesses to themselves about how they read or understand history will confess to that attraction to a cause or personality within the past. The personal glamour of someone like Cleopatra for example has warped judgements of Egypt in that period- do you know any other Ptolemaic sovereigns? We see Egypt in the first century BC sometimes through the lens of two relationships- rather than seeing it as a declining power but a power nonetheless. The thing is that glamour is also something that arises from histories- Gibbon acknowledged in his own history of the decline and fall of Rome that he found the histories following Tacitus boring and dull. The primary sources form our judgements particularly of early history: one of the effects of television is perhaps that the glamour of a Blair doesn't have to be transmitted to a future historian through the pen of a Plutarch. One wonders how that direct impact of charisma will affect the judgementsw of future historians.

September 20, 2011

Gladstone's books

When did you last buy a book? How often do you buy books? How often do you go to libraries- I spent the weekend in the British library thumbing through newly published works about the seventeenth century- when did you last go? How often do you read a book- on the train to work, at dinner, in a captured moment in a lift, for work? I'm not turning into Italo Calvino here but if any of the answers to those questions are yes or I frequently read or buy books, then you fall into a category that Gladstone defines in his essay on books. The nineteenth century statesman stated in an essay that 'I shall assume that the book buyer is a book lover, that his love is a tenacious not a transitory love and that for him the question is how to keep his books'. Gladstone's essay is about how to build a library- what sort of room should it be, how should the shelves be positioned. Its not a thought we all have all the time- but as someone who loves books it might be one you have had. I've definitely wondered about it- all my life- the dream library has filled my imagination. It would be cosy, have plenty of alcoves and niches, an endless supply of tea which would never spill and include plenty of writing materials and be indexed (by magic).

What's interesting about Gladstone's essay isn't his invocation of an ideal library. He talks of a library of 10,000 volumes sorted under the major headings- philosophy, history et al. That might be possible at Hawarden but in crowded central London, Manhatten or Moscow its probably out of the ken of most ordinary mortals. No its not the explicit subject that I loved about Gladstone's essay: its the fact that he loved books and what he writes about he writes with a sense of why he loves books. Firstly take this passage,

books are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of comunion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man. They are in a certain sense at enmity with the world. Their work is, at least, in the two higher components of our threefold life. In a room well equipped with them, no one has felt or can feel solitary. Second to none as friends to the individual, they are first and formost among the compages, the bonds and rivets of the race onward form that time when they were first written on the tablets of Babylonia and Assyria, the rocks of Asia Minor and the monuments of Egypt, down to the diamond editions of Mr Pickering and Mr Froude.
There is a lot of hyperbole in this first passage. I'll quite freely admit I have felt alone in a room filled with books. I'll also quite freely admit that there are times when I'd prefer they offered some consolation bar a wall of letters. But in the moments when I truly love books, I think Gladstone is right. My fairly squat Everyman edition of Gibbon for example carries with it real affection. It is the writers of the books, the spirits which live in the pages which I care about and am linked to as I read.

Gladstone gets to this when he talks about the differing characters of books. Some he says can never be stored in the back of a shelf (Gibbon for example) but as he comments 'neither all men nor all books are equally sociable. For my part I find but little sociability in a huge wall of Hansards or (though a great improvement) in the Gentleman's magazine, in the Annual Registers, in the Edinburgh and Quarterly Review or in the vast range of volumes which present pamphlets innumerable'. The point he is making is that we relate to books in different ways- the sign of a true lover of books in a way is the sense that she relates to the books she owns and she reads in a different way. So Hansards or old copies of the Gentleman's Magazine (a serious journal) deserve different treatment from old friends like Austen and Bronte- one is written for ephemera, the other for eternity. You don't have to agree with Gladstone about his library or even be able to maintain it to understand that central point. And ultimately having understood that, it really doesn't matter how or what you read- just that you feel what Gladstone self evidently felt. That the printed page is a door from your mind into other minds, from your world into other worlds.

