‘’Twas ever thus’ (see https://bernardjporter.com/2022/04/01/twas-ever-thus/) is only one of the false conclusions that people claim to infer from ‘history’. Another is ‘They’re all the same’ – and always have been, it’s implied. Usually applied to politicians, and to describe their venality and hypocrisy, it’s a way of undermining all of them, and consequently the ones you presently have in your sights. Just like ‘’Twas ever thus’, it also has the effect – or at least the tendency – of destroying faith in all governments, and hence in ‘the system’ overall. It’s a reason why people used to become ‘Anarchists’, if they had thought it through; and now are ‘Populists’, if they hardly think at all. ‘What’s the point in voting?’ if all political candidates are like this: ‘on the make’, only looking out for ‘Number One’, and ready to lie and swindle their ways into power? And of course this, too, is supposed to have been ‘ever thus’; which makes it doubly hopeless to try to change it.
It’s arguable that this way of thinking is one of the greatest obstacles to responsible democracy at the present time; accounting for low electoral turnouts in Britain and the USA, for example, and the widespread vilification of most democratic politicians. This, incidentally, and to refer back to my earlier post, was certainly not ‘ever thus’. There have been times when some British politicians, at least, were far more respected than they are today. Their low reputation now is partly their own fault, of course. The various scandals that have beset them over the past few years – votes for cash, expenses, duck houses, second jobs, illegal parties, bullying, sexual harassment, drug-taking – can’t be blamed on anyone but themselves. But it should be blatantly obvious – do I need to give examples? – that they can’t ‘all’ be like that. Other professions must be more essentially corrupt. (Estate agents? Popular journalists?) And there may also be another factor at work here, exploiting the depravity of some MPs, for different ends.
The popular Press, especially, has leapt on to these instances of depravity: partly because they are the juicy sort of stuff it knows will appeal to its readers; but also for more venal reasons. The British Press, remember, is mainly owned by capitalists – or ‘oligarchs’, as they would be called if they were Russian. In this ‘late capitalist’ age of ours, it is – or is conceived to be – a major interest of capitalism to be enabled to operate ‘freely’: that is, without let or hindrance, or sometimes even any regulations to restrain it; which is what the neo-liberal Right is presently offering. But of course to most reasonable people – including reasonable capitalists – capitalism needs a degree of outside control, in order to soften the injurious social impact of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ features of it. And that can only be done politically; which is as good a reason as any for the oligarchs to want to discredit politics and politicians altogether. This may help to account for the way Jeremy Corbyn, in particular, was treated by the Press and by the Tory Right in the last British election; largely, one suspects, because his transparent – even naïve – honesty didn’t fit the image they wanted to project of politics generally. ‘’Twas ever thus’ and ‘They’re all the same’ contributed to this.
They’re also a way of excluding ‘principle’ from politics, so enabling Machiavels like Dominic Cummings to ‘play’ it simply as a ‘game’. So far as we – the ordinary people who play along with this – are concerned, there are two further factors favouring both ‘ever thus-ism’ and ‘all the same-ism’ as contributions to political debate. The first of these is the healthy scepticism that ought of course to be encouraged in any electorate: a reluctance to accept authority without question, and a desire to find out what might lie beneath it. That’s fine so far as it goes: essential, in fact, if we’re to be able to make intelligent assessments of the policies being offered to us. ‘Intelligence’ however, requires thought; and simply replacing ‘authority’ with a blanket dismissal of any of it on the grounds of ‘ever thus-ism’ and ‘all the same-ism’, isn’t a thoughtful response at all. Indeed, this may be why these two approaches are so popular today. They don’t require critical thought. They’re ways of dismissing all politicians and their opinions without needing to come properly to grips with them; yet giving the impression that you have come to grips with them, simply because you ‘know’ what lies behind them. People need simplistic analyses like these, in order to make them appear sophisticated and critical, but at the same time to save them from the hard intellectual effort of serious thinking.
Now this may well have been ‘ever thus’: among many people, that is. And just now it’s difficult to know how it should be met, in order to insert a greater degree of rationality into our ‘democratic’ politics, and to counter the Machiavels. At present the House of Lords – a more calmly deliberative body – seems to be our best bet; extraordinarily, in view of its almost indefensible role and composition. Can ‘history’ give any other clues?
Yes, Trump, Putin, Orban, Hitler (1923-33) and other anti-democrats have always known the best way to subvert confidence in democracy is to attack elected politicans through the smear and the sneer, and of course they are helped by the fact that party politics has always attracted its share of villains and chancers. But it’s for voters to sort the best from the worse, no easy matter but requiring some informed interest in the polituical process, generally sadly lacking but stymied by the abysmal standards of the mass media.
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