Bring Back Food Rationing!

Having never experienced food rationing myself I cannot say what it is like, but I am assuming the experience is not as bad as images suggest. My reasoning is straightforward and can be put in the form of an argument as follows: (1) The National Health Service (NHS) is good; (2) Food is more important than health; therefore, (3) A National Food Service (NFS) would be good. Is there anything wrong with this argument?

Let’s look briefly at the truth or falsity of the premises, before elaborating. A supporter of an NFS, along with many millions of others, would affirm with confidence that the NHS is a ‘good thing’. That is, it is a desirable if not indispensable institution, at the beating heart of our national life, a support and a lifeline for all of us, relatively free at the point of use, providing the full panoply of basic medical services, from care for minor ailments to treatment for serious illnesses and conditions such as cancer, heart disease, broken limbs, disfigurement, deadly infections, and so on. Yes, it is currently in the worst shape it has been in for decades, to the point that in the current election campaign the major parties do not even pretend to mouth slogans such as ‘Twenty-for hours to save the NHS’, so far gone is the patient.

That does not mean the NHS is undesirable, though, does it? Anyway, just suppose it is a good thing for the sake of argument and let’s revisit the premise later. Premise (2) says that food is more important than health, and the truth or falsity of this depends on what we mean by ‘important’. Think of it this way. Although both food and health are quite basic human goods, there is an asymmetry. Without food – by which I mean adequate nutrition, not simply fasting for a bit or going on a diet – you are guaranteed to be unhealthy. But if you are unhealthy, it is not guaranteed you will lack adequate nutrition. Some illnesses make it hard to keep food down. Some illnesses deprive a person of their appetite. But these are exceptions. You can be seriously unhealthy, headed for the grave, and yet still not be suffering from malnutrition. If you are malnourished, however, you will be unhealthy there and then, with no further steps required, no exceptions to be made.

Ask yourself this admittedly remotely hypothetical question: faced with the choice between inadequate food and inadequate health (short of death!), which would you choose? I’d go for inadequate health, thinking that with inadequate food I’ll be unhealthy anyway, so why not just have ill health but at least plenty of food, hoping that I can maintain my strength and give myself a fighting chance against my illness? Again, as a general rule if you have zero food you are dead in a few months. You’d have to have a pretty rare condition – pancreatic cancer, say – to be dead in a few months. If you add not having water to not having food – and I do want to add that since I am classing food and water together when I hypothesise about a National Food Service – you are dead in a few days. Very few illnesses or combinations of conditions kill you in a few days – maybe bacterial meningitis or necrotizing fasciitis.

So yes, of course health is important, but food is just that bit more important.  That said, by ‘important’ in premise (2) I am packing a little more into it than the asymmetry just outlined. I also mean that if there is such an asymmetry, then however society is structured so as to make health care readily available should be similar in key respects to how society should be structured so as to make food readily available. This is how the conceptual connection between ‘good’ in (1) and ‘important’ in (2) should be interpreted. (I could split the argument into sub-arguments to make this crystal clear, but it’s not necessary).

Now, does our conclusion (3) – ‘A National Food Service (NFS) would be good’ – follow from the premises? If so we have a valid argument, and if the premises are true then we have our ultimate goal, a sound argument – to lapse into philosophy-speak. Well, I’ve gestured at the truth of (1) but also said we should just assume it for the fun of the argument. A full defence of (1) would come from the endless literature doing just that – defending the goodness of the NHS. I’ve argued at greater length for the truth of (2) and its connection to (1). Suppose I’ve done the job. Then how could the conclusion not follow? It must, of logical necessity. There is no escape. We need a National Food Service.

Er, do we? The title of this article refers to ‘rationing’. Actually, food rationing is really not something you’d want to experience. Nobody in their right mind wants food rationing, except the crooks who make money off it and are not subject to the rationing themselves. I think I’d rather emigrate than have food rationing – at least as a way of life. So what I really think – and I’m sure you agree – is that food rationing is not something we’d want brought back. And so the prospect of a National Food Service should fill me – and you – with utter dread. If that is the case, then we must do what we philosophers call a modus tollens: I give you an argument pointing inexorably to a certain conclusion. But that conclusion is on its face absurd. You and I won’t accept it. So we are forced by logic to deny at least one of premises (1) and (2). Having already made a pretty good case for (2), we have to deny (1) after all, contrary to the initial ‘for the sake of argument’ assumption. The NHS is not good – not in concept any more than in current execution.

Wait a minute, you might object: I’m comparing apples and oranges. There is no rationing in the NHS! But there is, I insist. True, we don’t all walk around with health care ration books with quotas of medicines or treatments printed on each ticket. But health care is rationed nonetheless, as any fule kno. You get a precious ten minutes with your GP, then you are politely expected to leave (unless things are serious as judged by that GP alone). You cannot get any treatment you want, no matter how effective or promising; it all depends on cost and the voluminous guidance of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE). Ultimately, who gets what is for the government of the day, acting on the advice of – sorry, I can’t resist – Twenty-First Century Science.™ The details of NHS rationing are there for all to see. This leads to very bad consequences for patients in a multitude of cases, with the example of breast cancer drug Kadcyla being instructive.

A critic of my argument might insist that food and health are dissimilar in important ways that undermine premise (2), the claim that food is more important than health. Recall that my argument is not just that food is prior to health in terms of human well-being, but that because of this its allocation in whatever way society allows should be the same as the way health care is allocated in that society. All things being equal, perhaps that is true. But all things are not equal, says the critic. There is a whole side to food provision that has no health care parallel. There are restaurants, gourmet dining, eating for pleasure, eating as a cultural pastime. Whereas health care is about meeting needs, there is more to food provision than simply meeting needs.

It is not clear to me that there is a disanalogy. Health care also has its niche, exotic, cultural, aspirational side. Think of purely aesthetic surgery – nose jobs, teeth whitening, skin lightening, Botox, hair removal, hair transplants, body modification, and so on. These are all far more about satisfying desires than meeting real needs. They are generally not necessary for health. The critic retorts: ‘then they are not about health care, so why are you bringing them into the discussion?’ My reply: ‘then neither is fine dining or wine tasting part of food provision, so why are you bringing them into the discussion?’ In other words, cheek filler and fine dining stand or fall together. Either both are on the table or neither are. I think it’s more plausible to say they are both on the table as quite remote parts of health care and food provision, respectively. Now, cosmetic surgery is not routinely available on the NHS, except for mental health reasons or if the cosmetic aspect is accompanied by a real functional need (e.g. to breathe clearly). This is well and good. Similarly, in my National Food Service regime, oysters and crab-flavoured ice cream would also not routinely be available (except perhaps if they were essential to nutrition!). These would have to be purchased on the private market.