September 18, 2011

Fiscal Constitutions and the Coming of Dark Times

Ira Katnelson's formidable book "Desolation and Enlightenment" studies the reaction to the second world war. Katznelson is interested in those thinkers who responded to the destruction wreaked by Europe's thirty years war and genocide, not by abandoning the enlightenment and its analysis of society (as did say Leo Strauss) but by seeking to buttress it and reconstruct it. Katznelson identifies in particular one diagnosis of the mid century crisis: he argues that Karl Polanyi in particular identified the institutional framework of 19th century liberalism as one of the safeguards for that period against crisis. When that institutional structure collapsed in the 1920s and 1930s, fascist and communist competitors rose to challenge not merely the structures of liberalism, but also its very essence- the idea of personal freedom. This aside in Katznelson's book prompts a reflection- what were those institutions of freedom in the 19th Century which supported and sustained liberal democracy. In this post I want to reflect on one such institution- the fiscal constitution drafted by the Earl of Liverpool (PM 1812-27), Sir Robert Peel (PM 1841-6) and William Gladstone (PM 1868, 1868-74, 1880-86, 1892-4).

At the end of the Napoloeonic war, the UK's public sector debt was over 250% of GDP, the UK's politicians were accused of massive corruption and the UK itself ceased in 1828 to be a confessional state. These three massive factors drove the creation of this fiscal constitution. The fiscal constitution depended on three innovations: the creation of the consolidated fund, the creation of the virement system and the introduction of annual expenditure targets. The creation of a central fund into which all revenues were paid and from which all expenditure came, took power from the Departments to the Treasury. This meant as well that Parliament had a simple view of what the government was spending and what it was not. Virement meant that Departments were voted money from that central fund to specific heads of expenditure- its still true within the UK that Departments have to stay within their allocated levels for each budget they are voted and have to apply to Treasury to vire money from one head to another. Lastly the idea that expenditure was always annual meant that a surplus could not be reallocated for a politician's pet project: instead a surplus went straight to the sinking fund. These three rules meant that the Treasury was in full control of public expenditure and through them so was Parliament. They created an environment in which debt was cut from 250% of GDP to 25% by the end of the century. They fortified a Gladstonian sense of how politicians should behave.

Polanyi said that institutions and institutional behaviours protected liberalism (at least that's what Katznelson argues he said). The institutions described here survived the nineteenth century. Daunton suggests that they assisted in the development of the welfare state- noone in British politics in the 1910s or 1940s criticised the expansion of government because it would create jobs for MPs and not go towards the purposes that it was voted. The Gladstonian system worked. More importantly towards Polanyi's point: it also worked in that British politicians were able to pay for both the First and Second World War. The Gladstonian financial state financed the wars which assisted in the protection of liberalism: in that sense they support an argument which says that the institutions created by the nineteenth century and their survivial were key to the survival of that characteristic ideology of the nineteenth century- liberalism.

September 12, 2011

Blackstone and Oxford: a polemical claim

The continuity of English law is important for Blackstone as it was for most common lawyers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its importance is both political and theological. We have covered some of the political angles in some of the articles I wrote back in June about the Commentaries. Early on though Blackstone also introduces religious reasons for seeing that continuity as important. In particular he comments that at William's introduction as a King in England, he was followed by numerous foreign clergy who were 'utter strangers' to the British constitution. These clergy men so Blackstone argues had their heads filled with the papal adoption of Justinian's Analects, attractive as continental law unlike English law had been interrupted by alien conquest, and became the basis of papal canon law. This law, Blackstone argues was rejected by the English Barons at the Parliament of Merton and a century later when he quotes them declaring that 'the realm of England hath never been unto this hour, neither by consent of our Lord the King and the lords of Parliament shall it ever be, ruled or governed by the civil law'. Blackstone argues that as a direct consequence the clergy developed the law of equity and the universities studied civil rather than English law- as they were controlled and in some cases (Trinity Hall, Cambridge) founded by the Church. This accounted for the exile of the common law to the inns of court in the fifteenth and sixteenth century.

Blackstone's account is meant to place common law in the inns of court and canon law in the universities. He is trying to explain the reason why the latter ought to embrace the subject of the former. Oxford should in his view admit common lawyers and he argues that there are civic reasons for the university to behave in this way. However he also argues that the reasons for the university to do this are tied up with its Anglican nature. Canon law he seems to be suggesting is the law of Rome, a law rejected equally by all English communities in the past as by good theological scholars. The point of his argument is to assert both the independence of common law- and the imposition of canon law by the Church. It is interesting to read this because of what the argument ellides- there were Englishmen in the courts of Chancery who were content in the seventeenth century at least with canon law- Blackstone's rhetorical ellision places Charles I or even more impressively Francis Bacon and Lord Ellesmere on the side of Roman Catholicism. This should suggest to us the polemical nature of the union that Blackstone is promoting: by linking hte common law to anglicanism, Blackstone like St Germain before him is making a case.

