Loyalists: Anglo Anti-intellectualism

The maintenance of a close connection between the embourgifying British aristocracy and the mid-19th century men of arts and letters in Britain

“was seen by the Russian Communist Dimitri Mirsky as implying that ‘the intellectuals made no attempt to think independently of their class, but rather were proud of belonging to it. In short, there were no intellectuals.’…It seems broadly true that, to a far greater extent than was true in France or Germany, not to mention Russia, in Britain mid-Victorian cultural figures tended to be literary or scientific, thus strictly speaking falling outside the sort of intellectual category necessary for a truly hegemonic politics. Moreover, even as they remained closely tied to the ruling class, which was for the great majority their class of origin, they did not, like traditional intellectuals, form a separate social category with an independent institutional structure of its own” Desai 1994: 44.

Here Desai is discussing how the aristocratic-based and aristocratic-values-proliferating British Romantic literary movement quickly eviscerated the middle class Utilitarian program for thoroughgoing  social change. “The dominant cultural tendency became a sort of unsystematic, self-consciously untheoretical, romantic conservatism, opposed to rationalism, to grand theory, and above all to Benthamite ideas: ‘For the next hundred years, every poet, novelist and philosopher knew how to do at least one thing: to refute and deride Utilitarianism'” (Desai 1994: 42). Even today we knee-jerk dismiss Bentham’s program–indeed any progressive, ambitious social change vision and program–as ipso facto tyrannical (Foucauldians and anti-communists coalesce to keep this alive.), which was also the conservative Romantics’ dogma. Significance:

1) Britain’s bourgeois class did not produce an adequate effort at envisioning and advancing social change aimed at propagating freedoms. You could see this as the exceptional Anglo institutional capacity to repress revolt, or you could hypothesize: Bentham’s program was in fact not worthy of pursuing–Perhaps because, with the middle class Benthamite revolutionary aspirations, there was not sufficient coalition and interchange with the working class. The convergence, in exceptional Britain, was always already between the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie. The working class and peasantry were totally shut out–you know, as in a totalitarian way–except to the extent that they could be romanced by the aristocrat-dominated vision of land-based freedom.

2) As opposed to the English department consensus, Desai, following Anderson and Gramsci, is emphasizing that literary producers (and scientists as well–see Oppenheimer’s eye-opening, frustrated efforts at becoming a public intellectual) do not have the institutional and identity independence to form a properly-independent intellectual class capable of a) co-opting some elites to the cause of revolution, and b) significantly challenging hegemony.

The relationship between the Victorian literary establishment and political-economic elites was incestuous. English reform is what the US Civil Rights Movement would have been with Kathryn Stockett (“The Help”) at the helm, instead of MLK, the women bridge leaders, and Malcolm X.

Yet we have a tendency, in Anglo-american societies, to imagine, quite conservatively, that reformist literature–not intellectual schools that break with the dominant class’ interest, coalesce with the exploited class, and foster action — is all the social imagination we need or normatively should produce. We have seen pure middle class Bentham, and didn’t like it, and that’s all we need to know–It’s back to conservatism (freedom for a few, enthrallment for most) for us!

3) I’m sure quite shockingly it is never the case that elite opposition to rationalism or grand theory translates into beautiful anarchy. No, because you see there’s always the undead army of conservatism behind that opposition. Coleridge’s conservative, Durkheimian policy suggestion for governance: A “clerisy” institution, composed of nationalist “cultivated men,” “a morally and religiously sound clergy and aristocracy to serve as a cultural elite that would restore the community of England” (Coleridge).

Social Democrats v. Fabians

Actually-existing Social Democracy:

 1914 Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti poster: 
“The Right’s Program is The People Under Militarism”

This is a link to Marxist.org’s August Palm (1849-1922) page. Features a biography of the Swedish father of social democracy, as well as five of Palm’s works and two photos.

August Palm

Marxists.org’s presentation of the Swedish social democratic reformist Hjalmar Branting (1860-1925).

Curiously, marxists.org features no mention of Rudolf Meidner, or even Gosta Rehn.

I think that’s because they have an implicit thesis that I’m going to counter.
(And oh yes, I am going to go all Belinda Robnett on them, and see if I can drag out the Scandinavian women bridge leaders.)

