Here and there – On the Psychology of Military Incompetence – Norman Dixon (1976)

 

This book reminds me of Clausewitz On War.  Although both are focussed on war, they are replete with valuable lessons for us all.  For example, Clausewitz said: ‘War is the province of uncertainty: three fourths of those things upon which action in war must be calculated are hidden more or less in the clouds of great uncertainty.’  That precisely applies to litigation, a form of trial by battle.

The author was supremely equipped to write this book.  After ten years’ commission in the Royal Engineers, he devoted his life to Psychology at University College, London.  You can see traces of both fields of service on every page.  Professor Dixon says that the military tends to produce ‘a levelling down of human capability, at once encouraging to the mediocre but cramping to the gifted.’  That is very common in nay large outfit, government or private.

The following also has general application.

It seems that having gradually (and perhaps painfully) accumulated information in support of a decision, people became progressively more loath to accept contrary evidence….  ‘New’ information has, by definition, high informational content, and therefore firstly it will require greater processing capacity; secondly, it threatens to return to an earlier state of gnawing uncertainty; and, thirdly, it confronts the decision maker with the nasty thought that he may have been wrong.  No wonder he tends to turn a blind eye!  ….‘the information-content’ may be just ‘too high for a channel of limited capacity.’

The ignorance of the condition of and the lack of care for the ordinary soldier defies belief in the Crimean and the Boer War.  In the first, many died because they were cold and wet, and they could get no fire; in the second, 16,000 of the 22,000 British dead died of disease.  Those responsible would now be tried for manslaughter.

The same cruel officers said the other side, at least those who were white, should be accorded respect.  ‘The notion that certain acts were ‘not cricket’ was carried to such absurd lengths that the trooper was given no training in the ‘cowardly’ art of building defensive positions or head cover.’  When the heavy machine gun was developed, ‘they were written off as suitable only for the destruction of savages and hardly suitable for use against white men….the colour of the Boer soldiers elevated them from the levels of savages, thereby saving their white skins from, exposure to machine guns, but on the other hand they were regarded, in terms of their believed military expertise, as no better than savages.’  No real uniform or spit and polish, old boy.  It is little wonder they had similar feelings about the ANZACS.  They certainly felt that way about the Americans in 1776 – until they learned better.

Professor Dixon is rightly savage about those who abandoned their men to agonising death.

In considering these data, one is forced the conclusion that the behaviour of these generals had something in common with that of Eichmann and his henchman who, as we know, were able to carry out their job without apparently experiencing guilt or compassion…..  ‘No privilege without responsibility’….Men’s fates were decided for them not so much by ‘idiots’ as by commanders with marked psychopathic traits.

We meet this theme throughout the book – the failures of command were moral rather than intellectual; the flaw was of character rather than the mind.  But we will also come across a failure of the mind in people unable to bear doubt or ambiguity – the ‘black and white crowd.’

The Germans blitzkrieg met a Polish army and a French army that believed horsed cavalry could destroy German Panzers.  That burial in the past defies belief.

The predisposition to pontificate is a dangerous liability.  Unfortunately, such a predisposition will be strongest in those like headmasters, judges, prison governors and senior military commanders who for two long have been in a position to lord it  over their fellow me…the important thing about pontification is that though an intellectual is that though an intellectual exercise, its origins are emotional.

On cognitive dissonance, Professor Dixon says: ‘Once the decision has been made and the person is committed to a given course of action, the psychological situation changes completely.  There is less emphasis on objectivity and there is more partiality and bias in the way in which the person views and evaluates the alternatives.’

But, perhaps there may have been an upside from the predominance of the upper class in British high command.  ‘It did little for military competence, but was eminently successful in other ways.  Few countries can boast of such an absence of military coups as Britain.’

On ‘bull’ – spit and polish and endless repetition –    ‘bull is closely linked to conservatism, for its very nature is to prevent change, to impose a pattern upon material and upon behaviour, and to preserve the status quo whether it is that of shining brass or social structure….it seems to be a natural product of authoritarian, hierarchical organisations….Perhaps the single most important feature of ‘bull’ is its capacity to allay anxiety….by the reduction of uncertainty.’

On ‘character and honour’ –

A code of honour may be likened to an endlessly prolonged initiation rite…As a general rule, snobbish behaviour betokens some underlying feeling of inferiority.  It is a common characteristic of the social climber, of the individual with low self-esteem, of the person who feels threatened or persecuted because of some real or imagined inadequacy.  That there is an underlying pathology to the condition seems fairly obvious for two reasons.  Firstly, those who are emotionally secure are rarely snobbish.  Secondly, the behaviour is itself irrational, compulsive and self-defeating.  After all, even the most hardened snob must know that other people are adept at seeing through his affectations.  There is nothing, for example, quite so transparent as name-dropping or displaying invitations.  He must know at some level that his behaviour provokes at best amusement, at worst ridicule, contempt, or even dislike, but he is nonetheless powerless to curb his snobbishness.  Something drives him on.

Anyone who has been a member of a close professional body – like, say, the Victorian Bar – would relish – no, wallow in – every word of that denunciation of the two bob snob.

On seeking achievement – ambition:

The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarised by saying that whereas the first is buoyed up by the hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. Both types of achievement motivation have their origins in early childhood…..senior commanders fall into two groups, those primarily concerned with improving their professional ability and those primarily concerned with self-betterment.

The comments on the authoritarian personality warrant a note and a book of their own.  The following may convey the gist.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characteristics of the armed services and the private needs of their members.  Research after World War II into the Third Reich showed two personality types.  One was anti-Semitic, rigid, intolerant of ambiguity and hostile to people of a different race.  The other was individualistic, tolerant, democratic, unprejudiced and egalitarian.

Research at Berkeley by Adorno and others refined the type, leading Professor Dixon to say that the results ‘at one level constituted fitting monument to the six million victims of Fascist prejudice.’  Another commentator said the results were ‘hair-raising.  They suggest that we could find in this country [U S] willing recruits for a Gestapo.’

There should have been no such shock or even surprise.  The Gestapo was not inherently German.  Sparta had a similar version for ruthlessly holding down an inferior people more than 2000 years ago.  To suggest that Hitler and the Nazis could only have risen up in Germany is to fall precisely into their vice of typing people – of branding every member of a group – by reference to their breeding.

Professor Dixon says:

The results delineated the authoritarian personality.  People who were anti-Semitic were also generally ethnocentrically prejudiced and conservative.  They also tended to be aggressive, superstitious, punitive, tough-minded and preoccupied with dominance-submission in their personal relationships….It seems that authoritarians are the product of parents with anxiety about their status in society.  From earliest infancy the children of such people are pressed to seek the status after which their parents hanker….There seem to be two converging reasons why such pressures produce prejudice and other related traits.  In the first place, the values inculcated by status-insecure parents are such that their children learn to put personal success and the acquisition of power above all else.  They are taught to judge people by their usefulness rather than their likeableness…In the second place, the interview data collected by the Berkeley researchers suggested that the parents of their authoritarian sample imposed these values with a heavy hand…..an exercise in punitive repression….The extreme strictness of the parents, coupled with their lack of warmth, necessarily frustrates the child.  But frustration engenders aggression, which is itself frustrated, for it is part of the training that children never answer back.  Hence, the aggression has to be discharged elsewhere, and where better than on to those very individuals whom the parents themselves have openly vilified – Jews, Negroes, and foreigners – all those in short, who being under-privileged, have acquired bad reputations in a status-seeking society?…..the authoritarian personalities manifest a monolithic self-satisfaction with themselves and their parents…Because he has to deny his own shortcomings, he dare not look inwards…..  ‘If he has a problem the best thing to do is not to think about it and just keep busy.’  Similarly, the authoritarian personality is intolerant of ambivalence and ambiguity.  Just as he cannot harbor negative and positive feeling for the same person, but must dichotomize reality into loved people versus hate people, white versus black and Jew versus Gentile, so also he cannot tolerate ambiguous situations or conflicting issues.  To put it bluntly, he constructs of the world an image as simplistic as it is at variance with reality.

Later, the author points to the relationship between conformity, authoritarianism and the tendency to yield to group pressures, and the relationship with obsession.  He also looks at their generalised hostility, what the Berkeley researchers finely called ‘the vilification of the human.’  The dogmatic militarist is of course seriously anti-intellectual.

He already knows all he wants to know.  Knowledge is a threat to his ego-defensive orientation and is therefore rejected…To think is to question and to question is to have doubts….the essence of dogmatism is a basic confusion between faith and knowledge.

