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Essays on power and change in western democracies: UK recovery can draw from Germany’s structural reforms

In Uncategorized on March 31, 2021 at 2:23 pm

“THERE is one thing we could still ask of Herr Brandt: what exactly were you doing during those 12 years away from Germany?” Pitched in 1961, the question was timed to intercept future chancellor Willy Brandt’s rising star. The inquisitor, Franz Josef Strauss, conservative leader of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), had fought in the Wehrmacht on Eastern and Western Fronts. Brandt, armed with a pen, wrote extensively from exile.

Germany and the EU say Auf Wiedersehen to ‘Mutti’ this year. But Angela Merkel’s centrist politics, pro-European, pro-western stance have roots in the centre-left’s reforms of the Brandt era. Reforms so extensive they re-shaped civil society. Civil society being a bland phrase that slips off the tongue, without meaning much to anyone. But Merkel’s years in power have much to do with the maintenance of the distinct German civil landscape. 

Before immersing in the subtle variations between UK and German social petri dishes, it’s worth re-understanding that for western democracies civil society is core to a nation’s social and economic well-being. Entities within civil society, from the press to the scientific community, sports clubs, churches, guilds, societies and trusts distribute power. Maddening for absolutists like Trump; who took aim, railing at its most visible symbols i.e. journalists, scientists, election officials, eventually becoming entangled by these benign bodies, led by blithe technocrats. So significant to country performance are these social units that Thomas Hobbes, in his preference for despotism, called them worms, eating their way into the body politic.

Angela Merkel’s CDU is hoping that recent state elections are irrelevant to this autumn’s general election. This might be wishful thinking. The roller-coaster effect of the pandemic has eroded her legacy of consistency. Relatively new CDU party leader, Armin Laschet, was appointed after Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s less-than-sure-footed performance lasted only till January this year, and less than 14 months in total. Laschet has enjoyed four governments headed by Merkel, but might be heading for new reckoning. With only 73 days at the helm at the time of writing, it’s not a cliché to say Merkel is a tough act to follow.

Marginally more cunning than Trump, Henry VIII issued the Statute of Uses to weaken trusts, but was stymied by parliament. Trump supporters’ march on parliament was similarly processed by the legal system. The leadership equation inferred by all this is, less is more, as executive power is distributed to the many, not the few. Of course, if civil structures mean authority is less concentrated, but the consequence is western society flourishes, then the more we are likely to wish for moderating figures like Brandt and Merkel to secure top tier leadership roles. Sustainable change here then, in the western context, is gained by indirection not direction. Efforts to overpower or force through appear to destroy the fine balances of collective will, disengaging the population. At the very least, ‘strong leadership’ in western democracies is a conundrum.

Likewise, corporations deploy committees, policies, systems and processes to sieve power into digestible chunks. So fine are these balances, that excess authority can be toxic. None of this is good news for Alpha Males in the full grip of self-efficacy. The last serious efforts in UK history to squash ‘the worms’ was during The Restoration, but by then civil society had wormed its way deeply into a corporeal nation-state, and filled out the public sphere. Blind allegiance to the crown was not seen again.

Before we suggest the German worms of civil society have an edge over the UK’s, the CSU and its sister party, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), are enjoying the same bumpy ride as Boris Johnson’s UK Conservative Party. These parties’ parliamentary members are being queried over mask-procurement contracts. Worse still the CDU suffered their poorest showing to date, in the March 14th state-elections. Angela Merkel’s departure after 16 years as chancellor could include her party exiting government altogether. With six months till the general election her legacy of maintaining the German Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder), in the face of major tests, might still be tarnished. (EU commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, once Angela Merkel’s preferred candidate for German presidency, has been accused of slowing Europe’s vaccination rate by her team fussing too long over price, supply and liability of vaccines.)

And so for Germany this and other factors, such as opening up and shutting down the economy, bureaucratic slowness handing out aid, has done its damage. But overall the CDU/CSU coalition has still dominated. Occupying 51 of the 71 years of the republic’s post-war democratic journey. But The Greens are knocking at the door of power. Those with ideas are in the ascendancy. And the CDU is without them.

For former chancellor Willy Brandt’s party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), their day may then return in the autumn, along with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Many are waking to the possibilities of booting the conservatives out of power. Not to diminish Germany’s current pressures, from Russian to Chinese relationships, these woes are still less momentous than the post-war crisis of ‘nation re-building’. Germany’s admittance to the emergent rules-based global community depended on its relationship with both west and east’s diametrically opposing ideologies. To the newly created West Germany’s benefit the western allies guided the creation of coalition-government as the new normal, thus limiting power returning into the hands of extremists.

For the British, cross-party coalitions are alien. More so since power-sharing tasted odd when David Cameron (Conservative Party) and Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrats) occupied the same stage in 2010. It was the death knell for the liberals. Their support falling away. The horse trading of coalition not so much appals, but bemuses an electorate who link ‘large majorities’ with the ‘exercise of good power’. Compromise is weakness; landslides equal strength. But the nature of Germany’s polity has served it sufficiently well for it to become the world’s fourth largest economy.

But coalitions suggest much socially as well as politically. It infers agility, and critically, for western democratic structures, the ability to compromise. Utopianism has been the ever-present demon at the door of British politics. But the enduring success of social conservativism in western democracies has left both main parties almost indistinguishable from each other. Labour’s Tony Blair was charged with continuing the free market vision of Margaret Thatcher. Labour’s core vote, the ‘English Working Classes’, have now vanished, leaving the labour movement adrift. Large residues of that social group are aspirational and independent. Artisanship is well-paid.

Under the leadership of Keir Starmer, a serious interlocutor, Labour is not devoid of ideas; far from it, but in Anglo-Saxon politics charisma equates to confidence. The absence of a procrustean head, able to charm and shapeshift, leaves a movement with over supply of deficit theology. Tending to be against not for doesn’t win elections. The burst of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s version of left-leaning social democracy had gathered around vague grievances with no central theme.