1936 Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti poster:
“Women, We Build the Future”


Despite the alarming paucity of Scandinavian social democrat mentions or works, there are 13 distinct (British) social democrat entries in marxists.org. Additionally, here is a link to Marxist.org’s Fabians page. No wonder Anglo-American leftists imagine that social democracy is British, with all the ineffectuality–and indistinguishability from liberalism–that implies!

The Contemporary Anglo-american “Social Democrat” View

Historian Jim Livingston identifies as a social democrat. He does not conceive of social democracy in the way that I think was originally strong in the Scandinavian tradition–where socialism or Marxism is the backbone of social democracy.

Rather, in Livingston’s view, socialism emerges from and complements capitalism. My hypothesis is that for social democratic approach to work, the social democrat cannot see socialism emerging from capitalism, but rather sees socialism historically emerging in the Enlightenment alongside the bourgeois revolution, and then being repressed by the capitalist order.

So Livingston’s not a social democrat in the way that Meidner for example was. For Meidner, markets were not an ideal distribution mechanism to be supported by socialist props; rather, social democracy is a transitional phase to be overcome. The point of a political-economy for Livingston it seems is how to get markets to work, as opposed to the more human-centered Epicurean tradition–how to allocate the flows of pleasures and pains (Marxist economists may not appreciate the hypothesis that Marx’s humanistic base cannot be jettisoned). H1: Effectively, for the Anglo-american social democrat, it comes down to the welfare of markets.

Livingston has a conception of conservatives, liberals and leftists (He cites both Obama and, by inference, American organized labor as leftist) that sees them all organically recognizing the need to embrace private investment in the mid-to-late 20th century wake of declining US-centered profits, rather than conservatives winning hegemony. Same goes with “the left’s” failure to promote a decoupling of growth & distribution.

I think, like all Anglo “social democrats,” Livingston has an ad hoc, short-range, Anglo-american-centric definition of Leftist, and does not have a valid grasp of what distinguishes the Left transhistorically. He claims that Right thought and Left thought are fluid, structureless, without boundaries. (H3: As distinct from a theory of hegemony and false consciousness.)

But he seems to be a very erudite, nimble, and thorough-going Anglo-american “socdem,” and he provides a stimulating window on a sophisticated version of that perspective. I’m interested because I think Livingston’s influences and assumptions and his formulation of social problems and issues may be quite representative (except in their erudite formulation and more complete logical-causal dissection) of the Anglo-american “social democrat” approach, and studying them is going to help me make certain categorical distinctions.

Livingston has written a highly-recommended history of the Fed (1986), and an unfriendly interpretation of American turn-of-the-20th century populism (1994).

Perry Anderson theses on English capitalism & ideology

Perry Anderson. 1992. English Questions. NY: Verso.

Main themes distilled from (Couldn’t quickly find the citation for the review.) this collection of Anderson essays written over a quarter century:

1) The lame first stab: England had the first, most mediated and least pure bourgeois revolution of any major European country (17).

2) First come, serfdom preserved: England experienced the first industrial revolution, in a period of counter-revolutionary war, producing the earliest proletariat when socialist theory was least formed and available, and an industrial bourgeoisie polarized from the start towards the aristocracy (20).

3) Imperial identity: By the end of the 19th century, Britain had seized the largest empire in history, one qualitatively distinct from all its rivals, which saturated and set British society in a mould it has retained to this day (23).

4) The autistic island: Alone of major European nations (one presumes this means England, Germany and France), England emerged undefeated and unoccupied from two world wars, its social structure untouched by external shocks or discontinuities (27).


  • Insofar as Britain had a bourgeois revolution at all, it was both premature and incomplete.
  • The industrial bourgeoisie never did wrest hegemony from the aristocracy and the great London bankers and financiers.
  • Socialism was never on the agenda in Britain.
  • The working class and its main political expression, the Labour Party, have never represented an alternative to anything or anybody. 
  • State and society in Britain need to be modernized. But the State has functioned as an active bulwark against modernization. Thatcherism (conservatism, neoliberalism), though pledged to modernization, has in fact accomplished nothing of the sort.

Desai (1994) elaborates on this: Because England had no revolution, no full-throttle clashes between contesting classes, its people generally have a stunted sociological imagination. Broadly, they have a hard time seeing or thinking about society. Anglos are historically ingrained with a radical individualist approach. Therefore, according to Anderson, they have a stunted intellectual tradition, where intellectualism hinges on social engagement.

