I never used to be political. For much of my life, politics didn’t affect me. It was something I took note of, but it was something which seldom had much of an impact on me.
I’m someone who has wanted to understand the world rather than change it. How could anyone change the world if they didn’t understand it? How can you fix something if you don’t know how it works? The world is full of people trying to change a world that they don’t understand. And of course they will always fail.
I’m someone who wanted to understand the incomprehensible, mysterious world in which I found myself. And I can fairly safely say that I don’t understand anything much. Why do people form societies? Why do they make and trade things? What is money? How does anyone ever manage to make a profit making and selling things? What’s good and evil? What’s right and wrong? What’s truth and falsehood? What is law? What is justice? Those were the kind of questions I was asking.
Idle Theory was my eventual explanation, slowly pieced together over 40 years, for at least some of it. It provided a framework into which I could fit explanations. All living things were trying to cease being so busy. And living things are endlessly busy. They’re all working to stay alive. And us humans are no different. We make things – tools – to make life easier for ourselves. That’s why we wear clothes and live in houses: life would be harder without these things. And we divide up the work of making clothes and building houses and growing food among ourselves. And we trade clothes and houses and food, and needles and cotton and bricks and potatoes. What’s good and what’s right is what’s easy for everyone. Law is concerned with equity in our everyday lives and in the transactions between us. Economic growth is growth in easiness or idleness. Life is much easier now than it was only a few centuries ago. Back then they had slavery and starvation.
Mine was an abstract, almost academic, interest in the world around me. I had, after all, spent many years in university, and many years in university libraries.
All that came to an end on 1 July 2007, when I was expelled from society, and exiled to the outdoors. I was driven out of the library. Political events had at last had an impact on me. And I became politically active in ways I never had been before. I had found that I was not just an observer of the world, but fully immersed in it. I was, as it were, a geologist who got buried in a landslide. Or a biologist who got attacked by a shark. The world I was studying jumped up and bit me. And ever since that day I’ve been a soldier fighting in a war.
And all the questions I was asking gained a new urgency. They became real rather than abstract. I wasn’t just thinking about them: I was living them.
At Walt’s suggestion, I’ve been reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. Smoking bans are a good example of liberal fascism. They are the work of people who don’t understand the world, but who nevertheless want to change it. Karl Marx once wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.” Did Marx understand the world in which he lived? Not really. Or no better than anyone else. But nonetheless the busybody wanted to change it.
Did Napoleon understand the world he set out to change? No. Did Mussolini? No. Did Hitler? No. Reading their potted histories in Liberal Fascism I’ve been struck by the poverty of their ideas. Yes, they’d all read lots of books. And perhaps after they’d read lots of books, they thought they understood the world. But whether or not they understood the world at all, they all wanted to change it. They were men of action rather than thought. They wanted to Do Something. It didn’t really matter that they didn’t know what they were doing, because Something Had To Be Done. And that is the nature of all busybodies: they all want to do something, but they don’t know what needs to be done. And so what they do always turns into a disaster, every single time.
I don’t know that this was what Goldberg was trying to tell me. I suspect not. But it’s the lesson I have been taking from the book: these idiots didn’t have a clue what they were doing. Moreover, some of the idiots were knowingly irrational:
Sorel’s greatest contribution to the left – and Mussolini in particular – lay elsewhere in his concept of “myths,” which he defined as “artificial combinations invented to give the appearance of reality to hopes that inspire men in their present activity.” For Sorel, the Second Coming of Christ was a quintessential myth because its underlying message – Jesus is coming, look busy – was crucial for organizing men in desirable ways.
There it is again: Powerful myths can rouse men to action, get them to Do Something.
Even more impressive was Sorel’s application of the idea of myth to Marxism itself. Again, Sorel held that Marxist prophecy didn’t need to be true. People just needed to think it was true. Even at the turn of the last century it was becoming obvious that Marxism as social science didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Taken literally, Marx’s Das Kapital, according to Sorel, had little merit. But, Sorel asked, what if Marx’s nonsensicalness was actually intended? If you looked at this apocalyptic text . . . as a product of the spirit, as an image created for the purpose of molding consciousness, it . . . is a good illustration of the principle on which Marx believed he should base the rules of the socialist action of the proletariat. In other words, Marx should be read as a prophet, not as a policy wonk. That way the masses would absorb Marxism unquestioningly as a religious dogma. (p. 37)
It doesn’t have to be true: people just need to think it’s true. The only value in ideas lies in their ability to rouse people to action, get them to Do Something.
We’re still living in the age of Georges Sorel, unfortunately, even though he’s been dead for a century. The potent myths of our time are being used in precisely the ways he suggested. Smoking Causes Lung Cancer. Carbon Dioxide Causes Global Warming. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or not: all that matters is that people believe they are true. If they believe they are true, then they’ll stop smoking, and they’ll close down Western industrial civilisation (which, after all, is a form of smoking that generates more smoke than all the smokers in history). And the underlying rationale: Fear Of Smoke.
These are the fascists I’m up against: busybodies who use myths and scare stories to goad people into quite unnecessary action. But I don’t want to rouse men to action. I don’t want to get them to Do Something. I want them to be idle and free. Particularly if Doing Something always brings disaster – what else did busybodying Napoleon and Lenin and Mussolini and Hitler bring? That’s why the busybodies in Tobacco Control must be rendered inactive, and Tobacco Control must be shut down. These people must be stopped. It is fully in accord with Idle Theory to bring things to a stop.