There is no sign of the UK parliament changing its system. Germany’s politics of necessary compromise have provided what economies love best, stability. Coalition government naturally instils a structural focus (concerned with the interconnecting whole), versus the two-party system’s functionalism (pragmatically aligned with a handful of key election winning causes). The latter limits how parties shapeshift at each general election. UK conservatives have had to steadily steal, from under the noses of the labour and liberal movement, social democratic and socially liberal sensibilities; further leaving the Labour and the UK’s Social Democratic Party reflecting on their core offering. Where 19th century Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said ‘he could see a conservative voter inside the working man, in the same way a sculptor saw an angel in a block of marble’, conservatism has continued to reach out to the expanded middle classes, including the former Labour heartlands of the UK’s industrial north, who are increasingly invested in civil society, generating a naturally socially conservative mood. And while UK conservatives are broadening their church, enticing liberals, progressives and the remnants of single issue parties, like the United Kingdom Independence Party, Labour’s anchor has remained fixed to the labour movement; a phrase needing explanation to those under 45.  

At this juncture Willy Brandt’s name surfaces as a reformer-in-chief. In 50s Germany he’d already reckoned the labour movement was failing. In contrast to the reforms of the British labour movement, which have fizzled and popped for decades, The Godesberg Programme was affirmed at the SPD party conference in November 1959. It jettisoned its association with Marxist dogma and as a traditional workers’ party. Whether this was prophetic or instinctive, it certainly seemed risky. A risk that has now seen it more out of power than in.


Willy Brandt chaired the SPD from 1964 to 1987. His symbolism extended to a consistent pro-European, pro-western vision. Unimpressive to at least one US president, popular amongst European intellectuals, his worldview undoubtedly shaped by his time in exile. Arriving in Oslo in 1933, he spent seven years in Norway, moving to Sweden for five more, returning to Germany after the war at 32. He wrote prodigiously, and said these were his happiest years.

This move was further sealed with the SPD’s approval for partnership with NATO and other western institutions. Brandt’s exile in Oslo had left a deeply affective image of peaceful liberal democratic society, influencing the movement of his own party towards the centre ground; as soft and as uncomfortable as this over-occupied space has become. The long journey from his socialist ideals towards anti-communism and a clear vision of social democratic values was nearly complete by this point. 

The desire for extended dialogue with opponents mark him out as a durable, albeit highly emotional, figure in an arena always inviting the individuals to colour themselves with stage paint. Although he knew how to adopt a pose. Whether looking at home during the traditional ticker tape reception in New York in 1959, as Berlin’s mayor, or as chancellor, dropping to his knees in front of the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw on a cold December morning in 1970, in an apparent gesture of contrition. The latter of which split opinion, as much as dropping to a knee does today.

The context for this shipping overboard of a party’s core principles lay in pre-WWII Europe. And I’d argue fomented in the minds of European exiles like Brandt. It’s those who have escaped, and in particular those who have seen the speed of societal collapse, who are most prepared to hasten the pace of power distribution. Vienna’s Stefan Zweig, Michael and Karl Polanyi, Prague’s Ernest Gellner, Poznań’s Zygmunt Bauman, Motihari’s George Orwell, all write with a prophetic quality that is missing post-Blair. Social media has lit up personalities not ideas. But this exilic grouping were keenly aware of the deceptions of single issue thought, hi-culture, and dominant ideologies; seeing danger in concentrations, be they single-metric measurements or scientism. Their corpora counters zeal and gives space to the unknowable and uncertain.

Zweig records the ‘unconscious citizens’ of “Vienna… [who’d become] supranational, cosmopolitan citizen[s] of the world” having little comprehension of looming totalitarian rule: “…I did not guess, when I saw… exiles [from Nazi rule], that their pale faces heralded my own fate, and we would all be victims of this one man’s raging lust for power”. He noted Germany’s hunger for order and security eclipsing notions of justice and the good. Gellner, in subtle ironic tone, offered: “This theory of democracy has had a considerable vogue of late… It is associated with the ‘end of ideology’ theme”. The relatively short descent from unassailable hi-culture of imperial Europe into totalitarian nightmare left little doubt that the socio-political structures required considerable reform. Reforms in large part absorbed from an English history of civil society. The horror of concentrated power propelled post-war German politicians to accelerate reforms. Günter Grass gifted to Brandt the slogan: “Dare more democracy”. He was among the many intellectuals who supported Brandt’s pluralism as a response to ‘strong leadership’.

Britain post-Brexit is at another cross-roads. It’s facing the challenge to ‘dare more democracy’ or modernise. For the two are somewhat oil and water. Modern managerialist government ministers who nobly seek to ‘be data led’ tend to run up against the evolutionary requirement for their ministerial departments to take the long view. For institutions are by definition concerned with the structural elements of change wrought by pluralist societies, with the latter’s proliferation of groupings. Complexity is not captured by surveys, but rather by institutions as intellectual repositories, capable of using intelligence. Constructing a dominant metric is often purely for window-dressing during a time of crisis.

And it’s the careful reform of institutions which sit at the heart of UK future success. Daring more democracy within government is always a starting point. As difficult to deny as calling for more prayer in church. Who could possibly object? The strange conundrum arises then of lessening ministerial authority, in order for them to have to present increasingly compelling arguments that win hearts and minds, rather than just securing unquestioning obeisance (which for many is considered ‘leadership’). Added to this is the paradox that institutions rarely evolve into ‘a performance culture’, preferring instead sub-optimal consistency. Power that is concentrated rather than spread erodes that sub-optimal regularity that is intrinsic to functioning civil society; and leaves institutions on the whole heading towards long-term ineffectiveness. The best remains the enemy of the good.

