The Conspiracy of Good Taste: chapter 1
A History of Good Taste
Good taste is the framework of values which the ruling class has used to keep itself on top. Rather than just an expression or celebration of superiority, it is an active agent of repression.
It would seem logical to suggest that it is the actual requirements of the oppressor role that give dominant cultures their most basic shared features, features that a dominant culture will want to camouflage. If the mechanics of oppression were clearly visible they would be all to easy to challenge.
Oppression has always gone along with exploitation but we are only just coming to understand that it is something more. Exploitation is the process by which people are paid less for their work than the value of what they produce and have no say in what they produce. The surplus value of what they produce is creamed off by the owning class. This is a definition of capitalism -- analysed rather thoroughly by Marx and tinkered with ineffectually by socialists everywhere. Driven by greed for crude short term profits it is immensely destructive and violent, but covers its own tracks well and is also unpredictably productive -- showering the planet with commodities. Some of these are very useful; some are weapons; some are wondrous gadgets; some diversionary games; some are drugs. This is the world of the Happy Shopper.
The owners control their system of exploitation and protect their own, and what they own, by means of 'oppression'. By this I mean the institutionalised mistreatment of one group by another.
Because the owning class are richer and more powerful than us they have persuaded themselves this must be because they are innately superior. The rest of us are therefore inferior. Initially using naked violence, later replaced with deft control of culture and media, this false consciousnes is driven home with such force that most of us have to a greater or lesser extent internalised it. Deep down we feel we are really unworthy turds! From this point the superiority/inferiority nexus, common to all oppression, spawns a great variety of forms.
Part of the mythology of superiority is that it is genetic, due to good breeding. There is now a broad consensus that the main differences between human beings are in general newly imposed on every generation. Also class differences are not simply a matter of imbibing different information which could then be easily corrected by offering better information. The only way class conditionings can be fixed with at least the appearance of permanence is by a more violent and somatic process of encryption. A process which entails damage to the integrity of our organism.
The only way people can be persuaded that they are inferior is through violent and persistent abuse. Although these events have been normalised to the extent that they seem only natural or inevitable.
If we get hurt there are two rational courses of action. Once the danger is past, the first is to heal from the hurt. Emotional healing is accompanied spontaneously by physiological phenomena such as crying, shaking, laughter and lively non repetitive talking. Once this is finished, and it can be quite a prolonged and social process, the next logical step is to change your world so that this does not happen again. For oppression to exist it is essential that these two processes have to be systematically inhibited.
If healing cannot occur the hurts are retained in the memory. This storage of hurt interferes with our functioning in matters associated with the original memory. This interference takes several forms:
1. It numbs us or makes us forget.
2. It confuses our thinking or functioning (causing dis-ease).
3. It causes irrational or perverse behaviour.
So, what might humans be like without the weight of this heritage of oppression? I think they would be highly adaptive, flexibly intelligent, culturally inventive, more cooperative and much less destructive and violent.
A relatively straight-forward example might be in the eating patterns of my own history. It's taken me forty years to move towards a non-rigid but more rational food intake that actually responds to my real present time physical needs. Only two generations back my Granny had times in her young life when famine was a real possibility. After ten children had been born her father died leaving Great Granny Johnson to fend for herself with no social security. In common with many rural people food was supplemented by such means as gleaning. I can imagine her excitement when she went into service as a pastry cook. Many people at this time did not have ovens and food was generally boiled. It must have been a real treat to eat cakes and pastries. Now, my mother still makes lots of delicious pastries, cakes and puddings which have a profound appeal to me. As a child I was incessantly told to eat all my food up because the people in Africa were starving. Amazing value was placed on 'a clean plate' and a 'good appetite'. The point is that these things are not very far away in a lot of our lives. My occupation means that I spend many hours seated in front of a computer, but often I eat much more than this activity requires. It has been the old hurts associated with food, which go back to anxiety about starvation, that have been passed on to me by a complex chain of mealtime behaviours. Patterns of hurt are handed down through generations, often in coded ways, if they are not resolved.
On a wider scale our society's addiction to sugar can be traced back to abuse on a much grander scale. Black colonial slaves producing cheap energy food, with no nutritional value, for the working classes back in Britain. There are more sweet taste buds on the tongues of young people, and children are particularly vulnerable to this legacy of slavery. Our daily life is impregnated with behaviours which are perversions of our desires caused by abuse. When abuse distorts our instinctual desires, such as for food, speech or sex, it is particularly deep rooted and resistant to change.
Apparently the recovery processes are never lost, only more or less repressed. It also seems that the majority, and perhaps all, of the accumulated hurts may be healed by these processes (see Jackins, 1978). Human functioning is always tending to find ways towards the expression and resolution of these buried hurts. This was, perhaps, Sigmund Freud's most important insight.
