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Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Brexit, Working Pride, and Noblesse Oblige

“Benny I’ve just finished it I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read a book for almost 10 years but I couldn’t put it down mate really enjoyed it you should be really proud of yourself mate I didn’t realise all the sacrifices you had to make to create it, I’m really chuffed for you.”

Recently I received this heart-warming message from an old school friend of mine who had just finished reading my latest book Space to Create: A Writer’s View on the Housing Crisis. My friend is a family man who works as a black cab driver in London, where we grew up together. I don’t think he will mind me saying that he wasn't the most academically-inclined member of our friendship group. But he is no fool. Far from it: he is one of our most respected friends; I have literally never heard anyone say a bad word about him. (Well – apart from his bald patch and his support for Arsenal). The idea that someone like him enjoyed my book gives me great satisfaction.

I have also received feedback about the book from various friends who could be described as intellectuals. Curiously, one topic has kept cropping up in their feedback: social class. One friend suggested that class is an ‘issue’ that ‘looms large’ in my book. This surprised me, because I didn’t think I was interested in class – well, not anymore. When I started at university, I was a socialist firebrand with a massive chip on my shoulder, not least because of my strong cockney accent. However, by the time I had finished at university – a decade later, having completed a PhD at Cambridge – my socialist views had begun to fade, and so had my sense of inverse snobbery. I was now comfortable talking to anyone, because I was comfortable with myself. Within a few years of graduating, I was describing myself as a conservative: a long way from a class warrior.

Or so I thought. If I was surprised at people suggesting that social class looms large in my book, I was even more surprised at how I reacted: I felt slightly indignant. I soon began to wonder if I was inwardly protesting too much. After all, ever since I graduated from Cambridge, I’ve deliberately chosen to ‘slum it’ for the sake of my writing career. Space to Create documents my life as a struggling writer during the housing crisis. For a decade, I’ve funded my writing by working as a delivery driver. I’ve struggled to pay the rent in a series of cramped shared houses. I’ve lived and worked with some challenging characters. Throughout all this, I’ve gained firsthand experience of the social and economic conditions that are blighting the lives of working-class Britons today. Above all, I’ve seen the woeful effects of mass immigration. I’ve seen how the problems of overcrowding, overstretched public services and depressed wages have hit low-income Britons hardest, callously throwing their life chances to the wind. I’ve lived inside the pressure cooker that cooked up Brexit.

So, yes, I suppose it’s fair to say I still feel a sense of solidarity with the working classes. My school friend’s sympathetic response to my book, and my instinctive enjoyment of his message, indicates as much. Yet I don’t think I have reverted to being a class warrior. I don’t think my book was about class in any negative, tribalistic sense of that word. You can be proud of your class, and you can want to stick up for people in your class, without disliking people from other classes. Brexit, I think, bears this out. Though the Leave vote is often simplistically portrayed as a rebellion against the ‘elites’, I don’t think many people who voted Leave did so because they hate posh people. After all, some of the heroes of Brexit are extremely posh: for instance, Bill Cash, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and of course Boris Johnson. Then of course there are the countless posh journalists who have championed Brexit. Indeed, the poshness of many of the leading Brexiteers hasn’t escaped the notice of left wing remainers, who have relentlessly parodied Brexit as some sort of aristocratic capitalist conspiracy against the gullible poor. Whichever way you look at it, Brexit spans the working classes and the upper classes.

What is going on here? What kind of force can meld the upper classes and working classes together so seamlessly? Moreover, what kind of force can achieve this result while still enabling working class people like me to retain a strong sense of their roots (while presumably the posh folk have retained a sense of theirs)? The solution to the conundrum can be found, I think, in a little-known fact about the character of Brexit voters. At the time of the referendum, psychologists conducted personality tests that found that Leavers tended to be more conscientious than Remainers. The dictionary definition of conscientiousness is: feeling a moral responsibility to do your work carefully and to be fair to others. This definition is extremely revealing. For a start, it explains why Leavers don’t take kindly to being bossed around by unelected bureaucrats. People who feel a moral responsibility to do their work carefully don’t need to be bombarded with rules and regulations. Bureaucratic meddling gets in the way of moral responsibility.

