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28
Feb 2012

Corporate donors to St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Blessed are the rich, for they shall inherit the earth

Matthew 5:5 | New Testament (Church of England edition, 2012)

Last night in London, police and bailiffs with the blessing of the Church of England and under orders from The City of London Corporation, evicted the Occupy protesters from the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The protest camp which has been a fixture in central London for over four months sought to voice opposition to corporate greed. It was perhaps appropriate, therefore, that St. Paul’s Cathedral was the location they chose to voice that opposition. For surely there can be no greater example of the power of corporate greed to twist and pervert the society in which it manifests.

Roughly two thousand years ago, if we accept the version of history upon which the Christian Churches are based, Jesus Christ cast the money lenders and profiteers from the sacred grounds of the temple. One does not need to believe that to be historical fact to appreciate the symbolism of the story, and by extension to understand the stated values of Christianity. Personally I do not consider the bible to be a work of historical fact. However, and I really cannot stress this enough, I am not being critical when I make that judgement. Indeed, there’s a sense – and it’s a very real sense – in which I consider sacred mythopoetry, such as that found in the bible, to be more important than historical fact. It’s absolutely vital of course, to be aware of the differences between the two, but there’s no sense in which historical fact disproves or invalidates myth. They are two separate categories of knowledge and fulfil two very different functions.

Take, for example, the Christian story of The Last Supper. It is one of the most important stories in our culture (in the words of Gregory Bateson, “it’s all made of stories, you know”) and I think it is illuminating; genuinely illuminating; that even as western civilisation has lost touch with its mythology, so we have seen the destructive rise of fast food and McDonald’s culture. I’m not saying one caused the other; I’m saying that within our ecology of mind, a particular pattern is manifesting in a number of different ways. Bateson discussed the Last Supper in one of his lectures…

“Host / guest” relationships are more or less sacred all over the world, as far as I know. And are of course one of the reasons why, to go back to where we started, the bread and the wine happen to be sacred objects.

Don’t [...] get it upside down. The bread and the wine are not sacred because they represent Christ’s body and blood. The bread and the wine are primarily sacred, because they are the staff of life; the staff of hospitality… of guests… of hosts… of health and all the rest of it. And so, secondarily, we equate them with Christ.

The sacredness is real. Whatever the mythology. The mythology is the poetical way of asserting the sacredness. And a very good poetical way of asserting it. But bread is sacred whether or not you accept the Christian myth. And so is wine. Unless you’re determined to eat plastic.

Gregory Bateson | Lecture on consciousness and psychopathology (approx 50 minutes in)

Anyway, my point is that there’s a whole baby/bathwater thing going on when we embrace secularism without finding an adequate replacement for those positive elements provided by our cultural mythopoetry. There’s no inherent reason for us to stop asserting the primary sacredness of bread and wine when we cease to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. Yet nonetheless, that’s precisely what we have done. And I don’t necessarily think the gains we’ve made are adequate compensation for our losses.

Worst of all though, is when the very people who have appointed themselves as guardians of our mythology are themselves its ultimate betrayers. Christ’s casting out of the money-lenders and profiteers is right up there with The Last Supper when it comes to important stories. It would be more than a little trite to suggest that Jesus was the original Occupy protester, but there are certainly parallels to be drawn. And although I have been critical of certain aspects of the Occupy Movement on this blog in the past, it’s always been constructive criticism. I very much share the majority of their goals and any critical comments from me are merely suggestions as to how I feel the movement might be more effective. Precisely because I want Occupy to be more effective.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Matthew 21:12-13 | King James Version

Matthew leaves us under no illusions as to whose side Jesus would have taken in last night’s eviction. And any member of Church of England clergy who believes that Christ would have been wearing a police uniform… or even the robes of the church… is guilty of staggering self delusion. Especially when you take a look at the list of those who offer “financial support” to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Blessed are the rich (just pretend we didn’t say that, OK?)