Later, Professor Dixon looks at the ultimate authoritarian – Himmler and his SS.

….authoritarian traits are the product of an underlying weakness of the ego.  Thus, from the first study, it seems that the SS guards of the Third Reich were not, as popularly supposed, ideological fanatics, but inadequate ‘little’ men for whom the satisfactions provided by the SS organisations were tailor-made – all-powerful father figures, rigid rules of loyalty and obedience, and ‘legitimate’ outlets for their hitherto pent-up and murderous hostility……By a process of paranoid projection, they hated in others what they could not tolerate in themselves.  Hence it was that the weak, the old, the underprivileged, and later the starving millions of the concentration camps suffered their fearful attentions   [But they could still] aver that their helpless victims were dangerous enemies, Jewish terrorists, etc, who had to be eliminated.  For in a sense they were enemies, not of the State, but of their own precariously poised egos.

Well, now, how does that all grab you?  Is it too neat and tidy for our crooked timber?  Are we falling into the trap of stereotyping people?  I think not.  The author is too bright and decent for that, and he says in terms that you cannot defeat your enemy by stereotyping him.

It is curious that as far as I can see, the book makes no reference to Hannah Arendt, who expressed similar views about Eichmann, or the KKK, which looks to me to the embodiment in the flesh of authoritarian man.  (Nor, I think, did Arendt make any reference to Adorno in her book on Eichmann.)

But, when I read this uncomely catalogue of our failings, I am reminded of the recycled, simplistic, jealous, mean, nativist, surly rejection that you can get hissed at you on a bad day in an outback pub.  More worryingly, I can also sense it in the vacant faces and the banal chants of those deprived souls who idolise Donald Trump, all dressed up to the nines in the colours of an ourangatang.  Those whom Professor Dixon studied look to me to be the kind of people behind our current moral and intellectual landslide.  And that, for what is worth, looks to me to be a failure of the mind – if those distinctions mean anything.

This book is vital to our efforts to come to grips with our saddest failings.

MY TOP SHELF – 42 – THUCYDIDES

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

THE HISTORY OF THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Thucydides

Everyman, 1910; translated by Richard Crawley; rebound in quarter navy calf with gold embossed tangerine title on French blue boards.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.

The war described in this great work of history is the war between Athens and Sparta about four centuries before the birth of Christ.  This is sometimes said to have been the time of the flowering of Greek civilization.  We need to bear two things steadily in mind.  There was no such thing as a Greek nation – there was only a bunch of city-states generally at war with a number of the others, and held together only by an unashamed arrogance and contempt for the rest of the world who were dismissed as ‘barbarians’.  Secondly, the relevant notion of ‘civilization’ may be one that exists mainly in the heads of Oxbridge dons who have never been out in the real world.

The Greeks treated outsiders with contempt and their women as doormats; they routinely buggered young men; their economy was based on slavery; their religion involved sacrifices to very personal gods who treated humanity like wanton boys treat flies; Athens ran a protection racket that it called an empire, and it did so ruthlessly; the Athenians were saints beside the Spartans, who were a military caste that would make the Prussians look like a Lutheran Sunday school.

The life of a Spartan was devoted to the State; this was required in order to hold down a conquered people called helots; if a child survived eugenic testing, it was consigned to the care of a state-officer at the age of seven; at the age of twenty he went into barracks; as part of his military training, he would go out and hunt and kill helots.  To Plato, the Spartan approach was close to ideal, and in The Republic he set out a blueprint for the fascist state.  A war between Athens and Sparta was likely to be very ugly and terminal to the ability of the warring states to hold out foreign predators.

This great work of history commences in this way.

Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those in the past.  (All citations are from Rex Warner in the Penguin version.)

In the course of a debate at Sparta at the start of the war, the Athenian envoy says:

We have done nothing extraordinary, nothing contrary to human nature in accepting an empire when it was offered to us and then in refusing to give it up. Three very powerful motives prevent us from doing so – security, honour, and self-interest…it has always been a rule that the weak should  be subject to the strong; and besides, we consider that we are worthy of our power….now, after calculating your own interests, you are beginning to talk in terms of right and wrong.

That is the law of the jungle, and it is not now espoused by Athenian envoys in Berlin.  The Athenians display the same realpolitik much later in the war in the debate over Melos.

We on our side will use no fine phrase saying we have the right to our empire because we defeated the Persian….since you know as well as we do that when these matters are discussed by practical people the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they have to accept.

The people of Melos accept that ‘you force us to leave justice out of account and confine ourselves to self-interest.’  They just want to be friends.

No, because it is not so much your hostility that injures us; it is rather the case that if we were on friendly terms with you, our subjects would regard that as a sign of weakness in us, whereas your hatred is evidence of our power.

Hitler, Stalin and company thought like that – exactly?  But did they ever say so in public?  Athens’ war-time leader, Pericles, riffed on the imperial theme in one of his orations.

Do not imagine that what we are fighting for is simply the question of freedom or slavery: there is also involved the loss of our empire and the dangers arising from the hatred that we have incurred in administering it.  Nor is it any longer possible for you to give up this empire, though there may be some who in a mood of sudden panic actually think that this would be a fine and noble thing to do.  Your empire is now like a tyranny; it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go….those who are politically apathetic can only survive if they are supported by people who are capable of taking direct action.  They are quite valueless in a city which controls an empire, though they would be safe slaves in a city that was controlled by others.

In this brutal world according to Darwin, could a democracy – another question – run an empire?  Not so, according to Cleon, in words that might be born in mind by those regimes that have to stand tough to hold down subject peoples.

Personally, I have had occasion often enough to observe that a democracy is incapable of governing others….because fear and conspiracy play no part in your personal lives, you imagine this is so with your allies, and you do not see that when you allow them to persuade you to make a mistaken decision, and when you give way to your own feelings of compassion, you are being guilty of a kind of weakness which is dangerous to you and which will not make them love you any more.  What you do not realise is that your empire is a tyranny exercized over subjects who do not like it and who are always plotting against you; you will not make them obey you by injuring your own interests to do them a favour; your leadership depends on your superior strength and not upon their goodwill.

The Spartans did not bother with so much talk.  The author remarks that ‘Spartan policy with regard to helots had always been almost entirely based on the need for security.’  One time they announced the helots could choose those who had done the most for Sparta implying that freedom would be theirs.  About 2000 were selected and they put on vine leaves.  But the Spartans reasoned that the ones who showed most spirit and stepped up to claim their freedom were the most dangerous to Sparta – so they killed them ‘and no one ever knew exactly how each one of them was killed.’

They were the same in war.  The enemies of the people of Plataea persuaded the Spartans to put to each man in the defeated city: ‘Have you done anything to help the Spartans and their allies in this war?’  (Couthon had a similar question during the Terror.)  ‘As each man replied ‘No’, he was taken away and put to death, no exceptions being made.  Not less than 200 Plataeans were killed in this way…The women were made slaves’.  But that was war, and in war, Athens was no better.

When the author deals with the coup of the oligarchs near the end of the war, he records that the Four Hundred appeared accompanied by 120 ‘Hellenic youths’ who looked after the rough stuff, the precursors of the Brownshirts.  Fashions rarely change for fascists.

But it is in describing the civil war at Corcyra that this historian shows writing of astonishing power.

There was death in every shape and form.  And, as usually happens in such situations, people went to every extreme and beyond it.  There were fathers who killed their sons; men were dragged from the temples or butchered on the very altars; some were actually walled up in the temple of Dionysus and died there…..

In times of peace and prosperity cities and individuals alike follow higher standards….But war is a stern teacher; in depriving them of the power of easily satisfying their daily wants, it brings most people’s minds down to the level of their actual circumstances…

To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings.  What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely one way of saying that you were a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; an ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action.  Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defence.  Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect.  To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching.  If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of the fear of the opposition.  In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all.  Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership….Revenge was more important than self-preservation.

Has there ever been a better picture of Paris under the Terror or of Berlin under the Nazis?  But our author is not finished.

Love of power, operating through greed and personal ambition, was the cause of all these evils…It was in Corcyra that we saw the first examples of the breakdown of law and order.  There was the revenge taken in their hour of triumph by those who had in the past been arrogantly oppressed rather than wisely governed; there were the wicked resolutions taken by those, particularly under the pressure of misfortune, who wished to escape from their usual poverty and coveted the property of their neighbours; there were the savage and pitiless actions carried out by men not so much for the sake of gain as because they were swept into an internecine struggle by their ungovernable passions.  Then, with the ordinary conventions of civilized life thrown into confusion, human nature, always ready to offend, even where laws exist showed itself proudly under its true colours, as something incapable of controlling passion, insubordinate to the idea of justice, the enemy to anything superior to itself; for, if it had not been for he pernicious power of envy, men would not have so exalted vengeance above innocence, and profit above justice.

