I thoroughly enjoyed this challenging but very interesting chat with Simeon Burke on faith, motherhood, feminism, why I don’t believe in progress and why the term ‘post-liberal’ doesn’t really make sense because all politics is post-liberal now.
Earlier this year, mining company Rio Tinto dynamited a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in the Pilbara region of Australia, in pursuit of the iron ore deposits that lay beneath the sacred caves. The decision triggered outrage from Aboriginal communities and the wider world alike. Pressure from investors concerned about the resulting PR disaster eventually forced the CEO to resign.
But that’s not much of a victory for those to whom the now-destroyed site was sacred. As a place of pilgrimage, continuously inhabited since before the last Ice Age, its religious significance had accumulated over millennia of repeated visits, inhabitation and ritual. The holiness of Juukan Gorge lay in the unimaginably long-term accretion of memories, social patterns, and shared cultural maps by countless generations of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.
Strip mining, the method of resource extraction used to reach much of Pilbara’s iron ore, was the subject of a blistering 1962 Atlantic essay by Harry Caudill. Titled ‘Rape of the Appalachians,’ it describes a process as violent as the analogy suggests, in which entire mountaintops are removed in search of coal deposits. But when you consider the role played by commerce, it’s more accurate to describe the process as prostitution.
It’s not unusual for those looking to destigmatize prostitution to argue that selling sexual access to one’s own body should be morally acceptable, precisely because it’s no worse than coal mining. So here we have two sides of a disagreement, both of whom see commonalities between prostitution and mining, even as they disagree over whether the action itself is good or bad.
How would we characterize what prostitution and mining have in common? Resource extraction, perhaps. Dynamiting Appalachian mountaintops has obvious tradeoffs, but on the upside you get to extract coal from the exposed rock, which you can then use to generate electricity. We accept the environmental destruction, deterioration in air quality, and changed landscape contours (or at least mostly choose to overlook them), because the alternative—no electricity—appears worse.
Selling access to female bodies is also a form of resource extraction. The product may be subtler—orgasm, the illusion of intimacy, darker types of wish-fulfilment or, in the case of commercial surrogacy, a human baby—and the tradeoffs less visibly destructive than a landscape reshaped. But the dynamic is similar. In each case, a woman rents access to something that we consider to belong to each individual alone—her body—and earns money in return. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported the decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, recently argued for de-stigmatizing “those who choose to make a living based by self-governing their own bodies.” Earning money independently is good. Self-government over our own resources is good. So on what basis can we criticize people who choose to sell access to their own bodies?
In his 1954 lecture ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Martin Heidegger argued that when we organize life under the rubric of technology, the world ceases to have a presence in its own right and is ordered instead as ‘standing-reserve’—that is, as resources to be instrumentalized. Coal and iron ore, the products of technology themselves, and even human sexual desire then come to be seen as part of the standing-reserve. It becomes increasingly difficult to see reasons why there should exist any limits on extracting such resources.
Today, it feels as though we’ve always been engaged in this inexorable onward march. From a more mainstream perspective, what Heidegger is describing is simply the process we now call economic development. It is the transition from pre-industrial societies—characterized by primitive and localised forms of exchange, low workforce mobility, and in many cases by extreme poverty—to longer and more complex supply chains, technological innovation, more trade, more stuff, more wealth, and more personal freedom.
But as Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation, for much of human history trade occupied a much less central place in human relations than it does today: “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships.” Polanyi showed how in Britain, economic development and the emergent market society was driven by the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860. Prior to enclosure, much of Britain comprised subsistence-farming peasants living on land held and worked in common.
Enclosures, justified by a need for greater farming efficiency, stripped the peasantry of any right to common land in favor of a private property model. Pre-enclosure, the necessities of life might have been bare, but many of those necessities existed outside the realm of ownership and trade. A peasant might spend his or her whole life in a tied cottage, with a right to common land, working to produce food but with very little need to buy or sell anything. Enclosure reordered whole swathes of human life from the shared, social realm to that of standing-reserve: that is, the realm of private property and transactional exchange.
Post-enclosures, what had previously been held in common—whether land or labor—was now privatized as standing-reserve for exploitation by free individuals. In the process, millions of human lives were arguably made much freer. The working poor were liberated from the feudal ties often implied by subsistence farming, free to move if they pleased, and free to sell their own labor for money.
But this development was never simply the voluntary spread of a new, enlightened way of making everyone better-off. Like mining, it came with tradeoffs: peasant resistance to the Enclosure Acts suggests that for those people, at least, something was lost. And if enclosure opened up domestic markets in goods such as housing and food, it did not rely on the consent of those British peasants forcibly displaced from subsistence lifestyles into waged factory work.
The violence involved in opening up colonial markets likewise rejected the benign invisible hand. In February 1897, for example, not long after the completion of the enclosures in Britain itself, British imperial officials responded to the Oba of Benin’s refusal to open up trade in palm oil and rubber from his thriving city-state on the Niger Delta. Their answer was the Punitive Expedition, in which 5,000 British troops armed with machine guns razed Benin, massacring its inhabitants, flattening its temples, and looting the bronzes that inscribed its most treasured cultural memories. A month after the Punitive Expedition, a golf course had been laid over the city’s site, with the ninth hole where the most sacred tree had stood.
Most histories of the present characterize the story of economic development as an upward one of human progress, that has liberated millions from indentured labour into greater agency as free individuals in market society. And there’s something in this story of freedom; I wouldn’t swap my life today for that of a medieval subsistence peasant. But, like the extraction of Appalachian coal, nothing comes without tradeoffs. And while it’s easy enough to describe historical events in our transition from a largely relational society to a largely transactional one, the cost of moving to a market society is more difficult to count.
