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Bees, vice, and paradise.


WHILE I WAS trying to get a ladder leant against a leylandii at the end of the garden the other day (so I could chop off some ever-intrusive ivy) I found the air suddenly full of bees. They were small and agitated and luckily not aggressive but I didn’t fancy hanging around to see how far their patience would stretch. As I moved the ladder away I noticed some of them coming out of a mound of disturbed vegetation. A quick look at this revealed it was the top of some sort of nest, and it was made of chewed up dried leaves with a small helping of decayed black bin bag.

They’re still there and I still haven’t been able to identify them, apart from the obvious classification of ground-nesting bees. They’ve repaired the damage to the nest cover and if you watch for a few minutes you can see the occasional bee go in and out. The nest is usually static but the surface occasionally quivers like an erratic heart as a resident moves about underneath or makes its way out. It’s rather weird.

At the same time, fortuitously (or was it synchronicitously?) I came upon a poem called “The Grumbling Hive” by the eighteenth century writer, Bernard Mandeville. The poem caused a stir when it was first published in 1705 because it proposed that the wealth and welfare of society are inextricably bound up with vice and avarice, and that if you were able to remove the latter, society would be much the poorer. In fact, it suggested that social wealth to a large extent depended on vices rather than virtues, since so much work went into satisfying people’s appetites and desire for luxuries:

Thus every part was full of vice,
Yet the whole mass a paradise;
Flattered in peace and feared in wars,
They were the esteem of foreigners,
And lavish of their wealth and lives,
The balance of all other hives.
Such were the blessings of that state;
Their crimes conspired to make them great:
And virtue, who from politics
Had learned a thousand cunning tricks,
Was, by their happy influence,
Made friends with vice; and ever since,
The worst of all the multitude
Did something for the common good.

Or, if I may rejig the proposition, “private vices = public benefits”. Mandeville’s hive, though as full of bad bees as good, nevertheless produces honey for all. Without accepting that a complete abandonment of all morality is necessary or acceptable, it is hard not to acknowledge this viewpoint has a great deal of truth in it. The whole economic system churns over immense amounts of money both of the legal and illegal kind, enabling millions of people to earn the wherewithal to live. A vast amount of waste is involved in this and yet somehow society continues without collapsing. Indeed, western society does very well out of it in most ways.

I can’t imagine a modern lecturer in any university treating Mandeville’s proposition with any seriousness…

This reminded me of some of the things that Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has repeatedly made in his lectures (available on YouTube), in arguing against the resentful, destructive drives of cultural Marxism. We don’t live in a utopia but the culture of the west is the best we have developed so far and we should be grateful for it instead of trying to tear it all down. I can’t imagine a modern lecturer in any university treating Mandeville’s proposition with any seriousness, which is a pity because a good dose of reality-based contrarianism would do our students good.

The “School of Resentment”, one of the first manifestations of the syndrome as Harold Bloom identified it infecting the English Literature faculties over twenty years ago, has spread everywhere. Destructive criticism of every aspect of our culture is now de rigueur, and is a favourite attitude among those who trot along to the Glastonbury Festival at  £243 a pop for a singalongaJezza and his vacuous rhetoric about poverty. They get their music and a cheap political fix while the entrepreneurs relieve them of their cash. That’s a hive in action.

My bees, in the meantime, unlike Mandeville’s, have no hive and produce no honey. Fortunately, they pollinate everything in sight, amply demonstrating that their own selfish endeavours contribute to the welfare of the world. Even if I can’t get the ladder up against the hedge yet.

suxcoverCurrente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.

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