A few weeks ago I visited the St. Paul’s Cathedral website and clicked on a page called “Our Supporters“. The page contained a lengthy list of corporate (and other) donors… those who had made substantial (in excess of UKP £50,000) financial contributions to the Cathedral. Some time over the past few weeks someone at St. Paul’s realised that this was bad Public Relations, given that they were soon to send the police to remove people from the Cathedral steps… people who were protesting against those very corporations. And so they removed the list of donors, replacing it with a bland statement of thanks to staff members past and present.

Talk about spineless! Here we have an organisation that claims to follow the path of a man who explicitly opposed the very practices they now indulge in (inviting the money-lenders into the temple). More than that, they clearly know it, which is why they have quietly removed their donor list. Unfortunately for them they were not entirely thorough. Although they have completely purged the list from their website, it appeared on the last page of their most recent newsletter (available as a PDF file). And just in case they decide to purge that too, I have reproduced the list in full here. I have highlighted a few names that I think are particularly interesting, though the entire list makes for illuminating reading…

The Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral would like to thank all those who contributed to our £40 million campaign to conserve and restore St Paul’s Cathedral in celebration of the Cathedral’s 300th anniversary. We would specifically like to thank donors of £50,000 and over:

Robin Fleming and Family
Sir Paul and Lady Getty
The Garfield Weston Foundation
The City Bridge Trust
The St Paul’s Cathedral Trust in America
The Lennox Hannay Charitable Foundation
The Cadogan Charity
Lloyds TSB Group plc
An Independent Trust Associated with Barclays
City of London Corporation
City of London Endowment Trust
The Schroder Foundation
Goldman Sachs International
Mark Pigott OBE
The Wolfson Foundation
The Garfield Weston Trust for St Paul’s Cathedral
The Worshipful Company of Mercers
The Sunley Foundation
UBS Investment Bank
Mr Richard & Miss Clementine Hambro
McKinsey & Company
Roger Gabb
The Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust
CHK Charities Ltd
David Mayhew CBE
N M Rothschild & Sons Ltd
Sir Brian Williamson CBE
29th May 1961 Charitable Trust
Dr Yury Beylin
Brunswick Group
Mr and Mrs William R Miller CBE
Lennox and Wyfold Foundation
Hugh & Catherine Stevenson
Skandinaviska Enskilda Bank
Roger Carlsson
The Clothworkers’ Foundation
The Headley Trust
Nicholas Oppenheimer
Prudential Plc
Simon & Virginia Robertson
The Capital Group
Lexicon Partners
Slaughter & May
Barry Bateman
Charterhouse Capital Partners LLP
Cinven
Cognetas
Electra Partners LLP
Land Securities
Standard Chartered Plc
JP Morgan Cazenove
J.P. Morgan
Cantor Fitzgerald L.P
BGC Partners
Dulverton Trust
CMS Cameron McKenna LLP
The Freemasons’ Grand Charity
David Barnett
Len Blavatnik
Canary Wharf Group Plc
Lord Cockfield Memorial Trust
The Drapers’ Company
Man Group Plc Charitable Trust
London Stock Exchange
The Worshipful Company of Grocers
Stewart Newton
Sir David Walker
Sir Roger & Lady Gibbs
Sir Robert & Lady Finch
Peter and Stephanie Chapman
Fidelity UK Foundation
English Heritage
Wyfold Foundation
American Express
The Coutts Charitable Trust
The British Land Company Plc
HSBC Holdings Plc
Morden College
Aldgate & All Hallows Barking Exhibition Foundation
Jon B Lovelace
Richard & Ellen Sandor Family Foundation
The Scholl Foundation

And here’s the relevant page of the newsletter:

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15
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan

This time last year I published a piece over at Dorian’s site, On This Deity. It commemorated the final withdrawal – on this day in 1989 – of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the end of that disastrous, bloody and futile invasion.

