An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

An Overflow of Violent Bacchanalia

Accounts of the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg on October 25th 1917 read more like those of a party being violently gate-crashed than the single most shocking event of the twentieth century: the emergence of the Bolsheviks as leaders of the first Communist regime in history, in the world’s largest country. The old European order would soon lie in tatters, but outrageous indulgence rather than single-minded austerity marked this turning point in history. The ultimate descent of the Revolution into oppressive totalitarianism may be explained by intellectual hubris among its followers, and the violent methods of its leader.

Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in March 1917, ending a reign marked by ineptitude and intransigence. The Romanov dynasty to which he belonged had ruled Russia since 1613, and in that period conquered a vast multinational empire encompassing almost a sixth of the world’s landmass. Tsardom itself, which claimed a descet, and drew its name, from the Roman Caesars, had apparently passed into the dustbin of history. Historic failure to remodel Russian society along European lines – serfs were only emancipated in 1861 – ill-equipped the Empire for the challenge of modern, ‘total’ warfare. Nicholas, his wife and five children, were shot, bayonetted and clubbed to death by Bolsheviks the following year.

By October 1917 a socialist lawyer Alexander Kerensky was leader of a provisional government. Fatally for that regime, however, Russia remained embroiled in a war she could ill-afford. In the meantime the exiled Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin had been smuggled with German assistance into the country aboard a sealed train, intent on fomenting a violent uprising. ‘Russia’, wrote Ilya Ehrenberg, ‘lived as if on a railway platform, waiting for the guard’s whistle’. The American journalist John Reed attests to a rambunctious atmosphere in the then capital of St Petersburg: ‘Gambling clubs functioned hectically from dusk till dawn with champagne flowing and stakes of 20,000 roubles. In the centre of the city at night, prostitutes in jewels and expensive furs walked up and down and crowded the cafés … Hold-ups increased to such an extent that it was dangerous to walk the streets.’

Inside the Winter Palace members of Kerensky’s cabinet – though not Kerensky himself – held out against the Bolsheviks who controlled most of the city. Red Army gunners at the Peter and Paul Fortress managed a barrage of three dozen 6-inch shells, but only two hit their mark. They succeeded, nonetheless, in panicking the defenders and many slipped away. At last the dilettante besiegers discovered the main doors were unlocked and stormed the building. Without significant bloodshed the cabinet were arrested, although some of the women’s militia defending the palace were raped. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, more people were hurt in the making of Eisentein’s film Ten Days that Shook the World ten years later, than in the ‘battle’ itself. What ensued was a wild party.

According to the leader of the assault Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko: ‘The matter of the wine-cellars became especially critical’. Nicholas’s cellars contained Hungarian Tokay from the age of Catherine the Great and stocks of Chateau d’Yquem 1847, the emperor’s favourite. But:

the Preobrazhensky Regiment… got totally drunk. The Pavlovsky, our revolutionary buttress, also couldn’t resist. We sent guards from other picked units – all got utterly drunk. We post guards from the Regimental Committees – they succumbed as well. We despatched armoured cars to drive away the crowd, but after a while they also began to weave suspiciously. When evening came, a violent bacchanalia overflowed.

What transpired after this farce was, however, no carnival. According to Montefiore Lenin was always ‘eager to start the bloodletting’. Like Padraig Pearse in Ireland, he believed any successful revolution demanded a heavy death toll, favouring the ruthlessness of Robespierre’s Jacobins in 1789 over the more placatory Paris Communards in 1870. As far back as 1908 Lenin wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because its leaders ‘should have exterminated its enemies’, rather than attempt to exert moral influence. In August 1918 he issued the following order:

1. Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2. Publish their names.
3. Take all their grain away from them.
4. Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday. Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out your instructions.
Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
Lenin’s approach to violence may have been pragmatic in the context of the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but containing the “tougher people” he unleashed would prove highly problematic.

Up to ten million people died in that conflict, the vast majority civilians; far more than the approximately two million Russian deaths in the preceding war. But wartime militarisation left the country as combustible as a pine forest after a heatwave. The October Revolution was the hesitant match that brought the inferno. The White Guard (1925), Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel set during the Civil War in Kiev, recounts:

there were tens of thousands of men who had come back from the war, having been taught how to shoot by those same Russian officers they loathed so much. There were hundreds of thousands of rifles buried under-ground, hidden in hayricks and barns and not handed in, despite the summary justice dealt out by the German field courts-martial, despite flailing ramrods and shrapnel-fire; buried in that same soil were millions of cartridges, a three-inch gun hidden in ever fifth-village, machine guns in every other village, shells stored in every little town, secret warehouses full of army greatcoats and fur caps.

The events in St Petersburg reverberated around the enormous country, generating a dizzying array of factions that never managed to dislodge the Bolsheviks from the two largest Russian cities, despite the intervention of foreign powers.

Karl Marx did not believe that a Russian revolution would produce a Socialist government as the society was too undeveloped. Under Marxist theory Communism should emerge in the more advanced Capitalist societies such as the UK and Germany. After victory in the Civil War the Red Army pushed westwards towards Germany. The triumph, however, of Marshall Pilsudski’s Polish army before Warsaw in 1920 – the so-called ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ – scuppered the prospect of world revolution. Communism would be confined to one country for two decades. Nevertheless, a generation of European intellectuals were seduced by the idealism of the October Revolution.

According to the poet Stephen Spender, who briefly joined the Communist Party of Britain in the 1930s: ‘Socialism was a variety of modernist behaviour which went with red ties and Shaw’s beard.’ It was widely believed that Capitalism was both deeply unfair, and ultimately doomed. Sympathies were also based on an assumption of being on the right side of history. As Karl Marx put it: ‘Communism … is the riddle of history solved and knows itself as this solution.’ In this teleology Communism was the ultimate stage, humankind having passed through Slavery, Feudalism and Capitalism. It was linked to a belief in science and rationality, and opposed to the superstitions and inflexibility of Old Europe.

The appeal for others lay in ameliorating the disastrous economic conditions after the war. The novelist Arthur Koestler’s family never recovered financially from its effects. He joined the German Communist Party in 1931 after surveying the poverty and profiteering that followed the Wall Street Crash of 1929. He later recalled: ‘I was ripe for it because I lived in a disintegrating society thirsting for faith.’ The road to hell was paved with good intentions.

Classically, revolutions devour their children, and Josef Vissarionvich Djugashvilli-Stalin emerged as the angel of death. According to an early biographer Isaac Deutscher, Stalin ‘was the ultimate committee man’, who, ‘led because he followed the prevailing mood and expressed it in a grey patchwork of formulas.’ As to his role in the October Revolution Leon Trotsky – himself an early disciple of Lenin’s ruthless disregard for human life, who would eventually be murdered with an ice pick on Stalin’s orders – wrote: ‘the greater the sweep of events, the smaller was Stalin’s place in it.’

‘Trotsky’s testimony might be dismissed’, according to Deutscher, ‘were it possible to find among the welter of documents’, a few recording Stalin’s direction connection with the first days of the upheaval, but ‘none have been found.’ Afterwards as first Commissar for Nationalities Stalin operated in the background, building alliances and playing one faction off against another, as he awaited a chance to strike for power, which arrived after Lenin’s early death in 1924. The widespread acceptance of Lenin’s violent methodology when placed in the hands of this paranoid, and frankly wicked, personality brought untold suffering to Russia, and beyond.

Communism was a system of government committed to rational methods, but Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s anonymous anti-hero in Notes from the Underground (1864) anticipates how a wilful character, such as Stalin’s, would emerge to mock those principles. He describes a form of government where:

All human actions will then of course be calculated, mathematically, like logarithm tables up to 108,000, and recorded in a calendar; or even better, well-intentioned publications will then appear … in which everything will be so precisely calculated and recorded that there will no longer be deliberate acts or adventures in the world.

This he suggests would create a reaction, in the form of that avenging angel:

I, for example, wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the midst of all this reasonableness that is to come, suddenly and quite unaccountably some gentleman with an ignoble, or rather a reactionary and mocking physiognomy were to appear and, arms akimbo, say to us all: “Now, gentlemen, what about giving all this reasonableness a good kick with the sole purpose of sending all those logarithms to hell for a while so we can live for a while in accordance with our own stupid will!

He adds, ominously, that, ‘the pity is that he will find people to follow him: people are made like that’.

During the purges Stalin openly revealed an admiration for Tsar Ivan IV (‘the terrible’), though he felt, ‘Ivan killed too few boyars. He should have killed them all, to create a strong state.’ Thus, Montefiore argues: ‘The magnates were not as oblivious to Stalin’s nature as they later claimed’. He found no difficultly enlisting loyal executioners, despite descending into the despotism and profound irrationality of a Red Tsar.

Thus, paradoxically, Communists and their fellow-travellers were bewitched by a dogma of extreme rationality, where the Utopian end justified the most shocking means. Koestler writes: ‘Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to the act’. Koestler eventually become disillusioned with the cause, and his novel Darkness at Noon (1940) is a probing psychological portrait of an innocent Bolshevik who assents to his execution in a show trial, sacrificing himself for the sake of the historical dialectic. Adherence to Communism took on many of the features of a religion.

Other Communists – usually at a remove from the horrors of Leninism and Stalinism – such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm, were repelled by those who had abandoned their faith. In his autobiography he admits: ‘I was strongly repelled by the idea of being in the company of those ex-Communists who turned into fanatical anti-Communists, because they could free themselves from the service of ‘The God that failed’ only by turning him into Satan’. It was only in 1956 when Khrushchev admitted to the depravity of Stalin’s rule, and after the Hungarian Revolution had been brutally suppressed, that he admits: ‘for more than a year, British Communists lived on the edge of the political equivalent of a collective nervous breakdown.’

Communists reacted to these events like devout Catholics to revelations of a paedophilic clergy. However, like many Catholics, disgusted by particular priests but convinced by a Revealed truth, Hobsbawm remained true to his ‘church’: ‘emotionally, as one converted as a teenager in the Berlin of 1932, I belonged to the generation tied by an umbilical cord to hope of the world revolution, and of its original home, the October Revolution, however sceptical or critical of the USSR.’

The intellectual hubris of the Marxist idea of an end to history perhaps doomed the movement to a violent totalitarianism that brooked no dissent. Under Communism, according to the Polish writer Ryzsard Kapuscinski: ‘the art of formulating questions (for it is an art!) vanished, as did even the need to ask them. Increasingly everything presented itself as being what it was supposed to be’. He concludes ‘A civilisation that does not ask questions … is a civilisation standing in place, paralyzed, immobile’. Communism did not permit competing opinions. This led to intellectual stultification, formulaic art, and eventually declining scientific ingenuity that gave the West the edge in the Cold War.

Many European intellectuals saw the October Revolution as a spark of inspiration anticipating a better world, and in a period when politics was closely connected to military struggle, violent excess was tolerated. In response, abandoning ideology may seem salutary; as Solzhenitsyn put it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’ However, without conviction human progress is stalled, and the only ‘-ism’ that survives is the kind of cynicism of today that sees no alternative to an ascendant Neoliberalism. The noble objective of Communism was to bring homo sapiens to a higher plain of existence. Despite the horrendous hangover that followed the October Revolution, perhaps we should not abandon that hope lightly.

History indicates that any improving idea is unlikely to succeed over the long-term if brutal methods are used to carry it out. Lenin criticised the relative passivity of the Paris Communards, but modern France is more socialist than present-day Russia. Significant shifts in consciousness – such as those brought by the Christian New Testament to Europe – tend to occur at an individual level rather than when imposed from above. In fact, as was the case after the Roman Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity, imposition may often lead to tyranny. An abstract idea, no matter how seemingly benevolent, in the hands of a ruthless politician, such as Stalin, may become a tool of oppression. Today few around the world still believe that the October Revolution was the catalyst for a better world

Oh Really O’Reilly

Oh Really O’Reilly

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed Damien O’Reilly, the presenter of RTE’s Countrywide and occasionally Liveline, received a payment of €1,500 to act as Master of Ceremonies at An Bord Bia-Origin Green trade event in Dubai earlier this year. This casts serious doubt over O’Reilly’s objectivity in regard to that controversial campaign.

Origin Green projects an image of Irish agriculture as sustainable and harmonious with nature, but greenhouse gas emissions from the sector remain at 33% of the national total. The programme includes 90% of all Irish beef produced, and 85% of all dairy farms in the country. A mere 0.5% of applicants have been refused admission.

This has brought accusations of greenwashing. The Irish Wildlife Trust recently called on the Government to scrap the Origin Green certification scheme on the basis that “some of the country’s worst polluters are among those certified.” The IWT’s campaigns officer Padraig Fogarty claimed it was a marketing label promoted by An Bord Bia, which should be “exposed for the sham that it is”, and scrapped. Fogarty’s recent book Whittled Away: Ireland’s Vanishing Nature reveals how an unprecedented range of species native to the island are facing extinction, including the legendary curlew.

A submission by An Taisce to An Bord Bia on Origin Green, from October 2016, stated: “Judging the sustainability of Irish agriculture under the three key environmental headings targeted by Origin Green, namely Climate, Water and Biodiversity reveals that, far from being sustainable, Irish agriculture is actually a major environmental pressure and threat”.

Origin Green has emerged during a period of expansion and intensification in Irish agriculture under Food Harvest 2020 and Foodwise 2025, which are at odds with a carefully cultivated image that has seen celebrities such as Saoirse Ronan feature in its advertising campaign.

The executive summary of the Harvest 2020 document lays bare the strategy: “Green. Capitalising on Ireland’s association with the colour ‘green’ is pivotal to developing the marketing opportunity for Irish agri-food. This will build on our historic association with the colour and highlight the environmental credentials associated with our extensive, low-input, grass-based production systems… consumers in key markets will learn to recognise implicitly that, by buying Irish, they are choosing to value and respect the natural environment”.

