In every century, historians have mis-told their stories. Their narrative has been of the ephemeral – of what this leader, or that “great general” did to change the course of history. Such tales are useful to leaders. They can be presented at court, admired by politicians and entered as texts in school and university curriculums. They are mirrors for the aspiring to pose their best sides and even, by rote learning of passages – to parade an erudition for the admiration of less “extraordinary” people.
In the same way, narratives are often mis-told by people wishing to change contemporary events – political journalists and theorists, social commentators, “climate change activists” and so on. Those narratives propose that ephemeral action can create durable change. They use the mis-telling of historical events as a precedent to similarly mis-tell the durable changes created by their own political actions.
My readers will know of Fernand Braudel’s method for a truer telling of history – of the longue durée – of the deep and slow morphologies of societies above which, short-term and medium-term events and their effects survive for their short and medium terms – having little influence on enduring commons of social behaviour. Tolstoy tells a similar tale in War and Peace. Napoleon can disrupt events by posing as Everyman to vast numbers of followers, but he is nothing to the longue durée. Recent UK & US elections have shown the power of that Everyman stance. The pain (leaving aside climatic tipping points) will come and go.
In his book, Home, Francis Pryor unravels British history in Braudel’s way – He asks, what is common to all historical periods? – the idea of home. That simple thought unlocks the past, not as an exotic, but a familiar place – literally – where ancestors like us, in every important way, lived and loved. We find truth in the ordinary – not in praise poems of court bards. We live firstly in families, and only expediently under hierarchies.
In her copious writings of the Fens – of ancient field systems and commons – Susan Oosthuizen finds archaeological evidence for unchanged settlement, in spite of the spun tales of migration, or invasion – of “Neolithic star gazers”, warrior-culture “beaker people”, or Saxon “barbarians”. These “events” never happened outside history books. She presents archaeological evidence for unchanged field systems, commons and settlements from at least the late Bronze Age until the Early Medieval Period. In her book, The Emergence of the English, she shows how English speaking emerged from the social necessities and fashions of a necessarily tri-lingual people – from Latin, Brittonic and Old English – and that all three languages were probably spoken without effort, even before the Roman (indisputable) invasion of the island. Now, DNA evidence finds no differences between the people of Wales and England – even though Brittonic language survived in Wales and not in England. Language is a useful tool. It does not define ethnicity. It seems the Celtic invasion “event” – bringing Brittonic/Brythonic languages, never happened. Probably, since the Mesolithic, Welsh and English people have stuck fast in their longue durée – adopting technologies, gods and languages as time passed. We’ve no means to know how we spoke then, but we can be almost certain how we thought of home, proper and improper behaviour and the necessity to maintain those commons – common to us and common to them – common to the slow movement of time. I would append that we would have welcomed travellers, traders and traveller’s tales. We still do.
Wait a minute! You say, climate change and species extinction need immediate action. We’ve not time to consider grand notions of deep time. We must sign petitions, appeal to powerful politicians – ask them to “act on the science”, because all is now short span.
I say, it is foolish to appeal to Napoleon. We must turn from the ephemeral, to stir the deep time, which flows through all of us. It is foolish to ask leaders to impose a circular, steady state, or doughnut economy, when these things can only be, if we, personally and one by one, live them. The longue durée is me and all of us. It is the invisible hand. It is inherited skills – the idea of home and home-making, the sanctity of the ordinary, of passing on the ordinary… Leaders can only pervert those things. They have led us astray, so that we created BP, Amazon, Tesco, Renault, Microsoft… by our collective purchasing powers. Leaders cannot create BP and co. Only we can do so and only we can undo so.
The longue durée must un-weave the delusive curtains – the sometimes beautifully-woven charisma of Hector, Achilles, Alfred and Arthur; of captains of industry; of Tech Everyman in jeans and trainers. Where a human tool meets its materials is both a sensuality and an ancestry, which joins the species to its soil. It is consequence. We are all consequence. And here’s another thing – cultures are what people do to make them. They stop, when people stop culturing. Until the industrial revolution, leaders have not interfered with the making of cultures – that is, with the skills of the trades. Leaders have relied on the autonomy of trades’ people without question. They’ve only distorted it by rent and taxes – and by recruitment to war. But when long-evolved tools, were replaced by new, coal-driven tools, leaders without skills made clumsy attempts at culturing. Now, we have the consequence.