The critic might try this gambit: health care, the kind of care that doesn’t just maintain health but that keeps you alive, can be astronomically expensive. People can’t generally afford it. Adequate nutrition can be had very cheaply. So people need help from the state with the former but can pay for the latter themselves. My reply is that if this point is a good one, it only favours restricting the NHS to the really expensive treatments, not retaining the kind of all-encompassing, womb-to-tomb NHS we have now. So the critic’s point undercuts their own idea that an NFS is not desirable but the NHS is. Moreover, some staple foods, which millions require for nutrition, are particularly expensive to produce, e.g. rice; these rely heavily on government subsidies, loans, and other price support mechanisms. So why not go the whole hog with food, so to speak, and bundle it into an NFS? Anyhow, the overall cheapness of food argues in favour of an NFS because it is really, truly, hard to believe that an NFS would cost more than the NHS – which is pushing £200 billion in annual cost, that is to say, about £3000 annually for every human being in England. I am having to stretch my credulity beyond breaking point to suppose that universal food rationing would cost anywhere near that much. But I have no method of estimating it. (The last I looked, by the way, £3000 would buy every human being in England a helluvalot of health insurance. Just saying.)

OK, how about the ‘black market’ objection? This says that just as we saw a lot of illegality during wartime food rationing, we would see the same the minute an NFS came into existence. And we don’t want that. In reply, this presupposes we do not see illegality as a result of having the NHS. I’m not talking about dodgy tattoo and piercing parlours or lunchtime liposuctions. I’m referring to ‘medical tourism’, where thousands upon thousands of UK citizens go abroad for medical treatment (234,000 in 2021, with 34,000 foreigners coming to the UK for treatments, stats here; gets the noggin joggin’ doesn’t it?). That in itself is legal, of course, but it is surely the case – data are hard to come by – that at least hundreds, if not thousands, of people are injured by negligent doctors, in dodgy or uncertified clinics, or by illegal procedures abroad. I am not thinking of cosmetic surgery (which is the number one reason for medical tourism) since that is not available on the NHS anyway, but rather of things like orthopaedic surgery and dental procedures (it being notoriously hard to get on the books of an NHS dentist).

It is tough to see a significant disanalogy between health care and food provision when it comes to the idea of a nationalised service – socialism, effectively. If there is none, then either we should go with food rationing or we should dismantle and privatise the NHS. As I said, I’m not a fan of food rationing and I doubt you are. I like my private supermarkets, the abundance of choice, the full range of pricing, the efficient delivery, and the reasonably pleasant shopping experience. (Things are going downhill, to be sure; thanks a bunch, America.) But that’s only the supermarkets. I live near an award-winning cheese shop, an award-winning butcher, an overpriced organic shop, and can get pretty much any food online that I can’t find locally. All in all, I can’t complain. Do I want all this to be turned into a bunch of Stalinist showrooms with tasteful lighting illuminating a few mouldy potatoes? All right already, I’m exaggerating. But you can bet that an NFS would be a sodding awful experience without end (unlike post-World War 2 food rationing, which ended in 1954).

And a privatised health service? I admit, my own experience with the NHS has been pretty positive. Our local surgery is clean, neat and friendly, the local hospital likewise, so again I can’t complain. But that’s my area. Stories abound of shoddy service: paint peeling off the walls, DNRs on anyone over 70 (at least during COVID), old people lying on trolleys in corridors for hours and days on end, people sleeping on the floor, half a day to get seen by accident and emergency, botched maternity care, murderous nurses, sepsis here and sepsis there, often woeful food, radical discontinuity of care, hospitals rated inadequate, a culture of cover-up, bullying, endless negligence payouts, bloated bureaucrats on golden pensions, and so on and on. The word on the street these days about the NHS is not exactly positive.

There is no room to rehash the endless debate over privatised health care. That said, I am not advocating for a fully privatised system anyway. Not even our private food system is without government supplementation, for example free school meals and financial assistance to food charities, not to mention government subsidies for agriculture. In a private medical system, there would be similar government assistance, safety nets, and the like. In addition, just as private food is heavily regulated so as to reduce the risk of contamination, food poisoning, and waste, so a private medical system would also be heavily regulated to ensure basic standards from top to bottom.

The worry that is perhaps most often raised is that whereas food products are commodities and hence subject to commodity pricing, many life-saving medicines and treatments are the result of decades of high-cost research and development, require intellectual property protection, and need to have their costs recouped through high pricing. The hope that I and many others have is that as long as technology progresses, prices will trend downwards and affordability will increase. This is particularly so with the mass production of generic medicines. A hundred years ago, hardly anyone ate steak. And hardly anyone had access to antibiotics. Still, there is a long way to go in light of the Big Pharma quasi-cartel, corrupt regulators and legislators (the old ‘revolving door’), and the artificial stimulation of demand due in large part to a woeful lack of government or private interest in preventive health care – the best health care of all.

No, I don’t want to stand in a queue outside a state-run food dispensary. And I want more than ten minutes with my GP. The logic of not bothering about the latter leads to not being fussed about the former, at least if my reasoning is correct. I think we should reject rationing altogether, outside of war and national calamity. If I want a National Food Service, I’ll head over to North Korea. Thanks but no thanks; I’m off to Tesco for a sirloin.

David S. Oderberg is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading; [email protected];; All opinions expressed are personal and not associated in any way with my employer.

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The Need for Roots by Simone Weil (Book Review)

Born in Paris on the 3rd February 1909, Simone Weil was the youngest of two children born to an intellectual and non-observant Jewish family. Stricken by appendicitis as an infant, Weil suffered from ill-health throughout her short life. Academically brilliant, intense and morally uncompromising, Weil intimidated and bemused those she encountered – her tutor, Emile Chartier, dubbed his otherworldly charge ‘the Martian’. Restless, and intent on understanding life outside of her natural, bourgeois, milieu, Weil spent time as a factory worker and fighting (briefly and ineffectually) for the anarchist CNT/FAI during the Spanish Civil War. Following a series of mystical experiences, Weil found herself drawn to the Catholic Church, though it is unknown whether she allowed herself to be baptised.