However, what is happening across the country is “completely incompatible with the purported aspirations of Origin Green” according to An Taisce. In terms of climate change they dismiss it as “a glossy PR campaign supporting Irish agriculture’s “sustainability illusion.”

The country faces up to €610 million in fines from the European Commission unless emissions targets are met by 2020. Revelation of this cash payment call into question O’Reilly’s capacity to interrogate Origin Green and An Bord Bia meaningfully, as his role on Countrywide reporting on agriculture should entail.

On March 2nd of this year Irish Food UAE (@irishfoodinuae) tweeted a picture of a beaming O’Reilly arm-in-arm with lovely ladies in green dresses. The tweet read: ‘Damien O’Reilly assisting in the promotion of Irish food in the Middle East @RTERadio1 @RTECountryWide @BordBiaMENA.’ Clearly there was no attempt to conceal his involvement, but the payment of €1,500, and the cost of the trip which came to €2,600, apart from calling into question his objectivity, and may be in breach of RTE’s Staff Code of Conduct.

An Bord Bia stated that O’Reilly acted as Master of Ceremonies at the event: ‘which included a panel discussion on Ireland’s sustainability story and Origin Green.’ This coincided with a Ministerial Trade Mission to the Middle East bringing together regional buyers, importers and distributors.

In a statement An Bord Bia sought to distance themselves from involvement claiming the Irish Business Network in Dubai invited O’Reilly, and paid for his flights, and that it was a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event, and that they were only one among a number of sponsors. But why then would An Bord Bia make a payment to O’Reilly and take care of many of his expenses? It should also be noted that An Bord Bia’s response to the Freedom of Information request described it as an ‘Bord Bia Origin Green trade event’, not a ‘Taste of Ireland’ event.

The payment and costs may seem small beer, but RTE’s Code of Conduct for Employees states: ‘Staff are responsible for ensuring that they maintain the highest standards while involved in dealings with outside agencies’; and that ‘staff should never solicit or accept personal advantages or gifts of material value from firms or persons as a result of the staff member’s association with RTE.’ At the very least O’Reilly does not appear to have exhibited the “highest standards” in dealing with An Bord Bia – Origin Green.

When contacted a spokesperson for RTE said: “this was a paid engagement which falls under the Personal and Public Activities Guidance”, and that permission had been sought and granted.

When pressed the spokesperson said the manual containing these guidelines was not a public document. It seems unusual that RTE would have one document open to public scrutiny regarding the relationship of their employees with external businesses, and another entirely for internal consumption.

The spokesperson further rejected the idea that Damien’s journalistic objectivity was either undermined or affected by this engagement

Especially in the wake of Hurricane Ophelia, we should be wary of any greenwashing by the agricultural sector as we confront the unique challenge of Climate Change, and the prospect of hefty fines from the European Commission.

The national broadcaster must engage in a full, frank and transparent assessment of the Origin Green programme. Ultimately this will be to the advantage of farmers who confront adverse weather conditions, especially those seeking alternatives to the dominant use of land for grazing livestock. This makes Ireland’s agriculture sector the least efficient in the EU in terms of revenue per ton of CO2 produced.

When RTE’s leading journalist covering agriculture receives payment, however construed, from an organisation promoting a misleading picture of Irish agriculture’s sustainability, it stretches credulity that an objective analysis of that campaign will be undertaken.

Countrywide has already offered an outlet for outright denial of human responsibility for Climate Change when Michael O’Leary appeared on the show in April. O’Reilly is too polished a performer not to have challenged O’Leary’s barmy assertions, but it is inappropriate that a platform to ventilate these views should have been offered in the first place. Such debates only serve to confound the public, and delay action.

A few months later in July, in another of his moonlighting roles as a columnist in the Irish Farmers Journal, O’Reilly expressed admiration for Ryanair and its managing director saying: ‘It’s become a bit of a national pastime to criticise Michael O’Leary and his airline but I’m a fan of how they do business’.

Naturally, there was no mention of O’Leary’s views on Climate Change which goes some way to explaining why that criticism has become a “national pastime”.
A bizarre coda to this story comes from another debate on the role of agriculture in Climate Change on Countrywide in August in which O’Reilly welcomed John Sweeney as ‘Emirates’ Professor in Maynooth. Could it be that flying to Dubai was still on his mind?

Reforming Our Food Culture

Reforming Our Food Culture

Steven Poole declares that ‘Western culture is eating itself stupid’. His book You Aren’t What You Eat (2012) pokes fun at the snobbery, fads and celebrity culture that attend ‘foodie’ culture.
The term ‘foodie’ emerged in the 1980s, but the idea of discussing the enjoyment of food is much older. In France it goes back to the start of the nineteenth century when it became socially acceptable to do so.
We dispense with that ‘gastronomy’: ‘the art and science of delicate eating’, at our peril. Gastronomy enjoins restraint and reflection and is ‘the common bond which unites the nations of the world’, according to Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin one of its prime movers.
A gastronomic sensibility is valuable to our health, motivating us to consume a wide range of nutrients. But there is a challenge to reconcile our enjoyment with considerations of environmental impact and our health. Exploring our pleasure should make us sensitive to those who live with insufficiency.

Stuffed and Starved

In the West we eat too much, and in the South they eat too little. Despite increasing globalization we have not addressed that contradiction. A billion are now overweight or obese in the developed world where, shamefully, 50% of food is wasted. Alas almost that number are undernourished or starving in the developing world.
It should be a straightforward matter of handing over our excess. But with the best will in the world this approach will not work: transport networks, functioning bureaucracies and peaceful conditions are all required, and dumping our surpluses removes income from Third World farmers and an incentive to innovate and improve.
Moreover, much of what gives rise to obesity in the West is connected to over-consumption of junk foods. A world cannot be fed on soft drinks. Our working class neighborhoods are often ‘food deserts’ without access to fresh, healthy and competitively-priced food. There gastronomy cannot take root.
Meanwhile in the Third World, real deserts are expanding as droughts become more prolonged and land resources mismanaged. Exponential population growth and failing states leaves much of sub-Saharan Africa in food insecurity.

The Green Revolution

The seemingly limitless supply of food we have in the West can be explained by the so-called Green Revolution which occurred in agriculture after World War II. It involved the deployment of high-yielding strains of common cereals in combination with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides derived from fossil fuels. A hectare of wheat which previously yielded two tons can now yield eight. Similar feats were achieved with other common grains.
Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug is regarded as its instigator. He and his collaborators corrected a structural deficiency in the stalk of wheat which could not support heavy grains. Previously the most fruitful plants collapsed under the weight of their own seeds before maturity. Borlaug’s group developed dwarf strains that could stand up to the weight of bulbous grains, thereby doubling yields. Today, almost every kernel of wheat consumed by man and beast is derived from Borlaug’s selective breeding.
But the resulting monocultures have increased vulnerability to disease; according to the authors Fraser and Rimas in Empires of Food: ‘Today our landscape is a lot like that of Ireland and Sri Lanka immediately before the famines. We devote much of our earth to a very small number of crops’. Borlaug strains depend on polluting and finite fossil fuel to survive.
Much of our increased yields are fed to livestock; only 20% of US corn is eaten directly by humans. The Green Revolution has made animal products affordable but the cost of maintaining this in terms of global warming and energy use is becoming apparent.
Last year’s disastrous corn harvest in America is bringing the issue into sharp focus. A choice is unfolding between maintaining the affordability of two icons of American life: the hamburger and the motor car. The livestock industry are petitioning to weaken or abolish the ‘ethanol mandate’, requirements Congress set on the use of corn as automotive fuel, on grounds that it could bring about a collapse in meat production.

Pre-domesticated Varieties

Research conducted by Unilever may have revealed the nutrition of the future. Many pre-domesticated varieties of plants reveal significantly higher levels of nutrients than varieties currently grown. An older variety of apple, the Egremont Russet, has up to 10 times more of a phytonutrient than some modern varieties. The researchers hypothesise that this finding will be just one example of older plant varieties being richer in nutrients and fibre.
Dr Mark Berry, who led the research said: ‘The plants we eat today like fruits and vegetables have often been bred and selected on their weight-based yield per acre of land, and not necessarily on the nutrient content of the produce.’ He adds: ‘Perhaps a better strategy for human health, not to mention sustainable agriculture, would be to buy plants not based on their weight, but on their nutrient content.’
This view reflects research into pre-domesticated cereal grains which have strikingly more protein content compared to modern cultivars.
A gastronomic sensibility prizes this variety. Instead of artificially manipulating conditions with synthetic inputs, we can isolate a wide variety of strains deemed suitable to particular locations. Different regions can express distinctive terroir from carefully selected crops.
This diversity will make our crops more resilient. Biodiversity can even be harnessed to increase productivity through permacultures and forest-gardening.
These varieties can even play a role in addressing the obesity epidemic. The decreased nutritional-value of many foodstuffs is affecting satiety levels. We can consume hundreds of calories of sugar in a soft drink without the hormone ghrelin being released which lets our brain know we’ve had enough. Foods richer in nutrients and fibre confer greater satisfaction.
By shifting away from the production of animal product which requires far greater use of land, energy and water resources we can easily find room for lower-yielding, nutrient-dense varieties. With a raised gastronomic awareness we might waste less.

Food Sovereignty

But how can the cultivation of lower-yielding strains have any relevance for developing countries which confront the challenge of scarcity?
Many scientists argue that GMO technology offers solutions and are attempting to develop biological nitrogen fixation in crops such as wheat which would allow them to survive without synthetic fertilizers. They dangle the prospect of decreased energy dependency and pollution, but admit successful adaptation is many decades away, and may never be achieved. But the advance of GMO also decreases diversity and could have unforeseen effects.
A more sensible approach is for farmers to develop a wide variety of strains suited to different conditions. Lower-yielding varieties might prove more bountiful as the ensuing diversity would be less susceptible to disease and less dependent on polluting inputs derived from fossil fuels. Decrying a prevailing ‘industrial’ model of development in the Third World, Concern Worldwide argue: ‘smart site-specific agroecological approaches that increase production, conserve natural resources and are tailored to specific human and environmental conditions should be favoured’.
It may be that in the Third World raising education levels, gender equality and increasing access to the internet will bring great rewards to farmers there. Indigenous development can occur rather than the familiar story of Europeans bringing progress.

Shifting Diets

Complete self-sufficiency for most countries based on a wide variety of pre-domesticated and native crop varieties would be difficult to achieve, but increasing diversity could benefit our agriculture and improve nutrition.
A global community must retain surpluses to confront shortages. By shifting away from livestock production in the developed world we can produce more food and improve its nutritional quality. A reduction in the consumption of animal products should bring health benefits.
A shift in global diets is required to confront the challenges of obesity, global warming, peak oil and growing populations. A gastronomic sensibility can help inform our choices.

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

Shelley, Corbyn and Ireland

The Irish political establishment looks askance at the apparent rise of Jeremy Corbyn. An historically warm relationship with Sinn Fein, lukewarm opposition to Brexit, and a stubborn commitment to socialism all receive a cool reception in government buildings.

Corbyn’s approach to Ireland is conditioned by an anti-colonial, English republican and Chartist outlook, a cast of mind he would have shared with the Romantic poet and revolutionary Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). Indeed, after what most commentators agree was a successful election campaign, Corbyn acknowledged a debt to the poet for his campaign’s resonant slogan: ‘we the many, they the few.’

The lines come from Shelley’s poem the Masque of Anarchy written in the wake of the Peterloo massacre of 1819, which also led to the founding of the Guardian newspaper. In this he calls on Englishmen to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number … Ye are many—they are few.’

Shelley’s links to Ireland extend beyond his second wife Mary’s maternal grandmother’s Ballyshannon origins; or the Irish painter Emilia Curran’s iconic portrait of him from 1819. As a radical expelled from Oxford in 1811 for authoring a pamphlet advocating atheism – the first such public argument in England – he displayed a keen interest in John Bull’s other island.

In the white heat of the Napoleonic wars Ireland’s plight was an important English radical cause, at a time when our population was half that of England’s. Shelley chose to travel to Ireland in 1812, along with his first wife Harriet with whom he had recently eloped.

He was genuinely shocked at the poverty greeting him in Dublin, writing: ‘I had no conception of the depth of human misery until now. The poor of Dublin are assuredly the meanest and most miserable of all.’ This would prove relevant to what he later described as his poetic education in the introduction to the long poem Laon and Cythna: ‘I have seen the theatre of the more visible ravages of tyranny and war … the naked inhabitants sitting famished upon their desolated thresholds.’

The precocious nineteen-year-old addressed the Catholic Committee, containing the dying embers of the United Irishman movement, in what is now Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. He urged: ‘In no case employ violence, the way to liberty and happiness is never to transgress the rules of virtue and justice. Liberty and happiness are founded upon virtue and justice. If you destroy the one you destroy the other.’

The future leader of Catholic Emancipation Daniel O’Connell also attended that meeting, although he does not seem to have been present for Shelley’s speech. Nonetheless, he shared Shelley’s distaste for armed conflict, and this survived as the dominant approach in Irish nationalism until World War I.

Shelley might have traced failings of the Irish Free State after independence to its violent birth pangs, but, like Corbyn, his sympathies would have lain with the historically oppressed Catholic community in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Undoubtedly Shelley would also share Corbyn’s principled opposition to Trident, Britain’s nuclear programme.

Another link between Shelley and Ireland is that he completed his poem Queen Mab while holidaying in Ross Island on Killarney Lake. This strident poem, which he later partly disavowed, became a standard text among English radicals in the nineteenth century, especially keen on its condemnation of commerce: ‘beneath whose poison-breathing shade / No solitary virtue dares to spring.’ Corbyn’s antipathy to big business has long antecedents.

Shelley was an inspiration to a host of Irish writers including Yeats who said that Shelley shaped his life, and O’Casey who described himself as a Shelleyan communist. Another devotee George Bernard Shaw described Shelley as: ‘a republican, a leveller, a radical of the most extreme sort.’