But most revealingly of all, moral responsibility explains the link between the upper- and working-class factions in Brexit. The British upper classes have long been animated by the concept of ‘noblesse oblige’, a French expression which translates as ‘Nobility Obliges’. According to this concept, people who are privileged – the ‘nobility’ – have an obligation to behave responsibly towards those who are less privileged. In practice, this means leading by example, and it means accepting an obligation to protect and serve. In other words: it means good leadership. Anyone who believes that hierarchies are both necessary and desirable in human affairs can appreciate that noblesse oblige is a valuable concept. Those at the top of the pile ought to behave conscientiously towards those at the bottom.  

Of course, noblesse oblige doesn’t simply mean that all responsibility falls upon society’s leaders. Quite the contrary: good leaders encourage their followers to take responsibility. The concept of noblesse oblige creates its own mirror image. In the case of the British working classes, the mirror image created by noblesse oblige is clear: there is a long tradition of working-class Britons taking pride in their work. This attitude of ‘working pride’ means not only doing one’s work carefully, but also treating one’s fellows fairly and charitably so as to cultivate the sort of cooperative atmosphere in which hard work takes centre stage. Naturally, the poorer you are, the more important it is to work hard; hence there’s no surprise that a tradition of working pride has historically been found among the poorest Britons. The result has been a virtuous circle between working pride and noblesse oblige. Leaders have felt an obligation to provide conditions in which their followers can flourish, while the followers have felt obligated to seize the opportunity to flourish.

Granted, the quaint-sounding notions of ‘working pride’ and ‘noblesse oblige’ do not imply that classes are fixed categories – castes. Within the framework of a capitalist economy, people can move between classes. Social mobility has become an important part of the system of reciprocal obligation that connects good leaders and their followers. Good leaders expect their followers to take responsibility on the promise that the followers who are exceptionally responsible and capable will advance into leadership roles. Moreover, the virtuous circle created by this arrangement is not only an important aspect of capitalism but is essential to democracy. Political leaders emerge as leaders because they have proven themselves worthy.

At least – that’s how it should be. Alas, over the last few decades, a new managerial kind of leader has increasingly come to dominate the UK, in large part thanks to our immersion within the structures of the EU. The concept of noblesse oblige has gradually been replaced by something more like: ‘abide, or else’. Instead of being told to emulate the spirit of our leaders, we have been told to slavishly conform to the letter of their pronouncements. Leading by fiat has replaced leading by example. Bureaucratic leadership has replaced responsible leadership. And, inevitably, the quality of leadership has nosedived. To put it mildly, the working classes in the UK have not been provided with conditions that are conducive to flourishing. This amounts to the breaking of a profoundly important contract. To the extent that Brexit was driven by the working classes, tribalism wasn’t the driver. The Leave vote was fuelled by the righteous fury of proud working people who had fulfilled their responsibilities while Britain’s leaders had reneged on theirs.

It is interesting to note that on the eve of the referendum, when David Cameron emerged from his limp renegotiation with the EU, he proclaimed that he had made concessions which would give the British greater control of their own welfare system. He radically miscalculated the national mood. In the eyes of the working classes who voted Leave, Brexit wasn’t all about handouts. The betrayed working classes didn’t want to give up on responsibility. They didn’t want to be patronised. They wanted responsibility and all its rewards. And they wanted responsible leaders who understood this. 

Space to Create is available from amazon.  

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Intellectual Obesity

Readers of my latest book Space to Create will be unsurprised to hear that I’m still working as a delivery driver – or, as I like to call it, operating on the intellectual black market. I am too stubborn to compromise on my right to speak freely and honestly. For the same reason, I’ve also kept up my proud tradition of antagonising difficult people to the point where they have a furious meltdown. I believe I have discovered the psychological equivalent of nuclear fission. Instead of bombarding an atom with neutrons, I bombard people who refuse to accept responsibility with reminders of their responsibility. The more persistently and focusedly I do this, the more explosive the results.

On one such occasion, one of my work colleagues, a gigantic fat lady, ended up screaming into my face “I’m going to fucking nut you!”. I managed to ward off this threat by the simple expedient of saying “OK, good luck with that” while smiling and maintaining eye contact with her, but I can’t deny that the experience was intimidating. It was like being trapped in a corner while the huge boulder from the film Indiana Jones comes rolling at you.

The worst thing is, I triggered the booby trap fully aware that it was there, and fully aware of what the consequences would be. I knew the drill like the back of my hand; I’m sure you do too. First, someone tries to blame you for their own error or wrongdoing. Second, you decide to protest. Third, they refuse to accept that they are in the wrong, precisely because they know they are in the wrong. Fourth, you succumb to a sort of magical thinking in which you allow yourself to believe that you can convince them to be reasonable by being reasonable yourself. Fifth, you begin to calmly and logically recite the facts.

