Graham Knight: Letter to the Editor

For ages I’ve been tempted to write dealing with one aspect or another of s.i. It seems such a rational theory and yet it is one that I will never accept because, if true, it follows that humanity is doomed never to make any real advance.

IC35 arrived just as I finished – finally – The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – no easy read – dealing, coincidentally, with social development. Like Sagan he traces its history.

Sagan basing his theory on, amongst other things, cannibalism, is puzzling. According to many anthropologists it has never featured in any society. There is no lack of evidence of killing, but none for the eating of victims. However, what has got me going is your response to Sagan’s cri de coeur: ‘We cry out for the restoration of the sense of community.’ Do you really disagree with him? Are you a Thatcherite who has at last been exposed?

Of course we are forced to ‘live as a community rather than as individuals,’ if only to survive, but Sagan obviously means it in the sense of ‘social intercourse, life in association with others,’ as defined in the dictionary. That is what most of us, though not you and Mrs. T., are crying out for.

If s.i. cannot handle this aspect of human life it is severely flawed!

Graham Knight.

[The following paper, by Mike Ball, was enclosed with this letter]

‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ was Cain’s response when asked about his brother. How do people today answer Cain’s question? Our answers to this question and to the question of the role of the government in the welfare of every individual determines the kind of government we want. Unless we are clear about our answers there is little hope of our having a common voice.

Mrs. Thatcher’s responses are that each individual should find his own answer to Cain’s question and that therefore the government should only play a minimal role. This answer is popular because it allows the rich to keep their material possessions; and because the perceived alternative is unpopular. The perceived alternative is that the state should, through taxes, force people to care for the material health of their brethren. This causes resentment and evasion.

The Thatcher government is basically uninterested in the welfare of the individual citizen. It has other priorities, other ‘principles.’ These seem to be: individual freedom, individual choice, free-market values, competition, the over-riding importance of money, and nationalism. I think the first two are good and even think the ‘free market’ has its uses, in areas like the production and consumption of certain commodities, like ice-cream and television sets. The extension of the ‘free-market’ philosophy to other areas and the other Thatcherite ‘principles’ is what is bad. It is these that have led to the excesses – greed, exploitation, pollution, neglect of the poor, the mentally-ill and others unable to look after themselves, the neglect of public institutions, etc. etc.

What we have to do is know what our principles are and see how they can be put into practice. My answers to the questions are: ‘My brother and I will both be happier if we care about each other’; and: ‘The government should encourage and facilitate such caring.’ I think these answers lead to the following ‘principles’: individual freedom; individual choice, co-operation, participation, and the importance of both the psychological health and the material welfare of every citizen.

The importance of psychological values (some people prefer to call them spiritual values) should not be forgotten, as the Thatcher government has done. For example co-operation between groups, e.g. employees and employers, and participation, not only have an economic value, they have a psychological value – people feel happier if they participate and co-operate. Thus I would like to see the government try to get participation and try to get co-operation. It might do this by ensuring that the employees own part of the company they work for, and have a say in the way it is run.

I feel the present Opposition parties have not thought about the philosophical basis of their policies. For example, does Labour believe in competition or co-operation? In the eyes of the electorate it obviously does not believe in co-operation between people, because it refuses even to contemplate co-operation with the S.L.D. The S.L.D. are just as confused, because they seem to want to ‘replace Labour’ as the second party – i.e they prefer competition to co-operation.

Until we know what our principles are and are true to them, there is little hope in removing the Thatcher government. The task involves not only work and persuasion but also some careful thinking about basic principles.

Graham Knight says that if s.i. is true then humanity is fated never to make any real advance. On the contrary; s.i. accounts, at least in general terms, for the major advances which humanity has made in the past, and in doing so indicates how further advances may, and probably will, be made in future.

Turning to his comments on the KINSHIP TO KINGSHIP article in IC35. Yes, Sagan takes it for granted that cannibalism used to be at least general if not universal, and we don’t know of much support for his view. Most of the anthropologists studying the origins of society do not present cannibalism as common practice.

Our point about Sagan’s remark that ‘We cry out for the restoration of the sense of community’ is that he fails to see we already have it. The great numbers of people now behave as if they lived in a community, and by doing so constitute it. Using Graham Knight’s chosen definition, they spend a great deal of their time in ‘social intercourse, life in association with others,’ and regard this as the part of life to be valued, the periods when they are not merged in a social group being kept as short and infrequent as possible.