Shelley was an inspiration for another of Shaw’s lifelong causes: vegetarianism, which the former laid out in another pamphlet: ‘A Vindication of Natural Diet’, although the term only came into being in the 1840s. Until then those who renounced meat were referred to as Pythagoreans.

This philosophy is shared with the current Labour leader who has been a vegetarian for almost fifty years. Considering the influence of the Irish livestock-lobby, this may further account for suspicion of the Labour leader in some government circles.

In his recent conference speech Corbyn argued that the political centre in the Britain had shifted to the Left making Labour the natural party of government. This commitment to the redistribution of wealth could be the fruition of Shelley’s idealism a ‘consciousness of good, which neither gold / Nor sordid fame, nor hope of heavenly bliss / Can purchase.’

Corbyn, like Shelley before him, may have appeared naïve in his approach to Irish politics. But he may yet become the first British Prime Minister to feel genuine remorse for the damage wrought by English colonialism in Ireland. And, notwithstanding the instability of the European project, ultimately this may harmonise relations between the peoples of these islands, all of whom have suffered under the yoke of tyrannical government during our shared history.

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Time for Varadkar to Confront O’Brien

Having been found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth, Socrates awaited execution with blissful disregard, declaring: ‘You are sadly mistaken, fellow, if you suppose that a man with even a grain of self-respect should reckon up the risks of living or dying, rather than simply consider, whenever he does something, whether his actions are just or unjust, the deeds of a good man or a bad one.’

Likewise, those of the Fine Gael tradition – or tribe – see defence of the rule of law as a sacred duty. This self-anointed role found its purest expression in the 1932 democratic handover of power to the ‘slightly constitutional’ Fianna Fail party. Like Socrates, Cumann na nGaedheal – the precursor to Fine Gael – chose political hemlock over abandonment of principle, and spent sixteen years in the political wilderness.

In the ideological stew that is Irish politics, and in an era in many respects post-historical and distractedly global, a commitment to the institutions of the state – emphasised by the late Liam Cosgrave – flickers in Fine Gael.

As a Minister for Transport Taoiseach Leo Varadkar displayed those instincts – with guts – in his public support for the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, against then Commissioner Martin Callinan in 2014. His intervention came at a crucial point in that sordid affair that has prised open the security forces of the state to highly unedifying scrutiny, leading to the resignation of two Commissioners.

But in becoming the natural party of government after the bail-out – for the first time since 1932 – Fine Gael also decisively shifted its appeal to the commercial classes, and departed from the 1960s generations’ social democratic leanings.

This re-alignment poses an existential threat to a party that has been a bastion of constitutionalism. In particular, questions remain over its relationship to billionaire Denis O’Brien, whose media interests extend to the newspaper with the widest circulation in the state, a host of local publications and two national radio stations.

We cannot be allowed to forget the corruption revealed by the Moriarty Tribunal in 2011, and that no criminal prosecution was brought in response.
O’Brien now dispenses writs of defamation against journalists with the abandon of a card dealer whose fortune is so great he has nothing to lose. The joke is that no Irish journalist worth his salt has not received such a threatening letter.

Press freedom is a crucial measure of democratisation and the rule of law. This is maintained, especially, by guarding against monopolistic practices. Arguably, it also requires state investment – via a licence fee or out of taxation revenue – and oversight of offensive content, such as hate speech.

All media is, to some extent, compromised by the demands of the market, with survival made more challenging with the arrival of the Internet. As George Orwell wrote: ‘The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.’ Maintaining an adequate forum for the ventilation of ideas in that commercial space is crucial.

As much as we may bemoan the Irish Time’s coverage of various issues – and freelancers gnash their teeth at a perceived journalistic establishment – as the main outlet for the Irish intelligentsia the paper is an important democratic pillar. Thus, for Communicorp, the parent company of Newstalk and Today FM, to prohibit radio stations from interviewing Irish Times journalists is a challenge to the integrity of the state itself. For O’Brien to wash his hands of responsibility for that black-listing lacks credibility.

O’Brien’s media outlets coarsen debate, feed a culture of celebrity, and like Rupert Murdoch’s, use extensive sports coverage as a ‘battering ram’, drawing attention away from more important issues. The media space available to the intelligentsia declines with each glossy picture of a scantily clad model.

The question is whether during the Kenny years of drift and incoherence the Fine Gael party has been compromised by its relationships with O’Brien. Kenny even shared a podium with O’Brien at the New York Stock Exchange in 2011.

If Fine Gael remain a guardian of the rule of law it must confront O’Brien. The Criminal Assets Bureau seems the appropriate means of moving in on his extensive assets, starting with media holdings that insulate him from public censor. White collar crime is another form of gangsterism. In how he deals with O’Brien we will see if Leo Varadkar really is a good and just man.

An increasingly number of countries, both rich and poor, are beset by oligarchs who exercise undue influence, and restrain the capacity of the intelligentsia to contribute to debates. The rule of law and democracy in Ireland faces a similar challenge in the shape of Denis O’Brien

Jeremy Corbyn Unfairly Treated in the UK and Irish Media

Jeremy Corbyn Unfairly Treated in the UK and Irish Media

Walking up the driveway on my first day of secondary school I felt an added sense of trepidation on account of the dandyish slip-on shoes I was wearing. As I entered the school buildings I ran the gauntlet of a rowdy phalanx of students, giddy with first-day nerves. They smelt fear.

A piercing cry rang out: “check out the shoes on Armstrong”. A chorus of guffaws followed leaving me red-faced and mute. On returning home that afternoon I dolefully slipped off the offending shoes for the last time, recovering an old, innocuous, pair that would do service for another year. The following day no one noticed my change in footwear as I blended with the crowd, no doubt dispensing my own barbs still suffered silently decades on.

I suggest another damaging conformity emanates from a superficially progressive elite that hold back radical change in the UK and Ireland, mostly by controlling media pronouncements, that can ultimately be traced to the educational system
The alt-right which now whisper into US President Trump’s ear are a collection of misfits who hark back to a halcyon 1950s landscape of milk bars, jukeboxes, white picket fences and horn-rimmed glasses. The Fourth Turning they imagine is a fiction that invents an enemy in extreme Islamism that appeals to a similar myopic nostalgia among their equally deluded adherents.

Nonetheless, I am drawn to a term ‘the Cathedral’ coined by an otherwise abhorrent alt-right ideologue Curtis Yarvin, a.k.a. Mencius Moldbug. According to Paul Eliot’s superb account that recently appeared in Village: ‘The Cathedral describes a media-academic-cultural consensus with conditions for belonging: members must ascribe to the progressivist religion and must accept dogmas from feminism, multiculturalism and trans-rights activism.’

The alt-right are correct nonetheless that what used to be called political correctness excludes certain positions from expression in the liberal fraternity. Witness the former leader of the Lib-Dems Tim Farron being hounded from office for his Christian beliefs, and in Ireland the treatment of John Waters by his former colleagues in the Irish Times, as well as the “group-think” that impelled RTE Prime Time journalists to jump to conclusions about a missionary priest.

I agree with the Cathedral on social issues, although I find the shutting down of debate distinctly undemocratic. My difficulty with this broad liberal consensus is that their dogmas extend well beyond issues of personal conscience such as gay sex or reproductive rights. I suggest the Cathedral now occupies a position on the centre right that stymies meaningful distribution of wealth, and environmental shifts. In so doing it has ceded space for an atavistic right to thrive.

The Cathedral’s Presidential candidate in the last US Presidential election was Hilary Clinton whose victory in the Democratic primaries was stage-managed by party elites, against the surging appeal of Bernie Sanders, the first candidate in decades to declare himself a socialist. The Cathedral is backed by large corporations in the US who devoted billions to Hilary Clinton’s electoral campaign. A sufficient number of a traditional white working class recognised this, and fell prey to Trump’s scoundrel patriotism.

The global income gap between rich and poor has never been greater, and the social conscience which the Cathedral exhibits is rather like George Orwell’s description of the millionaire, “who suffers from a vague sense of guilt, like a dog eating a stolen leg of mutton.” Stark inequalities in the UK have been laid bare by the penny-pinching that appears to have led to the Grenfell Tower fire.

All of this amorphous Cathedral are not millionaires. But they are drawn from fields such as law, medicine, education and media, and have reached, or feel themselves capable of reaching a comfortable level of wealth. They have vested interest in maintaining the status quo, including the price of property.

Divisions in UK politics are less stark than the US at least since Blair and Cameron apparently brought their parties into the centre ground, but actually affirmed Thatcher’s social revolution. Both New Labour and Compassionate Conservatism fell in line with the broad thrust of the UK’s distinctive Cathedral. In the process, each “de-toxified” their brands from association with union-jack-under-panted jingoism and unabashed capitalism in the case of the Conservatives; and old-fashioned trade unionism and socialism with Labour. But through the Blair-Brown years, and less surprisingly under ‘Compassionate’ Conservatism, income inequality (magnified by rising property prices) actually increased.

The fingerprints of the UK’s Cathedral was glaringly evident in the UK (and Irish) media’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, an unashamed socialist, anti-imperialist and vegetarian, in the months after he won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. A Media@LSE report: “Representations of Jeremy Corbyn in the British Press” reviewed what was the very opposite of a honeymoon period.
Bias emanating from the Murdoch and other right wing press that include The Sun, The Mail, The Express, The Telegraph and The Times were predictable, but the approach of apparently centre-left publications is more surprising. The authors state at the outset:

The results of this study show that Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn ended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgements about the leader of the country’s main opposition.

This would appear to vindicate Ralph Milliband’s (father of Ed and David) view that ‘the press may well claim to be independent and to fulfil an important watchdog function. What the claim overlooks, however, is the very large fact that it is the Left at which the watchdogs generally bark with most ferocity, and what they are above all protecting is the status quo’.

It is insightful that in the three apparently left or centrist newspapers, the Guardian, the Independent and the Daily Mirror a clear majority of articles were either critical or antagonistic towards him. Perhaps more concerning is the extent to which Corbyn’s own voice is absent: only 40% of articles in The Guardian and The Independent actually quote him. The authors reckon that up to one in five supposedly neutral news reports in the Guardian (as opposed to opinion articles) actually displayed bias against him.

The LSE authors conclude that superficially left-leaning and liberal newspapers provided an ‘extensive and enthusiastic platform to those forces in the Labour Party that aggressively contested Corbyn and what he stands for’.

It should be born in mind that censure in the apparently left-of-centre media was occurring at a time when the so-called ‘bearded socialist’ was being subject to an unprecedented level of attack by the right-wing press. The authors found that several commentaries moralised about Corbyn’s personal and romantic life. The ‘broadsheet’ Daily Telegraph heaped scorn on his former relationship with Diane Abbot folding a political critique with a questioning of what attracted the pair to one another: “Lover’s of what? Bolshevism? A warm vest to keep out the chill winds of the political wilderness?”

On the eve of the election a Guardian editorial on Friday 2nd of June reluctantly put its support behind Labour, but continued to question Corbyn’s fitness for office: ‘Many see him as a fluke, a fringe candidate who stole the Labour leadership while the rest of his party was asleep. In parliament he failed to reach beyond his faction. He is not fluent on the issues raised by a modern, sophisticated digital economy.’ He is thus portrayed as illegitimate, stealing the Labour leadership from a candidate who would presumably have adopted a more centrist position that preserves the status quo.

He is dismissed as ‘has been’ who doesn’t understand a sophisticated digital economy, including a neo-liberal arrangement in which transnational corporations successfully avoid taxation. Most damningly: ‘his record of protest explains why some struggle to see him as prime minister’; the Guardian would appears to be more comfortable with a Blairite willing to support a neoconservative administration in the United States.

Fortunately the public was given an opportunity to form their own opinion in the general election when broadcasting rules allowed the Labour leader to connect directly with the electorate. Policies appealing to the idealism of the young set off a social media storm that almost overcame a massive Tory advantage at the start of the campaign, and which actually displayed a very keen appreciation among his ranks of the power of the new digital medium.

To some extent the public service broadcaster was the saviour of democracy in the UK, but the BBC was not immune to the characterisation of Corbyn as being a Prime Minister who would give succour to the enemies of the United Kingdom.
During the election campaign David Dimbleby publicly asserted that the press had treated Corbyn unfairly, but his intervention during the Leaders’ Question Time would have pleased Conservative head office. Soon after coming to power Theresa May said that she would use nuclear weapons as a first strike, which presumably was designed to contrast her steely determination with the protest movement led by Corbyn.

After repeated questions from the floor on whether Corbyn would be prepared to use a nuclear weapon, Dimbleby as mediator twice pressed Corbyn on the issue. For the BBC’s most eminent journalist to place such emphasis on this issue is troubling. Either Dimbleby genuinely felt safer with a Prime Minister prepared to incinerate millions of people at the touch of a button, or this was being used to discredit Corbyn because he was simply dangerous to the status quo.
I am inclined to the latter view although Dimbleby’s response was probably reflexive rather than conscious. Nuclear war has not been a concern in Britain since the 1980s, and the Labour manifesto actually commits them to maintaining Trident, contrary to Corbyn’s own personal views. Nor was Theresa May questioned on this issue, and whether she could reconcile nuclear annihilation with her apparent Christianity. Rather, this allowed the Cathedral to portray Corbyn as unsafe, and foolhardy, as it became clear that the population were increasingly attracted to his economic policies.

The ‘steel’ required to unleash nuclear weapons, was also a major concern for another veteran reporter Andrew Marr when he interviewed Corbyn before the election. But, in an intriguing interview from the 1996 that is available on YouTube Noam Chomsky lays bare Marr’s own bias. The MIT Professor quoted George Orwell’s essay ‘Literary Censorship in England’ to him that “unpopular ideas can be silenced without any force”. He also referred to how the educational system makes you understand there are certain things you simply don’t say, just as deviations from fashionable norms are greeted with derision.

