The coalition will produce a farce of fairness

Exclusive: the philosopher Ted Honderich calls for a general strike and mass disobedience to protest

Ted Honderich is one of Britain's leading philosophers. Emeritus professor at the University of London, chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and literary executor to the late A J Ayer, he has produced many publications, including "Terrorism for Humanity", "Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?" and "On Consciousness". He has had his books banned in Germany, been escorted to deliver lectures by riot police, gone on ban-the-bomb marches with Bertrand Russell, and was an occasional speechwriter for Neil Kinnock.

Here, in an exclusive essay for Newstatesman.com, he considers the nature of liberalism and conservatism, and finds the first "indeterminate and irresolute" and the second lacking in any "principle at all to defend its self-interest". It is time, he argues, for us to take to the streets and demand, like the Puritan leader Thomas Rainsborough, that the coalition accept that "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he". Sholto Byrnes

Ted Honderich, "What is fair in a society?"

John Stuart Mill, proud of his logic, gave liberalism's 1859 answer, maybe the answer of Britain's Liberal Democrats today. He gave it in his principle of state intervention in his essay "On Liberty". The principle was that the state is to intervene in the lives of citizens not to help them, but only to prevent them from causing harm to one another. Then Mill didn't say what harm is, say whether bankers can do it. Nor did he say in his essay "Utilitarianism", where vagueness about unhappiness and happiness went with an obscure paean to individualism. The vagueness and obscurity helped conceal the fact evident in clearer utilitarianisms, such as Jeremy Bentham's, that they justify having a slave class in a society if that does in fact produce the greatest total of happiness or satisfaction for the society.

John Rawls of Harvard gave us liberalism's 1971 answer to the question of what is fair in a society. What is fair is what is in accordance with the social contract we would make if we didn't know where we were going to turn out to be personally in a society to come – and if we believed what are deceptively called general facts, say about the benefits of what is called liberty in a society. We, with those all-American beliefs, so innocent and so manufactured, would choose a society where a kind of liberty trumps any equality. That liberty makes of little worth the recommendation of a vaunted principle of equality to the effect that inequalities are all right so long as they can be pretended to be in the interest of the badly off. All of which stuff is oblivious of the truth that fundamental liberty is one thing with equality, oblivious of the illustrative fact that if you and I are in conflict, and unequal in that I have a gun, your liberty reduces to zero.

Liberalism, you can therefore kindly think, as I myself maybe still do, is indeterminate and irresolute. It is at best decent moral impulses, a little conscience, at odds with self-concern, the latter being visibly to the fore in a pinch, say the forming of a coalition government, and less visibly before then. Maybe that is too tolerant a view of liberalism, too kind. It looks that way in England just now.

What is the tradition of conservatism's answer to the question of what is fair in a society? Its answers abound. Resisting change, being for so-called reforms, being against mere theory, respecting human nature, being for self-serving freedoms, less democratic government, the organic society, being against equality – and for the pretence of indubitable economics, wholly spurious necessities.

None of those ideas and no bundle of them, examined in itself or considered in terms of the history of conservatism, is in sight of being an articulable and consistent candidate for a general principle of fairness. No book on conservatism since Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France comes near to doing anything to improve on the vacuity which Burke fills only with social condescension to barbers and with pomp in support of his "natural aristocracy".

No Conservative thinking, to take a step against the cant of this moment, and to name the actual subject in hand, has offered a general principle of what is right in society that is worth attention. There are only pieces of public relations. Mill's verdict on conservatism as the stupid party or perhaps the stupidest party was not merely abuse but comprehensible.

Conservatism, to come to my own view of it, is not overwhelmingly more self-interested than any other political tradition. Conservatism, as one or two Americans have admitted, is unique in something else. It is the political tradition that has no general principle at all to defend its self-interest. It therefore has nothing to save it from self-interest and in particular from the self-deception in which it lives and breathes.

But there is an answer to the question of what is fair in a society. An answer exists. You believe it, I think. It is a kind of common decency. You can suppose it has been the principle of the left in politics when the left has not been confused or worse.

