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Column: Chapters| Alan Macfarlane.







AS I WATCHED the events of the siege of the Congress building in Washington two days before writing this I was reminded of the pronunciation of ‘democracy’ by my grand-daughter, Lily, when she was aged five, as ‘demo-crazy’. This extraordinary event also highlights the fact that much of my early education, and a continuing interest, though I have not written much about it, has been in politics, the arrangement and flow of power. I date this interest from 1972 when I joined with my friend Martin Bernal at King’s to protest against the Vietnam war. Yet the introduction to politics goes right back to my early school education.

While the social and cultural were both rather neglected at school as an undergraduate, much of our historical work was concerned with politics and constitutional affairs. I now realize that this served a double function. On the one hand, I was being inculcated into the myth or charter which explained the greatness of Britain, its early discovery of balanced government with some representation, a gift it had bestowed on the world.

Born in the early years of the Second World War, on the day the Japanese attacked Singapore and launched their invasion of south-east Asia, I was brought up in the after-glow of the war against Fascism. Through my teens and Oxford, the Cold War against the Soviet Union was developing and in my last winter as an undergraduate the world was nearly destroyed during the Cuban Missile Crisis. So, I needed to internalize the stirring tale of the preservation of freedom. I revelled in Magna Carta, Cromwell’s victory over Charles and the and the defeat of Napoleon.

At Oxford, over half my time reading history was concerned with politics. Added to this was a new dimension, which became my favourite subject – political philosophy. We learnt something about Tocqueville in our first term and then studied Aristotle’s Politics and his denunciation of democracy as dangerous and the different forms of government. We studied Hobbes’ Leviathan and I began to learn that at the heart of this apparently highly authoritarian thinker, there was a basic preservation of the right of the individual to rebel against the State if his or her life were threatened.

When we studied Rousseau’s Social Contract, I discovered the opposite. Rousseau was a thinker who preached freedom and liberty, exhorting people to throw off their chains and to espouse the values of liberty, equality and fraternity. Yet he was, in fact, a deeply authoritarian thinker. The ‘General Will’ was something we should surrender ourselves to, blend into. If this ‘Will’ directed us to change all our ideas, or even to die for offending it, we should do so willingly. So, I found that the seed of Rousseau flourished in Marx, Stalin and Hitler.

I was well educated in the formal political history of Britain and in selected periods of European history. I understood something about the British constitution, though little in detail about elsewhere, even in Europe.

This served a second function, for the heavy dose of political teaching throughout school and university was to prepare me to govern. I might well become a national politician, as my uncle, Robert Rhodes James, had done. He had read the same subject in the same school and Oxford College as myself. He became a Clerk to the House of Commons (writing a book on how it worked), then an advisor to the head of the United Nations and ended up as Conservative Member of Parliament for Cambridge.

I still remember that when we had a ‘mock election’ in my last year at School, I stood as the Conservative candidate and enjoyed the chance to practice oratory. The outcome in such a school was obvious, but my speech was reported home to various branches of my family as excellent and I was urged to consider going into politics later in life.

If not formal politics as a local or national level or a or civil servant in Britain, I might earlier have gone into something wider. If the British Empire had not inconveniently dissolved during my school years— in other words if it had remained as it was when our curriculum was designed— I might well have gone to parts of that huge Empire and its colonies. I would perhaps have gone as a district officer or provincial governor, or more humbly, like George Orwell, a policeman. This is what many of my family had done as they went as lawyers, soldiers, doctors, missionaries, consuls, to the West Indies, India, China, Burma and elsewhere. They often went with some understanding of governing, both through formal lessons and through the rehearsal for rule which was built into the ‘prefect’ system of boarding schools.

As it was, I did neither, and the peak of my power was as Chairman of various academic committees and Head of a Cambridge Department. I did not need to know about medieval government or even the causes of the English Civil War for this, of course, but I suspect that the arts of being ruled and ruling I learnt at my public school were helpful in giving me the confidence and experience of executing a certain amount of devolved power.

My interest in politics declined, and even by 1968, when I was at the London School of Economics during the Student Uprising, I was scarcely aware that it was going on. The exception to this was my anger at the Vietnam war and I did go on the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demonstrations and vowed never to visit the United States after its bestial behaviour — a vow which I did not keep.

I cannot recall writing much about politics in any of its forms for some time and it was only during the build-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003 that I became involved again, writing letters to politicians such as Clare Short and Tony Blair, but unable to have any effect. So, as described elsewhere, my pent-up anger and anxiety was channelled into an anonymous satirical blog on The Hammer of Evil.