Brandt faced this intentional built-in dilemma having done the hard-yards of preparation in both exile and mayoral duties. German ministers had considerable independence to act, thus requiring Brandt to persuade rather than dictate. The exhausting requirement to maintain ‘natural authority’ rather than threaten, restores organic balances at the heart of a mature national economy. That doesn’t mean leaving the incompetent and blindly resistant in positions of leadership. But measuring competence appropriately becomes important. The tendency to promote those who are ‘on message’ and thereby supplicant, has been a rising trend since the later years of the Thatcher government. Johnson has a stooge-ocracy, some say. He is early in his premiership but appears as over-aligning as Thatcher’s later tenure, as well as Blair, who both eroded Cabinet’s role. Blair’s ‘change mantra’ lacked the intellectual rigour that a Cabinet setting would have provided. As his post-politics wilderness years will testify.

The benefit of de-centralising power is it wards off what Gellner terms ‘infantile functionalism’, both within the institution and across the social consciousness of the national populace. The tendency for institutions to replicate themselves endlessly is the outcome of over-direction externally. The latter being the consequence of over-modernisation. Citizenry who have suffered over-direction from central government tend to be ‘totally committed’ to narrow change agendas. Structural reform requires a depth of argument that moderates charismatic leadership.

Gellner refers to the temptation, when faced with distributed power, of adopting ‘total commitment’ to single issues, as the means to initiate change. And draws the analogy with religious observance where an original doctrine of ‘justification by faith’ steadily backslides towards the dogma of ‘justification by total commitment’. If any members propose facilitating questions, under their initial doctrine of faith, then a dogmatic ‘strong leadership’ is tempted to paint these folks as less than ‘totally committed’; and thereby apostate. Gellner says this is the dilemma for modern institutions. Those that rely on over-aligned zealotry erode effective doctrines within a few decades. Those that facilitate dialogue extend their lifespan, spreading ownership amongst an increasingly engaged community.

Maintaining the analogy, faith, of course, isn’t the absence of doubt, but rather the pursuit of what Paul Tillich called: ‘ultimate concern for what is ultimately important’. Which is only achieved through the deployment of all faculties and a concern for the broad structural view, including doubt. Infantile functionalism, as Gellner termed it, is the enforcement of unquestioning adherence, as well as the over-exercise of power, to force an institution to go in a direction it can’t naturally. Leaders with ‘ultimate concern’ install dialogue within systems and processes, as they understand it’s through indirection and questioning that affordable performance evolves.

As we’ve seen with the pandemic, institutions do not overnight become agile civic-emergency organisations. Institutional structures are built to protect core services and are by definition deliberately slow evolutionary structures. Western European governments’ slow response is due to precisely their decentralised institutional and democratic structures. A single issue threat like pandemics require specialist task-focused structures and agencies to be formed; and these, as we’ve seen, are expensive as they require hi-performance cultures; but in time they themselves are institutionalised to ensure new capabilities are maintained over the long-term.

And ironically, Britain’s future hi-performance is dependent on further distributing power outwards, both to the regions and its institutions, and restoring trust in these bodies. As we’ve seen with any structure that invites ‘total commitment’ there is a steady depletion of growth and development. Even bright new commercial organisations establish early institutional frames that are naturally programmed to evolve autonomous thinking. Putting in place appropriate people and resources early, leaving the resultant mix to learn and lead are acts of courage in themselves. The strategic leader is primarily concerned with the overarching structures, including the structure of the future. If an organisation cannot learn and lead itself from within, because it is throttled from the ivory tower above, any success is often short-lived or achieved at the long-term cost of talent; who migrate to better environments, leaving the dogged and resistant to dig-in to their well-formed trench system.

Although it was the allies who set up structural reforms, it was Brandt’s alignment of government philosophy to liberal democratic principles, within the vision of unification, that amounted to structural thinking. Giving space for extended dialogue within and without, his commitment to liberal democracy is admirable, even if he lost key party figures on the way to the increasingly successful CDU. Now, as the centre-right faces a crisis of imagination, we can’t help note the way Angela Merkel apologised for her government’s failings during the Covid crisis as hinting at more than it being a warm affection-seeking gimmick. Was it possible she meant it, and was ultimately concerned?: “This mistake is my mistake alone.” Yes, approval ratings for the CDU have dropped, but her apology is reminiscent of old-style statecraft, even if still odd language for the current season of infantile functionalist government, which seeks to arrest volatile trends generated by social media. Was this genuflection by Merkel evidence of the long-shadow of Brandt’s marriage of vision and pragmatism and holding nerve through the long-cycles of change? 

Essays on power and change in western democracies: Gen Z curing Baby Boomers’ addiction to ponderous rationality

In Uncategorized on October 10, 2020 at 9:56 am

AMERICA goes to the polls on 3 November. The popular vote (aggregate of all votes) is trumped by an Electoral College system. Small states are kept warm to the federation by being gifted proportionally more Electoral votes than larger counterparts. Enviably, independent states act as countries within a country. By contrast, post-war statism continues to choke political grassroots in the United Kingdom.

For Trump’s achievement (aside from not going to war, a feat in itself) is stoking engagement amongst young voters; and he’s achieved it at the scorched earth level of the disenfranchised American underclass, in addition to Baby Boomers’ standard allegiance. The latter having shaped US and British politics since the early 90s. The Tories did not Brexit because it is theirs or Labour’s passion. Remember Heath’s passion and Wilson’s ambivalence towards the European project. And it was as much a hot debate then.

Millennials and Gen Z will represent 40% of the US electorate this autumn. A shift happening everywhere in the West. Issue-based young voters’ influence is gradually eclipsing party-based Boomers’. Educated millennial women with degrees will have a view on one Boris Johnson. Some of the underlying positive US economic metrics will nudge US voters towards Trump. Even so he is still looking at losing by five points in the popular vote, and 70 votes in the Electoral. If Johnson arrests the UK economy by 2024, he will still have a difficult job engaging the emergent political class.