Exiled from her homeland during the Nazi occupation, Weil worked for the Free French in London, and there is reason to believe she had been accepted for training by the Special Operations Executive before ill-health intervened. In 1943, weakened by tuberculosis but refusing to eat more than was permitted to citizens of occupied France, Weil succumbed to cardiac failure in a Kentish sanitorium. Her resting place can be found in the Catholic section of Bybrook Cemetery, Ashford.

Weil’s writings have found enthusiasts as ideologically diverse as Albert Camus and T. S. Eliot. Her detractors range from Susan Sontag (for whom Weil was ‘fanatical… ridiculous…’) to her boss Charles de Gaulle, who derided her as ‘crazy’.


In 1942, the Free French invited Weil to submit her thoughts on the regeneration of France, post-liberation. Weil’s paper outlined her vision for the spiritual reinvigoration of her homeland, and is her most systemic treatise on political issues. Published posthumously as ‘L’Enracinement’ in 1949, the book was translated into English in 1952 with the title ‘The Need for Roots’. Originally published by Routledge, it appears in a new translation by Ros Schwartz, under the Penguin Classics imprint.

The Need for Roots is an eccentric and uneven work, too baggy and unfocused to offer a blueprint for political action. Like the best of Weil’s writing, its strength is in the originality of her thought – even where she is wrong Weil is wrong in interesting and original ways. Weil’s analyses, and her critique of the social cost of modernity – rooted in an organicist conception of society – will be of interest to the kind of conservatives who read The Mallard.


‘Roots’ and ‘rootedness’ – ‘racines’ and ‘racinement’ – enjoyed a vogue on the French right before Weil. Maurice Barrès, author of Les Deracines, outlined a republican vision of ‘la terre et les morts’ – the mystical bond shared by a people living on, and working, the land in which their ancestors enjoy their eternal rest.

Weil, ironically perhaps, understands roots in less mystical terms:

‘Human beings have roots by virtue of their real, active, and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape particular treasures of the past and particular expectations for the future.’

For Weil, roots arise organically among people thrown together by circumstance, and are multifaceted – anchoring the individual in, for example, a community, a nation, a professional milieu. Through these spontaneous bonds of language, culture and place the individual finds identity and meaning.

When roots are severed, the individual feels himself estranged, and is deprived of an opportunity to participate in the pursuit of a Good beyond himself. Enracinement provides the individual with meaning – imbuing his everyday relationships with eternal, even supernatural significance.

At a political level, roots give the individual ‘a sense of personal ownership’ of ‘public monuments… and the lavishness displayed in ceremonies’. The rites and rituals of civic religion orient the individual toward the Good, as his culture understands it. The individual witnesses a great ceremony of state – a coronation, or a military parade – and understands that the rite is just as much an expression of his identity as, for example, Sunday Mass at the village chapel. Through racinement, the individual understands himself to be a participant in his culture, and feels that he has an interest in the spiritual and cultural health of his community and nation.  

Deracinement, then, is a spiritual malady, an alienation from one’s culture and the conceptions of the Good that have shaped it. Uprootedness on a grand scale can be occasioned by revolution, military conquest or population displacement. It is interesting to speculate on what Weil would have made of the mass immigration that has transformed Europe in the post-war era.


Empathy, for Weil, is the soul of patriotism. It is easier to feel empathy for people with whom one shares bonds of language, culture and place. It is from these bonds of trust and social solidarity that, in a healthy society, order arises.

For Weil roots are the basis of order. Order is the pre-eminent human need – the guarantor of all subordinate needs. In a healthy society, order flows from the bottom-up; a product of ‘compassion’ and trust. This naturally-arising order is distinct from the ‘top down’ constitutional politics of liberalism.

Freedom, like order, cannot be imposed upon a people, rather it must emerge from among them. This is perhaps Weil’s most important lesson for the contemporary right. No western libertarian cites Somalia and Haiti as an ideal for his society to follow, despite both countries’ longstanding traditions of limited (or at least, weak) central government. It is not sufficient to simply limit the reach of the state. Rather, certain social preconditions, principally a culture of mutual trust, must exist if a free, orderly society is to flourish.

Whereas man under liberal democracy understands his relationship with the state formally, in terms of ‘rights’, through ‘enracinement’ the individual understands the interrelatedness between his rights and the obligations that he owes his fellows:

‘A right is not effective on its own but solely in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.’


Liberalism, founded on a universalistic conception of human nature and the absolute sovereignty of the individual, is hostile to rootedness, and thus the organic ties of heritage, culture and place in which healthy identities are founded. And, as Weil observes, uprootedness has the dangerous quality of propagating itself.

Marxism, Weil suggests, is not merely driven by uprootedness, but seeks its universalisation – the reduction of everyone to the status of the proletarian. For Weil, uprootedness was exemplified by the industrial working class of her day; condemned to repetitive and physically exhausting labour, and forced to live in unlovable slums.

Industrialisation elevated the material standard of the common man, but did so at tremendous spiritual cost. The lot of the peasant was hard, but he at least enjoyed the consolations of meaningful labour and a life lived among natural beauty – often on land worked by his ancestors. The proletariat, by contrast, are inescapably aware that they are interchangeable cogs in an economic machine.

The strange revival of Marxist (or at least Marx-ish) politics in the post-Soviet era can be understood as a manifestation of alienation. It is not that Marxism offers a compelling alternative to the current order; rather, Marxism retains an enduring appeal to the uprooted. When people feel estranged from their culture, they desire its destruction. It is not enough for the Communist to triumph over the old order, he must destroy all vestiges of the past. Witness the mad vandalism of the Cultural Revolution, or, in our time, the toppling of statues by those who have been taught to consider western history as uniquely shameful.

