Labour’s listing ship of state continues to suck up the attention of the British media. It’s rather peculiar; after talk of duck houses and digging out moats, one might think that there can’t be much further to go. Anything else should be superfluous, if not dull. Yet, it’s usually at this brink of tedium that another unforeseen outrage explodes across the front pages of the newspapers. Today, it’s the allegation that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made expense claims he shouldn’t have: this is an unacceptable paradox for a man who is charged with managing the nation’s finances.
The saga was infused with a further frisson of negative energy by Gordon Brown’s indifferent performance on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show. He talked far too much, appeared to lack any sense of inner discipline, and he managed to reveal some rather disturbing character traits. For example, he made it plain that even if the Cabinet told him to go, he wouldn’t. He also said that the expenses scandal offended his “Presbyterian morals”; though by rights the scandal should offend any coherent system of ethics, whether Presbyterian, Jewish, Hindu or Zoroastrian.
Meanwhile, life goes on. Thanks to Gordon Brown and his Keystone Cops administration, one of the more important stories out of America has been obscured: yesterday, Dr. George Tiller, an abortion doctor in Kansas, was assassinated by a gunman named Scott Roeder. Dr. Tiller’s speciality was performing late term abortions, a practice which he vigorously defended to the end.
What is particularly disturbing about this incident is not just how heated the matter of abortion has become in America, it is the moral system that is being utilised in finding solutions to society’s ills. This is perhaps one area that Britain, as damaged as the political culture has been in recent weeks, is doing rather better than its trans-Atlantic counterpart; at least the ethos here hasn’t descended in some quarters into a form of Stalinism. Indeed, Stalinist ideas appear to be pervasive in America despite President Obama’s efforts to remedy the issue.
This statement should be made with a caveat: when I say “Stalinism”, I am not referring to some masturbatory right wing fantasy in which the President refashions himself as some “Great Leader” in the Kim Jong Il mode. Nor do I refer to neo-con paranoid dreams about Democratic economic policies that involve the state squashing private initiative in the name of central planning. I refer to something far more basic within Stalin’s philosophical mindset and far more insidious; allegedly, he once stated to his henchmen: “When a man is dead, he is no longer a problem”.
Of course, Americans would never consciously refer to Stalin in such a manner. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Karl Marx is right about one thing: the operation of an ideology requires that we do things without knowing we do them. This statement appeared in Marx’s “Das Kapital”, in a chapter which described the functioning of our economic relations: when we assign a value to a particular good and we work in a certain way, we adhere to a particular set of norms without thinking about it. This is evidenced in something as simple as the man who wakes up, gets dressed, buys a newspaper and sits at his desk and works on desgning widgets all day. His actions support the existing capitalist superstructure in satisfying his individual wants and needs, but he doesn’t know that he does it. It is only when we are exposed to the dynamics of philosophy or political economy that we start to become aware of these processes and question whether they are just.
Many Americans do Stalinism, but they don’t know they do it. They have no idea that they’re invoking old Uncle Joe whenever they say that the solution to a problem is merely to get rid of whoever is supposedly perpetrating it. Is Iraq building weapons of Mass Destruction? Blow them up; when a man is dead, he is no longer a problem. Is North Korea threatening its neighbours? Bomb them; when Kim Jong Il is eliminated, he will no longer present a danger. Is an abortion doctor creating an atmosphere in which tiny babies are being destroyed? Shoot him; if he’s blown away, he can no longer harm anyone.
Reason and history should indicate that purposeful annihilation of other human beings is a terrible means with which to try and solve problems. Stalin attempted to liquidate the kulaks (“rich peasants”) as a class, in order to make collectivisation work; the result was famine and an agricultural sector that never was able to supply the needs of the Soviet Union’s people. Shattering Iraq has led a body count of thousands of American troops, billions of dollars spent, and an unknown price tag yet to come in terms of regional instability, shattered lives, and the burning up of American credit. If North Korea is destroyed, what will happen to the starving people there? What will occur if they run across the border to China or to South Korea? Even the extreme anti-abortionists have managed to score an own-goal with shooting Dr. Tiller: surely they must know now that their activities will be policed more heavily by Homeland Security, and indeed, they have forfeited much credit in the court of public opinion.
However the ideology continues to permeate downward, seeping out of the halls of government and the camps of political activism into the darkest recesses of the mentally disturbed. One of the most troubling aspects of the Virginia Tech shootings was how the killer, Seung-Hui Cho, had cold bloodedly determined to go on the rampage in eliminating his classmates; when his peers (or “snobs” as he called them) were dead, they would no longer be able to torment him, he thought. This was the paradigm in action even within the depths of pathological behaviour.
The question remains as to how this red, white and blue Stalinism took root. I can’t help but recall Stephen Fry’s recent documentary which followed him through all fifty states. In Massachusetts, he stopped off for tea at the residence of a Harvard Professor of Divinity, who stated that Americans dislike complexity, even if an intricate answer was more interesting than a simple one. Stalinism has a brutal efficiency in its logic: it states the way to the promised land is paved with the bodies of society’s enemies. There is also a certain pioneer rapaciousness in its assumption that the end justifies the means. But complexity and truth dictate that a moral result cannot be achieved through an amoral method; human beings possess nuance and spirit which defies even the most brutal repression, which is why the Hungarians revolted against Soviet domination in 1956, Czech student Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest in 1968, the Poles rose up in the 1980’s, and why Communism was eventually toppled. Stalin’s immediate successors in the Kremlin were not immune to such impulses either; I recall visiting the graves along the Kremlin wall during my first visit to Russia in 1994. Eventually, my Russian guide and I came across Stalin’s tomb. It featured a stern-looking bust of the dictator which rested atop what I assume was a granite plinth. My Russian guide then informed me that Krushchev had Stalin’s coffin buried, and then had the grave filled in with cement.
“Why?” I asked.
“To prevent him from rising again, I think. Superstition.”
I noticed, however, that someone had laid a fresh bouquet of red flowers at the base of the marker. The body may not be able to arise, but the poison still flows through the veins of Russia, of Asia, and of the West. We continue to do it, but we mostly don’t know that we do it. We glorify violent solutions in both public policy and video games. Our notions of power and strength are more tied up with the ability to kill rather than the ability to think. We operate like puppets bound to strings in the performance of the ideology. We were told by the Bolsheviks that this was justified in the name of their Revolution, we are told by some of the minions of the far right that violence is justified in the name of the American Revolution, citing Thomas Jefferson’s importunate quote that the “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
However, this interpretation strikes a discordant note. The American Revolution (or War of Independence), for example, was actually a case of thought being more important than violence. The colonists repeatedly petitioned the British government for redress of grievances; armed conflict only occurred after the British government decided to use force. Note the inversion: taking up arms was not the first resort of the revolutionaries, but rather their last response to military coercion; furthermore, it was the complex, yet startling ideas that gave the Revolution its force, not a macho fantasy of mowing down redcoats. George Washington has somehow been swapped for Rambo and Stalin since that time.
We’re not immune in Britain either; after the victory at Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was quoted as saying that saddest thing other than a battle lost, is a battle won. The same understanding of the tragedy of violence has faded. We have followed, albeit reluctantly, yanked along our puppet strings into many of the same cultural and political morasses. Perhaps the only shield against abject surrender has been the inherent scepticism inherent in Britain’s culture. This creates conditions by which the marionetteer is looked for, and the constraints are observed and loosened. Total freedom from such attachments is perhaps a fantasy for any society; so long as one nation remains bound by the ideology of violence, it is likely that all others will need to have a response ready. However knowing the poison is there is a prelude to a search for the antidote.