When Trump was sworn in as President yesterday it started to rain on Capitol Hill, raining on the modest throng of snowflakes and deplorables clustered on the first five segments of white tarpaulin along the National Mall, barely reaching the Smithsonian Information Centre, so far as I could tell. The rain was a sign of God’s blessing, according Franklin Graham, Trump’s evangelical gimp. (I wrote last about how American evangelicals with their obeisance before Trump have now squandered what little hope remained that they might still deep down, after all, be Christians.)
I remember Trump Day in November. The morning in Brussels was replete with objective correlatives, spitty rain, mist, dark greyness. Soon after it was Armistice Day, with its soggy leaves and desperate branches. Leonard Cohen died around the same time, and I played some of his latter songs which with his gravel voice went up like a dirge for 2016. Tough guys are in the ascendant. Death and decay was everywhere.
I was on my own that week, my family with the inlaws, nothing left but work and beer, may be a game of football. On the plane heading over to bring them home, I wrote some notes trying to untangle these strange happenings, and I have added to them this week.
People want to be able to live, have a family, have prospect of social advancement, be generally left alone and generally free from fear. Some people by their actions harm other people. There is the butterfly effect or the law of Cleopatra’s nose (which, said Pascal, had it been shorter, would have changed the course of human history). All actions have effects, impossible to predict. That is why we have invented government and politics, law and judiciary, the separation of powers, rule of law, human rights. All life is evolutionary and selfish. It wants to survive and prosper. It is difficult, may be impossible to prosper, except at the expense of other people, other sentient creatures and the environment. We step on insects unintentionally or trivially, we breath in microorganisms, we farm and slaughter animals. Most humans have lifestyles which systematically harm the environment and it is now in big trouble. So some things need to be provided or prohibited by the collective. Though there is nothing unique about human cruelty in the Universe.
It’s hard to conceive of a human life outside society. If you are outside society then you might expect to live with your family beyond the laws, no taxes. Trump channelled this instinct with his schoolyard tubthump of America First at the Inauguration. But even if you isolate yourself then you cannot be allowed to visit cruelty on animals and the rest of the environment.
Humans have invented rules, laws and conventions to legitimise and prohibit certain behaviours. These laws, to have effect, require enforcement. So you cajole, punish or dissuade – Obama and Cameron wanted to believe you could just ‘nudge’. A given society is made up of so many people that not all laws will be what you want, not all people to your taste will be in positions of power, not all referenda and elections will go the way you voted. But in peaceable democratic society, you accept these outcomes, that is the Social Contract.
On welfare versus looking after one’s own
Life is swings and roundabouts, ups and downs, you win some you lose some. But certain excesses are considered to be unjust, so must be contested, restrained, outlawed. Over the long term a person can lose so much, take so many knocks that they end up in a nasty situation. If such a person has reached that position through wilfulness, then they are considered reckless and you have little sympathy for them. Otherwise they may be compulsive, a gambler, and you think they need clinical assistance.
To varying degrees, depending on where they position themselves on the left-right political spectrum, politicians will say you need to support such people. To be your brother’s keeper is assumed best practice if you are in church or family but for the abstract political state it’s more controversial. What should you do if an entire neighbourhood, region or country becomes an impoverished and unhappy place?
As animals, our instinct is to survive. Protect yourself, live as long and happily as possible, procreate yourself for your legacy. You know that you need a support group to protect you – that is your partner and your family and best friends.
Christ subverted this. He told his disciples to give up everything and follow him.
And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.
And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him.
And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?
And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.
Virtually none of us, least of all modern Christians, is capable of or willing to conform to these strictures. I could not and would not do this, partly because I don’t know what it implies.
Beyond family, you have an affinity with a wider network, your town, your school, your work colleagues, political party, nation, co-religionists. It is arrogant to assert that people are wrong in their beliefs and value systems, and require enlightening. There is no objectively right or wrong value system. But surely the human race has learned to seek to minimise harm to others in how we live our lives. So when you see someone strong hurting someone weak, you step in, or you at the very least feel as though you should step in. You disarm the strong man committing harm. You move him away, may be even put him in a prison. Sometimes the only way to stop the strong man behaving cruelly is to kill him, but since St Augustine we have developed theories on when such drastic action can be justified. The classic radical left which now have their champion in Corbyn, says that states should not wage war. What do you do if you are in England and you know that people are being abused tortured and killed somewhere else in the world?
Taxation is taking things away from the people to enable the state to exist on behalf of the people. What is a fair tax? If you have you should give. If you don’t have, you give less. You should ideally tax things which are costly. For instance, unhealthy foodstuffs which make it more likely you will need state health care, pollutants which will damage the environment. We ought to start taxing meat production and consumption. By any reckoning, we eat too much meat. It is intrinsically cruel and unnecessary, and the state should provide disincentives.
Inequality and unfairness
Hapless Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stuck his neck out last week about European freedom of movement and then put it halfway back in again. Like me he cannot address immigration without talking about inequality.
When you sell something, you want to get as much from the buyer as possible, if you get a lot for nothing then you are a good businessman. If you get something for nothing you are an astute customer.
Everything always comes at someone’s expense.
You cannot escape the Selfish Gene. If you work for a non-profit organisation, the government, a civil society organisation, a church, you still want to be better than others, to advance. Not all can advance so you must advance at the expense of others.