Afghanistan is BurningIn my piece I draw the obvious parallels between the ill-fated Soviet occupation of that central Asian country and the modern US-led Western occupation. In both cases the stated reason for the invasion was to combat terrorism. In both cases the invaders believed they were liberating the people of Afghanistan from the clutches of an aggressive religious fundamentalism. In both cases the occupying forces went about trying to install relatively progressive policies: the insistence on a national legal system that would supersede tribal and Sharia laws; the promotion of greater equality for women (just as, if not more, aggressively pursued by the Soviet puppet regime than by the US puppet regime it should be noted); the establishment of secular health and education facilities; the de-politicisation and secularisation of the police force and civil administration.

All of these policies were pursued vigorously by the Soviet occupiers. Just as they have been by the western forces. And – I would suggest – with roughly the same level of success. Perhaps the current occupation has it slightly easier thanks to the relative lack of external support for the Afghan militants. Whatever aid being supplied to the Taliban opposition by dissident Saudis, sympathetic elements within the Pakistani security forces and Iranian smugglers is as nothing compared to the huge resources made available to the mujahideen by the CIA during the 1980s. Indeed, it was fairly obvious to the world that the United States was fighting a proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan. They pumped money, weapons and military training personnel into Afghanistan on a massive scale and in so doing, they strengthened the ultra-reactionary Islamist elements within Afghan society. Those very same elements who are now killing US and other western troops today.

Rarely has the old adage about being careful what you wish for been so dramatically demonstrated in the arena of world affairs. The United States wished to turn the fundamentalist elements of Afghan society into a force capable of resisting a superpower. I suspect they no longer find Charlie Wilson’s War quite so clever.

Just as with the fall of the Soviet Union – an empire that was militarily over-extended and consumed from within by an economic system that was unfit for purpose – the United States must surely now face up to its own slow collapse. They are mired in debt that nobody sane believes will ever be repaid, and which is being aggressively ignored by both debtor and creditors alike in the mistaken belief that the elephant in the room can be trusted not to break the furniture so long as nobody talks about it. They are rapidly reaching the limits of their ability to intimidate the world with military power (how long before China decides to repossess the US 5th fleet in lieu of the money they are owed?) And while there is currently little sign of a wane in their cultural influence, that too can hardly be far away. On top of that, the rifts in US society – between their own religious fundamentalists and the besieged bastions of liberal secularism – threaten to rip the nation to pieces from within.

Just as the collapse of the Soviet Union cannot be blamed on their invasion of Afghanistan – the invasion functioned both as a symptom of that collapse and one contributing factor; so the US involvement in that nation will not, historically, be viewed as the reason for the decline of America. However, it will be heralded as an obvious symptom of western self-delusion and over-extension. And I suspect it will also be considered a contributing factor – albeit a relatively minor one, compared to our psychotic financial system and the inability of consumer capitalism to cope with resource depletion.

So today we pause to recall the final humiliation of the once proud Red Army. And we take a moment to look a few years into the future at that humiliation being mirrored on the other side of that old Cold War divide.

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13
Feb 2012

R.I.P. Whitney Houston

As I’m sure you’re aware by now, Whitney Houston has just died at the age of 48. I personally wouldn’t have been the biggest fan of her music, but her ubiquity for several years means that she did weave herself into the soundtrack of my life, whether I liked it or not. And I admit, there were times when it was very much “not”. Back in the winter of 1992 it was just impossible to escape her massive hit, I Will Always Love You. You’d walk into shops and where you’d expect to hear Christmas music over the speaker system, there’d be that bloody song again. The radio-waves were saturated with the damn thing and music television was in cahoots.

All the same though, that was a pretty good period in my life. I was a young undergraduate and thoroughly enjoying my party years in North London. So despite the fact that I really hated that song by the springtime of 1993, and despite the fact that I would never in a million years voluntarily listen to it, I found myself smiling with a wistful nostalgia when I heard it being played yesterday as a tribute. That overplayed – and overwrought – tune brought back a bunch of good memories with it.