It’s perhaps easier to find a way into this blind spot via a more recent large-scale displacement of humans from a relational to a market existence. The migration of women from the domestic sphere to the workplace began in earnest in the 20th century, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that it gathered pace around the time the economic gains available via overseas colonial expansion began to falter. I’ve never been a subsistence peasant or Aboriginal nomad, but for a few years I did step a small distance outside the market society as a full-time mother. And what I learned there about how, and why, this form of work is invisible today helps to illuminate the tradeoffs demanded by the market society. It also offers clues as to how we might yet stand for things crucial to humans but indefensible within a transactional worldview, such as ecosystems, sacred places, or even a view of dating that isn’t a sexual marketplace.
For something to be treated as standing-reserve, it must be possible to own it. Our social norms demand that we claim ownership of a resource before exploiting it. Selling my labor in the marketplace presumes that I can dispose of my time as I see fit, that no one else has a claim on my time or my body—in short, that I’m a free individual.
But to be a mother is quintessentially to experience not entirely belonging to yourself. It begins in pregnancy, with the realization that what you eat or drink affects your unborn child; it continues with breastfeeding, as you make the food that nourishes your child with your own body; it goes on far beyond infancy, in the need your children have to be physically close to you. When you see how powerfully your small child craves your presence, it’s very difficult to sustain the illusion of belonging only to yourself.
To the extent that something belongs to others as well as to ourselves—such as common land in 18th century Britain—it will resist being privatized for use as standing-reserve. So caring for my child can’t easily be viewed as a transaction, because it’s a relationship in which we aren’t exactly individuals. That is, we don’t belong only to ourselves, but to each other as well. And when you don’t belong solely to yourself, work can be understood not as a transaction—my labor exchanged for your money—but as relational. In other words, it is less oriented toward resource extraction and exchange than sustaining interdependent patterns of life.
This in turn helps explain why the politics of our market society has such a blind spot where motherhood is concerned: the market society’s notion of liberation into the standing-reserve is deeply at odds with the work of caring. Sustaining interdependency isn’t about fleeting transactional logic. It’s about maintaining a valuable relationship. I don’t care for my child or my partner because I have a utilitarian goal in mind, but because we belong to each other and that makes caring for them a necessity for my existence too.
Despite being in a sense repetitive and goal-less, caring is also pregnant with meaning. As the pioneering biosemioticist Wendy Wheeler puts it in Information and Meaning, repetition and pattern are central to communication throughout the organic and even the inorganic world. Organisms and natural systems don’t just respond to one-off signals, but rather exist in emergent, interdependent dialogue with the signals sent by other organisms and environmental factors around them—what Jakob von Uexküll calls an organism’s Umwelt. Thus, information in the natural world does not exist in some abstract sense, but only in the context of how it’s received within larger feedback loops. From the smallest microbiota to complex human civilisations, meanings are fundamentally relational, contextual, and pattern-based.
Seen this way, it’s easier to understand why non-transactional, relational spheres of life and particularly family, remain Americans’ most potent sources of meaning. For individuals, meaning is to be found less in peak experiences, one-offs, the exceptional or abstract; it hides in the repetitive, the everyday, and the relational. At a collective level, meaning coils through those pattern-languages transmitted via tradition, whether in vernacular architecture, folk music or oral histories. It lies thick in sacred places: humans have long used pattern, repetition, and the expected as the core of ritual religious and spiritual practices.
The philosopher Adam Robbert connects meaning-making with askēsis, a Greek term that refers to the act of practice and discipline as itself a form of extended cognition, that enables the expansion of meaning-making beyond the rational sphere via the bringing-together of attention and repetition. We can understand motherhood as a kind of relational askēsis, whose core is the attentive, attuned pattern-work of sustaining a child’s Umwelt while they are too young to do it themselves. This is a central reason why many women are willing to sacrifice social status and earning power to work part-time or stay at home with young children: it’s as satisfyingly rich in meaning-as-pattern as it is starved of social status and pecuniary reward.
But the central concern of mothering with pattern, sameness, and contextual meaning as opposed to information devalues it in the order of standing-reserve, even as it delivers untold riches on its own terms. Information theory, a core science underpinning much of our technology, explicitly excludes the realm of pattern and sameness as ‘redundancy,’ preferring to focus on the unexpected. Our contemporary culture is quintessentially one of information theory: we celebrate the new, the innovative, the individual who doesn’t follow the rules. I can’t think of many movies where the hero defies calls to go his own way and instead saves the world by embracing convention.
And yet meaning, as Wheeler emphasizes, “is made up of pattern, repetition, the expected.” Information theory is thus blind to it, as she further points out: “What information engineers count as redundancy, living organisms in their systems count as meaning.” In this worldview, the tradeoff between motherhood and the workplace is a brutal one. No matter how meaningful life with a baby seems in its relational context, we have no vocabulary for understanding that, save as redundancy. It’s no surprise to discover that market society frames caring for children as a punishment: “the motherhood penalty.”
The transactional world has little facility for repetition, pattern, or the expected; this is ‘redundancy’ to be dismissed in pursuit of the special, the distinct, the signal. This blindness to meaning-as-pattern, visible in the devaluation of motherhood and trust relationships, is similarly evident in contemporary architecture’s indifference to those vernacular pattern-languages in local built environments, that encode ways of life specific to different places. You can see it again in the treatment of folk music as second-class and unoriginal, the dismissal of religious practice as dogma, or the indifference to accumulated sacredness that allowed the destruction of Juukan Gorge.
