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Authority Keeps Power in Check

By Johan Hakelius

That one, as so often in British culture, lashes out at the powers that be does not necessarily mean that one wants to tear down all free and historical authorities. On the contrary, this is needed to balance the power.

In the spring of 1880, Arthur Sullivan and William Schwenck Gilbert's new comic opera The Pirates of Penzance had its London premiere. It was an immediate success, as big as their breakthrough, HMS Pinafore, which had been performed 571 times at the Opera Comique in Westminster.

The Empire was at its zenith. Queen Victoria had just turned 60. She had been titled Empress of India for a few years. The Zulu War had just finished, the Second Anglo-Afghan War was going on and the first Anglo-Boer War stood in wait. Rudyard Kipling, the Empire's greatest poet, was still a teenager, a boarder at the United Services College in Westward Ho! in Devon. It would take another couple of years before he was on the train between Mumbai and Lahore, and his "English years fell away". Gladstone's re-election in 1880, after his ‘Midlothian campaign’, was a foretaste of the coming imperial critique, but, within a few years, the old liberal was forced to bombard Alexandria and effectively bring Egypt into the empire. The course of future events was still against him.

The Empire was real and serious. Young Britons died in its service. That is precisely why it is noteworthy that Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas were so immensely popular. For both HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance were based almost exclusively on making fun of imperial authority, its fleet and army.

From The Pirates of Penzance soon countless Britons would hum the tongue-twisting "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General". It is an exaggerated satire of the then modern, scientifically trained British officer, who could do everything of value, except perhaps those things that have to do with the military. No one could be in any doubt whom the actor George Grossmith used as a model for his ‘Modern Major-General’ when he stepped out ahead of the crowd in full parade uniform, with his glittering awards and impressive moustache. It was as if Sir Garnet Wolseley, recently promoted from Major General to Lieutenant General, himself had been there.

Sir Garnet had been well known since the Ashanti War few years earlier and was held in such high regard that the phrase 'All Sir Garnet' meant that everything was in good order. The high-ranking officer took no offence, that he became the object of laughter. He himself performed the song for friends and family. Those who reached the top of the Empire could expect to be caricatured and they frequently took it with good cheer, maybe even some pride.

The British light-hearted attitude to authority does not begin or end with Gilbert and Sullivan. In the music hall tradition, established in the 1850s, the satirical magazine Punch in the 1840s, and at least another couple of hundred years back, one can follow the unbroken English interest in poking fun at the foremost and highest.

At Sir John Soane's Museum, one can see the four original oils of William Hogarth's famous engravings of how a candidate can make it to parliament in 1754. The shameless partying depicted in An Election Entertainment could have been made ??by Pieter Bruegel the Elder on an anarchistic day. The Polling, where noblemen in white-powdered wigs get the mentally handicapped and dead to vote, is 250 years later still crystal clear in its satire. If we go back another 30 years, we find Jonathan Swift's pamphlet A Modest Proposal. To suggest that poor Irish children should be sold as food for rich gentlemen – the pamphlet even includes recipes – was an operation with contemporary rational social engineers and mercantilists, in addition to being a criticism of the handling of Ireland.

Swift, Hogarth, Gilbert and Sullivan and others in the same tradition all had different forms of address. But they also had traits in common. George Orwell sketched some of these in the journal The Polemic.

The Polemic was one of the intellectual post-war magazines in the UK, that were born and died in almost the same breath. It was published in eight editions between 1945 and 1947, under the direction of Humphrey Slater, painter, ex-communist and, like Orwell, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. In this publication, "sympathetic to science, hostile to Romanticism’s intellectual expression and decidedly anti-communist", Orwell in 1946 wrote an analysis of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, under the title “Politics Vs. Literature”.

It is "a rancorous as well as a pessimistic book," says Orwell. Additionally, it is contradictory: “Pettiness and magnanimity, republicanism and authoritarianism, love of reason and lack of curiosity”, everything is there, says Orwell. He exemplifies the scene in which Gulliver extinguishes a fire in Lilliput’s palace by urinating on the castle. All indications are that Swift thus picked a hitherto unplucked goose in the dead Queen Anne, rather than taking a position of principle when it came to the monarchy.