As well as that, Whitney Houston was also – indirectly – responsible for a particularly lovely moment a few years back. I generally do my best to see David Byrne whenever he tours. His music is genuinely important to me and he’s one of the very few people I’ll travel distances to see live these days. Anyway, a few years back he played London and I naturally went along. The gig was – as ever – wonderful and it was a fantastic evening. By the time the encore came around I’d pretty much worked out that we’d be hearing Psycho Killer as it hadn’t appeared earlier in the set. And we weren’t disappointed; that dark and brooding bassline conjuring up all the right kinds of sinister. It’s still such a thrill to hear that song loud and live in a darkened venue.

Then, however, after Byrne had finished urging us to run, run away… the lights brightened and the strings kicked in with an oddly familiar tune. I couldn’t place it at first. Up-tempo and the complete opposite of Psycho Killer. “Maybe something from Uh Oh“, I thought, “I’ve not listened to that album in a while”. But almost immediately I’d thought that, I suddenly realised what the song was…

It was infectious, bouncy and genuinely joyous. Byrne was more than capable of putting a dark spin on the track; subtly subverting it and turning it into something strange and unsettling. But he didn’t. Instead he played it completely straight. No hint of irony. And it worked so well. Everyone danced. Everyone looked at the person next to them with a broad grin on their face. And everyone left the gig feeling slightly euphoric.

So I’d like to thank Whitney Houston (via Mr. Byrne) for that small gift. Rest in peace.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion, Reviews » Music reviews


11
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Death of René Descartes

Hey folks, I’ve got a new piece over at On This Deity.

11th February 1650: The Death of René Descartes.

Today, on the anniversary of his death in 1650, we remember the life and work of French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes. Although not overtly political, the work of Descartes succeeded in redefining much of philosophical thought, to the extent that it would be more than fair to describe him as a revolutionary thinker. And while many of his ideas have antecedents in ancient Greece, Descartes can stake as firm a claim as anyone to the epithet, “father of modern philosophy”.

read the rest…

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11
Feb 2012

Decades

I glanced at my twitter timeline and noticed the following tweet

Anyone who says the 80′s was the best decade for music needs to be shot. By a firing squad #BBC4

@J___Williamson | twitter

I assumed from the #BBC4 hashtag that there was some 80s music documentary being broadcast, but taken at face value (obvious comedy hyperbole aside) I realised I wasn’t entirely sure whether I’d be up before that firing squad or not. If asked to name a favourite decade, musically speaking, my immediate reaction would be to say “the 70s”. But when I gave it a bit more thought (probably considerably more than @J___Williamson meant her tweet to be subjected to) I realised that – assuming we start “the 80s” in 1980 – rather than 1981 as some are wont to do – then it’s fair to say that my favourite album of all time is an 80s album (Remain in Light by Talking Heads). In fact, a huge amount of my favourite music was released during the 1980s.

Remain in Light1980 also saw the release of Joy Division’s Closer. It was the year of Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, of Autoamerican and of Heartattack And Vine. And the decade that followed saw the entire career of The Smiths and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. It saw Tom Waits move from good to great and on into godlike. The 80s saw Prince at his peak. And what a peak that was. There are moments on Sign ‘O’ The Times that still send shivers down my spine despite the familiarity of 25 years of regular play. It was the decade that brought us the best of The Cure, of The The, of Kate Bush and of The Cocteau Twins. And it was the decade that kicked off the careers of Nick Cave, The Legendary Pink Dots and World Party.

Right at the heart of the decade, 1985 saw the release of Around The World in a Day, Asylum, Don’t Stand Me Down, The Firstborn is Dead, Head on The Door, Hounds Of Love, Hunting High And Low, Little Creatures, Low-Life, Meat Is Murder, Rain Dogs, Suzanne Vega, and Thursday Afternoon. That’s a pretty diverse list of albums… and each one’s a corker in its own way. What’s more, there’s not a year in the 1980s that doesn’t have just as fine a list attached to it.