Those who have trouble coming to grips with the barbarous denial of humanity achieved under people like Alexander, Caesar, Genghis, Napoleon, Stalin or Hitler can accept this insight into our perilously fragile condition at the rim of a live volcano from this Greek historian writing these words thousands of years ago.  This book, as it seems to me, is one of the great breakthroughs for the human mind.

 

Here and there – Dictators and Populists

 

The following citations come from the most recent book of Frank Dikotter, How to be a Dictator, Bloomsbury, 2019.  They are not a source of comfort when looking at their attenuated successors, those whom we call populists.

Preface

There were many strategies for a dictator to claw his way to power and get rid of his rivals.  There were bloody purges, there was manipulation, there was divide and rule, to name only a few.  But in the long run the cult of personality was the most efficient.

Dictators lied to their people, but they also lied to themselves.  A few became wrapped up in their own world, convinced of their own genius.  Others developed a pathological distrust of their own entourage.  All were surrounded by sycophants.  They teetered between hubris and paranoia, and as a result took major decisions on their own.  With devastating consequences that cost the lives of millions of people.  A few became unmoored from reality altogether….

Mussolini

Like most dictators, Mussolini fostered the idea that he was a man of the people accessible to all…..By one account, Mussolini spent more than half his time curating his own image…. Fascism took from d’Annunzio not so much a political creed as a way of doing politics.  Mussolini realised that pomp and pageantry appealed far more to the crowd than incendiary editorials.

‘He was sensitive to the emergence of any possible rival and he viewed all men with a peasant’s suspicion.’…[He insisted on being in the public eye as much as possible.]  What was at first a political necessity would over time become an obsession.

Realising that their own survival now depended on the myth of the great dictator, other party leaders joined the chorus, portraying Mussolini as a saviour, a miracle worker who was ‘almost divine’.

In the evenings he would sit in a comfortable chair in a projection room to study every detail of his public performance.  Mussolini considered himself to be Italy’s greatest actor.  Years later, when Greta Garbo visited Rome, his face clouded over: he did not want anyone to overshadow him.

Always suspicious of others, Mussolini not only surrounded himself with mediocre followers but also frequently replaced them.

‘The strength of fascism…lies in the lack of fascists.’  Loyalty to the leader rather than belief in fascism became paramount….He was unable to develop a political philosophy, and in any event unwilling to be hemmed in by any principle, moral. ideological or otherwise.  ‘Action, action, action – this summed up his whole creed….’

A Ministry of Popular Culture replaced the Press Office….The new organisation was run by the Duce’s son-in-law….

The crowd, already carefully selected, knew precisely how to rise to the occasion, having watched the ritual on the silver screen.

They lied to him, much as he lied to them.  But most of all Mussolini lied to himself.  He became enveloped in his own worldview, a ‘slave to his own myth.’

The cult of personality demanded loyalty to the leader rather than faith in a particular political program.  It was deliberately superficial…

The historian Emilio Gentile pointed out decades ago that a god who proved to be fallible ‘was destined to be dethroned and desecrated by his faithful with the same passion with which he had been adored. [And he had no friends and many bitter rejects and enemies.]

Hitler

‘The brownshirts would probably not have existed without the blackshirts.’

He knew how to tailor his message to his listeners, giving voice to their hatred and hope’.  The audience responded with a final outburst of frenzied cheering and clapping.

…as Hitler turned forty on 20 April 1929, he ascribed to the ideal leader a combination of character, willpower, ability and luck.

[After the Crash] Faith in democracy dissolved, inflation took hold, and a sense of despair and hopelessness spread.  Hitler was the man of the hour.

It [invading Poland] was a huge gamble, but Hitler trusted his intuition, which had proved him right so far.  He had built an image of himself as the man of destiny and had come to believe in it….’In my life, I have always put my whole stake on the table.’

‘He can tell a lie with as straight a face as any man’, noticed William Shirer.

Stalin

The Bolsheviks, like the fascists and the Nazis, were a party held together not so much by a program or platform, but by a chosen leader….The deification of Lenin also served as a substitute for a popular mandate.

…Stalin was a cunning unscrupulous operator who exploited other people’s weaknesses to turn them into willing accomplices.  He was also a gifted strategic thinker with a genuine political touch.  Like Hitler, he showed concern for the people around him, regardless of their position in the hierarchy, remembering their names and past conversations.  He also knew how to bide his time.

He used his position as General Secretary to replace supporters of all his rivals with his own henchman.

Just as soon as his main rival was dispatched, Stalin began implementing Trotsky’s policies.

Stalin’s underlings composed paeans to their leader, enthusiastically abasing themselves.

Sheer vindictiveness and cold calculation had kept Stalin moving forward, but over the years he also developed a sense of grievance, viewing himself as a victim. A victor with a grudge, he became permanently distrustful of those around him.

One month after his funeral, Stalin’s name vanished from the newspapers.

We need not consider the others in the book – Mao, Duvalier, Ceausescu and Mengitsu.  We have enough to work on as it is.

Each of these dictators was an affront to humanity.  Each was a selfish, vicious, cruel man who always put himself above all others.  Each was fearfully insecure but deeply in love with himself.  Each created a world that was as tasteless as it was mindless.  An air of stupidity and vanity – emptiness – prevailed.  Their ambition was more than greedy – it was insatiable.  Although each might be seen as morally void or insane, each gave their followers ample evidence of the damage that they could do unleashed – and not one of them was ever fit to be on the leash.  At least with hindsight, each showed that they could not be trusted.  (Mein Kampf set out in detail the evil in Hitler’s mind; Lenin, as cruel a man as any, left a testament warning Russia about Stalin.)  Each loved the sound of his own voice.  Each acquiesced in sickening nonsense from sycophants and nauseating behaviour from underlings.  Somehow each charmed at least some people enough to ignore warning signs, and many of them conned sensible people who should have known better into accepting them.  Each was a big gambler because they attached little weight to the lives of their people.  (You could say this and a lot more of the above about Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon.)

Not one of them lived or died a happy man.  Offhand it is hard to think of any woman in history who has exercised such power for evil.  Each did lasting damage to his people and nation.

What these lives teach us about the current scourge of populism is a matter for you.  But it looks like political crashes are driven by the same two primal causes of economic crashes – greed (or ambition) and stupidity.

There is a third element – fear and cowardice.  Educated people did not do enough to resist or check dictators like Mussolini and Hitler borne to power on the gullibility of what used to be called the masses.  We see just that now in America.  Anyone who believes virtually anything Trump says is, frankly, stupid.  And yet many prefer him and, from fear and cowardice, educated people in positions of power do nothing to resist him.  If they do so, they will be called ‘human scum.’  Republican Senators think they fulfil their constitutional function by acting as Stormtroopers in Congress – and then sending out for pizza.  Has ever a once decent nation collapsed so quickly?

There is still nothing new under the sun.  Except this – before populists relied on mass rallies; now they rely on mass media designed by crooks specifically for use by fools and cowards.

MY TOP SHELF – 40 – Maitland

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

F W MAITLAND

Sir Geoffrey Elton (1985)

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1985; cloth bound in pale grey, with silver titles on spine; white slip case with photo of portrait of subject on front.

I have not for many years past believed in what calls itself historical jurisprudence.  The only direct utility of legal history (I say nothing of its thrilling interest) lies in the lesson that each generation has an enormous power of shaping its own law.  I don’t think that the study of legal history should make men fatalists; I doubt it should make them conservatives. I am sure it would free them from superstitions and teach them that they have free hands.

Frederick Maitland comes down to us a kind of saint of scholarship.  He is at least entitled to be remembered as the scholar’s scholar, if not the historian’s historian.

Maitland came from a family of service.  He went from Eton to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a running blue.  He was smart enough to be elected to the ‘Apostles’ and smart enough not to let it ruin him – it was a self-important group of intellectuals that does not seem to have done anything for the humility or sexual stability of most of its members.  He married Florence Fisher, a niece of Leslie Stephen.  He did not succeed greatly at the bar, but he discovered early that his interest was in history.  He would say that he dissented from all churches.