August 14, 2011

The Roman People

Roman history can often be seen as a progression from monarchy to republic and then to principate- from imperial expansion to imperial contraction. This neglects another way of seeing the development of the Roman state- a crucial way of seeing that state indeed because it focuses on the internal politics of it rather than its external or symbolic politics. This is to see the Roman experience as mediated through the interpretative prism of class. Rome was divided constitutionally into two groups- senators and populares- however we can also see within the later Roman world an economic division that bulked as large- between the rich (generally of the senatorial class but including many equites as well) and the poor. T.P. Wiseman in a recent collection of essays argues this point very strongly. He suggests that we need to see key moments in Roman history- from the murder of the Gracchi brothers in the 100s to the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC- as part of a story of conflict between the classes within Rome. The senate and its supporters from Scipio Nasica to Cicero set themselves up as, and described themselves as, defending the constitution when actually they were really defending a partisan idea of that constitution.

This is important. Firstly it is an old understanding of the history of the Roman world. No less a figure than Machiavelli argued that Rome's politics were about class conflict and that conception that he had, derived from ancient authors, was what he believed was the motor of Roman politics. Machiavelli as much as Wiseman and Fergus Millar thought that Roman politics was essentially democratic- at least when compared with his other archetypes of Republican government- Venice and Sparta. Machiavelli argued that this conflict riven society was impelled towards universal empire by the fact of the conflict taking place within it. Wiseman doesn't make such a generalisation but what he does to is throw a light back on what Machiavelli does not describe and that is the process which culminated in the principate. His description in an essay on political assassination of the role of election in the rise of Caesar to dictator makes it clear that he people supported the General in order that they might balance aristocratic power. In a sense what we see here is the transition from democracy to monarchy: that transition was made possible by a senatorial class who turned to violence to support oligarchic ambition.

This is far too schematic- and many a historian of Rome will turn in repugnance from what I've just written and how I have mis-characterised a great scholar. However there is something interesting here in the process of Rome's movement to the principate. Our conventional accounts from Cicero or Tacitus present a aristocratic point of view: there were, Wiseman argues, more plebeian accounts but they have not survived. What we see as the development of corruption and downfall of freedom, and those whom we see as supporters of law and right against tyranny, may have been more complicated. Class conflict introduces into Roman history a dynamic that probably explains more of the popular support of the principate but also gives clues as to why the system of the Republic broke down. If Greek historians like Cassius Dio were right that the essence of Roman politics until the death of the Gracchi was compromise, then it suggests that aristocratic extremism conjured up a popular reaction which swept away the traditional republican system and replaced it with something else. If so then the rhetoric of Tiberius and Augustus focusing on a return to normality becomes explicable as a way of attempting to reconcile class as well as political warfare.

August 10, 2011


Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!

These lines from Byron's Don Juan are justifiably famous. They conjur up how Byron and others saw the cause of Greek independence in the 1820s, the chance to reawake the soul of European civilisation and to vindicate in its homeland the cause of freedom. The moment that they commemorate is equally famous. Thermopylae has been remembered again and again in story and in song and probably will be remembered long after everyone who reads this will be forgotten. Part of the reason for this is that the story itself is so evocative: 300 Spartans facing, according to Herodotus, several thousand Persians. The world could be seen to take a different turn on those days when the Greeks through a glorious defeat helped cement a future victory. Paul Cartledge's book about Thermopylae is an interesting guide to the battle and its importance and I think its worth reading- if like me your Persian and Greek history are rusty. Most of what Cartledge argues is based upon the ancient historian Herodotus: Herodotus wrote about 50 years after the events of the Persian war that he chronicled and wrote them by talking to people in Athens who knew about the war. Cartledge tells a conventional story: the Spartans were outnumbered, but assisted- the world forgets Thespians and others who fought with Leonides and his men. The battle was significant because it helped to inspire the Greeks to fight back against Persia.