The oppressors, the dominant class, must therefore hurt other people, or actively maintain a system of hurtful conditioning, to persuade people that they are inferior. Now, it is not possible to inflict suffering on large numbers of people without repressing certain inborn human sensibilities. A human who has not been hurt hirself would resist hurting other people. This repression of the human sensibility can itself only be achieved and maintained through hurtful conditioning. This must also include the suppression of healing or recovery processes. It is conditioning such as this that prepares the youth of the dominant classes for their role. The basic principles are the same for any dominant oppressor group, whether it be adults, men or the owning class.
For upper class culture the key thing is therefore the suppression of a sympathetic emotional response towards the condition of the majority of people. The famous upper class 'stiff-upper-lip'. With men, a similar emotional restriction, is known as machismo -- "big boys don't cry." The superior class is characteristed by its cool intellectual responses and pleasures. This emotional anaesthetic must be carried out early in life whilst the human is vulnerable. In preparation for their future roles, ruling class young people are systematically and viciously hurt.
This cool, detatched, intellectual identity is then presented to the whole of society not only as characteristic of superiority but as a model to which anybody who wishes to assume human status, become a real man, be a respectable citizen, be normal and so on must aspire. These are the first universal principles of all oppressor cultures. A young man who expresses painful emotion may be told not 'to be such a woman' or 'not to be a baby'.
The next level of oppressor culture entails a withdrawal and distancing from the productive roles and lives of those in the inferior class. Characteristics associated with physical work are devalued. For example dirt, especially dirty hands and dirty fingernails, are associated with the working class. They are the people that get their hands dirty. Many of the characteristics of working class being become repugant to the upper classes. On the other hand the activities which characterise the oppressive role are given positive values; elevated posture, slow glances, restraint, lack of agitation or eagerness, even sitting still! A reserved disengagement. This adds up to a complete inability to perceive the real lives of the majority of people. The facts are replaced with myths and stereotypes which are a projection of the subjectivities of the ruling classes.
So, both oppressor and oppressed are reduced by the process. These principles which underly the reproduction of oppression frame the cultural production that is possible with the excess wealth and leisure available to the oppressor through the processes of exploitation. This value stolen from the lower classes and accumulated by the upper, as well described in classic socialist theory, inevitably produces an impressive culture of opulence. Wealth can be used to produce what is known in Britain as excellence. Excellence is that extra skill and attention to detail, complexity and judgement that can be put into works of culture, when the artist can focus on the work full-time. The production of this excellence has often been claimed as justification enough for all the evils of exploitation, but we find that this claim is made by those who do not really know the people they are talking about. This top layer of oppressor culture is often rich with 'life affirming' content but serves to camouflage and disguise the underlying oppression. This fine icing hides the rotten interior of the cake.
How does this process affect those of us that are the target for this oppression? If a person has been deeply hurt and they are denied a rational response, it seems that they tend to act out the hurt on someone else. This has recently been recognised in the gradual uncovering of child abuse. Child abusers have it seems always been abused themselves. We do not understand yet exactly why this is so, but it is a widely recognised phenomenon which could help explain how oppression is maintained with the minimum of force. The non-owners are not only hurt by acts of oppression but will then often look for other people who they can debase and so feel superior to -- seeking, in this way, some apparent relief for their own intolerable feeling of inferiority. This `cycle of abuse' then divides the non-owners into an endless array of further conflicting factions. We are all caught up to our necks in this mire.
The whole of society becomes ranked with everyone feeling superior and inferior to someone else. It would be funny were the results in human suffering not so hideous.
Oppression can be defined as the institutionalised and culturally integrated devaluation and systematic abuse of a particular class of people by another class of people. In a consumer society, which has generally overcome base necessity, oppression -- and the misery and dis-ease it causes -- is still rampant and is the most urgent thing in the way of human flourishing.
The good news is that, to an as yet unknown degree, we can recover from most if not all of our early hurts, at any stage in our life -- we still have all our power intact, it is just occluded. It seems that if the true nature of our reality can be demonstrated with sufficient vividness the process of healing takes place spontaneously. At such times we feel in touch with our real power.
The public places where I have most vividly experienced this contradiction of the false reality of oppression are Portsmouth at the time of the student take-over of my college and Brixton during the 1981 riots. The most widespread example I have witnessed shows how these things do not always happen in a politically right-on context! When the first non-Italian Pope for centuries returned home to Poland he gave the whole country what amounted to a massive pep talk, reminding Poles of their inherent dignity and persistent struggles against the most vicious oppressors and invaders. He reminded them that, as battered and defeated as they had been, they had survived, they were still intact, they still had their dignity, they were good people and still capable of realising their freedom. People could be observed on television crying openly. Hundreds of thousands of people broke down and cried maybe for the first time, as adults, at these 'sermons'. I know this is difficult for non Poles to understand, as the difference between observing emotions and feeling them is critical. A few years later Solidarnosc appeared and I am convinced that this event, which itself contradicted Poles' second class European status, was causal.
"The first pilgrimage by John Paul II to Poland in 1979 considerably contributed to producing an atmosphere in which a year later Solidarity could emerge" (Dialogue & Humanism, 1991).
