George Walford: Ideology in the Reviews (63)

Having (at more than one remove) a Protestant background, IC has paid insufficient attention to the less orthodox developments appearing in Catholicism. Alastair Hamilton, in Heresy and Mysticism in Sixteenth- century Spain, speaks of the alumbrados (literal meaning close to illuminati), saying they sought ‘an intenser and more personal form of religious experience than the institutional Church tolerated… not so very different from aspects of seventeenth-century Dissent in England, or of some evangelical and charismatic groups today.’ The alumbrados, too, protested against what they saw as the sterility of established religion. (Review by Colin P.Thompson TLS April 2,25).

Books on black history continue to pour from the American presses. In the course of reviewing a batch of them George M.Fredrickson notes that the changes reform has brought to American blacks have not all been beneficial. In the days of official segregation black high schools could be better than the urban high schools blacks attend now that unofficial segregation has taken over. (NYR September 23,30)

Regimes regularly blame their brutalities upon a need for self-defence, and the claim cannot be automatically dismissed; the belief that the oppressed have to be of greater moral worth than their oppressors ranks among the pathetic fallacies. The problem has no automatic solution; one just has to use the best information available and accept responsibility for an act of judgement, however tentative. Few responsible thinkers accept the Nazis’ attempt to justify their mass murder of unarmed civilians as a defensive response to a Jewish-Communist-plutocratic conspiracy, but the balance of terror is not always so one-sided.

Reviewing Kanan Makiya’s Cruelty and Silence; war, tyranny, uprising and the Arab world (Cape) M.E.Yapp presents the book as showing the enemies of the Iraqui regime to have behaved as savagely as its supporters. Guerillas fight on behalf of the Kurds, and there has been no suggestion that they use rubber bullets. After the Gulf war an intifada took control of southern towns away from the government, and anybody thought to have been sympathetic to the regime, including ordinary civilians, came under attack. Officials were dragged into the streets and shot, their bodies cut up, burned and spat upon. Some of the rebels sought revenge, some fought for religion, but more joined in for the sake of loot. The response of the authorities was terrible, leading to stories that soldiers were paid bonuses for each man, woman or child they killed, but however disproportionate it was a response, not wholly unmotivated cruelty. Yapp suggests ‘that the Iraqui regime is so terrible because the people it rules are capable of behaving so savagely.’ (TLS June 11,15).

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Stalinism receives more academic attention as it recedes into history. Reviewing G.T.Rittersporn’s Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications (NY: Harwood) Orlando Figes reports his contention that Stalinist terror, though certainly real and terrible enough, emerged from motives less directly political than Solzhenitsyn’s writings might have led one to think. Far from being imposed by an omnipotent tyrant dominating a monolithic party, it was a response to chaos produced by the attempts at industrialisation and collectivisation of a regime deeply divided. The Gulag Archipelago was populated less by dissidents than by criminals, deviants, and incompetent or rebellious workers, peasants and managers. The terror was not imposed from above upon a helpless population; its sources were found at all levels of society: ‘Workers accused unpopular bosses of “sabotage” when production failed to meet the Plan. Local officials arranged the arrest of their rivals. And neighbours happily denounced each other. The terror, in other words, was a heightened form of social conflict.’ (TLS June 4, 28)

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Some philosophers still choose to concern themselves with the question of freewill versus determinism. Ted Honderich, in How Free Are You? the determination problem, comes down on the side of determination, concluding (in the reviewer’s words), that ‘We should try to adopt a philosophy of life without the illusion that we originate our actions,’ and stressing that such apparently abstract issues can have massive social consequences, for example in attitudes towards punishment. [1] But if our actions are determined, as Honderich holds, by external factors, how can we ever ‘try’ to do anything? [1. TLS Dec 31,22]

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Reviewing a clutch of books on Walter Benjamin, George Steiner quotes phrases like: ‘it is necessary to grasp this passage in Benjamin in the light of Althusser’s relations to Lacan,’ and ‘only via Bourdieu can we hope to make out Benjamin’s thesis on the reproducibility of the iconic.’ He condemns such stuff with Jeffrey Mehlman’s memorable phrase: ‘junk mail of literary criticism.’ (TLS Oct 8,37)

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Foreign investment has been pouring into China, in 1992 60 billion US dollars of it, nearly three times the 1991 figure. The increase in gross domestic product has approached 10 per cent annually through most of the 1980s, reaching 12.8 percent in 1992. Although agricultural growth has declined, caloric intake per head has risen, being now 30 per cent above that of India, 10 percent below that of Japan. Mortality rates continue to decline. While this goes on the country’s intellectuals, in the way of intellectuals everywhere, remain preoccupied by problems, largely environmental, either caused by the economic boom or operating so to speak behind it. (Perry Link, TLS Sept 10, 6).

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In the course of reviewing a book by Edward N.Luttwak that speaks of ‘a geo-economic struggle for industrial supremacy’ Robert M.Solow discusses industrial progress, the different degrees of it achieved by different countries and its probable effects upon our future. He supports the general impression that the USA provides its people, taken as a whole, with a standard of living much higher in material terms than that available in the countries politely described as ‘developing.’ Peru has a national income per person less than one- sixth that of the USA; in 1988 national income per person was $729 in Nepal, $2879 in Thailand, and $18,339 in the USA, measured in equivalent prices. In the USA poverty is determined by reference to a standard of material needs (not as a proportion of average income as in the UK), and ‘The average Thai is far below the US poverty line’.