Here, in the longue durée what then do we propose? – we people, who G K Chesterton said, have not spoken yet? Do we propose to the powers that they impose a steady-state economy? – knowing that such an action would precipitate immediate collapse of institutions, currencies, stock markets and related companies and the tax-generating wages of those they employ? We also know that the powers belong in the short span – by the mirror of last night’s opinion. There is no possibility at all, of their acting on our request.
Instead, we can appeal to each other to abandon suicide and re-learn what drives all durable settlements – commons of good behaviour. It is a moral appeal and could be a religious appeal. Only that central and binding moral can emerge intact as consumerist and monetarist infrastructures collapse tragically around us. They must collapse.
Our time is as epic as those remembered from the flood and the fall, which seem universal to almost all cultures. Science will not help us, nor institutional, or NGO guidance. It is simple – we must quench our fires and re-grow, or let re-grow the biomass and biodiversity of our lovely, singular Earth. The ancestral power of the longue durée is in us all. Today, it survives only in the house-hold: in parental guidance, in the rationing of chores and pleasures and in inherited taboos. The household produces children – fully formed into the wider culture. But, as we’ve seen, a perverted household created Microsoft and Amazon by the power of its spending. Many millions of households did it. Then, schools and universities taught and consolidated the perversion. Education is our flood. Now is the Great Sanity. Un-spend Amazon. Many millions can do it. Where a tool meets its materials comes a spark of truth in educated darkness. First pick up the tools. De-school. Follow the sparks. As the young Geoffrey Hill sang – “Arthur, Elaine, Mordred, they are gone, under the raftered galleries of bone – and over their cities stands the pinnacled corn.”
Is that extreme? – Well yes. We are at the extreme edge of extinction. That which goes on though dynasties pass – the pinnacle corn, children laughing at their games, the heaps of couch grass – will also enter oblivion. Leaders will not save them. Only I can. Only you can.
The Wealth of Nations could be an anarchist manifesto
To return to Adam Smith and our article – Reclaiming Capital. How would we define Adam’s political philosophy? I’d say, it is emphatically anarchist – with expedient compromise. He does not define the wealth of nations. He says, it is in the hands of the invisible hand of cultures settled skilfully and happily in their terrains. He defines only what will prevent its fruition – that is profit, rent, usury, monopoly and an extractive casino of currency fluctuation, stocks, bonds and shares. He says these things must be controlled both by law and the ethics and taboos of cultural tradition.
Pure anarchism hopes for the potency of a common ethic to repel amoral insurgency. Adam is more pragmatic in defining obstacles.
Just as we instinctively know that theft and murder are wrong and so are happy that they be recognised as unlawful, so I think, we also know that usury, monopoly, personal profit and so on are wrong – and that it is wrong that they are not recognised as unlawful. These are ancient cultural taboos. We do not allow them in the household, or in the society of friends. There, ancient commons of good behaviour remain.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam argues that these things should be criminalised, because they extract money for the benefit of anti-social individuals and to the detriment of society as a whole. They weaken and often destroy the invisible hand and they bleed and sometimes suck dry, the wealth and happiness of nations.
I think his vision is simply true. It is a lesson for our times. Just as in Adam’s time, if we asked the powers to introduce laws to criminalise the principle sources of their accumulated and accumulating wealth, we’d be laughed out of the room – or worse. The lesson of The Wealth of Nations was laughed out of the room at the time of publication and in every time since. We’ve seen the worse in the recent treatment of Jeremy Corbyn, who attempted to introduce a few very mild Adamish restraints to the powers. We’ll see the same for Bernie Sanders. In many parts of the world, people presenting such moral reforms are simply disappeared.
But here’s a thing – the more people understand the lack of basic moral probity, practiced by business people, politicians and nearly all journalists, so the more, ordinary, moral people will dream of something better. Today’s leaders are out-laws in the imaginations of nearly everyone. We know that there is one law for them and another for us. Plainly, removing “them” by violence is certain to bloodily fail. Mass demonstrations may lead to distribution of brightly packaged crumbs, or cheaply manufactured beads– but no more. As we saw in the turmoil of revolutionary Russia, people become forced to take sides. Good people could not but support “communist” factions, because the alternatives seemed far, far worse. Their least-worst option turned out not as they’d hoped, or as the communist manifesto intended. Similarly, but without violence, the Brexit choices were between rocks and hard places – a corporate-supplied, monetarist, consumerist EEU, or an exit to a more extreme version of the same, but led by bankers and stock manipulators, who yet stood as Everymen against “bonkers” EEU legislation. Voters preferred that “human” touch. Humanity is not what they got.