From now on I will focus on the dominant culture of the owning classes in Europe. I will begin this story with the European royal courts in which the sovereigns scaled new heights of wealth and power. They did this with correspondingly increased levels of insensitivity, distance and falsehood.
Balthazar Gracian was a writer on French aristocratic courtly taste of the period immediately preceding the rise of the bourgeoisie. In El Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudentia (1647) he wrote of the requirement of those in court to disguise themselves and present only the appearance required by convention and the sovereign. They had to "cultivate a happy spontaneity". There were no formal rules, taste was meant to be intrinsic to a particular type of human. Taste was the "Je ne sais quoi", the indefinable quality of superiority innate to those with good breeding. It was important that it was played out intuitively otherwise it would have been too wooden -- yet it was still a facade of appearances generated around the myth of superiority, by the power of the aristocracy. This creation of happiness, by the coercion of the behaviour and appearance of those around you, is a powerful force which on the one hand represses the expression of hurt, and on the other led to the modern expression of glamour.
Even in the provincial court of princes and feudal barons we find "the manner of social intercourse, the expression of emotion, indeed the emotions themselves... all these are stereotyped... within the bounds of more or less rigid conventions" (Hauser, 1951, p.189).
Given the distributive power of modern media, this hell of smiley faces is now imposed on all. The world rather than being a global village is more like a decadent bourgeois version of an aristocratic royal court. This fake happiness, which masked a terror of the King or Queen, was one key aspect of aristocratic culture. Another was the code of honour and its ritual resolution of conflict, duelling.
The inhumanity that a class society requires of its rulers is not only channelled from class to class, it is a general pyschosis which can be directed at anyone who gets in the way. This is illustrated by the history of duelling. Although it was banned in the British army in 1844, the custom continued in Russia and Germany until the 1920s or later. During the 18th century in England it rivalled foxhunting as the favourite bloodsport of the upper classes.
"It was condemmed by Queen Elisabeth's Privy Council some years later but to little effect, for by this time it was considered a social accomplishment and therefore subject to the usual social pressures despite being denounced as little more than 'illustrious and honourable murders' -- presumably up and coming young blades would rather run the risk of being called murderers than be without honour ... It was this code of honour which acted like a pyschological spur against so many reluctant flanks, forcing normally rational and pacific men to risk their lives for what were by modern standards often the most trivial of reasons" (Loose, 1983, p.3).
Sometimes these reasons were simply minor breaches of etiquette, showing the fear and tension running below the surface of this society. On one occasion a man hit another's dog, on another a remark was considered impertinent. Both incidents resulted in fatal duels.
Dr Johnson commented: "He, then, who fights a duel, does not fight from passion against his antagonist, but out of self-defence; to avert the stigma of the world, and to prevent himself from being driven out of society" (quoted by Loose, 1983, p.4).
This shows how powerful and deep is our desire to be an acceptable part of society. It is this same instinct which drives reasonable people to take part in massacres or be guards in concentration camps. It is this desire to be part of society and the corresponding fear of being outcast that largely maintains our society ordered by taste.
The emphasis on the sublimation of passion is typical of upper class culture. "I cannot impress upon an individual too strongly the propriety of remaining perfectly calm when hit; he must not allow himself to be alarmed or confused; but summoning up all his resolution, treat the matter coolly; and, if he dies, go off with as good grace as possible" (The Art of Duelling, 1836, quoted by Loose, 1983, p.5).
The lower class Evangelistic movement called it "the ultimate expression of the code of honour by which the upper classes lived ... The lower classes did not conduct affairs of honour, having none: they conducted brawls, fortunately for them, as Hannah More, a leading Evangelist, pointed out: 'Honour is the religion of tragedy'" (Loose, 1983, p.3).
If duelling was a ritual by which the owning class resolved conflicts, then working class ritual of conflict resolution was called 'Rough Music' in Britain (E.P.Thompson, 1991). Someone who broke social codes of morality was ritually disgraced and, in extreme cases, driven out by the action of a crowd, who visited the home of the perpetrator armed with noise making instruments and created a rumpus to publicise their misdemeanours. This could be cruel and unjust, it could be a vehicle for communal bigotry -- occasionally people were physically hurt. The intention however was clearly the displacement of violence, the venting of anger, not upon the person of the victim, but in ritual form.
Duelling involves a sublimation of emotion whereas Rough Music is an attempt to express emotion. The great potential of working class cultures is that they tends to incorporate a more healthy expression of necessary emotion. This is also true of any oppressor cultures eg women or blacks. These practices are important as they may contain the seeds which we may be able to cultivate to recover from the legacy of oppression.
The medieval nobles had a need of a culture of war to maintain their dominance over their subjects. This violence, which was available to be unleashed on the subject population, was demonstrated and developed in warfare against other nobles and sovereign towns. Without a productive apparatus and spurning the new bourgeois accomplishments of trade, finance and manufacture, war was the main way that wealth could be increased.
