Thursday, February 16, 2017

Carlyle Considered

After a shameful delay, at last I have joined the Froude Society! Previous installments covered Froude's "The Bow of Ulysses: The English in the West Indies" and Maine's "Popular Government". Today's subject is Thomas Carlyle, the grand old man of reaction, and his "Latter-day Pamphlets".

Reading Carlyle is often quite surprising, because while he is indubitably reactionary, it's not always in ways that one might expect. For instance, Carlyle places a lot of emphasis on the great men theory of both history and government.
Indisputably enough the meaning of all reform-movement, electing and electioneering, of popular agitation, parliamentary eloquence, and all political effort whatsoever, is that you may get the ten Ablest Men in England put to preside over your ten principal departments of affairs.
This emphasis means that there is relatively less discussion of detailed policy positions on particular issues of the day. Good government, to Carlyle, is a long way from a set of conservative talking points. It arises by appointing the most competent men to power, and giving them the authority to actually rule.

Carlyle wants, in other words, an aristocracy. But this is an aristocracy of talent and character, not one of inherited class. Men of low birth but noble character are singled out for praise, Robert Burns being a prominent example.
Choose well your Governor;—not from this or that poor section of the Aristocracy, military, naval, or redtapist; wherever there are born kings of men, you had better seek them out, and breed them to this work. All sections of the British Population will be open to you.
To the modern mind, one is more apt to evaluate governments by whether they their preferences accord with our own (and hence whether we want the same things implemented as the leaders do ) and whether they have the competence to actually carry the plans out. In this reckoning, a competent leader carrying out plans we hate is considerably worse than an incompetent leader trying and failing to carry out plans we hate.

But to Carlyle, competence involves the ability to understand the decrees of Nature or Nature's God, and thus know what will cause justice to be done. As a result, the distinction between competent government and just government is not of primary significance:
To prosper in this world, to gain felicity, victory and improvement, either for a man or a nation, there is but one thing requisite, That the man or nation can discern what the true regulations of the Universe are in regard to him and his pursuit, and can faithfully and steadfastly follow these. These will lead him to victory; whoever it may be that sets him in the way of these, —were it Russian Autocrat, Chartist Parliament, Grand Lama, Force of Public Opinion, Archbishop of Canterbury, M'Croudy the Seraphic Doctor with his Last-evangel of Political Economy,—sets him in the sure way to please the Author of this Universe, and is his friend of friends. And again, whoever does the contrary is, for a like reason, his enemy of enemies. This may be taken as fixed.
Perhaps the reason that we no longer talk this way is that most of us no longer believe in God (or anything else), and hence don't think of the aim of politics as being to implement his justice on earth. As a result, there's just preferences.

The above quote also illustrates that the focus on competent leaders making competent decisions takes precedence over designing mechanical schemes to implement decisions. As I noted in the discussion of Maine, early Moldbug (in the form of ideas like neocameralism) is a scientist of government, seeking the truth of optimal arrangements. Maine is an engineer of government, grappling with the messy practicalities of what produces generally stable outcomes. But in this taxonomy, Carlyle is an artist of government. Governing is a skill to be learned by able men, appropriately apprenticed to their trade. The only interest in systems and mechanisms is in the extent to which they correctly select the right men, and elevate them to power.

