There seems to be a gathering darkness in our society, unreason seems to increasingly be the language of our times. The darkness of unreason is said to have come from outside the political process, from the extremists of the right who have been increasingly successful in infiltrating the political mainstream. Although there success is not entirely down to their own efforts, as they have been aided by collaborators from within the political mainstream.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this darkness is the increasing harassment of immigrants. All to often there are stories such as that of the grandmother of Singaporean origin who was sent back to her homeland, despite having a family in the UK. She was sent back penniless to a homeland where she had no family. Indifference often bordering on cruelty so often governs the actions of our politicians.
When I see the flourishing of unreason in society, I look to the past for explanation. One obvious parallel is the German Weimar Republic that was destroyed by the forces of unreason. One writer that tried to explain the rise of the forces of unreason was Ernst Junger. I find his book ‘On the Marbles’ particularly apposite. There exists within his narrative a wild uncivilised family of huntsmen who live deep in the dark forest. This family breeds an exceptionally vicious and violent breed of dog, who are breed for nothing but fighting. In the climax of the book this pack of barbarous dogs takes on the hunting dogs of the foresters and destroys them. Now this barbarous family has control of the forest. There is one futile attempt later by the politicians to come to terms with the barbarians of the forest, but it ends badly in their death.
There is a darkness in the souls of us all, but a darkness that is suppressed by civilisation. Norbert Elias wrote of the significance of etiquette in making organised society and social progress possible. When people started treating each other with courtesy and respect organised society becomes possible. These etiquette codes of behaviour or rituals are passed from generation to generations giving society its shape but once they are disregard or disrespected society begins to resemble a shapeless mass and loses its civilising aspect.* Football without rules is a meaningless undignified scramble and even the most aggressive and competitive of footballers who will resort to cheating to win a match, still accepts the need for rules. They know that if there were no rules to break there would be no game of football. Politicians increasingly resemble the cheating footballer but unlike them they don’t just want to break the rules to their own advantage, but they want to destroy the rules and reshape the game in their own image.
Ernst Junger’s allegorical tale was very prescient, there are dark groups in society who while they remain isolated and excluded from the mainstream, pose little threat to the larger society. If they are isolated in the depths of the forest they are little threat to the civilised whole. However once this dark group is welcomed into the mainstream of the body politic, their very ruthlessness enables them to rise to the top. Just like Junger barbarous dogs they destroy the opposition, an opposition that has not been breed for fighting.
This dark group existed within German society, they were the German nationalists. The most extreme of which were the Nazis. Mainstream politicians thought there ideas insane, such as wanting to return the bulk of the population to the land. Farm work and rural life they believed led to the cultivation the manliness virtues that the Nazi’s admired. Too many German men lived soft easy lives in the town and had lost the Aryan virtues that the Nazis admired. Having such crazy ideas led to the political elite believing that such simpletons could be easily managed.
When the economic crisis of 1929 lead to widespread unemployment, which many blamed on the government. The discredited ruling coalition thought that by incorporating the increasingly popular Nazi’s into government they come benefit from their popularity. They would be a useful counterweight to the powerful communist party. The conservative intellectuals such as Franz Von Papen thought that they could easily manage the ‘unsophisticates’ of the Nazi Party. Instead these conservative politicians lacked the ruthlessness of the Nazis and were out manoeuvred by them. The well behaved dogs of the conservative right proved no match for the wild dogs of the Nazis.
Once the Nazis gained control they removed those civilised constraints that kept those dark instincts of the German personality suppressed. Soon civilised Germans were treating there Jewish neighbours in the most cruel of manners. Once those civilised rules of social interaction were removed the darkest of behaviours become common. Millions of Germans knew of the existence of the death camps, yet only a small number of German opposed their use. Ordinary German citizen if they knew of Jews hiding form the authorities would not hesitate to betray them.
What I believe is that once the barbarous dark forces in society are admitted into the mainstream of the body politic they corrupt the political process and take it over. There barbarous belief systems cannot tolerate any diversity opinion or difference, so must they destroy it. That destruction as in Weimar Germany will be the destruction of the democratic system.
While the dark forces in Britain remained isolated and excluded from the mainstream, they could be tolerated as the harmless indulgence of a tiny minority. However in Britain as in Weimar Germany changes occurred within the governing elites that made possible the introduction of the barbarous views of the extremists. Within the conservative political spectrum there had always been a significant minority that hated the post war settlement. High personal taxation and the tax revenue used to fund of social welfare programmes and the health service they saw the illegitimate action of government. They saw the economic crisis of the 1970s as an opportunity to destroy the social democratic state. Whether it was the free market economics of Milton Friedman or the Neo-Liberalism of Hayek and Rand, they had a brutal philosophy. What they wanted was the re-create the society that pre-dated Hobbes ‘Leviathan’. They wanted a society of in which ‘nasty brutish’ men, were not restrained in their actions by the state. It was human competitiveness not social organisation they believed was the motor for economic and social progress.
As this philosophy increasingly took hold on the Conservative party, its policies became more and more brutal as it sough to recreate the society of ‘nasty and brutish’ men. Although policies were couched in morally virtuous terms such as taking people out of the dependency culture and making them self sufficient, all but the most deluded of Conservative must have realised they were practising a policy of cruelty. This policy was corrupting of the people making the policy, as implementing cruel social policies is not a morally neutral activity, it corrupts the mind. The poor become defined as a subhuman species unworthy of the decencies of human society.
With this degradation of moral sensibilities conservative politicians have not hesitated to exploit the those dark atavistic sentiments on race and ethnicity to win support. However what they fail to realise is that they these sentiments are not something that can used when needed for electioneering and then forgotten. Once they have been imported into the political dialogue they remain there. These politicians so resemble so many Franz Von Papen’s who thought that they could use the extremists for their own ends. Similarly these conservative politicians are offering extremists access to power, an access that they will exploit.
Again Ernst Junger’s allegoric tale offers a useful explanation of the current situation. Bad as the current conservative politician are, there are the much more dangerous extremists who are beginning to enter the political mainstream. The conservative politicians are like the hunting dogs in his tale, they are trained to hunt herbivores and not to fight other dogs. I liken them to they hunting dogs because they are trained to hunt weak herbivores of society, the poor and less well off majority. Neo-liberalism of the Ayn Rand type has schooled them in how to attack the less well off majority to benefit of the billionaires class, but it has not schooled them in how fight off the extremists. I fear that our conservative Neo-liberal politicians, will be as with Weimar’s conservative politicians little more than a conduit to power for the extremists.
- I must confess that my summary of Norbert Ellias thinking does not do justice to him. His ideas are far my complex that my summary would suggest.