Within the worldview that reads motherhood as a punishment, ecologies of meaning accumulated via everyday pattern, human relationship, or religious ritual are at best yet-to-be-monetized resources. If they resist this transformation, they are obstacles to be ignored or dynamited. Bringing these pieces together, it’s now easier to see what’s lost under the rubric of information theory and standing-reserve. To see the world in terms of standing-reserve means seeing it as transactions rather than relationships, and information rather than meaning: as Heidegger puts it, “shattered,” and confined to a “circuit of orderability.”
This shattered world is the same one the market society mindset calls ‘open’: openness to new forms, after all, means weak adherence to existing ones. To borrow Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase, then, seeing the price of everything by definition means seeing the value of nothing. Reframing the world in transactional terms, as ‘open’ resources that can be instrumentalized, necessitates the destruction of its meanings. Strip-mining self-evidently degrades the environment being mined. After demutualization, it took less than two decades for Britain’s building societies to go from embedded, localized community micro-lenders to casino-banking basket cases. And people who sell sexual access to their own bodies find it difficult to form and maintain intimate partner relationships.
Likewise, treating human gestation as a service in commercial surrogacy interrupts the biologically-based symbiosis between mother and child that makes such relationships resistant to marketization. Instead, surrogacy contracts treat the baby as separate from its mother, a product that can be commissioned. Humans are thus shattered and reordered as objects, as in this case of a disabled child rejected both by her commissioning ‘parents’ and also by her Ukrainian gestational mother, as though she were a faulty smartphone.
Here we begin to see more clearly who pays when we replace meaning with information and relationship with transaction: anyone in need of care, and anyone leading an ordinary life. The winners in the information world are those whose lives are oriented toward peak experiences, agency, variety, surprise, and control. To the extent that you find fulfilment in pattern, repetition, and the quotidian, a technological and economic order blind to meaning-as-pattern and hyperfocused on the unexpected will be, by definition, unable to see you.
But we’re running out of relational resources to convert and consume. Much as on current trends many key natural resources will be exhausted within a few decades, there are signs that in our civilization, the relational commons that underpins ordinary human life is approaching a point so shattered that the capacity of society to function is increasingly compromised. Certainly where I live in Britain, the weak institutional response to COVID-19 has revealed a nation in which social solidarity may be present on a local level, but is increasingly, acrimoniously, absent at scale.
Pursuing resilience in this context means seeking out the relational, and looking to strengthen it: that means standing up for the interests of women, babies, the everyday, the natural world—and the value of norms, custom, and religious faith. From this, it follows that defending women and the environment means not embracing but resisting the logic of transaction. In that case, communities with some religious basis for sustaining relational resources as a sacred domain will prove more resilient than the ‘liberatory’ vision of market society and standing-reserve—precisely because they reject the appetitive logic of transaction.
From a transactional point of view, this is at best a romanticization of some imaginary lost Eden, and likely a manifesto for ending innovation and demand to return to pre-industrial society. But a defense of ordinary-ness, pattern and repetition does not imply turning back the clock, or levelling all humans to identical cellular automata. Nor is it a case against extraordinary people: the natural world, after all, has megafauna as well as microbiota.
Making the case for meaning as well as information is not to claim that we should revert to Tudor times, all be the same, or all spend our lives raising children. But it’s to defend pattern, repetition, and ordinariness as valuable in their own right, whether as the medium for future rituals and sacred places to emerge, as the domain of social life, or simply as bulwarks against the voracity of a transactional worldview that would commodify even our deepest social instincts. It’s to argue for our radical interdependence with our Umwelt. And it’s to affirm that in order for a society to thrive, sacred things must not just be defended as exempt from standing-reserve, or moved to a museum like the looted Benin bronzes, but continually and actively re-consecrated.
I chaired this Res Publica seminar with Adrian Vermeule, Ryzard Legutko, Patrick Deneen and Phillip Blond discussing the future of post-liberal politics across the world.
I loved this wide-ranging conversation with Elizabeth Oldfield of the Theos think tank, on relationality, motherhood, liberalism and its limits in our need for one another.
Have a listen here.
Today’s hottest property: young fogeys. Blue Labour hailed Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory as a rebellion by the country’s ‘culturally conservative’ silent majority. A new conservative magazine seems to appear every week. We have even seen a youth movement for the revival of socially conservative values popping up in that bastion of modern double liberalism, the Conservative Party.
What do they all want? At the more wonkish end of the debate, the argument is broadly that the political push throughout the twentieth century for ever greater social and economic freedom has brought many benefits, but that these have been unevenly distributed and are now reaching the point of diminishing returns.
The pursuit of ever greater freedom and individualism, this strand of thought argues, has delivered rising wealth while hollowing out working-class communities; liberated some women while forcing others to work a double shift and abandon the young and old in substandard care, and provided an infinitude of consumer choice but at the cost of mounting ecological damage. Under the sign of radical individualism, the new communitarians argue, we are all becoming more solitary and self-absorbed. Even charitable giving seems to be in unstoppable decline.
But what, in practice, are the new social conservatives seeking to conserve? Calls for a revival of cultural conservatism, many in the name of Christian values, seem often on closer examination oddly insubstantial. In 2017, UKIP’s leader-for-that-week Stephen Crowther said that the UK is a Christian country, “and we intend to stay that way.” But for Crowther, being a Christian country does not seem to impose any obligation to actually be Christian:
including Christian in our list [of principles] does not imply any requirement for individual faith, but it reflects the Judeo-Christian classical and enlightenment origins on which our laws, our social systems and our cultural norms have been built over two millennia.
Elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbàn describes his brand of authoritarian, identity-oriented politics as ‘Christian democracy’. Only a minority of Hungarians go to church every week – 56% of the country identifies as Catholic, though only 12% attends church regularly – but the identifier ‘Christian’ has nonetheless become central to Orbàn’s politics.
Much as Crowther did, the Orban-supporting Bishop of Szeged, László Kiss-Rigó, bridges this gap with a vague, cultural definition of what actually constitutes a ‘Christian’: “In Europe, even an atheist is a Christian”, he said. It turns out that being ‘Christian’ is less about prayer or doctrine than ‘values’: “We are very happy that there are a few politicians like Orbán and Trump who really represent those values which we Christians believe to be important.”
What exactly are these values, then? Attendees at anti-Islam Pegida rallies in Germany carry crosses and sing carols. Italian right-winger Matteo Salvini punctuates anti-immigration rhetoric by brandishing a rosary, drawing criticism from the very Catholic faith whose symbols he invokes. Try to pin down any actual values this form of Christianity might require of its adherents, and matters are much less clear.
Even those whose stated desire is to defend the place of faith in public and political life seem keen that the faith itself stop short of imposing actual obligations. To take a more moderate example of the new cultural conservatism, the Social Democratic Party took a broadly post-liberal, culturally conservative stance in its 2018 relaunch. The New Declaration made an energetic defence of our right to hold even illiberal religious views openly in public life:
Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends.
Then, about a year later, the SDP lost its only donor over a bitter intra-party dispute about whether or not it should be party policy to ban halal slaughter – a position markedly at odds with the party’s previous defence of religious pluralism. And when the Church of England recently reiterated its long-held position on sex and marriage, prominent SDP member Patrick O’Flynn took to the pages of the Daily Express to mock ‘the otherworldliness of these Men of God’. Instead of insisting on ‘out of touch’ doctrine, O’Flynn suggested, in order to attract more young people to weekly worship the Church should adjust its doctrines on sex and marriage to reflect their values.
In this view of faith, theological positions do not reflect any kind of truth-claim but should be emergent properties of the aggregate ethical positions held by the members of that church. Less ‘Christian democracy’ than ‘democratic Christianity’: whatever the congregants believe becomes the doctrine of the church.
From a religious perspective this makes no sense. To the believer, doctrine is handed down from God Himself. The thought of God’s word being subject to plebiscite is absurd, if not outright blasphemous.
This debate reveals the missing piece in today’s would-be conservative revival. Where do our values come from? What is the proper source of political authority? Progressives gesture at natural rights or an imagined future utopia, but for anyone who remains unconvinced that we are all on a journey somewhere wonderful, some other authority is required.
Edmund Burke suggested the answer lay in a blend of deference to tradition and God’s grand design, tempered by carefully constrained democratic institutions; his Savoyard contemporary, Joseph de Maistre, argued that the only proper form of authority lay in God’s will, delivered via the Pope and an absolute monarch.
The history of modernity has unfolded in the tensions between these competing understandings of political authority. ‘The will of God’, the will of ‘the People’, and the grand designs of various utopias have variously been used to justify all manner of enterprises, with outcomes from the magnificent to the horrific. But our present political difficulties may be in part down to a growing popular discomfort with accepting the legitimacy of any of the above.
Since the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the EU, there has been a low but persistent rumble from our moral betters that democracy should maybe have its wings clipped a little, to stop stupid proles making bad decisions. A degree of wing-clipping has in fact long since taken place: John Gray has discussed recently in these pages the way the language and legal mechanism of ‘rights’ is used to shift entire areas of public life from democratic debate to the dry realm of unelected lawyers and judges. But if authority does not reside in the will of the people, nor does it reside with God: it is difficult to imagine a mainstream British politician claiming moral authority on the basis of divine will without being roundly pilloried.
Progress and human rights, then? Every young person who passes through a modern university is taught in no uncertain terms that totalising metanarratives are suspect. At best, they are power moves. Whenever you find one you should ask cui bono? In the case of universal human rights, the answer is probably: lawyers.
This leaves would-be conservatives in a bind. If (with a few honourable exceptions still holding out for direct Vatican rule) political authority rests not in tradition (too restrictive on personal liberty) or democracy (probably rigged) or even God (don’t tell ME what to do!) or even in the lawyers, then what is left? Politics professor Matt McManus argues that the result is a postmodernism of the right as well as of the left: a series of nested calls for a return to authority, tradition and culture that all, on closer inspection, turn out to be largely delivery mechanisms for adversarial but hollow identity politics.
Having come unmoored from its roots either in the past, the divine, or the popular will, McManus suggests that this postmodern conservatism has warped a Burkean belief in tradition into a kind of moral cosplay whose main purpose is less seeking the good life than making a noisy defence of whichever identities its sworn enemies attack. As the postmodern liberal-left demonises heterosexual white males, so postmodern conservatism sets out to defend them; and so on.
Seen in this light, the problem with Orbàn and other borrowers of Christian clothing is not that they do not believe their own words. Inasmuch as they can mean anything, they genuinely identify as Christians. It is more that when all sources of authority are suspect, the only legitimate recourse is to the self: to identity, and identification.
And the problem with identification is that it remains separate from whatever it identifies as. Just like the modern dating marketplace, where commitment is radically undermined by the ease of swiping right, modern cultural conservatism is radically undermined by the fear that without a reliable foundation of authority, and with more identity-choice options only a click away, we are never fully the thing we claim as our identity.
