Rodney Barker on Hilaire Belloc. Other treasures from Gresham College.

On my walk through the City each night, I sometimes turn on a podcast. The RSA is amazing but recently I’ve also been going to the Gresham College site. Gresham have been organising free public lectures for over 400 years and they are very good. Unlike the RSA they aren’t always free – and there is nobody as luminous and lovable as Matthew Taylor knocking around the place finding new and ingenious angles through which to introduce cultural theory into every session – but they are recorded and moreover you can stream and/or download audio and video. And even speaker’s notes.

Even though I live in London and have the leisure to attend these events, when organisations take the trouble to do this my gratitude, my sense of inclusion and well-being, are volcanic. When I started listening to all these different international experts presenting to lay people so much made sense which hadn’t before – it was like a portal to a different world. This used to be a privilege – now it’s freely available for everybody. These recordings are an incredible social resource.

Anyway, I listened to Rodney Barker (Professor of Government at RSE, Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham) present on Other Britains – One Size Doesn’t Fit All. It was a look at the terrain between individualism and one-size-fits-all state provision or state regulation. In these times of deep disillusionment with an unregulated financial market, upon which so much of our prosperity in Britain has depended, it sometimes seems as if a far-reaching pendulum swing might befall us. So I thought the following vignette of Hilaire Belloc’s category-defying politics was very interesting. I wish I could intelligently say why – perhaps it’s that I dislike extremes and dichotomies in British politics.

I’ll grab a wodge out of Barker’s Gresham notes:

“The earliest twentieth century example of this is a book by the journalist Hilaire Belloc written in 1912, The Servile State .

The Servile State refuses to fit into any obvious ideological box, and is particularly interesting for that reason.

Belloc argued that capitalism was unstable, because it could not fulfil the expectations of equality raised by its liberal values. The social realities of the economy, and the legal realities of the political order, were in conflict, the one making for inequality, the other for equality.

Three possible outcomes: Socialism


Property (distributism)

Socialism: well-meaning but ill considered,. Socialism in fact impossible. Ownership by officials, since the people as whole could not own the economy.

And it was to illustrate this point, if my memory serves me correctly, that he brought up the example of Awdry’s Thomas the Tank Engine books. Originally the head of the railway was The Fat Director. By the time the third book came out in ’48 the railway had been nationalised – but its head remained still grand and top-hatted. The only thing which changed was his name – he became The Fat Controller. So the nationalised system may have been new but the same officials who had run the inadequate old one were still lording it over the workers, with all that this implies. Here’s more from Barker on social democracy and capitalism. His Gresham notes continue:

“But socialists lacked the ruthless courage of their convictions, and would never expropriate

Slavery; cf Spencer, and Hayek

Because socialist would not destroy capitalism, they would end up collaborating with it, regulating and making provision for the work force

Labour under compulsion in return for material benefits in kind.

An alliance of state and capital

Property. Self sufficiency, households, a-industrial, patriarchy

Belloc presented his arguments as a simple impartial description of possibilities, but his own preferences and his own expectations were clear enough

Belloc, too, constructed his arguments in precisely the pick and mix original way that marked off pluralism, and which also meant that even though pluralists might be described with a single title, no two of them were ever likely to agree.

Sometimes seen as a socialist, because he was an anti-capitalist – and he did want to give property to the people.
Sometimes seen as a conservative because he valued property for the specific way of life it could support.
Sometimes seen as a liberal because he valued both property and equality.

But equally disconcerting for all three:

Socialists, because he placed the principal value on individual property, giving it directly to the people

Viz debate with McDonald

Conservatives because, valuing property, he proposed more people should have it, and that there be some kind of public intervention to do this

Liberals, because he questioned the beneficence of an unregulated economy to produce the benefits which liberal choice promised.

Belloc’s case illustrates too how rough and ready any attempt to categorise ideologies is.

Distributism never really went anywhere, and couldn’t anyway be applied to the industrial side of the economy – it would take a idealistic fanatic to imagine that something like the railways could be broken up into lots of and lots of little bits and still work –

But the arguments of Belloc were in part taken up in all kinds of strange and different places, in the economic liberal anti-socialist arguments of F A Hayek at the end of the Second World War, and by guild socialist advocates of workers’ control during the First.

Pluralism, like all ideologies, is neither neat nor self-contained, and this may even be especially true of pluralism.”

Belloc was famous for an economic system called ‘distributism’ in opposition to both capitalism and socialism. I’m curious to read The Servile State. Aha, thank you Microsoft and The Internet Archive. Right, I’m off.

(Wikipedia says that Belloc thought Jews had too much control in the financial system, but that on his own terms he also stood up for Jews. The engrossing Arthur Koestler was a little bit like this – not about money, about mentality. Antisemitism was both more normal and easier to recognise back then and the general opinion of Jews being what it was you could go pretty far without looking like a hater. There was a palingenetic mood at the time – a will to cleanse and remake anew. This was a totalising impulse of which Socialism and Fascism were manifestations – Belloc’s resistance to both is promising. Bonus fact from a different Gresham lecture on mapping emotion – it’s now possible to identify people who say they aren’t racist but actually are:

“new brain scanning technology is allowing us, when we brain scan individuals, to see which parts of the brain light up or are particularly active, so we are able to get more insight into emotion than ever before, and this has some really quite remarkable implications for our society at large. Just to take one example, there is a particular part of the brain called the amygdala. If you are looking at something disgusting or something that you hate or something that really irritates you or makes you very angry, then the amygdala basically lights up in the brain and becomes very active.

Now, they have done some fascinating experiments recently where you take people and you interview them about their views on race, for example. You can use some quite subtle techniques in terms of pencil and paper tests, so that when you ask people about race and their views on the politics of race, most people know the politically correct thing is not to espouse racist views. But with some of the pencil and paper tests, for example using word association and other subconscious techniques, we can often get at the fact that although people verbalise and say they are not racist, a lot of people really secretly are racist and they keep their views to themselves. What is fascinating with the new brain scanning techniques is that if you show these people pictures in the brain scanner of white people or black people or Asian people, no matter what they say about whether they are racist or not racist, with the racists, their amygdala lights up dramatically in the brain scan. This research tells us that we are not far away from a position, and it is quite a unique position in human history, whereby, no matter what you say about how you feel about things, the brain scanners can reveal the truth. I think that is really quite frightening for a lot of us, particularly those of us who are married…!”

Maybe we will have a more enlightened – i.e. less taboo, more practical – attitude to racism (and sexual exclusivity) in the future.

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