He subscribed to the view that ‘history involves comparison’ and that an ‘orthodox history seems to me to be a contradiction in terms….If we try to make history the handmaid of dogma she will soon cease to be history’.  Maitland was in love with his job, but not at the cost of subjecting his work to the test of a ruthless common sense.  In the result, as Elton remarked, ‘Criticizing Elton is a dangerous game; so often one finds that he has been here first, and he wrote so much that it is far too easy to miss something.’  His lectures on the refined subject of equity were made into a text-book which has never been surpassed for style – or for anything else.

Since very few who are reading this will have any interest in my chosen discipline of legal history – which is why this book is here – I will just refer to Sir Geoffrey Elton on the style of Maitland.

…..Maitland testifies to the truth that the style is the man.  Those usually short, often vibrating, sentences, the avoidance of learned circumlocutions and even long words as such; the manner in which the royal ‘we’ gathers the reader into the company of the writer; the constant illumination of abstract or general notions by anchoring them in the experience of real people; the frequent (possibly unconscious) echoes from a whole cultural reservoir filled with, among other things, the Bible; the wit which, because it grows naturally from the discourse, remains funny to this day; and the courtesy which renders the not infrequent stabs of the stiletto painless: all these compass Maitland the man, a man both wise and artless.  It seems that Maitland was in no sense a conscious stylist, a careful and particular carpenter of words and architect of sentences: nobody who wrote so much so fast could have been…..whether speaking or writing, he was always talking to the reader as much as to a listener.

In an essay headed ‘English Prose’, Sir Lewis Namier quoted from Tristram Shandy: ‘Writing, when properly managed …is but a different name for conversation.’  You might say that a tip that comes with that level of endorsement is worth following – if so, we would agree with you.

Maitland was to become one of the creators of English history, and the father of English legal history.  He brought order out of chaos and he knew that to understand the laws of a community is to understand its ideas and motives.  He constantly warned of looking at the past through the eyes of today. He produced the monumental History of English Law with Pollock.  Although Pollock contributed very little, Maitland put his name on the title page, and with first billing.

His work-rate was unbelievable.  His attachment to history did not preclude him from trying to rid the law of anachronism:  ‘accidents will happen in the best regulated museums’.  But he told Pollock ‘I have no use for modern kings’.   He saw keenly the difference between the lawyer and the historian.  ‘What the lawyer wants is authority and the newer the better; what the historian wants is evidence and the older the better.’  He thought Maine was too prone to make large statements detached from detailed evidence.

His affection for the Germans could have got the better of him.  He named his children Ermengard and Fredegond, and he liked Wagner.  But Florence was strong too.  They had had a Victorian courtship – it was an occasion to celebrate when they were ‘allowed to go about without a keeper’.  Florence did not relate to the wives of other dons, and she did not relish visits from Pollock.  She was a refined pianist – she played for Tchaikovsky before pinning a flower on his lapel when he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

Maitland suffered bad health all his life. He said he was buffeted by ‘the messenger of Satan’.  He was an appalling subject for photographers, and looks like a haunted version of Wittgenstein.  He had to winter every year in the Canaries and he died there early last century after he caught pneumonia.

He comes down to us now as a truly saintly man, a modest scholar who cast light on our past. It is a measure of his greatness that when we read Macaulay now, we ask – where is the law? Maitland was one of those Englishmen in whom history and literature are fused in life. He was, surely, as true and loyal a chronicler and celebrant of his nation as it has produced.

Here and there -Hunter Biden, Donald Trump – and Clive of India

 

In discussing the colossal good fortune of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine, a friend quoted the delicious remark of Sam Goldwyn: ‘The son also rises.’  (Yes, the computer did query this.)  We don’t like seeing people in public office on the take.  They should be in it for us – not themselves.  Diverting the profit to the family does not achieve deliverance – at least for those who did not come down in the last shower.

Putting someone in office under obligation inevitably creates conflicts of interest.  And the risk of the donee, the recipient of the gift, being, or appearing, compromised.  It is of course worse if someone is obviously appointed above their pay level.  They are some of the reasons decent people are nauseated by the gifts showered by Trump on his daughter and son-in-law.  (The claim of Jared Kushner, to advise on jails appears to rest on the fact that his dad went one up on his dad-in-law by doing time for fraud.)

Writing in The Guardian, a writer from New York said:

When you are the son of a famous and powerful politician, you are showered with opportunity, whether you deserve it or not.  This is nepotism, but it is also, if we are being direct, a form of corruption.  Moral corruption.  Not only because these prestigious positions are not earned, and because these celebukids are taking something that rightly should have gone to someone more deserving; but also because, even though there is rarely anything so crude as a direct quid pro quo, this undeserved largesse is always motivated to some extent by a desire by some powerful interest to take advantage of the halo of influence cast by the parents.  That influence should properly accrue to the public, who their parents work for.  The lavish lives afforded to famous kids are, in effect, stolen from the American people.  Each coveted job handed to a president’s kid represents a small quantity of subversion of the spirit of the democratic process.

This particular form of injustice is often waved off as just be the way of the world.  Seven-foot-tall people get to be in the NBA, and the children of presidents and vice-presidents get sweet, lucrative gigs whether they’re qualified for them or not.  We shouldn’t take this so lightly.  We should, in fact, be enraged by it.  Politics is not just another way to get rich.  It is a public service field, and the more important the position, the more stringent the ethical requirements it should carry.

The next three generations of a president’s family should have to work the checkout line at Family Dollar.  What better way to stay in touch with the pulse of America?  What better way to demonstrate how much they value hard work, and the gargantuan struggle to join the middle class? 

All this reminded me that England, the home of our parliamentary democracy, ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption during for most of the 18th century.  The story was luminously illustrated by Sir Lewis Namier in something of a revolution in the writing and teaching of history.

The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.  ….Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…

Richard Pares referred to the difficulty of one MP on a conscience vote: ‘It will hurt my preferment to tell.’  There you see the conflict of interest.  He quoted the advice of one MP who would be called an ‘old lag’ in another context:

Get into Parliament, make tiresome speeches; you will have great offers; do not accept them at first, – then do; then make great provision for yourself and family, and then call yourself an independent country gentleman.

What, old boy, could be simpler – or fairer?  If you read any biography of Abraham Lincoln, you will see that on the eve of war, the incoming president had to spend days rewarding those who put him there.  It’s as rewarding as giving Christmas presents to sisters – God preserve you from any seen inequality.

Now, ‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours underlay’ feudalism and the Mafia; Napoleon was shockingly greedy in looking after his family – with thrones; the Nazis were as corrupt as the Spartans.

But we are now shocked to see the establishment looking after its own when anyone with a modicum of ability can make their way up the bourgeois ladder on their own.  As I recall, one act of nepotism came back to slap George W Bush square in the face after Katrina, but Ivanka and Jared are as in your face as any other aspect of the present White House.

All this occurred to me reading again the luminous East India Company in Eighteenth Century Politics by Lucy Sutherland.*

Clive of India was unlovely – largely for the same reason as Trump – you get the same combination of greed and banality – and without shame.  Although to be fair, Clive was anything but downright stupid.

With Clive you get the corruption of Georgian politics with the corruption of the English doing business – committing something like daylight robbery – in India.  The engine of the business was the company of the title of the book.  It was a magnificent edifice that so beautifully delineates the ruling class of England at the time and their innate capacity to bulldust their way out of the gutter with some affable condescension of the kind that would have propelled Mr Collins to the feet of Greer Garson.  As Dame Lucy Sutherland drily remarks early on: ‘The Company was very unsuccessful in checking corruption even when it was discovered.’

To make a comfortable fortune in the public service and to establish those dependent on him in situations of profit was the major (and to contemporaries) the legitimate ambition of the ordinary politician…As a result, there emerged, not an orgy of corruption, but a fragile balance between public and private interests expressed in the system of ‘political connection’ and ‘political management.’

Clive was a latterday proconsul.  The Company was ripping off the natives – ‘gifts’ – and its servants were making their fortune on the side.  Here is Clive on gifts.

When presents are received as the price of services to the Nation, to the Company and to that Prince who bestowed those presents; when they are not extracted from him by compulsion; when he is in a state of independence and can do with his money what he pleases; and when they are not received to the disadvantage of the Company, he holds presents so received not dishonourable.