In our era ‘deracinement’ manifests in many ways. Witness the proliferation of bizarre sexual subcultures; notably ‘trans’ and ‘non-binary’ identities; among educated left-leaning whites. Ersatz identities such as these provide a sense of belonging and an opportunity to pursue imagined ‘Goods’, in the form of liberation and ‘social justice’. But they thrive on angst and guilt – and propagate the dangerous idea that fulfilment is impossible without radical transformation of the self and society.
Contemporary uprootedness takes other, less dramatic forms: a tendency (found on both left and right) to confuse one’s personal and political identities, for example, or an exaggerated identification in the struggles of peoples very unlike one’s own. Alienated from their own political culture, Zoomers often fail to appreciate the cultural specificity of foreign issues – or, conversely, to map American racial politics onto their own (this writer recalls one especially pathetic incident in which demonstrators in London, protesting the homicide of George Floyd, an incident that occurred on another continent, chanting ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ at unarmed constables of the Metropolitan Police).

The European right, too, is tainted by the uprootedness of the modern world. Witness the awe in which post-war ‘conservatives’ have held America, a land of uprooted individuals, where history is shallow and order proceeds from the top down in the form of a Constitution and a Bill of Rights.


Weil’s most important lesson for the conservative movement is that man has needs beyond the economic. She stands against an era in which:

‘money and the state have come to replace all other bonds of attachment.’

An authentically conservative politics should define itself against the reduction of people to mere economic units; and towns, regions, countries as mere places. We are the custodians of the institutions and traditions that we have inherited. The triumph of capitalism over feudalism has undoubtedly improved life in material terms; but capital, unchecked, uproots peoples from traditional ways of life, destroying communities and cultures. As Weil argues, the destruction of the past is ‘perhaps the greatest of all crimes’, for, once destroyed, the past can never truly be recovered.

The ills that Weil identified in her own age have grown more acute in the post-war era, thanks both to the moral revolution of the 1960s and the triumph of the market in the 1980s. It is a sad but inescapable fact that ‘conservative’ parties, today dominated by different flavours of free-market liberal, have played their role in accelerating this process of deracination.

Conservatism – authentic conservatism – offers a politics that understands men as more than the sum of their appetites and ambitions. Weil’s prescient vision of European revitalization deserves a new audience on the right. It is time for conservatism to rediscover its roots.

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Why Insects on an Island cannot Fly

When British biologist Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) researched the birds and insects living on tropical islands in the 19th century, he observed that many species had gradually abandoned their wings. Insects were equipped with small legs and feet, but no flying apparatus.

The reason they were without wings was because their innate survival instinct would kill them. If the tiny, feather-light insect were to take off and – through a tandem of ocean winds and its curiosity – land on the sea, in all probability it was never to return home again. Nature has preserved these bugs from the dangers of this instinctive trait, of their deceptive curiosity. She has deprived these little critters of the weapons to accidentally, and in all their enthusiasm, kill themselves. But why didn’t nature do the same to us? Why did we get wings, with all the resulting consequences? More than a comparison, this is a metaphor. A metaphor that bespeaks the hubris and curiosity of human beings. It is also a metaphor about censorship and ill-considered decisions, but we’ll come to that at the end. Luckily this analogy simultaneously offers an antidote. An antidote that comes in the shape of conservatism, and some apolitical common sense.


Anyone who studies human behavior and its history notices that people have a fundamental fear of standing still, both physically, culturally and intellectually. As humans we – ab initio – have a reflex to think linearly, in past, present and future. This typical forward-thinking stems from the fundamental curiosity that characterises human beings. With necessity and inevitability, we search for a human nature and the principles that can construct our being. We do not only ask questions, but we also live the questions – after the spirit of Rilke. There is a constant desire to seek them out, study them, weigh them and above all conclude them. We have been doing this since the Homo sapiens developed self-awareness – years and years ago. This curiosity makes it difficult and almost unnatural for man to resign himself to his position, stand still and appreciate what he already holds.

From this curiosity, then, stems the illusion that as we progress more and more, we will eventually be able to grasp something better. Or in other words, we fly off to the perfect island where everything will be better than on the dreary island we were born on. An island-insect, if endowed with thoughts and desires similar to ours, would want to fly to another island, and might even try to do so instinctively even without these thoughts and desires. We, unlike these insects, are not held back by any natural limitations. We have managed through reason, tools and technology to make our way to any other island on the globe. This curiosity and ingenuity, however, holds significant challenges and perils for a society. The few people who seem to notice these risks are the conservatives, and they are the only ones who – often at the expense of their own image – can offer some counterweight to these innate sentiments.


Conservatism is – as the late Sir Roger Scruton (1944 – 2020) so beautifully observed – the philosophy of conservation. It is the philosophy of preservation, to protect what is good, to be grateful for what we have and to be critical of the delusion of the day. In other words, it is a philosophy born of love and appreciation. Love for a shared culture, land, language and country and appreciation for the work and sacrifices of the people who created such a place. Perhaps Austro-Bohemian composer Gustav Mahler’s comment encapsulates this very idea most succinctly, and deserves its mention: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”

As a philosophy she seems – prima facie – rather stately and dusty, but not particularly bellicose or harmful. Yet today the majority of the so-called intellectuals seem to think of conservatism as some dubious ideology, something for old white men or a thing from a different time.

I stop writing for a moment, sip at my coffee and and wipe the ashes off my trousers. I think to myself: is this really what being conservative means? I am 24, well of this age, and do not – yet – feel like an “old white man”, however that should feel. But why do the people around me, my friends, fellow students, politicians, journalists, teachers, writers and philosophers seem so numb to these sentiments? Why the bad connotation of conserving something that is good?

After all, we conserve all sorts of things. In museums and archives, experts work every day to preserve ancient artifacts, statues, rugs, coins, drawings or paintings, to prevent them from being lost or broken, from being consumed by microscopic bugs, moisture or adverse temperatures. We value these objects. They are worth our resources, time and energy and deserve to be passed on to the next generation who will – hopefully – develop the same love for them. Conservatives who delicately, scrupulously and meticulously handle the fragile ideals on which our culture was built, are somewhat comparable to them.

However, what can be argued is that this is a skewed comparison because the conserved object is fundamentally distinct in both situations. Many people would argue that, unlike museum objects, the conservative is not trying to protect something that is worth protecting. Indeed, the opposite is often claimed, the conservative wants to conserve something that is inherently bad. Conservatism wants to perpetuate old patterns of power, inequality, hatred and oppression, preserving something that should have been destroyed and forgotten long ago. Let us not fall into this trap and assume that there are – still – a plethora of things worth preserving and cherishing.

