Between Myth and Fiction | Jake Scott

The Mallard September 2022 Competition – What is Britain?

Myths are often taken to be falsehoods. We act as if they are of the same category as fiction, as fabricated fables that we tell for the purpose of entertainment only – but this is not true. Myth is something different, something that offers inclusion – on the condition that the myth be respected and retold. As I wrote before:

Myths offer a motivating ideal of membership, a sort of fictionalised goal to live up to. In the strictest sense possible, myths are not entirely true – hence the deliberate choice of the word, “myth”. Instead, they are stories told of and by members of our community, or patrons, or even the community as a whole, with who we feel an affinity by virtue of our membership, reinforced by the rituals that bind us together and the symbols that remind us of this. 

Yet the materialist conception of the world seeks to dispel myth from politics. Arguing, for instance, in 2018 that ‘all around the world, political parties and movements – both on the left and on the right – invoke the will of the people’ and that ‘the will of the people is a myth. There is no such thing as the will of the people, just as there are no such things as unicorns’, Albert Weale has attempted to engage with what, in his mind, demarcates populism from other political phenomena. Weale states, for instance, that ‘populism lives by the thought that the presence of the people in government is sufficient to wrest control from an unrepresentative elite’ and that they must ‘tell a story of peoplehood in order to promote their cause’. Most importantly, ‘populists take the idea of the sovereignty of the people literally. In populist thought, the sovereignty of the people means that citizens must be able to exercise direct and decisive control over the making of government policy. Nothing less’.

Parts of Weale’s argument are perceptive. For instance, he is right to observe that ‘we cannot intelligibly say that, where once stood the will of the king, there now stands the will of the people’, and that ‘unlike parliaments, the people is neither in permanent session nor available for emergency recalls’, though of course the latter observation is reflective itself of a particular temporal attitude (the British parliament, for instance, is not ‘permanently in session’ but actually benefits from multiple recesses throughout the calendar year). Moreover, it is that former observation – that there is no identifiable ‘will of the people’ as there might have been with the ‘will of the king’ – that I consider at length in my doctoral thesis. Weale’s comments, for instance, do not engage with the question of the empty place of power in a democratic system in the same way or with the same value as does Claude Lefort’s. Consequent to Weale’s arguments, therefore, he comes down strongly on the side of representative government, sceptical of the direct democracy that populism supposedly yearns for.

But there are deeper issues with Weale’s analysis, most specifically the dismissal of the ‘myth of the will of the people’ for nothing more than being a myth. Weale does note that the use of myth is pervasive: he cites the Athenian myth of the people as assembled in the pnyx as an example of an ancient myth in that the assembly in which ‘the people’ were represented conveniently ignored the many thousands of slaves and women in the Ancient Athenian polis. He states, for example, that ‘comparing the number of citizens to that of the total population, only between one in seven and one in five of the total were citizens’. Besides the fact that this is a particularly modernist reading of an ancient circumstance and one that judges retroactively rather than phenomenologically, it is not quite the same as a myth; more accurately, the most prominent myth in Ancient Greece was actually concerned with origins and character, not formality, that of autochthony. Foundational myths, and myths in general, are as Naoíse Mac Sweeney argues:

one of the crucial ways in which we construct and negotiate cultural difference. The stories that we tell about who we are and where we come from are a means of defining our identities, and positioning ourselves in relation to everyone else. Deliberately or unconsciously, as individuals or as groups, we use foundation myths to frame our political interactions. This is true not just of Politics with a capital ‘P’ – the Politics of nation-states and international relations. It is also equally true of politics with a small ‘p’ – the politics of individual interactions in everyday life.

 There is no concrete reason why myths qua myths ought to be dismissed: in many ways, myths offer a motive to action and a cause; as Roger Scruton put it in Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, ‘even at its most aesthetic, however, Western art has shown a great respect for myth, seeing it as the Greek tragedians say it – a vehicle by which the deep truths of the human condition can be conveyed in allegorical form’, or, as he wrote in Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism, ‘no one… is likely to believe that government is possible without the propagation of myths’, in reference to the social contract tradition as (important) fiction, and that myths in general ‘constitute the great artifacts whereby institutions enter the life of the state and absorb the life of citizen’.

Moreover, as Edmund Morgan argued in his seminal work, Inventing the People, ‘government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people’. He continues, ‘sober thought may tell us that all governments are of the people, all profess to be for the people, and that none can literally be by the people. But sober thought will also tell us that the sovereignty of the people, however fictional, has worked’ and, while ‘the sovereignty of the people was an instrument by which representatives raised themselves to the maximum distance above the particular set of people who chose them’- bearing in mind that representative government historically existed prior to the modern myth of a sovereign people to choose them – ‘was there any way that the people themselves, the whole people, the fictional people, could materialize and act apart from their representatives in order to protect themselves?’.  Morgan’s claim, in addition, is not confined to the nascent era of popular sovereignty alone: as Nadia Urbinati rightly points out in Representative Democracy, ‘the point of departure for any democratic theory of representation needs to be precisely the fictional world of beliefs and judgement – a world that eludes proceduralist and legalistic language as well as true/false claims’. Insofar as the story of peoplehood or peopleness is a mythological one, Weale’s claim that it is a modern one is also spurious. Tracing back the necessity of stories of peoplehood to the ancient sources as diverse as the Torah, the Iliad, and the Manas Epos, Roger Smith in Stories of Peoplehood argues that such stories play a role in forming explicitly political communities that assert obligations over and above many other forms of association, and have done since antiquity. Smith’s arguments merit further discussion elsewhere, but here it is sufficient to say that the ‘will of the people’, is neither a modern phenomenon, nor dismissible on the grounds of it being a myth in and of itself.

Despite, however, dispelling Weale’s claim, the tension between Weale’s ontology and those of Sweeney, Scruton, Morgan and Urbinati is central, rather than peripheral, to this debate. After all, the manner in which we answer the question of how a people can act as a body is dependent on our social – and, to an extent, anthropological – ontology. Furthermore, that comment made by Urbinati above – that the fictional world eludes proceduralism – gestures towards the divide between those who conceive of ‘the people’ as the literal physical individuals, and those who think of ‘the people’ as an abstract entity, such as Burke’s ‘moral nation’ existing over and above its mere constituents. 

Britain is a myth – but that does not make it fictional. Indeed, it may make it more real than the physical, material streets, buildings and fields you see with your own eyes. Only by feeling an attachment to a place can you feel an obligation to the people who live there, and it is myth that offers a methods of attachment compelling enough to turn a mere anything into a something

Photo Credit.

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