And then something remarkable happens. You witness the full power of a person’s intelligence being deployed in the service of burying the truth beneath nonsense. Instead of responding to the points that you are making, your accuser deliberately obfuscates. They make random statements that have a superficial relevance to the topic but no logical relevance. They deny blatant truths, then, moments later, contradict their own denials. They draw preposterous conclusions from your words, in order to make you look unreasonable. They repeat what you are saying in a sarcastic voice. They roll their eyes. They bluster with outrage. The interrupt you relentlessly, denying you the opportunity to finish a single sentence. They abuse you personally. They swear and shout and sulk. They accuse you of attacking them. They engage in whataboutery – for instance, telling you everything you’ve ever done wrong. And they go through this repertoire on loop, repeating the same nonsense over and over, in order to make you sound repetitive while you insist on the plain truth. In sum, they reason in an irrational way so as to aggress against you: they engage in irraggression, to coin a word. Irraggresion is the means by which an unfair accusation is held in place; the tar that makes the feathers stick.

In the event that you are subjected to irraggresion, you’ll find that if you to continue to try to reason with your accuser, either of two things are likely to happen (or maybe both). On the one hand, you may become frustrated. Perhaps you will raise your voice, or offer a rebuke, or even an insult. Alas, your frustration will only serve to make you seem guilty, which is precisely the outcome you were trying to avoid. This is especially galling if there is a bystander present, who will at best draw the conclusion that you and your accuser are ‘both as bad as each other’. On the other hand, your accuser may have a furious meltdown, as my work colleague did. Their covert aggression will become overt aggression. Either that, or they will summon up a hysterical self-pitying emotional response that makes you look like a cruel bully.

I understood all this during the ‘argument’ with my work colleague. I even tried to ‘go meta’ – to explain to her what she was doing while she was doing it. I explicitly suggested that she was being ‘manipulative’, but of course she responded with more manipulation – ‘don’t use them big words on me’, she hissed. I confess that I wagged my finger at one point, whereupon she called me ‘patronising’ (I declined to mention that ‘patronising’ is itself quite a big word). I tried softening my voice, to try to make her realise I wasn’t attacking her, to which she responded, ‘you’re not my school teacher’. Then I smiled, in awe of her skilful display of evasiveness, whereupon she promptly accused me of ‘laughing’ at her. ‘You think you’re better than me, don’t you?’, she snarled. My response – ‘Well, I think I am behaving better than you’ – triggered the final showdown. As she bouldered towards me, yelling ‘Come on then! Let’s have it outside!’, she even had the temerity to add ‘… I’m not scared of you’, as though I was asking her for a fight; again, bizarrely, she was trying to pin the blame on me. All the while, her indignance was fuelled by a simple fact: she knew she was wrong.

I wish I had a transcript of the whole conversation. It was truly remarkable. By this I don’t mean that the subject matter was remarkable. Quite the contrary: the issue itself was extremely trivial – it was so boring, in fact, that I refuse to write it down. (Suffice it to say: I was 100% in the right.) The remarkable thing is that such a caterpillar of triviality could morph into such a fantastic flapping butterfly of insanity. Watching my colleague’s outburst, I began to feel like a caterpillar myself. My reasonable approach seemed woefully mechanical, like an evolutionary throwback, compared to this all-singing all-dancing irraggression against which I was powerless, other than to escalate the situation. Fortunately, another of our colleagues stepped in at the last.

Me being me, I reflected on the incident afterwards. One of my fellow drivers once described the woman as a ‘fat bitch’, which seemed a little harsh, but now I’m not so sure. I think my colleague’s fatness was indeed a relevant factor in her bitchiness. She was fat in an aggressive way: aggressively fat. By this I mean that she was fat because it made her more powerful; it supplied her with more weight to throw around. I am sure there are many other explanations for people being overweight (not least the obvious one) but I do wonder if the current epidemic of obesity in Britain is, in part, a reflection of the increasing aggressiveness of British culture. Maybe you can eat your way up the pecking order.

At the same time, my colleague was one of those fat people who complain constantly of digestive problems. She had the most severe case of hypochondria I have ever seen. Obsessed with monitoring her food intake, she would eat nothing all day, which made her stomach hurt, then she would binge on food in the evenings, which supposedly caused her even more pain. In other words: she was fat because she was fat, and vice versa. As a result, she frequently took days off sick, her income being supplemented by generous benefits from the government. Her obesity was a source of strength for her even insofar as it weakened her.