Below the surface younger voters have another layer of changing experience that leads them towards change. Their structure of rationality no longer takes its cue from an unquestioned authorised canon of scaffolded knowledge, one largely formed in the early 20th century. Boomers, known for their chopped logics, binary and reductionist views, and so-called ‘common sense pragmatism’, are faced with Gen Z’s preference for the individual’s lived experience as the arbiter of truth.

Which brand of Camelot will Americans choose?: John F Kennedy held an interesting place in the minds of Western Europeans. Symbolising Western democratic principles that had rescued Europe and set it on a path out of demagogic imperialism; offering a clean, white-goods model-society, a life-style. But the myth of American innocence finds its full stop in this coming election. A known known in Biden versus the colour and carnivalesque of Trump. Biden’s cool-charisma, a restoration of a US Camelot, a measure of the JFK myth making; versus a Trump presidency where there is a measure of real politik, the ‘eat what you kill’ Wild West that doesn’t lack its own integrity. Gore Vidal revises Kennedy: “I never believed in Jack’s charisma… one of our worst presidents…; but Jack had great charm. So [had] Obama. He’s better educated than Jack. And he’s been a working senator. Jack never went to the office – he wanted the presidency and his father bought it for him.” (Quote from Melvyn Bragg interview – Times Newspapers Ltd, May 2008).

As Trump’s carnival float leaves town what if we take a closer look at the sociological landscape beneath the hoopla. I argue we rarely shine a light into the dark corners of the shifting Western mind and socio-linguistic structures which give rise to voter intentions and consumer behaviour.

Christopher Hitchins said that the noise you keep hearing in the background is the ‘falling scenery of the British Empire’. This backdrop was held up by our addiction to the scaffolding of bold reason. The sort of reasoning where all logical statements ultimately interlock into a neat irrefutable phalanx. And we Boomers have spent our time trying to stick the scenery back rather than push it over. Thatcher gave it a meritocratic shove of course. Her not being ‘a suburban housewife of little import’ but a major actor on the stage.

To consider how the dominant prism of Western rationality is revolving let us turn to the ordinary younger man and woman at the bus stop as a way of seeing how new generations will think over time. Where the Boomers are a Gutenberg generation, educated with the ‘authorised canon’ of knowledge, Gen Z are bi-directional learners, educated by ‘chasing the deer through the woods’ of a socially mediated encounter with knowledge. Where I sweated Shakespeare and logarithms by rote new generations are ‘educationally present’ in a number of different universes of meaning at the same time, with the classroom being just one. Their minds juggling multiple space and time encounters. Where I walked continuously through left-to-right time-and-space younger generations skip endlessly around chopped reality.

Boomers’ privileging of scaffolded rationality as arbiter of ‘good knowledge and action’ now looks rather ponderous. Where my education implanted a rationality constructed floor by floor towards a completed curriculum, framed by the view that logic intersected with other logics, to form a coherent overarching whole; we now find such notions harder and harder to promote. The father of modernity Friedrich Hegel put forth that there is an upward and forward movement of progress based on a regular interchange of ideas (dialectics). Based on the assumption that there is something inherently rational in the effort to map the structure of the universe as a form of cartographical exploration, enabling a steady advance of human society. Diametrically opposed to such an imperialist rationality was Hegel’s arch-enemy Søren Kierkegaard. Hegel’s universality of reason is challenged by Kierkegaard’s view of good human action being born out of the absurdity of lived experience (dialogics), in all its particularity. One that is closer to younger generations’ privileging of the individual’s worldview. A worldview that is cosmologically more discrete than Boomers’ desire to construct a shared canon of experience.

So, imagine for a moment you are at the bus stop, listening in to contemporary language in all its individuality if not absurdness and consider this from both a Hegelian (dialectical) and Kierkegaardian (dialogical) perspective:

“I love you!” says the man.

“I love you too!” says his lady friend, both sheltering from the drizzle.

What makes their love-making more profound is the desperation in his voice. What he meant was: “I really do love you; don’t you believe me?” and what she meant was: “Don’t worry I know you do.”

What we like about the phrase ‘I love you’, is the level of risk in saying it out loud. Speaking out loud here is a leap in the dark; a form of irrationality based on its inherent absurdity (we never know what love is ourselves, let alone expect someone else to know, so here in this vignette it represents my attempt to pose ‘a moment’ of typical absurdity). It is different from ‘love ya’ pop lyrics which dissipate into the ether. Bus stop man and woman are genuine interlocutors who are present in the same moment and have raised the stakes of their existence by attempting to say something quite transformational. Søren Kierkegaard would regard them as ‘knights of action’ not as ‘knights of resignation’.

That is to say neither are living off the memory of past love but are in the act of creating it. Here Kierkegaard attacks Friedrich Hegel’s notion of knowledge as a universal experience. To live by shared understanding of the universe, even shared ethics, is a form of resignation from the potential creation of the new. In a dialectical society (shared canon of knowledge) we become selves based on what we know universally (knights of resignation) rather than ‘leap into the unknown’ (knights of action).

Kierkegaard borrows the epic imagery of Abraham lifting his knife to plunge into his son Isaac. Christopher Hitchens said if God asked him to do that to his children he would say to God: ‘F*** you!’ Hitchens was a romantic idealist whose affection for rationality and knowledge as the basis of the good life was unbounded. Kierkegaard’s understanding of action was rooted in the fact that knowledge is frail and rarely forms the basis of action. Even Hegel states: ‘The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.’ Meaning seasons of life are rarely understood until a pool of knowledge grows sufficient to explain in rational terms; and knowledge’s coherence is too late to be genuinely useful. As opposed to living sensually, and thus avoiding the ponderous notion of rationalising experience post hoc.