Chomsky outlines to Marr how there is “a filtering system” that starts in kindergarten which ‘selects for obedience and subordination’; removing the ones “who are mad to live”, as Jack Kerouac put it On the Road. Thus the troubled, and often artistic, student finds little encouragement amidst the dominant educational models, and viewpoints that deviate from established norms are held in check.

Chomsky referred to journalists he knew who regarded the media as a sham and played it like a violin: ‘if they see a little opening they will try and squeeze something in’. Marr protests: ‘how can you know I am self-censoring’, to which Chomsky laconically replies: ‘I am sure you believe everything you are saying’.
In the wake of the seismic shift in popular opinion over the course of the UK General Election it has been interesting to read mea culpa from leading radical journalists who abandoned Corbyn, writing him off as ‘unelectable’. A previously ardent supporter Owen Jones wrote after the election:

“I thought people had made their minds up about Corbyn, however unfairly, and their opinion just wouldn’t shift. I wasn’t a bit wrong, or slightly wrong, or mostly wrong, but totally wrong. Having one foot in the Labour movement and one in the mainstream media undoubtedly left me more susceptible to their groupthink.”

Another who deviated from his early enthusiasm was George Monbiot who wrote an article entitled: “The elections biggest losers? Not the Tories but the media who missed the biggest story”. He acknowledged: “the media has created a hall of mirrors, in which like-minded people reflect and reproduce each other’s opinions.” Thus:

“The broadcasters echo what the papers say, the papers pick up what the broadcasters say. A narrow group of favoured pundits appear on the news programmes again and again. Press prizes are awarded to those who reflect the consensus, and denied to those who think differently. People won’t step outside the circle for fear of ridicule and exclusion.”

It is interesting that our own Fintan O’Toole recently scooped a George Orwell press award for his coverage of English nationalism during Brexit. The Cathedral, in their favour, are hostile to racism; these atavistic tendencies are also bad for business, although a bullish secularism often leads to Islamophobia. Most, however, despair at Theresa May’s lapses which shows how the Cathedral is fracturing in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

Some weeks prior to the election O’Toole wrote an article entitled: ‘Corbyn’s nostalgia less of a fantasy than May’s’; note how Corbyn was being portrayed as a nostalgic fantasist just as the Cathedral would wish. He continues: ‘Corbyn’s Labour has been characterised by the overwhelmingly Tory press as a throwback to the early 1970s and there is some truth in the accusation.’ But what is this throwback to: less inequality? Job security? Public ownership of vital infrastructure? These all appear to be objectives to which O’Toole subscribes in Ireland, and he goes on to commend Labour’s manifesto while still insisting that Corbyn is ‘nostalgic’.

O’Toole concludes: ‘Corbyn is a highly problematic leader, not least in his inability to think about how to create a majority in England for this radical social democratic vision.’ The problem with Corbyn thus appeared to be his effectiveness in putting his point of view across; the old ‘unelectable’ jibe in other words, the has-been beardy-socialist of the wolf-whistling right’s portrayal.

The other slur levelled against Corbyn by the Cathedral is to blame him for Brexit because he didn’t campaign with sufficient vigour; this despite it being shown that the British media hardly report what he says, considering his brand ‘toxic’. He was also being asked to give unqualified support for an institution with many flaws from a left-wing perspective, and which had just imposed a cruel Austerity over Greece, and Ireland. He supported Remain but refused to lie through his teeth about how he thought everything was rosy about it, giving it a grade of 7/10.

In the UK the Cathedral are almost all graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. Whenever I watch programmes devoted to politics on the BBC I try to do an Internet search on the participants. Invariably the politician, journalist, writer or economist attended one of these institutions. I have also spent long enough in the company of Oxbridge types to know that directing the remark that someone attended a ‘redbrick university’ is a euphemism for saying he is an intellectual inferior. Corbyn did not attend either one of those institutions or any university for that matter. He’s an outsider with ‘cranky’ socialist and anti-imperialist views that the Cathedral doesn’t tolerate.

The furore over Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Change deal is instructive. That deal was supposed to have ‘taken care’ of the problem allowing us to return to giddy consumption. But the uncomfortable reality of the accord is expressed by the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh: ‘the Agreement’s rhetoric serves to clarify much that it leaves unsaid: namely, that its intention, and the essence of what it has achieved, is to create yet another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching one another’. The agreement hardly addresses poverty or inequality and the principle of human superiority over nonhuman remains intact. Both drive Climate Change, along with the idea of economic growth-without-end.

The Irish ‘Cathedral’ has similar constituents and outlooks to its equivalent in the UK, and influence across the false centre of the political spectrum. We don’t have elite universities – however much Trinity graduates attempt to give the impression – so the social and professional networks tend to emerge in private schools. It is most obvious in the Irish Times, and to a lesser extent RTE.

In Ireland the Cathedral prefers to wage culture wars over issues such as gay marriage, and to an extent the right to abortion, that become overriding concerns which distract from structural and environmental questions. Both Enda Kenny and Bertie Aherne before him proved highly adept at managing the Cathedral’s concerns. The Irish Times now keeps Fintan O’Toole as a mascot for a social conscience, which also sells newspapers. In Ireland, it is only when a serious crisis is apparent – such as homelessness – that the Cathedral agrees to drop a morsel.

One wonders how long the broad consensus will last among the main Irish political parties who play pass the parcel with political power. At least Leo Varadkar’s unashamed neo-liberalism offers a degree of ideological clarity. Genuine radicalism may emerge within parties such as Labour and the Greens. In this respect the lesson of Corbyn’s success is clear: radicals should remain embedded in party organisations and work via constitutional means, relying on the clued-in and digital-savvy youth to bring about a political revolution.

The Cathedral despairs at the extremism that is evident in the disruptive era of the Internet, but the disenchantment reflects grotesque inequalities, particularly in the Anglosphere of which Ireland remains a part. Jeremy Corbyn seriously challenged these and he was hammered as a result but ultimately he found a way to get through to the electorate. Genuine socialists might take issue with details of his policies but surely not the thrust, which seeks to give a decent standard of living to all, and curb the excesses of the super-rich. This is also in harmony with an environmental movement seeking to curb consumerism.

Orwell wrote: “in countries where there is already a strong liberal tradition, bureaucratic tyranny can perhaps never be complete. The striped-trousered ones will rule, but so long as they are forced to maintain an intelligentsia, the intelligentsia will have a certain autonomy.” The disruptive power of the Internet is generating new politics that the Cathedral cannot control, and the intelligentsia have an opportunity to challenge “the striped-trousered ones”.

The Cathedral’s superficial centre cannot hold. Let us hope more beasts such as Trump do not slope towards Bethlehem to be born. These troubling times demand that the intelligentsia, who often wear odd-looking clothes, re-engage with politics and proudly assert the radical position.

(An edited version of this article appeared in Village Magazine in June, 2017)

The Evil That Men Do

The Evil That Men Do

Published in the Dublin Review of Books: (http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-evil-that-men-do)

The unconscious of a whole continent and age has made of itself poetry in the nightmare of a single prophetic dreamer
Herman Hesse

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov casts a shadow over European literature. Sigmund Freud described it as ‘The most magnificent novel ever written’; while Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged his Russian contemporary as: ‘the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn’. In its intimate understanding of human depravity it anticipates a destructive phase of history, yet proffering a healing idealism with enduring appeal.

The novel anticipates the birth of the unconscious in psychology, and poses questions that seemed to drive Nietzsche mad. The best and the worst in the human character are laid bare: ‘A father has been killed and they pretend to be shocked … They’re just putting on a show in front of one another. Hypocrites. Everyone wants his father dead. Let dog eat dog.’ The sexually rampant and mendacious figure of that father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, merits comparison with President Donald Trump against whom we now hurl opprobrium, rather than profitably acknowledging shades of our own characters in the roundly-despised leader of the so-called ‘free world’.

As an ‘unacknowledged legislator’, to use Percy Shelley’s term, Dostoyevsky moulded values that entered the common stream of human ideas that merit revisiting. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and most realised work, articulates spiritual and intellectual principles, in a confused Post-Modern age that has lost sight of significance since the decline of organised religions and Utopian ideologies.

Yet, perhaps Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievement here is to avoid being overbearing or didactic. A moral code by which to live one’s life is faithfully rendered, but deviant characters are not drawn in black and white. We inhabit their outlooks and arguments, as the writer seems to, but have available to us the vision of a reformed and universal Christianity, redolent of St Francis of Assisi.

A potential reader should not be intimidated by the book’s length, just shy of a thousand pages – or long, frenzied paragraphs – as untangling its subterfuges becomes compulsive. Completed in 1880, it still brims with lessons for a disorientated humanity, not least in the wake of Brexit and Trump: warnings on the psychological consequence of admitting to the death of God; meditations on a universal responsibility for sin; reflections on the corruption of organised religion; and suggestions of an overarching harmony. The author subjects belief systems, including his own, to almost mocking interrogation. There is no refuge in this trial of modern man, personified by Dimitri, the eldest of the Karamazov brothers.

Dostoyevsky identifies a broad moral continuum in a single person between a capacity for the highest and basest deeds and actions, reflecting Carl Jung’s idea that there is a murderer in us all. If any character represents the views of Dostoyevsky himself it is perhaps the chief prosecutor Ippolit Krillovitch, who, uncannily, like the author, dies within a few months of the novel’s central events. These are the apparent patricide, and aftermath, of the debauched sensualist Fyodor Karamazov who competes with his son Dimitri for the affections of his paramour Grushenka. His sons exhibit facets of an enduring character, representing to Freud the id, ego and superego. In the ensuing trial Krillovitch draws attention to the inadequacies of each brother. So searing are his insights that Dimitri is inclined to thank his own prosecutor for telling: ‘me a lot about myself that I didn’t know’.

Krillovitch describes those of the Karmazov ilk as having: ‘natures with such a broad sweep… capable of encompassing all manner of opposites, of contemplating both extremes at one and the same time – that which is above us, the extremity of the loftiest ideals, and that which is below us, the extremity of the most iniquitous degradation.’ He says ‘others have their Hamlets; so far, we Russians have only our Karamazovs’, but that archetype extends beyond Russia, into the multiplicity of our selves.

First there is Alyosha, the youngest, who at the start of the tale we find considering a monastic life, but following the advice of his mentor, the mystic Elder Zosima, he returns to the disorder of the world. The narrator writes of Alyosha: ‘it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of him as simple or naïve. There was something in him that said, and made you believe, (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment over others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone.’ To Freud he represented the superego, the ethical part of a personality, setting the moral boundaries in which the ego operates.

Alyosha is possessed of magnetism, empathy and intuition. Other characters find a reflection of their failings in his benign nature, including the alluring Grushenka who exerts a fatal attraction over both Dimitri and his father. She sets out to seduce the youngest brother, but is instead so disarmed by his purity that she begins a redemptive journey of her own. She performs a Jocasta role in the archetypal oedipal tale: Dimitri, the son, mistakenly perceiving he is frustrated by his own father, Fyodor, in realising a sexual fantasy, plots to kill him.

The nature of Dimitri’s frenzied attempts to win over Grushenka also reflect the damage that has been inflicted on him by the early loss of his mother who abandons him, and the household, after tiring of Fyodor’s affairs. That his father should be a competitor compounds his anger and brings him to the brink of patricidal intent. He also maintains that he has been cheated of his inheritance, with which he hopes to restore his honour having stolen money from his spurned fiancé Katerina Ivanova to satisfy his sensual appetites. These resentments, set against the influence on him of Friedrich Schiller espousal of universal love, generate one of the most conflicted characters in modern literature.

Alyosha occupies the place of deepest compassion on the Karamazov scale. The prosecutor Krillovitch, ever-vigilant to human failings, warns of the pitfall of taking refuge in mysticism and failing to honour the rational, egotistical and male side of his nature:

he has come, it seems to me, to represent that timid despair with which so many people in our impoverished society, frightened of its cynicism and corruption and mistakenly attributing all evil to the European enlightenment, rush towards “the soil of their birth”, into the maternal embrace, as it were, of their native land, like children frightened of ghosts, their only desire being to slumber peacefully in the shrivelled bosom of their exhausted mother, or even perhaps to spend their whole life sleeping there, merely to escape the sight of the fearsome visions.

At least, Alyosha, encouraged by his mentor Zosima rejects the sanctuary of the monastery, as this is unnecessary for one of his benevolent nature. Contrary to displaying “timid despair” Alyosha actually exhibits bravery by confronting the imperfections of the external world. This is especially evident in his compassion for the child Ilyusha after he bites him on the hand.

Krillovitch also warns Alyosha against a ‘Dreary mysticism’, here represented by the outlook of another monk, the severe and ascetic Father Ferapont, who foments superstition, and stands in judgement over others.

Observing the rise of fundamentalism in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, we see the heirs of Ferapont turn religion into a reactionary force. Unfortunately this is how it most commonly appears in the world, explaining why so many of us wash our hands of it altogether. This widespread detachment may, however, have profoundly damaging psychological consequences: Carl Jung found he seldom succeeded in helping patients overcome mental disorders unless they recovered a capacity for religious experience.

Like many of his previous anti-heroes, including Stavrogin and Roskalnikov, the second-eldest brother Ivan is a quintessentially thrusting modern man representing Freud’s idea of the ego. This typology also bears resemblance to Turgenev’s character Bazarov from Fathers and Sons who suffers a similar hubristic demise. Like Nietzsche, Ivan descends into madness after proclaiming the death of God. He is not however a simplistic personification of a degraded European civilisation. Ivan’s analysis of human nature remains acutely troubling: ‘We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.’