After the incident, I also couldn’t help ruminating on one specific thing my colleague said, the only comment of hers that hurt me: ‘You think you’re so clever, don’t you?’. I am sensitive about being accused of intellectual snobbery. I have a PhD from Cambridge University but I was so repelled by modern academia I decided to self-fund my career as a writer. For a decade I have worked in a succession of casual jobs, to provide me with both the money and the mental space to be creative. I also wanted to learn about real life, all the better to write about it.

In short, I have made great sacrifices to avoid being the sort of intellectual who looks down on other people. Moreover, having spent so much time among Britain’s ‘working people’, my worldview has changed to the point where I am now more detached than ever from the intellectual mainstream. Having experienced the ‘cost of living crisis’ first hand, and having seen how the establishment is ignoring the needs of working Britons, I have written in support of Brexit, and against the damaging politically correct socialist shibboleths that currently dominate almost all British institutions. In doing so, I have driven a wedge between myself and academia; I couldn’t be an intellectual snob now even if I wanted to. By hurling this epithet at me, my colleague engaged in her most exquisite piece of manipulation. She knew my views. She knew what I stood for. By accusing me of enjoying privileges that I had categorically renounced, she knew she would cause me a deep sense of injustice. I would rather she had nutted me.

Ironically, by accusing me of being an intellectual snob, my colleague was once again, albeit inadvertently, accusing me of sins of which she herself was guilty. Anyone who has ever defended capitalism or Brexit in conversation with a socialist or persistent Remainer (‘Remoaners’ as they are aptly called) will know how staggeringly manipulative these people can be in defence of their establishment privileges. As members of the establishment, they tend to be intellectuals, or at least well educated. If you dare to challenge their self-serving worldview, they engage in relentless sloganeering, dousing your every utterance with random catchphrases, which are skilfully tweaked to have a superficial relevance but no logical relevance. They bluster with outrage. They interrupt you relentlessly. They resort to whataboutery. They shut you down, by calling you a fascist or a racist or a xenophobe. And so on. Their deliberate irrationality is designed to make you feel guilty for telling the awkward truth about the EU and socialism. In other words, they engage in irraggresion, dancing around the reasonable points you make, floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, attacking you instead of acknowledging their own wrongdoing. This strategy, after all, is how they make their living. They demand endless reparations, because as self-styled benevolent overlords, shepherds of the wayward, they believe they are entitled to nothing less.

In all of this, they are fortified by the weight of their learning, accumulated during years of education. There is nothing wrong with education, of course. But in today’s universities, especially in humanities departments, much of what counts as learning is more like loading a vessel with ballast. Many educated people carry around a blubbery hide of theories and jargon and abstraction and ideology, the main purpose of which is to intimidate. They are intellectually obese, all the better to overpower reasonable people. When you make a reasonable point to Remoaners and socialists, they will likely roll a great boulder of pointless knowledge at you, squashing you and your point of view. In addition, their pointless learning makes them strong by making them weak. They don’t know how to live, because they never bothered to learn anything so trivial; indeed, normal human life is obstructed by what they did learn. So they live off the government. Supposedly, their intellectual burden entitles them to endless solicitousness from the likes of you and me. They are philosophical hypochondriacs.

No, I am not one of these intellectual snobs. I am one of the people who are saying: enough is enough. I intend to keep telling the truth, keep insisting on responsibility. Looking around me, I can see that I am not the only one. There is a ‘culture war’ taking place, and I am on the side of the people who do not want to fight. Patiently, focusedly, resolutely, we will keep making the arguments in the face of a grotesque level of manipulation and intellectual bullying. Will we prevail? I do not know. But I do know that we are apt to be blamed whatever happens. I fear that a national meltdown is on its way. I fear that people like you and me will be caught up in a wildly aggressive showdown that we didn’t deserve, even though we ourselves provoked it by insisting on being reasonable.

