Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 12th March 2014

The Cancer of English Anti-Semitism

The 200 year-old arrangement – by which the Jews rendered money-lending services in return for protection and freedom of travel around the kingdom – was torn to shreds. The first sign was the sudden enforcement of the wearing of the badge of difference, the ‘tabula’. Now they were marked people. Then, the towns in which they were allowed to reside, were limited; whole communities now moved elsewhere. When Edward got back from the crusade it got worse. A state on the Jews in 1275 forbade money-lending, the essential activity, whatever its odium and perils, that supported what would be otherwise indigent communities.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 323

This pattern keeps repeating itself – destroy a people by attacking their rights, their presence and their economic contribution. I explore this issue in more detail in The Unmaking of Man.

The same pattern can be seen in the lives of disabled people trapped in institutions. The same pattern was repeated in Hitler’s Germany.

As Arendt observes the final cruel blow is to rob people of any role – as either exploited or exploiter:

Persecution of powerless or power-losing groups may not be a very pleasant spectacle, but it does not spring from human meanness alone. What makes men obey or tolerate real power and, on the other hand, hate people who have wealth without power, is the rational instinct that power has a certain function and is of some general use. Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order. Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting, because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together. Wealth which does not exploit lacks even the relationship which exists between exploiter and exploited; aloofness without policy does not even imply the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 5

We must protect each other’s rights – with no excuses, no exceptions. But we must also guard against segregation and special badges that mark some people off as ‘special’. And we must never allow anyone to be treated as if they have nothing to offer – we need everyone – everyone has something to offer.

Otherwise, horror awaits.

1275 was a particular low point for England. English anti-Semitism unleashed the trend towards the ghetto and the pogrom, a trend which spread across Europe in the centuries that followed. In turn this led to modern anti-Semitism and the death camps. We may warm our consciences by the fact that the worst excesses were not ours – but many of them started in England and spread outwards like cancer.

The Inquisition – A Truly Modern Institution

The Inquisition was its own dominion of judgement, a state within a state, answerable to no one other than the Pope, the Crown and its own array of imposing bureaucratic regulations. As well as the inquisitors and those who staffed the tribunals of interrogation, a huge array of ‘familiars’, who were responsible for handling the bureaucratic work that oiled the machinery of terror. So many carefully considered regulations surrounded the application of torture, for example, that those who oversaw it constituted the first systematically organised bureaucracy of pain. The Inquisition even had its own miniature armies of protection and intimidation. The Inquisitor General Tomas de Torquemada never travelled anywhere without his own army of horsemen, especially after an inquisitor had been murdered in Saragossa Cathedral by a desperate group of ‘conversos’. Notoriously, virtually unlimited powers of torture were granted to extract ‘full’ confessions from those suspected of relapsing or, worse, those who were impenitent, active Judaisers. Thus the snooping state made its way into history: servants, family members, neighbours frightened and cajoled into becoming informers and spies. Even in monasteries and convents, monks and nuns would report on brothers and sisters whom they suspected of looking down when the Host was raised, stumbling over the Paternoster or Ave Maria and saying who knew what in the solitude of their cells. Yirimiyahu Yovel is right to see in this the germ of a modern malevolent modern institution rather than a medieval relic. It was indeed something fresh in its inhumanity.

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews, p. 405

Support for Yovel and Schama is found in Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and in Foucault’s account of the prison. The Inquisition may have been one of the first modern institutions, but the hospital, the prison, the asylum, concentration camps and extermination centres were to quickly follow. The religious and the anti-religious joined together in a barbaric assault on humanity.

Modern doesn’t mean better.

And as Arendt and Foucault noticed, the sign of a truly modern institution is that it refuses to accept merely outward signs of conformity. It is not good enough that we seem to be fitting in – we must really fit in – and if not we must be remade or destroyed.

What is the connection between this modern desire to invade the inner private sphere of the mind and spirit and the growing conviction that no such sphere exists? It is almost as if the declining faith in metaphysics (not just Christian, but any deeper metaphysics) leaves us exposed to the most extreme outrages by those who seek control.

Materialism leaves us naked, ready to be herded hither and thither.

Perhaps the Inquisition was the first sign of our declining faith – no longer do we trust in the Holy Spirit and the judgement of Christ – we presume to act on their behalf.

What is Neoliberalism Good For?

It would be fair to say that the world of politics seems to be dominated by an ideology that we in the UK call liberalism and which argues for the primacy of freedom and the pursuit of individual happiness. This is an influential theory; but one that is full of paradoxes and perversities.

The most obvious is that we can’t even agree what to call it.

On the other side of the Atlantic liberalism means, roughly, what we would call Left-wing.

On this side of the Atlantic we use the term either to describe the thoughts of the centrist political party we now call the Liberal Democrats, or the entirely different theoretical tradition championed by sections of the Conservative Party – which is also sometimes called Thatcherism.

How confusing!