Without a sense of confidence in the roots of its political legitimacy, conservative values dissolve from concrete obligations to consumer accessories. This in turn is why Orbànist ‘Christian democracy’ and many of its populist cousins find their most compelling realisation not in religious doctrine or observance, but in defining themselves against their outgroup. If “even an atheist is a Christian” then either no one is a Christian, or everyone is. The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners.
But if this is so, then in a postmodern environment, shorn of recourse to authority, cultural conservatism is a waste of energy. It cannot define what it wants. All is insubstantial; there is no exit from the Matrix, nothing left to conserve.
Does it follow from this that those who long for place, limits, love, family, faith and meaning should just sit in the rubble and watch it all burn? I do not think so. But when there is nothing solid to go back to, anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called ‘conservative’ needs to find a new name for their yearning. ‘Constructionists’, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.
What if we could create a marketplace for relationships, so that – just as we can rent our homes on Airbnb – we had an app that allowed us to sell at the market rate dinner with our husbands or bedtime with the kids?
Marriage is a legally recognised agreement after all, one that has been shown to confer many benefits for health and wellbeing. Why should I not be able to rent my place as wife and mother in my particular family to others who wish to enjoy some of those benefits?
Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute recently argued that the technology exists to enable us to trade citizenship rights. Calling the right of British nationals to work in the UK’s high-wage economy “an effective property right we own but can’t currently trade”, he suggests we could ease immigration pressures by implementing an Airbnb-style secondary market in working rights.
If we frame citizenship, or marriage, as something owned by an individual, it is simply a set of bureaucratic permissions. Like the right to live in a house, surely this could be traded in a marketplace? And if the technology exists to create a citizenship market, surely we could do the same for marriage? I could sublet my wifedom and nip off for a weekend on the tiles with the proceeds. Why not?
The problem is obvious — my husband and daughter would, not unreasonably, object. She would no more want her bedtime story read by a stranger than my husband would want to share a bed with that stranger.
My marriage is not a good I own but a relationship, created by mutual consent. In a marriage, I give up some of my autonomy, privacy and private property rights by declaring my commitment to the relationship. What I gain is of immeasurable value: a sphere of belonging, the foundation of my existence as a social creature.
Likewise, citizenship implies relations of belonging, both of me to a community but also a community to me. It also implies commitments on behalf of the community of which I am a citizen. And in exchange it requires commitments of me, as a citizen: to uphold the law, to behave according to its customs and so on. As the late Roger Scruton put it in a 2017 speech:
The citizen participates in government and does not just submit to it. Although citizens recognise natural law as a moral limit, they accept that they make laws for themselves. They are not just subjects: they appoint the sovereign power and are in a sense parts of that sovereign power, bound to it by a quasi-contract which is also an existential tie. The arrangement is not necessarily democratic, but is rather founded on a relation of mutual accountability.Roger Scruton
Just as my husband and daughter have a stake in who is entitled to be called “wife” or “Mummy” in our particular context, so other citizens of a nation have a stake in who is entitled to the rights conferred by citizenship.
In this light we can better understand the revulsion that greeted the actions of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in trademarking “Sussex Royal” for personal commercial gain. Royalty, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. It is not an intrinsic property of a person, like blue eyes or long legs, but something conferred both by the monarchy and also by the subjects of that monarchy.
As Charles I discovered in 1649, ultimately no king can govern save by the consent of his subjects. Royalty is not a private property, but a relationship. The popular disgust and anger engendered by the Sussexes’ move to transfer their stock of royalty from the relational public sphere to that of private property is in truth anger at their privatising something which does not belong to them but to the whole nation.
In The Question Concerning Technology, writes Josh Pauling, Heidegger argues that technology uncouples humans from what is real, paving the way for a mindset that treats everything as “standing-reserve”, or in other words “resources to be consumed”. For Heidegger, seeing the world thus is dangerous because it flattens all other perspectives:
Commodifying nature and humanity leads us to discard other understandings of being-in-the-world and the practices, beliefs and ideas that accompany them: all aspects of reality are incorporated into the ordering of standing-reserve.Josh Pauling
My husband’s goodwill would rapidly wear thin were I to Airbnb my role in our family. Similarly, Bourne’s citizenship marketplace fails to consider how the general population would react to seeing fellow citizens renting their right to work to non-citizens and swanning about spending the unearned proceeds. And the goodwill enjoyed by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex while discharging their royal duties has already evaporated, now it transpires they wish to enjoy the privileges of their elevated station without embracing its obligations.
Treated as objects to be exploited, relational meanings wither and die. Treated as dynamic relationships, they are infinitely renewable. In this sense, they are more akin to ecologies in the natural world. In Expecting the Earth, Wendy Wheeler argues that in fact ecologies are systems of meaning: whether at the level of DNA or megafauna, she says, living things deal not in information but in meanings that change dynamically depending on context.
Why does any of this matter? “Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus. “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” The impressive achievements of modernity might make the loss of meaning seem, to some, a fair exchange.
But if Wheeler is right, meaning is more than an optional seasoning on the mechanistic business of living. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl observes of his time in Nazi concentration camps that those who felt they had a goal or purpose were also those most likely to survive.
Indeed, the growing phenomenon of “deaths of despair” is driven, some argue, by deterioration in community bonds, good-quality jobs, dignity and social connection — in a word, the relational goods that confer meaning and purpose on life. As Frankl observed, humans need meaning as much as we need air, food and water: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”
An order of commerce that treats relational ecologies as objects that can be exploited will exhaust those objects. That is, in the course of its commercial activities it actively destroys one of the basic preconditions for human flourishing: meaning.
