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Boris Johnson: Philosophe?

Paul Sagar, Dec 13th

Mayor_BoJoOnly time will tell if Boris Johnson’s recent sop to the right of the Tory Party inadvertently cripples his leadership ambitions. As Nick Clegg put it, Johnson’s speech to the Centre for Policy Studies amounted to describing the poor as like ‘a breed of dogs’. And as a general rule, implying that voters are not just animals, but stupid animals that deserve to be poor because they are stupid, isn’t a good electoral strategy.

But much will turn on whether people believe that Johnson was talking about them. It isn’t yet clear that this is how it will play. For a start, most people don’t think that they are stupid. Moreover, those with lower incomes tend to significantly over-estimate where they stand in the distribution of wealth (paradoxically, the very rich usually think they are worse off than they are, too). And social science data indicates that most people tend to think that existing wealth is deserved, be it theirs or that of others. Hence many voters may actually agree with what Johnson says, especially if they believe that he was talking about a mythical, yet politically potent, underclass of benefit-scroungers robbing the hardworking of their taxes. Johnson has recovered from major gaffes before. The jury is out on whether this time he’s gone too far.

In the short term the most interesting aspects of Johnson’s speech relate to what he said in the process of advancing his headline claims about IQ and income. For Johnson in fact highlighted several central ideas that presently underlie liberal democratic capitalist society. Strikingly, he did so by paraphrasing the ideas of two of the eighteenth-century’s most penetrating political thinkers: Bernard Mandeville and Immanuel Kant. Doubtless, Johnson did not mean to paraphrase Enlightenment political thought. And I would be surprised if he had any genuine knowledge of the debates conducted when our form of society was in its infancy, and not yet assured of its present success. But if anything, that only makes what he said all the more interesting.


‘I don’t believe that economic equality is possible’, Johnson declared. ‘Indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity’. This, presumably unbeknownst to Johnson, is an effective paraphrase of the argument of Mandeville’s 1714 The Fable of the Bees. That human greed for consumer goods – desired principally in order to show off and gain the envy of one’s peers – is the foundation of economic prosperity. All human beings, Mandeville claimed, are irreducibly selfish. But by skillfully redirecting the ‘private vice’ of selfishness, and especially a desire that others envy our positional status, politicians could secure major ‘public benefit’. If people bought luxury goods in order to keep up with the Joneses, this stimulated production, and hence employment, and hence more consumption, and more production, in an upward spiral of material betterment. Economic growth, mass employment, national flourishing and improved standards of living were the direct results of allowing people to satiate their basic selfish desires for status and comfort.

Adam Smith, ameliorating some of the morally problematic implications of Mandeville’s tale, nonetheless endorsed the same basic vision of the foundations of modern prosperity. ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’, Smith famously wrote in his 1776 The Wealth of Nations. In doing so, he was basically agreeing with Mandeville’s logic about the cause and nature of modern economic prosperity. To this extent, Johnson’s comments repeat the results of a debate now over 200 years old.

Turning to the social effects of a consumer-driven commercial society, Johnson excused growing levels of social inequality as a function of international economic competition. ‘No one can ignore the harshness of that competition, or the inequality that it inevitably accentuates, and I am afraid that violent economic centrifuge is operating on human beings who are already very far from equal in raw ability, if not spiritual worth.’ One thing that is interesting here is Johnson’s implication that human beings are all of equal ‘spiritual’ worth, and the correlate assumption that nobody would now deny this. This is a relatively recent development on the world stage. Hierarchies of class, gender and race were the norm for almost the entirety of human existence – and indeed this remains so outside of much of western liberalism today. Indeed a belief in such hierarchies was by no means the preserve of right-wing politicians, even within polities like ours: the Fabian Society infamously advocated programmes of eugenics prior to WWII. But basic human equality is now part of the common sense of our age. How this fascinating transition came about is a story still waiting to be properly told.

But Johnson also takes it as just obvious that liberal democratic capitalism can sustain huge levels of economic inequality without jeopardizing social and political stability, no matter how ‘harsh’ that outcome for many ordinary people. In this, Johnson echoes Kant’s insistence from the 1790’s that the ‘uniform equality of human beings as subjects of states is…perfectly consistent with the utmost inequality of the mass in the degree of its possessions’. Kant’s central point was that modern politics could sincerely affirm the political – as an extension of the ‘spiritual’ – equality of all, whilst overseeing stable social conditions of profound material inequality. No intellectual incoherence was implied (as Marxists would later insist), and social collapse was not necessarily bound to be the result (as Marx infamously, if not always, maintained). Again, to those versed in eighteenth century political philosophy, Johnson’s words are at least momentarily arresting because there seems to be so little that is new in them.