War was so central to the maintenance of the status quo that the ability to wage war had to be valued above purely hereditary claims to nobility. Skill in the art of arms was a pathway to upward mobility. Brave deeds in battle could be rewarded with land, title, plunder and, above all, honour. This potential, if rare, upward mobility by virtue of arms would also serve to warn the European ruling classes against going soft and becoming vulnerable to revolution and barbarism.
Chivalry offered a set of values which regulated this noble violence. Chivalry was the code by which a noble's violence was dressed up in civilised garb. The greatest honour was held to be death or glory on the battlefield. It was essential that this was stage managed in order to be witnessed by the right audience or nothing was achieved.
The culture of chivalry also included heraldry, chivalric orders, tournaments and the courtly demeanour. Taken to its logical conclusion the cult of chivalry resulted in 'man as a fighting machine' with few surviving human qualities. He disliked music and dance, did not sing or hunt, was indifferent to love-making (Vale, 1981, p.163). Here was 'the knight in shining armour', the great model of manhood.
The democratic technology of firearms and the resulting depersonalisation of war during the later 15th century caused individual combat, a crucial source of glory for the noble, to die out. The rise of the duel in the 16th century seems to have been the compensation.
As aristocratic rule reached its apogee in Europe, there was developing a new class of merchants and factory owners whose interest was different to that of the aristocracy, whose wealth was based on the ownership and control of land. Land ownership profoundly underlies the interests and values of aristocratic culture. The productivity of the new class arose from the discoveries of science and reason. Knowledge became embodied in printed books and reified as industry. The ensuing products were exchanged through the medium of money. Reason, books and money became central to the outlook and culture of this new class.
The rational project of science was led by 'men of genius' who, by observing and measuring the natural world, discovered universally applicable laws. Applied in combination these rules gave rise to a vastly increased productivity. Understandably some of these men applied their methods of thinking to understand human functioning, both on the individual and social level using reason to speculate on those matters that could not be objectively measured; this gave rise to modern philosophy.
Thomas Hobbes was one of the earliest modern philosophers at a time in which the power of the sovereign was still absolute. In his book Leviathan, published in1651, he described his belief that society would be chaotic and that but for the presence of the sovereign, "concord amongst men is artificial" (Caygill, 1989, p.21). He observed that the sovereign clearly did not order society any more by direct coercive force but by hir influence as a personification of order. It was the image of the sovereign which was all important and the people's belief in this image that united them -- "Leviathan is figured as individuals united into a single body through their gaze at its face" (Caygill, 1989, p.24).
The people had come to believe in the 'divine right of kings' -- that the sovereign was naturally superior and necessary. Once this belief was internalised there was less need for naked violence. Hobbes argued against this divine right but also supported the sovreign against parliament.
The diversity of human beings united in their belief in the sovereign was seen as similar to the operation of the imagination which unifies the manifold of sensory impressions in a single thought or image. He then suggested that the political system was a natural and inevitable outcome of human functioning. The use of this analogy, which is referred to as if it proved that there is a real causal connection between the nature of human physiology and political structure, became a key ruse in the development of bourgeois philosophy.
Hobbes' Leviathan also revealed the fragility of the spectacle and the cultural forces which kept it intact.
"Should their gaze turn away from the spectacle and towards each other, then the illusion of stage would be destroyed along with their unity as an audience. The unification of diversity follows from individuals in the audience producing the illusion which constitutes them as an audience" (Caygill, p.24).
Middle Class Taste
In the development of Middle Class culture, philosophy became an important ritual of justification and training for their own intellectuals. The rational project and its progeny, science, demonstrated a vast superiority over magic and religion as a stimulus to productivity and as a means to achieve social control. The old intuitive systems had been overwhelmed by the new rational consciousness. The victorious mercantile and industrialist class claimed this power of reason as their birthright. It was the cause of their superiority, the key to their wealth. They stereotyped their whole class as primarily intellectual and rational beings. Just as the 'higher' faculties held the 'lower' emotions and sensualities in tight control so the higher classes controlled the lower. The people not in this upper class, who were by definition inferior, were supposd not to have this intellectual faculty. They were not yet civilised and like animals were supposed to be characterised by their sensory, emotional, sexual, instinctive and intuitive behaviour. The thing that made humans distinct from animals was their ability to reason with language. People who could not demonstrate these civilised characteristics were considered not fully human. The old badge of class superiority honour and chivalry (ie violence) was overtaken by the new - an abstract and detached intellectualism expressed through reading, writing and arithmetic.
The laws of science produced by rational thinking were seen to be universally valid. As the new bourgeoisie came to identify themselves as the source of this power it is easy to see how they then began to believe that their culture was also superior and destined to be adopted universally.
This new emphasis on reason, claimed as the sole possession of the owning class, produced an awkward contradiction. Although rational thought was capable of logical analysis and exposition it was not useful in making judgements of value. A system of values is at the heart of all cultures. We are motivated and prioritise our actions by what we value most highly. Although it is possible to value some things in an objective, and so rational way, most things like manners, art, beauty or style, can only be evaluated intuitively.
