Britain has been the laughing-stock of Europe for a couple of years, but I write this at a time when it seems in complete disarray, with government ministers campaigning like fury against each other.
The presenting issue is Brexit, but Brexit alone cannot explain the depth of hostilities.
Most of the debate is about the practical questions – Irish border, tariffs, EU citizens. Behind the practicalities lie people’s underlying values, which are harder to explain or even notice. To illustrate this I compare an article by Andy Beckett about the Rees-Moggs with the ancient Hebrew prophet Habakkuk.
The article saddens me because of Hettie Tresidder. Hettie is no longer alive, but I owe her a lot. She lived in the same Somerset village where I spent my childhood. Her day job was a couple of villages away in Temple Cloud, where she was housekeeper to William Rees-Mogg. She supported me greatly during my childhood. No doubt she supported young Jacob too. I would hate to think she had any part in the things Beckett describes.
William was Editor of the Times back in the days of that memorable advertisement:
Top people take The Times. Do you?
Beckett describes William’s changing evaluations of future chaos. He wrote two books in the 1970s, forecasting social disorder and proposing old-fashioned remedies like reverting to the gold standard. His main concern, at that stage, was to restore order.
By 1987 things had changed. He co-authored a book entitled Blood in the Streets: Investment Profits in a World Gone Mad. The title echoes a quotation from Nathan Rothschild:
The best time to buy is when blood is running in the streets.
His 1997 book The Sovereign Individual, again co-authored, prophesied that digital technology would cause major changes. Society would become more competitive, unequal and unstable. It would become increasingly common to avoid taxes. Government would ‘gradually wither away’ and welfare states would ‘simply become unfinanceable’. In such a harsh world, only the most talented, self-reliant, technologically adept person – ‘the sovereign individual’ – would thrive.
If this is a fair account of William’s publications, the direction of travel is clear. His consistent theme was forecasting disorder. We might plot his changing proposals like this:
1) Old-fashioned ways to restore order. The perspective is that of a traditional aristocracy. Order meant retaining the advantages of the rich.
2) Ways for the wealthy to protect themselves against disorder. The focus narrows. It is not society itself that needs order – just the wealth of the elite.
3) Ways for the wealthy to benefit from disorder. By this stage disorder is no longer something to be lamented. The question is how to make money out of it.
4) The next stage was not, as far as I know, recommended by William Rees-Mogg, but is a logical corollary. If the rich can get richer by disorder, why not deliberately go about creating it? Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine describes the rise of right-wing theorists developing this theme with enthusiasm. Is this what Jacob Rees-Mogg is up to with his enthusiasm for Brexit? I don’t have access to the deeper recesses of his mind, but it is easy enough for his political opponents to suspect something like this.
What is missing from this whole discourse is any concern for the vast majority of the population. The ‘sovereign individual’ is precisely the kind of person who doesn’t care about anyone else. Do we really want to be governed by people like that?
I may be the only person who responds to this by thinking of Habakkuk, but there is a reason. Habakkuk lived around 600 BCE. After winning a battle, for eight years Chaldean horsemen raided Judea every year and did immense destruction.
The Judeans were powerless to stop them. They built towers and took it in turns to stand at the top, their eyes peeled for any sign of the Chaldeans approaching. They would then warn the population.
Why did the Chaldeans do it? They weren’t the first. There had already been many marauding gangs who would much rather attack farmers and eat their crops than do their own farming. It was more fun. They didn’t have to do the boring stuff. They made themselves powerful and important. They just didn’t care about the misery they were causing other people.
This is why I made the connection. The ‘sovereign individuals’ who rule us today are the successors to those Chaldeans: out for what they can get for themselves, for a life of fun, without any sense of responsibility for the common good, completely lacking in any concern for the people whose lives they are ruining.
Habakkuk, like most of the Bible, saw it from the perspective of the victims:
Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed,
and found a city on iniquity!
He looked forward to the day when
the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.
His book ends with a song and an instruction to sing it to stringed instruments. Here’s the song:
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
If the Chaldeans had killed all their victims, nobody would have grown food for them to steal. They would have had to settle down and do some farming for themselves. Or some of them would, and then they would fight among themselves.
In the same way, the ‘sovereign individuals’ determined to benefit themselves today can only do so as long as there are other people with resources they can take. Eventually their only way to maintain their parasitic lives will be to attack each other.
Over the last few decades we have seen this individualistic self-centredness increasingly promoted as though it was a virtue. Fuelled by neo-liberal economic theories, it has become a substantial part of mainstream government thinking. So far, most British people are not suffering as much as those Judeans did; but increasing numbers are.
The Judean victims weren’t perfect, any more than the homeless and penniless of today are; but they had better ways to keep society going. It is true that they were helpless, and many of them died without seeing any improvement in their desperate circumstances; but still, in retrospect we can see that the future lay with them, not with the raiders.
Therefore Habakkuk ends on the right note. Anybody who has been on a protest march knows the importance of singing songs of hope. The worse the situation is, the more important it is to retain faith that things will change.
Though the trade deal collapses
and no food is in the shops;
though the factories close
and nobody is paid;
we shall pick up our guitars
and praise the world’s goodness;
the sun that continues to shine,
the rain that continues to fall,
the babies that continue to be born
and the happier future that awaits them.