What is the word price doing in there?  That suggests that the ‘gift’ has been bought.  That is a contradiction in terms.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done for the Company, then the Company is being deprived of an entitlement.  If the Prince is paying the price of something done by an agent of the Company on the side, then the chances are the Company is not getting the full benefit of the promise of that agent to work in good faith in the interests of the Company.  Either way, the gift is ‘received to the disadvantage of the Company.’  And if the gift is large, is not the agent’s ‘independence’ impugned?  It is one thing for bank manager to accept a bottle of wine or Scotch; but a whole new vista unfolds if the gift is a first class return ticket to Monaco for the Grand Prix.

The truth is that while people may refer to the transactions as ‘gifts’ or ‘presents,’ they are for most part not made from any spirit of benevolence, but as an attempt to acquire, or buy, influence.  In that, they are just like most donations to political parties – and, on the same ground, fair game for the epithet of ‘corrupt’.

For instance, a person of interest in the Ukrainian–Trump corruption scandal is the U S Ambassador to the E U.  He appears to have three qualifications for that position – like the man who appointed him, his business is in boozers; he gave his wife a signed copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; and, most importantly, he is a big donor to the Republican Party.  Indeed, it does appear that he bought this ambassadorship for a snip – a mere one million dollars (on which, we may be sure, he has paid no tax).  The notion that he might be a disinterested diplomat is fanciful.  Like everyone else appointed by this President, he is there to do the bidding of the appointer – and if he doesn’t, he will be sacked loudly on Twitter.

Clive’s defence of ‘presents’, then, does not hold up.  As it happens, our law is, now at least, clear that the agent would have to account for that gift to the Company.  It does not matter if the agent acted in good faith – or in a criminal way.  A member of the armed forces who used one of their trucks in smuggling was found to hold his resulting profit on trust for the Crown.

In my judgment, it is a principle of law that if a servant takes advantage of his service by violating his duty of honesty and good faith, to make a profit for himself, in this sense, that the assets of which he has control, or the facilities which he enjoys, or the position which he occupies, are the real cause of his obtaining the money, as distinct from being the mere opportunity for getting it, that is to say, if they play the predominant part in his obtaining the money, then he is accountable for it to the master. It matters not that the master has not lost any profit, nor suffered any damage. Nor does it matter that the master could not have done the act himself.  (Denning, J, upheld on appeal to the House of Lords: Reading v A-G [1951] A C 507.)

Nor did Clive feel any need to pussyfoot about using wealth to increase his political power.  (On a bad day he may have resembled Mr Kurtz in A Heart of Darkness.)

…a large fortune honourably acquired will be the source of great honours and advantages….believe me, there is no other interest in this kingdom but what arises from great possessions, and if after the Battle of Placis I had stayed in India for myself as well as the Company and acquired the fortune I might have done, by this time I might have been an English Earl with a Blue Ribbon instead of an Irish Peer (with the promise of a Red One).  However the receipt of the Jaggeer [jagir – an annuity paid by an Indian Prince] money for a few years will do great things.

As soulless materialism goes, Trump could hardly improve on that – but at least Clive had put on the uniform and put himself in harm’s way.

The jagir was worth £25,000 a year.  That puts the windfall of Hunter Biden (US $ 600,000) in the shade.  But common jealousy did its work and the struggle to retain that benefit, which the law would not I think now tolerate, dominated the life of Clive and the Company.  When he lost the benefit, he consulted Lord Hardwicke, a master of Equity, who said Clive and his father ‘either could not or were not willing to tell me what pretence of right was alleged for this proceeding.’  Later on, Horace Walpole, the first prime minister, said: ‘The Ministry have bought off Lord Clive with a bribe that would frighten the King of France himself; they have given him back his £25,000 a year.’  That does give new meaning to the word mercenary.  Walpole did say ‘that [Clive] owed his indemnity neither to innocence nor eloquence.’  And Dame Lucy did not exonerate Clive from guilt on the more modern charge ‘of using his inside information to gain profit on the market.’  (Clive did not buy the stock in his own name.)

Mind you, Clive gave good consideration to get his fortune back.  He promised the Government:

…..my poor services, such as they are, shall be dedicated for the rest of my days to the King, and my obligations to you always acknowledged, whether in or out of power….If these conditions are fulfilled, I do promise, Sir, that I never will give any opposition to the present or any other Court of Directors, and never will interfere in any of their affairs directly, or indirectly.

It’s ‘peace in our time’ all over again.  And is it not inherently vulgar for a subject of the King to make his loyalty to the King conditional upon the execution of a promise?

In the just released book, The Anarchy, The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, William Dalrymple says that Clive was a ‘violent, utterly ruthless and intermittently mentally unstable corporate predator.’  He was also an utterly fearless guerrilla fighter.  Calcutta should have suited him: ‘one of the most wicked places in the Universe….Rapacious and Luxurious beyond conception.’

Dalrymple says the jagir would now be worth £3,000,000 a year – and income tax had not been invented.  In addition, this swashbuckling buccaneer took plunder – called prize.  ‘Not since Cortés had Europe seen an adventurer return with so much treasure from distant conquests.’  And now the financial rape got serious.  The English called it ‘the shaking of the pagoda tree.’

And of course the white man did to the coloured man things he would never do to one of his own.  Dame Lucy records that Clive’s English attorney said the question ‘was this, whether it would go into a black man’s pocket or my own.’  And of course, in the tropics on the wrong side of the world, all decency had gone clean overboard.  Macaulay was up for it.

A succession of nominal sovereigns, sunk in indolence and debauchery, sauntered away life in secluded palaces, chewing bang [cannabis], fondling concubines, and listening to buffoons.  A succession of ferocious invaders [Persians and Afghans] descended through the Western passes to prey on the defenceless wealth of Hindostan…

Before them, Alexander.  After, them, the English and Clive.  And, yes, Mr Kurtz.

Well, well, well …..Clive’s men kept the doctors busy.  Now Trump’s men keep the lawyers busy.  The one difference is that you would have known you were going bad if you had run into your doctor in a Calcutta knock shop.  Manhattan’s slammers are filling up with Trump’s lawyers.

*F.n.: Lucy was a Geelong Girl educated in South Africa and Oxford.  According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman undergraduate to address the Union there.  She was the Principal of Lady Margaret Hall for more than a quarter of a century.  She was an acolyte of Namier – and it shows – to her benefit.  (I am a Namier fan.)  God bless her – but I do fear that Lucy may have gone to God without having once seen in action the Mighty Cats of Geelong – let alone the late, great Polly Farmer, a blackfella who could punch a footy through the window of a moving car.

Here and there – The Grace of Macaulay

 

Language didn’t just pour out of Gibbon or Macaulay like music did from Mozart or Schubert.  They worked on it, polished it, and read it loud.  They left us enduring works of art.

This simple proposition came back to me on re-reading the last volume of Macaulay’s History of England. The politics of England in the 18th century were deliciously corrupt, personal, and English.  They offer a glorious mine for Macaulay to exploit for seams of gold.

He did not think much of a courtier called Sunderland.

In truth, his countrymen were unjust to him. For they thought he was not only an unprincipled and faithless politician, which he was, but a deadly enemy of the liberties of the nation, which he was not.  What he wanted simply was to be safe, rich, and great.  To these objects he had been faithful through all the vicissitudes of his life. For these objects he had passed from Church to Church and from faction to faction, had joined the most turbulent of oppositions without any zeal for freedom, and had served the most arbitrary of monarchs without any zeal for monarchy; had voted for the Exclusion Bill without being a Protestant, and had adored the Host without being a Papist; had sold his country at once to both the great parties which divided the Continent, had taken money from France, and had sent intelligence to Holland.  As far however as he could be said to have any opinions, his opinions were Whiggish.

As with any of these great portraits by Gibbon or Macaulay, they immediately call to mind contemporary parallels.  Was the son of the Earl any better?

His knowledge of ancient literature, and his skill in imitating the styles of the masters of Roman eloquence, were applauded by veteran scholars.  The sedateness of his deportment and the apparent regularity of his life delighted austere moralists.  He was known indeed to have one expensive taste, but it was a taste of the most respectable kind.  He loved books and was bent on forming the most magnificent private library in England.  While other heirs of noble houses were inspecting patterns of steinkirks and sword knots, dangling after actresses, or betting on fighting cocks, he was in pursuit of the Mentz editions of Tully’s Offices, of the Parmesan Statius, and of the inestimable Virgil of Zarottus.

A footnote shows that his lordship paid the massive amount of £46 for the Virgil of Zarottus.  That sum could have got him a lot of attention from some unseemly houses in Covent Garden.

The ministers found that, on this occasion, neither their honest nor their dishonest supporters could be trusted.