The Open Sea

To ‘island-insects’, flying was a useful – and presumably quite ‘fun’ – quality that was being eliminated to ensure their survival. Thus, the creatures also parted with certain opportunities that existence offered them. They no longer enjoyed the freedom enjoyed by their ancestors, with the wind in their tails and their heads in the clouds, but it made something else possible, namely their survival.

The survival of a culture is less visible than the survival of an individual, a football coach in difficult waters or an Iberian bull-fighting for its life in a Madrid arena. It does not always perish in revolutions or iconoclasts, but in a quietly growing disinclination to conservation and stagnation. One only has to look at publishing house Puffin – censoring dozens of words in Roald Dahl stories last year – to see the pitfalls of such beliefs. Collectively we say: let’s make tabula rasa and finally move forward as a society”. In that same capacity however, we might leave behind something that may be more fragile and valuable than we hold it to be.

An old Russian adage can probably convey my message more adequately than my own pen can: you are born where you are needed, and that is on your own island. Let us not get lost in the endless opportunities that existence offers us, but celebrate its inherent beauty. Let us not fly too close to the sun or too far from our island, but take care of what we have been given, lest evolution eventually take away our wings too. For if we rush out to sea, we may realise that this island was not so bad after all, and will come to the painful conclusion that, so deep in the open ocean, this place may lie forever behind us.

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Rousseau and the Legacy of Romanticism

One idea that I’ve fondly taken from Augusto del Noce is that ideologies have an internal logic to them, which unfolds as they interact with real-world events. Philosophies aren’t static, but constantly changing as they play out against one another historically. This view, while similar to the Marxist notion of praxis, finds ultimate inspiration from Joseph de Maistre. It’s de Maistre who writes that the French Revolution sweeps men up against their will and devours its own children.

Once put into practice, revolutions take on a life of their own, and like a wild tiger on a leash, drag their authors to new and unheard-of places. This isn’t to deny human free will; something I strongly affirm. It’s rather to recognise that rational humans, faced with circumstances, strive to act consistently with what they believe. This mechanism of consistency is what causes ideologies to evolve over time.

This insight is a powerful tool for understanding the long-term consequences of philosophies. The social sciences may quantify popular actions and opinions, but because human wishes are often nebulous, and people are fond of lying to themselves, there’s always room to dispute the results. The romantic primitivism of Jean Jacques Rousseau is one such ideology. Since being unleashed into the world from the bloody womb of the Reign of Terror, it has branched in many different directions and morphed into shapes Rousseau himself wouldn’t have recognised.

To define romanticism, I turn to Irving Babbitt and his 1919 work Rousseau and Romanticism. Romanticism sets itself in opposition to classicism. Classicism seeks standards for ethics and culture in universal types which it deems natural. It’s not the case that classicism seeks rules necessarily (lest we confuse it with Kantianism). Aristotle is the foremost classicist, yet he denies that norms are truly codifiable into rules. A universal type is rather an ideal based upon the nature of something. A classicist (like Aristotle) might say that being polite at the dinner table is something we should do, and this politeness consists of showing due moderation in eating, drinking, talking etc. But this isn’t a rule so much as a way of displaying the excellence proper to a human being.  

Classicism isn’t opposed to emotion either. Rather, it subdues emotions to rational norms. Human nature has a standard of excellence which demands the proper use of emotion. In other words, emotions are good or bad depending on how we wield them according to a standard for the human species. The one able to do this is a universal type, what Aristotle calls the phronimos, or wise man. The later Stoics didn’t condemn emotions entirely, as the popular misconception of them. They rather encouraged natural emotions and discouraged the unnatural. Again, nature is a standard for ideal behaviour, external to individual fancy.

Romanticism, on the other hand, seeks standards in what’s unique and unrepeatable. Instead of conforming to generic ideals, goodness comes from spontaneous individual acts and thoughts. The cause for this is Rousseau’s doctrine of original sanctity. Classicism makes a distinction between ‘things-as-they-are’ and ‘things-as-they-ought’. Humans, animals, and plants don’t come into the world fulfilling an ideal; they arrive imperfect and must strive after their ideal. If we deny this, as Rousseau does, then to be good just is to be what one is. The generic ideal has no purpose and drops out. Authenticity to oneself as one is becomes the aim of life, and this can only find expression in unrepeatable spontaneous acts.

Indeed, once authenticity becomes central, it’s but a short step to rebelling against all standards which society imposes on the self. Since whatever standards society imposes must be ideal repeatable types, and no ideal repeatable types are authentic, no socially imposed standards can be authentic. And since goodness lies in authenticity, being truly good means casting off the standards society has imposed.

As Alasdair Macintyre wryly says in After Virtue, Enlightenment philosophes have the least self-awareness of all thinkers. They create new and revolutionary systems, but the content of their morality is entirely inherited from the civilisation they’ve inherited and which they despise. Thus, Rousseau’s ethics are stuffed full of quaint and puritanical Calvinist ideas from his Genevan upbringing. “Effeminacy” is one of his constant worries, and he applies the term, in boyish fashion, to anything he doesn’t like.  Thus, in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, he can condemn civilised man:

“By becoming sociable and enslaved, he becomes weak, fearful, and grovelling, and his soft and effeminate way of life ends by enervating both his strength and his courage.”

Take these relics away, however, and Rousseau’s romanticism has only its sentimental primitivism to act as a limiting moral principle. Goodness is whatever lies in the untainted human heart, freed from social corruption. What becomes of it then? I wager it must enter an eternal spiral of liberation. Romanticism is built on the idea that we’ll be truly happy only when we free ourselves from all external rules and uncover a pre-social authenticity. Since this is a lie, no amount of liberation will ever create happiness. So, to remain consistent with itself, romanticism must seek ever more shackles of oppression to shatter. It’s either that or admit error.

The progressive radicalisation built into romanticism is visible everywhere. The sexual revolution, for example, has no brakes, because it’s built on a romanticised and primitivist vision of sex that would be falsified the moment brakes are applied. The radicals of the mid-twentieth century believed that socialised sexuality was corrupt, and once the orgasm was freed from all external restraints, pure happiness would result (Wilhelm Reich, for example, thought-free love was the precondition to utopian social democracy). Free love hasn’t made us happier, however. So, the answer is to find ever more previously unknown sexual taboos, whose chains we must shatter if we’re at last to be free.