The Estonian thinker Ivar Puura has called the destruction of meaning “semiocide”. As concern mounts about the effects of pollution and emissions on the earth, campaigners have called for new laws to criminalise the destruction of ecologies, which they call “ecocide”. Perhaps we should take semiocide more seriously as well.
Our local church runs a monthly service aimed at children, with crafts and without Holy Communion. The team that organises the Friends and Family services are lovely, work very hard to come up with activities and an appealing programme for younger worshippers, and it is popular with families many of whom I don’t see at regular services. My daughter (3) loves it.
It’s on the first Sunday of every month, so the first Sunday of Advent coincided with the Friends and Family service. My daughter enjoyed decorating the Christmas tree, making little Christmas crafts and other activities. But one thing puzzled and still puzzles me.
This is one of the songs we were invited to sing. ‘Hee haw, hee haw, doesn’t anybody care? There’s a baby in my dinner and it’s just not fair.’ It’s supposed to be a funny song, from the donkey’s point of view, about the Holy Family in the stable and Jesus in the crib. What I don’t understand is why this should be considered more suitable for children than (say) Away In A Manger.
The former depends, for any kind of impact, on a level of familiarity with the Christmas story that allows you to see it’s a funny retelling and to get the joke. That already makes it more suitable for adults. The latter paints the Christmas scene in simple language and follows it with a prayer that connects the picture with the greater story of the faith it celebrates. The tune is easy to learn and join in with. Why choose the first, with its ironic posture and ugly, difficult tune, over the latter with its plain language and unforced attitude of devotion?
I’ve wondered for some time what it is about our culture that makes us reluctant to allow children to be serious. Children are naturally reverent: if the adults around them treat something as sacred, even very young children will follow suit without much prompting. This should come as no surprise – the whole world is full of mystery and wonder to a 3-year-old. It is us that fails so often to see this, not the children.
So why do we feel uncomfortable allowing children to experience seriousness? Sacredness? Reverence? How and why have we convinced ourselves that children will become bored or fractious unless even profoundly serious central pillars of our culture, such as the Christmas story, are rendered funny and frivolous?
The only explanation I can come up with is that it reflects an embarrassment among adults, even those who are still observant Christians, about standing quietly in the presence of the sacred. What we teach our children, consciously or unconsciously, is the most unforgiving measure of what we ourselves hold important. But it seems we shift uncomfortably at the thought of a preschool child experiencing the full force of the Christmas story in all its solemnity. Instead we find ourselves couching it in awkward irony, wholly unnecessary for the children but a salve to our own withered sense of the divine.
If it has become generally uncomfortable for us to see reverence in a young child, during Advent, then the Christian faith really is in trouble.
Yesterday I live tweeted the SDP conference in Leeds. It was a great day with many interesting speakers, but easily the most controversial discussion – and the one that has generated the most reaction in my Twitter mentions since – was the motion to amend SDP policy on non stun slaughter. Previously, policy was to ban these methods of slaughter, but at the conference a motion was decisively carried to amend this to provisions on strict standards, ensuring supply does not outstrip demand (eg non stun slaughter for export) and proper labelling.
I gather that debate around the subject prior to conference was heated. I know at least one person who left the party over the subject. I spoke in favour of the motion despite being personally uncomfortable with such methods of slaughter on the grounds that an explicitly communitarian party needs to be willing to demonstrate a recognition that religious practice is immensely important to some groups, and to create space for such practices even if we find them personally unappealing.
But once you start making explicit provision for communitarian considerations, the tension between faith and other ethical frameworks is immediately apparent.
The subsequent discussion – and its links into ‘preserve our culture’ groups such as For Britain and Britain First – put me in mind of two brouhahas a little while ago where politicians tried to articulate a position weighing private faith against public mainstream morality. In April 2017, then Lib Dem leader Tim Farron refused to deny that his personal faith held homosexuality to be a sin. In September the same year, Jacob Rees-Mogg made statements on abortion and homosexuality, consistent with Catholic social teaching, that saw him excoriated as ‘a bigot’ and ‘wildly out of step with public opinion’.
Commentators at the time lined up to defend Farron and Rees-Mogg. There was the usual hum from offstage (ie Twitter) about the right to express views in keeping with traditional Christianity without facing punishment from an illiberal liberal elite.
So I find it interesting to see that when it comes to a religious practice from Islam and Judaism – slaughtering animals by slitting their throats, without stunning them first – some of the voices raised most loudly in agreement about the iniquity of ‘You can’t say that’ culture as it bears on Christians today should be perfectly content to support policies that actively militate the practice of those other faiths. If we are to defend Rees-Mogg and Farron on grounds of religious tolerance, should we not also consider defending halal and kosher slaughter on the same grounds? After all, the core argument of tolerance is not that one tolerates only things that one likes or feels indifferent to but that it is extended to things one actively dislikes.
It feels to me as though there are two things going on here.
Firstly, the Britain First types who wish to support religious exemptions for Christians but not for Jews or Muslims are not, themselves, Christians for the most part. Rather, they are secular inheritors of the Christian tradition who wish to preserve the structure of that tradition for the benefits it has for some time provided – a fairly stable, prosperous, harmonious society with congenial values – without taking on the obligations of the faith itself. To put it a less fashionable way, they wish to be redeemed but without themselves taking up the cross. For that, in a nutshell, is the argument made by those who argue against ‘illiberal liberalism’ but do so from a perspective that rejects the necessity of faith – any faith, perhaps, or Christianity in particular – in creating the society to which they wish to belong.
