“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, November 19, 2005

the geneology of horseback hall

I’ve said a bit about the imperial effect in my last post.

In this series of posts about Stephen, Mill, and the Pilate controversy, my point is both historiographic and current. I think that there has been, since the beginning of the Cold war, a systematic distortion of the real political history of the conservative/liberal split. To my mind, the canonical text in which this distortion is inscribed is The Road to Serfdom. In that book, Hayek attacks socialism as the source of the planned economy, identifies the moment that the planned economy took power as state policy with communism, and identifies the classic liberal era as the golden era of individual liberty. All of these claims are false. Hayek’s notion of the planned economy makes an eccentric exception for law – as though the body that lays down the law code is doing neutral work. It is this exception that allows him to plausibly lay out a case for his historical perspective. Without that exception, the history of central planning looks much different. In fact, laissez faire was not a matter of self organizing, but was highly dependent on the capture of state organizations and the rewriting of law to organize a whole different system of property rights. This central organization of the political economy was a key to bringing about the agricultural revolution in Europe. It was also a key to the famine in Ireland, and the repeated famines in India during the nineteenth century. It is no exaggeration to call these terror famines – around the natural core of a food shortage was woven a political scheme that exacerbated the famine and used it for political ends. One has only to trace the history of central planning in England to see that, far from originating with Marx, it originated with India. A goodly percentage of the Fabian group was connected, either by ties of family or career, to the Indian Civil Service. This was no coincidence – the rewriting of the Indian civil code and the enforcement of an entirely other regime of property upon Indian villages was widely viewed, by the British, as one of the great triumphs of the British Imperium.

That triumph justified an anomaly, as Macaulay called it, in British classical liberalism. The anomaly was the Empire itself. Of course, this is a difficult subject to encompass in a series of posts in a blog. For one thing, to background the Stephen-Mill controversy, one has to know something about the early Victorian synthesis of, as Mill put it, Coleridge and Bentham – that is, how the critique of the French revolution started by Burke and codified by Coleridge was assimilated into the liberalism of Bentham and the intellectual heirs of Adam Smith, who viewed the Revolution, in retrospect, as a progress marred by a few regrettable instances of radicalism. This is the context in which Burke, who in the 1790s still labored under the shadow of being a turncoat and a sell out, became a posthumous member of the British classical tradition. In this process, Burke’s disturbing legacy of showing the history of British encroachment into India as the advance of numerous small frauds was purged, and his crusade against Hastings fell into the category of mistakes that it would be a pity to dwell on. It is hard to legitimize power on the basis of an admitted series of robberies, which is how Burke framed the conquest of India. This isn’t to say that he wanted to give India back. A point we will get back to, perhaps. In any case, nobody was more acutely aware of these contradictions than John Stuart Mill, whose father, after all, wrote the standard history of India, and worked for the East Indian Company most of his life – as did Mill himself.

Okay, enough background. Here is an edited version of my first post.

James Fitzjames Stephen was a Victorian bravo, described in his entry in the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, as a man “massive, downright, indefatigable and sincere even to unnecessary frankness.” I imagine him as a sort of Mr. Rochester.

Stephen was a member of the Apostles, the Cambridge group, in the 1840s, well before it became the conglomeration of aestheticism and the higher buggery under Keynes and Strachey. This was where he met some of his lifelong friends, like Henry Maine, the legal historian. Stephen’s father was a famous civil servant, whose office was satirized as the Circumlocution office by Dickens in Little Dorrit. Needless to say, Stephen detested Dickens. Probably some strain of that detestation came down the family line – Stephen’s niece was Virginia Woolf.

