openDemocracyUK

Divided we are conquered

An open letter to Theresa May.

Ben Bouquet
18 May 2015
Theresa_May.jpg

Theresa May, WikimediaHey Theresa,Heard you on Radio 4 on Wednesday. Great show.“There are people out there, sadly, who are seeking to divide us,” you said.We should be worried about them. Extremists out there, seeking to divide us. The unified British nation with our unified British values. Division is a big issue, I agree Theresa. But can we delve a bit deeper? Can we go beyond what George Orwell calls “meaningless words” - i.e. words like democracy that are poorly defined and “often used in a consciously dishonest way.” Orwell writes in Politics and the English Language:“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”I was wondering what you’re defending and if it’s defensible?I think you said you’re defending us from division. It was great when you said “we want to bring people together to ensure that we are living together as one society.” I loved that. How does division occur according to you, Theresa May? Apparently there are people out there called extremists, who are seeking to divide us. These groups of people act of their own free will and largely independently of unified society, with the explicit aim of dividing our united and triumphant nation. Why? These people have an ideology, and it’s very divisive. As a random example, take Islamists (but there are also Neo-Nazis, as you pointed out, who are pretty divisive too). Islamists want to divide our society because they believe in a particular interpretation of the Qur’an. As we know, or at least imply, that’s a belief that comes to them from Islam. Though there are good Muslims too, who aren’t extremist. The difference is that the good ones believe in the interpretation about faith and praying that doesn’t involve the division of our united homeland. So the solution is obvious, stop the people trying to divide us by introducing banning orders for groups and disruption orders for individuals. We all know what they are, so let’s not bother with the detail at this stage.I’m glad you brought it up though, Theresa. I was reading some stuff about this recently and agree it’s a big issue. Anyway, I thought I’d just blue-sky a few ideas here. Run them up the flagpole. The main thing the guys (I’m sorry, they’re all guys) I was reading have in common is that they don’t just think that there are people out there dividing us at their own free will. They seem to think that we’ve inherited some ways of organising ourselves and structures like language that are quite divisive too. Anyway, read on and see what you think. It’s the age old debate about free will, really. Well there’s a guy at the end who has a compromise, too. They might help you with your project.So the first two guys I was reading are Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim. They talk about division, but about the effect that the division of labour has on our society. Marx says in Capital that the division of labour in manufacturing “converts the worker into a crippled monstrosity by furthering his particular skill as in a forcing-house, through the suppression of a whole world of productive drives and inclinations… The individual himself is divided up, and transformed into the automatic motor of a detail operation.” OK, I don’t know many monstrosities - it could be an exaggeration - but I know what he means. Like sometimes I think I’d just like some more time for myself, maybe to make stuff or just to see what I’d be capable of if I had the time for it. You know what it’s like though, when you work a five day week and there’s always a million things to do and most of it’s just endless paperwork and bills. A never-ending tick list. It doesn’t leave us much time to explore our own productive drives and inclinations, our own imaginations.Durkheim has this concept I think you’ll like called social solidarity. It’s our “general tendency to sociability.” I thought you’d like it, as you’re trying to bring us all together. It’s a great concept - it’s the concept that actually we’re inherently social animals and so we have a tendency to be sociable, with a shared set of ideas and ways of seeing the world. I kind of get what Durkheim means too. I mean, if I were on a desert island it’d be pretty dull. Even if I did have Backstreet Boys’ Everybody (Backstreet’s Back). Even more than that, if I’d grown up as some feral child I wouldn’t have language and I wouldn’t have learned the behaviours and emotions that make me who I am, and I wouldn’t have our shared British values. But he talks about another type of solidarity, and I think you’ll understand this one too. He calls it collective solidarity. Using the metaphor of a body, in industrial society we’ve split the body into different inter-related and inter-reliant organs. That is, we all relate to each other and we’re reliant on each other. But because we’re split into organs we form a solidarity with our own organ. Sometimes that can be divisive. It’s like that Roman guy said. You know, Menenius Agrippa - we’re all related to each other and so we don’t want to cut off our stomach or we’d starve. The only issue is, sometimes the stomach gets greedy and bloated and doesn’t realise it’s starving the rest of the body. Then I suppose we need to re-establish homeostasis, the body’s balance, or maybe we’re not actually meant to be like organs at all. It’s just that industrial society has divided us that way.There are actually loads of people that have talked about division, but I just want to mention a few more. You’ll love