Friday, 24 April 2015

The reign of committees

Committees under whatever name, clubs, syndicates, &c., constitute perhaps the most redoubtable danger resulting from the power of crowds. They represent in reality the most impersonal and, in consequence, the most oppressive form of tyranny.

The leaders who direct the committees being supposed to speak and act in the name of a collectivity, are freed from all responsibility, and are in a position to do just as they choose. The most savage tyrant has never ventured even to dream of such proscriptions as those ordained by the committees of the Revolution.

Barras has declared that they decimated the convention, picking off its members at their pleasure. So long as he was able to speak in their name, Robespierre wielded absolute power. The moment this frightful dictator separated himself from them, for reasons of personal pride, he was lost.

The reign of crowds is the reign of committees, that is, of the leaders of crowds. A severer despotism cannot be imagined.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

Government power sits in a vast number of committees, most members of which are unelected, many being outside the UK even though their deliberations affect our lives. Even if we drag ourselves to the polling booth in May, even if we persuade ourselves it is worthwhile, we still have such realities contend with.

To vote as effectively as possible we should probably vote for whoever promises to be the best committee member, the person most likely to sit on lots of them and say something sensible every now and then. In which case, political parties are best ignored – vote for the person most likely to be a moral and boringly enthusiastic committee member.

Moral? Strewth, where did that word come from?

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Those deliberate illusions

Sometimes her ardent imagination concealed things from her, but never did she have those deliberate illusions which cowardice induces.
Stendhal - La Chartreuse de Parme (1839).

An extremely pointed quote. Have you ever explained your own behaviour in a way which is far too lenient towards your motives? I have. It’s one of those deliberate illusions which cowardice induces.

It’s probably a factor in voting too. I vote ConLabLib because... Perhaps we are just too cowardly to sustain a worthwhile democracy.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015



What then is good? The knowledge of things. What is evil? The lack of knowledge of things.
Seneca - Epistulae morales ad Lucilium c. 65 AD

One thing I notice about web commentary is how professionals can be somewhat reserved about their professions. It is far from being universal, but I often sense a degree of caution or reticence when it comes to matters closely linked to professional background.

Teachers for example. There must be a vast amount they could say about a centralised curriculum, bureaucracy, political correctness, inspections, paperwork, parents, politics and child welfare. Teachers are hardly silent on these issues, but somehow I feel that this most central profession doesn’t say what needs to be said.

As a grandparent I have the impression that all is not well with education. The supposed problems are not news to anyone, but political froth and partiality muddy the waters for those of us on the sidelines.

No doubt part of the problem is a need to protect the identity of individuals, but I’m sure there is still much to say and I’m not convinced we hear it.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A sound mind

No man is able to borrow or buy a sound mind; in fact, as it seems to me, even though sound minds were for sale, they would not find buyers. Depraved minds, however, are bought and sold every day.

Nothing much changes in the ebb and flow of human futility does it? Life is far less harsh and far more comfortable than it was in Seneca's time, at least in the developed world, but we have similar ethical problems. A strikingly similar inability to resolve them too.

Monday, 20 April 2015


The photo was taken at Topsham. Somehow the derelict boats on the other side of the Exe are not eyesores, at least for me. Neither is the Vigilant, a once derelict Thames barge being restored nearby.

Dereliction is like that. A derelict Austin Seven is probably more acceptable to many than a derelict Austin Allegro. Both have a certain glow of nostalgia, but the Allegro’s would we weak and tinged with memories of British industrial incompetence.

Derelict castles and manor houses are fine. English Heritage thrives on them and carefully preserves their dereliction for us to admire. A derelict castle on the skyline can be a thing of beauty. I well remember walking barefoot along the sands of Embleton Bay towards Dunstanburgh Castle in Northumberland. A fine sight and a memorable experience.

Derelict stone barns are mildly picturesque - we see them all over the Derbyshire hills. Derelict cranes, steam engines and bits of rusting industrial heritage may lack the same charm but they are at least interesting if not too recently abandoned. Perhaps abandonment is a factor here. It must not be too obvious or recent.

Derelict houses are not so good unless old and interesting. Even slight hints of dereliction are unwelcome in most neighbourhoods. Yet a Tudor ruin or a few pillars and some trefoil stonework from some long lost priory are positively prestigious, tearooms and eye-watering property prices almost guaranteed.

I suppose nostalgia casts its golden glow over some things and not others. How do derelict democracies fare?

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Equally ignorant


With regard to social problems, owing to the number of unknown quantities they offer, men are substantially, equally ignorant.
Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

Something happens when we try to get closer and closer to the more complex aspects of human life. Somehow we seem to lose focus, the overall picture fragments into lots of vignettes. What we want from more detailed scrutiny is the limpid clarity of unclouded understanding. What we often end up with are reasons why the other lot keep getting it wrong.

As time goes by problems multiply, wrong conclusions pop up, exaggerations creep in, useless predictions infest debates, celebrities muddy the waters, charlatans gather in the gullible. In short, it is often unclear if anything worthwhile has been achieved apart from an enormous amount of activity. Paid activity at that.

It’s as if complex human issues have an optimal focus. Get too close and the thing becomes blurred and fragmented, stand too far back and important features disappear.

Economics seems to be like this. For non-economists it is a matter of finding someone to trust because the alternative seems to be standing on the sidelines forever. Yet a suspicion remains that the sidelines are where one has the best view.

I think many political people, know this perfectly well. They know there are few firm conclusions to be had in the ebb and flow of human complexities. They also know that this gives them scope for a secure political standpoint where with a dash of luck, only the most glaring failure will sink their boat.

Meanwhile we voters tend to ignore the debates and vote by habit or instinct. Nobody is ever likely to tell us where the optimum standpoint is anyway. That’s not how politics works.

So maybe useful analysis cannot flourish in political debates because the optimum standpoints are too obvious, too easily grasped for anyone to claim as their own and make political capital from them.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

The last illusion

The philosophers of the last century devoted themselves with fervour to the destruction of the religious, political, and social illusions on which our forefathers had lived for a long tale of centuries. By destroying them they have dried up the springs of hope and resignation. Behind the immolated chimeras they came face to face with the blind and silent forces of nature, which are inexorable to weakness and ignore pity. 

Notwithstanding all its progress, philosophy has been unable as yet to offer the masses any ideal that can charm them; but, as they must have their illusions at all cost, they turn instinctively, as the insect seeks the light, to the rhetoricians who accord them what they want. Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations, and the reason why socialism is so powerful to-day is that it constitutes the last illusion that is still vital. 

In spite of all scientific demonstrations it continues on the increase. Its principal strength lies in the fact that it is championed by minds sufficiently ignorant of things as they are in reality to venture boldly to promise mankind happiness. The social illusion reigns to-day upon all the heaped-up ruins of the past, and to it belongs the future. The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. 

Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895)

Maybe global planners aim to promise mankind happiness in the form of a global consumer culture. Perhaps their plans are sound and a micro-managed consumer culture offers a facsimile of happiness most people would settle for.

A few may mourn the death of freedom, dignity and fulfilment, but do we currently have enough to fill the coffin?