Then, as the 80s drew to a close, we discovered that It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. We were infused with the Spirit of Eden while we got Naked and Bummed. We got our minds melted by Pixies and My Bloody Valentine as Julee Cruise took us Floating Into The Night, all the while being reminded that The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste.

And you know what…? I’ve not even begun to do the 80s justice. Byrne and Eno’s My Life in The Bush of Ghosts, Peter Gabriel’s So, Paul Simon’s Graceland and Julian Cope’s Fried all helped make the decade what it was. There were seminal records from Siouxsie and the Banshees, R.E.M., and I’m even prepared to put in a good word for The Joshua Tree which – for all its over-earnest breast-beating – contains some cracking tunes. Sure it was a low point for David Bowie, but elsewhere good music was thriving.

Decades?

But of course, I could make a similar case for the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1990s and even the noughties; though I would probably find that more difficult as I’ve discovered less new music in the past ten years. Probably a result of advancing age as well as having an already extremely extensive record collection that does its best to crowd out new releases (there are, after all, only so many hours in the day). Actually, it’s not ten years… looking at my media player, it appears that my discovery of new albums tapers off somewhat in 2007. There’s still a handful each year after that, but nothing like as many as there once was.

As it happens, I have a theory that music has become less culturally important in the past few years and – as a result – there’s less great stuff being produced (“less” not “none”). I’m not sure that theory stands up to scrutiny… though it’d be a good discussion to have over a few pints of Guinness.

Then, as I began to mentally put together the case for the 1970s, it struck me just how arbitrary the “decade” distinction is. It’s a cultural shorthand that extends far beyond music of course, but it tends to be used most frequently in that arena. Most albums released in 1989 have far more in common with the music of 1992 than they do with the music of 1982. There are records from 1979 and from 1991 that – to all intents and purposes – qualify as 80s music. And there are records from the early 80s that tend to be seen as part of the 1970s. The same is true for all decades. The Beatles were a 1960s band even if Let It Be was released in 1970. Hell, I think of The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as being “of the sixties” even though the majority of their output – quantitatively speaking – came afterwards. And I don’t know where the hell Van Morrison fits in. Astral Weeks (“best album ever recorded except when Remain In Light is” tm) was released in 1968, but is essentially timeless, and damn near everything else he did came post-1970.

On top of that, there’s the fact that the truly great music of every decade… of every year… is massively outweighed in terms of sheer volume, by the truly awful. Or the merely uninteresting. For every I’m Your Man or Lovesexy there are a dozen of Hold Me in Your Arms and Kylie. Two dozen.

So does it even make sense to talk about whether the music of the 90s is better than the music of the 80s? Certainly Bone Machine and Henry’s Dream are better albums than White Feathers and Blackout. But you could just as easily choose Wet Wet Wet and Bryan Adams as your representatives of the 1990s, and… well… they’re no Prince or The Smiths.

In fact, you just have to compare Prince to… er… Prince. The 80s really come out of that one smiling.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that – when all’s said and done – there’s a pretty simple way to identify precisely when music was at its very best. Ask yourself the following question… “When was my 21st birthday?” Now, take the five years before that. Take the five years after. Add them together and you have the best decade for music. See? Simple. And no firing squads required.

8 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion, Reviews » Music reviews


7
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Maastricht Treaty

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Oddly enough, there don’t appear to be any high-profile celebrations of this milestone. No fireworks, no street parties, no parades through streets lined with flag-waving children. Instead there’s an almost embarrassed silence. Certainly the Greeks are in no mood to party. Even if they were; what with sky-rocketing unemployment and an unprecedented increase in urban poverty; it’s unlikely they’d be in a position to spend much on bunting and streamers.