Lets think about those points. The presence of others on the battlefield, particularly the greater proportional effort of some cities who dispatched their entire army to the field (not as in Sparta's case 300 alone) means that many popular accounts of the battle miss something important. What they miss isn't important in the sense that it should change our judgement of the Spartans, its important in that history in part functions as Herodotus tells us in the first lines of his history, we must remember great deeds because that is what is due to those deeds. We have an obligation not to forget. But this points us on to something that is very important. Herodotus on whom Cartledge bases his account is one of our only sources for events at Thermopylae, we have the odd scrap of poetry (which I'll come on to) but we must remember the fragile nature of the thread that binds us to our past.

Secondly the battle inspired the Greeks to fight against the Persians and victor at the battles of Salamis and more importantly at Plataea. Its tempting to suggest that therefore Thermopylae is a crucial moment in the history of the world: and it is probably so. But its worth also considering whether actually it did matter as much as we argue. The problem with history is that we can never replay the tape with an item altered. Greek history may have been very different- but Greek intellectual life survived Alexander's empire and it may have survived a Persian empire. Though Cartledge assumes that Thermopylae helped the Greeks later- it reinforced a Spartan theology of suicide- there is no evidence to suggest it was decisive. Nor is there neccessarily evidence to suggest the Persians were the evil freedom hating monsters of films like 300, the Bible sees Cyrus in Palestine as the refounder of Israel!

Thirdly there is Thermopylae as an idea. Here the poetry left at the monument to the dead is fascinating- 'Go tell the Spartans, passerby/ That here obedient to her laws we lie' is the wonderful epitaph composed by Simonides. Perhaps most importantly, the epitaph says all the things that we would want it to reaffirm for ourselves and Byron- it restates the Stoic suicide commited by the 300. Its worth reading again though- if one is ever tempted to consider the Spartans or Greeks fought just for freedom then that line should be an answer. Spartan law was unique and the Spartan command to fight was unique- the principle of the line though, and the principle in part of Plato's Crito are the same: Greek politics was based on obligation as well as freedom, duty to law as well as freedom from law.

July 13, 2011

Aelita Queen of Mars

Aelita, Queen of Mars, is a Russian film made just on the hinge of the 1920s. It was made in 1924, the year that Stalin succeeded Lenin as leader of the Soviet Union. It was made three years after the end of the Russian civil war between the Whites and the Reds had torn through the country. It was made at the height of the New Economic policy, promulgated by Lenin to restore the Scoviet economy by restoring some measure of private enterprise. It is therefore a key historical artefact: reflecting a particular moment within Russian history. It also reflects a particular aesthetic- this was an attempt to make a film which could vie with Hollywood and German cinema in the 1920s- to expand the Soviet ethos throughout the world. It therefore has all the special effects and expensive actors and costumes that money could buy: it looks amazing and its not difficult to see how this film was the epitome of Soviet glamour. Those final words of my sentence conjur up I think the real message of the film because implicit within it is a kind of guilt about its own glamour.

The film concentrates on an engineer- Los- and his wife- Natasha- who live in Moscow. They are joined by two other couples- Ehrlich and his wife (unnamed) and Comrade Gussev and his wife Masha. Los has a friend Spiridinov who is eventually seduced by Ehrlich's wife and ends up leaving Russia as he could not leave the past behind. All these units are seduced by the past in different ways. Ehrlich and his wife are the unreformed Russians who profit from the NEP and want to live exactly as they did under Tsarism. They and their circle fantasize at one point about the luxuries and the order that they enjoyed under Tsarism, they could disregard the interests of the proletariate. Gussev and Masha are good communist citizens: he is a former soldier who has fought against the Whites and comes to the local hospital after the civil war where he falls in love with Masha. Los and Natasha lie between these two extremes: they both genuninely want the Soviet world to succeed (unlike Ehrlich) but both are seduced by the detail of the old life. Ehrlich tries to seduce Natasha by offering her balls and fine food: Los notices and though Natasha never ever succumbs, he becomes jealous and devotes himself instead to dreams of going to Mars.