So rational and logical thought might drive the world of science and technology very effectively but it was intuition which was needed to pass the 'final' judgement. As intuition was a 'lower' faculty, this contradiction threatened the theoretical justification of the dominance of the rational.
Art became central to covering up this flaw in the superiority of the rational -- and so the dominance of the higher faculties over the lower. Art was the place were the correct intuitive judgements were enshrined. The broader set of values which celebrated bourgeoise wealth and masked the malignant source of that wealth was taste. Taste is a total system of values which ranks every part of social life, philosophy itself has to be expressed in tasteful terms. This meant a lack of thought about emotion and silence on the sufferings of exploited peoples. The relation of reason to sense, the higher faculties to the lower, became a useful analogy for speaking of class relations -- when it would have been too vulgar to speak directly of naked and violent oppression.
On the one hand philosophy was a search for truth, a rational analysis of the human condition, on the other it was itself a cultural ritual whose function was to provide a justification for the status quo or to provide a critique with its long term survival in mind. As a ritual it revels in conceptual gymnastics and mind boggling abstraction. All too often these delights become an end in themselves which are more of a celebration of detachment than intelligence. (see Bourdieu, 1979 p. 496).
The British Tradition of Taste and Civility
Cumberland was concerned at the fragility of Hobbes' system which relied on the ability of the individual sovereign to maintain this mesmeric spectacle and gave too much power to the King alone. In keeping with the scientific tendencies of this time Cumberland suggested (1672) that sovereignty had to be based on a law of nature which ordered such rights. This law was recognised as the 'common good'. It was to be administered by every citizen (the definition of citizen at this time was synonymous with the dominant class). The citizens perceived the 'common good' from two sources; from scientifically discovered principles and from their own inner sentiments -- especially that of `benevolence'. The final judgement, on the proportions in which these two sources of knowledge were applied, was ordered by God's will, also known as providence or the `je ne sais quoi' which, speaking through the morality or conscience of the upper classes, was supposed to direct the judgements of `good taste.'
This radical shift from the all powerful sovereign to the all powerful civil society directed by a code of taste, first articulated by Cumberland in 1672, was to become the basis of British civil society. It laid the foundations for the persistent compromise between aristocratic taste and the demands of the new bourgeois 'middle' class.
Lord Shaftesbury confirmed this profound transition in the regulation of society. He followed Cumberland, but his "rhapsodic and dialogical" writing did much to widen knowledge of the theory. Through the burgeoning print industry the rituals of philosophical debate spread out from the learned schools into civil society. Shaftesbury followed a triple theme of:
Providence or cosmic law, which gives rise to... The 'beautiful order' of things, which in turn, imbues humans with...
The capacity to recognise and act according to that order.
The accuracy of this recognition is dependent on the faculty of taste. "We know that every creature has a private good and interest of his own, which nature has compelled him to seek, by all the advantages offered him within the compass of his make" (An Inquiry Concerning Virtue, 1711, quoted by Caygill, 1989).
This private good and interest, guided by the faculty of taste, was argued to coincide with the 'common good', so it was argued that if the ruling class followed their own interest the 'common good' would result.
Private and public interest are therefore argued to coincide. The difference between the private interests of the ruling class and the public interest of the people was repressed. Whatever the good citizens did, within the frame of taste, in their own interest, would be best for all people in the end.
The beauty evident in art suggested the 'good proportions' of taste generally. It was seen to demonstrate the virtue of good taste. Shaftesbury equated proportional harmonies perceived through the senses, in art, with a 'sense of proportion' about more complex matters quite abstracted from direct perception. This kind of dubious analogy became important in the discussion of taste and judgement.
Bernard Mandeville then challenged Shaftesbury in his Fable of the Bees (1723). Mandeville bluntly suggested that beauty and virtue were in fact "screens for desire and appetite, masks of domination and not the greatest realities eulogised by the philosophical lord". Mandeville goes on to point out that Shaftesbury's civil harmony and unity can only be achieved through deception and violence. "Mandeville replaces the je ne sais quoi with a cynical I know only to well; in place of providence he puts the manipulative politician" (both Caygill, 1989, p.52).
Frances Hutcheson attempted a defence of Shaftesbury, in 1755, by repressing the difference between sense and idea (and so private interest and public good) still further. This appears to lead him into deeper water in which 'the common good' blatantly covers gross exploitation: "And yet perhaps no law could be more effectual to promote a general industry, and restrain sloth and idleness in the lower conditions, than making perpetual slavery of this sort the ordinary punishment of such idle vagrants"( Caygill, 1989, p.61).
The contradiction between the beauty of art and the violence required to coerce labour evokes the 'je ne sais quoi'. The highest beauty requires a coercion of labour in order to accumulate the necessary wealth. So if we accept beauty as desirable and the highest aspect of God's will, then exploitation must be a sacrificial part of his grand scheme!