The stiletto can go in fast.

Another was the late Speaker, Trevor, who had from the chair put the question whether he was or was not a rogue, and had been forced to pronounce that the Ayes had it.

Then back comes the Earl.

The whole enigma of his life, an enigma of which many unsatisfactory and some absurd explanations have been propounded, is at once solved if we consider him as a man insatiably greedy of wealth and power, and yet nervously apprehensive of danger.  He rushed with ravenous eagerness at every bait which was offered to his cupidity. But any ominous shadow, any threatening murmur, sufficed to stop him in his full career and to make him change his course or bury himself in a hiding place…But his ambition and avarice would not suffer him to rest till he held a high and lucrative office, till he was regent of the kingdom.  The consequence was, as might have been expected, a violent clamour; and that clamour he had not the spirit to face.

The gentry resented taxes.

Was it reasonable – such was the language of some scribblers – that an honest gentleman should pay a heavy land tax to support in idleness and luxury a set of fellows who requited him by seducing his dairy maids and shooting his partridges?

It’s hard to be more Tory than that.  At another point, our author speaks of someone trying to make ‘what is, in the jargon of our time, called political capital.’  Then there was a First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

With all his ability, he had not the wisdom to avert, by suavity and moderation, that curse, the inseparable concomitant of prosperity and glory, which the ancients personified under the name of Nemesis.  His head, strong for all the purposes of debate and arithmetical calculation, was weak against the intoxicating influence of success and fame.  He became proud, even to insolence…..Great wealth, suddenly acquired, is not often enjoyed with moderation, dignity and good taste…He contrived, it was said, to be at once as rich as Crassus and as riotous as Mark Antony.  His stud and his cellar were beyond all price.  His very lacqueys turned up their noses at claret.  He and his confederates were described as spending the immense sums of which they had plundered the public in banquets of four courses, such as Lucullus might have eaten in the hall of Apollo.  A supper for twelve Whigs, enriched by jobs, grants, bribes, lucky  purchases and lucky sales of stock, was cheap at eighty pounds.

Here is Paterson, a Scot who conned the Scots into investing in a hell hole at Panama called Darien.

To be seen walking with him in the High Street, to be honoured by him with a private interview of a quarter of an hour were enviable distinctions.  He, after the fashion of all of the false prophets who have deluded themselves and others, drew new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples.  His countenance, his voice, his gestures, indicated boundless self-importance.  When he appeared in public he looked…like Atlas conscious that a world was on his shoulders.  But the airs which he gave himself only heightened the respect and admiration which he inspired….In truth, of all the ten thousand bubbles of which history has preserved the memory, none was ever more skilfully puffed into existence; none ever soared higher, or glittered more brilliantly; and none ever burst with a more lamentable explosion.

And since we speak of Trump and Johnson, someone objected that Parliament was flying in the King’s face.

To fly in the King’s face!  Our business is to fly in the King’s face.  We were sent here to fly in the King’s face.

We know all about the kind of mountebank who draws ‘new faith in his own lie from the credulity of his disciples’.

This is history as high theatre.  The French have Michelet and Taine.  The Germans have Ranke and Mommsen.  But history as theatre is to England what opera is to Italy.  They are all treasures of the world.

Here and there – Hitler compared

 

University examiners loved stating exam questions ‘Compare and contrast….’  At the Alfred for a drug hit – immunotherapy – I was rereading Sebastian Haffner The Meaning of Hitler.  I remarked to the nurses – one of them is from Munich – that a lot of it seemed relevant – often alarmingly so – to a contemporary populist disaster.  Sometimes the contrast was more illuminating than the compare.  See what you think.

Hitler had no friends.  He enjoyed sitting for hours on end with subordinate staff – drivers, bodyguards, secretaries  – but he alone did all the talking.

There is no development, no maturing in Hitler’s character and personality.  His character was fixed at an early age – perhaps a better word would be arrested – and remains astonishingly consistent; nothing was added to it.  It was not an attractive character……from the very start [there] was a total lack of capacity for self-criticism.  Hitler was all his life exceedingly full of himself and from his earliest to his last days tended to self-conceit. Stalin and Mao used the cult of their personality coolly as a political instrument, without letting it turn their heads.  With the Hitler cult, Hitler was not only its object but also the earliest, most persistent and most passionate devotee.

That’s a 10 in the ‘Compare’ column.

When in the twenties, Hitler had at his disposal nothing but his demagogy, his hypnotic oratory, his intoxicating and illusionist skills as a producer of mass spectacles, he hardly ever gained more than five per cent of all Germans as his followers….The next forty per cent were driven into his arms of 1930-3 and the total helpless failure of all other governments and parties in the face of that plight.  The remaining decisive fifty per cent, however, he gained after 1933 mainly through his achievements.

This is a 10 on ‘Contrast.’  Hitler had a real achievements – economic, military and foreign miracles – six million unemployed to full employment in three years.  Before that: ‘The man does not really exist – he is only the noise he makes.’  After that:

‘Those who are only vigorous destroyers are not great at all,’ says Jacob Burkhardt, and Hitler certainly proved himself a generous wrecker.  But beyond any doubt he also proved himself a star achiever of high calibre, and not only in wrecking.

Still very heavy ‘Contrast’.

And he perceived correctly that absolute rule was not possible in an intact state organism but only amidst controlled chaos…A close study of him reveals a trait in him that one might describe as a horror of committing himself, or perhaps even better, as a horror of anything final.  It seems as though something in in him caused him to recoil not only from setting limits to his power by way of a state system, but also to his will by way of a firm set of goals.

This may be the most frankly vicious insight of the lot.

The point is that Hitler’s successes were never scored against a strong or even a tough opponent: even the Weimar republic of the late twenties and Britain in 1940 proved too strong for him.

Spot on again for ‘Compare.’

Of course he was no democrat, but he was a populist, a man who based his power on the masses, not on the elite, and in a sense a people’s tribune risen to absolute power.  His principal means of rule was demagogy, and his instrument of government was not a structural hierarchy but a chaotic bundle of uncoordinated mass organisations merely held together at the top by his own person.  All these are ‘leftist’ rather than ‘rightest’ features…..  Clearly in the line of twentieth-century dictators Hitler stands somewhere between Mussolini and Stalin, and upon close examination nearer to Stalin than to Mussolini.  Nothing is more misleading than to call Hitler a fascist. Fascism is upper class rule, buttressed by artificially manufactured mass enthusiasm.  Certainly Hitler roused masses to enthusiasm, but never in order to buttress an upper class.  He was not a class politician and his National Socialism was anything but fascism.  (Emphasis added.)

Well that should give you something to chew on –and frighten the hell out of you.

For there is no denying the voluntarist trait in Hitler’s view of the world: he saw the world as he wanted to see it. That the world is imperfect, full of conflict, hardship and suffering…… This is only too true, and it is quite right not to shut one’s eyes to it.  So long as he says no more than that, Hitler stands firmly on the ground of truth.  Except that he does not state these things with the sad, courageous earnestness with which Luther calmly faced what he called original sin but with that frenzied voice with which Nietzsche, for instance, so often hailed what was deplorable.  To Hitler, the emergency was the norm, the state was there in order to wage war.

Compare and contrast – indeed.

MY TOP SHELF: 33 – Keynes

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

33

THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE

John Maynard Keynes (1919)

Reprint Macmillan and Co., 1920; rebound in quarter vellum with cloth boards, and red label with gold letters.

The glory of the nation you love is a desirable end, – but generally to be obtained at your neighbour’s expense.

Even those who do not believe that economics is no more than voodoo with figures complain that economists are much longer on explanation after the event than they were on prediction before the event.  These complaints were very loud in the Great Financial Crisis.  But you could not sustain that charge against John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge.  He was very, very bright.  He went through the apparently required gay phase while he was a member of that frightfully precious crowd called ‘The Apostles.’  Later he settled down completely and for life with a distinguished Russian ballerina.  She could divert the dons with her views on homosexuality.  She said it was okay with boys – they have something to hang on to; but how could you have an affair between two insides?

Keynes was coming toward his prime at the age of 35 when he went to Paris as part of the British delegation to negotiate the peace to end the Great War.  He was revolted by the meanness and short-sightedness of France and Britain, and the weakness and ineptness of President Wilson. He left the delegation and went home to write The Economic Consequences of the Peace in something like white heat.  It is a beautifully composed polemic that was an instant smash hit.  But those in charge – not one of whom had the intellectual horsepower of Keynes – did not want to listen, and we are still paying the price.