For this reason, Carlyle is generally scathing about the modern implementation of democracy, but not because it is impossible to implement well. The main problem is the fact that the world is full of fools, most of whom know nothing about either government policy or selecting able men. The Laws of the Universe are not easily given up to every Tom, Dick and Harry, so averaging out their opinion with those of the wise is a recipe for disaster:
Your ship cannot double Cape Horn by its excellent plans of voting. The ship may vote this and that, above decks and below, in the most harmonious exquisitely constitutional manner: the ship, to get round Cape Horn, will find a set of conditions already voted for, and fixed with adamantine rigour by the ancient Elemental Powers, who are entirely careless how you vote. If you can, by voting or without voting, ascertain these conditions, and valiantly conform to them, you will get round the Cape: if you cannot,—the ruffian Winds will blow you ever back again; the inexorable Icebergs, dumb privy-councillors from Chaos, will nudge you with most chaotic 'admonition'; you will be flung half-frozen on the Patagonian cliffs, or admonished into shivers by your iceberg councillors, and sent sheer down to Davy Jones, and will never get round Cape Horn at all!
Ships accordingly do not use the ballot-box at all; and they reject the Phantasm species of Captains: one wishes much some other Entities,—since all entities lie under the same rigorous set of laws,—could be brought to show as much wisdom, and sense at least of self-preservation, the first command of Nature.
For democracy skeptics like me, there is much to enjoy. But Carlyle is not easily reduced to slogans, and gives a quite nuanced view on when voting will work better or worse. Latter Day Pamphlets is not wedded to a particular governing system.

For instance, the biggest surprise of the book was that Carlyle is relatively positive about Oliver Cromwell. To me, I had always thought of Cromwell as a disaster, the beginning of where things went badly wrong in English history, and the destruction of genuine monarchy in England. But this isn't how Carlyle portrays it. Cromwell's strong Christian belief is implicitly praised, as is competence in leadership. Remember, the key is greatness of leadership, not forms of government! In this respect, I part company with Carlyle in the importance of institutions and norms. Even if Cromwell were more competent than Charles I, the successor to Charles I would have been a much better bet than the successor to Cromwell. Institutions are not an idea that has much prominence in Latter-day Pamphlets, and the subject of Cromwell and Charles I is not covered in enough detail for me to fully understand the appeal or the implied argument, But the overarching point is still correct - having a crown does not make one a real king, and fake kings are a source of particular disgust to Carlyle. While he does not elaborate much on Charles I, he accurately predicts that constitutional monarchs will not be stable arrangement, nor should we wish them to be:
Imposture, be it known then,—known it must and shall be,—is hateful, unendurable to God and man. Let it understand this everywhere; and swiftly make ready for departure, wherever it yet lingers; and let it learn never to return, if possible!
The Kings were Sham-Kings, playacting as at Drury Lane;—and what were the people withal that took them for real? It is probably the hugest disclosure of falsity in human things that was ever at one time made.
...[The Common Englishman] has been used to decent forms long since fallen empty of meaning, to plausible modes, solemnities grown ceremonial,—what you in your iconoclast humour call shams,—all his life long; never heard that there was any harm in them, that there was any getting-on without them. Did not cotton spin itself, beef grow, and groceries and spiceries come in from the East and the West, quite comfortably by the side of shams? Kings reigned, what they were pleased to call reigning; lawyers pleaded, bishops preached, and honourable members perorated; and to crown the whole, as if it were all real and no sham there, did not scrip continue saleable, and the banker pay in bullion, or paper with a metallic basis ?"
Carlyle predicts, in other words, what I have mentioned before - that political arrangements which are no longer actively defended, which persist out of institutional habit and inertia, will not survive. The unprincipled exceptions, if not actively insisted on, will be made into principled disasters. My guess as to the big elephant in the room on this front is citizenship. With Politics as with life -  nature has made up her mind that what cannot defend itself shall not be defended, as Mr Emerson put it.

By contrast, Oliver Cromwell and the members of the Long Parliament were deadly serious. And Carlyle gives an outstanding Chesterton's Fence justification of what role Parliament actually used to fill (much better than my own poor efforts)