One major omission in my education in politics was once again the quite narrow nature of the instruction. Apart from political philosophy, which ranged more widely, and some essays on European, and even one on Ottoman politics, I learnt nothing about the rest of the world outside Britain. I did a couple of essays on the British Empire and even at preparatory school I learnt about imperial trade and Africa in a superficial way. Yet the political history of India, China and Asia generally was a total blank.

This absence, I am sure, added to the shock and interest of spending much of the second half of my life mainly working in Asia.  Involvement in Nepal did not have much of a political dimension, though we were in the field in the later 1980s during the origins of the ‘democracy’ movement and witnessed some of the riots and the overthrow of the King. Later we saw the early days of the Maoist insurrection around 2001-3. Both these experiences gave me practical experience of turbulence of a kind which I have never encountered in peaceful England, though the Miner’s Strike and the Three-Day week in the 1980s were a glimpse of political disturbance.

When we started to go to Japan, we found a very obscure political system at work, though it greatly interested me because it was strangely like that of England. As Marc Bloch had observed in an appendix to his Feudal Society, when surveying the extent of ‘feudalism’ around the world, Japan was the only instance he could find of a real feudal system outside Europe. Furthermore, in his distinction between ‘disintegration of the State’ feudalism of the Continental kind, and the apparently contradictory ‘centralized feudalism’ of England, Japan was of the English variety.

The fact that two large islands off mainly absolutist continents should have evolved, and preserved, a balance between central and local power, a balance between the ritual ruler (King, Emperor) and the executive ruler (Parliament, Shogun), and between central and local power and hence of ‘democracy’ in the widest sense, gave me a further clue as to how and why England was so peculiar. For none of my teaching had really explored the question of why or when England had taken a different path to the rest of Europe.

I had to discover this through examining the work of my mentor Tocqueville, who, with his teacher Guizot, and given depth by Maitland, showed that England had been very much like the rest of Western Europe in the half millennium after the Fall of Rome. The orders of King, nobility, clergy and townsmen, the ruling groups, were balanced. Free cities, universities, monastic and church organizations abounded across the West. Then, from the thirteenth century, the paths of Britain and the rest of Europe diverged.

Living on an island, the British were protected from invasion. No standing army was needed or justified, so taxation and central power was lowered. The Crown could not threaten the nobility that it would throw them to the invading armies if they did not give up their liberties. The re-emergence of an absolutist Roman Law which made the King the apex of the system, and the concordat between Church and State all led to the destruction of the alternative, balancing powers. By the eighteenth century all of continental Europe, with small exceptions such as Holland, was absolutist, while Britain remained free. I now understood why the curious development from Magna Carta to the Reform Acts of the nineteenth century had occurred.

Involvement in China has caused a different jolt to my political assumptions and stretched my mind in new ways. Ernest Gellner used to observe that the legitimacy of western democracy mainly derives from the fact that the system ‘delivers the goods’. The defeat of the Soviet Empire was widely attributed to the superior economic performance of American capitalism. Even the opening of China after the death of Mao was based on the promise of a better economic development, ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ on the model of Singapore.

All this was fine until around the time, in 2002, when we started to go to China every year. There we witnessed the extraordinary success of a command economy, a single-party, non-democratic, State. China’s economy grew at over ten per cent per annum for some years. It was then predicted to overtake America within forty or fifty years. Now it has surpassed America by the measure of Purchasing Power Parity (how much you can buy with your earnings) and its total Gross Domestic Product is predicted to overtake America within the next ten years.

Coming back from China to Britain now, is to move from a First to a Third World country. This a point made to me fifteen years ago by an American who had just returned from Shanghai to San Francisco.

Travelling around China and observing what is happening is astonishing. Its technologies, its cities, its production systems, are ahead of anywhere else in the world, even more advanced than Japan which is a less than a tenth of its population. Coming back from China to Britain now, is to move from a First to a Third World country. This a point made to me fifteen years ago by an American who had just returned from Shanghai to San Francisco.

In a strange way, the pattern of history has been reversed. The ‘high level equilibrium trap’ which my friend Mark Elvin had used to explain the plateau which China displayed from around 1600 to 1978, was now more applicable to the West than China.

Now we are faced with not only the disintegration of the economic superiority argument, but even, after Trump, and indeed for some years before that, the superiority of democracy as a system of effective government. It is not just the recent riots, huge growth in economic inequality and a general feeling many have of no longer having much or any say in government that are troubling. It is the realization that, in the wake of a new advanced technology industrial revolution, the effects of the atomization of opinions enabled by social media, a changing class, gender and age relations, we have to re-examine the fitness of democracy.

It has long struck me that it is extraordinary that we should believe that a system of government which was devised to govern a small Greek city state, Athens, and which even then excluded the three quarters who were slaves, poor, or women, should fit civilizations and nations of hundreds of millions. It is strange that we should believe that this Greek system, given its defining touches on an island, Britain, with only a few tens of millions of inhabitants, or in the similarly small and homogenous United States at the founding of the constitution, should work in the altered circumstances of places as vast and diverse as the United States today, or of the European Union, India or China.