Surveying all too common and inexplicable atrocities, especially carried out against children, he rejects the idea of divine harmony: ‘It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its “Dear Father God”. He tells Alyosha: ‘It’s not God that I don’t accept – understand that – it’s His creation’. Ivan cannot comprehend how any God could permit such depravity, pointing to atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria, and also to stories of torture perpetrated against children in ‘Christian’ Russia. In response to the tirade Alyosha responds that: ‘He can forgive everyone for everything, because He Himself shed His innocent blood for everyone and everything.’ For Alyosha this act of love is oceanic in its reach and can steer us from the moral void, into which Ivan eventually descends. If we believe Alyosha, no crime is so great that redemption is not possible.

As a brief aside it is useful to explore Jung’s conception of evil in the world which Ivan and Alyosha’s debate considers. Jung’s approach diverges from the Catholic doctrine of Privatio Boni which identifies evil simply with the absence of good, and not an independent and eternal phenomenon. In contrast, ‘Evil’ Jung says ‘does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man. It was there before him, when he could not possibly have had a hand in it.’ Jung argued that: ‘The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow’. Dostoyevsky also confronts evil in an attempt to control it.

Later Ivan is visited by a supernatural visitor, a devil, who claims to have ‘turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing’; a creative invitation taken up decades later by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita. This devil imagines an earth recycled a billion times: ‘endlessly perhaps, and always the exact same, down to the last detail.’ Intriguingly, this cosmology corresponds with ideas current in physics. Neil Turok writes: ‘If the universe can pass through a singularity once then it can do so again and again. We have developed the picture into a cyclic universe scenario, consisting of an infinite sequence of big bangs each followed by expansion and collapse’.
A form of what Nietszche referred to as ‘eternal recurrence’ is similar to Carl Jung’s description of the hell of the mad, which is not only that time has: ‘ceased to exist for them but some memory of what it and its seasons once meant to them remains to remind them of the fact that it is no longer there’. The devil reminds Ivan of time’s lapse.

Dazzled by his intellectual brilliance, Ivan’s spiral into madness is a form of hubris representing a failure to nurture the divine in his nature. Ivan’s devil taunts him: ‘Although I’m a hallucination, nevertheless, as in a nightmare, I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means I am not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time I’m simply your nightmare and nothing else.’ His elevated rationality is assailed by the unknowable mysteries of the unconscious that intrude on his calculations.
At the start of the novel Ivan, who is described as a poet, treats us to one of the great characters of modern fiction: the Grand Inquisitor that Laurens van der Post calls ‘the visionary anticipation of Stalin and his kind’. The tale is set in post-Reformation Spain where the eponymous, aged despot is visited by a resurrected Christ. This fearsome creation, however, dismisses the putative saviour admitting that the Catholic Church has embraced the devil: ‘we have accepted from him what You had rejected with indignation, that last gift that he offered You, showing You all the kingdoms of the earth: we accepted Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and we proclaimed ourselves the only kings on earth, the only true kings’. The Grand Inquisitor is convinced that he is serving the interest of the common people who will despair if freedom of conscience is permitted. Instead he promises to continue serving him: ‘we shall withhold the secret and, to keep them happy, we shall opiate them with promises of eternal reward in heaven.’ Marx himself could not have performed a more thorough hatchet job on the Catholic Church, though, ironically, Grand Inquisitors prospered in Communist Russia.

Through Ivan, Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular, and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally; a charge of devilry in this enterprise previously levelled by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Ivan, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to grasp the benefits of the compassion his brother Alyosha discovers through his mentor Zosima. This philosophy does not require miracles to bind awestruck followers. Symbolically, after his death Zosima’s body is left unburied for some days and begins to give off an ‘odour of putrefaction’, rather than the miraculous fragrance that some of his superficial followers seek as confirmation of his holiness. This reflects a passage from the Gospel of St Mathew when during his trial in the desert Jesus responds to the demand of the devil that he should perform a miracle by saying: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. The importance of Zosima lies in ideas of compassion that he embodies, in opposition to the diabolic scheming of the Grand Inquisitor.
The extended writings of the Elder Zosima that appear in the book are a moral touchstone for the characters: deviation from his precepts resulting in torments such as Ivan’s. This section was inspired by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, and at its core is the idea that we share a collective guilt for the sins of one another and should refrain from judgmental responses. This is a concept developed in another novel of Dostoyevsky’s, The Devils, where the fictional elder Tikhon (confusing he bears the same name as the historical figure) responds to the confession of Stavrogin to a heinous crime against a child by bursting into tears and asserting his own culpability. In The Brothers Karamazov the approach is laid out in full. The essence is that we have a common responsibility for the world we live in.

Some critics have argued that Tikhon’s philosophy did not coincide with Dostoyevsky’s admittedly complex views, but the presence of this teaching in The Devils and full elucidation in The Brothers Karamazov suggests the author subscribed to this code. Dostoyevsky went to the length of transcribing by hand the mystic’s autobiography when he encountered it in a monastery, and presents almost a facsimile in the novel. It seems inconceivable that he would give it such faithful treatment if he did not consider this a profound insight. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy displayed a similar moral candour, which also allowed for sympathetic treatment of ‘sinful’ characters such as Odysseus that he meets in hell. It is perhaps the tragedy of Post-Modernism that most contemporary writers have abandoned a firm moral foundation. In its place we have the narcissism of autobiography and the cult of authenticity. As Laurens van der Post put it: ‘characters no longer bubble up, fountain like, in the art of fiction but have been replaced by men and women who have been “researched” as novelists proudly assert, and so are not individual conceptions any more but statistical abstracts of humanity that live only as a form of dead accountancy.’

In Discourses and teachings of Starets Zosima it is proclaimed:
There is but one salvation available to you. Take yourself in hand, and be answerable for all the sins of all men. My friend this is actually true: you need only make yourself sincerely answerable for everything and everyone, and you will see immediately that it really is so, and that it is you who are actually guilty of the sins committed by each and every man. Whereas, if you blame one another for your own sloth and weakness, you will end up becoming imbued with satanic pride and will turn against God.’

This is a radical Christianity that overthrows an assumption of moral authority, and where sin is approached as collective error. Instead of passing judgement we embrace the failings of each other as our own. It corresponds with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s more recent assertion that ‘nobody is responsible except you, because you are the world and the world is you’, although evil should not simply be dismissed as a projection but confronted as an active force in ourselves and the world.

Zosima’s doctrine of compassion is relevant nonetheless to the despair felt by many at the failings of political and religious leaders. We might usefully explore the origin of the bile directed at US President Donald Trump whose lies and raging sexuality deserves comparison with Fyodor Karamazov. Before inveighing against his excesses, it is useful to acknowledge that he is an extension of the world that we are all responsible for. For example, we castigate his denial of the reality of climate change but that denial is implicit in how many of us lead our lives. Scapegoating Trump and his acolytes is hypocritical unless we alter our own behaviour. Moreover, it was our collective fascination with his abusive rhetoric that gave him the exposure necessary for a political revolution. Besides, can any of us who listen to Trump say we have never had a racist, sexist or thuggish thought? Or, that we have always been entirely honest and not asserted ourselves aggressively? ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone’.

Those characteristics are dormant in most of us but hatred of Trump is conditioned by a struggle to contain our shadow which amounts to the repression of these tendencies in ourselves. To admit to such infamy is challenging, but only by understanding this can we truly confront Trump. Similarly, Jung claimed that the Russia problem in the external world would never be resolved without more disaster unless we first dealt with the ‘Russia in ourselves’. Dismissing as Hillary Clinton did Trump’s supporters as a: ‘basket of deplorables’ was probably the gravest error of her campaign. That term is associated with ‘basket cases’ and ‘white trash’, suggesting that his supporters were garbage that ought to be destroyed.

Trump preyed on this but also a rampant rationality that makes expertise remote, specialised and inaccessible. Trump’s jocular policy shifts and tendency to speak the language of the uneducated classes was the shadow of a growing dissonance in the West that is the shadow of a high pitched rationality inaccessible to most ears, which creates divisions in society and engenders a Post-Truth dismissal of expertise.

That is not to say we should not confront the evil of Trump’s vindictiveness and obtuse denial. In fact we have a moral obligation to do so, but it is important to voice opposition in such a way that does not speak down to his supporters, and acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the way we communicate ideas. A challenge for any politician opposed to Trump is to summon the oceanic compassion and skilled communication required for global leadership.
Zosima’s vision of harmony extends beyond the human species:

If you love every kind of thing, then everywhere God’s mystery will reveal itself to you. Once this has been revealed to you, you will begin to understand it even more deeply with each passing day. And finally you will be able to love the whole world with an all-encompassing universal love.

We are urged to ‘Love animals’, and not set ourselves above them as is emerged in Western thought. An apparently Oriental view on the relationship between humans and other species is a striking aspect of his teachings, an idea increasingly relevant to curbing the appalling treatment of animals by human beings in the world.

It is perhaps Russia’s situation on a geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Asia that explains its extraordinary cultural achievements – especially in the nineteenth century – straddling the continents, and drawing lessons from both. A more obviously Buddhist approach was later adopted by Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Tolstoy – including embarking on a fruitful correspondence with a young Mahatma Gandhi – he opined that: ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields’.

Zosima concludes his tract with an answer to the question: ‘What is hell? I argue thus: it is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.’ Here he avoids simplistic recourse to supernatural explanation, instead preferring a profound psychological insight into the origin of human unhappiness.

The eldest brother Dimitri represents in Freud’s schema the id of uncoordinated instinctual passions. He is also an idealist in the mould of his youngest brother Alyosha, but vulnerable to the sensual indulgences of his father. These competing forces battle for his soul with his benign nature ultimately prevailing:

I am a Karamzov … I fall into the abyss, I go head first and even take pleasure in the extent of my own degradation, even find beauty in it. And from those depths of degradation, I begin to sing a hymn. I may be damned, I may be base and despicable, but I kiss the hem of the robe that envelops my God; I may be serving the devil at that same moment, but I’m still your son, O Lord, and I love you and feel that joy without which the world could not exist.

Although in one episode he beats his father, and also later metes out terrible violence to his father’s servant Grigory, who acted in loco parentis when as a child he was abandoned and allowed to roam barefoot like a wild animal by his real father. He draws back, however, from the ultimate violence of patricide. In his own words he is saved by a guardian angel. In contrast to Ivan’s nihilism, belief in a divine harmony allows him to resist a violent passion at the critical moment.

Dimitri’s salvation arrives through a willingness to accept the consequences of a sin that we learn he did not commit. After being found guilty of the crime he says: ‘I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him and, perhaps, really would have killed him.’ He takes possession of an act for which he has no direct responsibility as the philosophy of Tikhon ordains we should.

There is, it seems, a fourth son that completes the Karamazov circle of virtue and vice: Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, although whether he is indeed Fyodor’s son is never confirmed. He is the child of the mentally-ill, so-called Stinking Lizavetta, who had been raped by the arch-sensualist Fyodor Karamazov. The pitiful half-wit dies in childbirth and the infant’s upbringing is left to Grigory, and his childless wife Marfa. They obligingly take care of the surly, epileptic boy who eventually goes to Moscow to study cookery, returning as Fyodor’s scheming chef, and trusted confidante. Smerdyakov offends against the natural order: torturing dogs by putting pins in scraps of food, and denigrates poetry: ‘it’s a lot of rubbish. Just think about: who in the world speaks in rhyme?’ Ultimately he murders his own likely father when the opportunity presents itself after Dimitri baulks at the prospect. Then he leaves the crime scene so it appears, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dimitry is responsible.
Smerdyakov had developed a close relationship with Ivan who is simultaneously repelled and drawn to his illegitimate brother. It is to Ivan that Smerdyakov nonchalantly confesses the murder. In a sense, he is an elemental force that arises to avenge the misdeeds of the father, but on another level he represents a corrupted youth familiar to readers of The Devils that has abandoned a moral code. Explaining the murder, he quotes Ivan’s own ideas back at him: ‘“everything is permitted” … if there is no eternal God, then there is no virtue, and, what’s more, absolutely no need for it. You really meant it. That’s what I reckoned.’ Ivan’s ideas may have been more refined, but his student Smerdyakov draws his own lessons just as the followers of Marx drew their’s. Ivan denies responsibility but his descent into madness is symptomatic of a failure to take responsibility for the deed, unlike his redeemed brother Dimitry.

Here we encounter Dostoyevsky’s prophetic capacity. If another great novelist of his era Tolstoy offered great insights into the heart of the Russia of his day, Dostoyevsky had his eyes on a turbulent future. Legions of Smerdyakovs drawn from an impoverished and downtrodden proletariat would carry out the appalling atrocities of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.

The Marxism that rejected the idea of God did not develop a moral code to replace that founded on metaphysical ideas. Instead society was viewed in dialectical and oppositional terms, with human rights subservient to advancing the historical process. The Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin acknowledged in 1914: ‘there is nothing more ridiculous …than to make Marx’s theory an “ethical” theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law.’

All too many have been killed in the name of God throughout history, and still today, but the denial of individual human rights opens an appalling vista where “everything is permitted”. The measured humanism that Ivan displays can easily mutate into contempt for any human life that stands in the way of a mechanistic ideal. By denying an over-arching truth, beauty and justice man may be trampled into the mud. As for Smerdyakov, in the end he hangs himself, reflecting Zosima’s view that hell “is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.” No redemption arrives for this ill-starred character.

Readers may find Dostoyevsky relative avoidance of strong female characters unappealing. This may be seen throughout his writings, wherein they typically act as foils to male protagonists as temptresses or saints. Some of Dostoyevsky’s women, like Darya in Devils and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, set an example of compassion which the male characters learn from, but again it is proffered in a supporting role. On the other hand, Tolstoy did present strong, wilful female protagonists in Anna Karenina (both Kitty and Anna) and War and Peace (Princess Mary and Natasha). Dostoyevsky was less inclined to do so, for whatever reason.

