“The method in the madness of modern civilisation” – Is this what is wrong?

This article was originally published by LabourList on 29th April 2012.

In his autobiography, The Time of My Life, Denis Healey described his experience of trying to count the number of people getting on and off trains across six platforms at Swindon station during the Second World War:

“I made up the number getting off and on again, made an informed guess of the number getting on, and asked the ticket collector for the number getting off. After a few weeks I discovered he was making up his figures as well. This gave me a life-long scepticism about the reliability of statistics, which served me well when I became Chancellor of the Exchequer.”

As Healey illustrates here, what is served to us as truth is often as subject to human limitations and frailties as anything else. Truth is often wrong.

In politics, the currency of rights and wrongs tends to be statistical (albeit with an underlying playground culture of mutual blame attached). Most problems are the other lot’s fault. We use statistical evidence to go about proving that; if there is enough data out there and we are a little bit clever we should succeed.

On Labour’s side of the fence, we have certain ‘wrongs’ which we focus on, like unemployment, GDP/’growth’, child poverty, all sorts of inequalities (gender, health, race, class, regional, sexual), crime and exploitation.

Poverty, unemployment, unfairness, crime and bad health are all bad things for conservatives too of course. But they tend to integrate these things into a morality of individual responsibility, so the individual is seen as the source of solutions, and failure is morally deserved.

Elements of this morality probably have some basic resonance for most of us. As a whole, it is too harsh and simplistic though.

On the Left, the conventional view that ‘society’ is somehow to blame for these same wrongs is just as simplistic, offering little more than an equal and opposite reaction to the Right’s conception of things.

This is generally how politics goes on. The Right says riots are the fault of individuals and bad parenting while the Left says they were all down to society and marginalisation of certain groups. Both fail to get to grips much with the place where society and the individual meets, in human consciousness.

Both narratives generally favour statistics of convenience which point the way to accessible solutions. So manipulating lever x (a tax or benefit perhaps) is proposed as a means to increase y (wealth of the poorest/entrepreneurs for example) and thereby achieve our objective of improving z (maybe child poverty, or wealth creation in the economy).

Manipulating ‘outcomes’ of life like this through analysis of surface data is a perfectly valid practice in government, party management or any other sphere of human activity. However we should be careful not to let the levers at our immediate disposal, for example in the tax and benefit system, or in voter ID data, dictate what we do and how we do it. Going this way we can easily forget what our ultimate purposes and values are (or, indeed, were).

The philosopher and historian Robin Collingwood put it like this:

“We take infinite pains to provide ourselves with means by which all sorts of ends might be achieved. We then omit to consider what ends we shall achieve by their help; and treat the mere utilisation of the means, no matter what result comes of it, as if that were a sufficient end and reward of our labours.”

Collingwood called this “the method in the madness of modern civilisation”, and we can see it at work in our politics every day. Whether you are a Tory MP telling off the unemployed or a Labour Prime Minister down in the bunker with your numbers and spreadsheets, ‘hard work’ is treated by many of our society’s leaders as if it were an end in itself, a moral good.

This is not a narrative that probably makes much sense to most people, who just want to get by for the most part. Nor does it make much sense of itself. After all, what is the point in working hard if it does not achieve anything worthwhile?

Is this what is wrong?


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