DEMOCRACY, ILLUSIONS, WHAT CAN BE DONE
by Ted Honderich
The debate in the Oxford Union on 29 January 2010 was on the motion "This House believes that in politics, money talks loudest". Ted Honderich's speech in support of the motion was followed by those of Stuart Wheeler, known for his contribution of £5,000,000 to the Conservative Party, and of Hugo Rifkind, a columnist for The Times and The Spectator. The motion was opposed by Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, Lord Oakeshott the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, and Dr. Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. In the vote at the end, the motion was carried. The debate took place the evening of the day when Tony Blair appeared to defend himself in the Chilcott inquiry into the Iraq war.
My Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen, all members of this university, and any members of its Conservative and New Labour clubs capable of a brief period of mental concentration.
What is our subject?
The motion before us is that in politics, money talks loudest. That has two parts, one explicit and one implicit. There is the explicit proposition of fact, that money does talk loudest, and there is the implication of it. The implication is that money's talking loudest in politics raises a question of rightness, or indeed isn't right.
I know talking openly of what is right or wrong is unusual in this time in England, and may seem curious, perhaps moralistic, maybe innocent or immature, anyway not familiar.
Cant, in particular cant by our democratic politicians, is the dismal order of the day, along with the brazen policy that the response to a question is not an answer but an evasion of it by way of a prepared little speech on something else. The cant and the evasion have reduced the clarity and hence the intelligence of public discussion, indeed brought it to its lowest state in 50 years. A society in decline since 1979 has declined further.
Instead of speaking of right and wrong, of what ought not to happen, the political class declares or intones the cant that this or that is 'unacceptable'. The essential thing they are saying, if not the only thing, has to be that this or that is wrong. They are indeed saying what we must not do. It is useful to them to be inexplict instead, however. If you actually say plainly that something is wrong, or right, you are more expected to produce a reason, an argument, something clear-headed..
Let us look openly at money in politics, and what is to be said of it -- and what can be done about it.
So, starting with the first and factual question raised by the motion, what are the things, all other things, that according to the motion money talks louder than them in politics?
One answer that rushes to mind is truth. It is not only the first victim of war, but a first victim of a kind of peace, of money in a kind of politics.
A second thing that money talks louder than, certainly connected, is the logic of ordinary intelligence. That consists in clarity, which at best is analysis, of course along with relevance, and then consistency and also validity in argument, and then completeness, not leaving things out.
Truth and the logic of ordinary intelligence aren't all that comes to mind as the things that money talks louder than. In fact you can't be truthful and logical in the ordinary way, and also without humanity. Truth and logic bring along some humanity with them. But anyway another thing you might think money talks louder than in politics is humanity -- humanity being what is right, as you will be hearing.
What are the facts of money, the facts of what may talk louder than truth and intelligence and humanity in our politics?
Cant, which I have on my mind in this debating chamber, since it is the anteroom to the House of Commons, is not the only thing in need of being avoided these days. Being simple-minded, which our political class is, is also to be avoided. One way of being simple-minded about the motion in front of us is to think the part that is the factual proposition can be settled just by some figures. It can't be settled that way, useful as some general figures are.
Of course it is true that the economically best-off tenth of population in Britain and America have something like 70% of the wealth, and the worst-off tenth has as good as none. As for income, the best off tenth has about 30% or 40%, and the worst-off 2% or 3%. That means that the poorest have nothing to spend on politics, indeed no time left to engage in it after getting their 2 or 3%, and the very richest have a lot. You can for yourself fill in percentages of wealth and income, by the way, for the eight deciles in between the richest and the poorest.
I say, without hesitation, on the basis of these figures, and without fear of any economist or student of the dismal science in this house, the dismal science that never gets around to quantifying what is fundamental, that the richest have more of something else than the poorest. They have more than 1000 times the political influence and power of the poorest. Remember that the poorest have as good as no wealth. 70 times zero is infinitely more than 70 times 1.
What does the 1000 times more political influence and power do?
