Friday, October 24, 2014

Reflections on evil

Here are two articles that discuss the relationship between liberalism and evil. The first, by John Gray, was published this week. The second was first published in 1940 and has been reissued on the New Republic website as part of their centenary. In it Lewis Mumford reflects on American isolationism at the outbreak of the Second World War. They are chalk and cheese.

Let's take John Gray first. He is a master of pessimism. He seems to revel in gloom. So it is unsurprising to see an essay from him that ends like this:
Our leaders have helped create a situation that their view of the world claims cannot exist: an intractable conflict in which there are no good outcomes.
He is talking about the Middle East of course and ISIS. And his theme is that liberalism has failed as it cannot comprehend evil. This is because,
... evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.
Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind.
Gray once wrote a book called Straw Dogs. I think that Straw Men might be more appropriate here. He defines liberalism solely as being synonymous with a particular notion of inevitable progress. This idea may be held by some liberals, but they also believe in liberty, human rights, democracy, etc. And rather than predict the inevitable withering away of evil, liberalism tends to eschew eschatology. Rights and liberties are ends in themselves, to be guarded and protected. If the propensity for evil is a constant, then liberalism proposes a way in which it can be confronted and contained.

And the essay contains other puzzling statements, such as this:
A cynic is someone who knowingly acts against what he or she knows to be true.
Er, no. That isn't the definition of a cynic, it is the definition of an idiot. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cynic as,
One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.
Seeing as Gray goes on to describe Tony Blair as,
Too morally stunted to be capable of the mendacity of which he is often accused
I don't think that calling him a cynic would be unreasonable.

The essay ranges over many areas, there are a few points of agreement, but all the way through you know where it is leading. And sure enough, you stumble through it to a commonplace and ill-informed conclusion. And at that point you realise that the whole piece is simply an over-long Simon Jenkins column or a more academic Russell Brand video. You know the stuff; it is all our fault, imperial hubris, an unwinnable war, we have failed, we have made it all worse, and the familiar conservative dismissal of the capacity of other peoples for democratic governance.
There is no factual basis for thinking that something like the democratic nation-state provides a model on which the region could be remade
 Although Gray does write,
Given the west’s role in bringing about the anarchy in which the Yazidis, the Kurds and other communities face a deadly threat, non-intervention is a morally compromised option. If sufficient resources are available – something that cannot be taken for granted – military action may be justified.
It only leads to a sorrowful, pro-Assad position.
In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad’s secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy.
He may start from a position that recognises the persistence of evil, but ends with one that accepts it.

Lewis Mumford answered him perfectly - seventy-four years earlier.

Mumford is an interesting writer. He was a disciple (his term) of Patrick Geddes, although their only meeting was a disaster,  and he took forward and developed many of Geddes' ideas for a future generation. He was writing from within an alternative left tradition that had spun off from late 19th century anarchism and ecology. What appalled him about the liberalism of his day was its failures in opposing fascism and its tendency to make accommodations with evil, rather than confront it. The liberals in his sights were people just like John Gray.

Mumford and Gray would agree on a number of things. For instance, Mumford also deprecated the blind optimism of the liberal idea of progress. Both Gray and Mumford share a contempt for the idea that evil is simply the product of bad institutions. Instead, both agree on its persistence and existence within human personality, not simply as a product of social arrangements. But there the similarity ends. Gray surrenders, Mumford picks up his weapons and heads for the barricades.

Mumford did not see liberalism as a unified doctrine, he described two distinct elements. The first, "ideal liberalism",
... arose long before modern capitalism: they were part of a larger human tradition ... humanist traditions of personal responsibility, personal freedom and personal expression ... The most important principles in liberalism do not cling exclusively to liberalism: what gives them their strength is their universality and their historical continuity.
I got little sense of this ideal from Gray's essay. But he certainly concurred with the second of Mumford's elements. This is historically specific, deriving from the intellectual, commercial and scientific revolutions of the late eighteenth century onwards. He calls it "Pragmatic liberalism", which he describes as:
... vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life. It was characteristic of this creed to overemphasize the part played by political and mechanical invention, by abstract thought and practical contrivance. And accordingly it minimized the role of instinct, tradition, history; it was unaware of the dark forces of the unconscious; it was suspicious of either the capricious or the incalculable, for the only universe it could rule was a measured one, and the only type of human character it could understand was the utilitarian one.
And Mumford and Gray are in agreement about the liberal underestimation of evil:
Evil for the pragmatic liberal has no positive dimensions: he conceives it as a mere lack of something whose presence would be good.
And there Gray leaves the argument; sorrowfully, resigned and pessimistic. Faced by the threat of fascism, Mumford saw the universal values of ideal liberalism as something that needed to be fought for, just as much contemporary liberal opinion hurried to the illusionary safety of the isolationist bunker.
The liberal's notion that reasoning in the spirit of affable compromise is the only truly human way of meeting one's opponent overlooks the important part played by force and grace. And his unctuous notion that evil must not be seriously combated because the person who attempts to oppose it may have to use physical force ... is a gospel of despair ... it means in practice turning the world over to the rule of the violent, the brutal and the inhuman, who have no such fine scruples, because the humane are too dainty in their virtue to submit to any possible assault on it.
What is more, the emphasis on cold, dispassionate calculation without engaging the emotions undermines judgement,
... this liberal suspicion of passion is partly responsible for the liberal's ineptitude for action.
And so Mumford concluded,
In a disintegrating world, pragmatic liberalism has lost its integrity but retained its limitations. The moral ardor of the eighteenth century liberals, who faced difficult odds, strove mightily, risked much, has gone. The isolationism that is preached by our liberals today means fascism tomorrow. Their emphasis upon mere security today ... means the acceptance of despotism tomorrow. While their complacency, their emotional tepidity, their virtuous circumspectness, their unwillingness to defend civilization with all its faults and all its capacity for rectifying those faults, means barbarism tomorrow. Meanwhile, the ideal values of liberalism lack support and the human horizon contracts before our eyes. While the barbarians brazenly attack our civilization, those who should now be exerting every fiber to defend it are covertly attacking it, too. On the latter falls the heavier guilt.
It is an accusation that can be made today. Except there is plenty of passion, but it is pointing in the wrong direction. Rather than confront evil, we excuse it and blame ourselves.

There are parts of Mumford's article that have dated, but much of it is strikingly modern. Then again, these arguments are not new. They have been going on since the nineteenth century with the Peace Society's acrobatics over the Bulgarian Atrocities. Though nothing will ever change the minds of die-hard anti-war activists and writers, I sense the tide is turning. When an oppressed nation like the Kurds takes up arms to defeat a threat from a genocidal insurgency that beheads an Eccles taxi driver, is intent on bringing back slavery and is re-introducing crucifixion as a method of public execution, it isn't hard to know what side to be on. Previous opponents of western action are now calling for solidarity and military support. They have seen a clear, unambiguous evil, impervious to reason. It is obvious that it has to be defeated.

And if Mumford is right and these values are universal, it is our struggle too. 


Anton Deque said...

Marvellous Peter. One to keep beside oneself in the weeks ahead.

Bob-B said...

I don't know much about either Gray or Mumford, but I'm fairly sure I know all I need to know about Gray. He seems to say the same thing over and over again. He seems to have a problem with adjectives. Various liberals say progress is 'desirable' and 'possible' and he imagines they are saying that progress is 'inevitable'. Norman Geras wrote some good posts on Gray, e.g.