In everyday morality, romantic assumptions have remade the life quest we each undertake for goodness, into a quest for authenticity. Finding one’s true self is now a drain on the wallet of the entire Western bourgeoisie. People of ages past underwent transformative moral journeys that turned them from sinners to saints, but theirs wasn’t a trek for authenticity. They did something far more mundane: they changed their minds. There’s an implicit vanity in the true-self doctrine. Changing your mind means admitting error. Finding your true self means you were right all along, but just didn’t notice it, because society was keeping you blind.

The cultural production of this quest is, I believe, simply inferior to the production of a mind that looks outwards from itself onto something else. Someone obsessed with finding his authentic self doesn’t have time to stand in awe of things greater than himself. What is falling in love, if not to be overcome by the sense of the intrinsic irreplaceable value of another person, without reference to oneself? We have all effectively become Rousseau writing his Confessions. A man who delighted in nature and other people only as frissons to express his authentic self, and could begin his book with the words:

“Here is the only portrait of a man, painted exactly after nature and in all her truth, that exists and probably ever will exist.”

In education, romantic ideas have done away with the rote learning that characterised pedagogy from Ancient Greece, through the middle ages and down to the Victorian Age. Twentieth-century educators like John Dewey, following in Rousseau’s footsteps, sought to remake schooling around the true self doctrine. Instead of moulding a pupil to conform to an ideal (a gentleman or citizen), modern education exists to help him discover his uncorrupted pre-social self. Self-expression without rules has become the educational norm, with the result that we have people who are experts in analysing their own minds and emotions, but incapable of self-denial or rigour. The excellence of mind and body requires constant training. We accept this more readily about the body because physical fitness is visible. But the mind, which is invisible, needs just as much training to be fit for purpose.

In the end, I see romanticism as an enormous civilisational gamble. The difference between classicism and romanticism is about what we think reality is truly like. The classicist sees a human race born lacking and sees culture as how a scaffold is to a building. Culture exists as an aid to human completion. The romantic, meanwhile, claims that human nature isn’t completable, but already complete, and merely corrupted. He wagers that if we accept this idea, we can remake the world for the better. Like any gambler, he doesn’t think about the stakes if the wager is lost. Here the stakes are social catastrophe if the assumption is untrue. If the truth is classical, then romanticism is akin to raising a lion on a strict vegetarian diet. 

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Immaturity as Slavery

“… but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a world of secondhand, childish banalities.” – Sir Alec Guinness, A Positively Final Appearance. 

The opening quote comes from a part of Alec Guinness’ 1999 autobiography which greatly amuses me. The actor of Obi Wan Kenobi is confronted by a twelve-year-old boy in San Francisco, who tells him of his obsessive love for Star Wars. Guinness asks if he could do the favour of “promising to never see Star Wars again?”. The lad cries, and his indignant mother drags him away. Guinness ends with the above thought. He hopes the boy is weaned from Star Wars before adulthood, lest he become a pitiful specimen. 

Here enters the figure of the twenty-first century man-child, alias the “kidult”. He’s been on the radar for a while. Social critic Neil Postman prophesies the coming of “adult-children” in The Disappearance of Childhood from 1982. American journalist Joseph Epstein calls this same creature “The Perpetual Adolescent” in a 2004 article of the same name. But the best summary of this character I’ve yet found is by the writer Jacopo Bernardini, from 2014, to which I can add but little.

The kidult is one who lives his life as an eternal present. As the name suggests, his life is a sort of permanent adolescence. He is sceptical of traditional definitions of adulthood, so has deliberately shunned milestones like marriage and childbearing, in favour of an unattached lifestyle which lasts indefinitely. His relations with other people remain short and shallow; based entirely on fun and mutual use (close friendships or passionate love-affairs are not for him).  

Most importantly, the kidult doesn’t change his tastes or buying habits with age. The thresholds of adolescence and maturity have no bearing on the things he likes and purchases, nor how he relates to these things. Not only does he like the same toys and cartoons at thirty as he did at ten, but he continues to obsess over them and impulsively buy them like when he was ten. Enjoying childhood fare isn’t a playful interlude, but a way of life which never ends. He consumes through instant gratification, paying no thought to any long-term pattern or goal.

Although it must not strike the reader as obvious, I think there exists a link between Guinness’ “secondhand, childish banalities” and a kind of latter-day slavery. To see the link needs some prep work, but once laid, I think the reader will see my point. 

First to define servility. I believe the conservative writer Hilaire Belloc gave the best definition, and I shall freely paraphrase him. The great mass of people can be restricted yet not servile. Both monopolistic capitalism and socialism reduce workers to dependency, but neither makes them entirely slaves. Under capitalism, society retains an ideal of freedom, enshrined in law. Even as monopolists manipulate the law with their money, the ideal remains. Under socialism, state ownership is supposed to give all citizens leisure to do what they want (even as the state strangles them). In either case then, freedom is present as an ideal in theory even as it ceases to exist in practice. Monopolistic and socialist states don’t think of themselves as unfree.  

Slavery is different. A slave society has relinquished even the pretence of freedom for a large mass of the working people. Servility exists when a great multitude are forced to work while having no productive property, and no economic independence. That is, a servile person owns nothing (or effectively nothing) and has no choice whatsoever over how much he works or for whom he works. Most ancient civilisations, like Egypt, Greece, and Rome were servile, with servility existing as a defined legal category. That some men were owned by others was as enshrined by law as the ownership of land or cattle. 

Let’s put a little Aristotle into the mix. There are two kinds of obedience: from a free subject to a ruler, and from an unfree slave to his master. These are often confused but distinct. For while the former is reasonable, the latter involves no reason and is truly blind. 

True authority is neither persuasion nor force. If an officer argues to a soldier why he should obey, then the two are equals, and there’s no chain of command. But if the officer must hold a gun to the man’s head and threaten to execute him lest he do his duty, this isn’t authority either. The soldier obeys because he’s terrified, but not because he respects his superior as a superior. True authority lies in the trust which a subordinate has for the wisdom and expertise of a superior. This only comes if he’s rational enough to understand the nature of what he’s a part of, what it does, and that some people with knowhow must organise it to work properly. A sailor understands he’s on a ship. He understands that a ship has so many complex functions that no one man could know or do them all. He understands that his captain is a wiser and more experienced fellow than he. So, he trusts the captain’s authority and obeys his orders. 