It involves a lot more than getting questions asked for cash in the House of Commons or other corruption. It involves more than the fact of lobbying, even on an American scale. It involves more than industries and interests infesting the regulation of themselves. There is a larger general fact. What the 1000 times more political influence and power does is to do more than anything else to make and maintain what can mildly be called a certain convention of thought and feeling in a society.
That convention is mainly a successful pretence about what is necessary and what is possible. It consists in illusions upon illusions. About war, classes, the economy, public services, private profit and the profitization of things, taxation, banks, competition, cooperation, foreign ownership, utilities, health, education, politics itself, ideologies and religions, terrorism. As of this day, in what is called the great recession, there is the illusion about the need to reduce public spending rather than reduce private profiting.
This convention is a subjection of most of a people, more effective than an army. Illusions work better than an army and police on motorbikes. Owning newspapers and paying for ordinary advertisements in them is part of the convention. So is a government broadcasting service. A compliant church despite a brave Archbishop is another part. There is no need for conspiracy, although there is some of that, in order to make the whole thing intentional.
The general fact of convention, of the illusions, by the way, brings to mind the other part of the political cant about the 'unacceptable'. Our dim but not too dim political class, when they intone the word 'unacceptable', don't only mean that something is wrong. They also mean that it is on the way to somehow unthinkable. Of course the unclear ambiguity of the utterance helps to save them from being challenged either about something's being wrong or its being or its being believed necessary or impossible by all the relevant persons.
Let us leave our politicians and the illusions and think a little, which you're allowed to do in a university, even in a debate. Let us think a little first by asking what can best be said for democracy. What can best be tried on in its justification? The best hope must be that it is a better decision-procedure for a society than any other, for a particular reason. That reason, in plain English, is that two heads are better than one, and more better are than two. What is in heads, of course, according to this argument, is different and compensating kinds of knowledge, different experiences of a society, different wants.
But the argument only works if what is in the heads gets equal and free expression. In our hierarchic democracies, as you have heard, there is nothing of the sort. There is nothing remotely like equal and free expression. So there can be no reasonable assumption at all that our democracies are right about anything at all -- social goods, or profitization against cooperation, or terrorism, or our own terrorist war.
So put aside the fiction, indeed the illusion, of a democratic guarantee of good policies. So how should we go about judging the actual result of money talking loudest in our democracy? How should we set about thinking about that outcome? What principle or other method should we use? Our political class, having spent its earlier time in this Oxford Union rather than being educated, never says or even asks how you should you go about judging the outcome.
Should we do it by the viciousness of the tradition of conservatism, New Labour wholly and absolutely within it? Conservatism is no more a political tradition of self-interest than any other, of course. It is the politics, however, that has no principle of right and wrong at all to support its self-interest.
Should you judge the result of money in our politics by the mess of liberalism, the collection of stuff of the Liberal Democrats? Liberalism has better impulses than conservatism, but it is without a real principle to give content to its better impulses. It is without a will to act on those impulses, including its decency in opposing a terrorist war.
Should you judge the result of money in politics by the principle of the Utilitarians, that what is right is what produces the greatest total of happiness, well-being or satisfaction -- no matter how it is shared out? Even if the biggest total rests on some people, a class at the bottom, having lives that are really nasty, British and short? Should you throw psychoanalysis and neuroscience into the plan, as they now say at the London School of Economics, in order to make people happier without changing the world that was making them unhappy?
Maybe you should try instead a principle of judgement heard of in Cambridge sometimes these days? That is the philosopher Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative. It tells you to treat everybody not only as a means but also as an end. It's all about respect. Its clearest upshot, so far as I can contemplate, is that you should nod decently to the fellow in the street when you don't buy a copy of The Big Issue.
So, I repeat, how should we go about judging the result of money talking loudest in our politics?
What sums up what is right, to come to the answer resting on the whole authority of human nature, what sums up what is right on any subject anywhere, is the Principle of Humanity. It is the attitude to the effect that what is right is what according to the best judgement and information is the rational means to a certain end -- getting and keeping people out of bad lives.