One can read great works of philosophy and history in an attempt to understand human nature, but the power of literature such as The Karamazov Brothers is that it invents a recognisable world in which human passions play. Dostoyevsky’s idea of collective responsibility for human error is as important now in the era of Trump as ever, and his message of compassion for all life on Earth is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of the West that have permitted us to lay waste to the world. He was clearly a visionary, not without limitations, who intuited the terrible cruelties that would soon reign ascendant in his country and beyond. The work will be a source of pleasure and wisdom for angry, but hopeful, young men, and hopefully women too, for generations to come.

Saudi Arablia: reconciling tradition with modernity.

The Saudi regime’s main criterion for success in balancing their traditional religious values with modernization has been holding on to power. To ensure their survival as rulers of Saudi Arabia, the ruling faction of the Al-Saud family have harnessed advances in technology and embraced new techniques of governance. These transformations, which have been largely facilitated by the enormous wealth that the discovery of oil has brought, have, at times, brought the regime into conflict with representatives of religious tradition, or orthodoxy. The regime’s close relationship with, and patronage of Islam as ‘Guardian’s of the Holy Cities’, drawing on popular traditions, has resulted in a society steeped in Islam, which is drawn on as a source of legitimacy. Islam as a rallying force beyond narrow tribal allegiances, played a vital role in Abdel Aziz ibn-Saud’s formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Later, the promotion of Islam was used to counter the threat to the rule of the Al-Saud posed by Arab nationalism and communism, secular ideologies which threatened their rule. Throughout the twentieth century religious leaders, and adherents, objected to the introduction of modern innovations such as the telegraph, the radio, and the television, but, until recently, religious representatives have not questioned the legitimacy of the regime. The threat to the House of Al-Saud posed by what has been labelled “Islamic fundamentalism” in the West, has been caused by a number of factors, not least the pronounced difference in wealth between the ruling princes and the rest of the population. In the absence of alternative political outlets, Islam has provided the idiom for revolution in Saudi Arabia.

The precise definitions of modernity and modernization are keenly disputed, especially in the Islamic context. Hopwood offers one:
‘Modernization is the introduction into society of the artefacts of contemporary life – railways, communications, industry (less often nowadays), technology, household equipment. Modernity (modernism) is a general term for the political and cultural process set in motion by integrating new ideas, an economic system, or education into society. It is a way of thought, of living in the contemporary world and of accepting change.’
This definition is insufficient, as it fails to recognise the modernizing effect of advances in technology. For example an “artefact of contemporary life” like the internet can give rise to “new ideas”. Likewise, a transition to mass literacy falls into the lacuna. Thus, it is unsatisfactory to attempt to draw a distinction between the terms “modernity” and “modernization”. A more adequate working definition, to be used in this paper, is supplied by the ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary’ where the term “modern” encompasses both meanings:
“of, or relating to the present or to recent times; characterized by or using the most up-to-date techniques, equipment, etc; denoting a recent style in art, architecture, etc, marked by a departure from traditional styles and values ”.

A common presumption made in Western discourse is that modernisation of Islamic societies amounts to a convergence with Western norms. In such a dialectic, Islam is taken as the tradition in opposition to the modern secular forces of liberal-western democracies. This leads to frequent description of Islam as a conservative force particularly within Saudi society . This view downplays the extent to which interpretations of Islam, based on the same sources, have varied considerably throughout its 1,400 year history. Especially in a situation where
“Islam lacks a single canonical authority or a fixed story that holds together all the elements of a religion such as Christianity and imparts to them legitimacy .”

Therefore, to characterise all manifestations of Islam as simply “traditional” is misleading. In fact this paper posits that the forces of Islam emerging in Saudi Arabia are “modern”. Saudi society has radically changed since the Second World War and Islam has responded to meet the fears, desires and aspirations that living in such an altered society entails.

Wahhabism

The writings and practices of Muhammad Abdel Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), a religious scholar brought up in the Hanbalite school , have given rise to the description Wahhabi , the “traditional religious value” of Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab repudiated what he viewed as heretical practices such as saint veneration, a common practice among Shi’a, and exalted the doctrine of tawhid – “God’s uniqueness as omnipotent lord of creation and his uniqueness as deserving worship and the absolute devotion of his servants ”.

In 1744 Al-Wahhab entered into an accord with the tribal lord Muhammad Al-Saud. The politico-religious alliance generated vast conquests as previously warring tribes were united under the banner of Islam. In exchange for ideological justification and recruits for the conquests, shari’a, religious law, as interpreted by the ulama, the religious scholars, was imposed on the territories. In his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler (the imam – the commander of the faithful) should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion . Al-Wahhab also appointed the mutawia, who served as the enforcers of justice and were financed by the public treasury. The mutawia enforced a strict system of orthodoxy where repeated abstention from public prayers invited reprimand or penalty . Beyond the zakat, the mandatory religious tax of just 2.5%, and the payment of the mutawia and ulama, Al-Wahhab could not have envisioned a radical redistribution of the assets of the state, including the booty gained through conquests. Al-Wahhab’s pre-modern interpretation of Islam certainly did not envision the state performing a ‘welfarist’ role.

The Wahhabist tradition of government envisions a divide within the state between the religious and the temporal domains. In practice, the balance of power was eschewed in favour of the charismatic figure of Al-Wahhab and “it was said that no camels were mounted and no opinions were voiced by Muhammad Al-Saud or his son Abdel Al-Aziz without his [Al-Wahhab’s] approval ”. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has persisted with the Wahhabist template but a shift in the balance of power has seen the temporal authorities, bolstered by oil wealth, largely dictate to the ulama. This has led Lackner to opine that “the fiction of Wahhabism which has lost its real roots with the destruction of the age old desert culture can only be maintained by an intellectual petrification ”.

The Ikhwan

In order to understand the extent to which the Al-Saud draw legitimacy from traditional religious values it is necessary to examine the formation of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom. Ibn-Saud began life as an exile in Kuwait, as the Al-Saud clan had been superseded by other forces in their Najd heartland. In 1902 he set off on a legendary expedition, with a handful of men, and captured Riyadh where the ulama swore allegiance to him. Although the original Al-Saud empire had disintegrated, the Wahhabi tradition had continued to flourish in Arabia. The remaining mutawia “needed a politico-military figure, a symbolic Imam to endorse their cause ”. Consequently
“Ibn Saud enlisted them in the service of his domain as he employed them and paid them their salaries in cash and kind… In return [he] was guaranteed the political submission of the Arabian peninsula under the guise of submission to God .”

In collaboration with the mutawia, Ibn-Saud created an altogether new force, the Ikhwan. Beginning in 1912, settlements were created for the Islamic indoctrination of nomadic Bedouin. This provided Ibn-Saud with “an ascetic, military force which could be mobilized and demobilized swiftly and which combined the mobility of the Bedouin with the political reliability and loyalty of the villagers ”. This new force played a vital role in Ibn-Saud’s conquest of what was proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, including the Hijaz, which contains the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Renowned for ferocity, the threat of the Ikhwan, ready to be unleashed against Mecca, was sufficient to bring about its surrender .

The formation of Saudi Arabia represented an acceptance of the modern order of the nation state. This led to conflict with the Ikhwan who, already suspicious of the introduction of modern technology, wished to continue what they viewed as a jihad against infidels. As a result, an uprising occurred in 1928 that was suppressed by the forces of Ibn-Saud, who was supported by the British, irked by Ikhwan raids on their Iraqi colony. Crucial to Ibn Saud’s victory over the Ikhwan was the support of the ulama who ruled that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler .

The ulama’s support for Ibn Saud signalled their submission to him as it had
“became clear to those distinguished among them that if they were to play a role in the country they would have to accept the subordination of religion to politics. They also understood that their eminence was dependent on restraining their former students, the mutawia ”

Thus, the ulama were co-opted by the regime, a process that would become more pronounced under Ibn-Saud’s son Faysal. Consequently, although the ulama were not in favour of the introduction of artefacts of modernity such as the radio and the telegraph, they accepted Ibn-Saud’s authority. Ibn-Saud had revived the Al-Saud-Wahhabi alliance but in the twentieth the religious authorities, lacking the charisma of a figure like Al-Wahhab, were subordinate to the will of the temporal ruler. Nonetheless, Ibn-Saud’s role as the imam continued to be essential to his authority. An Arab visitor to Saudi Arabia 1928 observed
“The ulama are the power that holds the sultan and his people together – the medium of control. But they seldom meddle in politics .”

King Faysal

1953 saw the death of Ibn-Saud, the patriarch of the Saudi Royal family. His sons continue to rule Saudi Arabia. The first to ascend to the throne was King Saud, who proved an inept ruler. In 1964 he was moved aside by means of a ‘Palace Coup’ which brought King Faysal to the throne. Vast oil wealth allowed Faysal to oversee a rapid expansion of the Saudi State and he is the principal architect of modern Saudi Arabia.

The period 1945-1975 witnessed a rapid modernization of Saudi society. Mass education caused a rapid transformation of the literacy rate , and controversially included women. Urbanization, and the arrival of millions of foreign migrants to work in the oil industry affected profound changes to Saudi society.

In the era of Nasser’s charismatic appeal to pan-Arabist sentiment, Faysal’s “Islamic rhetoric came to the forefront mainly as a counter discourse to current Arab political trends associated with Arab nationalism ” which “threatened the very foundation of Saudi rule. ” The threat to Faysal emanated not only from the restive Saudi population but also from within the Royal Family, where a number of ‘Republican Princes’ emerged, though these renegades were soon exiled. Faysal’s opposition to Arab nationalism led to alliance with the United States, however the United States’ close relationship with Israel began to place strains on this relationship, Tension over the Palestinian issue, led the regime to play a leading role in the OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s. Nonetheless, throughout the reign of Faysal, Arab nationalism and communism were trumpeted as the main threat to the regime. Moreover, vast wealth accrued from a cordial relationship with the West dictated a symbiosis. Nonetheless, in a situation where Israel was seen as anathema to Islam and pan-Arabism, rapprochement of the sort undertaken by Sadat at Camp David would not have been feasible, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was desired.

Traditional religious forces continued to resist Faysal’s rigorous modernization programme, which included the education of women and the introduction of television, but no serious opposition movement emerged based on a defence of traditional religious values. This can be explained by a fear, amongst traditionalists, of “modern” political forces, particularly the secular force of nationalism, represented by Nasser’s Egypt, which seemed to threaten the role of religion in society, as exemplified by the fate of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, thousands of whom were imprisoned. Therefore
“As Islam… was widely interpreted as a revolt against modernity, and as the… [monarchy was] interpreted to be more traditional and less modernized than most of the republics, there appeared to be less of an incentive, or need, to revolt against them in the name of Islam, “traditional values” and “authenticity. ”

The regime and the religious authorities viewed one another as allies against a common foe. The ulama, while displeased by certain aspects of the regime’s modernization programme, nonetheless allowed themselves to be co-opted by the regime to an unprecedented degree. The establishment of the Ministry of Religion was the most important aspect of this process for it “locked the senior ulama in an official role. ”. Although, “the most uncompromising among the ulama were ousted and denied the privilege of becoming civil servants. ”. In return for co-option, religious universities were established which replaced the informal centres of learning around the mosque school. As a result, during the reign of King Faysal, religion penetrated society to an unprecedented degree. However, below the surface, interpretations of Islam were shifting beyond traditions. This was facilitated by mass literacy that eroded the traditional role of the ulama as the intermediary between the text and the predominantly illiterate people, and considerably increased the number of religious scholars. In such circumstances it became more difficult for the regime to control the interpretation of Islam. The historical parallel of the emergence of Protestantism in response to mass literacy in the Europe of the sixteenth century may be drawn.

The Post Faysal Era

The assassination of King Faysal in 1975, by a disgruntled member of the royal family removed a charismatic and effective rule. The monarchs who have followed Khalid (1975-1982) and Fahd (r.1982) have persisted with Faysal’s, pro-Western policies and emphasis on Islam as a source of legitimacy, especially in response to the seizure of the Grand Mosque and the rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. However, since the 1970s Islam has become “a two edged political instrument – as the kingdom’s primary medium of self-legitimisation, and as the main venue of protest for opposition elements ”. Given that formal political protest, in the shape of political parties, has never been tolerated it is not surprising that opposition should emerge in this religious guise. Furthermore
“Saudi Arabia is a very traditional and Islamic country it is natural that most opposition from dissatisfied sectors of the population would find it most appropriate to articulate their difficulties in the Islamic idiom .”

However, such Islamic opposition is a departure from Wahhabi tradition as it should be recalled that in his writings Al-Wahhab emphasised that obedience to rulers is obligatory even if the ruler should be oppressive. The commands of the ruler should only be ignored if they contradict the rules of religion. As the regime has upheld shari’a, this is not a charge that can be levelled against them. It could be argued that western notions of the state and even Kingship, are inconsistent with Islam, both, however, were accepted in the 1920s by the ulama, the representatives of religious tradition.

“Islamic” grievances against the government emanate from two broad sources: the regime’s foreign policy and socio-economic problems afflicting Saudi society. Since the 1980s, the Islamist opposition has been highly critical of the regime’s pro-Western orientation, especially during the Gulf War. To many Saudis “the United States represents materialistic Christian values and power, which challenge Islamic values and Muslim power. ” Consequently the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War became increasingly unpopular, especially as the plight of Iraqis enduring US-led sanctions was brought home to the Saudi population. Antipathy towards the United State’s can also be explained by the United State’s support for Israel against the Palestinians . Indeed, with the demise of the Soviet Union, global Islamic discourse has tended to represent the United States as its greatest foe. In such an era of ‘globalisation’, these grievances have given rise to support for Al-Queda, and fifteen of the nineteen hijackers who perpetrated the September 11 attack against the ‘Twin Towers’ were Saudis. The violent US response to September 11 has served to ratchet up anti-American sentiment, providing fertile grounds for recruitment into radical Islamist organisations. This Islamic criticism of the regime’s foreign policy contradicts the judgement of the ulama of the 1930s who asserted that the issue of jihad remained the prerogative of the ruler.