Fractured EU FlagHere in Ireland the mood is similarly sombre. It seems like every week the news brings us a fresh story about poverty becoming more widespread, companies shedding jobs, or another public service becoming even less fit for purpose. And as bad as these stories tend to be, they are made even worse by the accompanying tales of bondholders syphoning yet more money from the pockets of those who never owed them anything. Or new government plans to inflict further suffering upon the vulnerable while trotting out insultingly transparent nonsense about why the wealthy are being coddled.

It would be entirely wrong to blame the disaster on Europe. The original goal of European integration was – as I wrote when I discussed the Maastricht Treaty over at On This Deity last year – a noble one. It was a well-conceived and entirely sensible response to half a century of conflict which had seen some of the worst atrocities in history perpetrated on European soil. After two world wars which had visited horrors upon the continent… the horrors of the trenches, the targeting of civilian populations in massive aerial bombing campaigns, and the concentration camps… after all that, Europe wanted peace. And they wanted to make sure it lasted.

Which is why, within a few short years of the end of second world war, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed a treaty that essentially marked the beginning of what was to become the European Union. It was a remarkable decision and even as the EU strains under the weight of morbidly obese financial institutions determined to bleed the continent dry while externalising their every mistake; and even as our political classes permit this obscene injustice – nay, encourage it; even now, despite all of these things, we should applaud that decision back in 1950 to set aside the enmities of the recent past and work towards a shared future.

And it’s fair to say that while mistakes were made in the decades that followed, the closer integration of the European economies was a positive development. There was a stability and a strength in the union. Resources were redistributed from wealthy areas to those suffering poverty. Human Rights were placed at the centre of the political agenda, and as internal borders began to dissolve, so did much of the distrust and suspicion that had festered in Europe for so many years. It didn’t disappear completely of course, and like so much of the gains made during those early decades, we seem determined to undo that particular achievement. Nonetheless, the original spirit of European Unity was a profoundly positive one, and we should work hard to salvage what we can of it, even as it is undermined by those who hijacked the European project for their own personal gain.

Which is the problem we face today. I’m not claiming that a united Europe was ever an explicitly socialist project, but it had at its heart a yearning for justice, for greater equality and for a kind of collective progress… a road that led away from poverty and war. That yearning is still there, but it has been sidelined by an unregulated rampant capitalism that threatens to destroy any good that emerged from half a century of work. Our political leaders – perhaps deliberately, perhaps through incompetence – have allowed a financial elite to infiltrate the corridors of European power and redirect the entire project. The European Union now works in their interests and explicitly against the interests of the majority of European citizens.

Instead of leading us away from poverty, we watch as wealth is drained from the general populace into the hands of reckless gamblers who lost their own money and then somehow convinced our representatives to give them ours. Instead of leading us away from conflict, we are forced to watch the rise of the Far Right in a number of European nations, to watch as suspicion of The Other sees a resurgence in our society, and to watch as the Irish and Greeks blame the crisis on an undemocratic French and German economic assault on their citizens, while Germans and French blame the crisis on the profligate spending of the peripheral nations. And all the while the real culprits continue to gather the spoils.

I have a quick word of advice for the German, Dutch and French populations… be very very careful how you handle this situation. Once the financial markets have bled Ireland, Greece and Portugal dry; once they have stripped our assets and plunged us even deeper into poverty; they will move on to fresh fields. There is no limit to the greed that has seen them subvert the political institutions of Europe. Out here on the periphery… we were just the softest targets; easy meat. Once they’ve picked our bones dry, they’ll move on to Spain and Italy. And then… then it’s your turn.

EU flagWhich is why, in the end, there is a need for European Union now more than ever. Where once it was the horrors of the past we sought to escape; now we must unite to ward off the horrors of the future. This rampant capitalist beast cannot be tamed by Ireland. Or by Greece. Or by Portugal. Even together, the catastrophically weakened economies of the “bailed-out” nations simply can’t do anything about it. It’s not within our control. Sure, we could simply turn our backs on Europe altogether, and while I fear it may yet come to that; would it not be better to face down this destructive enemy rather than allow it to run roughshod over that original European ideal?