We see Mars through Los's dreams. He dreams of a world which is ancient and totalitarian. Its a Tsarist set up with the workers imprisoned in the lower sections of the planet and with the upper classes lolling about in the top areas of Mars. In particular an aristocratic council of Elders led by Tuskub, ruler of Mars, dominates the planet as against the sexy and impotent Queen Aelita. Los dreams that Aelita sees him through a newly discovered telescope and longs to kiss him. He also dreams of going to Mars and finding her and kissing her. These dreams, I don't think are supposed to be taken for reality. They are symbolic. Los is dreaming of escaping his good proletarian marriage, fleeing to another woman who embodies luxury and wealth. Whenever you see Aelita, its hard not to think of Calypso or Circe. But the point about Aelita is that she remains a prisoner of the old world- she remains a master and as Gussev says to Los, she remains a master. No matter what Los's dreams of romantic unity with her, he has to compromise between his relationship with Aelita and his integrity as a Communist. Ultimately Los has to realise that it is Aelita he needs to kill, she is the bourgeoise part of him, the bourgeoise part of Natasha and after killing her in his mind, he is able to return to Natasha in the flesh and throw away his dreams and start to build Russia.

Some critics see Aelita as a non-communist film: its an attitude which has some legitimacy as many critics in the 1920s viewed the film as a bourgeoise film. My reading of the film though is that it is profoundly communist. This is a film in which the only basis for a good society and a good relationship is to be a good soviet citizen. The critics are right that Aelita may be more effective propaganda because it strives to implicate the entire structure of life- the relationships between men and women in particular into this vision of soviet citizenship. Ultimately the Ehrlich's marriage is a bourgeois thing of deceit based on materialism, the marriage of Gussev and Masha can only be disturbed by his desire to serve the community and Los's marriage to Natasha is threatened by evil capitalist forces. What Aelita represents is therefore the domestication of communism within Russia- its disassociation from feminist forces for example- but possibly it works better because it isn't just a political tract: it may be a fable about space travel to Mars and the creation of a Soviet Martian republic, but odd as it may sound its also a socially realistic fable!

July 09, 2011

A Separation

Often people look at divorce or break up and they see that one side or the other are to blame. They argue that somebody must accept moral culpability and I'm sure that in many cases there is a party that is to blame, there is someone who should be accountable. That is not the case in all cases. The Iranian film, A Separation, brings that home very powerfully. It concerns a couple living in Tehran. The woman wants to leave Iran, the man wants to stay to look after his senile father. Their daughter chooses to stay with the father rather than the wife. They separate- the wife lives with her parents for a while, the man in their flat. He employs someone, another woman, to come and look after his father for him. The conflicts that this creates- between the husband and wife and the woman who cleans for them- are the force which runs through the film. The conflict that arrises between the middle class couple and their cleaner is a conflict overlaid with Iranian politics and history, its about an accident which happens when the man in justifiable anger pushes the cleaner. As the crisis happens, the relationship between the husband and wife is put under hideous strain: they struggle with their different opinions, both justified, of what the best strategy is.

Some have seen in this story a political allegory. Nader the man is the Iranian reformists who try to confront the regime, his wife Simin represents Westerners fleeing the country, Nader's father stands for Iran herself- grand and helpless, the cleaner and her husband stand for the devout masses who have in their pain elevated the fanatics and thugs who currently rule. I can see the argument but find the point is too blunt. I think that actually the political point here is much more interesting and universal. This is a film that reaffirms that as humans we face moral dilemmas which are as true in Tehran and Isfahan as they are in Texas. The dilemmas in the case here exist whether you like it or not. The film investigates whether you are ever truly accountable for the acts you commit: how accountable should you be for the results of an action whose import you did not at that moment understand. If I kick a pregnant woman and she suffers a miscarriage- have I committed a murder and should I be tried for murder? The film leaves this question unanswered- but one can see the justice each way. Moral questions are not simply resolved into yes or no answers, they take thought and feeling. Equally we are confronted with the consequences of the law: what is the law- a system to punish bad behaviour or to create good social outcomes. What does punishment acheive if there was no intention and if it merely wrecks lives and leaves them destroyed without restoring anything of what was lost?