Still, a sort of utopia was implied in Gulliver's Travels and Orwell sums it up like this: "[Swift's] implied aim is a static, incurious civilization — the world of his own day, a little cleaner, a little saner, with no radical change and no poking into the unknowable". “No doubt”, pinpoints Orwell, “he hates lords, kings, bishops, generals, ladies of fashion, orders, titles and flummery generally, but he does not seem to think better of the common people than of their rulers, or to be in favour of increased social equality, or to be enthusiastic about representative institutions". Swift did, on the other hand, have an eye for the dangers lurking in totalitarianism, long before the term existed. He is an anarchist, writes Orwell, but of a special kind, Swift sees that totalitarianism is implicit in the usual anarchist dream of a society without laws. In the absence of laws, society is governed by public opinion, and public opinion is always less tolerant than actual laws. And then Orwell presents the specific term he has for describing Swift:

"He is a Tory anarchist, despising authority while disbelieving in liberty, and preserving the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible."

Orwell writes that he understands if readers get the impression that he "is against" Swift. And yes, he is in opposition to Swift politically and morally – Orwell brushes this aside as if it were something unimportant – but Swift is nevertheless "one of the writers I admire with least reserve".

There is an almost clear demonstration of the claim that Orwell was conservative in everything, except in his political positions. And the fact is that Orwell described himself as a "Tory anarchist" until the mid-thirties. About Swift he writes that he seems to have been driven into a "perverse" Toryism in reaction to the contemporary progressive party’s ridiculousness. Everyone who read Orwell's outpourings over his socialist "friends" – "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words "Socialism" and "Communism" draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England" – understands that they are equally applicable to Orwell himself.

The term Tory anarchist has surfaced again, thanks mainly to the sociologist Peter Wilkin. Wilkin’s use of the term has not passed without criticism. An active anarchist initiated a review of Wilkin’s book, The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism, with a protest against his lawless behaviour: "Really, what's with anarchism that allows non-anarchists to believe they have the right to seize our name [...]?"

Wilkin sees a continuous tradition of Tory anarchists in British culture from Swift to Orwell, but also further: Evelyn and Auberon Waugh; satirist Peter Cook, who was Dudley Moore's sidekick and a ferocious pioneer of the anti-establishment; Richard Ingrams, one of the founders of the satire magazine Private Eye and the contemporary Chris Morris, who recently made ??the comedy Four Lions about a group of British Muslims who try to become suicide bombers.

The Tory anarchist, as Wilkin defines him – because it is almost always a man – is primarily a British phenomenon, from the upper middle class with an ambivalent attitude towards modernity and capitalism, which leads to a culture of criticism, not unlike the Frankfurt School. Some features are a distinctive experience of the individual's death and the emergence of authoritarian and totalitarian social traits, in that moral values ??have been subordinated to economic ones and ambivalence towards both elites and popular mass culture.

But Wilkin is not alone in using the term. Richard Ingrams has, with a well-captured duality, described the Tory anarchist as: "someone who distrusts revolution, who in other words, accepts the system as it is, based on that any other system would certainly be, if not worse, at least equally as bad as the current system; and who distrusts anyone who dislikes those who seek to undermine the system". "It's anarchic," writes Ingram, in the sense that the Tory anarchist "dislikes all politicians equally".

It is easy to recognise several prominent Britons from this description.

Auberon Waugh, who liked to call himself "the last sane man in England" and dressed horrific insults in an ornate, supposedly polite style; Tom Sharpe, who in his breakneck comic novels gives hardened rulers and preachy revolutionaries the same harsh treatment. Those who are depicted sympathetically are often simple rural people, the unnoticed middle class that stands by common sense and proven truths, or old eccentrics, who did not even notice that they are out of step with the times. George Macdonald Fraser, whose arch-scoundrel, Sir Harry Paget Flashman, tramps through the British history of the 1800s without a shred of authoritarianism. The prolific and provocative Sitwell siblings: Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell. Even PG Wodehouse, whose novels were characterised by Evelyn Waugh as "a world where the Fall never occurred", is of the same strain, albeit closer to Gilbert and Sullivan in his gentle tone.

Multi-talented people such as Stephen Fry and comedian Barry Humphries (better known as Dame Edna) are also in the same category. Even in popular music, it is possible to trace the features of Tory anarchism. The best example is perhaps Ray Davis of The Kinks. In November 1968, the year of the May Revolt and student occupations, came the album with the anachronistic title The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. It was not ironic, but a “concept album lamenting the old English traditions that had been laid to rest.” A few years later came the album Muswell Hillbillies, which opens with the song “20th Century Man”, with the lyrics:

"You keep all your smart modern writersGive me William ShakespeareYou keep all your smart modern paintersI'll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci, and Gainsborough."

Or:

"I was born in a welfare stateRuled by bureaucracyControlled by civil servantsAnd people dressed in grayGot no privacy, got no libertyCos the twentieth century peopleTook it all away from me."