Bad lives are defined not in terms of any malleable and self-serving generalization, let alone cant, but in terms of deprivation of the great human goods, denial of the fundamental desires of human nature. There are six of those according to one way of counting. A decent length of life, bodily well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, goods of relationship, the goods of culture.
What our hierarchic democracy issues in, by way of money talking loudest, is a standing violation of the Principle of Humanity. I refer to denials of every great human good, every denial aided by suppression of truth and evasion of logic. If you're not pushy or a pusher, you live less long for a start. You have less consciousness. Then there are those other things. Pain, constraint, weakness, disdain, self-disdain. Your children don't learn. You read Murdoch newspapers that stop you from escaping the stupidity owed to your ignorance.
I came here 50 years ago from Canada. England was better. Canada seemed to have only the recommendation of being Australia with snow. About as good as the recommendation of Australia. Canada with sand. England was better. The National Health Service, the font of a language, more confident philosophy. I've stayed too long, though. And it is past the time for jokes.
Earlier today Blair, a man who managed this democracy into a terrorist war, the Iraq war, insulting the decency that remains in this democracy, appeared before a weak committee, a wretched committee of old boys neither capable of questioning him effectively nor willing to. Not a court. Not Nuremberg. Blair sought today, by the audacity of a shyster-lawyer unconstrained by a judge, his policy in the House of Commons, to blunt the truth that he is a war criminal, a criminal against humanity. Old Germans around Nuremberg can feel less bad tonight about the German past. They can say that Nuremberg happened.
In Blair's wholly intentional killing of innocents in and after the war, wholly intentional since wholly foreseeable, and in his wholly intentional causing of fear that is also sillily supposed to be the stuff of only terrorism, and in just about everything else of his New Labour, Blair has been and is a creature of money talking. He has been a creature who listens to it talking, goes to ask for more, and pays for it.
What should we do? What should be done about all the denials of the great goods, about taking from people what we all desire? What should be done about the monstrous selfishness?
Truth and logic is all we have to rely on, some say. We have to try that, keep at it. But surely it can't be the only hope. It can't be. That would be too terrible.
Mass civil disobedience is an answer. Maybe the real stuff, not a march of half a million or a million against a war where the marchers go home for tea after the marching rather than stay there in the street. Boycott of the market, that pretended necessity that is viciousness. Mass civil disobedience, even when not so persistent, has been working well in quite a few places in the last couple of decades. It was part of what brought down a wall, ended an empire. It has changed governments.
Revolution doesn't seem to be an answer.The epoch of revolution seems to be over -- because according to the best information and judgement it isn't a rational means to the end of the Principle of Humanity. That revolution isn't rational and so is wrong, of course, is the work not only of the revolutionaries but of those who defeat it. Indeed they are more at fault.
But here is some imagining for you. The British army has some tanks in London doesn't it? Pimlico, I think. Some colonel of the British army might remember something in this day of the bankers and the profitizers, the illusions, this day of Blair being his own judge. The colonel might remember the greatest words in English politics and morals, spoken by another colonel of the British Army. Thomas Rainsborough, 17th Century, at the time of English civil war:
"For really I think the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he....".
Our Pimlico colonel could take his tank to Parliament Square, when Parliament is sitting, and park it there for a while, holding up the traffic. Long enough for the telly to get on the scene, and ask him what he is doing. He could say what he is doing, and then he could go back to the barracks in Pimlico to take his medicine for civil and other disobedience.
It would make our wretched politicians think, as by God they should, to the best of their ability. It might make them think that in our politics money talks too much, and has now dragged down England lower than ever before.
Four of Ted Honderich's relevant books are After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press), On Political Means and Social Ends (Edinburgh University Press), Terrorism for Humanity: Inquiries in Political Philosophy (Pluto Press), Conservatism Revisited: Burke, Bush, Nozick, Blair? (Pluto Press), Humanity, Terrorism, Terrorist War: Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Continuum), in the United States titled Right and Wrong, and Palestine, 9/11, Iraq, 7/7... (Seven Stories Press).
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