We might term it ‘religious utilitarianism’ – a worldview that recognises the utility of faith in delivering certain social goods but takes no position on the veracity or otherwise of the tenets of any faith in particular. Liberal relativism is a kind of equal-opportunities religious utilitarianism, that wishes to make space for any and all faiths to provide those goods in a pluralistic way, while the Britain First / Batten-era UKIP version of the same wishes to privilege Christian religious utilitarianism over the more relativistic liberal sort. That is, Britain First types want to keep only the outward forms of Christianity but do not wish anyone else to replace those forms with a more deeply-felt faith of their own.
But if we are to argue for religious tolerance, and for Christianity to play an active rather than a purely decorative role in our society then – the logic dictates – we must either be explicit about repressing other faiths in support of that goal, or else extend the same courtesy to other faiths. The alternative – hiding our hostility to other faiths behind a selectively-applied appeal for religious tolerance only as it pertains to ‘our’ deviations from the liberal consensus – is simply not good enough.
As if schools did not have enough to do, the Children’s Society charity now wants teachers to monitor pupils’ wellbeing.
UK children are among the unhappiest in the world and it is no wonder. Everyone has to work to make ends meet so children routinely spend 40-plus hours a week in often noisy, chaotic institutional childcare, outdoor play time is heavily supervised and constrained or simply nonexistent, and parents are too exhausted even to gather the family for dinner.
Add to that a social life that skips real-life contact for the narcissistic filter of social media, confusing messages about sexuality that blend extreme permissiveness with anxious prurience, doom-laden prognostications about the environment, a shaky economic climate and a dearth of adult role models who wish to behave like adults, and it is no wonder children and young people are confused and unhappy.
But what on earth does anyone imagine will be improved by asking schools to measure this? A child’s wellbeing originates, first and foremost, with his or her family. Certainly a school can contribute to wellbeing but if home life is miserable there is not a great deal teachers can do about it.
The only way this suggestion makes sense is if you accept the premise that the proper place of family life is not with families but within institutions – that in fact families are no longer up to the job and schools should, wherever possible, make up for that shortfall. But loading ever more responsibility on to schools for offsetting the disintegration of family life is to compound the problem. It says to parents: this situation is fine, pray continue doing as you please, and never mind how it affects your children because it is the job of schools to pick up the pieces. Send them to reception class in nappies because you cannot be bothered to potty train them. Don’t bother teaching them to use a knife and fork: they’ll learn it at school. You don’t need to teach them to read an analogue clock – they’re taking them all down from exam halls anyway.
Every additional report suggesting more ways to outsource the duties of family life to state provision encourages adults to abdicate responsibility. It reassures parents that ‘adulting’ is optional, because there are institutions that will make up the shortfall.
Yet more insidiously, with that superficially attractive freedom from adult responsibility comes an ever more profound loss of freedom to conduct family life in the private sphere, or indeed in any way other than that sanctioned by the state. Perhaps that might be to the benefit of a few children with genuinely awful parents. But what of those of us who wish simply for the freedom of conscience to diverge from the official morality of the therapeutic state, and raise children according to our own values?
Conservative Muslim parents and LGBT activists continue in open conflict over the teaching of gay and trans rights in Birmingham schools. Conservative leadership candidate Esther McVey fanned the flames today by coming down on the side of the protesting parents:
Elsewhere, teenage Tory activist Soutiam Goodarzi, herself of Muslim origin, expressed outrage at McVey’s alignment with the forces of religious conservatism on this most uncomfortable clash of minority rights:
Though it’s tempting to laugh and point at the contortions and cognitive dissonance the left must endure in order to be on the same side as both groups in this clash of rights, it is the conservative predicament which is more acute, in part because it is not out in the open like conservative Muslim homophobia.
McVey here expresses the common conservative viewpoint that holds moral instruction to be the preserve of private families, not of the state. In this worldview, it is simply not the place of government to meddle in the mores parents convey to their children, and in fact schools should concentrate on teaching subjects such as history, science and maths rather than making pronouncements on what is socially acceptable.
Goodarzi expresses the equally common conservative view that religious minorities – especially Muslim ones – should not be permitted to effect a reverse takeover of the public square simply through a mixture of intransigence and leveraged victim politics. To put it another way, Muslims should not be permitted, by virtue of the specially favoured place they hold in the system of diversity (Cobley) to force sweeping changes to what is commonly taught, said or deemed acceptable.
McVey’s stance would leave families – including religious conservative ones – in sole charge of the moral instruction of the young. But Goodarzi’s stance cannot afford to, lest the moral instruction of the young be subject to infiltration and takeover by values alien to a functioning free society.
Goodarzi’s position is more akin to classical liberalism than conservatism proper. In this context, conservative religion – whether Christian or Muslim or something else – is self-evidently an obstacle on the way to individual freedom and self-realisation. Allied to a free-market position that seeks to reduce, remove (or at least disguise) the role of the state in the operation of markets, this is a type of ‘conservatism’ (perhaps more properly called progressive free-market liberalism) typified by George Osborne. Morality, inasmuch as it is discussed at all, is in a sense negative, consisting mainly of strictures designed to maximise individual freedom and self-fulfilment – such as injunctions to eschew homophobic bullying. These, though, may be enforced by the state as it is assumed to be in the best interests of the good society that individual freedom be allowed to flourish as fully as possible.
McVey’s position is a version of this stance, modified by the proviso that some forms of shared morality are desirable. These, however, should be transmitted not by the state, whose role should be limited to activities such as keeping the peace and maintaining roads, but left as the purview of individual families.