I sketch this Aristotelian view of authority because it lets us criticise servility without assuming a liberal social contract idea. What defines slavery isn’t that the slave hasn’t chosen his master. Nor that the slave doesn’t get to argue about his orders. A slave’s duty just is the arbitrary will of his master. He doesn’t have to trust his master’s wisdom, because he doesn’t have to understand anything to be a slave. That is, while a soldier must rationally grasp what the army is, and a citizen must rationally grasp what society is, a slave is mentally passive.

Now, to Belloc’s prophecy concerning the fate of the west. The struggle between ownership and labour, between monopoly capitalism and socialism, which existed in his day, he thought would result in the re-institution of slavery. This would happen through convergence of interests. The state will take an ever-larger role in protecting workers through a safety net, that they don’t starve when unemployed. It will nationalise key industries, it will tax the rich and redistribute the wealth through welfare. But monopolies will still dominate the private sector. 

Effectively, this is slavery. For the worker is protected when unemployed but has entirely lost the ability to choose his employer, or even control his own life. To give an illustration of what this looks like in practice: there are post-industrial towns in Britain where the entire population is either on welfare or employed by a handful of giant corporations (small business having ceased to exist). To borrow from Theodore Dalrymple, the state controls everything about these people, from the house they inhabit to the school they attend. It gives them pocket-money to spend into the private sector dominated by monopolies, and if they want to work, they can only work for monopolists. They fear neither starvation nor a cold night, but they have entirely lost their freedom. 

This long preamble has been to show how freedom is swapped for safety in economic terms. But I think there’s more to it. First, the safety may not be economic but emotional. Second, the person willing to enter this swindle must be of a peculiar mindset. He must not know even a glimmer of true independence, lest he fight for it. A dispossessed farmer, for example, who remembers his crops and livestock will fight to regain them. But a man born into a slum, and knowing only wage labour, will crave mere safety from unemployment. Those who don’t know autonomy don’t long for it.

There now exist a troop of companies that market childish goods for adult consumption. They typically do this in one of two ways. First, offering childish products to adults under the guise of nostalgia. The adult is encouraged to buy things reminding him of his childhood, with the promise that he will relive it. Childish media and products are given an adult spin, and remarketed. Toys are rebranded as collectibles. Children’s films get unnecessary, adult-oriented, sequels or remakes (what Bernardini calls “kidult movies”). Originally child-friendly festivals or theme parks are increasingly marketed to childless adults.   

The second way is by infantilising adult products. Adverts, for example, have gradually replaced stereotypical busy office workers and exhausted housewives with frolicking kidults. No matter how trivial, every product that is not related to Christmas, is now surrounded by giddy, family-free people engaged in play. The message we’re meant to get is that the vacuum cleaner or stapler will free us to act like children. By buying these things, we can create time for the true business of life: bouncing and smiling with one’s mouth open. 

I believe infantilism to be a kind of mental slavery. In both the above examples, three elements combine: ignorance and mass media channel anxiety into childishness. This childishness then binds the victim in servitude to masters who take away his freedom while robbing him in the literal sense.

An artificial ignorance created by modern education is the first parent of the man-child. Absent a proper and classical education, the kidult’s mind is an empty page. Lack of general knowledge separates him from the great achievements of civilisation. He cannot seek refuge in Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, or Dante, for he has never heard of these. He cannot draw strength from philosophy and religion for the same reason. Neither can he learn lessons from history, for the world begins only with his own birth. Here is a type of mental dispossession parallel to an economic one. Someone utterly ignorant of the answers great people have given to life’s questions will seek only safety, not wisdom.

The second parent is anxiety. Humans have always been terrified of the inevitable decay of their own bodies, followed by death. The wish for immortality is ancient. Yet the modern world, with its scepticism, creates a heightened anxiousness. When all authority and tradition has been deconstructed, there is no ideal for how people ought to live. Without this ideal, humans have no certainty about the future. Medieval people knew that whatever happened, knights fought, villeins worked, and churchmen prayed. Modern man’s world is literally whatever people make of it. It may be utterly transformed in a very short time. And this is anxiety-inducing to all but the most sheltered of philosophers.

Add to this the rise of a selfish culture. As Christopher Lasch tells us, the nineteenth century still carried (in a bastardised way) the ideal of self-sufficiency and virtue of the ancient man. Working and trading was still tied to one’s flourishing in society. Since 1960, as family and community have disintegrated, the industrialised world has degenerated into a Hobbesian “war of all against all”. A world of loneliness without parents and siblings; lacking true friends and lovers. When adulthood has become toxic and means to swim in a sea of disfunction, vulgarity, substance abuse and pornographic sexuality; it’s no surprise some may snap and long for a regression to childhood. 

Mass media is the third condition. It floods the void where education and community used to be. The space where general knowledge isn’t, now gets stamped by fiction, corporate advertising, and state propaganda. These peddle in a mass of cliches, stereotypes, and recycled tropes. 

My critique of kidults isn’t founded on “good old days” nostalgia, itself a product of media cliches. Fashions, customs, and culture change; and the citizen of today doesn’t have to be a joyless salaryman or housewife to count as an adult. Rather, the man-child phenomenon is a massive transfer of power away from the small and towards the large. The kidult is like an addict, hooked on feelings of cosy fun and nostalgia which are only provided by corporations. These feelings aren’t directed to the good of the kidult but the organisation acting as a dealer. The dealer controls the strength and frequency of the dose to get the wanted behaviour from the addict.     

Now we see how kidults can be slaves. First, they’ve traded freedom for safety (false as it is) like Belloc’s proletarians made servile. Unlike the security of a traditional slave, this is an emotional illusion. The man-child believes that there’s safety in the stream of childish images offered to him. He believes that by consuming these the pain of life will cease. Yet man-children get no material or mental benefit from their infantilism. Indeed, they’re fast parted from their money, while getting no skills or virtues in return. The security is merely psychological: a Freudian age regression, but artificially created. 

