From Urizen to Eurozone

And Urizen read in his Book of Brass in sounding tones: --
`Listen, O Daughters, to my voice! listen to the words of wisdom!
Compel the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts:
So shall you govern over all. Let Moral Duty tune your tongue,
But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone....

And when his children sicken, let them die: there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will soon be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the Poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles, if you hear him sigh; if pale, say he is ruddy
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg'd, and drowns his wit
In strong drink, tho' you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.'

Making things up about the past is a deeply human thing. I read a fairly astringent column in a paper yesterday suggesting that Europeans should never contemplate rejecting their currency on any notion other than the maximisation of their self interest.

That's a liberal, and an economic fetish, of course. The idea that human beings would ever maximise interest rationally, and not take account of tradition, or sentiment, or association, is psychotic. The reason it is psychotic is that it shares with liberalism the idea that we are, fundamentally, rational beings; it derives perhaps from Kant the idea that a being with a moral faculty would rationally be moral, and therefore improvable to the point of pure reason. Expression becomes delusional integrity, when it is in fact the deliberate extension of a flawed and irrational will into a world of others.

Sigh.Civilisation is a balanced series of repressions. How many times do people have to be told that?

Most people know that people are not wholly rational, and that when they meet people who claim to be so they should head for the wall and hold on to their drink. People need a variety of ways of understanding the world not because they are imprisoned by sentiment or tradition, but because in some way they sense that their nature requires self-protection.

Over time, cultures build up and reinforce themselves; lessons that are as natural and sensible and commonsense as one might think need to be learned. No culture, no given learning; the finger heads to the fire, and we learn things individually that we could have avoided if someone had just told us that to think is not to rationalise but to place thought in a box of logic and experience.

You can't sell or digest that any more than you can avoid irony when you erect a wall around a concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall. 1989 has become in memory a year of liberal revolution and rejuvenation; as time passes, the destruction of a Rousseau-driven and blood soaked folly in the east comes more and more to resemble the rising of a greedy, dreary and equally materialist kraken. Kalecki walks away and Schumpeter, Swann and Solow sidle up.

What I'm sure most people want is for them all to bugger off. People need or ought to have families and fulfilling jobs and children and faith. Hanging around in an extended childhood, enforced by financiers, ticket collectors, or communists, is never going to make people happy.

William Blake thought something of the sort in creating his mythology of Urizen. People need stories because they are probably not equipped to understand or process truth in a cerebral way. I believe in God, and in my church, of course, I'm not a fideist per se. But Blake, just like Burke (with whom he is not usually linked) saw how powerfully people responded to symbols and stories.

Blake and Burke, for instance, both bought into the idea that Americans were the products of a young culture, as much as Jacksonians later thought (wrongly) that men in buckskins using their own weapons won the battle of New Orleans. It suited everyone. However, American culture was in essence the western and more conservative half of an Atlantic world that mixed florentine republican traditions, the European enlightenment, and English-speaking liberalism and commerce over the ocean. America in many ways preserved older traditions, like the common law, English liberal republicanism, jury trials, robust but limited parliamentary action, and the legal restraint of political behaviour by constitutionalism much, much more than England does, or ever did.

There's a reason most English people don't know about Magna Carta and Americans do, and celebrate it. There was a reason that it was convenient for a newly empowered London middle class, safe in the island after the defeat of the Scots in 1745 and content to remove Philadelphia and New York from their role as an alternate centre of financial gravity, to depict the Americans as young and unlettered. For America--that child of Hamilton, and Franklin, and Madison, and Morris--the clothes fitted too. That doesn't make it true formally, just interesting. Markets didn't start to define American approaches for another fifty years or so; religion and electoral populism not for another sixty.

It's like when Jimmy Carter invented the Mujahedin, funded it, launched attacks on Iran, and left office, or when Robert Kennedy wiretapped Martin King and drummed Communists out of public life. It became convenient for both sides to have, as they say, an extended moment of silence and adopt different roles. A very human thing.

So when Europeans look at a currency, I can't believe that they are looking purely at a vehicle to drive their self-interest, even if on some measures they should. People fool themselves all the time.

If derivative traders had looked at swaps and collateralised mortgage vehicles and all that other intellectually exhilarating stuff, and actually said, for instance,
we wish to evade 'reserve ratios and stuff our mouths with gold and our noses with cocaine, and we wish to encourage a common European currency to promote derivative markets over government bonds which our mates are holding down the return on to control governments and we will tell ourselves that we are expanding freedom and defeating superstition when we do it'
they may have stirred some moral impulse in themselves that stopped them from doing it. No, maybe not. But can humourlessness and badness overlap? Surely the humoured might see what's good, and the bad see what's funny, and step back?

That's revealing and wishful thinking. Most of the bad at any time are humourless.

We need viable intellectual traditions, and the wisdom of time communicated through culture, to whisper in our ear. If men of peace acknowledged why they, like many before them, warred, they might see their limits; if rational minds understood that they were not always rational or clear, and that there was sense in institutions and tradition, they might be less angry.

How did it come to this; that we should tell ourselves that the notion that money can be controlled and representative is a delusion, whereas deliberate if poetic notions are things of no use, neither to be learned nor celebrated?

We should teach children tradition, and clarity of thought, and the madness of Urizen. Not that they can form their own conclusions about deep waters, or that they should prize their rationalisations over wisdom. We should stuff their heads with culture and things that they need to learn, and then let them play out their adult lives discovering what they want to do with it. We create new, soulless ways of living and pretend that they are free and open at our peril, and we lie to ourselves.

But then, that's what people often do.


DBC Reed said…
There are Protestant fideists you know.e.g.
You have to say there is a God
even if it is n't true.
It would n't be an act of faith
to believe in things that can be

Milton thought it all made sense
All human knowledge had its place
He reconciled reality
with truth,a cowardly evasion.

We put our trust in images
of life's improvement, albeit slow
that there exists a harmony
between what is said and what
we know.

Not one of these will stand up long
to any test of likelihood,
so why not then deceive ourselves
with lovely lies that make us good?
Martin Meenagh said…
I have a somewhat Hobbesian taste for Fideists, but part of me looks at, say Calvinism, and says 'that's useful for capitalism, isn't it?'. However, then I think of all the good Protestant people and the quality of their faith, and tut at myself.
Martin Meenagh said…
You've just made me think of W.H.Auden--of long ago when being was believing, and of what our last to do is...
Martin Meenagh said…
The History of Truth

In that ago when being was believing
Truth was the most of many credibles
More first, more always, than a bat-winged lion,
A fish-tailed dog or eagle-headed fish,
The least like mortals, doubted by their deaths.

Truth was their model as they strove to build
A world of lasting objects to believe in,
Without believing earthenware and legend,
Archway and song, were truthful or untruthful:
The Truth was there already to be true.

This while when, practical like paper dishes,
Truth is convertible to kilo-watts,
Our last to do by is an anti-model,
Some untruth anyone can give the lie to,
A nothing no one need believe is there.

-W. H. Auden

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