Many on the Left now call it neoliberalism – although I’ve never been able to distinguish ‘new liberalism’ from ‘old liberalism’. Perhaps neoliberalism is just code for the version of completely batty extreme Right-wing liberalism that nobody could believe in.

Usually, if someone is talking about neoliberalism they refer to Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia. But when I studied this very interesting book I got the sense that the author himself didn’t really believe his own theory. The whole thing is an elegant reductio ad absurdam of his own position. It seemed to be designed half in jest; moreover a few years later he outlined a very different theory in The Examined Life.

Even those radical Republicans who use liberal arguments are only half serious. Take for instance the Republican satirist, P J O’Rourke, who summarises his position thus:

The other secret to balancing the budget is to remember that all tax revenue is the result of holding a gun to somebody’s head. Not paying taxes is against the law. If you don’t pay your taxes, you’ll be fined. If you don’t pay the fine you’ll be jailed. If you try to escape from jail, you’ll be shot. Thus, I – in my role as citizen and voter – am going to shoot you – in your role as taxpayer and ripe suck – if you do not pay your share of the national tab. Therefore, every time the government spends money on anything, you have to ask yourself, “Would I kill my kindly, gray haired mother for this?” In the case of defence spending, the argument is simple: “Come on Ma, everybody’s in this together. If those Canadian hordes come down over the border, we’ll all be dead meat. Pony up.” In the case of helping cripples, orphans and blind people, the argument is almost as persuasive: “Mother, I know you don’t know these people from Adam, but we’ve got five thousand years of Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality going here. Fork over the dough.” But day care doesn’t fly: ”You’re paying the next-door neighbour’s baby-sitter, or its curtains for you, Mom.” 

P J O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, p.100

In other words, neoliberalism is secondary to “Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu-Confucian-animist-jungle-God morality” which is another way of saying that there are much more important and truthful ideas than liberalism.

The point is that even many of the extreme advocates of neoliberalism don’t really pretend to take their own theory that seriously. Nobody but a lunatic would think that just pursuing your own selfish goals is a sensible way to think about your own purpose or about the well-being of society.

So if neoliberals don’t believe in neoliberalism, who does?

I think the paradoxical answer is that only the opponents of neoliberalism really believe in neoliberalism – but they believe in it negatively. It serves the same rhetorical purpose on the Left as a term like communist does on the Right. It is also socially helpful; if you are of the Left then you are united by your opposition to neoliberalism. It is not so much a straw man as a straw enemy.

Now I need to be careful here.

I am not suggesting that there are not plenty of greedy or self-interested people in the world. There are plenty. There are also corporate bodies that behave in ways that are motivated by avarice and which are profoundly damaging to our society.

Greed is real and greed is not good. Corruption is very real.

And I know that there are a few people who believe in the ravings of Ayn Rand or the musings of Robert Nozick. Although I don’t think these people are the ones we really have to worry about.

In my view neoliberalism has never been a coherent or attractive theory. What it is, is a bag of rhetorical devices that can be deployed to protect the interests of powerful elites. It offers rhetorical tropes – phrases and concepts – which if unexamined – lend depth to the self-serving policies of the powerful. But these devices not really rooted in liberalism – instead they take genuine moral concepts but twist them into narrow concepts in order serve their own selfish ends:

  • Our desire for freedom is whittled down to consumerism
  • Citizenship loses its meaning and is reduced to vain individualism
  • Virtue is emptied of real content and just becomes responsibility – looking after your own
  • Community becomes a market, and a particularly uninteresting kind of market
  • Government becomes the state, not something we do together, just an external device to keep us all in order

The rhetorical device works because it is starts with in something valuable. But the valuable concepts are not the concepts of liberalism. Something good is being suggested; yet by the time we find out what the liberal means by freedom, citizenship or virtue we are left with something toxic.

In practice the rhetoric of liberalism is useful to those who use it because it encourages people to leave well alone:

  • Why would you want to rule yourselves? Leave that to us.
  • Why would you want a community or public goods? Private goods are good enough for you.
  • Don’t worry about freedom. Why not go shopping instead?
  • Don’t worry about virtue. Just pay your taxes; we’ll do the rest.

Don’t worry leave it to us, leave it to the market, leave it to our contractors – we know just the man for the job.

Neoliberalism is not neutral – it turns out there are a whole class of people who get the job of running the minimal state, the markets and the corporations.

Perhaps I should join in the attack on neoliberalism. I have certainly had lots of good people telling me that I am foolish for not understanding its power or the threat that it presents. Perhaps it is naive of me to think that I shouldn’t have to attack a stupid theory – one in which no one but a fool would believe.

But I can’t believe attacking straw enemies is good for us. It seems to me that we run the risk of giving life to a monster – wasting our energy fighting something which does not really exist. And gross enemies sometimes get in the way of really examining what we are fighting for.

Meanwhile we fail to notice the way in which power and control is centralised in the hands of political and commercial elites – not because they believe in neoliberalism – but because they are greedy and arrogant – and because we have let them get away with it.

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