Moreover, every job in every workplace is an attempt to be better at something than others. When you employ someone, you want to get more value from him than you pay him in salary. And when you are employed, you want to get away with minimum effort for what you are paid for. Or you put the extra effort in because you are using the job as a stepping stone. People who just work diligently for years in a single job are considered to be mugs, suckers and pigeons.
Inequality is usually the result of generations. Things are the way they are. When you are born, you get whatever your parents are able or willing to give or bequeath you. If my father gives me money, I take it. It’s for me. It’s not for anyone else. Trump took millions from his dad. It is a lottery. It is not fair, but attempts by the state to interfere with this seem more unfair, and communist regime attempts to regiment family life have been barbaric and cruel – and have failed.
The laissez-faire politics espoused by politicians on the right means accepting the cruelties and harm of an unequal society from which they have benefited. They basically say that the way things are should be accepted. They use as leverage the predicament of poorer voters to pile blame on immigrants, and then cream off their votes. It is an extraordinary hoodwink, and it works every time.
This is exactly what Theresa May did in her Brexit speech last week:
In the last decade or so, we have seen record levels of net migration in Britain, and that sheer volume has put pressure on public services, like schools, stretched our infrastructure, especially housing, and put a downward pressure on wages for working class people. As Home Secretary for six years, I know that you cannot control immigration overall when there is free movement to Britain from Europe
There is pressure on public services because the government has not put enough money into them.Wages are low because of the market economy. Wealth in Britain is even more unequally divided than income. The richest 10% of households hold 45% of all wealth in the UK, the poorest 50% own 8.7%. May cannot talk about this. In her schizophrenic week of keynote speeches, her subsequent Davos speech implied that it that inequality was a problem of perception, not reality.
But just as we need to act to address the deeply felt sense of economic inequality that has emerged in recent years, so we also need to recognise the way in which a more global and individualistic world can sometimes loosen the ties that bind our society together, leaving some people feeling locked out and left behind.
Those ‘ties that bind our society together’ in her mind probably include the erstwhile sense of deference to social superiors which has always been relied on by Conservatives to hold the poor in check.
According to Thomas Piketty, American and European societies have become much more unequal as a result of the absence of full scale war for the past half century. To a degree, inequality is inevitable. Everything is different. The fittest, the canniest, the best connected survive and thrive. It is not ‘fair’, it does not feel fair. Merit is also a fiction. But stark inequality destabilises society, so all suffer in a way. Sixty-two people are as wealthy as half of the world.
Piketty and his former tutor, the recently-mourned Antony Atkinson (he was another to escape the world just in time), have proposed a global tax on wealth. Global, because the French attempt at such a tax at national level has not worked. You could instead have an upper and lower of wealth and income, set by Parliament and reviewed every year. The canny rich would move to another country. The canny poor will move to that country to enjoy the generous state.
What is the big deal with immigration?
Identity is important to us. We are generally wary of someone unlike you moving into space near to you. People take possession of areas of the planet and become landowners. Their ‘right’ to such areas is a fiction, invented by humans.
People who want to improve their lives, may be even to save their lives, move around the world. Animals generally don’t want others moving into or close to your space. That’s why stags rut, and why blackbirds sing from the highest branch in the month of June. The social effects and grief felt as a result of immigration are exacerbated when new people move into densely populated areas with low wealth and income, and where the existing population have not experience inflows for some time. Immigration, from this localised perspective, threatens identity (intangible) and access to services that you want (tangible).
Objectively, peaceful movements of people enrich humanity. It makes lives more interesting and generates economic wealth. But most people do not have the luxury of enjoying objective, abstract truths.
How can you tell if a country is ‘full’? Let Parliament decide each year how many people are needed in the country. Count the number of births and deaths and net migration. Then figure how many should be able to apply for residency and citizenship accordingly.
Responsible government wishing to improve the economy by mixing up the pool of labour with immigrants without exacerbating social tensions, could cause least damage by requiring immigrants to settle in wealthy, more sparsely populated areas. Germany has been trying to do this with refugees, though it is hard to square with EU law. The problem is that you cannot talk about immigration without talking about social inequality. So when you allow immigration to areas where people are already pissed off with life and politicians, you stoke the flames of social unrest and you play into the hands of right wing cynics.
People are also worried that immigrants do not share the ‘values’ of the host society. The Pavlovian first response whenever a lunatic goes on the rampage is to inquire of their ethnic origin and citizenship status. So what can you do? Require them as a condition for crossing the border to take a solemn oath to respect women, renounce all violence, care for the natural environment etc. Make it so if they are found to breach these undertakings they will be penalised and may be expelled from the country. But where do you expel them to?
You cannot have 100% public security unless you instigate ‘1984’. Everyone is different and unpredictable. You cannot control them. They must be free as long as the harm they cause is not excessive: violence towards another person is clearly not acceptable.
In any case, the state should not control individuals. It should be local structures that keep nutjobs in check. But how can you force a man’s mother and father and wider family to take responsibility? How can the state assume responsibility for the deranged Tunisian who drove a lorry into a crowd in Nice on Bastille Day?
In the first half of the Prelude to Götterdämmerung, the three Norns, daughter of the Earth Goddess Erda, are weaving the rope of destiny. The women unwind and fasten singing of the past and present. The rope begins to fray; they struggle to grasp its strands. Then at last they try to stretch it and it breaks. Events are no longer following their expected course. The Norns disappear in terror.
No more speaketh our wisdom!
The world now shall hear us no more.