It is that we should take all rational means to a certain end – means that actually serve the end and will not be self-defeating. The end is the clearly definable one of getting and keeping people out of bad lives. Those are lives of deprivation with respect to the great human goods, the great desires of human nature. They are, in my list, longer lives, bodily well-being, freedom and power, respect and self-respect, relationships, and the goods of culture. There is none of the tripe of metaphor here. Nothing of the spuriousness and smell of Cameron's "big society". Note, too, that the aim is not equality but good lives, whatever goes with them.

This fairness, which can have the name the "Principle of Humanity", is more arguable than anything else going. It is in operation whenever our lower or vicious selves are not in an ascendancy. It is what we have most confident recourse to in defending our own self-interest in our own lives. It flows from our great desires and the rationality of our natures that is our having reasons, these necessarily being general.

The principle's commitment to means-end rationality with respect to its end issues in, among other things, an abhorrence of the revolution and terrorism, whose irrationality is not reduced by taking into account that that irrationality is owed mainly to the anticipation of culpable resistance to it. If the principle's consequences, what follows from it in terms of policy and action, are more difficult to judge than the greatness of the principle itself, they are entirely clearer than whatever passes for a summation of the mere ideologies of liberalism and conservatism.

Think now of the Conservative and Liberal coalition government which governs Britain now. It happens to be a three-part coalition, made up of conservatism, liberalism, and the petty careerism and the level of moral intelligence that has since 1979 or 1997 defined our entire political class, certainly its membership in the New Labour Party. Perhaps Ed Miliband will lead our politics back towards a clarity and decency, by way of the Labour Party as distinct from the New Labour Party. Perhaps he can do something with our merely hierarchic democracy.

The coalition government is true to its inherited natures, the natures of liberalism and conservativism. To these it adds the spirits of dim and pushy boys and of an economist, an economist from Shell still holding up his head, all led by a public relations man. The coalition says and says again and again that it is fair. Its policies are fair, fair, fair. Repetition is truth.

It is already committed to, and will produce despite tactical qualifications anticipated from the beginning, one thing. It will produce a farce of fairness.

The inanity of thinking or hoping that what is in prospect is not a farce of fairness, of contemplating that possibility for half a minute, should not survive the reading any day of what has a right to the name of being a newspaper of intelligence, one of the two or three in England. What you have from the Guardian today is a confirmation of any clear thinking on the traditions of conservatism and liberalism.

We hear, in this time of economic emergency, of still increasing executive pay. Some boss of something called Reckitt-Benckiser, "a global force in household, health and personal care", notably air-fresheners and hair-removers, is now paid £92,596,160 a year. There is more information in the newspaper on the victimised end of English society, too – of the "social cleansing" of London by reducing the welfare benefits of the poor and disabled, excused by way of vicious redescriptions of them and mindless comparisons.

The Principle of Humanity calls right now for the most effective forms of speech and argument against this farce of fairness. That question of expression, a question for me and for you, is not easy. It arises, of course, well before there is any question of incitement. What is rational with respect to the place and use of feeling in speech and argument, of condemnation, against what is vile from the point of view of the Principle of Humanity, from the point of view of a humanity? Other things are clearer.

It is clearer that the Principle of Humanity now calls for strikes. It calls for strikes in defence of homes. It calls for strikes in defence of schools and universities. It calls for strikes in defence of local government. It calls, even, for strikes in defence of what institution of justice we have. It calls, no doubt, for a general strike.

It calls, too, for a political economics worth the name. That would tell us what is certainly possible, the extent to which the political power and influence of the top decile in terms of wealth and income is more than a thousand times that of the bottom decile. This economics, too, so far from the economics of Shell, would bring public and private income, public and private expenditure, public and private waste, into sharp definition. It would be one that measures who benefits from all the institutions of society, say the institution of justice, for a start.

It calls, too, as importantly, for civil disobedience, and mass civil disobedience. It calls, in particular, for gestures of civil disobedience, of course non-violent and including what Rawls was keen on, acceptance of the penalty for the disobedience. Maybe a gesture in Parliament Square now by a British army colonel who remembers the holy words of a predecessor, Colonel Rainsborough, in the English civil ear.

Really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he.

Our colonel could park his tank there in Parliament Square for a while, until the television cameras turn up, before going back to barracks to accept the penalty for his civil and other disobedience.

Among Ted Honderich's books are "On Political Means and Social Ends" (Edinburgh University Press) and "Conservatism: Burke, Nozick, Bush, Blair?" (Pluto Press)

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.