The charge doesn’t sound very diplomatic. But it has the virtue of jibing with the general consensus in the social sciences about how the widespread recognition of society unfolds under particular historical circumstances; and it does contribute to an explanation for the conservative world-leadership attracted to and emanating from the UK, and the robustness of conservatism in the Anglosphere (as discussed in relation to the UK in Desai).

EP Thompson. 1965. “The Peculiarities of the English.” Thompson did not like Anderson’s interpretation of (or conclusions from) English history. He felt that it did not sufficiently recognize that capitalism has agrarian roots in England. From a review by D. McNally:

 “In attacking Anderson and Nairn (of the New Left Review), Thompson did not consider that he was simply correcting erroneous interpretations of history. He saw himself as defending the practice of historical materialism against what he saw as an empty formalism which characterised too much Marxist analysis. ‘Minds which thirst for a sturdy platonism very soon become impatient with actual history’, he suggested. A decade later, his defence of ‘actual history’ against ‘platonic Marxism’ took the form of a no holds barred attack on the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser.”

…I don’t know. I fail to see how Anderson’s and Thompson’s substantive views clash. Every Marxist since Marx has well understood the agrarian roots of capitalism in Britain. How does Anderson’s description of exceptional English development and ideology preclude that? I can easily see both the link to the general development of capital (recall Marx on primitive accumulation), and the comparative, historical specificity in Anderson’s thesis. Is this a forest for the trees problem? An historian-as-precious diva problem? Historical detail (eg. the myriad resistances of the English peasantry) is counterproductive if it makes you lose sight of (rather than adequately refute) the proportion of a comparative argument.

As an outsider, a non-Anglo, a long way and a long time later, this strikes me as possibly yet another case of emotionally-retarded leftist competitive vanguardism. All I can see is the alpha elephant seal emotion. (I note this because I really don’t want anything like this contest to consume my emotional life ever. Although, it did result in publication. Dignity be damned; there’s always the audience to consider: “Look mommy! Watch the big blubbering Leftists fight!”)

However, I suspect the real lesson here is that English Marxists did not like to have such a bleak mirror held up to them, because the English are longtime imperialists and hegemonists, and they just have enormous national pride. I suspect the Thompsonian charge that Anderson was not historical is more sophistry barely shielding wounded national-exceptionalist pride or wounded intellectual pride  (perhaps packaged sentimentally in a defense of the national working class) than a valid critique…But perhaps I am being Anglophobic and uncharitable. I will have to investigate further. I’m starting to read Henry Heller’s The Birth of Capitalism, so I will return to this post if that book prompts me to alter my perspective.

I am interested in following up on another critique of Anderson: That he preferred and approved of anti-Marxist history and helped establish/elaborate the tradition of Marxists denouncing Marxists. More English nationalist Marxist sour grapes? Or more jealous, precious prima donna vanguardism?

Also, what is Anderson’s conception of modernization?

Why do I care? Because I am comparing Anglo Fabianism and Keynes to the Scandinavian social democratic intellectual and political tradition and Meidner, in order to clarify what is social democracy. The British v. Swedish feudal transition and revolutionary origins of modern politics certainly differ significantly, and if Anderson’s account is valid enough, affirm my hypothesis.

Arabia & the West: Painful Lessons from Media History

In the solid “The Arab Spring and the West: Seven Lessons from History,” The Guardian‘s Seamus Milne reaches into the British Pathe News Video Archive to recall the oil-dependent fundamentals of West-Middle East Relations.

1) The West never gives up its drive to control the Middle East, whatever the setbacks.

2) Imperial powers can usually be relied on to delude themselves about what Arabs actually think.

3) The Big Powers are old hands at prettifying client regimes to keep the oil flowing.

4) People in the Middle East don’t forget their history – even when the US and Europe (conveniently) does.

5) The West has always presented Arabs who insist on running their own affairs as fanatics.

6) Foreign military intervention in the Middle East brings death, destruction, and divide and rule.

7) Western sponsorship of Palestine’s colonisation is a permanent block on normal relations with the Arab world.

Virginia, Meet Financial Capital

This Guardian article shows one way (the divorce between compensation and performance) in which financial capital does not function according to conservative economic theory, with its ideologically-convenient ignorance of human reflexivity and power.