Keynes set out to show that the Treaty was aimed at the ‘systematic destruction of all three’ pillars of the German economy and that this would lead to hyper-inflation, German bankruptcy, and German revenge.  He was dead right, and about 20 million would die.  France wanted to go back to 1870, but this ‘Carthaginian peace’ was neither ‘right nor possible’.

Keynes gives brief portraits of the main players.  Clemenceau, ‘dry of soul and empty of hope, very old and tired’ just sat there on his brocade chair with his grey suede gloves.  ‘He had one illusion – France; and one disillusion – mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least…’His guiding star was that Germans only understood intimidation.  You must not negotiate with a German – you just dictate to him.

Lloyd George had ‘an unerring, almost medium-like, sensibility’ to everyone around him; he had ‘six or seven senses not available to ordinary men.’  He was the best of ‘the subtle and dangerous spellbinders’.  What chance had the aging Presbyterian Wilson against him?  When Lloyd George was speaking, he would go over to nobble the President while it was being translated.  Wilson lacked ‘that dominating intellectual equipment’ and his collapse was ‘one of the most decisive moral events of history.’

The point of the book is to demonstrate that the Treaty was economically misconceived, but Keynes does not withhold moral judgment.  ‘The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness, should be abhorrent and detestable – abhorrent and detestable even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe.  Some preach it in the name of justice.  In the great events of man’s history, in the unwinding of the complex fates of nations, Justice is not so simple.  And if it were, nations are not authorized, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.’  These are not small notions.

Keynes said that the leaders in Paris knew that they could not deliver and had lied to their own peoples back home about their capacity to extract money from a bankrupt Germany in the future.  He says that the want of sincerity was palpable.  ‘Then began the weaving of that web of sophistry and Jesuitical exegesis that was finally to clothe with insincerity the language and substance of the whole treaty.’  It was worse than that – the Treaty was negotiated in bad faith and outside the terms on which Germany had laid down its arms.  ‘There are few episodes in history which posterity will have less reason to condone – a war ostensibly waged in defence of the sanctity of international engagements ending in a definite breach of one of the most sacred possible of such engagements on the part of the victorious champions of these ideals.’  Elsewhere, Keynes brands the Treaty ‘one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history.’

The hottest invective is reserved for his own Prime Minister.  On no grounds of public interest, the ‘popular victor’ allowed ‘the claims of private ambition’ to have him call an election.  This cranked up the rhetoric against Germany and made a decent peace even harder to get.  The diagnosis of Keynes is alarmingly recognizable to those governed by no principle past the last opinion poll.  ‘The progress of the General Election of 1918 affords a sad, dramatic history of the essential weakness of one who draws his chief inspiration not from his own true impulses, but from the grosser effluxions of the atmosphere which momentarily surrounds him.’  The book is worth reading just for that one line.

Did the victors really think that they could screw the Germans for the sweat of their brow for a generation?  How did they answer this proposition?  ‘The entrepreneur and the inventor will not contrive, the trader and shopkeeper will not save, the labourer will not toil, if the fruits of their industry are set aside, not for the benefit of their children, their old age, their pride, or their position, but for the enjoyment of a foreign conqueror.’

Why, asks Keynes, ‘has the world been so credulous of the unveracities of politicians’?  The French would acknowledge his logic but they would always come back to the position:  ‘But Germany must pay; otherwise, what is to happen to France?’  It was not a convenient time for the truth.

Lenin said that the best way to destroy capitalism was by debauching the currency.  He was right.  Inflation involves a secret confiscation of wealth.  ‘Perhaps it is historically true that no order of society ever perishes save by its own hand.’

Where would it all end?  ‘If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp.  Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and progress of our generation.’

The fulfilment of that prophecy would be a ghastly tragedy.  Because a few small-minded power crazed men in Paris wanted to punish the children of the vanquished, they paved the way for a worse war to punish their own children.

This book holds many lessons about not putting your trust in princes, and about not understanding that if you drive too hard on a deal, you may wind up with worse than nothing.  Agreements are only as good as the wishes of their parties.  The attack in this book was brought home by a 35 year-old economist from King’s College, Cambridge against his own government and the other victors in Europe.  It is a remarkable testament not just to the intellect but to the courage of one man.

Keynes would later go on to serve his country further by helping it to finance the war he foresaw, and then work out how to make repayment.  The effort was finally two much for him.  It is because of what Keynes did rather than what he said that this book is on this shelf.  It is not too much to say that John Maynard Keynes, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave his life for his country.

Here and there – George Will: The Conservative Sensibility

 

You get some idea of the tone and gist of this book from the following extracts from the Introduction.

Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and–soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism.  American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking….The label ‘liberal’ was minted to identify those whose primary concern was not the protection of community solidarity or traditional hierarchies, but rather was the expansion and protection of individual liberty.  Liberals were then those who considered the state the primary threat to this…..In Europe today, the too few people who think the way American conservatives do are commonly called liberals, and people who think as American progressives do are called social democrats….Progressivism represents the overthrow of the Founders’ classical liberalism.

Later on, we get this – those who believe, as the Founders did, that first come the rights and then comes government, are adherents of the Republican Constitution; while those who believe, as progressives do, that first comes government and then come rights are the Democratic Constitution.  The difference comes down to whether ‘We the people’ is a collective entity or ‘We the people as individuals.’

A number of things follow.  First, this book is about theories and labels.  (I agree with the late G H W Bush – labels belong on soup cans.)  Secondly, it will offer little to the rest of the world because this conservatism is uniquely American and different to that of the rest of the West.  Thirdly, the book will be completely foreign to Anglo-Australians because we prefer experience to theory, results to ideology.  Finally some of the discussion will be as penetrable as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Real Presence, and provoke the question: What contemporary political issue might be enlightened by the application of these theories or labels?

But let us take the mission of this book on its terms.  We are to seek the Founders’ thinking by going back to what they said.  Lawyers are familiar with this process (and avoiding dogmatism in this context will be very tricky).

Let us put to one side that the Founders knew division – between, say, the focus of Jefferson on you and me, and the focus of Hamilton on Uncle Sam.  The Founders had some things in common.  They owned and traded in slaves.  They might fairly be labelled patrician and they were horrified at the thought of what we call democracy.  Alexander Hamilton spoke of the ‘unthinking populace’ and John Adams referred to ‘the common herd of mankind’.  George Washington referred to the common people as ‘the grazing multitude’.  He had the High Tory view that ‘the discerning part of the community’ must govern and ‘the ignorant and designing’ must follow.  His successors now practise the reverse.

As a result, the Declaration contained two outright lies.  The one about all men being equal is well known.  Perhaps I may then refer to what I said in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

Well, this evasion, if that is the term, on the subject of slavery might be expected from a slave-owner from the largest slave-owning state.  But what was not to be expected was the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.

The American Declaration of Independence follows the form of the English Declaration of Rights.  It records the conduct complained of to justify the termination of the relationship.  (This is what lawyers call ‘accepting a repudiation’ of a contract.)  The English did so in short, crisp allegations that were for the most part devoid of oratorical colour in the Declaration of Rights.  The allegations are expressed in simple enough terms and were not phrased so as to encourage an evasive form of denial. 

How does the American Declaration of Independence go about this process?  Before it gets to an allegation that the king maintains standing armies, which is a relatively specific charge, it made ten allegations of misconduct that were so general that they would not be permitted to stand today as an allegation of a breach of the law on a conviction for which a person might lose their liberty.  The fourteenth allegation, which is hopeless, but which appears to be an attempt to invoke the English precedent, is that:  ‘He [King George III] has abdicated government here.’  Then there is the fifteenth allegation:  ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’  If that allegation of plunder and murder – the old word was ‘rapine’ – had been seriously put, you might have expected to see it before an allegation of abdication – and before every other allegation.  The eighteenth allegation relates to the Indians. The nineteenth was the allegation relating to slavery and which was struck out.  Those drafting the Declaration were not evidently keen to get down to the subject of people of another race.  Or tax.

Let us put to one side that all these allegations are made against the Crown, and not the government, and that none of these allegations refers to any statute of the British government.  There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence.  The primary reason that history gives for the revolt of the colonists was the imposition, or purported imposition, of taxes upon them by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax.  Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different. 