This is from Leslie Stephen’s biographical entry about his brother in the National Biography, which Leslie Stephen wrote. It gives us some idea of the kind of person James Fitzjames Stephen was in his Cambridge years, and afterwards:

“He speaks of the optimistic views which were popular with the Liberals after 1832, expounded by Cobden and Bright and supposed to be sanctioned by the Exhibition of 1851. It was the favourite cant that Captain Pen 'had got the best of Captain Sword, and that henceforth the kindly earth would slumber, lapt in universal law. I cannot say how I personally loathed this way of thinking, and how radically false, hollow and disgusting it seemed to me then, and seems to me now.' The crash of 1848 came like a thunderbolt, and 'history seemed to have come to life again with all its wild elemental forces.' For the first time, he was aware of actual war within a small distance, and the settlement of great questions by sheer force. 'How well I remember my own feelings, which were, I think, the feelings of the great majority of my age and class, and which have ever since remained in me as strong and as unmixed as they were in 1848. I feel them now [1887] as keenly as ever, though the world has changed and thinks and feels, as it seems, quite differently. They were feelings of fierce, unqualified hatred for the revolution and revolutionists; feelings of the most bitter contempt and indignation against those who feared them, truckled to them, or failed to fight them whensoever they could and as long as they could: feelings of zeal against all popular aspirations and in favour of all established institutions whatever their various defects and harshnesses (which, however, I wished to alter slowly and moderately): in a word, the feelings of a scandalised policeman toward a mob breaking windows in the cause of humanity. I should have liked first to fire grapeshot down every street in Paris, till the place ran with blood, and next to try Louis Philippe and those who advised him not to fight by court martial, and to have hanged them all as traitors and cowards. The only event in 1848 which gave me real pleasure was the days of June, when Cavaignac did what, if he had been a man or not got into a fright about his soul, or if he had had a real sense of duty instead of a wretched consciousness of weakness and a false position, Louis Philippe would have done months before.' He cannot, he admits, write with calmness to this day of the king's cowardice; and he never passed the Tuileries in later life without feeling the sentiment about Louis XVI. and his 'heritage splendid' expressed by Thackeray's drummer, 'Ah, shame on him, craven and coward, that had not the heart to defend it!'

'I have often wondered,' adds Fitzjames, 'at my own vehement feelings on these subjects, and I am not altogether prepared to say that they are not more or less foolish. I have never seen war. I have never heard a shot fired in anger, and I have never had my courage put to any proof worth speaking of. Have I any right to talk of streets running with blood? Is it not more likely that, at a pinch, I might myself run in quite a different direction? It is one of the questions which will probably remain unanswered for ever, whether I am a coward or not. But that has nothing really to do with the question. If I am a coward, I am contemptible: but Louis Philippe was a coward and contemptible whether I am a coward or not; and my feelings on the whole of this subject are, at all events, perfectly sincere, and are the very deepest and most genuine feelings I have.'”

Stephen was known as a not very subtle, but very ardent, debater. He went into law himself, and eventually devoted himself to grafting principles of English common law into the workings of the British Raj in India, completing Macaulay’s work. In actual fact, he did not spend a deal of time in India. But, on his return to England, he became a powerful figure in Indian politics, nonetheless. He became a power behind the throne in things Indian, a person to whose views a Governor of India had to hearken, a person to whom members of parliament went when they desired instruction on some point of colonial policy. Meanwhile, he was on his way to becoming a judge famous for his rather draconian style. Towards the end of his life, he became an embarrassment to the bench, since he was obviously suffering from the onset of senility.

It is said that on the boat back from India, Stephen, reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, devised his rebuttal, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The book rather sank. Lately, however, it has become the subject of a little Tory cult.

Among the little band of Fitzjames Stephen's acolytes, none is fiercer than Roger Kimball of the New Criterion. Kimball, who has done his warrior bit in the Kulturkampf of the early nineties, rousting out tenured radicals and exposing them for the dubious souls that they are, has featured Stephen as a sort of Archangel Michael, putting the sword in the breast of that loathsome liberal toady of Satan, John Stuart Mill. Kimball’s loathing of Mill has breathed even in the pages of the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal, where all conservative hobby-horses eventually find a home. But there's a problem. Mill is widely revered in Libertarian circles. Kimball represents one crucial side of the untidy conservative front. He is plainly unhappy with his libertarian allies.

In an essay in November, 1998, that served as the centerpiece for a later, book-length attack on liberalism, Kimball poured out the vials of his wrath on Mill. And, as is the way of New Criterion loathings and the mood of the time, he attacks him as a sexual being as well as a thinker. Kimball, like Ken Starr, is a great one for keeping up with the bedroom habits of his enemies. In Mill’s case, the great sin was one of omission, rather than commission. Kimball writes, of Mill's relationship to his wife Harriet, “it is noteworthy that this "lofty minded" relationship was apparently never consummated.” There are, it appears, no sexual depravities to which the liberal mind won’t sink - including chastity.