The emergence of Islam as a subversive force can largely be attributed to the socio-economic problems afflicting contemporary Saudi Arabia. A rapidly expanding population and a downturn in the price of oil has created significant unemployment that today stands at around 20%. This has led to poverty that is in stark contrast to the opulence of the coterie of princes and technocrats who monopolise the vast resources of Saudi Arabia. In response to these inequalities, preachers have drawn on Islamic sources to indirectly criticise the regime. A non-Saudi Muslim scholar who visited the country during the 1980s remarked that “the sermons at Friday prayers at Mecca and Medina are filled with parables of Omar, the second caliph, who was known for simple living and humility .” Even the establishment ulama have challenged the unequal distribution of wealth; in 1991 a petition was drafted, and signed by senior ulama that argued “Public wealth must be distributed fairly among all classes and groups ”. The Wahhabite tradition does not envision such redistribution and the shift in emphasis is a further example of how Islam is responding to the discontent of its adherents.

In response to Islamic criticism, the regime has suppressed opposition and renewed emphasis on Islamic legitimacy. Thus, for all important decisions, especially the decision to allow American soldiers to use Saudi Arabia as a base during the first Gulf War, fatwas, or religious rulings, have been secured. This has opened up a cleavage between the establishment ulama and radical Islamists, who have ceased to support the current system. The regime has also attempted, by the establishment of a consultative council in 1994, to use the often Western-educated middle class technocrats as a counterweight to recalcitrant Islamists.

As has been mentioned, mass literacy has given rise to a population with personal access to the texts of Islam. The availability of the internet further erodes the establishment ulama’s interpretative authority. As
the very testing of authority that the internet provokes makes the boundaries of digital Islam more porous and subject to change than those of it predecessors .

London based organisation like the Campaign for the Defence of Legitimate Rights (1993) and the Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (1996) have used the internet to challenge the authority of both the regime and the establishment ulama. These organisations have called for fundamental changes to Saudi society. Indeed Al-Faqih, one of the new leaders, has argued in favour of a rule by religious scholars that has been compared to the Iranian model of the velayat-i faqih (rule of the religious jurist) . To view these organisations, that harness modern technological innovation and who argue for a change to the Wahhabist system of government as representatives of “traditional religious values” is to fail to recognise the modernisation of Saudi Islam.

Conclusion

Islamic legitimacy was of critical importance to the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the survival of the Al-Saud family as rulers, especially when confronted by the threat of Arab nationalism. The regime drew from the Wahhabist template that emphasised loyalty to the ruler. During the first fifty years of the state, the regime maintained a delicate balance between the traditional religious values, and modernization. At times, this caused resentment, but with the exception of the Ikhwan rebellion, no large-scale movement emerged to challenge the regime’s Islamic legitimacy. This can be explained by the state’s patronage of the ulama and maintenance of shari’a, as well as the Islamist’s fear of modern, anti-secular forces However, since the death of King Faysal, Islam has provided an outlet for opposition.

Much Western commentary on Saudi Arabia often simplistically portrays Islam as representing traditional forces within Saudi society. It assumes the immutability of Islam, and fails to take into account how the radical transformation of Saudi society, which has seen a predominantly poor and nomadic people become urban and relatively wealthy, has coloured interpretations of Islam. Mass literacy, has diminished the interpretative authority of the establishment ulama who are no longer the sole intermediaries between the text and the people. This process has been accelerated by the internet, which is now the main forum for protest against the regime. Since the 1980s, a declining economy and reliance on the United States have led to rising discontent with the regime. In a country, steeped in religion, that suppresses all political opposition, Islam has modernized to become the channel and idiom for this discontent.

Today, the House of Saud stands at a difficult crossroads. King Fahd, has been invalided by a stroke while the Crown Prince and de facto ruler Abdullah, is in his eighties. The prospect of a succession crisis looms. Such a crisis could see rival factions emerging from within the House, one representing radical Islamic views, drawing on support from the economically marginalised, the other a secularist outlook, supported in the main by the technocratic bourgeoise. Neither the secularists nor the Islamic radicals favour the continuance of the status quo and the quid pro quo for support from either side would probably be a check on the autocratic rule of the Al-Saud Family.

Bibliography

Books

Abir, M. Saudi Arabia: Government, Society and the Gulf Crisis. London, 1993
Cooper, John (editor): Islam and Modernity: Muslim Intellectuals Respond. London 1998
Habib, J. Ibn Saud’s Warriors of Islam. Leiden, 1978
Hoover, S. and Schofield-Clark, L. (editors) Practising Religion in the Age of Media – Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture. Columbia, 2002
Jerichow, A. The Saudi File: People, power and politics. London, 1997
Kostiner, J. (editor) The Middle East Monarchies: The Challenge of Modernity. Boulder-Colorado, 2000
Lackner, H A House Built on Sand: a political economy of Saudi Arabia. London 1982
Al-Rasheed, Madawi A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge, 2002

Articles

Bligh, A ‘The Saudi Religious Elite as Participants in the Political System’ International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 17, 1985
Dekmejian, H. R. ‘The Rise of Political Islam in Saudi Arabia’ in Middle East Journal 48 (1994) and ‘Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council’ in Middle East Journal 52 (1998)
Albright, Madelein ‘Greed that feeds terror’ in The Guardian, November 27, 2003

Other Sources

http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/sa.html-people
http://www.arabialink.com
BBC Radio 4 ‘Crossing Continents’ 8/12/2003

(essay, 2004)

BrOxfordexit

(Published in Village Magazine, October, 2016)

North Oxford is a heartland of academia where leafy halls of residence mingle with stately homes and rarefied hostelries. Bang in the middle of England a pervading windlessness favours scholarly reflection removed from the fugue of modernity. Only here do scholars walk the streets with books aloft. Even the traffic is orderly with streams of bicycles sensibly preferred.

The city of Oxford is located on the confluence of the Isis (the idiosyncratic name for the Thames here) and Cherwell rivers. Broadly, it may be divided into three zones with a clear north-south divide: the aforementioned affluent and mature north Oxford suburbs of Jericho, Summertown and Wolvercote; an historical and commercial centre linked to Botley and Osney Island; and predominantly twentieth century suburbs including Headington, Cowley and Blackbird Leys to the south. The centre, layered on top of the original, though poorly preserved, Anglo-Saxon settlement, contains iconic colleges such as Christchurch alongside an incongruous “any-town-UK” commercial centre and its array of gaudy chains.

Flanked by the rivers and their flood plains, the division of the city is maintained by extended parklands and a canal network that insulate the lush northern suburbs. The Cowley Road is a transition zone mostly inhabited by transient, though not particularly exuberant, students. The strip, nonetheless, has an energy not found elsewhere in Oxford.

Moving south, there is another Oxford as housing gets cheaper and industry more evident. The first industrial revolution passed Oxford by as colleges objected to the contagion of commerce. Only after World War II did significant manufacturing arrive as the city attracted a motor car industry.

By the early 1970s, 20,000 people were employed in the sector and the original Mini Minor was developed here in 1959. Unfortunately, as in much of the country, a significant proportion of heavy industrial jobs have departed.

The working class areas now face social problems familiar in many English cities in a country that is the most unequal in Europe. Living as a generally penniless, jobbing tutor and supply teacher in Oxford for two years I encountered classroom behaviour that made experiences in schools in socially-deprived areas of Dublin seem positively meditative. Oxford is a place of profound educational inequality. Secondary schools such as the Oxford Academy which was built along the lines of a prison seem to be on a different planet from the elite educational institutions.

The number of Prime Ministers that have passed through Oxford University is startling. Among post-war prime ministers only Winston Churchill, Jim Callaghan, John Major (none of whom had a university education) and Scottish Gordon Brown did not receive an Oxford education. Another alumnus Theresa May (St. Hugh’s 1974) joins a list that includes Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair (St. John’s, 1974), Harold Wilson (Jesus College, 1937) and Clement Atlee (University College, 1904) as well as Tories: Anthony Eden (Christchurch, 1922); Harold MacMillan (Balliol, 1914); Alfred Douglas-Home (Christchurch, 1925); Edward Heath (Balliol, 1939); Margaret Thatcher (Somerville College, 1947), and David Cameron (Brasenose, 1988).

Moreover, numerous Tory politicians maintain an association with the wider shire. Churchill himself was born in the nearby ancestral estate of Blenheim Palace where he also proposed to his wife. David Cameron lives in Chipping Norton close to Rebecca Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the Chippy set. Michael Heseltine (Pembroke, 1954) is also nearby though he seems to look slightly askance at the gobby neighbours.

Meanwhile, Theresa May grew up in the village of Wheatley a few miles east of Oxford where her father served as vicar. Closer to London, Boris Johnson (Balliol, 1987), the new foreign secretary, lives in Henley-on-Thames.
Perhaps the county has a quality – an England of the imagination – that Tory grandees gravitate towards. It could be the low rural population density, a legacy of the Enclosure Acts (1760-1830) that placed formerly common land in the hands of expanding gentlemen farmers. Today, though located only an hour from some of the most inflated land prices in the world in London, it is possible to drive for long stretches without seeing a single dwelling.

As an Irish person living in the city of Oxford I was never made to feel unwelcome, or at least any alienation was no different to that felt by the bulk of the population beholden to a converging aristocratic and mercantile elite: unlike the ancient regime in France since the Tudor era nobility has been open to the highest bidder. One must however acclimatise to the southern English reserve and a sense of humour more sardonic than in Ireland. The historian Tony Judt writes that the English are perhaps “the only people who can experience schadenfreude at their own misfortunes”.

Succumbing to generalisation, I regard English friendships as firmer than Irish for all the latter’s sociability. But societies of companions generate mosaic communities often hostile to one another. Better the devil you know and bugger the rest.

In the age of the Internet which extinguishes old certainties a growing contempt is discernible towards politicians. Many are no longer content to be ‘shat on by Tories, shovelled up by Labour’ in the words of Uncle Monty in Withnail and I. The cultural dominance of Oxbridge (meaning both Oxford and Cambridge Universities) which extends to the media and business is threatened. This perhaps explains why maverick and grumpy (though otherwise profoundly different) outsiders such as Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage are appealing to a jaded electorate; a state of affairs the Oxbridge elite cannot abide as shown by the treatment of Corbyn even in some apparently left-wing media.

The excellence of the Oxbridge education contributes to the dislocation. Staff-student ratio at Oxbridge colleges are approximately one member of academic staff to every five students while other third level institutions are accustomed to 1:20. The hallowed tutorial system gives what are reckoned to be the brightest students, by the age of eighteen, individual or small-group tuition accelerating progress in their chosen fields.

Even if a student arrives from a lower-middle class or working class background – and the universities are constantly endeavouring to increases this cohort – and not from Eton or another public school that individual is stamped with the culture and polish of the elite institution. An Oxbridge degree brings enhanced job prospects and most are absorbed by an adaptable ruling class that grudgingly accepts infusion of new talent just as in Plato’s Republic there was a fluidity between the different casts of Gold, Silver and Bronze.

The major problem with the system, if we accept that a fixed sum is devoted to education in the country, is the opportunity cost of not investing in other institutions catering for a broader demographic. There seems to be an assumption as in Plato’s Republic that great swathes of the population are incapable of more than mundane labour. Irish third level education, for all its failings, is more republican in this respect.

The argument for disproportionate investment with finite resources on the cultivation of high academic achievers may be persuasive in the sciences but is less compelling in humanities where a wider diffusion of expert teaching could benefit English society as a whole.

Moreover, the Oxbridge education is at the apex of a system with a degree of specialisation unlike other European countries or the United States. School children take a mere three subjects at A-level beginning at sixteen, explaining the lowest rate in Europe of people speaking second languages.

Depth in a chosen field cohabits with a narrowness that might offer an insight into the closing of the English mind which the Brexit result has revealed.

One should generally avoid extrapolating grand narratives out of chance encounters, nonetheless a single incident sometimes crystallises understanding of a larger controversy. Three days after the result of the Brexit Referendum I arrived in Oxford to teach on a summer school. The following morning I encountered a man in his seventies purchasing strawberries in a pricey delicatessen. He was determined to ascertain whether the provenance of the strawberries was English and not grown indoors in a “ghastly poly tunnel” a method he attributed to the Dutch. After being reassured of their local origin he exceeded himself by declaring that after Brexit there would be more local production and it would now be possible for fishermen to bring in our fish.

As a matter of fact a recent report in The Guardian suggested that the British strawberry industry was threatened by withdrawal from the Europe, and the fishing industry will still have to contend with diminishing catches for the foreseeable future and negotiate with other countries for rights to offshore waters. But to me this man represented a whole generation who had come to despise the relentless march of progress in Britain where strawberries could taste of nothing but water and packaging, and for whom the European institutions had become a convenient whipping boy.

The lady serving him was, to be fair, taken aback by his ignorance of how Britain led the way with industrial food production. After he had left she reddened palpably when she referred to the “nonsense” of Brexit. The city of Oxford voted by 5:2 to Remain and some weeks later forlorn banners are still visible, with hardly an advertisement to Leave in sight. The University is closely tied to other European institutions and the populace is comparatively young, affluent and educated, all good indicators of a Remain preference.
In the wider county however less well-off towns such as Bicester (defined as a “Tescos Town” on account of the 6 branches for 29,000 people) ensured that the vote was much closer. Nonetheless, some large farmers anxious to retain EU subsidies along with affluent and cosmopolitan former Londoners ensured a Remain majority.