These questions run through the film but alongside them runs another one. We all face situations in our lives and have choices to make. We may call the placing of us in those situations providence or fate or fortune but it comes to the same thing: human beings cannot control the context for their actions, all they control is their response to that context. Nader and Simin therefore stand at opposite poles with respect to how they respond to their situation. He believes in right and wrong- he does not believe he pushed the pregnant woman and therefore killed her unborn child, he does not believe he should desert his father. She beleives in accomodating: even if he was not guilty, wouldn't it be easier to pay off the other family rather than accept the potential dangers of a trial. His father is ill- but then his father can barely recognise him and for the sake of their daughter wouldn't it be easier to leave Iran. These two responses are both valid responses to human events: the first set of responses needs no defence- the second set of responses are those of a pragmatist and therefore are reasonable in themselves (there is such a thing as selfish idealism- particularly when a child is involved). There is no way though of adjudicating between them- nor is there a way of arguing between them.

Ultimately this brings me to what I found most intriguing about the film. Because if we accept that the conflict running through it- between compromise and assertion- is a real conflict and an insoluble conflict then at last we can see the tragedy of Nader and Simin's marriage. They obviously love each other- obviously care for each other and they both tenderly care for their daughter. Yet in this situation these two human beings cannot share their lives- every time a strategic decision has to be made, their paths divert. The film's title is very apt- this is not a film about injustice or a response to injustice- it is a film about the pain of separation. The pain is worst for their daughter, played amazingly by a wonderful child actress, who captures the pain and courage of a precocious 12 year old facing these disasters. It is real pain though and one struggles to imagine how this relationship could not split apart. The film in that sense puts on screen something that I think is really important: it shows how sometimes relationships cannot survive, not because anyone is culpable, but just because these characters cannot find a way to compromise between their approaches to the world.

June 26, 2011

Why the Norman Conquest matters (to Blackstone)

As Blackstone introduces his book, he makes a comment on the Norman Conquest:

That antient collection of unwritten maxims and customs, which is called the common law, however compounded or from whatever fountains derived, had subsisted immemorially in this kingdom; and though somewhat altered and impaired by the violence of the times, had in great measure weathered the rude shock of the Norman conquest. This had endeared it to the people in general, as well because it's decisions were universally known, as because it was found to be excellently adapted to the genius of the English nation.
What is going on here is important: because it forms the basis of a link that Blackstone will later make between English religion and English law. The crux of this paragraph is an opposition that Blackstone creates between two theories of origin for the English law. The first theory suggests that English law was the act of a leglislator at a particular point in time. The clearest such point in time was the Norman Conquest- hence Blackstone's mention of 1066 and he like every common lawyer- including Sir Edward Coke, John Selden and Sir Matthew Hale- of the previous century denied that the Norman Conquest represented an overthrow of English law. Rather Blackstone argues that there was a mysterious moment- somewhere in the immemorial past- where a set of judgements and laws came together into the common law. Essentially this is a story about the origin and meaning of law- either law is a rationally formed thing, created in a moment by a leglislator (think of Lycurgus or Solon)- or it is brought together, compounded out of fountains of thought in the deep past.

Notice Blackstone says that the Norman Conquest changed the law. He could hardly not have said that given the work done by Henry Spellman and others in the late seventeenth century which demonstrated conclusively that the law of England had been fundementally changed by the Conqueror. But what he wants to do is to deny that was a moment in which the law was created. Indeed Blackstone derives the law's utility- its legitimacy- from the fact that he believes it is both uniquely understood by the English and uniquely suited to their needs. It is constructed by usage. We will come to see in the next post why that's a crucial idea for Blackstone as a defender of the Church of England. It is also a crucial link between early modern ideas about law and conservative ideas in the English tradition. What Blackstone is arguing for is a system of legal knowledge which is established over centuries, binding together generations and which has become a language in which politics can be most appropriately described. This is the Whig conception of the constitution- and one only has to think of Burke's thinking, as Pocock has argued, to see how influential this idea of an organic language which constructs the state and its relationship to its citizens has been.

