27 September 2012
I was struck by a line towards the end of an article by Phillip Blond in the FT . Blond had been wondering – as, I find, many people have – why Andrew Mitchell had used the word ‘plebs’ when abusing the police outside 10 Downing Street, and had asked an ex-officer if it came from the MPs time in the army. The officer said this was inconceivable.
“If the remark came from Mr Mitchell’s background, he opined, it was that of banking, not soldiering.”
This was striking because it seemed to capture something very profound which I had been trying to define in my mind for some time but which, because it seemed to include everything, had evaded any kind of expression. Here goes.
The difference between banking and soldiering is that the former has blithely abandoned and extirpated its culture and traditions, the latter has worked assiduously to maintain and reinvent them. One aspect of the soldierly reinvention has been to find a way of democratising without destroying the authority of rank.( It has worked, judging by my own experience of soldiers.) This is why, I suspect, that officer was so sure that Mitchell would not have derived ‘plebs’ from his soldiering days. Banking experience was more likely because, in a world without culture, anything is permissible, including vulgar snobbery.
Blond discusses snobbery in his article and draws a distinction between the political style of Boris Johnson and the Cameron-Osborne types. The former, he argues, is much more popular because he evokes an older kind of toffery, one that is aware of the obligations required by privilege. Cam-Osism, in contrast, is a form of elitism based on entitlement – nothing has to be earned. He also suggests the same assumption lies behind Romney’s ghastly 47 per cent blunder. I don’t quite buy this because I don’t quite buy Boris, but there is something there.
Bankers did not just make themselves vile by abandoning their culture, they also made themselves incompetent. Lost in their culture-free abstractions, they all went bust
That something is buried in the word ‘culture’. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb was arguing passionately at dinner last night, a man without culture is not really capable of understanding anything. Bankers did not just make themselves vile by abandoning their culture, they also made themselves incompetent. Lost in their culture-free abstractions, they all went bust. Or, an entirely different example, you can see how people become ignorant when they ignore culture in the debate about IQ which James Flynn so brilliantly took apart.
Like bankers, technocrats, future-freaks, neo-liberals and neoconservatives tend to ignore culture or treat it as an inconvenience. This is – it should hardly need saying – to ignore accumulated wisdom, which is as hard a scientific fact as any other even when – or especially when - clothed in mythology, religion, mysticism, ritual or routine. Though, of course, it is not ultimately amenable to scientific investigation
Our culture – by which I mean primarily a mix of Judaism, Christianity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment (add any further suitable categories) – is based on the idea that we are created equal. The idea of the immortal soul is just a way of saying that, ultimately, no fundamental qualitative distinctions can be made between human beings. This is, I think, one of the most effective, benign and moving ideas humanity has ever had and it is what makes the Sermon on the Mount so perfect and so utterly original.
Yet people do still offend against this great, good idea. I am still shocked to meet otherwise clever people who insist that the IQ difference between blacks and white is fully and finally established (read Flynn, it’s not true). This must, I assume, be because they want to believe. And, like most members of the professional middle class, I am still angered when snobbery is displayed by far less competent and far more stupid members of the upper class. Most of all, it is the cultureless elites who offend. Romney is certainly a member as are many members of this government. ‘Plebs’ paid Andrew Mitchell’s memberships dues. The ignorant bankers are a subset of a larger group of technocratic, machine-minded people who really do believe that those outside this group don’t matter except as ‘users’ who pay their salaries and whose demands can easily be fobbed off by call-trees and advertising.
Inequality is what now threatens to weaken or destroy liberal-democratic society. This has increased vertiginously because of the piratical behaviour of the culture-free elites of which Mitchell has declared himself a member. I have no idea how to get back from here except by reminding people of one thing said by Roger Scruton – we are all in the same boat – and another by Stephen Jay Gould – we only pass this way once. Put those two together and all else should follow.
For the rest of this meditation you wil have now to go out and buy the paperback of The Brain is Wider than the Sky.