But British taxation is only mentioned once in the Declaration of Independence.  That reference is fallacious.  It is against the King.  The Glorious Revolution made it plain that he could not impose a tax.  The only reference to the English legislature comes when those drafting the documents scold the English for ‘attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us’.  Given that the 1688 revolution secured the supremacy of the English parliament over the English Crown and made it transcendentally clear that only the English parliament could levy a tax on its subjects, it may have seemed a little odd for Jefferson to be suggesting that the American colonies were somehow subject to the English Crown, but not to the English parliament.  ‘Jurisdiction’ is a word that has come to bedevil American jurisprudence, and it looks like the problem may have started very early.

‘For imposing Taxes upon us without our Consent’ comes in near the end of charges against England.  This Declaration is then a very dicey basis for any political theory or catechism.  It’s not much of a rock to build a church on.  And the descendants of the colonists are still skittish about tax.  They are better at spending than paying.  An endorsement of deceit, racial superiority and fiscal irresponsibility may be okay for the current president, but surely not for a Republican, much less a bona fide conservative.

The rest of the West think that the U S has been driven to at least two disastrous political failures by the application of the kind of theories discussed in this book by Mr Will  – free universal health care and gun control.

If you think an ounce of evidence is worth a ton of theory, try this.  In June 1908, David Lloyd George told the House of Commons:

‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal.  They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.’

That proposition is still heresy for those to whom Mr Will appeals. For them, the State has no business in dealing with such problems.  But Lloyd George and Churchill drove through this reform – as they called it – which would be the foundation of what we know as the Welfare State, and the start of the provision of a system of affordable health care that is taken for granted in every country in the West – except America.  England was following the example set by Bismarck in Germany.  Well over a hundred years later, Americans were still mouthing silly labels like ‘Socialist’.

What do Americans get for their primitive and puritanical purity?  Not just the worst health system in the Western world, but the most expensive.  And they get something from between pity and contempt from the rest of us who regard free universal health care as non-negotiable in a society that likes to call itself civilised.  You can quote Plato and Hegel till the cows come home – decent health care provided by government is for us an inescapable part of our social fabric.

The same goes for gun control.  Americans pay a frightful sacrifice in human life in obedience to what we see as a hideously loaded ideological reading of a clause in their Bill of Rights that had nothing to do with the cruel aspirations of the NRA. .  The same Bill of Rights is part of our legal dispensation, but only a lunatic would assert that it has the same lethal consequences for us.

You get some idea of the depth of the gulf separating us when you read ‘So, constitutional lawyers are America’s practitioners of political philosophy.’  That is not our way here.  English and Australian jurists would be horrified at the notion that they should engage in political philosophy while on the job.  And we worry about Mr Will’s grip on reality when we read: ‘most Americans want altars kept apart from the state’s business.’  Is all that stuff we read about Evangelicals just fake news?

The Index to the book makes no mention of Trump, or, in a book riddled with –isms, populism.  As best I can see, the book contains no discussion of the current status of ‘conservatism’ for Republicans in America.  If they are the two main issues facing America today, then tossing intellectual playthings about like shuttlecocks makes Nero’s fiddling look while Rome burned positively sane.  If this book correctly reflects a ‘conservative’ spectrum in America today, then we may better understand what many see as the moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party and any reasonable application of ‘conservatism’ to the U S in 2019.

By contrast, near the end of Jefferson and Hamilton, John Ferling said:

Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics and government, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

Well, that was way back in 2103, and since then the abhorrence of Jefferson has got so much worse as the United States has fallen flat on its face in the gutter.  And, yes, Hamilton was killed in a duel.  And the rest of the world looks on in sadness as the United States increasingly looks more like its current president – the spoiled child who never grew up.

None of this would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville.

…..in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity…As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself…Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.’

And ‘irritable patriot’ is a reasonable title for the current incumbent at the White House.

Here and there – A different kind of president

Here and there – A different kind of president

Harry S Truman was substantially raised in a farm in Missouri.  His family were simple decent people who shared in the life of their community.  His mother would live to see him become President.  He was educated at the local school in an undistinguished way, except that very poor eyesight meant that he wore glasses, and the he was taught to play the piano.

Then, when Harry was about seventeen, his father went broke after risky trading.  (Young Harry won on a horse at 25 to 1 and did not bet on a horse again for 25 years.)  Harry had to go to work to support the family.  One job was in construction on the railroad – ten hours a day, six days a week, $30 a month plus board.  He learned about all kinds of profanity from altogether a different class of person.  ‘A very-down-to earth education.’  He learned how to get on with the men, and they responded in kind.  ‘He’s all right from his asshole out in every direction.’  He learned to keep it simple.  One night groping in the dark he ran right into a pump.  The next day, he painted the pump white.

When the U S got into the Great War, Harry was medically unfit and his family relied on him.  He was about to marry.  He memorised the sight test and joined up.  His troops elected him as an officer.  He told Bess she would wait for him to come back to marry in case he did not.  Harry put duty above personal interest.  Always.  This was ‘a job somebody had to do.’

In four months on the Somme, the Germans lost more than both sides in the entire U S civil war.  Harry received intense training which he had to pass on.  He was terrified when he first had to address his troops.  But he was the boss.  ‘I didn’t come here to get along with you.  You’ve got to get along with me.’  For their first engagement, they arrived in pitch dark at 3 am, the rain pouring down, and men and horses exhausted.  Harry lost twenty pounds when learning how to lead and look after men in the horror of war.

When he got back home, Harry went into business selling high end men’s wear, and he became heavily involved with the Masons.  That business went broke, and he had to pay off its debts.  The local Missouri Democrat machine was run by the Prendergasts – like English lords of the 18th century.  With their patronage, Harry went into politics and got into the Senate.  His personal loyalty meant that he felt obliged to stand by his patrons even when that did not suit him politically –as when their chief drew heavy jail time. Then Harry felt that his career was over – but he hung on and recovered.  Harry had not ducked for cover.  (His opponent took a hit when it was learned that his chauffeur was required to give him a military salute.)

Harry made his name in the Senate inquiring into corrupt practices.  He attacked Wall Street and the larger danger of money worship.  He told Bess: ‘It will probably catalogue me as a radical, but it will be what I think.’  He was repelled by ‘wild greed’ and showed the traditional Missouri suspicion of concentrated power and the East.

How these gentlemen, the highest of the high hats in the legal profession resort to tricks that would make an ambulance chaser in a coroner’s court blush with shame?…..We worship money instead of honour.  A billionaire, in our estimation, is much greater in these days in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works for public interest.  It makes no difference if the billionaire rode to the wealth on the sweat of little children and the blood of underpaid labour.  No one ever considered Carnegie libraries steeped in the blood of the Homestead steel-workers, but they are.  We do not remember that the Rockefeller is founded on the dead miners of Colorado Fuel & Iron….People can only stand so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement….

Had the world heard anything like this since Lloyd George in 1909?  We hear nothing like it now.  Even if you could find someone who had those beliefs, they would be too scared to voice them.

When World War II came to the U S, Harry wanted to volunteer.  Marshall told him he was too old.  Harry admired Marshall above all others.

Truman hated McCarthy – as did Ike – but he refused to play dirty.

You must not ask the President of the United  States to get down in the gutter with a guttersnipe.  Nobody, not even the President of the United States, can approach too close to a skunk, in skunk territory, and expect to get anything out of it except a bad smell.

When Roosevelt died, Churchill was saddened, but he soon came to appreciate Truman.  ‘He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.’  He had no trouble dropping the bomb – to save American lives.  He surrounded himself with men of the highest calibre – Marshall, Acheson and implementing the Marshall Plan, this veteran of the First World War reversed the two deadliest mistakes of the Allies at the end of the First.  He repudiated nationalism, embraced and saved Europe, and helped secure three generations of comparative peace under a rules based order anchored on the stability and integrity of the United States.

By applying immense concentration and diligence, Truman made decisions such as those, and on Israel, Korea and Macarthur that others may have ducked.  He did not seek personal praise.  David McCullough said that more ‘than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn’t care who received the credit.’

In January 1952, when I was six years of age, Churchill dined with Truman and leading members of his government.

The last time you and I sat across the conference table was at Potsdam, Mr President.  I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard then.  I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt.  I misjudged you badly.  Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilisation.

Well, if you are a bona fide big hitter – and these two plainly were – you are entitled to make statements as large as that one.

Two of the biggest decisions this great man took were the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the decision to fire Macarthur.  The two may be related.  Macarthur had wanted to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on Manchuria and the mainland cities of China.  If Truman had not prevailed, we might not be here.

But the comparison with the present White House is enough to make a man cry.