David Hume is notable in his early works (1739) for attempting to relate reason to sense, with its implication of class relations, without recourse to God or 'providence'. He produced a theory of social formation in which 'sympathy' for our fellows is mirrored from one person to another. Pleasure in this process indicates utility and the general abstracted result of this process results in taste, a kind of sum of the mirroring of individual sensibilities. This implied that taste was a social construction which came from the consensus of a particular class. He got little response to this work and later, in 1757 returned to the conventional 'God given' reason for the regularity of good taste. Presumably the dominant class at this time also thought language and culture was created by God rather than evolved by humans.
Hume's sceptical approach produced two main responses, one from Burke, famous for his later remark on "the swinish multitude" made in his Reflections on the French Revolution of 1790. (It was this book which provoked Tom Paine to write The Rights of Man the following year.) It is sufficient to say here that Burke restated the providential nature of the relation between the classes. The other more influential response was from Adam Smith.
Adam Smith, who wrote his ‘Wealth of Nations’ in 1776, embraced the God given 'je ne sais quoi' and pointed out that production was too complex a matter to be planned. He used the example of the labourer's coarse and rough woolen coat to illustrate the social complexity of the production of even a simple item -- to argue for the self organising nature of a free market over an unwieldy planned economy -- for the regulation of society through taste rather than legislation. The long term goals of human development were to be seen as God's responsibility, a god who guided human progress with his `invisible hand'.
Man should only attend to the immediate means of producing wealth rather than the ends. Of course this gave the capitalists unlimited licence. Apart from justifying any extreme of exploitation it was a recipe for future ecological disaster. As we are now only too well aware, a benign God is not at the helm of the great oil tanker of capitalism.
Smith argued that a society that is driven to produce wealth by the contemplation of means, by the infinite mental pleasures of taste, first has less need of policing and state intervention, as there is a general encouragement of good manners; and, secondly, replaces that desire which is directly related to our finite needs with a new desire harnessed to the imagination.
A notable aspect of Smith was his assertion that proportion is achieved by each class in society following their own interest, as each class suffered from a lack of concern for the whole. The landowners didn't have regard for the whole because of their sloth, the bourgeoisie because of their self-interest and the workers because of lack of time and, "his education and habits are commonly such as to render him unfit to judge" (quoted by Caygill, 1984, p.96). However if each followed its self-interest, within the dictates of taste, then the result would be 'in balance'.
The trade unions that subsequently flourished in the belly of the Empire did indeed become a part of an equation of increasing production, which led to material gains for certain sections of the British working class. But the frame of taste always limited the unions' demands from posing a threat to the whole system.
There are serious deficiencies in the market model of relating supply to demand expounded by Smith. An example is the observed fact that market forces mean that food tends to be exported away from famine regions. "Adam Smith's proposition is, in fact, concerned with efficiency in meeting market demand, but it says nothing on meeting the need that has not been translated into effective demand because of lack of market based entitlement and shortage of purchasing power" (Sen, 1981).
"It was Adam Smith's achievemement to shift the terms of analysis from a language of rights to a language of markets" (Thompson, 1991).
The grounds cleverly laid and landscaped by Cumberland, Shaftesbury and Adam Smith provide the canon for the British society we inherit today. It certainly provided the theoretical justification of the deep ground of value on which the men considered later in the body of this book stood.
German Aesthetics and the State
In contrast to Britain the unification of small kingdoms happened much later in German history. This was achieved through the system of 'Polizei' which called for bureaucratic administration, militarisation of social relations, the uniting of politics and economics and a directing image of metaphysical perfection. Polizei derived from the administrative innovations of Burgundy and France in the 15th century and entered Germany as imperial police ordinances issued from the Hapsburg court. This was then widely taken up by the territorial princes in the 17th century. These methods were used to centralise the state and contain the privileges of the aristocracy and the independent cities. In this process philosophy was used to systematise the diverse pragmatic origins of the Polizeiwissenschaft and also to train the cadres of the bureaucracy.
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a remarkable scientist and contemporary of Hobbes, was the first German philosopher of this period. His lifelong ambition was to create a rational jurisprudence (a canon of law) which was intended as the key to the true politics of happiness. Central to this was a concept of aesthetic perfection as the metaphysical foundation of justice. This was so thoroughly established it became "the most important concept of German philosophy in the 18th century and remained fundamental to the German enlightenment until challenged by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason" (Caygill, 1989, p.126).
Leibniz's concept of perfection was dynamic and reached for a harmony of freedom and justice within the Christian ethic of love. This ideal was not politically feasible so it ended up as a morality enforced under obligation of law. In line with the Lutheran changes of the Reformation the powers of the ecclesiastical courts passed to the temporal ruler and were administered by police.
