Folks’ needs and people’s wants

“It is said: vox populi, vox dei – I never believed it.”

During a clear-out a few years ago I went through old newspaper cuttings and quickly realised that the trouble with political punditry is that the sooner something is written after a big event, the less useful it is. Sure, it might be carefully reasoned and insightful, it might be based on superior knowledge of history, politics or economics, but for all that, it’s still grasping in the darkness as much as the rest of us.

But it’s highly addictive stuff, punditry. I’ve read a lot about what’s been going on in 2016, between Brexit, the election of President Trump, and political trends in and around Europe. Everyone analyses these things from their own perspective or field of knowledge, and finds a cause or two for why things have turned out this way (because isn’t it obvious in immediate hindsight?). The winners gloat; the losers wail and gnash their teeth.

I’m not an expert; I’m not a pundit. I can look at two articles with opposite conclusions and think of both, “Yeah, that could be true.” The only thing I’m reasonably certain of is that the single, simple explanations are wrong, and I prefer to see what the evidence tells us. So: no, the faults of liberals did not lead to President Trump (not sure anyone can make that argument when more people voted for Clinton); and no, the British public are not overwhelmingly hostile to Europe; things are almost always going to be more subtle and nuanced than a headline writer might wish.

Rather than have a few stabs at the causes of this year’s political events, I wanted to take a longer-term view. Political changes have been going on in Europe for centuries, upending the certainties of religion and monarchy. I recently read back-to-back The Crisis Of The European Mind by Paul Hazard and The Pursuit Of Glory: Europe 1648-1815 by Tim Blanning.

The first of these was translated from French and I had to contend with sentences such as:

In 1651, in his Leviathan, [Hobbes] presented [his theory] in its final form. Not a single European thinker but had been profoundly impressed by it, but had to take it into account, were it but to refute it.

(I’m sure there are better ways of phrasing this; I imagine his writing style is hard going in the original French as well.) It was written in the 1930s, and Hazard died in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1944.

Certain phrases do stand out with new significance:

And so it came to pass that Europe, lost in contemplation… did in fact pause for a moment. For a moment, the illusion possessed her that she could cease her toil as she looked on a creation so graceful and so stately that anything more noble in concept, more exquisite in execution, she could never hope to behold. The illusion was short-lived and soon belied.

…And so, beneath the surface, beneath the illusory semblance of tranquillity, the quest began again. A start was made towards a different kind of happiness, a different brand of truth. The restless ones, the seekers, once scorned, persecuted, driven underground, now began to show themselves in broad daylight, pushing their way to the fore, making a name for themselves, demanding to be recognised as guides and leaders.

That is the crisis, moral and spiritual, which [developed] between the 17th and 18th centuries.

It’s hard not to read this and think of the European Union in the past decade; the complacency that might be attributed to its leaders as it grew its borders and unified its currency; and the lurking threat of those who would undermine it for its faults.

But I think it demonstrates that the broad problems faced by today’s politicians are the same as they have always been. There has always been a tension between progressives and traditionalists; and between liberals and authoritarians; between the ‘intellectual elites’ and ‘the masses’.

This is something I picked up more strongly in The Pursuit Of Glory.

Frederick the Great reckoned that all a leader could safely do was “content oneself with being wise, taking good care to keep the mob under control but abandoning them to their ignorance and stupidity.” A cynic might think this is still the standard operating procedure for those in charge.

Intellectuals like Johann Gottfried Herder respected the ‘folk’ (in the sense of the nation generally), but disdained “the rabble of the streets which never sings or creates, but roars and mutilates.” Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, described “the imbecilic mass of the population which, because it is devoid of all enlightenment and good sense, can at any moment become the instrument and accomplice of restless demagogues seeking to disrupt society.”

Does any of this sound familiar from opinion pieces in 2016?

Where Blanning’s account differs from Hazard’s is in the nature of the changes that led to the Enlightenment. For Hazard, it was a sudden, pan-European, intellectual revolution; Blanning charts the variety of developments that had to be established before it could occur: improved road networks led to efficient postal services; this led to a huge increase in exchanges of letters and publications, which meant greater exposure to a variety of ideas and arguments, and the spread of literacy to the poorest sections of society, which gave rise to ‘the public sphere’ … but these developments were spread unevenly from the north and west of the continent to the south and east, and from city to countryside.

While the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries might be considered an ‘Age of Reason’, they were also equally an age of religion in which churches flourished and the Inquisition and witch trials continued – best embodied by Sir Isaac Newton who was at the same time a scientist, but also an occultist. (Incidentally, definitions of ‘liberty’ and ‘enlightenment’ varied subtly according to location – as Blanning puts it, “Liberty is not the same as Liberté or Freiheit, and Enlightenment is not the same as Lumières or Aufklärung.” In the modern era, calling someone a ‘liberal’ will mean different things in different countries.)

Also apparent, especially in the aftermath of the French Revolution, was the gap between what the folk (nation) needed, and what ‘the people’ wanted. The Habsburg monarch and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II tried reforming his far-flung lands, introducing freedom of speech and religious tolerance and putting an end to feudalism, but faced revolts from Belgium to Hungary for his efforts.

Enlightenment by means of concepts could not influence the character of mankind, for most humans are moved to take action by their feelings.

This was something faced by artists and musicians as much as politicians – the public “preferred the jaunty tunes and rumpty-tumpty orchestration of Italian ice-cream opera” to Haydn or Beethoven. The elites wanted to experiment with something new, something liberal and refined; they were opposed by those with vested interests, traditionalists and reactionaries, and also those revolutionaries who didn’t care for liberalism or refinement – they just wanted liberation, the freedom to impose their own ideals on others.


I could draw many easy parallels between Enlightenment-era Europe and the twenty-first century. Update mass literacy and letter-writing to mass media and internet communications and much of the rest looks the same. Modern ‘elites’ may wish to improve trade and lessen the importance of nation states, but they have left behind those who can’t benefit from remote, abstract trade deals, and those who feel no kinship with people beyond their borders. At the same time, progressive and traditional forms of authoritarianism try to impose their own values on everyone, splitting us all into ‘in-groups’ and ‘out-groups’ with their own social codes of conduct.

Does it reassure me to know that classical liberal ideals survived past upheavals down to the present day? Partly, but it doesn’t mean relishing the prospect of current upheavals. In the past, they were fought for in international conflicts, their popularity ebbing and flowing as they were associated with national interests or foreign ones.

What form of contest will they face now? Surely not military – but through arguments across various media (which will not be reasoned debates), in which everyone is a combatant. The trick now is to persuade people on an emotional level.

It may be difficult (emotion always Trumps reason), but hopefully nobody will feel the need to arm themselves over it – it could be acrimonious and divisive, but need not be destructive. Sometimes people don’t know what they’re missing until they’ve lost it – the trick is not to lose it in the first place. Liberalism’s opponents have been allowed to redefine it into something it’s not; a strawman for easy point-scoring (see any US-centric discussion of ‘liberals’ to see what I mean).

I suspect liberalism’s champions haven’t practised the arguments in its favour for a while, focusing instead on smaller, detailed arguments of policy differences which vary from country to country.

They need to make it cool to be liberal again.

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