I’m not proposing some sort of radical pan-European anarcho-syndicalist revolution (as much as I’d like to see it happen, I’m realistic about the chances). Instead I’m simply proposing that Europe glance back 20 years to Maastricht. Even though the capitalist infiltration of our project began before that treaty, there’s a sense in which we were never more united than when we met in that Dutch town and pledged ourselves to a greater union. Hell, we even managed to drag the British tories along with us, which was no mean feat. So let’s try and recapture that sense of solidarity. Let’s realise that swallowing the lies of gangster capitalism will only impoverish us all in the longterm. And let’s unite once more to assert our togetherness in the face of an enemy that seeks to divide and conquer.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


2
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Death of Bertrand Russell

This time last year, on the anniversary of Bertrand Russell’s death, I published a piece celebrating his life and work over at On This Deity. Russell is rightly remembered for his work – in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead – on the three volumes of Principia Mathematica (the book has since passed into the public domain and can be downloaded as a very chunky PDF file if you so wish… it’s currently available on rapidshare, or alternatively do a search for “Principia Mathematica PDF”).

Bertrand RussellHowever, while Principia Mathematica doubtlessly secured his place in the ranks of the Great Philosophers, it’s a highly technical and specialised book about the relationship between mathematics and formal logic. I recall flicking through it when I was a philosophy undergraduate and instantly deciding that unless I spent the majority of my three year degree immersed entirely in Principia Mathematica, I wouldn’t do it justice. And given that I was, at the time, more interested in gaining a broad overview of philosophy, rather than focussing on a single narrow aspect of the subject, I read a few bits and pieces about Principia Mathematica in Hospers (and other similar volumes) and pretty much left it at that.

However, it wasn’t long before I encountered the name Bertrand Russell once more. This time it was while I was eagerly devouring books on political philosophy… in particular left wing and anarchist political philosophy. So while to this day I’ve still not gotten around to reading Principia Mathematica, Russell’s Proposed Roads To Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism was one of the more influential books on my intellectual development. The full text of Proposed Roads… can be read over at the University of Virginia Library website and is worth your while checking out.

Sadly, as I suggested when I was talking about the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon recently, the hopes and dreams of Russell in that near-century-old text have been comprehensively ignored by a society which has dedicated itself to the attempted gratification of individual desire through over-consumption. Russell called upon us to overcome these baser instincts and push ourselves onwards, towards a more just and free world. But as he said in Proposed Roads… (echoing the views of Proudhon, half a century earlier) the use of violence to achieve supposedly enlightened ends is almost always self-defeating. The achievement of a better world “requires a breadth of outlook and a comprehensiveness of understanding which are not easy to preserve amid a desperate contest”.

Which is why, as well as being the author of one of the seminal works in logical philosophy, Russell is also remembered for being a dedicated peace campaigner. As a founder-member and the organisation’s first President, he gave the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) the intellectual legitimacy it needed to gain a critical mass. And even into his nineties he was active in the movement (as well as organising international opposition to America’s war in Vietnam). Russell firmly believed that humanity held within itself the ability to move past our aggressive selfishness. He saw clearly that violent competition in nature can be – and often is – tempered with a drive towards cooperation. And he felt that we have reached a point – thanks to technology and our global interconnectedness – where it has become imperative that this cooperative drive should now supersede our competitive instinct. Otherwise we risk destroying all we have achieved.

Russell was convinced that the overthrow of capitalism was necessary for us to achieve this evolution. But he was also convinced this could not be done with violence. At least, not if we wanted to replace it with something better. Of course, it’s difficult to see how it can be achieved non-violently, given how entrenched the power of the capitalists has become. However, as he was fond of saying… “we are obliged to give the matter some thought”.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion