When Aristotle said that man is a political animal, he meant, we are told, that man is at best when he is living in a polis – a town, or a city, or small state. Putting to one side a Greek bias, people are better off when they live together. (If you are a hermit, you have a better chance of doing what you want, but who would want even to visit a land of hermits?)
In order to be able to live together in a community, we have to be able to get on with other people. Everyone is different and people want different things. It follows, as night the day, that I will not be able to have everything I want. If, therefore, some people in a group are determined to get their own way, regardless of others, we have a problem. They might put a spoke in our wheel.
England and Australia are governed by an elected party that is said to stand for something, but which does not appear to stand for anything. The same goes for each of their leaders. Both the party and the leader appear to have lost purpose and direction. Sadly, much the same can be said of the leader of the opposition in each country; each is, at best, a disappointment. All this fuels the loss of faith in government, and assists the downward spiral.
America is different. Its governing party has lost its nerve and any commitment to principle. It just refuses to do its duty to control the executive. Its leader owes allegiance to nothing but himself. As for the opposition, if such it may be called, it has no leader at all. The system doesn’t allow it.
The American problem therefore looks worse than that of England or Australia. But in each case, there is simmering discontent, a loss of faith in government if not the nation, and a readiness to confront enemies at home, either real or imagined. We are seeing hostility, or just plain anger, and an unwillingness or inability to restrain it. We are losing the lubricant that oils our political machine and allows it to tick over and absorb any shocks caused by faulty parts or cogs in the gears.
As I understand it, economies and reserve banks are still adjusting to the Great Financial Crisis – that started ten years ago. (History may show that crisis to have been more consequential than the Great Depression.) The appalling inequality of wealth and income that that crisis revealed is part of the problem. Another is that our wealth as a nation depends on international trade that each nation has only a very limited capacity to control.
What you then get is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness among those who have lost out. You also get a sense of affront and outrage at the apparent inequality of treatment. The people so offended hardly need persuasion that their case is both plain and just. They look for politicians who will give them the plain answer they need. When the fishwives of Les Halles got to Versailles, their demand was simple: Du pain; pas tant de long discours. Anything resembling sophistication is of course the defence mechanism of the enemy of the chosen.
Well, the plain answer is obvious. The people of the nation – the real people, that is – need to go back to its true self, what it was before those awful bad guys took over. (It is of no concern that this past is almost wholly imaginary.)
And the other part of the answer is equally obvious. You identify and go after the causes of your maltreatment. These are obviously those who are foreign to the real people, either abroad or at home. You go after them with gusto, especially if they are sitting ducks. How sweet it is to be able to dish out elbows for people whose lives have been dedicated to copping them. The historical label for these people on the receiving end is ‘scapegoats’, but our latterday avengers are not keen on that term; it too closely resembles their own condition while they were disempowered.
From that dreadful cocktail, you get misfits like Hanson, Farage, Johnson and Trump. It does not matter that this model has been duplicitously flogged from Peisistratus to Duterte for 2500 years. There is one born every minute. Nor does it matter that history hardly reveals any successful people’s or peasants’ revolt or any scapegoat who has been decently pursued. The relevant history is one of misery and injustice. Neither the oppressed nor their champions go in for length, width or depth in their view of the world. Their commitment is short-term, personal, and angry. Like that between the advocate from Arras and the sans-culottes, it is a marriage entered into on the altar of social justice. (They hardly spoke a word in common, but they developed a communal taste for an exposed neck.) If you had to choose one word for such a union, the most polite might be ‘irrational.’
We have seen all this before. What is worrying now is the readiness of people to throw sand in the gear box. In the end, our political system depends on people restraining themselves and co-operating with others. ‘Co-operating’ with others there means little more than living or working with them. It comes back to living in a group. If we do want to rate ourselves above the apes, we have to control our impulse to selfishness. If you go to legal historians, they will speak of customs; lawyers talk of precedents; constitutional lawyers speak of conventions; our commitment to the rule of law comes down to little more than a state of mind. You will immediately see that the short-termed champion of the oppressed can so easily drive an excavator clean over the foundations of our world. It may not take all that much to seize up our machine.
And when you think about it, people who should also have known better have been eating away at conventions that stood in their electoral path – for immediate if transient advantage, they were prepared to risk long term damage. And, as it seems to me, the soi disant conservatives have always been the first to go out of bounds. Just look at the determination of the Republican Congress to block an elected president, even to the point of denying him the right to appoint to the Supreme Court. Their determination to block Obama has only been matched by their steely resolution to do nothing to stand in the way of President Trump.