In this essay, Kimball referred to Stephen’s book, Liberty, Fraternity, Equality. The book has already been rescued by Richard Posner, and has found its way into the reading list of the Federalist Society. Here’s Kimball’s assessment of it:

”By far the most concentrated and damaging single attack on Mill's liberalism is Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, first published serially in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1872-1873, and then in book form in March 1873 in the last year of Mill's life. It was written by the lawyer, judge, and journalist Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-1894): Leslie Stephen's older brother and hence--such is the irony of history--Virginia Woolf's uncle. Mill himself never responded to Stephen's book beyond observing, as Leslie Stephen reports in his excellent biography of his brother, that he thought the book "more likely to repel than attract." But several of Mill's disciples responded--the most famous of whom was the liberal politician and journalist John Morley (1838-1923). Stephen brought out a second edition of his book the following year, 1874, in which he reproduces and replies to many criticisms raised by Morley and others. Stephen described Liberty, Equality, Fraternity as "mainly controversial and negative." Pugnacious and devastating would be equally appropriate adjectives. As one commentator put it, Stephen made "mincemeat" of Mill.”

One notes that there is nothing worthy, sexually, of noting about Stephen. Thank God.

The confused elements of American conservativism, circa 1998 - the longing for an established religion, the opposition to dissent, and the confused sense that the marketplace is no model for ideas - already form the base of Stephen’s politics. In fact, this is no surprise - Mill might have been an eminent Victorian, but Victorian society, in its imperial flush, was much better represented by Stephen than by Mill. Stephen articulates a type that dominated the latter half of the nineteenth century in Britain. Shaw, in Heartbreak House (his best play - the only play of Shaw’s that LI re-reads, as we re-read Shakespeare’s plays), was talking of the Mill/Stephen split when he describes the difference between Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall. Heartbreak’s liberalism, of course, was falling down around Shaw’s ears as he wrote. World War I was an unmistakable counter-blast to the genteel Victorian and Edwardian virtues, and seemed, at the time, to put an end to the matter. Shaw’s description of Heartbreak culture in the preface seems, to LI’s mind, alarmingly like contemporary academia, with the substitution of other references for Wells, of course -- try Foucault, or whoever:

”With their heads as full of the Anticipations of Mr H. G.
Wells as the heads of our actual rulers were empty even of the
anticipations of Erasmus or Sir Thomas More, they refused the
drudgery of politics, and would have made a very poor job of it
if they had changed their minds. Not that they would have been
allowed to meddle anyhow, as only through the accident of being a
hereditary peer can anyone in these days of Votes for Everybody
get into parliament if handicapped by a serious modern cultural
equipment; but if they had, their habit of living in a vacuum
would have left them helpless end ineffective in public affairs.
Even in private life they were often helpless wasters of their
inheritance, like the people in Tchekov's Cherry Orchard. Even
those who lived within their incomes were really kept going by
their solicitors and agents, being unable to manage an estate or
run a business without continual prompting from those who have to
learn how to do such things or starve.”

Horseback Hall has, of course, few voices, because its texts are woven of such common-places of the governing classes as have, usually, no need for the exposure of literature, being content with the half-grunted affirmations of one's fellow club-men over a nice glass of port. However, Shaw creates a sort of ambassador from Horseback Hall in the play, Lady Utterword, whose husband, Hastings, has been a colonial governor over various tracts of the empire. At one point in the play, the house discovers a burglar, and there is a debate about sending for the police. If they do, of course, their names will be in the paper, which is the kind of publicity to which both Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall are constitutionally averse. Lady Utterword alludes briefly to her husband’s ways of dealing with crime:

”Think of what it is for us to be dragged through
the horrors of a criminal court, and have all our family affairs
in the papers! If you were a native, and Hastings could order you
a good beating and send you away, I shouldn't mind; but here in
England there is no real protection for any respectable person.”

Hastings Utterword, who never appears, in propria persona, on the stage, is embodied once and for all in that outburst. His type was invented by such as James Fitzjames Stephen.

No comments: