The death of Britain’s dignity

We largely have Christianity to thank for our faltering modern belief that human life is sacred. The ancients took a much more casual approach. Unwanted babies were abandoned to die or be rescued by strangers: like Romulus and Remus, Rome’s mythical founders, who were raised by a wolf.

Much as new lives were not automatically worth preserving, taking your own life in the ancient world wasn’t automatically bad either. Socrates’ decision to drink hemlock rather than face exile, was deemed honourable by many ancient philosophers.

Christian doctrine, though, taught that human life is sacred, because it holds a spark of the divine. Thus only God should be permitted to give or take life. The 325AD Council of Nicaea decreed that every Christian village should have a hostelry for the sick, a principle which extended to abandoned children. For the same reason, a long-standing Christian tradition forbids suicide. But as the Christian era has faded, so old debates about the beginning and end of life have re-surfaced – most recently, in the accelerating campaign to legalise assisted dying.

The latest such effort, Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill, has been debated today in the Lords. It’s a campaign that kicked off initially as Christianity began fading in earnest, in the early 20th century, and has accelerated sharply in the last two decades.

But it’s not enough just to see this as further evidence of Christianity’s terminal illness. For even when Christendom dominated the West, the edges of life have always been vulnerable to a nudge this way or that. And this in turn shows why even non-believers should think twice about legalising such nudges — even when they’re justified in the name of choice, agency or compassion.

The “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Christianity, picked up speed after World War I. When church leaders on all sides cheered on that bloodbath as a “crusade”, perhaps it’s no wonder “the Church says so” lost its shine afterwards, and “progress” began to look like ‘whatever the Church forbids’.

Unsurprisingly, campaigns challenging Church teaching on the sanctity of the beginning and end of life gathered pace in the Thirties. The Abortion Law Reform Society was founded in 1936, while the first Voluntary Euthanasia Bill was proposed even earlier, in 1931.

The Abortion Law Reform Society got its way in 1968; closely tracking this victory for individual choice, another effort was made to legalise voluntary euthanasia in 1969. Though this attempt was unsuccessful, more recent efforts have sounded an insistent drumbeat, in tandem with decline of Christian faith.

The 2001 census reported that 71.7% of Britons described themselves as Christianby 2011 that was 59.3%, and it’s predicted to be below 50% when this year’s census data are released. And since the 1997 attempt by Labour MP Joe Ashton to introduce a Doctor Assisted Dying Bill, there have been nine further attempts, of which Meacher’s is the most recent.

The principal defence of assisted dying is that an individual of sound mind should be free to choose whether he or she continues to suffer. Many today find this convincing. But when we weight the merits of this argument, it’s worth considering some of the less-counted costs of the successful parallel campaign for ‘choice’ at life’s beginning.

Today, legal abortion in the UK is widely viewed as a core feminist victory. But while this change eased the predicament of countless women facing unwanted pregnancy, it also had wider knock-on effects. For while legalisation gave more women the option to end a pregnancy, not all of them wanted to take it.

Meanwhile, though, the fact that carrying the baby to term was now optional eased social pressure on those men who caused accidental pregnancies. One US study shows that the availability of oral contraceptives so increased demand for extra-marital sex that — because the method wasn’t 100% reliable — it also increased the rate of extra-marital pregnancies by around 15%. At the same time, another US study shows that legal abortion drove a parallel decline in shotgun marriages that far outstripped the number of accidental pregnancies forestalled by abortion.

Thus, while advocates of legal abortion believed that it would reduce instances of single motherhood, its paradoxical effect was the opposite. By relieving social pressure on men to step up after impregnating a woman, legalising abortion accelerated the prevalence of single motherhood — a phenomenon now widely recognised as a central to the feminisation of poverty.

Most women in the UK support the availability of at least some legal abortion. My aim here isn’t to re-litigate this acutely sensitive debate, but to draw out a more general implication: that when a previously unavoidable life experience becomes avoidable, wider attitudes to that experience will change. And for some, it’ll stop being a matter for sympathy.

This is the shift which justified the Right-wing depiction of single mothers pervasive during my youth in the Major years, and still widely associated with individualist Thatcherite Toryism: lazy, parasitic “welfare scroungers”. Implicitly, those who took this position assumed that because such women could have terminated a pregnancy, the duties following on having not done so should be wholly on their shoulders. In other words: if suffering is avoidable, the choice to suffer comes to be seen as wholly private.

And it’s on these grounds that we should be wary of assisted dying, regardless of our views on the immortal soul. For in practice, over the increasingly liberal 20th century, it’s been consistently the case that what looks like ‘choice’ for the well-off gets underwritten for the less wealthy by the welfare state. In the case of accidental pregnancy, for example, as single mothers grew in number others rightly sought to relieve the resulting poverty and suffering.

Again, I mention this not to re-litigate these debates and certainly not to stigmatise those who rely on these resources. Rather, I want to sound a note of pessimism about how sustainable this dynamic will be in the 21st century. For the expansion of the welfare state as underwriter of last resort for personal choice is predicated on economic growth. And this in turn relies heavily on population growth. And while that well seemed bottomless in the Peak Boomer years of the 20th century, the 21st so far has seen economic shocks, concentration of wealth in a super-elite, and a globally collapsing birth rate. In other words: the enabling conditions for a 20th-century welfare state are crumbling in front of our eyes.

We’re already seeing intensifying competition for a dwindling pot of taxpayer support, between different interest groups. Thanks to the demographics of the UK’s voting public, which skews toward the old, victory in this struggle has thus far gone to the elderly. But this may yet change, as demographics shift and belts are tightened. And history teaches us that even during the Christian era, when life was explicitly defended as sacred, scarcity has at times driven people put a thumb on the scales.

Folk songs tell of women who give birth out of wedlock and murder the newborns. And at the other end of life, even Christian European cultures sometimes practised “mercy killings” of the elderly.

In Sardinia, the femina accabadòra, the “lady of the good death” would be summoned to the bedside of someone very old or terminally ill, and after reciting a final ritual blessing would kill the sufferer with a blow to the temple, using a special hammer. The Galluras Ethnographic Museum in Luras includes an example of this implement, resting with a gothic flourish on the pillow of an empty bed. Similarly, early 20th-century ethnographic reports describe Lapot, a practice in the Carpathian mountains in which an elderly person unable to care for themselves would be ritually killed by a relative.

The common factor in such killings was a shortage of resources. That is, societies making grim choices about what to do with those so old, young or ill they’re wholly dependent on care – and to whom a community is unable or unwilling to devote the necessary resources.

And notwithstanding cruel conservative stereotypes, it’s overwhelmingly scarcity that drives the “choice” to end a pregnancy. In the US, the poorest 12% of women account for almost 50% of abortions. And a glance through women’s stories swiftly illustrates just how far the individual “choice” to end a pregnancy is often far from free, but rather a reluctant decision driven overwhelmingly by poverty.

In a world where dwindling welfare resources are ever more grudgingly funded by a shrinking working-age population, it’s easy to imagine the arguments from scarcity that will follow, ever more explicitly, upon the transformation of terminal illness into a “choice”. Indeed, they’re already foreshadowed by an assessment of assisted suicide by the Canadian government, which noted that legalisation “could reduce annual health care spending across Canada by between $34.7 million and $138.8 million”.

Those individualists now pushing to extend “choice” to the end of life are still wedded to a hyper-individualist twentieth-century mindset that relies on an ever-expanding welfare state to underwrite its freedoms. But they’re not paying attention: the age of abundance that shaped that dream of endless choice is already over.

And yet they push on. If they succeed, many people now healthy will face terminal illness in a “care” landscape created by individualists, for a society that’s enshrined “choice” over any public duty of compassion — and that can no longer afford a publicly-funded care infrastructure to pick up the pieces. I don’t want to live in a world where ‘tough-minded’ right-liberals write op-eds implying that those with terminal illnesses who refuse the Socratic way out are selfish parasites.

A cynic might argue that given all this, adjusting the statute book to allow for a 21st-century “lapot” is merely sensible. But if this is so, we should drop the rhetoric about freedom and compassion. We should be under no illusions about what this Bill is for, or about the callously neo-Roman attitude to human life that will follow in its wake.

Originally published at UnHerd

Is there a feminist case for virtue?

I’ve been reviewing like mad: first Amia Srinivasan’s The Right To Sex, which I found so evasive I concluded it was a coded cry for help from inside the woke ivory tower. And secondly, Shon Faye’s The Transgender Issue, which I argue here makes a compelling case for trans activism as a legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism – complete with the ambivalent and sometimes matricidal mother/daughter dynamics that pervaded that movement. No wonder the so-called ‘TERF wars’ are so bitter.

Elsewhere, I proposed in American Affairs that what we understand as ‘feminism’ is to a great extent an effect of industrial-era economic shifts, that triggered wholesale re-negotiation of sex roles. But further, that we’re now leaving the industrial era, and thus once again re-negotiating sex roles; and if we try to do this on the industrial-era yardstick for what constitutes women’s interests, we’re going to end up somewhere very dark indeed.

I agree with the intersectionalists that feminism can’t be understood as universal; applying that logic across history opens the possibility that twentieth-century feminist ideals that were legitimately in our interests then may no longer be so now. And all these themes: economic transitions, matricide, woke feminism and trans activism, come together in reflections this week on yet another book: Erika Bachiochi’s The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy.

Another recent read, Susan Faludi’s superb 2010 essay American Electra, discusses the matricidal streak in the feminist movement. Faludi argues that what she calls this ‘persistent barrenness’ (in other words the repeated rejection by successive ‘waves’ of whatever their foremothers valued) has its roots in the 1920s. At this point, following the suffragists’ success in attaining votes for women, a movement that had sought political change with and in the name of its daughters fragmented from a more matrilineal approach toward an individualist, consumer one based on rejecting maternal heritage:

The prevailing pageantry of the 1920s wasn’t simply an infantilization of the girl. It was, more ominously, an eviction of the mother. The forces arrayed against the mother were many. Some of her antagonists would be presented as allies, sympathetic “experts” who knew better than she did how to do her job. Mothers, the new and reigning “behavioralist” psychologists held, knew nothing about “scientific” child rearing and would do irreparable harm to children if they followed their own instincts instead of the male authorities.

To this end, mothers’ homespun skills were cast out in favour of ‘experts’, and crafts in favour of a newly consumerist expert-led womanhood. Faludi quotes sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, who reported how daughters “fresh from domestic science in school” now “ridicule the mothers’ inherited rule-of-thumb practices as ‘old fashioned.’”

A glance around Mumsnet discussions on unwanted advice from one’s own mother says we’re still living in that world. Putting together Faludi’s connection of consumer society with that ‘matricidal’ streak in feminism, and my own exploration of the relationships between economic transition and the emergence of ‘women’s rights’ as such, I was thrilled to speak this week with Erika Bachiochi, a legal scholar and director of the Abigail Adams Insitute’s Wollstonecraft Project, about how on earth she found time to write a scholarly pro-family re-reading of Wollstonecraft while caring for seven children.

“That is maybe the question”, she told me. Her approach, I gather, was first having a very supportive husband, plus ensuring her children didn’t expect her to entertain them: “I’d be around, but reading”. But while she acknowledges that Wollstonecraft’s own life didn’t match the ideals she set out, Bachiochi tells me she wanted to write this book partly because “I actually have the family life Wollstonecraft describes”.

Bachiochi’s recent The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Legacy seeks to recoup Mary Wollstonecraft from her current role in the pantheon as proto-liberal, for a more Aristotelian understanding of human excellence as rooted in our common experience of rationality and our obligation to order that to the good.

Wollstonecraft, as Bachiochi characterises her, wasn’t interested in a conception of humans with rights in some abstract sense, but in a more grounded, relational one: we have rights in order to do the right thing – which for her was centred around family life.

Bachiochi sets out the way Wollstonecraft challenged Rousseau’s vision of the ideal liberal subject, who was a male one possessing male virtues. Women, he thought, were fundamentally different, had their own set of virtues, and were (or should be) oriented toward pleasing men as well as manipulating them toward moral improvement by offering or withholding sex.

Wollstonecraft disagreed. “Wollstonecraft thought virtue was human, and God’s attributes reflected in humans,” Bachiochi explains. “You can only judge virtue by understanding the attributes of God, and it makes no sense to say they’re specific to sex.” But what about sex roles, then? “Different lives may mean different manifestations of virtue and these may be sexed; but virtue means using reason in principle to master one’s appetites. And that’s applicable to both sexes in pursuit of their duties.”

Wollstonecraft, she tells me, also saw how harmful Rousseau’s notion of sexed souls was for women, once you put it together with his idea that passion, not reason, should lead. “If we allow passions to direct, and we agree with Rousseau that men are more libidinous, then an ideology of passion means freedom mostly for men.”

Looking around, it’s clear who won. It wasn’t Wollstonecraft. One thing that intrigues me about this debate is the way it’s reproduced even among those who see themselves as fiercely anti-feminist: see for example the neoreactionary writer ‘Zero HP Lovecraft’ here expressing a very Rousseauian vision of proper relations between the sexes:Zero HP Lovecraft (HAVER OF VITAL MAGNETISM) @0x49fa98@JamesMaddenUWU @russiancosmist @The_WGD If your wife “thinks for herself” – that ain’t yo wife, that’s yo husbandAugust 23rd 202110 Retweets172 Likes

Much of what we understand as liberal feminism today consists, essentially, of women rejecting this contemptuously-framed role as second fiddle to the active, passionate, political man, and seeking to join men on the same terms. (The perennial question of who looks after the babies while we’re all smashing glass ceilings then spawns its own set of bitter debates).

In any case, Rousseau’s fantasy of a passive, second-order feminine Other to act as foil for his idealised, atomised, individuated liberal subject, is close to the beating heart of liberal modernity. And inasmuch as liberal feminism accepts these premises, and sees female humans as of a different metaphysical nature to male ones, it’s bound to reproduce its contempt for care and marginalisation of mothers.

Contrasting The Rights of Woman with my other two August reads, The Right To Sex and The Transgender Issue, it’s clear that the latter two argue from and within the matricidal tradition that’s descended from these early debates over sex roles, that took place in another immense economic transition. Srinivasan manages to write a whole book about sex without more than a passing mention of love, biology or children – all topics with more than a passing connection to the subject, or so you’d think. And Faye has argued convincingly for trans activism as the legitimate daughter of second-wave feminism’s intermittent trans-humanist fantasies of using technology to liberate women permanently from the need to be mothers.

As presented by Bachiochi, Mary Wollstonecraft’s vision of women’s rights wasn’t rooted in repudiation of the obligations and bonds that come with motherhood, in pursuit of pure atomised selfhood, but rather conceived of as one-half of a common human enterprise centred in family life.

As such it’s clear that Erika Bachiochi offers a radical challenge to modes of feminism that have become entrenched orthodoxy. She mounts a defence of common life that centres motherhood to an extent even I, a purported ‘reactionary feminist’, find challenging. That is, she situates the most profound marginalisation of mothers in the drive – led by feminists seeking freedom on equal Rousseauesque terms with men – for abortion rights.

Abortion, Bachiochi argues, has resulted not in greater freedom or equality but more ‘sexual risk-taking’ that largely benefits men, even as it places the women’s movement ‘on the side of the individualistic and consumerist economy, ever hostile to the priorities of the child-rearing family, and so diametrically at odds with the market-resistant logic for which the women’s movement originally stood’.

This is a difficult and emotive subject, and one I approach with some caution. So for now I’ll just say that we continue our steady advance into the ‘Meat Lego Matrix’, a worldview that sees us all – and women especially – as endlessly malleable flesh, and human fertility largely as a biotech market ripe for opening up. And in the light of these changes, it’s possible – though I reserve judgement still – that we may yet find ourselves needing to argue, for women’s sake, against a medical practice that in an earlier socioeconomic context seemed unambiguously to be in women’s interests.

In any case, Bachiochi makes a spirited feminist case against abortion, in the interests of re-situating mothers and motherhood in the women’s movement. And while I have a great deal more thinking to do before I commit myself either way on this topic, as a reader it was a blessed relief to step from the arid, disembodied, amoral circumlocutions of The Right To Sex to Bachiochi’s warm, woman-centred moral clarity.

Two books, then, feted in the mainstream, in different ways pursue the ever-more-disembodied vision of human selfhood first envisioned by Rousseau: a vision that structurally marginalises care, women and motherhood and takes entry into the market and public life plus the medical interruption of pregnancy as core political aims. This tradition has, perhaps unsurprisingly, spawned as its logical daughter a ‘transfeminism’ that unmoors ‘womanhood’ from bodies altogether, in the name of self-realisation and individual freedom.

A third, considerably more marginal book argues the case instead for an engaged, relational understanding of women’s rights and interests, centred in a common human pursuit of excellence and rooted in virtue the obligations of family life – to the extent of challenging our contemporary view of abortion as a feminist ‘right’ as inimical to that pursuit of virtue.

This right here is the emerging terrain of feminist debate in the early twenty-first century. Are we still killing our mothers? What if any are the links between matricide and feticide? Is there a feminist case for virtue? I’m going to leave this open, as this post is now long enough, but this is challenging terrain and merits a great deal more thought.

On why we’re all post-liberal now, with Simeon Burke

I thoroughly enjoyed this challenging but very interesting chat with Simeon Burke on faith, motherhood, feminism, why I don’t believe in progress and why the term ‘post-liberal’ doesn’t really make sense because all politics is post-liberal now.

Our humanity depends on the things we don’t sell

Earlier this year, mining company Rio Tinto dynamited a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in the Pilbara region of Australia, in pursuit of the iron ore deposits that lay beneath the sacred caves. The decision triggered outrage from Aboriginal communities and the wider world alike. Pressure from investors concerned about the resulting PR disaster eventually forced the CEO to resign.

But that’s not much of a victory for those to whom the now-destroyed site was sacred. As a place of pilgrimage, continuously inhabited since before the last Ice Age, its religious significance had accumulated over millennia of repeated visits, inhabitation and ritual. The holiness of Juukan Gorge lay in the unimaginably long-term accretion of memories, social patterns, and shared cultural maps by countless generations of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.

Strip mining, the method of resource extraction used to reach much of Pilbara’s iron ore, was the subject of a blistering 1962 Atlantic essay by Harry Caudill. Titled ‘Rape of the Appalachians,’ it describes a process as violent as the analogy suggests, in which entire mountaintops are removed in search of coal deposits. But when you consider the role played by commerce, it’s more accurate to describe the process as prostitution. 

It’s not unusual for those looking to destigmatize prostitution to argue that selling sexual access to one’s own body should be morally acceptable, precisely because it’s no worse than coal mining. So here we have two sides of a disagreement, both of whom see commonalities between prostitution and mining, even as they disagree over whether the action itself is good or bad.

How would we characterize what prostitution and mining have in common? Resource extraction, perhaps. Dynamiting Appalachian mountaintops has obvious tradeoffs, but on the upside you get to extract coal from the exposed rock, which you can then use to generate electricity. We accept the environmental destruction, deterioration in air quality, and changed landscape contours (or at least mostly choose to overlook them), because the alternative—no electricity—appears worse. 

Selling access to female bodies is also a form of resource extraction. The product may be subtler—orgasm, the illusion of intimacy, darker types of wish-fulfilment or, in the case of commercial surrogacy, a human baby—and the tradeoffs less visibly destructive than a landscape reshaped. But the dynamic is similar. In each case, a woman rents access to something that we consider to belong to each individual alone—her body—and earns money in return. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported the decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, recently argued for de-stigmatizing “those who choose to make a living based by self-governing their own bodies.” Earning money independently is good. Self-government over our own resources is good. So on what basis can we criticize people who choose to sell access to their own bodies? 

In his 1954 lecture ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Martin Heidegger argued that when we organize life under the rubric of technology, the world ceases to have a presence in its own right and is ordered instead as ‘standing-reserve’—that is, as resources to be instrumentalized. Coal and iron ore, the products of technology themselves, and even human sexual desire then come to be seen as part of the standing-reserve. It becomes increasingly difficult to see reasons why there should exist any limits on extracting such resources.

Today, it feels as though we’ve always been engaged in this inexorable onward march. From a more mainstream perspective, what Heidegger is describing is simply the process we now call economic development. It is the transition from pre-industrial societies—characterized by primitive and localised forms of exchange, low workforce mobility, and in many cases by extreme poverty—to longer and more complex supply chains, technological innovation, more trade, more stuff, more wealth, and more personal freedom. 

But as Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformationfor much of human history trade occupied a much less central place in human relations than it does today: “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships.” Polanyi showed how in Britain, economic development and the emergent market society was driven by the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860. Prior to enclosure, much of Britain comprised subsistence-farming peasants living on land held and worked in common. 

Enclosures, justified by a need for greater farming efficiency, stripped the peasantry of any right to common land in favor of a private property model. Pre-enclosure, the necessities of life might have been bare, but many of those necessities existed outside the realm of ownership and trade. A peasant might spend his or her whole life in a tied cottage, with a right to common land, working to produce food but with very little need to buy or sell anything. Enclosure reordered whole swathes of human life from the shared, social realm to that of standing-reserve: that is, the realm of private property and transactional exchange.

Post-enclosures, what had previously been held in common—whether land or labor—was now privatized as standing-reserve for exploitation by free individuals. In the process, millions of human lives were arguably made much freer. The working poor were liberated from the feudal ties often implied by subsistence farming, free to move if they pleased, and free to sell their own labor for money. 

But this development was never simply the voluntary spread of a new, enlightened way of making everyone better-off. Like mining, it came with tradeoffs: peasant resistance to the Enclosure Acts suggests that for those people, at least, something was lost. And if enclosure opened up domestic markets in goods such as housing and food, it did not rely on the consent of those British peasants forcibly displaced from subsistence lifestyles into waged factory work.

The violence involved in opening up colonial markets likewise rejected the benign invisible hand. In February 1897, for example, not long after the completion of the enclosures in Britain itself, British imperial officials responded to the Oba of Benin’s refusal to open up trade in palm oil and rubber from his thriving city-state on the Niger Delta. Their answer was the Punitive Expedition, in which 5,000 British troops armed with machine guns razed Benin, massacring its inhabitants, flattening its temples, and looting the bronzes that inscribed its most treasured cultural memories. A month after the Punitive Expedition, a golf course had been laid over the city’s site, with the ninth hole where the most sacred tree had stood.

Most histories of the present characterize the story of economic development as an upward one of human progress, that has liberated millions from indentured labour into greater agency as free individuals in market society. And there’s something in this story of freedom; I wouldn’t swap my life today for that of a medieval subsistence peasant. But, like the extraction of Appalachian coal, nothing comes without tradeoffs. And while it’s easy enough to describe historical events in our transition from a largely relational society to a largely transactional one, the cost of moving to a market society is more difficult to count. 

It’s perhaps easier to find a way into this blind spot via a more recent large-scale displacement of humans from a relational to a market existence. The migration of women from the domestic sphere to the workplace began in earnest in the 20th century, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that it gathered pace around the time the economic gains available via overseas colonial expansion began to falter. I’ve never been a subsistence peasant or Aboriginal nomad, but for a few years I did step a small distance outside the market society as a full-time mother. And what I learned there about how, and why, this form of work is invisible today helps to illuminate the tradeoffs demanded by the market society. It also offers clues as to how we might yet stand for things crucial to humans but indefensible within a transactional worldview, such as ecosystems, sacred places, or even a view of dating that isn’t a sexual marketplace.

For something to be treated as standing-reserve, it must be possible to own it. Our social norms demand that we claim ownership of a resource before exploiting it. Selling my labor in the marketplace presumes that I can dispose of my time as I see fit, that no one else has a claim on my time or my body—in short, that I’m a free individual.

But to be a mother is quintessentially to experience not entirely belonging to yourself. It begins in pregnancy, with the realization that what you eat or drink affects your unborn child; it continues with breastfeeding, as you make the food that nourishes your child with your own body; it goes on far beyond infancy, in the need your children have to be physically close to you. When you see how powerfully your small child craves your presence, it’s very difficult to sustain the illusion of belonging only to yourself.

To the extent that something belongs to others as well as to ourselves—such as common land in 18th century Britain—it will resist being privatized for use as standing-reserve. So caring for my child can’t easily be viewed as a transaction, because it’s a relationship in which we aren’t exactly individuals. That is, we don’t belong only to ourselves, but to each other as well. And when you don’t belong solely to yourself, work can be understood not as a transaction—my labor exchanged for your money—but as relational. In other words, it is less oriented toward resource extraction and exchange than sustaining interdependent patterns of life. 

This in turn helps explain why the politics of our market society has such a blind spot where motherhood is concerned: the market society’s notion of liberation into the standing-reserve is deeply at odds with the work of caring. Sustaining interdependency isn’t about fleeting transactional logic. It’s about maintaining a valuable relationship. I don’t care for my child or my partner because I have a utilitarian goal in mind, but because we belong to each other and that makes caring for them a necessity for my existence too. 

Despite being in a sense repetitive and goal-less, caring is also pregnant with meaning. As the pioneering biosemioticist Wendy Wheeler puts it in Information and Meaning, repetition and pattern are central to communication throughout the organic and even the inorganic world. Organisms and natural systems don’t just respond to one-off signals, but rather exist in emergent, interdependent dialogue with the signals sent by other organisms and environmental factors around them—what Jakob von Uexküll calls an organism’s Umwelt. Thus, information in the natural world does not exist in some abstract sense, but only in the context of how it’s received within larger feedback loops. From the smallest microbiota to complex human civilisations, meanings are fundamentally relational, contextual, and pattern-based. 

Seen this way, it’s easier to understand why non-transactional, relational spheres of life and particularly family, remain Americans’ most potent sources of meaning. For individuals, meaning is to be found less in peak experiences, one-offs, the exceptional or abstractit hides in the repetitive, the everyday, and the relational. At a collective level, meaning coils through those pattern-languages transmitted via tradition, whether in vernacular architecture, folk music or oral histories. It lies thick in sacred places: humans have long used pattern, repetition, and the expected as the core of ritual religious and spiritual practices. 

The philosopher Adam Robbert connects meaning-making with askēsis, a Greek term that refers to the act of practice and discipline as itself a form of extended cognition, that enables the expansion of meaning-making beyond the rational sphere via the bringing-together of attention and repetition. We can understand motherhood as a kind of relational askēsis, whose core is the attentive, attuned pattern-work of sustaining a child’s Umwelt while they are too young to do it themselves. This is a central reason why many women are willing to sacrifice social status and earning power to work part-time or stay at home with young children: it’s as satisfyingly rich in meaning-as-pattern as it is starved of social status and pecuniary reward.

But the central concern of mothering with pattern, sameness, and contextual meaning as opposed to information devalues it in the order of standing-reserve, even as it delivers untold riches on its own terms. Information theory, a core science underpinning much of our technology, explicitly excludes the realm of pattern and sameness as ‘redundancy,’ preferring to focus on the unexpected. Our contemporary culture is quintessentially one of information theory: we celebrate the new, the innovative, the individual who doesn’t follow the rules. I can’t think of many movies where the hero defies calls to go his own way and instead saves the world by embracing convention.

And yet meaning, as Wheeler emphasizes, “is made up of pattern, repetition, the expected.” Information theory is thus blind to it, as she further points out: “What information engineers count as redundancy, living organisms in their systems count as meaning.” In this worldview, the tradeoff between motherhood and the workplace is a brutal one. No matter how meaningful life with a baby seems in its relational context, we have no vocabulary for understanding that, save as redundancy. It’s no surprise to discover that market society frames caring for children as a punishment: “the motherhood penalty.” 

The transactional world has little facility for repetition, pattern, or the expected; this is ‘redundancy’ to be dismissed in pursuit of the special, the distinct, the signal. This blindness to meaning-as-pattern, visible in the devaluation of motherhood and trust relationships, is similarly evident in contemporary architecture’s indifference to those vernacular pattern-languages in local built environments, that encode ways of life specific to different places. You can see it again in the treatment of folk music as second-class and unoriginal, the dismissal of religious practice as dogma, or the indifference to accumulated sacredness that allowed the destruction of Juukan Gorge. 

Within the worldview that reads motherhood as a punishment, ecologies of meaning accumulated via everyday pattern, human relationship, or religious ritual are at best yet-to-be-monetized resources. If they resist this transformation, they are obstacles to be ignored or dynamited. Bringing these pieces together, it’s now easier to see what’s lost under the rubric of information theory and standing-reserve. To see the world in terms of standing-reserve means seeing it as transactions rather than relationships, and information rather than meaning: as Heidegger puts it, “shattered,” and confined to a “circuit of orderability.” 

This shattered world is the same one the market society mindset calls ‘open’: openness to new forms, after all, means weak adherence to existing ones. To borrow Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase, then, seeing the price of everything by definition means seeing the value of nothing. Reframing the world in transactional terms, as ‘open’ resources that can be instrumentalized, necessitates the destruction of its meanings. Strip-mining self-evidently degrades the environment being mined. After demutualization, it took less than two decades for Britain’s building societies to go from embedded, localized community micro-lenders to casino-banking basket cases. And people who sell sexual access to their own bodies find it difficult to form and maintain intimate partner relationships

Likewise, treating human gestation as a service in commercial surrogacy interrupts the biologically-based symbiosis between mother and child that makes such relationships resistant to marketization. Instead, surrogacy contracts treat the baby as separate from its mother, a product that can be commissioned. Humans are thus shattered and reordered as objects, as in this case of a disabled child rejected both by her commissioning ‘parents’ and also by her Ukrainian gestational mother, as though she were a faulty smartphone.

Here we begin to see more clearly who pays when we replace meaning with information and relationship with transaction: anyone in need of care, and anyone leading an ordinary life. The winners in the information world are those whose lives are oriented toward peak experiences, agency, variety, surprise, and control. To the extent that you find fulfilment in pattern, repetition, and the quotidian, a technological and economic order blind to meaning-as-pattern and hyperfocused on the unexpected will be, by definition, unable to see you. 

But we’re running out of relational resources to convert and consume. Much as on current trends many key natural resources will be exhausted within a few decades, there are signs that in our civilization, the relational commons that underpins ordinary human life is approaching a point so shattered that the capacity of society to function is increasingly compromised. Certainly where I live in Britain, the weak institutional response to COVID-19 has revealed a nation in which social solidarity may be present on a local level, but is increasingly, acrimoniously, absent at scale. 

Pursuing resilience in this context means seeking out the relational, and looking to strengthen it: that means standing up for the interests of women, babies, the everyday, the natural world—and the value of norms, custom, and religious faith. From this, it follows that defending women and the environment means not embracing but resisting the logic of transaction. In that case, communities with some religious basis for sustaining relational resources as a sacred domain will prove more resilient than the ‘liberatory’ vision of market society and standing-reserve—precisely because they reject the appetitive logic of transaction. 

From a transactional point of view, this is at best a romanticization of some imaginary lost Eden, and likely a manifesto for ending innovation and demand to return to pre-industrial society. But a defense of ordinary-ness, pattern and repetition does not imply turning back the clock, or levelling all humans to identical cellular automata. Nor is it a case against extraordinary people: the natural world, after all, has megafauna as well as microbiota. 

Making the case for meaning as well as information is not to claim that we should revert to Tudor times, all be the same, or all spend our lives raising children. But it’s to defend pattern, repetition, and ordinariness as valuable in their own right, whether as the medium for future rituals and sacred places to emerge, as the domain of social life, or simply as bulwarks against the voracity of a transactional worldview that would commodify even our deepest social instincts. It’s to argue for our radical interdependence with our Umwelt. And it’s to affirm that in order for a society to thrive, sacred things must not just be defended as exempt from standing-reserve, or moved to a museum like the looted Benin bronzes, but continually and actively re-consecrated. 

Originally published at Palladium

The Irreligious Right

Today’s hottest property: young fogeys. Blue Labour hailed Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory as a rebellion by the country’s ‘culturally conservative’ silent majority. A new conservative magazine seems to appear every week. We have even seen a youth movement for the revival of socially conservative values popping up in that bastion of modern double liberalism, the Conservative Party.

What do they all want? At the more wonkish end of the debate, the argument is broadly that the political push throughout the twentieth century for ever greater social and economic freedom has brought many benefits, but that these have been unevenly distributed and are now reaching the point of diminishing returns.

The pursuit of ever greater freedom and individualism, this strand of thought argues, has delivered rising wealth while hollowing out working-class communities; liberated some women while forcing others to work a double shift and abandon the young and old in substandard care, and provided an infinitude of consumer choice but at the cost of mounting ecological damage. Under the sign of radical individualism, the new communitarians argue, we are all becoming more solitary and self-absorbed. Even charitable giving seems to be in unstoppable decline.

But what, in practice, are the new social conservatives seeking to conserve? Calls for a revival of cultural conservatism, many in the name of Christian values, seem often on closer examination oddly insubstantial. In 2017, UKIP’s leader-for-that-week Stephen Crowther said that the UK is a Christian country, “and we intend to stay that way.” But for Crowther, being a Christian country does not seem to impose any obligation to actually be Christian: 

including Christian in our list [of principles] does not imply any requirement for individual faith, but it reflects the Judeo-Christian classical and enlightenment origins on which our laws, our social systems and our cultural norms have been built over two millennia.

Elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbàn describes his brand of authoritarian, identity-oriented politics as ‘Christian democracy’. Only a minority of Hungarians go to church every week – 56% of the country identifies as Catholic, though only 12% attends church regularly – but the identifier ‘Christian’ has nonetheless become central to Orbàn’s politics.

Much as Crowther did, the Orban-supporting Bishop of Szeged, László Kiss-Rigó, bridges this gap with a vague, cultural definition of what actually constitutes a ‘Christian’: “In Europe, even an atheist is a Christian”, he said. It turns out that being ‘Christian’ is less about prayer or doctrine than ‘values’: “We are very happy that there are a few politicians like Orbán and Trump who really represent those values which we Christians believe to be important.”

What exactly are these values, then? Attendees at anti-Islam Pegida rallies in Germany carry crosses and sing carols. Italian right-winger Matteo Salvini punctuates anti-immigration rhetoric by brandishing a rosary, drawing criticism from the very Catholic faith whose symbols he invokes. Try to pin down any actual values this form of Christianity might require of its adherents, and matters are much less clear.

Even those whose stated desire is to defend the place of faith in public and political life seem keen that the faith itself stop short of imposing actual obligations. To take a more moderate example of the new cultural conservatism, the Social Democratic Party took a broadly post-liberal, culturally conservative stance in its 2018 relaunch. The New Declaration made an energetic defence of our right to hold even illiberal religious views openly in public life:

Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends. 

Then, about a year later, the SDP lost its only donor over a bitter intra-party dispute about whether or not it should be party policy to ban halal slaughter – a position markedly at odds with the party’s previous defence of religious pluralism. And  when the Church of England recently reiterated its long-held position on sex and marriage, prominent SDP member Patrick O’Flynn took to the pages of the Daily Express to mock ‘the otherworldliness of these Men of God’. Instead of insisting on ‘out of touch’ doctrine, O’Flynn suggested, in order to attract more young people to weekly worship the Church should adjust its doctrines on sex and marriage to reflect their values.

In this view of faith, theological positions do not reflect any kind of truth-claim but should be emergent properties of the aggregate ethical positions held by the members of that church. Less ‘Christian democracy’ than ‘democratic Christianity’: whatever the congregants believe becomes the doctrine of the church.

From a religious perspective this makes no sense. To the believer, doctrine is handed down from God Himself. The thought of God’s word being subject to plebiscite is absurd, if not outright blasphemous.

This debate reveals the missing piece in today’s would-be conservative revival. Where do our values come from? What is the proper source of political authority? Progressives gesture at natural rights or an imagined future utopia, but for anyone who remains unconvinced that we are all on a journey somewhere wonderful, some other authority is required.

Edmund Burke suggested the answer lay in a blend of deference to tradition and God’s grand design, tempered by carefully constrained democratic institutions; his Savoyard contemporary, Joseph de Maistre, argued that the only proper form of authority lay in God’s will, delivered via the Pope and an absolute monarch.

The history of modernity has unfolded in the tensions between these competing understandings of political authority. ‘The will of God’, the will of ‘the People’, and the grand designs of various utopias have variously been used to justify all manner of enterprises, with outcomes from the magnificent to the horrific. But our present political difficulties may be in part down to a growing popular discomfort with accepting the legitimacy of any of the above.

Since the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the EU, there has been a low but persistent rumble from our moral betters that democracy should maybe have its wings clipped a little, to stop stupid proles making bad decisions. A degree of wing-clipping has in fact long since taken place: John Gray has discussed recently in these pages the way the language and legal mechanism of ‘rights’ is used to shift entire areas of public life from democratic debate to the dry realm of unelected lawyers and judges. But if authority does not reside in the will of the people, nor does it reside with God: it is difficult to imagine a mainstream British politician claiming moral authority on the basis of divine will without being roundly pilloried

Progress and human rights, then? Every young person who passes through a modern university is taught in no uncertain terms that totalising metanarratives are suspect. At best, they are power moves. Whenever you find one you should ask cui bono? In the case of universal human rights, the answer is probably: lawyers.

This leaves would-be conservatives in a bind. If (with a few honourable exceptions still holding out for direct Vatican rule) political authority rests not in tradition (too restrictive on personal liberty) or democracy (probably rigged) or even God (don’t tell ME what to do!) or even in the lawyers, then what is left?  Politics professor Matt McManus argues that the result is a postmodernism of the right as well as of the left: a series of nested calls for a return to authority, tradition and culture that all, on closer inspection, turn out to be largely delivery mechanisms for adversarial but hollow identity politics.

Having come unmoored from its roots either in the past, the divine, or the popular will, McManus suggests that this postmodern conservatism has warped a Burkean belief in tradition into a kind of moral cosplay whose main purpose is less seeking the good life than making a noisy defence of whichever identities its sworn enemies attack. As the postmodern liberal-left demonises heterosexual white males, so postmodern conservatism sets out to defend them; and so on.

Seen in this light, the problem with Orbàn and other borrowers of Christian clothing is not that they do not believe their own words. Inasmuch as they can mean anything, they genuinely identify as Christians. It is more that when all sources of authority are suspect, the only legitimate recourse is to the self: to identity, and identification.

And the problem with identification is that it remains separate from whatever it identifies as. Just like the modern dating marketplace, where commitment is radically undermined by the ease of swiping right, modern cultural conservatism is radically undermined by the fear that without a reliable foundation of authority, and with more identity-choice options only a click away, we are never fully the thing we claim as our identity.

Without a sense of confidence in the roots of its political legitimacy, conservative values dissolve from concrete obligations to consumer accessories. This in turn is why Orbànist ‘Christian democracy’ and many of its populist cousins find their most compelling realisation not in religious doctrine or observance, but in defining themselves against their outgroup. If “even an atheist is a Christian” then either no one is a Christian, or everyone is. The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners.

But if this is so, then in a postmodern environment, shorn of recourse to authority, cultural conservatism is a waste of energy. It cannot define what it wants. All is insubstantial; there is no exit from the Matrix, nothing left to conserve.

Does it follow from this that those who long for place, limits, love, family, faith and meaning should just sit in the rubble and watch it all burn? I do not think so. But when there is nothing solid to go back to, anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called ‘conservative’ needs to find a new name for their yearning. ‘Constructionists’, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.

This article first appeared at Unherd

Turning royalty into royalties impoverishes us all

What if we could create a marketplace for relationships, so that – just as we can rent our homes on Airbnb – we had an app that allowed us to sell at the market rate dinner with our husbands or bedtime with the kids?

Marriage is a legally recognised agreement after all, one that has been shown to confer many benefits for health and wellbeing. Why should I not be able to rent my place as wife and mother in my particular family to others who wish to enjoy some of those benefits?

Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute recently argued that the technology exists to enable us to trade citizenship rights. Calling the right of British nationals to work in the UK’s high-wage economy “an effective property right we own but can’t currently trade”, he suggests we could ease immigration pressures by implementing an Airbnb-style secondary market in working rights.

If we frame citizenship, or marriage, as something owned by an individual, it is simply a set of bureaucratic permissions. Like the right to live in a house, surely this could be traded in a marketplace? And if the technology exists to create a citizenship market, surely we could do the same for marriage? I could sublet my wifedom and nip off for a weekend on the tiles with the proceeds. Why not?

The problem is obvious — my husband and daughter would, not unreasonably, object. She would no more want her bedtime story read by a stranger than my husband would want to share a bed with that stranger.

My marriage is not a good I own but a relationship, created by mutual consent. In a marriage, I give up some of my autonomy, privacy and private property rights by declaring my commitment to the relationship. What I gain is of immeasurable value: a sphere of belonging, the foundation of my existence as a social creature.

Likewise, citizenship implies relations of belonging, both of me to a community but also a community to me. It also implies commitments on behalf of the community of which I am a citizen. And in exchange it requires commitments of me, as a citizen: to uphold the law, to behave according to its customs and so on. As the late Roger Scruton put it in a 2017 speech:

The citizen participates in government and does not just submit to it. Although citizens recognise natural law as a moral limit, they accept that they make laws for themselves. They are not just subjects: they appoint the sovereign power and are in a sense parts of that sovereign power, bound to it by a quasi-contract which is also an existential tie. The arrangement is not necessarily democratic, but is rather founded on a relation of mutual accountability.

Roger Scruton

Just as my husband and daughter have a stake in who is entitled to be called “wife” or “Mummy” in our particular context, so other citizens of a nation have a stake in who is entitled to the rights conferred by citizenship.

In this light we can better understand the revulsion that greeted the actions of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in trademarking “Sussex Royal” for personal commercial gain. Royalty, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. It is not an intrinsic property of a person, like blue eyes or long legs, but something conferred both by the monarchy and also by the subjects of that monarchy.

As Charles I discovered in 1649, ultimately no king can govern save by the consent of his subjects. Royalty is not a private property, but a relationship. The popular disgust and anger engendered by the Sussexes’ move to transfer their stock of royalty from the relational public sphere to that of private property is in truth anger at their privatising something which does not belong to them but to the whole nation.

In The Question Concerning Technologywrites Josh Pauling, Heidegger argues that technology uncouples humans from what is real, paving the way for a mindset that treats everything as “standing-reserve”, or in other words “resources to be consumed”. For Heidegger, seeing the world thus is dangerous because it flattens all other perspectives:

Commodifying nature and humanity leads us to discard other understandings of being-in-the-world and the practices, beliefs and ideas that accompany them: all aspects of reality are incorporated into the ordering of standing-reserve.

Josh Pauling

My husband’s goodwill would rapidly wear thin were I to Airbnb my role in our family. Similarly, Bourne’s citizenship marketplace fails to consider how the general population would react to seeing fellow citizens renting their right to work to non-citizens and swanning about spending the unearned proceeds. And the goodwill enjoyed by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex while discharging their royal duties has already evaporated, now it transpires they wish to enjoy the privileges of their elevated station without embracing its obligations.

Treated as objects to be exploited, relational meanings wither and die. Treated as dynamic relationships, they are infinitely renewable. In this sense, they are more akin to ecologies in the natural world. In Expecting the Earth, Wendy Wheeler argues that in fact ecologies are systems of meaning: whether at the level of DNA or megafauna, she says, living things deal not in information but in meanings that change dynamically depending on context.

Why does any of this matter? “Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal,”  writes Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus. “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” The impressive achievements of modernity might make the loss of meaning seem, to some, a fair exchange.

But if Wheeler is right, meaning is more than an optional seasoning on the mechanistic business of living. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl observes of his time in Nazi concentration camps that those who felt they had a goal or purpose were also those most likely to survive.

Indeed, the growing phenomenon of “deaths of despair” is driven, some argue, by deterioration in community bonds, good-quality jobs, dignity and social connection — in a word, the relational goods that confer meaning and purpose on life. As Frankl observed, humans need meaning as much as we need air, food and water: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”

An order of commerce that treats relational ecologies as objects that can be exploited will exhaust those objects. That is, in the course of its commercial activities it actively destroys one of the basic preconditions for human flourishing: meaning.

The Estonian thinker Ivar Puura has called the destruction of meaning “semiocide”. As concern mounts about the effects of pollution and emissions on the earth, campaigners have called for new laws to criminalise the destruction of ecologies, which they call “ecocide”. Perhaps we should take semiocide more seriously as well.

This piece was originally published at Unherd