On the need for cooperation, take an example from the law. A man agreed to buy a very expensive machine. The contract was subject to testing by the buyer. The buyer refused to pay. He said that he had not tested the machine. But the court held against him. The court found that the buyer was at fault in not inspecting the machine and that he could not rely on his own fault to defeat the claim of the buyer for payment. The court ruled that:
…where in a … contract it appears that both parties have agreed that something shall be done, which cannot effectually be done unless both concur in doing it, the construction [legal effect] of the contract is that each agrees to do all that is necessary to be done on his part for the carrying out of that thing, though there may be no express words to that effect.
The court therefore found that where people agree to act together for a common purpose, their agreement may be subject to an implied condition of cooperation. That ruling to my mind does little more than reflect a necessary truth of communal life.
Why are so many now ignoring this obvious fact of life? Part of the problem comes from the self-righteousness of those who see themselves victims as the victims of injustice. (As Gandalf remarked in The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘There is such a thing as malice and revenge!’ And every revolution known to man nearly drowned in them.) The other part of the problem comes from the selfishness and deceit of the chosen champions of the dispossessed. They have, after all, only come along for the ride.
Now, a lot of this is large, too large. But none of it is novel. Indeed, it is just the lack of novelty that is most unsettling. Of course they love their country; of course they value their citizenship; what else have they got? So, we will reclaim our sovereignty, whatever that means; we will glorify the Fatherland, and if necessary go to war for it, and our values; and we shall confine citizenship to those born to deserve it. That old script is so tawdry, but it does prompt some reflections.
From any point in that compass, Trump is a vicious threat. He is a stupid spoiled child who has never been taught any better, but what troubles us as much as the credulity of what is called his ‘base’ is the failure of an established party to do its job and check him.
They may however be part of a grand irony. If the GFC paved Trump’s wave to power, he may be rewarding those wealthy smart Alecs responsible by policies, if such they may be called, that favour the rich over the rest.
But Australians need not feel smug about the inanity of American government. Its main allegedly conservative party is once again tearing itself apart over a proposition as contestable as that which says that the earth is round. Those responsible are helped by lay preachers, failed political hacks, think tank stooges, and tarts for the crowd who somehow get some attention from the downtrodden on the outlets of Rupert Murdoch. The tribalism and bitchiness transcends anything offered in the past by the Labor Party – and that is no small statement.
There is another worry for us. Three of the most unloved people in Australia are Rudd, Latham, and Abbot. They are now being joined by a fourth – Joyce. The rats come from all sides; each led his party; two were Prime Minister; all four failed at their top; all four have turned on their own party with all the grace of a Taipan hit and missed by a piece of angle iron. There is a well-founded worry about the stability of all of them. But what they have in common is that they are bad losers whose blame on others is writ large and whose hunger for revenge is as ugly as it is unwarranted.
But we may have seen a touch of spring. When a member of the Guards ratted on a princess, The Times said that the system had ‘flushed out an absolute shit’. So have we. Fraser Anning looks to be as nasty as he is inane. I will not rehearse the terms of his maiden speech – that’s your and my taxes at work – but Mr Anning did not seek to hide his contempt for people of a different creed or colour; nor did he seek to hide his longing for the White Australia Policy. He just stood there looking like a toddler who had just soiled his nappy in public.
In doing so, Mr Anning immediately outed all those members of parliament and the Murdoch press who have for years been transmitting signals about those very sentiments under code names like border protection, sovereignty, national values, freedom of speech, and that most glorious chestnut of them all – Western civilisation, or, if you prefer, Judaeo-Christian civilisation. We need not pause for an historical analogy for the role Muslims in Australia in 2018 as scapegoats; if you have a problem, ask another Australian who subscribes to a faith coming out of Asia – apart from Judaism and Christianity.
Mr Anning’s embrace of those whole wavelengths of scapegoats was so brazen that both houses of parliament came together and denounced the rogue ratbag on the spot. How dare a new boy queer the nest of the old boys?
Everyone felt better. But do you know what? Even the decent press called this a victory for democracy.
And about ten years after the good fishwives of Paris got their bread and killed their king, they got a little Corsican emperor with his own aristocracy and a secret police that the Bourbons could never have dreamed of.