Monday, 29 January 2018

The Rules of Unreason #2: Branded

[This essay is part of a series of essays on the use of 'covert aggression' in religion and politics. For an introduction to the series, and an explanation of the concept of covert aggression, click here]

In 2008, a BBC radio show hosted by Russell Brand sparked national outrage. Brand and his guest, fellow comedian Jonathon Ross, made some on-air phone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs, whom Brand had invited onto the show. Sachs wasn’t picking up his phone, and Brand was piqued by this. He and Ross proceeded to leave a series of lewd messages on the answer machine of Mr Sachs, who was 78 years old at the time.
‘He f--ked your granddaughter!’, Ross blurted out, in reference to the fact that, just before the call, Brand had bragged to his listeners about doing that very thing. In subsequent messages, the two comedians proceeded to repeat – and revel in – the allegation, while nominally ‘apologising’ for Ross’s outburst. At one point, Brand riffs that the liaison ‘was consensual and she wasn’t menstrual’. Ross imagines Sachs ‘sobbing over his answer machine… he has probably got a picture of his grandchildren when they were young and innocent right by the phone’. Brand continues, adding bizarrely and sinisterly: ‘We can keep ringing, and even after the show’s finished, kick his front door in and scream apologies into his bottom’. Later in the show, Brand makes a fake announcement: ‘The main news again… Andrew Sachs hung himself today’.

The Rules of Unreason #1: Impolite Company

They say you should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. But why not? The obvious answer is that people get heated when talking about these topics. But why? Why do people get heated when talking about religion and politics? The answer to this question is far from obvious. And that’s part of the problem. When you get involved in a discussion about religion and politics, the onset of mutual animosity can be subtle and surprising. You often find yourself inexplicably feeling defensive, or exasperatedly trying to make yourself clear. Your temper rises the more you feel unsettled.
I used to think religion and politics were both inherently controversial topics. But now I think otherwise; I think some people needlessly make them controversial. The penny dropped for me when I was reading one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read: In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, by psychiatrist George K. Simon. In this unheralded masterpiece, Dr Simon describes the phenomenon of ‘covert aggression’. You’ve probably never heard of covert aggression. But I guarantee you’ve encountered it. You may even have practised it yourself – especially if you hold strong political or religious views.

Wellbeing on Campus

[This article first appeared on the School of Life blog in 2011]
According to the popular image, most students indulge in years of hedonism capped by raucous post-exam celebrations – a privileged minority enjoying the “best days of their lives”. No doubt there is some truth to this caricature, but a recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists reminds us that every silver lining has its cloud.
Mental illness is a serious problem on UK campuses, explains the report, which is entitled Mental Health of Students in Higher Education. In the last ten years, studies have shown as many as 65% of female and 54% of male undergraduate students scoring positively on the General Health Questionnaire, which screens for minor psychiatric disorders. One team of researchers found 29% of students describing clinical levels of psychological distress, whether anxiety, depression, obsessiveness or social alienation. More recently, a survey of higher education institutions revealed that, of those who responded, 80% recorded an increased demand for mental health provision over the previous five years.

Working Definitions

[This article first appeared on the School of Life blog in 2011]

“I'm a bit of a perfectionist… See, for me, it's got to be the best, or it's nothing at all. Like, if things get a bit dodgy, I just can’t be bothered.”

Spud, Trainspotting
The Journal of Modern Wisdom, a new volume of essays of which I am editor, is imperfect. And I don’t care. Don’t get me wrong: I care very much about promoting wisdom. The point is: I believe that doing so is important enough that even imperfect wisdom is better for the wellbeing of society than none at all.  
To judge by the irate emails I’ve received from a few philosophers, you’d think I was working for the Thought Police. Apparently “you can’t define wisdom” – or at least not without, bizarrely, recognizing the impossibility first. That’s funny, because contributors Richard Layard, Theodore Dalrymple, Judith Rich Harris, Stephen Bayley and David Cooper, among others (not to mention numerous lexicographers), have all had a good crack at it.  

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The AWOL Intelligentsia

The world’s intellectuals have gone AWOL. From philosophers and theologians to sociologists and critics, our humanities scholars are no longer serving humanity. Like hypochondriacs terrified of responsibility, of facing up to themselves and reality, they wallow in spurious problems and pointless solutions to those spurious problems, while the public, unguided, is losing the knack of living well. I am a whistleblower philosopher. I know how intellectuals hoodwink the public – with impenetrable prose, hypnotic ideologies, and phoney artistry – because I used to do the same. In this blog I aim to document the failings endemic within the intelligentsia, to draw attention to the harms that are inflicted on modern society by bad ideas raining down from above. Through this exposé, I hope to inspire more people to focus on the crucial task of promoting and exemplifying wiser and more conscientious ways of living.