If these were just coincidences of rhetoric, then their interest would indeed be merely momentary. But more is at work. What Johnson’s remarks indicate is that the controversial theoretical postulates of the eighteenth century have become the political commonsense of the twenty-first. It is now only minimally controversial to say that self-interest is the motor of economic growth. More than that, retailers across the nation will presently be hoping that envy and greed (albeit channeled through familial love) fuel a Christmas spending spree that lifts sales in a sluggish economy. The government will be hoping for this too: a high street boost could lead to rising employment, and thus more sales, and thus more employment, etc., and for which the Coalition can hope to take credit. By contrast, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees was declared a public nuisance and burned by order of the Grand Jury of Middlesex, and his name became a byword for licentious scandal and corrupt self-indulgence for the next hundred years. (His accusations that the great and good of society were all selfish hypocrites, and his suggestion that brothels be legalized to protect the chastity of well-bred women who would otherwise be seduced by horny men, didn’t help.)

As for concerns about growing inequality, these are now predominantly moral objections made from within a liberal capitalist perspective, not political ones made from outside: complaints that the gap has become too wide, not about the basic fact of a gap. Nobody worth listening to seriously believes that liberal capitalism is on the brink of collapse. What is nonetheless widely yearned for, and yearned for by serious and reasonable people, is a less brutal and less extreme instantiation of inequality than the one we have presently stumbled into. This lack of a realistic means for actually bringing about a less brutal form of capitalism generates the aura of aimless despair that allows Russell Brand to be taken seriously as a political commentator. Johnson is without doubt blasé about the growing wealth gap, and to some that makes him deeply morally distasteful, in a way the painfully frivolous Brand cannot be. Yet the emptiness of Brand’s alternative of an unspecified ‘revolution’ confirms that whilst Johnson’s views may be extreme in their moral complacency, they are mainstream in their underlying politics.

What Johnson also demonstrates is that in the transition from theory to practice our political commonsense has largely lost sight of the eighteenth century’s most profound warnings. What Mandeville really offered was not – as his critics frequently misunderstood – an exhortation to greed, but a withering satire of the entire basis of modern society. According to Mandeville economic prosperity was necessarily bought at the price of moral corruption: selfishness, envy, and greed were the root of jobs, wealth, and comfort. We could not have the latter without the former. Hence, the importance of Mandeville’s infamous subtitle: ‘private vices, public benefits’. The point being that what we got from our Faustian pact for prosperity was benefit, not virtue. Societies based on commercial exchange were, according to Mandeville, hopelessly morally compromised.

Adam Smith softened this blow by distinguishing self-interest from selfishness. Mandeville’s polemical claim that moral corruption necessarily underlays material prosperity could be resisted. Self-interested behaviour wasn’t virtuous, but it wasn’t necessarily vicious, either. Commercial society could at least aspire to be morally neutral, if probably nothing more. Yet whilst Smith denied that commercial society was necessarily morally corrupt, he warned in the starkest terms of the likelihood of its effects upon those who inhabited it:

‘This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.’

As people went about conducting their affairs solely with regard to self-interest, they would corrode the moral sentiments of empathy and benevolence that prevented them from being the irredeemably selfish egoists Mandeville had claimed they secretly were. The result was ironic: the price of prosperity was the likelihood that whilst commercial society was not necessarily morally corrupt, it would likely become so.

Kant’s vision of the modern liberal state, a vision that we have more or less since come to adopt, was principally orientated around the control of selfish individuals who sought prosperity for the status this brought, not the needs it satisfied. In this sense Kant looked back past Smith, endorsing something closer to the psychological account of Mandeville. Certainly, Kant put little faith in Smith’s hope that a well-cultivated sense of empathy might stave off the moral and political effects of man’s violent, acquisitive, and confrontational psychological impulses. The modern state would have to be Hobbesian at its heart: unified beneath an overarching power able to coercively enforce conformity. The difference was that by the end of the eighteenth century Kant’s Hobbesian state would be a trading state, powered by the motor of economic exchange, something Hobbes, writing in the seventeenth century, had come too early to foresee.

Central to both Mandeville and Kant’s accounts was a vision of human beings as fallen: irreducibly sinful and compromised in their motivations and behaviour. As a consequence they both issued a profound moral indictment of man’s present condition, ultimately inseparable from their respective economic and political analyses. The decline of Christianity in the intervening 200 years has not, however, meant the disappearance of fallen man. Instead, fallen man has become economic man. Still self-interested, competitive, greedy, and envious, but now without a background theodicy to remind us that such a creature is a deeply disreputable and compromised thing: something to be wary of, and certainly not to be celebrated. This in itself would not matter – except that economic man is today at the heart of every policy-maker’s conception of what each of us fundamentally is and must be. It is on assumptions about economic man’s wants and behaviour that our society is most thoroughly founded.

Boris Johnson rehearses, badly and in ignorance, the basic logic of Mandeville and Kant’s thought. But he has no sense of the moral urgency of their message. The sense that our prosperity comes at a price, and that smug self-satisfaction is anything but a respectable response. As for the Labour Party’s conspicuous inability to articulate an effective or meaningful alternative to Johnson and his ilk, this indicates that Smith was probably right. That commercial society not only corrupts, but incapacitates us for recognising what we have lost, and of remembering or discovering how we might do better. As Russell Brand’s recent popularity as a political commentator indicates, many still rightly yearn for something better. But to merely yearn, in the absence of any actual alternative, is perhaps the most pathetically (in the proper sense of the word) impotent of political dispositions.

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