Rationality on one level then is the ‘knight of resignation’ and the potential enemy of action. As we are forced to wait for the critical mass of reason to gather a force of argument sufficient to garner societal approval. It lives on its past provenance that then awaits the appearance of further philosophical critique to form the basis of solid knowledge (arguments we recognise). Hitchens dismisses Abraham’s act as barbarism. But for Kierkegaard Abraham knew his action of lifting the knife would be followed by another ‘inspired action’, one that resolves the situation. Importantly, Abraham did not need Isaac for his own meaning and worth in the world. He was not resigned to give away his life in order to preserve his son. Shockingly unethical. And that is Kierkegaard’s point. Timely action requires independence of spirit. One free from argumentation, explanation and endless life-sucking analysis.

Nietzsche’s cynicism that ‘we do not love our children but love what they can do for us’ points to our struggle to exist without the props of other people. Kierkegaard invites the good life as one lived without fear of loss. For Kierkegaard Abraham lifting the knife precipitated an alternative pathway. But in the act of irrationality and absurdity the world was changed. Waiting for the owl of Minerva to gather knowledge from sufficient data would be too late for a world needing change now. Hence Kierkegaard took aim at Hegel for slowing the world down to a grim rational dialectical process of constipated slow change. One that Gen Z equally finds ponderous. The Hegelian self is a ‘knight of resignation’ waiting for information, rational arguments, known knowns to form, before s/he takes a step forward. And voila: the modern Western democratic world where injustice waits for the law to catch up with it.

This brings us to John Major. I am reliably informed he was more impressive in person than he was televisually. Gravitas travels through airwaves and either dissipates or concentrates. Bus stop man’s tremor was partly his cluelessness as to how his self travelled through the night-time drama. The action was a risk of unknown quantity. Because what they could not do was put their text of experience into a con-text. The passer-by on this occasion had more con-text and brings it to bear on their moment of consummation. Paul Ricœur infers that hearsay then becomes an even more potent form of learning than formal knowledge. As our hearsaying does not disrupt the event itself.

And therein lies the problem of modern progress. The more technologically urban creatures we evolve into the less potential for us to exchange agreed experience. We have tried to resolve this through modern knowledge. But this has only compounded the struggle of ‘meaning what we say’. The extent to which knowledge is a genuine reflection on experience is a growing question. Often modern knowledge is a treatise on largely one form of knowledge: the denotative. To denote is to label. This is the equivalent of a clay pigeon shoot. Up flies the clay of experience and we instinctively take aim, unloading both barrels.

Periodically we hit the clay of experience and congratulate each other on labelling successfully an agreed experience. Even if the clay was only grazed. It is still in our view ‘true knowledge’. We have all agreed that a chair is a chair. Putting aside semiotics and Plato for one moment. We apprehend a new experience and our first action is to share it and then label it, and then agree its value. This happens in such short order we ignore what has taken place. In seconds we have gone from an unknown to a known. But in truth, as Sartre would agree, we have gone from stumbling apprehension of the unknown, to it being a foregone conclusion called: modern knowledge.

What has taken place is profound if not momentous. As genuine power sits in the space between apprehension of ‘the new’ and how this datum is converted into what we innocently term modern knowledge. Who decides on this process? Which committee double checks for authenticity? In truth the accident of experience collides with the accident of social agreement on ‘what is knowledge’.

This brings us back to John Major, and TV. TV has shaped knowledge and the modern landscape quite like nothing else. The eye of the beholder was ripped from its ‘point of view’. It meant we no longer communally stood on the same spot to review a shared way of seeing. We all began to encounter the same image from a profoundly mobile perspective. Here our bus stop anxiety can be understood. Our two interlocutors look generationally from the same pool of perspective. But their different paths of formation are strikingly separate.

Enter the postmodern fraternity to cheer the last point. I am ushering them away for now. They have had a good go at arguing for complete fragmentation but our physiological selves offer boundaries which they struggle to dispute without excessive solipsism. Our consciousness still operates in tandem with our embodied selves, and these selves share a physical milieu, which is persistently static enough to say we inhabit the same wider landscape. Our movement within that landscape still retains a physical boundary for the potential of experience to be shared. There is enough in our milieu to make life interesting and varied. And there is an ethical reason for accepting our milieu as saturated with enough repeatable encounters for us to learn about them and re-apply them when we encounter a similar situation. I am therefore not arguing for post-structural (loss of real world beyond our senses) landscapes where all experience is divorced from other’s experiences (postmodern fragmentation).

If there was infinite variation then knowledge will fall away completely as we would be stumbling blind through endless new encounters. Hence art. We introduce art because it disrupts the hard patterns of urban modern life which has become overly repetitive. As John Self says in Martin Amis’s Money: “Taking a leak is boring, isn’t it, after the first few thousand times? Whew, isn’t that a drag?” In other words modern experience, under a rationally ordered urban existence, has become too repetitive. Not because of modern architecture alone, but minds bent towards an overly reasoned order of society. This overly familiar landscape diminishes our ability to locate ourselves. Recovery is always found through new contexts but also through exchange of experience. And art restores this foundational counterbalance to hyper-rationality.

And art has to be re-inserted between apprehension and knowledge. That space between encounter and its social agreement. This is the space good education operates. But do not suppose for one moment that this space is open. The space is crammed with media, of all kinds. For media means middle. We might say all major domains have their central operational HQ in the middle space. The lecturer at the front of the class is in the middle. The news anchor too. They portray knowledge as a known known. Our role again is to recognise there is an antibiotic treatment known as: connotation.

To connote is not to denote. It is to allude to the potential of experience. Hence power is operating most keenly in the ability to insert the possibility that there are infinite ways to interpret a new apprehension. Modern anxiety is rooted in the horror of the scale of life’s contingency. Kierkegaard would say anxiety is the awareness of our requirement to make choices. A clear indicator we are alive. To enable a community to see that all of history is open and available for redescription is a remarkable achievement. John Self, in his descent, adds: “Television is cretinizing me – I can feel it.”  Politics, in truth, is inserting the necessary doubt about the forms of knowledge that TV, education, party-politics, or other power bases say are not up for negotiation.