What unites such a motley crew is a specific approach to society and history. It is not always pronounced, but it is still there. They are nothing more than an entertaining group of non-conformists.

At the bottom, there is a preference for common sense and pragmatism and a suspicion of utopias and revolutionary news. This sort of social critic rarely follows parties in that they represent an oppositional sub-group, with its own agenda. They do not dream of replacing one system with another. From the lovingly good-natured satire, as in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas, to the drastically tasteless, as in Jonathan Swift's pamphlets, the lust after revolution and utopian fancies is missing. It is, in fact, a matter of social criticism within the system, but that is also what gives it its sharp aspect, for it affects everyone who desires power, both the establishment and revolutionaries.

Another common feature is what can be described as nostalgia. Oliver Cromwell is an almost unique example of a successful revolutionary Brit, born of an essentially dogmatic and therefore, in some sense, non-British Puritanism. The historian David Horspool observed some years ago in his book The English Rebel. One Thousand Years of Troublemaking From the Normans to the Nineties that English rebels almost invariably want to turn the clock back. The utopia, when it exists, is not a future paradise, but a lost Eden. The mantra is always "before": before the war, before the Industrial Revolution, before Cromwell, before the Reformation, and finally before the Normans. Even such an original, oppositional and, during his lifetime, marginalised voice such as William Blake had difficulty in freeing himself from the feeling that his childhood in the 1760s was the ideal.

But to dismiss such reflection as trivial nostalgia is a misunderstanding. The philosopher Roger Scruton’s reasoning in England: An Elegy may be helpful to understand why. Scruton analyses the remarkable aptitude of the British for non-revolutionary social criticism and connects it to this ability for retrospection. He does it in the past tense because he, in the Tory anarchistic spirit, believes that the true Englishman really is extinct, "Perhaps more than any people in the modern world", writes Scruton, "the English were sensitive to the difference between power and authority. Their remarkable constitution was an attempt to separate the two in reality, as they were separated in thought, and set the authority to judge the power".

Scruton summarises it as the English "believed in law and authority" but despised "officialdom and distrusted the state". Here we hear the echo of the Orwell’s writing about Swift's vision of lawlessness; without laws, totalitarianism grows.

The point is that the British reluctance to overturn institutions, traditions and precedents is not because they are apt to blind obedience, sentimentality or nostalgia. As for obedience, the reason is the opposite. To recognise authority as something independent of power, is a way to keep power in check. A good authoritarianism balances power and forces it to behave decently. To run with power and its claims to authority is not a step towards destroying all authority and hierarchies. It is, on the contrary, a way to invoke the stand-alone authority and established hierarchies, to prevent raw power having free rein.

Authority should be separate from the power that currently exists, while not being just a rival ideological claim to absolute power; civil society and history are the only sources. Unlike the radical political ideologies, there is no self-fulfilment in the critique of authority.

If you understand this British tradition, it is also easier to imagine where we, both Swedes and Brits, possibly went wrong. Radicals scoff at Gilbert and Sullivan's caricature of Sir Garnet Wolsley, because it is fundamentally benevolent and is not after the general's blood. Writers such as Auberon Waugh are dismissed by radicals as empty and reactionary provocateurs, because Waugh does not present an alternative ideology. In contrast, the anarchist punk band Crass, who used to perform under a banner that read, "There is no authority but yourself", gets approving nods. Radicals do not see the irony in Crass fans having identical hairstyles and boots and dressing in identical leather jackets, with identical anarchist brands. If there is indeed no other authority but one’s own, it requires an unusual character that you should not become a malleable disciple in a uniform army of anarchists.

But the radical interpretation of the critique of authority and hierarchies has become the widely accepted. We have been taught that the critique of authority, by definition, must be countercultural. We have become accustomed to the idea that hierarchies are always the same as inequality, and therefore are a bad thing. We have been convinced that the only alternative to a radical critique of authority and mania for equality is a servile bowing to authority.

The British cultural social critics, as one might call the Tory anarchists, show that this is a false choice. In fact, there is always a totalitarian seed in the radical critique of authority and egalitarianism. If all authority is rejected as oppressive and illegitimate, power is the only currency. If all hierarchies are condemned as unjust, there arises the paradox that George Walden described in his book New Elites. A Career in the Masses: we get an apparently anti-elitist elite. It sees itself as strictly meritocratic and feels no wider responsibilities, no noblesse oblige. We get hierarchies that no longer support values??, only privileges.

From the critique of radical authority and hierarchy grows simply the opposite of what was promised: a more raw society with coarser scales and without depth. Power, money, possibly fame, is all that matters in the end.

NR 4 2014

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