The Establishment versus the Individual
Gerry Dorrian buries the remains
Snobbery and hatred have always led the powerful to seek to hobble those that they see as beneath them. Currently nothing embodies this more than the elitist and oligarchic response of predominantly privileged groups towards the result of the EU membership referendum. Incorporating the thought of Martin Heidegger – a Nazi academic – into the Left, Remainers demand the right to voice their individuality, to be an “I”, but they knock Brexiteers into a catch all category of lesser beings whom Heidegger labelled “the they”.
The root of their fury is that each of the majority of individuals who voted to Leave has a vote equal to each of theirs. This conflicts with their Heideggerian view that some people are more equal than others. While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the hatred shown by this hard core towards groups they look down upon constitutes anything like the Holocaust, it was this type of hatred that led to Auschwitz. Reductionist othering of groups whose members’ individuality is inconvenient to a power-invested bloc is the diagnostic symptom of fascism.
Mussolini gave fascism the characteristic that we most associate with it, that of the corporate state in which the tasks of government are tendered out to businesses, charities and unions. When Henry Fairlie described the Establishment in a 1955 issue of the Spectator as “the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised” and added “The exercise of power…cannot be understood until it is recognised that it is exercised socially”, he might have been describing the corporate state.
After the Combination Acts were passed by Pitt the Younger to prevent workers from congregating to read and discuss republican tracts, Methodist minister Jabez Bunting led a cadre of newly-minted nonconformist pastors to take control of Sunday schools, with the goal of preventing working-class children (who were also factory workers) from acquiring literacy skills. This early incarnation of the Establishment at work is echoed in modern state schools in working-class areas, where learning to think is subordinated to learning to comply.
But as the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution became apparent, a muscular liberalism came forth. While women and children were legally the property of the paterfamilias and workers effectively that of their employers, Jeremy Bentham elaborated a radical egalitarianism summarised in his principle that “everybody is worth one, and nobody is worth more than one”.
Throughout the Industrial Revolution there was a parallel revolution in thought. It was a time of campaigns for the abolition of slavery, for the criminalisation of child labour and the extension of the franchise to women and working-class men, with proponents spanning what we now call the centre-left and centre-right. But they were opposed; Marx, for instance, derided the fight to end child labour, championed by the Tory politician Lord Shaftesbury, as “an empty, pious wish”. Might it be tendentious to suggest that somebody who wanted an amorphous collective of workers to reject the social order might want that order to appear in as bad a light as possible?
Dogmatic collectivism and robust liberalism cannot share the same space. The latter exists only vestigially now on the Left. It is hardly an accident that in Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, the Conservative Party has provided the country’s only female prime ministers. It has also provided the first Muslim cabinet minister in Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.
Cameron, on the other hand, did little on his watch to lessen the faceless Establishmentarian brought in by New Labour, which approximated to the corporate state more closely than any western European polity since Mussolini’s fall. Slavery once more blights our island, electoral fraud dilutes full suffrage and children have been left in the hands of abusers, while officials knowingly turned their faces away. Poststructuralist thought within policing, law and the judiciary, it seems, considers certain perpetrators of rape and assault not according to the suffering visited upon their victims but in the context of the crimes within the perpetrators’ culture.
The children are not thereby seen as individuals. Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism, which uproots what most people think of as facts – such as “a crime is a crime is a crime” – replaces them with contexts. This shows itself nowhere more than in the fourteen-year cover-up of child grooming and rape in Rotherham, where the “I” accorded by officials to each perpetrator knocked the victims en masse into the category of “the they”.
Inequality is the bedfellow of social deconstruction. Many gay people, for example, are finding their hard-won equality devalued when new communities do not accept them. And immigrants who integrate and change their voting habits find that they are forgotten or even persecuted by self-elected community leaders. While individual freedom is the quintessence of robust liberalism, the collectivist imperative suppresses individuality, encouraging minorities to see themselves not as empowerable individuals but as victimised groups, so that their victimhood can be commodified and used as tools in decentring the traditions of the majoritarian community.
Our traditional liberal values are not perfect – nothing is – but at least they have the advantage of being able to respond to injustices, as opposed to the sweeping social-engineering agendas that caused so much misery in the twentieth century and are now raising their ugly heads again. It is time to face down the oligarchic minority, intoxicated with snobbery, who demand that those who are not inebriated by the EU be cast out into the Other. We, the hoi polloi, demand a liberal, humanist polity that will embrace all people of good intent. The alternative is that freedom will continue to haemorrhage.
Gerry Dorrian is a philosopher. He writes from Cambridge