Reading in Eadmerus and the dim old Books, one finds gradually that the Parliament was at first a most simple Assemblage, quite cognate to the situation; that Red William, or whoever had taken on him the terrible task of being King in England, was wont to invite, oftenest about Christmas time, his subordinate Kinglets, Barons as he called them, to give him the pleasure of their company for a week or two: there, in earnest conference all morning, in freer talk over Christmas cheer all evening, in some big royal Hall of Westminster, Winchester, or wherever it might be, with log-fires, huge rounds of roast and boiled, not lacking malmsey and other generous liquor, they took counsel concerning the arduous matters of the kingdom.
...So likewise in the time of the Edwards, when Parliament gradually split itself into Two Houses; and Borough Members and Knights of the Shire were summoned up to answer, Whether they could stand such and such an impost? and took upon them to answer, "Yes, your Majesty; but we have such and such grievances greatly in need of redress first,"—nothing could be more natural and human than such a Parliament still was.
...For, in fine, the tragic experience is dimly but irrepressibly forcing itself on all the world, that our British Parliament does not shine as Sovereign Ruler of the British Nation; that it was excellent only as Adviser of the Sovereign Ruler; and has not, somehow or other, the art of getting work done
In the Carlyle telling, the Parliament worked for two reasons. Firstly, it was composed of men who were themselves Nobles and Rulers, and thus competent to advise on such matters. And secondly, it filled the role of discussing policy choices when there were few avenues available for this. As Carlyle notes, this task is much more competently carried out in modern times (both his and ours) in the press. But the presence of the press makes Parliament not only superfluous, but contemptible, as it turns Parliamentary speeches into performances marketed to the rubes, not serious policy debates. Parliaments, at best, make good advisers but bad sovereigns. Modern parliaments are bad at both. 

There are some parts of Latter Day Pamphlets, especially those that describe the actual workings of government, that read as eerily prophetic. One is forced to do a double-take when one reads the descriptions of how government in England actually worked at the time. For instance:

[I]t is felt that 'reform' in that Downing-Street department of affairs is precisely the reform which were worth all others; that those administrative establishments in Downing Street are really the Government of this huge ungoverned Empire
Much has been done in the way of reforming Parliament in late years; but that of itself seems to avail nothing, or almost less. The men that sit in Downing Street, governing us, are not abler men since the Reform Bill than were those before it.
The civil service, in the form of the Home Office, Foreign Office and Colonial Office was already thoroughly in charge of 1850. Not only that, but the civil service was also fast turning into a sclerotic mess of incompetent bureaucrats badly doing work that didn't really need to be done in the first place. Pause and let that sink in when you hear conservatives talking about how we need to scale back the size of bureaucracy. 

As a consequence, it doesn't matter much who is the Prime Minister, since the civil service makes all the important decisions anyway, and the election and political process is so chaotic and time-consuming that there isn't scope for much else for a leader to do. This is a point that Moldbug emphasises a lot, but the average democracy adherent simply cannot believe. The memorable description of being Prime Minister is that of trying to stay atop a wild bucking horse, with the effort towards not being thrown off crowding out any hope of controlling the direction:
[T]he Right Honourable Zero is to be the man. That we firmly settle; Zero, all shivering with rapture and with terror, mounts into the high saddle; cramps himself on, with knees, heels, hands and feet; and the horse gallops—whither it lists. That the Right Honourable Zero should attempt controlling the horse—Alas, alas, he, sticking on with beak and claws, is too happy if the horse will only gallop anywhither, and not throw him. ... This is what we call a Government in England, for nearly two centuries now.
...Really it is unimportant which of them ride it. Going upon past experience long continued now, I should say with brevity, "Either of them—Neither of them." If our Government is to be a No-Government, what is the matter who administers it? Fling an orange-skin into St. James's Street; let the man it hits be your man.
This has been the government ... for nearly two centuries before 1850.  If you think Carlyle might be right, rolling things back to the 1950's isn't going to cut it.

Yet despite these similarities in description of some parts of the world, one sees that Moldbug's description of Carlyle as a reactionary is entirely correct:
A reactionary is not a Republican, a Democrat, or even a libertarian. It is not even a communist, a fascist, or a monarchist. It is something much older, stranger, and more powerful. But if you can describe it as anything, you can describe it as the pure opposite of progressivism. True reaction is long since extinct in the wild, but it lives in Carlyle.
Indeed, reading through Latter Day Pamphlets, one continues to be struck by statements that defy description on the standard modern political spectrum. Authority is not only necessary, but wise and just:
I say, it is the everlasting privilege of the foolish to be governed by the wise
Carve it in stone. This is so far outside the Overton Window that we barely have words to describe it.