As when knowledge is boxed for consumption, through labelling, we recognise rationality has been at work. That rationality has a source and we can trace it back to either money or vested interest. Whether it is the authoring of an ancient text or yesterday’s tabloid, nothing at all comes without a political interest. This is decidedly uncomfortable, as something within us demands a pure experience, as we want to exclude any possibility that a rich encounter comes without prior manipulation. Nothing wrong with gasping at the waterfall and celebrating its wonder; but inviting a community to only stand in wonder, and imposing an interpretation is too near to an imperialist rationality.

So we shoot at the clay but often only clip the edge of experience. But if we take a community and shoot collectively we might hit more. Nothing gains the attention of central government than a collective community clay shoot. Post-war rules-based leadership tried to argue that communities needed their encounters with the world moderated through supra-national institutions. And this is partly true. Poor leadership says we will hold communities in infancy well into their adult lives. Listen carefully to narratives from popular media and marketing. A fundamental Adult to Child relationship. Someone recently stated a woman of 16 frequently has more capacity to assume responsibility than a man does in his 50s. Is this partly due to the male socialisation and institutionalisation? The willingness for male identity to be drawn from occupation not collaboration? Increasing capacity for relational fairness comes early in feminine socialisation. Vulnerability towards others invites others towards us. I encounter constantly the exhausted Alpha Male in touching distance with their vulnerability in their 50s. Only to let it slip away.

What is noticeable about Alpha in his ‘prime’ is that power is predicated upon conquest. Feminine socialisation may on occasions feel it needs to dominate to achieve similar heights, but I wonder what if we combine the two leading traits into a whole. Modern egalitarian societies have flattened usefully, but only on the surface. What Alphas should explore is their presence in the middle space without pointing at objects and naming them. To occupy the space between apprehension and knowledge long-term is to create meaningful spaces ready for communal interchange. This is very difficult when hyper-individualism remains so dominant.

The French Revolution of course attempted to deal with many of these concerns of ‘the middle space’; between religious hegemony (mythos) and nascent reason (logos). “Messianism, [is] the mania of incarnations so carefully inculcated by Christian education…” So says Michelet’s introduction to the fifth volume of his History of the Revolution, dated 1869. As Conor Cruise O’Brien points out he is referring not to Christ but to Robespierre and Napoleon III. Power rests heavily in the middle space and often with one or two individuals. Removing these individuals just leaves the space for others to occupy. Revolution is an attempt to adjust the middle spaces between hierarchies. The hierarchies do not go away but rather they reform, and can reform more oppressively as history tells us. But the principle is reforming of the middle space offers a wider encounter.

With Western economies struggling from limited social mobility the emphasis turns to education as the key mediator. Not for the access that merit alone attains but the potential of personal formation. The awareness of con-text for our bus sheltered couple is something of a destination. The angst of ‘love’ can be added to with inflections. If Tristram Shandy is right and ‘love is a situation’ then the word love connotes an infinite variation of meaning. If you do not immediately agree then what does ‘love’ denote? Point to the object that the sign signifies. Hence Shandy takes every deviation possible, with ‘love’ only ever as analogous to events.

At the bus stop we are now aware of the gap between the sensibility of love as a series of possibilities; all of which were momentarily boiled down to ‘I love you!’. If the passer-by was of the literal variety they might say: ‘ahh, how sweet’. Before wending their way into the night. If the passer-by notes the tone and texture of the ‘I love you’ they are likely to perceive the danger our male interlocutor was in. His love appealed, hoped, faded, fell; all between the utterance of the ‘I’ and enunciation of the ‘v’ in ‘love’. Power existed in the ability for Lover A to arrest themselves at the moment of vocalisation and reckon with Lover B’s potential disappointment for becoming the object of unequitable hope. No human can satisfy another’s hopefulness, nor should they.

Gen Z’s concern for the meaning of love and experience to be extricated from rationality and into the type of digression Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy allows is commendable. That is to return to more dialogical connoting of life as crucial to the joy of being, versus Boomers’ rationalising of encounter into a known known; as articulated in the dialectics of modern knowledge (to know categorically). Here then are the layers beneath the political allegiances on the surface.

Essays on power and change in western democracies: Intersections of rhetoric shaping the civil landscape

In Uncategorized on July 5, 2020 at 2:55 pm

THE DREAM CITY megachurch Phoenix, Arizona, hosted Donald Trump last month. Supporters waited in 110-degrees for the Students for Trump event. Covid’s damage to the US economy is affecting Mr Trump’s re-election chances. 128,000 deaths are a tragedy. Politically it is clearing some of the path for rival Joe Biden. During his Arizona trip Mr Trump autographed a plaque at the 200th mile point of the US-Mexico border wall project. But there are changes he cannot effect. Universal health care moves forward gradually. Mr Biden will aid its journey if elected. He will also turn the country towards net-zero emissions and new foreign policy relations. But what of the deeper historic divisions? Last week the Governor of Mississippi signed into law the bringing down of the Confederate battle flag. It had flown from the Capitol building since 1894. It is the final state to unpick the emblem from its official symbols of office.

For the present America has returned to the level of rhetorical warfare worthy of Richard Nixon’s period in office (’69-’74). Only a few weeks into Mr Nixon’s presidency he ordered the air force to start bombing Communist supply lines in neutral Cambodia. But, the bombing was kept secret until the New York Times broke it as a front page story. Mr Nixon called in FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to install wiretaps on the phones of four journalists and thirteen administration officials. History records Mr Nixon prolonging the Vietnam War, pitching white against black with his “southern strategy”, and causing American citizenry to regard each other as enemies. All, one biographer argues, for his own political ends. He was the only President to resign in shame. The parallels with Mr Trump’s tenure have already been rehearsed.