Christian Wolff published an extensive and pedantically cross referenced system from 1713 to 1721. This was dominated by the higher judgement of reason which ordered the 'lower sensibilities'. This was carried analogously through to his political justification, in which the social realisation of perfection was the rational sovereign who legislated the activity of the lower orders for the 'common good'.
"The authority of the state is presented to the lower faculty or the 'common people' in a way that will ensure their obedience, but which cannot possibly contribute to their enlightenment or enable them to assume the responsibilities of autonomy" (Caygill, 1989, p.139).
The sordid violence by which the upper class individual relates to the masses, by which the population is forced to conform, is meanwhile disguised in the finery of metaphysical first principles and abstract analogy.
Leibnitz had written in Latin and this made his work exclusive. When Martin Luther had nailed his theses to the chapel door in Wittenberg in 1517, they were printed in German. The furious and widespread debates of the Reformation that followed did much to speed the growth of both German literacy and print capitalism. The success of Protestantism was largely based on the use of the expanding vernacular print market. Wolff, writing in his native language, translated a dictionary of philosophical terms and, like Shaftesbury, generally made philosophical discourse much more widely available. However the concepts he took from Leibnitz lost much of their original subtlety. According to Caygill his concept of perfection was a caricature of the Leibnitzian original and this goes also for his metaphysics, which was generally read through Wolff. "Wolff transformed Leibnitz's dynamic relation of unity and manifold back into a spatial relationship of part and whole ... grievously misrepresenting Liebnitzs position" (Caygill, 1989, p.126).
However, the fact that art required a judgement of its perfection outside reason threatened Wolff's whole edifice. The pleasures of art "consist in intuiting a work's perfection, yet such intuitive perception of perfection is fallible. In order to avoid deception it is necessary to know the rules of a perfection, yet once this knowledge is gained the perception is no longer intuitive" (Caygill, 1989, p.134).
Alexander Baumgarten produced his Reflections on Poetry in 1735 and was soon to become the leading Wolffian. This quote from his Aesthetica of 1750 summarises his liberal position:
"a) It is not necessary to tyrannise the lower faculties, but to guide them;
b) In so far as it can, aesthetics will undertake this guidance;
c) The aesthetician does not want to excite and confirm the corruption of the lower faculties, but to order them properly so that they do not become more corrupted through abuse, for one must avoid their misuse without suppressing a divinely bestowed talent."
This paternalism reminds me very much of the attitudes of the British philanthropists of the nineteenth century. It is all about the wise management of the working classes as a productive resource.
Johann Herder then transformed Baumgarten's aesthetic into a philosophy of culture under the modern headings of psychology, art and history. He had a "vision of 'proportion' as a dynamic economy produced by the free exercise of human judgement" (Caygill, 1989, p.177). In this he recaptured the insightful meaning of proportion achieved by Leibnitz from its crude interpretation by Wolff. His own solution to the 'unification of the manifold' or to the schism of reason and intuition and its implications for class division, was to propose a totalising and fundamental concept of reflection.
Herder's philosophy of art, focused on sculpture, rather than poetry or painting, was published in 1778 as Plastik.
"On the title page of Plastik Herder slaps the 'epoch of beauty' in the face with a sentence from Diogenes Laertes -- `What is beauty? -- that's a blindman's question.' In the text he overturns the German Enlightenment's visual paradigm of the clear and distinct perception of a perfection in favour of a notion of perfection as `form' or proportion which is produced and experienced through the entire economy of the senses. The distortion of this economy in favour of visual perception contributes to the creation of an `ophthalmit' culture which, with thousands of eyes, without feeling, without probing (tasten) hand, remains all the time in Plato's cave with no concept of any physical characteristics" (Caygill, 1989, p.180).
"Beauty is only transparency, form, sensible experience of purposive perfection, vivacity, human health. The more a part signifies what it should signify, the more beautiful it is. And only inner sympathy, that is feeling and the transposition of our ego into the thoroughly probed shape (durchtastete Gestalt) is the guide and familiar of beauty" (Herder, 1778).
Earlier, in his Yet Another Philosophy of History (1774) he "unmasks the 'philosophically ruled' state as the denial of freedom and judgement: 'In its totality and in its minutest parts, it is entirely controlled by the thought of its master' (p.200). It arrests history, and imposes a pattern upon society as if upon a blank canvas in which 'each man is to wear the uniform of his station in life, to be a perfect cog in a perfect machine'" (Herder, quoted by Caygill, 1989, p.183).
Herder is a powerful radical thinker but he does not break out of the mind cage of taste, although he describes it in acute detail. He is followed by Kant who reaches the heights of finesse in elegant abstractions, acrobatic justifications and most importantly, in the consistency of his discourse.
Immanuel Kant's body of thought represents the maturing of the Enlightenment's opposition to the conventions and traditions of the landowning class and Church in feudal Europe by the end of the sixteenth century. It was a grand confluence of the British and German traditions of philosophy and it formally established the basis of the liberal ethos, which is so much a part of our thinking and common sense, that it is invisible. The meanings of important concepts like equality, respect, freedom, free-will, human dignity, morality, individuality and rights were established by Kant.