But if you were hoping for a defense of mainstream capitalist economics, you will not find it here. Carlyle is shocked and appalled by the level of poverty evident in Ireland. But unlike the left, he is appalled not only because of the suffering, but mostly because the indigence and misery is a sign of a catastrophic failure of governance. The problem with poverty is not ultimately the money, but the wasted lives.
The Idle Workhouse, now about to burst of overfilling, what is it but the scandalous poison-tank of drainage from the universal Stygian quagmire of our affairs? Workhouse Paupers; immortal sons of Adam rotted into that scandalous condition, subter-slavish, demanding that you would make slaves of them as an unattainable blessing! My friends, I perceive the quagmire must be drained, or we cannot live.
If our Chancellor of the Exchequer had a Fortunatus' purse, and miraculous sacks of Indian meal that would stand scooping from forever,—I say, even on these terms Pauperism could not be endured; and it would vitally concern all British Citizens to abate Pauperism, and never rest till they had ended it again. Pauperism is the general leakage through every joint of the ship that is rotten. 
Carlyle is decidedly cool on the ability of markets, not only to solve these problems, but also to generate wise decisions in general. His scathing essay on the possibility of making a statue of railway baron George Hudson, who is presented as a seller of worthless scrip and dubious economic schemes, makes clear why. A democracy of dollars is not much more likely to recognise genuine human worth than a democracy of votes, for much the same reasons. This is not a matter Carlyle takes lightly:
If the world were not properly anarchic, this question 'Who shall have a Statue?' would be one of the greatest and most solemn for it. Who is to have a Statue? means, Whom shall we consecrate and set apart as one of our sacred men?
And he walked the walk too, founding the National Portrait Gallery to make sure that great men were properly commemorated too. 

One is also reminded in odd ways that the world itself was very different in 1850, and not just in the ways that get frequently remarked on. For instance, in an essay discussing the enormous prominence given to people who had the gift of good speech, Carlyle states the following:
Our English careers to born genius are twofold. There is the silent or unlearned career of the Industrialisms, which are very many among us ; and there is the articulate or learned career of the three professions, Medicine, Law (under which we may include Politics), and the Church. Your born genius, therefore, will first have to ask himself, Whether he can hold his tongue or cannot ?
Two questions arise, both linked. Firstly, what criteria do we now use to evaluate truth, apart from rhetoric, which gets little discussion in the essay? And secondly, what is the large class of learned careers not discussed in the above list?

The answer to both is: science. One can see that the intellectual impact of the scientific method had not yet permeated much of society, and that science itself was practiced by a small number of mostly independently wealthy people like Lord Kelvin. The rest of innovation was merely lumped in with industrialism, and not at all considered to be an important or primary method of understanding the universe. If you were actually transported back to the world of 1850, it would almost certainly strike you as utterly alien in far more ways than you imagine. As Moldbug said of Larry Auster, it is equally true of Carlyle - he is gone, and so is the country he was born in. To complain of either would be as superfluous.

But the underlying truth of his words still remains. To those of us skeptical about modernity, Carlyle speaks across the ages, addressing our misgivings and pointing a way forward through the morass:
My friends, across these fogs of murky twaddle and philanthropism, in spite of sad decadent 'world-trees,' with their rookeries of foul creatures,—the silent stars, and all the eternal luminaries of the world, shine even now to him that has an eye. In this day as in all days, around and in every man, are voices from the gods, imperative to all, if obeyed by even none, which say audibly, "Arise, thou son of Adam, son of Time; make this thing more divine, and that thing,—and thyself, of all things; and work, and sleep not; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work!" He that has an ear may still hear.
Just so.

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