On 27 April 1994 Reverend Billy Graham delivered the sermon at Mr Nixon’s funeral. It was a peroration that sanctified: “the world has lost a great citizen”. Mr Nixon’s record was momentarily reborn and deeper questions flattened. Importantly the presidency was resurrected through hi-spiritual rhetoric. Keeping faith with the office of president is a non-negotiable element of America’s wars of rhetoric. Mr Graham’s narrative was a rescue mission which worked for a congregation already sitting awkwardly knowing what they knew. Elsewhere, away from the grieving, Mr Graham further absolved human frailty by stating Mr Nixon’s ‘drugs and demons’ had ‘play over him’. It is easier to blame demons after death than face them during life. Whether the office of president was a demon that had play over Mr Graham and now other ‘white evangelicals’ is a rhetorical battle still in play at the White House.

For America democratic change is proving painfully slow. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s celebrated analysis of American democracy in the 1830s, he noted the curious paradox of America’s commitment to free speech being undone by an absence of independent minds. In 1963 writer James Baldwin argued this absence was rather: “White Americans… [who] are terrified of sensuality…,” adding: “It will be a great day for America… when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it.” For Mr Baldwin foam rubber stood for the ‘apprehension of life’ and the ‘historical role… Christianity’ had played in shaping the American consciousness. But more importantly its unconsciousness towards America’s unequal sociopolitical systems and structures. Kelly Brown Douglas writes: “…fundamental aspects of Christian theology have been used to legitimate white supremacist realities and have become a part of the collective theological consciousness.”

Great American Paradox: The extent to which critical writers like James Baldwin reflect aspects of the New Testament’s emphasis on power and change more acutely than institutional religion begs the question of the relationship between Christianity and the sociopolitical systems to which it has climbed into. James Baldwin wrote: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” The potential for a new American Identity may already be planted in its marginalised communities. To this possible end The Episcopal Church’s Virginia Theological Seminary ‘has set aside $1.7m for a reparations fund… Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey… $27m’ (Sojourners, July 2020).

America’s troubled soul is self-evident. Its social contract is being written long after its Constitution. With its truths drawn from an indeterminate mix of Enlightenment philosophy, Thomist natural theology and traditional Judeo-Christian revelation the Republic could still be lost. These contradictions are often revealed in the power politics of American Christianity. It still is a young country. Double Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell reveals what an old country England was even in the early 1500s: “You can write on England, but what was written before keeps showing through, inscribed on the rocks and carried on floodwater, surfacing from deep cold wells.” America’s Constitution not so much ‘shows through’ but overshadows.

Did a conflicted soul make it easier for George W Bush to be ‘transformed by 9/11 from a compassionate conservative into a neocon who started two of his country’s longest wars’? Or the anti-intellectualism of Mr Trump’s base joining with the White Christianity of middle-America? They have both turned Right for their ideology’s salvation. Either way it is a turn away from the complex nature of the relationship between faith and justice. Not helped by American Protestantism taking the form of a solus ipse spirit; to go with its Reformation sola fide and sola scriptura. A confidence in self actuality rather than a communal interpretation of ancient meaning. This individualist brio became an almost perfect partner to neoliberalism’s hyper-individualism. But the power of American optimism struggles to come to terms with limitations.

The American writer Saul Bellow called death the black backing on the mirror. It enables us to see our lives and selves in reflection. And White Christian individualism has not evolved a theology of death that sits well with eternal optimism. James Baldwin opened profound theological questions in Sixties America. But mainstream Christian apologists such as Billy Graham would not engage in dialogue. Mr Baldwin was a symbol of a growing black consciousness. This contrasted strongly with Mr Graham’s evangelicalism, which was a symbol of a persistent spiritual innocence that is still pervasive today.

It is important to remember that Billy Graham-style evangelical rallies were vast. So much so when you got up out of your seat to respond to the nightly altar call, there was a very real danger that you would not find it again. And that is the challenge of American quantification. To reach a mass audience exaggeration is essential. For square-jawed evangelists to convince an aircraft-hangar-sized congregation with Sixties amplification ar-tic-u-la-tion of the gos-pel in hyperbolic form was needed. For the message to reach the back row it had to have been launched with such force those in the front rows were transfixed. Megaphones need monosyllabic language to travel through the air. Subtlety is stripped off and the remaining bones are chewed for nourishment. Mr Graham’s speechness invited no echo.

Homespun religion was a coherent personal theology that did not invite a discussion. It was a style of faith that releases the self into a private internal struggle. But private crises are rarely resolved through private reflection. Mr Baldwin’s critique of white culture with its plastic bread that tasted of nothing could be seen in white evangelicalism. White Christianity could see the murderous violence of segregation. But it relied on changing the human heart. Not addressing discrimination meant gagging the raging prophets from the Old Testament who burnt incandescently for justice above ‘harps and sweet music’. Where Martin Luther King Jr offered the prophetic, and generated collectivised power, Mr Graham offered a depoliticised Christianity.

The power of crowds should not be underestimated. Despite the hubbub, oratory was personal. When the Sergeant Major bellows on parade, soldiers are convinced he or she is the ‘orrible piece of work needing extra drill. When troops overseas have been in male-only company, and a comedian is sent to entertain, invariably a small female dance troupe go along. Every man believes the impossibly unmale vision has eyes only for him. The impossibly certain pastor poses, pauses and pounces; and all believe it is to them this message is supernaturally directed. Today’s mass rally, political or religious, is held together by stagecraft and nervous expectancy.

This command-from-the-stage steers White Christianity to choose low powered targets. Conservative evangelicals sometimes gather against the arts, rather than for them. Often in protest against artful representations of Jesus. Their sensibilities are hurt. Accompanied by guitar choruses heavy with mawkish sentiment. Folk religion without any edge is prone to flat earth anything-goes-thinking.

Mr Graham I argue would privately agree with me. He cited the 20th century’s leading theological voices. Reformed protestant giants Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. They wrote a withering critique of a paganised Christianity that had become a God is Great reduction. From the story of the builder from Nazareth, White Christianity had created the Christ Idol. This figure loomed with threatening texts on the walls of Christian homes. But Mr Graham bowdlerised Barth’s critical message. Barth accused White Christianity of presenting God as a ‘simple, absolute being… a cosmic dictator’.