Frantz Fanon. He can help us to understand our British values better. Fanon talks about a divided world:“The world is divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species… When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”It doesn’t hold true here, of course. We believe in equality, as you stated in your interview. That’s why we have poor white people. But I think you’d agree that there are two species in this world. Just like with Islamists: good and bad. And with immigrants, or migrants as we call them when they’re drowning. Good migrants and bad migrants. Good ones come from the stomach and produce wealth. Bad ones are stealing jobs while they sift through our crap in the intestines. They warrant our charity but they’re not people in the same sense that we are. They don’t have British values like us. And that’s what we need to defend, after all.The last two guys I wanted to talk about are R. D. Laing and Henri Lefebvre. Again, they both talk about divisions - Laing about the divided self and Lefebvre about divided space. Laing says:“The words of the current technical vocabulary either refer to man in isolation from the other and the world, that is, as an entity not essentially ‘in relation to’ the other and in a world, or they refer to falsely substantiated aspects of this isolated entity. Such words are: mind and body, psyche and soma, psychological and physical, personality, the self, the organism.”I find this an interesting take on things. You talk about extremists trying to divide us, but Laing is arguing that the very language we use divides us too. The frameworks that we’ve constructed to see the world with already divide us in some way. Hence the issue with talking about ‘mental health’ is that it is constructed to exist separately from ‘physical health’ and ‘society health’. Are we suffering because we are divided already? Because we have constructed our own idea of ourselves as divided separately from society. A fetish of personality in isolation. Where we take full responsibility for our successes and our failures. But what about our collective successes and failures? What can you and I build together, Theresa May?  Lefebvre makes a similar point to this, but in terms of the spaces we produce rather than our relations to each other. These spaces are at once physical and metaphysical. But “intellectual labour, like material labour, is subject to endless division.” And we’ve had to learn geometry and grammar and chemical equations and all manner of things that have simultaneously stopped us thinking. That is this formulaic knowledge (savoir) suppresses our capacity to spontaneously produce a critical, common sense knowledge (connaissance). OK, these are French words so it automatically sounds pretentious. And of course, we’re talking about British values here. But I kind of see what he means. Don’t we bow down to self-styled experts a bit too often? Just because they talk jargon about growth and inflation and QE and whatever index we automatically assume that they are more learned than we are. And if we want to participate we’re forced to learn the same bullshit language just to show it’s bullshit.Well anyway, these are just some thoughts, Theresa. Maybe they can help with your programme. Like I said earlier, there’s also a guy who offers a compromise on your obsession with free choice. He’s called Anthony Giddens and put people off his idea by calling it structuration. But essentially what he’s saying is that we have free choice in the extent to which we understand the decisions we are making in a specific context. But we can’t know our full context and all the possible consequences of our actions. So there is a role for fate to some extent. There do exist systems of organising and structures of language that replicate themselves without the conscious intention of our free will.  So the people you decide to call extremists may be making a free choice to divide society and that is our threat. But there are also systems of organising that we perpetuate and that are violent and divisive.A minor example is this recent election we had. The electoral system takes for granted that we all belong to different groups with competing interests. It seems to me that we cooperate far more than we compete with each other. Maybe we just need a society where everyone’s voice is heard. Proportional representation would be a good start. I know Orwell said that democracy was a meaningless word, but I’m not totally sure I agree with him. Popular rule can be meaningful if it’s made to function. This is where I think you could use a hand with fleshing out the detail of your solutions. When you say banning orders for groups, maybe we can make it so people in a local area have to club together - no divided interests but some sort of consensus on managing common resources? I think it’s along the lines of what you had in mind. And when you say disruption orders for individuals, can that be so that we disrupt the fetish of the individual? That we’re back to thinking at the level of the community or the whole. And that we stop thinking about ourselves as part of a particular club or in terms of the objects we claim individual ownership of under our collective system of law, but start seeing ourselves as something bigger? Something capable of great things, when we put our minds to it.Thanks for hearing me out, Theresa, I’m glad we’re thinking along the same lines. I’m looking forward to us tackling these divisions together and reforming ourselves as whole.

 

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