We have to keep in mind the enormity of the shift from feudal culture to appreciate the advances marked by Kant's formulations. A limited but significant proportion of the population was encouraged to think for itself, to throw of the shackles of superstition and emotional reaction and to rely on its individual reasoning powers, to derive its way of living, their morality.
"Man in the system of nature (homo phaenomenon, animal rationale) is a being of slight importance and shares with the rest of the animals, as offspring of the earth, a common value (pretium vulgare). Although man has, in his reason, something more than they and can set his own ends, even this gives him only an extrinsic value in terms of his usefulness (pretium usus). This extrinsic value is the value of one man above another - that is, his price as a ware that can be exchanged for these other animals, as things. But, so concieved, man still has a lower value than the universal medium of exchange, the value of which can therefore be called pre-eminent (pretium eminens)
"But man regarded as person -- that is, as the subject of morally practical reason -- is exalted above any price, for as such (homo noumenon) he is not to be valued as a mere means to the ends of others or even to his own ends, but as an end in himself. He possesses, in other words, a dignity (an absolute inner worth) by which he exacts respect for himself from all other rational beings in the world: he can measure himself with every other being of this kind and value himself on a footing of equality with them" (Kant, Doctrine of Virtue, p.434, quoted in Seidler, 1986).
If one could become an autonomous rational being in this way, the realm of reason was seen to offer a human dignity which was the basis of freedom. Kant's body of thought offered considerable internal logical consistency, which gave it stature, but this was achieved at great cost.
The irrationality of our liberal capitalism can paradoxically be traced back to Kant's very rigid adherence to rationality. It is hard for us to appreciate just how integral the paradigm of 'mind over matter' was to the development of capitalism. There was no way that even the sharpest brain of the era could express ideas outside the territory mapped by this fundamental worship of reason and the consequent debasement of 'matter'.
The leading role of mind over the lower faculties of the body meant that reason dominated the emotions. Kantian thought, therefore, fragmented our selves between our emotional, feeling, intuitive base nature and our higher faculty of reason. The emotions were not simply under the control of reason but were utterly repressed and worthless in relation to human dignity. This was an extension of the tradition of oppressor culture -- it was Kants' achievement to embed a monumental formulation of this definition of rationality in the foundations of capitalist consciousness. "The deep antagonism between morality as a creation of reason and our emotions, feelings, desires and needs still organises our liberal moral consciousness" (Seidler, 1986, p.138. See also p.153).
In his book ‘Kant, Respect and Injustice’, Seidler often refers to Kant's limitations in terms of his perception.
"He was forced to face the realities of human dependency though he never learned to think about this systematically" (p.75); "But it always remained difficult for Kant to consider fully social relations of inequality as proper objects of moral assessment" (p.82); "He does not really develop a full sense of the ways people are hurt" (p.113); "his moral rationalism only dimly percieved the nature of the difficulties people faced" (p.161). (My emphasis).
Remembering the model of oppression described earlier, we can see that this is likely to be another example of the numbness that people of the dominant class must have to be effective in their positions of power. Seidler also quotes Simone Weil who also observes this numb characteristic of the oppressor:
"The first form of lie is covering up oppression, of flattering the oppressors. This form of lie is very common amongst honest people, who in other ways are good and sincere, but who do not realise what they are doing. Human beings are so made that the ones that do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand" (Weil, 1978, p.139).
Yet it should be possible for anyone to empathise with the oppressed, as each of us has, at the very least, experienced oppression as children!
Even when the Enlightenment philosophical tradition did produce its inevitable negation and Marx looked at the origins of what is consumed, and the financial basis of middle class power was clearly described, we end up with something which is still from the mind cage of one class -- which is expressed predominantly in the cultural codes of that class ... money and book knowledge. It does not relate to the daily cultural experience of those who would be liberated. It does not empower the lives and struggle of the oppressed. Marx produced a grand narrative which explained economic exploitation but did not find the heart of working class liberation. Its very stature, as a heroic monument to the intellectual negation of bourgeois culture, became used as a diversion from the development of working class intellectual autonomy, the only really effective contradiction of oppression.
The Communist Manifesto states that "the middle class shapes the world after its own image". The Great British tradition of taste made sure that all efforts were put in to persuade the working classes to aspire to a pale imitation of this image instead of being pround to be themselves.
A radical critique of the way class power was mediated through civil society was not articulated until the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned by Mussolini in the 1930s and worked out his theory of hegemony on toilet paper.
At the end of the day philosophers "short of jeopardising their own existence as philosophers and the symbolic powers ensuing from this title... can never carry through the breaks which imply a practical epoche of the thesis of the existence of philosophy, that is, a denouncement of the tacit contract defining the conditions of membership in the field" (Bourdieu, 1979, p.469).
And anyway, today philosophers do not have the same position at the centre of productive society as they did at the time of Hobbes or Leibniz.