With such figures as Mrs. Thatcher it is probably impossible for a member of the public to distinguish between the person and the public image. But our impression is that she spends much of her time in company and enjoys the social contacts, with other politicians, with Tory Conferences, and with the public, that her position brings. It seems that she does feel herself to be a member of a political community, although believing it to be one whose members have to engage in economic competition if it is to be maintained.

In thinking about communities and attitudes towards them a grasp of this distinction, between political-intellectual and economic-material activities, is crucial. There is an inverse ratio between them, people who favour collective behaviour in one field tending towards individualism in the other.

In their political-intellectual life children exhibit little individuality; their ideas are mainly those of the group in which they grew up (family, friends, school and so forth). But they all have their own individual, separate bodies which have to be individually maintained; in the economic-material world each of them acts as a separate individual. We enter adult life acting as members of a community in political-intellectual affairs but as independent individuals in economic matters, and most people remain in, or close to, this condition throughout life. This is why conservative attitudes – patriotism, loyalty and compliance in political matters, but support for competitive individualism in economic affairs – predominate in society, even when and where reformist or revolutionary parties control the government.

A minority of people come to suppress these attitudes, coming to value political-intellectual individualism and economic-material co-operation. The paper by Mike Ball enclosed with Graham Knight’s letter illustrates this advanced attitude. He speaks of co-operation, but throughout the paper it is economic co-operation he has in mind. Even when he talks of psychological and spiritual values it quickly becomes clear that he means the psychological and spiritual effects of making workers partners – an economic activity. In its political attitude the paper takes a different approach, not proposing co-operation with Thatcherism but opposing it. To finish by returning to where we began, Sagan fails to make this distinction. He speaks of yearning for a sense of community when the great numbers already enjoy a fully-justified sense that they belong to a community, holding their political beliefs in common and acting, intellectually, as a united group rather than as independent individuals. If Sagan behaves like most people holding his views he not only fails to recognise all this as indicating the presence of a flourishing communal life but condemns it as ‘mass’ activity.

The sort of community he wants (but does not specify because he has not recognised the distinction) is an economic one. That, certainly, is hardly to be found, and is not likely to be so long as the intellectuals, like Sagan and Mike Ball, fail to understand the attitudes, beliefs, feelings and mental operations of the vast majority of the people they try to influence. (Incidentally, we have taken it that Graham Knight did not intend his second sentence to be taken quite literally, that he would not, seriously, reject something proven true because it did not agree with his wishes).

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IN AMERICA in Search of Itself; the Making of a President 1956-1980 (London, Cape, 1983) T. H. White recounts the rocketing (and largely unforeseen) growth of expenditure on welfare in the USA. By 1980 36 million Americans were receiving monthly Social Security cheques, 22 million Medicaid benefits, another 26 million Medicare, 18 million food stamps, 15 million veterans’ benefits, 11 million general welfare payments, 11 million support from Aid to Families, and 27 million children school lunches. In 1956 a disability insurance amendment was made, expected to cost $860 million by 1980; in fact it cost $15 billion by that date. In 1977 it was estimated that disaster loans for farmers would cost $20 million a year; the figure turned out to be $1.4 billion.

White comments that liberalism set out to free everyone and created a nation of dependents instead. This may or may not be reprehensible; it certainly demonstrates the enormous productive powers of this society and the extent to which they are capable of filling, and overfilling, the biological requirements of its members even when vast numbers of them are excluded from productive activity.

A GALLUP survey taken in June 1982 found that the Falklands War made 81 per cent of respondents prouder to be British and only 2 per cent less proud. (Reported by Samuel H. Beer in TLS 3 Jun 1983).

JOHN DAVIS has recently issued Libyan Politics, Tribe and Revolution (Berkely, University of California Press, 1988). He speaks of the revolutionary leaders ‘putting their ears closer and closer to the ground in the hope that they would eventually hear some whisper which they would recognise as the authentic voice of the people.’ Their hopes were disappointed.

‘WOMEN INVENTED work, for early man was an idler, occupying himself now and then with useful labour rather as a pastime than with serious intent’. (Lowie R. H., The History of Ethnological Theory, London, Hariap, 1937 p. 115)

‘THE DEVIANTS in any modern society, in statistical terms, are those who take no drugs.’ (Trebach A. S., The Heroin Solution, Yale U.P. 1982, p.290).

WORKERS of the World, Relax! (Acknowledgements to Bob Black, of New York)

from Ideological Commentary 36, November 1988.