George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (54)

S.I. goes against a common view in holding that liberalism shows not only greater mental independence than conservatism but also a stronger inclination to use the powers of the state in the management of economic affairs. Alexis de Tocqueville stands high among liberals. Reviewing a clutch of books about him Larry Siedentop notes that he regarded as gains the replacement of uncritical loyalty by calculation of utility, the growth of (what is now called) “caring” policy, the increase of positive knowledge with a decline in enthusiasm and the strengthening suppression of passion by a concern for justice. He valued the French Revolution for its use of state power to help the suffering. Nor was Tocqueville eccentric in his preferences; these themes derived from the liberalism of the French Revolution, although going beyond it.

Among the absurdities of class theory appears the regular ascription (for example by the (A-)SPGB) of importnt events such as wars to conflicts between sections of one class, rather than between the classes whose opposition is said to motivate society. Paul Langford rejects this, tracing intra-class conflicts back to Hanoverian times in Public Life and the Propertied Englishman (Oxford). Sir James Lowther and the Duke of Portland, neither of them noticeably underprivileged, “waged a titanic struggle” over Cumberland estates, and when the coal owners of east Wales strove to thwart those of west Wales they followed a common pattern of regional conflict. In the struggles among landlords, farmers and the towns it is hard to say where, if anywhere, any alliance appeared, and the game laws became as controversial as they did because they set one part of the landed interest against another. But the author’s courage seems to fail him in the end; he says the aristocracy became “the tool of an increasingly dictatorial bourgeoisie.” As reviewer John Cannon comments, “this sounds like a plunge back into steam-age Marxism.” (TLS 11 October).

Reviewing The London Hanged, by Peter Linebaugh, John H. Langbein points out that the movement to replace capital punishment with more humane sanctions coincided with the advance of industrial capitalism. “Eighteenth century capitalism wrought many evils, but capital punishment was not among them.”

S.i. posits a universal ideology of Expediency whose adherents tend to act as they find pleasant and convenient. Growing out of this, imposed upon it and repressing it is the ideology of Principle / Domination, bringing organised production and established society. Reviewing four books on conditions in various parts of Africa, Peter de Waal remarks that official figures showed the GNP of Somalia so low that the whole population should have starved to death during the late 80s; in fact sales of petrol increased every year and new taxis appeared regularly. The explanation lies in the presence of a flourishing informal economy, officially nonexistent. Similar activities, and on a considerable scale, appear in Britain, a writer in Anthropology Today speaking of: “new forms of working and the ‘black’ or hidden economy (25% in the UK)… ” Not much sign yet of Principle eliminating Expediency.

Zygmunt Bauman warns us that Geoffrey Hawthorn’s Plausible Worlds raises “the most terrifying spectre of all,” the suspicion that since human beings, both in their actions and their thinking, possess a virtually infinite range of possibilities, a scientific theory of history, or of any other aspect of society, may be impossible. By the same argument a scientific theory of matter would be impossible, for the possible combinations of fundamental particles also are virtually infinite. The physical scientists overcome the problem by classifying their material, and the same method opens the way to a rational (although not, in the narrower sense, scientific) understanding of social behaviour.(The review goes on to suggest gest that the book penetrates rather deeper than appears from the remark quoted, and we hope to have more to say about it later.) (TLS 11 Oct)

Aboriginophilia rears its ugly head once more. Among the many books intended to cash in on the Columbus celebrations Kirkpatrick Sale’s The Conquest of Paradise (Hodder & Stoughton) drags up once more the exploded cliche that the American Indians lived in harmony with nature and each other. In fact the Mayans’ priest-ridden empire seems to have been brought down by their exhaustion stion of the soil while the Aztec people, used for human sacrifice, welcomed Cortes as a liberator from their Aztec oppressors. (Raymond Carr in TLS 1 November).

William L. Miller, Professor of Political Science and author of Media and Voters (Oxford) reports studies showing that electoral propaganda in both Britain and America has less effect than had been thought. During the American Presidential tial campaigns of the 1950s and 60s “remarkably few” citizens changed their voting intentions; in Britain in 1987 interest in politics declined as the day approached. The absence of change in America contrasts with Miller’s earlier report that in 1987 20% changed their intentions during the campaign. One firm conclusion seems to be that the results of opinion surveys stand farther from simple factual truth than we sometimes think. (How Voters Change 1990, see “Surveying” IC 53 p.15)

Angles on Anarchism includes “The Conventional Artist,” showing that although art including literature, has no inherent inclination to either right or left the conditions in which it now operates have the effect that establishment groups derive more support from it than do their opponents. Should there have been any doubt whether the point needed making, the French historian Le Roy Ladurie has now removed it. In The Nobel Century (Chapmans) he asserts that “Liberal or radical opinions have for very long been associated almost unavoidably, with the writing of poetry and prose.” The reviewer understandably characterizes the remark as “startling.” (TLS 18 Oct.)

from Ideological Commentary 54, Winter 1991.