Traditions beyond politics

For much of my life I have thought about questions of politics and government. How can government respond to any one of dozens of social issues that have occupied my professional life? What can government do? How can a policy issue be presented to political decision-makers in a way that holds their attention, if briefly, and sustains their commitment, preferably with real decisions about people, money, rules and services, and not merely the empty word-pictures of abstract change, so beloved by the consultocracy.

Recent events in my life – and perhaps the broader world, these are difficult times when we must confront moral beliefs capable of terrorist murder – have led me to doubt whether it is time to leave this field fallow for a few years. Our democratic governments are in a state of decay, with their administrative elites confused or treacherous about the purpose of democratic governing institutions. Managerialism has infected all institutions once served by a professional ethos. Political parties have lost all deep contact with vital social networks that might translate values into real political ideas, and have become patronage-ridden bureaucracies, over-stocked with networkers and advertisers, that turn political values into the degraded currency of brands. Universities lost their moral compass sometime after mass expansion and before turning education into an export industry. Their own forms of patronage persist despite mountains of managerialist rhetoric, and a sense of purpose serving the state, as perhaps imagined by von Humboldt, was long lost.

It is a grim stocktake, and perhaps it is to that other author of the ideal of intellectual life, Cardinal Newman, that I should turn to for inspiration, and in his fields of public reason on moral, religious, emotional and cultural life that I should plant my next season’s crops. So, I do find that a turn to other traditions of public and private thought are those that must sustain me over the years ahead.

Islam and false lessons from history.

Tony Abbott has provoked outrage in some circles, and proud banner raising in others, by proposing that Islam needed to reform itself, and so undergo something akin to the complex sequences of cultural and institutional changes that led to the formation  of politically secular, if morally religious, liberal democracy. Islam, he says, making an argument based on some historical knowledge, never had the equivalent to “the West’s” separation of church and state, its acceptance of a public culture of reason in the Enlightenment, its theological renunciation of violence in defence of the faith. While recognising the risk of demonising Islam, Abbot draws attention to a defensive weakness concerning these strengths of modern secular, liberal political culture. His real target is pusillanimous relativism when threatened with random death. “Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.”(Daily Telegraph 9 December 2015)

Much of the commentary on these comments is overheated. It is not as if Abbott is the only commentator to say these things. Some want to verbal Abbott and confuse him with demagogues like Donald Trump. Many are perhaps overly optimistic about what can be achieved by an overly sensitive commitment to consensus and the private dealings of moderate Muslim leaders with the police and security agencies. Some want to paint Abbott as a political caricature, as some rearguard leadership revolt, but rarely with a strong sense of how Abbott himself may have been inspired by Churchill’s moral opposition to Nazism. All these objections focus on process, and refuse to consider the substance of Abbott’s claims, which I would summarise as three key propositions: Islam is not only a religion of peace, but at its core preaches violence – “killing people in the name of God;” the West’s pattern of development of political institutions, especially the separation of church and state, is worthy of emulation by Islamic societies since it is superior; and the adoption by moderate Islam of such institutions in the political world can stop the violent radical among Islam.

It seems to me that only the first of these propositions is true. People shy away from such a conclusion, and there are many aspects of Islam that are peaceful. It has its own traditions of reform and modernism, and especially Sufism has been important in promoting a less austere church. It has been a religion of traders as well as warriors and jihadists, but this does not deny that it has long been a religion of jihadists, fatwahs, and warlords. In some of its traditions, it does not only justify killing, it sanctifies it. No-one would say this is all of Islam, but to pretend it is not part of it is to be willingly blind.

A more detailed discussion of the contrasting experience of church and state between the West and Islam is here:

The final question is whether amendments to political institutions and developments of political culture can remove the periodic outbreak of cults of violent death in political cultures. I think here the answer is no, and after all there are many examples of the outbreaks of violence within liberal cultures that would lead one to doubt this. A more detailed reflection on that question will need to await another night.

The return of the venal office and tax-farmer

The French Revolution was in part a revolt against a degraded court, whose profligacy in prestige goods was in stark contrast to its bankruptcy in pursuing national prestige in war, and in part the collapse of authority of a political order, so disabling its most essential task, taxation. The crucial preliminary chapters of any good history of the Revolution are not the tart farces of Louis and Marie-Antoinette, but the complicated technicalities of Turgot and Necker, their conflicting approaches to tax administration, and the consequences for social disorder of the exemptions from taxation of the aristocrat and bourgeois venal office holder and the private acquisition of public wealth of the tax farmer.

It may seem odd in these modern times, when our technology, our digitally ubiquitous searching and our excitement about our own excitement of the future seems to make reflection on past events, not in the last century but in the one before the one before that, something of a futile indulgence, to point to lessons learned from the failures of the ancien regime. These characters, to most modern minds, are from the cryogenic caricatures of a prehistoric past. What could they have to say to us? And I respond, two characters of the ancien regime have returned as spectres of political decay in modern dress: the venal office holder and the tax-farmer.

To be continued