Any reporter worth his salt knows that following Goldman Sachs’ trail of hell-ooze is always worth his time. Greg Palast reports on how Goldman Sachs colluded with Greece’s (former) right-wing government to 1) create the image that conservatives can govern a democracy, which they patently cannot, and 2) screw the world economy and the majority of the people in that economy, for their own unchecked aggrandizement.

Palast, who is selling his book Vulture’s Picnic, deserves to be quoted at length on this overview of the conservative-nursemaided primitive accumulation of Greek wealth:

“In 2002, Goldman Sachs secretly bought up €2.3 billion in Greek government debt, converted it all into yen and dollars, then immediately sold it back to Greece. Goldman took a huge loss on the trade. Is Goldman that stupid?

Goldman is stupid—like a fox. The deal was a con, with Goldman making up a phony-baloney exchange rate for the transaction. Why?

Goldman had cut a secret deal with the Greek government in power then. Their game: to conceal a massive budget deficit. Goldman’s fake loss was the Greek government’s fake gain. Goldman would get repayment of its “loss” from the government at loan-shark rates. The point is, through this crazy and costly legerdemain, Greece’s right-wing free-market government was able to pretend its deficits never exceeded 3 percent of GDP. Cool.

Fraudulent but cool.

But flim-flam isn’t cheap these days: On top of murderous interest payments, Goldman charged the Greeks over a quarter billion dollars in fees.

When the new Socialist government of George Papandreou came into office, they opened up the books and Goldman’s bats flew out.

 Investors went berserk, demanding monster interest rates to lend more money to roll over this debt. Greece’s panicked bondholders rushed to buy insurance against the nation going bankrupt. The price of the bond-bust insurance, called a credit default swap (or CDS), also shot through the roof. Who made a big pile selling the CDS insurance?

 Goldman. And those rotting bags of CDS’s sold by Goldman and others? Didn’t they know they were handing their customers gold-painted turds? That’s Goldman’s specialty.

 In 2007, at the same time banks were selling suspect CDS’s and CDOs (packaged sub-prime mortgage securities), Goldman held a “net short” position against these securities. That is, Goldman was betting their financial “products” would end up in the toilet. Goldman picked up another half a billion dollars on their “net short” scam.

But, instead of cuffing Goldman’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein and parading him in a cage through the streets of Athens, we have the victims of the frauds, the Greek people, blamed. Blamed and soaked for the cost of it. The “spread” on Greek bonds (the term used for the risk premium paid on Greece’s corrupted debt) has now risen to — get ready for this––$14,000 per family per year.”

December 2011 update:

The rich mouth off, concerning what assholes they are. (Hint: MIGHTY assholes.)

Popular Uproar in the UK, Summer 2011

Although all moralistic handwringing and conservative policy marketeering in response to the uprisings in the UK are class warfare, an article on the recent British popular uproar that is somewhat worth reading: Peter Osborn’s “The moral decay of our society is as bad at the top.” It contains a nice turn of phrase: 

Our politicians – standing sanctimoniously on their hind legs in the Commons yesterday…”

Support for Osborn’s thesis? Dacher Keltner’s studies of the sociopathy of the rich. Listen here for a great Henwood interview with Keltner on his research findings.

…And before you up there on your high horse get too frothy in the mouth about the horrors of looting in Britain, remember that 10 years later we found out that it was not the much-maligned African American citizenry, but rather the fascist police that went on the rampage in New Orleans. Naomi Wolff is compiling the data for the case that by and large the “rioters” in Britain may in fact similarly be police saboteurs.

The aesthetic beauty and gratification that conservative ideology supplies to its supplicants lies in conservatism’s capacity for self-fulfilling prophecy–to make the world over into the horror that it already presumes needs to be punished.

Maybe the uproar is conscious dissent. After all, disrupting Londoners left the bookstores unmolested.

Cartoon commentary.

Lawless Imperialism–UK style

Northern Ireland was mis-ruled until 1998 under a series of British Emergency Powers Acts virtually from the moment of its creation in 1921. Here’s one. Prior to 1921, it was quite common for Britain to govern Ireland via various “Coercion Acts”, most of which suspended habeus corpus. The USA adapted many British laws on anti-terrorism after the Oklahoma City bombing.