Instead Mr Graham postured and brought all to attention. The ancient text was a divine codex. And looking back it is possible he struggled to understand its core themes beyond headline messages. At times he held it in such a way that he feared its spontaneous combustion. Whatever I’ve got here is beyond my literal reading; I’m scared of its mysteries and you can feel my own fear. If I don’t tell you just how scared I am then we’re all in danger. His honesty was American. A lot of the genius of America is in its fronting up. George W Bush would say: ‘Iraq is a war of revenge’. No guile. Gothic bare boards of truth.

A Product Of Americana?: Chronicler of American provincial power Philip Roth wrote a response to President Richard Nixon’s politics by re-characterising “The president’s chief ally… [as] the Reverend Billy Cupcake—a stand-in for the granddaddy of the religious right” (Greenberg). A republic constantly in danger from its own energy is likely to produce figures whose popularity stems from their ability to flatten out the stark contradictions between modernity, America and Christianity.

In contrast Martin Luther King Jr read his ancient text and it was a reportage of present day Black American experience. The violence of crucifixion and exile in Egypt was another front-page story from within black communities. When George Orwell trundled out of northern English coal mining communities, his southern benefactors refused to believe Great Britons lived in abject squalor. They recoiled from its implications for their own lives and communities. Mr Graham’s rural theology was in no position to face the reality of African-American experience.

Ultimately Mr Graham’s Kingdom was a bit too much like Oz, far off and magical. And a misreading of New Testament theology. He found it hard to tell truth to charismatic ceasaresque power. He was resistant to Barth’s opus magnum. A radical new relational ecology far from the production economy at the heart of neoliberalism.

The backdrop of post-war America did not invite cool reflection. Images of ICBMs raining from open Kansas skies and America’s superpower status being erased steadily in the jungles of Vietnam kept folk flocking to apocalyptic preachers like Mr Graham. The Barth, Bultmann et al corpus argues what Mr Graham missed was the Christ Event’s metaphors. The apocalypse related to humanness in all its potential. New Testament theology was a restoration of the Human Epic. The Kingdom narrative was ‘life now’ as counter to the ennui and anomie of industrial living. Rather than ‘life future’ as captured by the American Dream and western civilisation casus foederis. That is not to say people could not find a version of Jesus through Mr Graham. But his conversion experience was devoid of Jesus the revolutionary, and Jesus the ‘essence of reality’. This figure physically and metaphorically attacked the temple complex’s alliance with Romanus Economicus. Instead newly minted evangelicals would not look at top shelf magazines again. But now they were in danger of not wanting to look if they were not careful. What the original Martin Luther might call a spiritual death by religious legalism. For both Calvin and Luther reckoned if the human spirit was not engaged then everything else was superficial nonsense.

Early on American Christianity broke off from a European magisterium and evolved into a culture that was stripped of cultural handrails. A pure liberal ‘eat what you kill’ existence. Mr Trump’s often poor Republican base is voting for tax breaks for the rich based on the remotest possibility they too might ‘make it’. Such ideological patriotism remains hidden in plain sight. It is partly fuelled by conservative Christianity’s tacit support for feudal capitalism.

Lazy preaching also fitted TV too well. America is a TV nation. Its role in shaping the national consciousness cannot be underestimated. Preachers could be dazzled by US presidents who knew the political value of a religious talisman. Mr Graham’s puritanism did not allow him to think ill of these men. They remained flawed but because they told him they meant good, and said it in homespun inflections, we should believe them. Such grand naivety set the tone for the hokey spirit. The Holy Spirit was found amongst the dust and devastation of crucifixion. A peculiarly sadistic end reserved for the detritus of the Roman World. It brooked no televisual quality as popular culture ruled the airwaves.

Preachers were spiritually formed in religious seminary climates almost unique to the US educational scene. Where private institutions proliferate. Unchecked, lecturers could avoid giving off the dank odour of intellectualism. Intellectualising was a dark European modus that would lead to the sordid perversions of liberalism. Or worse, Communism. Newly fledged college minds tended to look at nuance as if it was sexually ambiguous. An androgyny that robbed economies of their animal spirits. Much of this is found in the Make America Great Again narrative. Mr Trump, like Bill Clinton, borrowed this phrase from Ronald Reagan. It has the megaphone quality that travels to the back of the arena.

Mr Trump said earlier this year during a live briefing session: “Why is it three or four times more so for the black community” to be impacted by Covid-19? Writer Kierra Jackson noted that social media reacted with: “The white man said it, but we have been screaming this for years,” with another adding, “Blackness is not a risk factor. Anti-blackness is the comorbidity.” Also a registered nurse Kierra Jackson cites US Surgeon General Dr Jerome Adams: ‘Minorities are not more predisposed to infection “biologically or genetically,” but rather they are “socially predisposed” to it’.

What the pandemic is doing is opening spaces to recognise how White Christianity has struggled to pull its theology back from Christian nationalism and importantly an unquestioned authoritarianism.  Martin Luther King Jr argued many remain “silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” In an article by Sophie McBain the New Yorker columnist Masha Gessen talks of the pandemic as an ‘amplifier’ and that the lockdown plus protests ‘have provided a renewed sense of purpose and connection’. These are the sorts of debates that James Baldwin was surfacing back in 1963. Gessen describes this as a journey out of a tacit authoritarianism. Ultimately is the pandemic a key moment, the backing on the mirror? Of course White American Christianity is not ready to see itself. It is still too busy exporting its cultural artefacts. But this is the nature of authoritarian hegemonies. Hegemonic power is held in a constant transmission of its reasons for existence. Rome’s collapse was due to rampant inequalities as wealth was concentrated in the hands of a senatorial clique who refused to act.