So, Adam Smith’s vision of society is utterly true, but is also no immediate help, since violence is the only method by which it could succeed – and so, of course, instantly fail. It remains an excellent guide to good behaviour.
Tipping points for climatic balance and for the survival of very many species, which are part of that balance, have already passed. Permafrost was modelled to melt over half a century in the future. It is melting today. Societies must act instantly to live inside their ecological means. That means radical upheaval for every “developed” economy. Gentle transition is now too late. It means choosing tragic economic collapse and for a Phoenix of our choosing to rise from the ashes (Fire is not the best metaphor and we may not have power to choose). No government will choose collapse. Neither will it choose the end of aviation, the family car, suburbia…
But I can and you can, taking with us the salutary lessons, which Adam Smith outlined as well as anyone in our own times. I hope everyone with deeply-held values will join us. I think that means almost everyone. We hold all the skills. Stock brokers hold none. We shall de-spend our old lives – in which we spent a corporate invasion into existence. We did that and as I’ve said, we can undo it. There remains one banner, which can fly into the future – anarchy – the moral fabric of the longue durée.
We can live in communities where “work and pleasure are walking distances from everyone’s door”. We can re-centre suburbia. We can farm and garden properly. We can live within our means. We can become ordinary again. No government can do those things for us.
The Invisible Hand
Ah, you want me to define the invisible hand? I cannot. It has a depth beyond words and a complexity beyond my singular intelligence. It is the collective hand of all the hands, which create, or diminish the common good. How do we know what is right, or wrong? I can attempt to define how I’d like to steer my own course – and where I’ve failed, or succeeded.
We learn rules of thumb. But some things are deeply wrong, or deeply right. Others are arguably wrong, or right. We discuss them, but can we explain the depth? Those depths, for want of a better word, are felt, not thought. I can live them, but they are beyond the reach of thought. Why is murder wrong? We cannot say. We know only that it is taboo. Some words are evocative, so that a writer can conjure those depths – we re-live them in the best verse, or prose – but still they are undefined. Music does the same.
Without that deep, indefinable truth, societies would fall apart. I suspect that flocks, packs and herds of other species are united by similar convictions. We are all fierce in their defence.
For me, the invisible hand weaves the culture from every contributory influence – from all the trades and pleasures, which are guided by a moral common. It is what people do for right, or wrong – its muscular power swelling, or shrinking accordingly. Of course, wrong is often not intended, but is the outcome of a mistake. Mistakes live happily on the common. Do fossil-fuelled tools empower the hand? They do not. They kill it. They have emerged inside the enclosures. Enclosure defines right to irresponsible property. Fossil fuels have not received the moral scrutiny – and the pragmatic trial and error of the common.
How about some similes for the invisible hand? The Holy Ghost? Philip Pullman’s dust, or his secret commonwealth? – the workings of the longue durée? – the bonds of love and family? And then we have a cascade of related words – honour, duty, sanctity, trust, betrayal…
The invisible hand can only live on the common. It is killed by enclosure – starved of contribution.
What about those arguably right, or wrong behaviours? Justification can walk, step by step across enclosures fences into the deeply wrong. We shout – By all that’s holy, stop! But justification says, why? If we kill subversives, then peace for all will return. If we charge £290 rent for our status, above our wage of £10 per hour, then we, the wise – the architects, GPs, solicitors and so on, can grow time to think and study. – But I have to work 30 hours to pay for one hour of your time and have no time to study. Precisely, says the solicitor – whose “expertise” is unnecessary to us, but is statutory – statutory to the enclosure. It is crazy and plain wrong to the moral common. It kills the invisible hand.
Simply by that monopolistic enclosure – simply by that new middle class, ancient bonds of society fall apart.
In UK, across Europe and in the US, we’ve recently seen how that new middle class has taken over the political parties of the Left. It regards itself as educated; as enlightened and forgets to include that it is also rich, by extracting huge rents for its “services”. Where can working people go? They belong, they are told by Enlightenment’s newspapers, such as the Guardian – to the mob.
Here, surrounded by fellow mobsters, John Ball, Gerrard Winstanley, Martin Luther King… we appeal across the fences – by all that’s holy think about what you do! But we speak from the heart, from the ancestors, from the secret commonwealth and loved ones at home – without reason; without peer review…
Featured image: Sawtry Fen. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/sawtry-fen-1230806
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