June 23, 2011

What does it mean to make the law a book

During Blackstone's discussion of the character of an MP, he vents his frustration about the way that MPs who don't know the law make legislation. Whilst doing this he makes an interesting analogy- the law is a book and the MP is a commentator on that book (a bit like I am writing here about Blackstone and have written in the past about Livy and Augustine). Blackstone comments

And how unbecoming must it appear in a member of the legislature to vote for a new law, who is utterly ignorant of the old! what kind of interpretation can he be enabled to give, who is a stranger to the text upon which he comments.
Blackstone's analogy is truly radical. When I comment upon a text, I do not seek to alter it. No doubt Blackstone was thinking of the commentators or glossers upon philosophical or biblical texts who would strue the text with comments upon what it did or did not mean. In that sense Blackstone's comments were a more active comment than a modern commentator who separates the text of his comment from that which is commented upon. But even so what this implies is that the law, like the text, does not change- just people's interpretation of that law changes. We here come to a radical division between the common law mind and the modern mind: Blackstone like Coke before him believed that in some sense the law did not change, only our interpretation, our comment on the law changes.

June 22, 2011

Why lawyers make good MPs

How should MPs be trained? That sounds an odd question does it not. An MP, according to Jim Hacker, is a job for which you need no qualifications, there are no hours of service etc. Modern MPs are selceted on the basis of their ideology, their adherance to their party and their experience. All of these things are relevant and they are legitimate bases to chose a modern MP upon: I do not want to question them here- just to suggest that the job of an MP has changed down the years. For evidence I want to consider something that Blackstone made clear in his lectures in Oxford in the 1750s- when you read this think to yourself about how far Blackstone's idea of an MP differs from ours. Whereas we think of our MPs as servants of their constituents and partakers in a public debate: Blackstone seems to have had something else in mind. MPs for him were partakers in public reason- that reason being defined as public law and the task of an MP, for him, was that of a superior magistrate.

He described the privilege of being an MP thus:

They are not thus honourably distinguished from the rest of their fellow-subjects, merely that they may privilege their persons, their estates or their domestics; that they may list under party banners; may grant or with hold supplies; may vote with or against a popular or unpopular administration; but upon considerations far more interesting and important. They are the guardians of the English constitution; the makers, repealers and interpreters of English laws, dedicated to watch, to check and to avert every dangerous innovation, to propose, to adapt and to cherish any solid and well weighed improvement.
Pause for a second before you assent to the wonderful prose and just think about what Blackstone means here: what he is saying is completely at odds with what almost every one of us believes today. His argument is that the central duty of an MP is not to be a loyal member of a party, not to vote on budgets (supplies is the archaic English Parliamentary word- still in use for budgetry measures) nor even to bring down governments: their job is to make or rather consider making law. Note as well that in this action of making law what they are doing is repealing or adding to an existing body of law- not creating new measures but refining old measures. The function of an MP is, for Blackstone, not as a representative (no words about the people here), nor as a creator of an executive, but as a leglislator and one that would choose to do very little.

So what did such a partaker in public law require. Blackstone had examples before him of what such a person might need. He cites Cicero to that effect. He might have cited Sir Edward Coke who famously derided the lack learning Parliament of the 14th Century for its lack of lawyers and hence of mastery of the law. Blackstone believed that to be an MP you had to have a knowledge of a public reason: he cites the rebuke of Quintus Mutius Scaevola, 'the oracle of Roman law' to Servius Sulpicius to make his point. Blackstone quotes Scaevola as saying that 'it was a shame for a patrician, a nobleman and an orator of causes, to be ignorant of that law in which he was so particularly concerned'. What we see here is a dual movement- on the one hand the assertion that the law was a subject, on the other that it was the political subject into which all others fed. Leglislators require this knowledge: Blackstone goes further and expands on the fact that he believes all bad laws in England during the eighteenth century are the product (not as we might argue of bad government or ideologically incorrect government) but of bad lawmaking:
almost all the perplexed questions, almost all the niceties, intricacies and delays... owe their origin not to the common law itself, but to innovations that have been made in it by Act of Parliament; 'overladen (as sir Edward Coke expresses) with provisoes and additions nad many times on a sudden penned or corrected by men of none or very little judgement in law.
Blackstone's case is antique- after all Parliamentary draughtsmen are supposed to deal with this problem. But it is interesting because it demonstrates quite how different his concept of an eighteenth century MP was from ours. No doubt he did believe in representation and in election and in government- but for him expertise in the law was another facet of what made a good MP. In that sense he and Coke and Cicero stand at odds with our politics. For all of them perhaps something of the aristocratic clung to the notion of an MP: they sensed the role as being an honorific one as well as a representative one- the movement between the 18th Century and the 20th may be a movement from the honorific role of election to the representative.