The hint of a skirmish I witness in the Oxford delicatessen took place on a charming street called North Parade containing a strip of pubs and restaurants. It is one of Oxford’s curiosities that North Parade is situated about one mile (remaining Imperial) to the south of another street called South Parade. This anomaly can be traced to the English Civil War of the 1640s when Charles I was forced to flee London and set up an alternative capital in Oxford, an idea revived by Hitler in his plans for the conquest of Britain. North Parade was the furthest extent north of the Royal lines while South Parade to the north was the equivalent parade ground to the south of the Parliamentary forces.

This fault line of English history throws up further symmetries. About a five minute walk to the north is St Hugh’s College where Theresa May read Geography, and even close to North Parade is sumptuous Lady Margaret Hall where Michael Grove (LMH, 1987), one of the prime ideologues of Brexit, studied English. This outsider who rose to President of the Oxford Union was adopted as a baby and grew up over five hundred miles away in Aberdeen. He is perhaps the leading spokesman for British nationalism in the Tory party.

During the campaign his notorious interjection that Britain had had enough of experts was disingenuous and calculated. Unlike some of his fellow politicians relatively humble origins may have given him a better understanding of the narrow outlook of many of his countrymen. The insights of his wife Sarah Vine as a columnist for the Daily Mail, a newspaper that has scapegoated the European Union as irredeemably bumbling and power-grabbing over decades, was also an asset. This portrait of the European Union compliments the generally negative perception of politicians. Furthermore in a society with an obsessive memory of its wartime sacrifices European institutions are constantly and not always subtly identified with Nazi perfidy by the right-wing press, including recently by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph.

Considering the weight of invective directed against the Union over so many years the Brexit vote was not surprising and the existential fear of a flood of migrants after the refugee crisis made attacking European institutions even easier. Brexit is the legacy of the takeover of the capital-intensive newspaper industry from the 1970s by the political right which has used sport and celebrity to stupefy much of an economically-distressed and poorly-educated population.

It is revealing that there was a split in the Murdoch media between the Sun which backed the Leave campaign with The Times backing a Remain vote. The Sun could hardly reverse forty years of Euro-bashing even though the danger was obvious to the British economy and acknowledged by the middle class Times.
Gove’s reason for deciding to campaign against “his friend” David Cameron were spelt out in a Spectator column some months before the referendum. He believed that “our” country would be “freer, fairer and better off outside the EU”. The article contained the usual lampooning of illogical rules such as how olive oil had to be dispensed in 5 litre containers – as if this changes with Brexit or matters in the least – and complaints about an unelected Commission; ignoring how Commissioners are appointed by elected governments in much the same way as a government minister – the member of parliament for a single constituency – is appointed to the national executive; and in exactly the way that US Presidents appoint their cabinets. The absence of a separation of powers in the English (and Irish) system is arguably more of the anomaly.

As an apparently intelligent, educated and reportedly well-read man it is hard to credit that Gove believed his own guff. More sinisterly, in just one six-line paragraph of his Spectator article the third person plural “we” is used seven times. Preserving a brittle “British” nation appeared foremost in his mind. It is axiomatic that the shrillest advocate of a nation has a dubious claim to that identity, the very identity “British” is being superseded by “English” and is under severe threat with the rise of Scottish nationalism.

Gove’s dismissal of expertise came from an individual who trusted his own wisdom to remodel the GCSE English syllabus removing favourites such as The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men and insisting on readings of whole Shakespeare plays and, more controversially, a plan to give the King James Bible to every school. Unusually, he has also argued for a formal British constitution to overcome the ambiguities of an unwritten one and a bill of rights in place of a European Convention on Human Rights despised by the Tory right. More benignly as a Minister for Justice he refused to do business with Saudi Arabia on account of the appalling excesses of their criminal justice system for which he was described as “naïve” by the new Chancellor Phillip Hammond (University College, 1976).

Some of Gove’s views on literature are, superficially at least, laudable. Leading literary critics such as Edward Clarke in his The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry argue that England’s great poetic heritage should be taught to all school children as a form of timeless scripture informing their lives. There is also a case to be made for the King James Bible as a prized work of Tudor literature. But it would appear that the cantankerous outsider Gove views literature instrumentally, as a way of shaping a common literary space – that first person plural again – for emboldened Britains that leaves aside a hyphenated sense of identity English-, Scottish- or even Muslim-. This idea of a nation sharing a literary space through reading books of this kind is identified in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Community as a formative experience, and European history shows how dangerous it can be.

During the leadership race another Tory grandee Ken Clarke (unusually a Cambridge graduate) perceptively muttered on Sky News that Gove would probably involve the country in three wars if he were selected, and his views expressed in a book on the Good Friday Agreement suggests he would be divisive influence. With Boris Johnson and the singularly unimpressive Andrea Leadsom inside the tent Gove remains the most credible Leaver to challenge May should she fail to maintain peace in the Tory party.

So it is left to the Vicar’s daughter to clean up the mess made by her younger Oxford fellow graduates. It remains to be seen whether the cultural cracks I witnessed on North Parade are part of a wider national schism generated by a long-standing inequality. Perhaps it is the case that the English (or was it a British?) revolution arrived too soon. Charles I was eventually defeated in Oxford and beheaded in 1649 but his son Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, and the country enjoyed a decadent Restoration. No foreign army has successfully invaded England since 1066 as every school child knows.

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, wrote that knowledge is power. Through history the English elites did not parade their wealth in gastronomic excess like the French ancien regime, but with display in learning especially in the Classics, the apparent mark of truly refined men now embodied by Boris Johnson. In a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman in 2011 he dismissed the idea that he was David Cameron’s intellectual inferior as the then prime minister’s first was in PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) as opposed to his 2h1 in a superior Classics degree. The Oxbridge system produces a cast that has long dominated English affairs in part through the networks established there but also because of the polish imparted by that education.

The Brexit result was to some extent a revolt against that paternalism, ironically stage-managed by ideologues from within such as Gove who cynically dismissed “expertise”. But the English ruling class is formidably resilient and it seems that only xenophobic demagoguery of the sort unheard in England since the days of Enoch Powell could lift Gove to power now that the European Union bogeyman can no longer be reached for. Instead we may hope that a resurgent left under the principled and iconoclastic Corbyn is capable of harnessing the country’s discontents, and provide a genuine alternative direction for Britain that is not mired in delusions of imperial grandeur.

It is hard to imagine the tranquillity of north Oxford as the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in English history four hundred years ago, but the strength of feeling generated by the Brexit result has produced divisions in British society that will take many years to heal. A growing contempt for expertise and the difficulty of defining Englishness or Britishness threatens the intellectual pillars of a consensus that has lasted for nearly four hundred years.

The origins of Likud Ideology

The origins of Likud Ideology

(Published in Village Magazine, December, 2014)

It has been said that there are two possible solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: one realistic the other miraculous. The realistic solution involves divine intervention; the miraculous, a voluntary agreement between the parties.

The latest round of conflict is, mercifully, largely over. On August 26th, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza had left approximately 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast destruction in its wake; just over 71 Israelis were killed, all but 5 soldiers. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the ongoing Israeli siege of Gaza. Essentially, nothing has changed.

To explain the conduct of the Israeli authorities it is important to understand the ideology behind the Likud party, the dominant political force in Israel since its foundation in 1977 under the leadership of Menachem Begin. Although Ariel Sharon split with the party and formed Kadima in 2006, relegating Likud to fourth place in the ensuing elections, they have since returned to power under the enduring figure of Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Arab-Israeli wars which began with the foundation of Israel in 1948 have resulted in comprehensive Israeli victories, especially in the 1967 Six-Day War. This ascendancy has been consolidated by the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the US, Israel’s Cold War patron, as lone Superpower. The Palestinian case was further weakened by PLO support for Iraq before the first Gulf War.

But despite accords with Egypt and Jordan, Israel faces perpetual conflict with neighbouring countries as most Arab people have a fixed view of Israel as a colonial, oppressive presence in the region. It is only continued autocratic rule in Egypt and Jordan that keeps these sentiments in check. Arguably the key juncture was the 1956 Suez Crisis when Israeli forces joined the French and British in attacking Egypt.

The Israeli electorate has consistently favoured leaders unwilling to countenance concessions, and the expansion of settlements has become a fixed policy. The withdrawal from Gaza in 2006 was a simple realisation that it was untenable to maintain 10,000 settlers inside a grossly over-populated strip of land containing over a million and a half Palestinians. There were bigger fish to fry in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

To explain the intransigence it is necessary to understand the ideology underpinning the Likud Party. Likud ideology can be traced to three principle sources: first, the writings of the Revionist Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky; second, the experience of the Holocaust; and third, the emergence of religious Zionism after 1967.

Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky (1880-1940), a Russian born Jew, is generally viewed as the spiritual founder of the Israeli Right. In 1923 he wrote a still influential article entitled “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs).” In it he asserted that a “voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future” since: “Every indigenous people… will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the dangers of foreign settlement.”

In response to resistance Jabotinsky advocated “an iron wall” of military might which “they [the Palestinians] will be powerless to break down.”
With military ascendancy achieved Palestinians would be ready to yield and only then “will they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogan “No, never” lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups.” At that point limited political rights could be granted.
Such an analysis ordains that negotiations can begin only when the Palestinians produce a malleable leadership willing to accept their permanent exclusion. Jabotinsky’s metaphorical ‘iron wall’ was given a literal interpretation by Sharon’s construction of the ‘security fence’ that runs through the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas was perhaps viewed by Sharon as a leader who would acquiesce to Israeli demands, but Hamas most certainly was not.

But Jabotinsky’s analysis was flawed as it ignored how the policy of the ‘iron wall’ could generate fatalistic extremism in the form of suicide bombing and the use of civilian shields for rocket attacks. He also failed to foresee the internationalisation of the Palestinian cause.
The second major influence on Likud, and Israeli society in general, is the trauma of the Holocaust experience. The collective memory of Jewish passivity in the face of genocide mandates a policy of fierce reprisal in response to the taking of Jewish life. Restraint is characterised as appeasement.

The leadership of the Israeli Right manipulates this latent fear of destruction, appealing to an international as well as a domestic audience.
In his book ‘A Place Among the Nations’ Benjamin Netanyahu dwelt on the lessons of appeasement of Nazi Germany and the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the Western powers for the contemporary Middle East. Arabs are likened to Nazi Germany, Palestinians to the Sudeten Germans, and Israel to the small democracy of Czechoslovakia, the victim of Chamberlain’s 1938 deal with Hitler. For Netanyahu the lesson is clear, to grant concessions to Palestinians is to endanger the survival of the state of Israel.

This Holocaust motif was also employed by opponents of Yitzhak Rabin after he signed up to the Oslo Accords. Inside the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) two Likud deputies proceeded to open black umbrellas comparing Rabin’s peace deal to Chamberlain’s capitulation, while effigies of Rabin dressed in SS uniform were set alight at right wing demonstrations.

Suicide bombing and rocket attacks cunningly target this traumatic inheritance, perpetuating a cycle of violence that is difficult to contain, and generated support for the extremists on the Palestinian side. The loss of Israeli life calls for harsh reprisal, which in turn radicalises the Palestinian population. Acting out of the core Likud dogma, Netenyahu must respond to an attack even if this completely discredits moderate Palestinian leaders. The ferocity of Israel’s response to terrorism works against the moderate leadership that Jabotinsky’s model requires. Likud policy exceeds the idea of the ‘iron wall’.

The last major influence on Likud is the rise of religious Zionism, especially generated by the 1967 Six-Day War. The enormous territorial gains of this war were interpreted as a sign of divine favour and settlement of the land became a religious imperative.

Politically, this generated a raft of religious parties in the Knesset in the 1970s. The Likud was also strongly influenced by this messianic message and still relies on the support of religious parties. The principle at work is that anyone prepared to entertain abandonment of the sacred land is a traitor to the Jewish people.

Its force was demonstrated by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, which effectively de-railed the Oslo Peace Process. Rabin’s killer was a young extremist by the name of Yigal Amir. During his trial Amir told the court that according to halacha (Jewish law), a Jew who gives his land to the enemy and endangers the life of other Jews must be killed.

The political durability of the religious right was shown by Sharon’s difficulty in removing settlers from Gaza, that ultimately saw him leave Likud, forming Kadima and entering into coalition with Labour. The difficulty of removing settlers from Gaza would be magnified ten-fold if it were attempted on the West Bank, containing the Biblical province of Judea as well as a third of Israel’s water supply, let alone sacred Jerusalem.
The Likud Party has thus moved to the right of its ideological founder, Jabotinsky, who envisaged some form of political settlement. Policy is hamstrung by paranoid reprisals born out of a cathartic need for pro-activity in response to provocation and a religious right that interprets sovereignty over land in religious terms.

In such circumstances it is hard to hold out any hope for peace, but there has been at least one instance where Israel was moved along the road to compromise. Under George Bush snr. ten billion dollars worth of loan credits were denied to them which forced the then Likud government under Yitzhak Shamir to the negotiating table.

A clear message, with financial clout behind it, that the international community, including the United States, will not tolerate continued intransigence could lead to electoral success for the more pragmatic Labour party and other secular parties. Unfortunately, however, the prospect of America leaning on Israel seems slight. In such circumstances the European Union should consider withdrawing the preferential trade status currently enjoyed by Israel under the EU-Israel Association Agreement.

Fatah have their bottom line, which is the 1967 borders including partial control over Jerusalem, and for any peace to hold there would also surely have to be concessions to the 1948 dispossessed. Whether Hamas would sign up to recognition of the state of Israel is not clear, although there have been suggestions that this could happen. Indeed it has been suggested that the latest round of conflict was motivated by fear of the unity government between Fatah and Hamas. It serves Likud ideology to confront corresponding intransigence.

A Likud administration will never allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge, and in the current circumstances the dominance of the Likud party will remain. In the meantime the peace process stalls, and the suffering of Palestinians continues to be a source of regional and global instability.

(http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2014/12/likudation-the-ascendant-israeli-political-party-is-committed-by-ideology-to-oppressing-the-palestinians/)