Comfortable western intellectuals, well-fed, well-dressed, enjoying education, leisure, mechanical transport, entertainment and sophisticated medicine, maintained even when unemployed at a standard of living high by historical standards, often speak contemptuously of industrial civilisation, its waste and ‘consumerism.’ They affect to despise these things, valuing the lower consumption of the Fourth World for its lesser demands on the environment. Inhabitants of that world have a different approach, accepting their lower standards from necessity rather than preference and showing every intention of rising to industrial levels as quickly as they can; as Solow points out ‘the flow of migration tends to be one-way.’ One point he makes suggests (though he does not draw this conclusion himself) that even the alarm about damage to the environment from increasing western consumption may rest on a questionable base: ‘as populations get richer, they make only limited additions to their consumption of manufactured goods. The pattern of demand shifts in favour of services like education, travel, banking and insurance, restaurant cooking and health care.’ (NYR 16 December, 10)

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Bourgeois Society in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Berg) is edited by Jurgen Kocks and Allen Mitchell. Reviewing it, Noel Annan draws attention to some of the difficulties which arise when trying to use class as an explanatory category. North of Rome the Italian aristocracy was urban, republican, and inexperienced in public office. In Hungary the new middle class made their money in agriculture rather than industry; by 1918, out of 346 Jewish families, 220 had been ennobled. In Italy and Germany middle-class liberals supported a national state, while in France they were likely to oppose state controls. (One result of this was that 100,000 French died of smallpox when Germany had abolished it by compulsory vaccination). (NYR 13 Jan 94,44).

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‘An authoritarian state is doomed when a strong civil society (that is, the complex tissue of voluntary associations which occupy a public space and have a public voice, however limited, develops alongside it.’

Raymond Carr is talking about Spain, and continues: ‘The Francoist state, aligned with the West and tied to the international market, could not keep what Franco called “the breezes from foreign shores from blowing through our windows, corrupting the purity of our environment.” His subjects, increasingly immersed in a consumer society, saw in the Western democracies a more efficient means of achieving their individual objectives.’ (Reviewing Victo M.Perez- Diaz, The Return of Civil Society; The emergence of democratic Spain, Harvard UP, TLS Oct 15,4)

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Remember the claim that a flatworm eating a trained one acquired its knowledge? Flatworms can hardly be trained at all, and rarely eat anything, let alone each other, but this just made it harder to expose the hoax. ‘Many thousands of hours were wasted before a sufficient number of negatives was assembled.’ Eric Korn, reviewing R. L.Weber’s Science With a Smile (Bristol: Institute of Physics). TLS May 14,36.

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Damned by the reformers for its competitiveness, capitalism in fact displays an intensity and extent of co-ordination not found in any other society. Traffic by air, land or sea, stockmarkets, credit-cards, concerts, operas, sporting fixtures, all depend on co-ordination; so do final solutions and ethnic cleansings. Drawing attention to this, Roger Shiner asks what makes co-ordination possible, and answers: rules. ‘Humans using human rules can make their actions fit in predictable (and acceptable) ways with those of others.’ Since effective rules have to be uniform we have rule-making bodies and, since disputes arise, dispute-resolving bodies too.

Here Shiner (or the reviewer) goes off into legal philosophizing, asking what justifies rules and ignoring the third type of institution involved: we also have rule-enforcing bodies, known as states, and one universal feature of these is that they do not possess enough power to enforce the rules against general opposition. The state could not function, rules and the co-ordination they make possible could not continue, organised society could not survive, without a widespread inclination to maintain established rules and to do so without debating their validity. (That comes as a second and subsidiary activity). Society could not survive, in short, without the ideology of domination/submission. (Roger Shiner, Norm and Nature; the movements of legal thought. Oxford: Clarendon. Reviewed by Neil MacCormick in TLS April 2,23)

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Michael Wood reviews Edward W.Said’s Culture and Imperialism. (Chatto & Windus). Both in this book and in his earlier Orientalism Said claims to speak for the Islamic peoples, unable to represent themselves because the space for their doing so has been taken over by a monstrous misrepresentation imposed by imperialists. Wood remarks that we can all think of other examples, bringing to mind the expedient group in systematic ideology. This, the largest of ideological groups, goes virtually unrecognised, the space for its representation taken up by ‘the workers,’ ‘the masses,’ ‘the man in the street,’ ‘the rational human being’ and other constructions invented to suit one or another theory. (NYR March 3,44).

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Systematic ideology insists on persistence as a feature of all developmental systems. Raymond C.Tallis, a geriatrician, emphasises that hi-tech medicine has by no means eliminated the earlier and simpler procedures. The effective use of sophisticated techniques still depends upon diagnosis, and in any case they form only a small part of medicine’s response to human need: ‘Medicine has come a long way. However, its accomplishments have to be re-accomplished on a daily basis.’ (TLS 28 January, 15).

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.