Second, while authority in Aristotle’s sense means to swap another’s judgement for your own, for the sake of a common good you understand; here you submit to another’s judgement for the sake of their private good, which you don’t understand. Organisations seeking only profit or power impose their ideas on the kidult, for their benefit. An immature adult pursues only pleasure, lives only for the present, and thinks only in frivolous stereotypes and cliches implanted during childhood. He’s thus in no position to understand the inner workings of companies and governments. He follows his passions like a sentient puppet obeying an invisible thread, leading always to a hand just out of sight. 

In the poem London, William Blake talks about “mind-forg’d manacles”. These are the beliefs people have which constrain their lives in an invisible prison of sorts. For what we think possible or impossible guides our acting. Once mind-forg’d manacles are common to enough people, they form a culture (what’s a culture if not collective ideas on how one should act?). Secondhand childish banalities are such mind-forg’d manacles if we let them determine us wholly. Their “secondhand” nature means the forging has been done for us, and this makes them more insidious than ideas of our own creation. For if what I’ve said above is true, they threaten to make us servile. If enough people become dependent on secondhand childish banalities, as the boy who met Alec Guinness, then the whole culture becomes servile. Growing up may be painful, but it’s a duty to ourselves, that we remain free.

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Foucault was right, actually; Everything is a prison

Generally, in our circles, Foucault is mostly mocked for his personal life and called one of ‘those French intellectuals that ruined it all’. However, if we were to actually investigate his claims, we’ll realise that he is quite close to the Moldbugian thought, except he never connected the dots.

I’m here to introduce an opinion that may shock you. Foucault was right, actually. And I’m going to explain why.

For those, who don’t know much about his theories, we can pretty much boil it down to the following:

1. Everything is a prison

2. There is no escape from the prison

3. The institutions are your enemy

4. The system creates ‘docile bodies’ that are not able to rebel against the power structures

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault comes out with the theory of The Carceral, he brings up the example of the Mettray school which was known for its “cloister, prison, school, regiment” function. He uses his example to develop an argument about institutions being the main tool for surveillance and punishment.

What struck me when reading Foucault was the close resemblance of his thought to the Moldbugian concept of ‘The Cathedral’. As claimed by the man himself:

“The mystery of the cathedral is that all the modern world’s legitimate and prestigious intellectual institutions, even though they have no central organizational connection, behave in many ways as if they were a single organizational structure.” – Mencius Moldbug, Gray Mirror blog, 21/01/2021, ‘A Brief Explanation of The Cathedral’

Foucault claims that universities are the main vehicles of power. There’s a never-ending cycle of power found within the university halls – a student is punished by the teacher, and the teacher is punished by the institution. A teacher is just a function of the power structures ruling over them.

When we then look at Giroux and his essay on Zombie Politics, (who completely misunderstands the political climate of the modern era but let’s forget that for a moment) – ‘zombies’ (here meaning politicians) have an “ever-increasing presence in the highest reaches of government and at the forefront of mainstream media”, which makes us think of the Chomskian concept of media manufacturing consent – there is a clear connection of the governmental powers using media and academia exerting power onto its subjects – they gatekeep access to higher levels of society if it doesn’t comply with their agenda. They are the ones wielding the power as they choose who will get high up in the ranks of control or not.

As such, when we’ll take Foucault focusing on academia being at the core of the power structures, Chomsky with manufacturing consent by the media, and Giroux linking it to the governmental controls, we basically have the Cathedral.

Foucault, although labelled as a left-wing thinker, which is perhaps more prominent in his other writing, never claims to have a solution to this problem. He just states the issues with the power structures and where they come from – and here, he is inherently correct.

The problem is that the status quo is currently left-wing. These power structures mobilise against right-wing thought – we have academia which is oversaturated by left-wing thinkers, mainstream media which doesn’t dare stray from the status quo and the ‘conservative government’ which is neoliberal masquerading as conservatives.

Foucault and others unwittingly pointed out the issue, but they never connected the dots.

So how do we deal with the world where the power structures surround us? There is no way out. Foucault claims that power structures use surveillance to catch any outliers, punish them by gathering knowledge against them and by using educative/punishing methods, render them docile and bring them back into the world, brainwashed, repackaged and back within the power structures they wanted to oppose.

And we see it these days – anyone who tries to dissent from the ‘current thing’ is immediately shut down, de-platformed, removed, their bank accounts closed, and freedoms curbed until they have no choice but to conform again.

Foucault may have not expected this to happen in this form, yet the issue remains. The increasing surveillance in the modern era is a cause of concern, too. One cannot function without technology, but this same technology cripples and watches us. Anyone who claims otherwise is a fool.

Another interesting point from Foucault was that it is the labels that the institutions give to the ill that cause the diseases. Considering that we live in an era where mental illness and gender dysmorphia becomes trendy, the labels are easy blankets to use to justify behaviours that would have been otherwise abhorrent.

Foucault offers a lot of useful insight. He describes the power-wielders as “technicians of behaviour, engineers of conduct, orthopaedists of individuality”, sounds familiar? Currently, every current thing is manufactured, the individuality is only allowed if it fits the regime. The freedom of political thought is a thing of the past.

‘Orthopaedists of individuality’, orthopaedic suggests improving something that needs correcting – individuality is treated as a deformity that’s an unpleasant problem that needs correcting.

It is blatantly obvious that academia and journalism are overwhelmingly filled with left-wing thinkers and government structures are trying to appease the left-wing voters who are largely demographically middle-class, so the societal left-wing shift is apparent, this being facilitated by the large corporations. This noveau bourgeoisie class has got full cultural hegemony over the dominant cultural and political thought.

This successfully gatekeeps from the right-wing thought ever arising or being put under serious scrutiny, since it isn’t acknowledged in the first place.

With the rise and increase of surveillance and more legislation being put through by the government continually attempting to bow to the on-the-fence voters, the ever-increasing monitoring of free speech renders it no longer free.

This continuous surveillance and forced self-correcting of speech proceeds to create docile bodies – it incapacitates and removes any form of political discussion and fuels the actual Schmittian friend-enemy distinction. The government structures alongside academia and mainstream media create an unbreakable mode of power that devours and forces its subjects to yield.

Foucault may be a less popular guy on our side of politics, but he brings in a lot of important insight that can help us understand the power structures at hand. Everything is a prison. A man made, neoliberal hell of a prison. 

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