The Emperor Has No Clothes:
by Sean Gabb
Politics beyond Liberty and Equality
Civitas, London, 2007, 95pp, £7.50 (pbk)
ISBN 978 1 903386 57 6
At the beginning of the short book, its author insists that “I do not speak for the Conservative Party”. This being said, Dr Kruger is a special adviser to David Cameron and is a former leader writer for The Daily Telegraph. He also showed the manuscript of his book to David Willetts, Oliver Letwin, Daniel Hannan, and to various other people more or less closely connected with the Leader of the Conservative Party. It was, moreover, discussed before publication at one of the lunchtime seminars hosted by Civitas. I have attended several of these, and it is easy to imagine that this one was attended by just about every important academic or intellectual connected with the Conservative Party.
The disclaimer, therefore, is a matter of form. The book is – and is intended to be regarded as – an authoritative statement of Conservative Party thought. I do not see how there can be any reasonable doubt of this. But it is a point that I must ask my readers to bear continually in mind. I once sat next to Dr Kruger at a private dinner party. I do not recall that we disagreed on anything. He wrote a very nice article last year, regretting the death of Chris Tame. Some of the names given his his Acknowledgements are of friends. If I now say that this book is an intellectual fraud in its intention, and shabby in its execution, I hope he and they and you will not take my comments as personal.
So far as I can understand him, Dr Kruger is trying to analyse the current state of affairs in this country. During the second half of the twentieth century, he says, we tried two great experiments. The first was socialist equality. This began to break down in the 1960s, when trade union privilege and heavy spending on welfare led to inflation and a loss of competitiveness.
The second was a return to market liberty under Margaret Thatcher. This restored the economy, but led to a collapse of various customs and institutions that gave meaning to the lives of individuals. Before coming to power in 1997, Tony Blair did promise to sort out the resulting disorder and general loss of faith in the system. However, since then, that promise has been comprehensively broken. We therefore need a new government that will reconcile the jointly necessary but often opposed impulses of liberty and equality. Thus the title of the book.
Exactly how these impulses are to be reconciled within a new and stable order is not made clear. But Dr Kruger does excuse himself in advance with the statement:
In this essay I try to outline the political philosophy which justifies the ‘communal [but] not official’. It is necessarily abstract, a ‘resort to theories’, in Burke’s disparaging aside. It is devoid of detailed policy, yet I hope it demonstrates that, all our common rhetoric notwithstanding, there are real differences between Right and Left, founded on very different ideas of how society works.[p.11]
This is a wise excuse, as it saves Dr Kruger from having to admit the fraudulent nature of his analysis. For there was no return to market liberty in the 1980s. If it took me until nearly the end of the decade to shake off the false assumptions I had made as a teenager, I was one of the earliest conservatives to understand the real nature of the Thatcher project. It was to reconcile the fact of an extended and meddling state apparatus, plus big business privilege, with the need to generate enough wealth to pay for it all.
There was no reduction in tax for the middle classes. There was no overall cutting of regulations. Instead, the taxes and regulations were revised so that we could, by immense hard work, reverse the long term relative decline of the British economy.
As for the working classes, their ability to slow the growth of gross domestic product was checked by the ending of various – and perhaps indefensible – protections, and by the importation of a new proletariat from elsewhere in the world that had no perceived commonality of interest with the native working classes, and that would, by its presence, drive down their living standards.
So much for economic liberty. Where other liberties were concerned, we saw a consistent rolling back of the gains made since about 1600. Procedural safeguards were shredded, so that the law was turned from a shield for the people into a sword for the state. A close surveillance was imposed over our financial affairs. Freedom of speech and association were eroded – partly by direct changes in the law, partly by creating a general environment within which disobedience to the expressed will of the authorities became unwise. At the same time, verbal and institutional associations that bound us to a more liberal past were progressively broken; and structures of democratic accountability were replaced by indirect rule from Brussels and from a more general New World Order.
The election of a New Labour Government changed very little. Government under Tony Blair became more politically correct than it would have been under the Conservatives. But this was balanced by a greater caution in matters of European harmonisation. The destruction of the Common Law and its replacement by a panopticon police state went on regardless.
There is not – and has not been during the past quarter century – any political conflict in this country between liberty and equality. We are both less equal today than we were in about 1980, and we are less free. Such debate as there is between the two main political parties is over details. The project common to both Labour and Conservative Parties is the transformation of this country into a place where the upper reaches of the ruling class can enjoy a status and relative wealth not known since early Stuart times – and in which there can be no challenge from below.
The Conservatives under Mrs Thatcher started this. It was continued by Labour under Mr Blair. It will not be reversed by the Conservatives under Mr Cameron.
Given these facts, it is not surprising that Dr Kruger has refused to discuss any detailed policies. Where nothing new is intended, nothing at all should be promised.
But this brings me to the apparent purpose of the book. Our politics may be degraded from the level even of the late 1970s. But we have yet to sink entirely to the level of America, where elections seem to be decided wholly by money and competing armies of drum majorettes. It is still expected that political debate in this country should proceed from an intellectual basis. The Conservatives have no intellectual basis that they dare honestly explain to us. They must at the same time convey the impression of one. They have, therefore, put Dr Kruger up to write a whole book about Conservative principle, but to do so in a way that will allow almost no one to understand him.
The language of his book is in all matters of importance pretentious and obscure.
Take, for example, this:
Central to the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung or ‘sublation’ is the preservation of the antithetic stages passed through by the thesis. Not only is the thesis ‘realised’ by its sublation: the antithesis too is strengthened and perpetuated. But the thesis only preserves those elements of the antithesis it finds conducive to itself – there must be, in the key Hegelian word, an ‘ethical’ relationship between thesis and antithesis, by which one relates to another in a natural and organic manner.[p.18]
Or take this:
The person abstracted from all contingent circumstances – the main in isolation – is not truly a man at all, merely (Hegel again) ‘the sheer empty unit of the person’. The original Kantian individual who signs the social contract from behind the veil of ignorance, with his objective intellect and dispassionate morality, is admirable and necessary. But he is not enough.[p.49]
Or take this:
For freedom is attained, said Hegel, not by the individual divorcing himself from society but by marrying it. True – what he called ‘concrete’ – freedom is not ‘the freedom of the void’. It is the freedom of ‘finding oneself’ in society; of ‘being with oneself in another’. By my marriage with society I attain my true self, which before was abstract. I am realised, socialised; I whisk aside the veil of ignorance, ‘the colourful canvass of the world is before me’; I plunge into it, and find myself ‘at home’.[p.51]
The meaning of this second and third can perhaps be recovered. They appear to mean that individuals function best when they are surrounded by familiar things that give meaning and security to their lives. As to the first, your guess is as good as mine.
There is page after page of this stuff. We have commonplaces dressed up to look profound. We have manifest nonsense. We have knowing references to Plato and Aristotle and Hobbes and Burke and Mill. We have untranslated words and phrases, or words that have been taken into English but never widely used. There is, of course, “Aufhebung“. This is at least translated – though, until I looked it up in a dictionary, I could only understand “sublation” from its Latin roots. But there is also “noumenal”[p.13], “heteronomous”[p.38], “soixantes-huitards“[p.40], “thetic”[p.66], and much else besides. Oh – and we have the word “discombobulated”[p.58]. This is an illiterate Americanism from the 1830s, and has no fixed meaning. Such meaning as Dr Kruger gives it must be gathered from the context in which he uses it.
There are many subjects, I grant, discussion of which requires a specialised language. There is music. There is the law. There are the natural sciences. But this is so only for the most elaborate discussions. For basic presentations, plain English has always been found sufficient. And it is not so for discussing political philosophy. For this, plain English is ideally suited. I do know languages – Slovak, for example – where foreign or unfamiliar words are needed for meaningful discussion of political philosophy. Even here, though, I deny the utility of asking thinkers like Hegel or Kant for guidance. German philosophy is notoriously a learned gibberish. For nearly two centuries, it has been used to justify every imaginable lapse from humanity and common sense. Dr Kruger is supposed to be an expert on Edmund Burke. It is worth asking why he has, on this occasion, avoided all attempt at imitating the clear English of the Enlightenment.
The likeliest answer is that enlightenment is not among his intentions. As said, that must be to express himself in a manner that almost none of his readers will understand. This book has been sent out for review to hundreds of journalists and general formers of opinion. It is hoped that these will all skim though it and scratch their heads. “What a bright young man this is” we are all to say. “What he says is all above my head, but I do not wish to look stupid, so will join in the applause at his erudition and profundity.”
It is all like the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Newspaper articles will be written about the “intellectual revival” in the Conservative Party. Gossip columns will be filled with references to the gigantic intellect of Dr Kruger. Even hostile articles about Mr Cameron will contain some flattering mention of the philosophical depths with which he has been put in touch.
If this were all one could say about his book, there would be much reason to condemn Dr Kruger. But there is more. His book is not only pretentious and obscure. It is also incompetent. If he were one of my students, and he were to offer this to me as a long undergraduate essay, he would have it thrown straight back in his face.
Look at this:
But the 1980s also saw the defoliation of the natural landscape. In The City of God Augustine quotes a Briton saying ‘the Romans make a desert and they call it peace’.[p.2]
Never mind that defoliation happens to trees, not natural landscapes. What matters here is that St Augustine did not say this, and could not have said it, bearing in mind the purpose of his City of God. The correct reference is to Tacitus in his biography of Agricola: “Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium atque ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant“. Dr Kruger went, I believe, to an expensive public school, I to a comprehensive school in South London. Perhaps the classical languages are not so well studied in these former places as they once were. But anyone who wants to quote the ancients should make at least some effort to do it properly.
Is this pedantry? I do not think so. The quotation should be familiar to everyone of moderate education – even to people who do not know Latin. Its use is not absolutely required for the meaning of what Dr Kruger is trying to say. Like much else, it is there to impress. And he gets it wrong. And the fault is not confined to him. This book has gone through many drafts. Remember that it has been read and discussed by every intellectual close to the Conservative leadership. Even so, this glaring error on the second page was not picked up and corrected. This says more about the intellectual quality of modern Conservatives than anything else in the book.
Or take the casual reference on p.71 to Frederic Bastiat as a “nineteenth-century anarchist”. Bastiat believed in far less government than Dr Kruger or his employers. But he was a liberal, not an anarchist.
Or take this:
Not everything that ‘is permitted’, said St Paul: ‘is beneficial’.[p.55]
This is a reference to 1 Corinthians 10:23: “All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not”. The meaning of the verse is difficult, and may refer to the eating of sacrificial meat. It does nothing to advance whatever point Dr Kruger is making. It is, again, there to give an impression of learning that he does not seem, on examination, to possess.
Or take this:
‘The state is an association’ says Aristotle in the first sentence of The Politics.[p.79]
Aristotle may not have said this. In Greek, he says – and do pardon the Roman transliteration – “epeide pasan polin horomen koinosian…“. The word in question is given in the standard translations as “community”. It might bear the Oakeshottian sense of “association” – but this is a gloss that needs to be explained.
Or – to inhale yet another blast of Teutonic hot air – take this:
Hegel famously argued that the slave could be more ‘free’ than the master, for the slave is contextualised, subject to circumstances, and related to his fellows even if only through their common bondage. Even though he lacks liberty, one of the three rights of negative freedom (even slaves, in ancient Rome, had the right to life and property), he has more positive freedom than his master, whose wealth makes him independent, and so unrelated to others. The slave is realised, and the master is not.[p.70]
Regardless of whether Hegel actually said anything so ridiculous – not that I would put anything past him – these words astonish me. In the first place, Roman slaves did not have a right to life: they had, from fairly late in the Imperial period, a right not to be butchered by their masters without what a court run by other slaveholders considered to be good reason. Their property was at best a peculium, to which they had no legal right. In the second place, no playing with words can possibly obliterate the factual difference between freeman and slave. If Dr Kruger doubts this, I only wish I could oblige by chaining him to an oar for a few days, or putting him in one of those disgusting underground prisons, or setting him to tend the fish for Vedius Pollio.
Much else in this book is worth despising. These three sentences simply make me angry.
But I turn back to the foreign words. I have found three uses of “Aufhebung“. These all look like the products of a cut and paste operation. They are all unexplained. When I come across phrases like “the crash of Platonic speculation into Aristotelian reality”[p.19], I now find it worth asking if Dr Kruger himself has the foggiest idea what he is trying to say.
Some decent endnotes might help to answer this question. But the notes are about as slipshod as they could be without not being added at all. Quotations are referenced with the author and title and date of the relevant work. But no editions or page numbers are given. Bearing in mind the length and complexity of the works cited – by Adam Smith, Hegel and Hayek, for instance – we can legitimately wonder how many of these Dr Kruger has actually read.
Of course, I blame the Conservative leadership for trying to make us believe it intends to do other than continue the work of turning England into the sort of despotism that would have made James II gasp and stare. But I also blame Dr Kruger for executing his commission so incompetently. And I must blame many of my friends for having let their names be used as an endorsement of his efforts – and for having brought themselves into disrepute by not objecting to so many scandalous blunders.
Above all, I blame Civitas – otherwise the most authoritative and radical of modern policy institutes. It has published the longest petition of intellectual bankruptcy I have read in years. I do most strongly urge David Green to withdraw this book at once and remove it from the Civitas catalogue.
NB – Sean Gabb’s novel The Column of Phocas (£8.99) will be withdrawn from sale in the next few months, prior to its reissue in February 2008 by a multinational publishing group. Buy copies of the first edition while you can from http://tinyurl.co.uk/z31v or via Amazon: http://tinyurl.co.uk/2cnw The sequel has already been completed.
You can download the first three chapters free of charge from: http://tinyurl.co.uk/kkl4