The constant attacks on China in the media for not developing this antiquated system in order to bind together its 1.4 billion people, only a little smaller than the whole world in 1900, seems naïve at the best. The attacks are usually made by people who know nothing or very little about the history or political system of China. They are as ill-informed as the bands of young Nepalis who paraded through my Himalayan village crying out ‘democracy’ in 1989. When we talked to them, we found that they had very little idea of what it meant – it was a millenarian fantasy. Yet there is a problem. For the idea of self-government, of control over one’s own destiny, of freedom under the law, of individual rights, do seem in principle good ones. Yet how can this work in a place like China, India or even America now?

The answer I usually give calls on one of the main things I learnt from Tocqueville. This is that there are two meanings to the word ‘democracy’, as he explains fully in his various works, especially Democracy in America. One is what I call Democracy with a capital D. This is a system whereby you vote for people who then represent your views in a Parliament or other body. This can be helpful — though, as Tocqueville pointed out, as did Aristotle long before him — it contains a huge danger in the tendency towards the ‘tyranny of the majority’. It can veer into the fascist theme of Rousseau’s theory of the ‘General Will’. If your representatives do not win the contest, or even if they win and soon become corrupted by power and stop representing you, or even if you have not read the fine print of their Manifesto, you can easily find yourself crushed into accepting policies which damage you.

The solution to this, and the chief virtue of Democracy, as Tocqueville pointed out, is that it provides some sort of periodic accountability. If after four years or so, you are unhappy with your rulers, you throw them out and get another set. So at least the corruption of power is limited. Hence the extreme threat posed by what Donald Trump has been pursuing for the last year, namely to try to overthrow the popular vote as ‘fake’ if it goes against him. If he wins, it is fine, if he loses it is rigged. So, he should stay in power for ever.

Yet, even with this chance of alternation, it is difficult for someone who is just one voter in several hundred million in America, let alone nearly a billion and a half in India or China, to feel represented by those who sit in the top-most chamber. What alternative is there for them?

Here I was struck by Tocqueville’s emphasis, later echoed by Maitland, that democracy with a small d is about self-empowerment and that this is achieved not by voting but by the growth of numerous institutions which we collectively call ‘Civil Society’. In other words, it is about a world thronging with entities which were to be found across Europe until the thirteenth century – cities, universities, merchant companies, monasteries, guilds and much more. Or, as Tocqueville calls, it in describing America’s greatest strength when he visited it, the spirit of association.

This is concerned with the devolution of power down to a more local level, to a mass of middling-level organizations in which people can gain power from involvement – local government, clubs, even pubs and hobby groups – which are central to freedom. This set of intermediary institutions protect the weak individual from naked State power and gives people a feeling of control in some aspect of their life through governing themselves.

This is a world I have experienced and enjoyed to a large measure as an academic in Cambridge. I was first introduced to it through the system of devolved government in my schools. I have witnessed it the micro world of parish affairs in my fenland village. Historically, I have watched it at work over half a millennium in our parish studies. When it is buttressed by the rule of law with due process, juries and defence lawyers, it is a real protection.

Some of the reasons for the rise of ‘Civil Society’ have been explored in the two essays on the ‘Bonds of Society’ so I will no repeat that here. Yet the lesson for China, and indeed for all of us, is that the compromises between needing a powerful central government to take major decisions, and the satisfaction and involvement of ordinary citizens, can be achieved through encouraging such associationalism.

Of course, it is not easy. Central powers often try to crush such initiatives. Indeed ‘fascism’ is just such a movement, for ‘fascisti’ is derived from the word for a bundle of rods, often with an axe in the middle of them, and the idea of fascism, and communism is another form, is to gather together the bundle. It aims to tie the individual autonomous ‘rods’ into one tightly bound bundle in the hands of one Party or individual. They then represented themselves as acting on behalf of the ‘General Will’.

Hence recent events in America, famed for its separation and balance of powers, have been particularly extraordinary. One individual, supported by an apparently blinded cult of followers, including many elected representatives, has systematically attacked all the balancing institutions – the Free Press, the Independent Judiciary, the Civil Service, the Security Services, the scientists and other academics.

Without Covid, Trump would almost certainly have won re-election. If this had happened, it would have confirmed a worry expressed to me by a Professor of Sociology at Nanjing University in 2003. When I asked him about human rights and their application in China, he replied by saying that having spent a lot of time in America and Australia, he was really worried about the future of human rights in America. As we all are, and not just in America.

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly is here and his Enchantment and Modernity will be published in 2021.

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