The trouble with both these as models for society, though, is that they both depend for their existence on something they also work to undermine: that is, public mores. Moral instruction is, in a sense, both public and private: it concerns our private behaviour, but it also bears on society as a whole. If the moral instruction of children is nonexistent or badly done, those children are less likely to make a positive contribution to society as adults. It is everyone’s business how families educate their children. Our radically individualist society may not like this, but it’s true.
Some choices parents make impact literally no-one but the parents and child in question. Cosleeping with babies and young children is a good example. It makes zero difference to anyone outside the family whether my toddler sleeps in my bed or her own. Who cares? Potty training, on the other hand, is a different matter. I will annoy no-one outside the family if I wave my hands in a liberal fashion and say airily that my child will sleep in her own bed ‘when she’s ready’. But if I declare that my child ‘refuses to wear a nappy’ and will learn to pee and poo in a potty ‘when she’s ready’ I will quickly incur widespread dislike, hefty dry cleaning bills and a sudden lack of playdate invitations.
Moral instruction is more like potty training than co-sleeping, and this is where McVey’s position falls down. You can say ‘families know best’ when it comes to moral instruction, but would you say that of a parent who was teaching a toddler that it was fine to take a shit on the pavement? Morals are about how we live together as a society; we can’t pretend that they can be atomised to the family level and still work as morals. You have to be confident that all or most families are on the same page about where it’s acceptable to take a crap before you say breezily ‘families know best’. Otherwise you’re just ducking the issue.
But Goodarzi’s conservative-flavoured liberalism doesn’t have much to offer either on the subject of which moral precepts should be adhered to by everyone – except inasmuch as they are enforced by the state. It’s simply assumed that individuals will somehow naturally come to the conclusion that we use the potty. How they get there, it is implied, is not a matter for politics. And if they don’t, we pass a law saying they have to. Anything intermediate is an incursion onto individual liberty.
But the truth is that both these viewpoints take a set of shared moral references so profoundly for granted they are able to pretend they don’t exist. Everyone just knows we don’t shit on the floor; that’s why (McVey) we can trust families to convey that and don’t need to teach it at school or else (Goodarzi) all we need to do is stamp out regressive viewpoints that might limit our freedom to come naturally to the right conclusion about where we take a crap. But that set of shared values is precisely the target of Goodarzi’s individualism. It is the regressive swamp of benighted reactionary muck from which individual freedom is painstakingly extricated. And once this broad framing of our moral past and present is in place, we can’t really trust families to convey the right stuff either.
Goodarzi’s position is more honest than McVey’s, in that it acknowledges more or less explicitly that if we’re accepting radical individualism as a basic social good, then the state needs to step in as coercive arbiter of some moral matters, in order to prevent wholesale anarchy (and shitty pavements). In the terms of my metaphor, Goodarzi’s position suggests that everyone can do as they like but allows for some kind of authority which is empowered to ensure people teach their toddlers to crap in the potty. It at least has a stance on some moral matters, and accepts the need to enforce them.
McVey’s ‘families know best’, on the other hand, avoids making any moral pronouncements about the social good and simply implies that ‘families’ will come up with the right answers about moral instruction on their own. It assumes a shared value set that might once, in a monocultural society, have existed, but which in our post-religious, post-imperial, multicultural, radically-individualist Britain simply cannot be taken for granted. If ‘best’ is taken to mean ‘fitting most harmoniously and beneficially into society as a whole’, it is not at all obvious any more that families do know best. But McVey cannot define ‘best’, any more than Goodarzi can, because both have accepted the basic liberal-individualist premise that even in matters that explicitly concern society as a whole rather than us as individuals or even as families, no-one has any right to tell anyone else what to do.
Left unmodified, these two stances point at two possible futures. Goodarzi’s future is one in which we are all free individuals, and the only agent with a right to tell us what to do is the state, which exists as a kind of medium in which radically unencumbered individuals interact and which intervenes only to maximise individual freedom. McVey’s future is one in which shared values still exist, but not at the level of the nation state – only at the level of individual families or ‘communities’. These ‘communities’ are, in a fashion similar to Goodarzi’s future, the subjects of a total state which exists as the sole arbiter of clashing freedoms and community ‘rights’. In this future, moral values are outsourced to religious, ethnic and sexual minorities and (to a lesser extent) individual families, administrated by an explicitly amoral state whose remit is to hold and defuse tensions between moral standpoints or in extremis to rule in favour of one or another position in an irreconcilable clash.
In neither of these futures is there much to conserve, which leaves conservatism in something of a bind. Its modern proponents have, in different ways, accepted the broad premise that the pursuit of individualism and markets is the highest public good. This in turn means individual freedom should at every turn be prioritised over a shared cultural and moral framework, which is depicted as the dark force of the past and enemy of progress. After some 50 years of this process, we are left with not a great deal except individuals (or, as McVey would have it, individuals and families). Even those pockets of reactionaries who protest are like US Marines stuck in the jungle still fighting the Korean War: it’s over, the pieces are being swept up, we are where we are. Conservatives now face a difficult choice between agreeing that, absent shared mores, the state needs to take a role as moral arbiter, or else watching as a national community disintegrates into ever more balkanised ‘communities’, whose moral frameworks compete and, as at Parkview School, clash irreconcilably. Or (and this is so difficult to imagine in practice as to be very unlikely) conservatives need to consider whether there are shared values worth fighting for as a society, rather than legislating as a government or clutching to our bosoms as individuals and atomised families.