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1st October, 2020

Mathew Schwartz - Unsplash

In the puddles of time in which we mortals live it sometimes emerges as apparent that contemporary arrangements are unjust or unnecessary. Towards the end of the 18th century some American Quakers, testing their Christian tradition against their own time, began to feel, unusually in human history, that the default slavery setting which most human civilisations had accepted as normal till then was undesirable. There had been indications of this as early as the 4th century when the Christian theologian Gregory of Nyssa had suggested that to own slaves was “to set one’s own power above God’s” and that “Not all the universe would constitute an adequate payment for the soul of a mortal.” Such ideas may have derived from quotations attributed to Christ that every hair of each human individual was numbered and from the idea that each human was made in the image of God. 

Then, in the 1920s in Britain, women were given the vote and in the 1960s homosexuality was decriminalised. One can see such just and proper changes as part of a long trajectory of moral progression in a human race that just keeps on getting morally better and better. Alternatively, we can see them as moments when advances in technology and general societal movements up Maszlo’s pyramid of needs gave people the time and leisure to reflect on things that were the background norm of most civilisations; things that had evolved spontaneously, without any malicious intent to oppress others, out of general human circumstances. For example second wave feminism was largely able to take off as it did in the sixties and seventies because of the widespread recent availability of birth control which liberated women from being completely at the mercy of biological imperatives. Some even argue that it was the advent of the internal combustion engine and the cotton gin that superseded the need for slaves.

This might mean that such desirable changes were inevitable but do not signal real moral improvement in human individuals. One only has to go to social media to confirm that there are, today, the constant quantities, for example, of personal deceit, venality, violence, laziness, arrogance, cowardice or selfishness in human affairs that always obtained. One could also argue that major civilisational change could, at a stroke, reverse these progressive but cosmetic changes afforded by technology. For example, if, as Douglas Murray argues and fears, Islam achieved hegemony in Europe through the ballot box, where would the ‘advances’ in the rights of women, homosexuals, dissenters and apostates and, possibly, even slaves be?

In our time the idea that we are always heading ineluctably towards the destination of a radiant dream of perfection has a more insidious incarnation; one with which we are all very familiar. It derives from a curiously bastardised amalgam of 18th century rationalist Enlightenment thinking and bogus Platonic Idealism that modern times has inherited.

In 18th century France Jean-Jacques Rousseau, with his effective replacement of the doctrine of original sin with one of human innocence, together with his fellow encyclopédistes, with their growing faith that reason, science and technology would eventually solve all problems, spawned an optimism that that led to ideas about progress towards human perfectability. Then, in contrast to the more earthbound Aristotle, Plato, in particular in Diotima’s speech mouthed by Socrates in Plato’s Symposium and in the story of the cave in his Republic, developed the idea of contrasting our obviously imperfect (or even ‘fallen’ from a Judaeo-Christian perspective) world with a heavenly sphere of perfect ‘forms’ or ‘ideas’ of which we are all dimly aware and to which, at our best, we sometimes aspire.

Faced with these two strands of thought a sane person might conclude that it is unhelpful and a little crazy to believe in the perfectability of the French rationalists.  They might remember that Thomas More’s Utopia actually means ‘no (real) place.’ They might also remember that the whole point about Plato's perfect forms was that they were not to be found anywhere in this world.

However an insidious cocktail has been made with one measure of Plato and two measures of the Enlightenment. The unspoken expectations which it raises now permeate societal consciousness. The performance of any institution or authority serving the public, no matter how demanding or unexpected the circumstances in which they operate or how chaotic and novel the emergencies they have to deal with, is now measured against a made to measure, technocratic, platonic ideal which is supposed to exist somewhere. For all eventualities, there is deemed to be available somewhere the perfect platonic protocol with which to address it. For example, in the current Covid crisis, such protocols were, perhaps, expected to have mysteriously descended from the Realm of Perfect Forms to be lodged in the Cabinet Office Library. Given this, should the performance of the government or institutions fall below expectations of perfection as a result of failing to consult such paradigms, these failures can only be considered to be due to feckless negligence, incompetence or even wickedness. Such attitudes spawn a society in a permanent state of blame-apportionment, redress-seeking and litigation. This is, no doubt, far from what Plato envisaged and would have been unrecognisable to him.

Then there is the enormous and disproportionate power this affords the media. WH Auden referred to ‘the usual squalid mess called history’. Conservative governments negotiate such choppy seas with a degree of best guess and muddle hoping to emerge reasonably unblemished having done their best in good faith. This is especially true of a suddenly emergent and generally confounding event like the COVID-19 pandemic. However the left-liberal press have discovered, and we see every day, that they can endlessly and conveniently hold the current government to an impossible and unreasonable ideal of platonic-technocratic management which keeps it in a permanent state of haplessness and helplessness.

Essentially, this gives the media the power to impugn any government at will at any time whenever it suits them because no government can live up to a standard of technocratic perfection in such circumstances. Should the media have a political bias it can publicly slaughter governments of a flavour of which it disapproves. Seeing the performance of Boris Johnson’s government daily and mercilessly ‘scrutinised’ by the Westminster media (some dub them the enemedia) one is reminded of a spider or the monster in Alien toying with its prey. The prey is enmeshed,  paralysed and kept alive to be tortured or kept in a sticky larder and eaten later.

This condition of paralysed vulnerability to constant attack is different from normal and proper press scrutiny as there is a dangerous imbalance between press and institutional authority. Effectively a hostile press has an endless power to call the tune (and to demand constant u-turns). In the Society of the Spectacle they are simply too powerful. The haplessness and paralysis of the government now is merely a rerun of the identical state of paralysis brought about in the passive-aggressive Remainer Parliament that almost finished off Brexit. Johnson broke the log jam there and is now being punished by the re-creation of exactly the same obstructive conditions by other means and any means to hand.

As I write things are not currently looking hopeful but let’s hope, nevertheless, that COVID-19, so meanly and opportunistically exploited for political ends, recedes into the distance in time. Political enemies will continue to attempt to run rings round governments they despise measuring them against preposterous ideas of perfection but, without this particular nightmare which lends itself so easily to the technocratic scientific mind (even though what is most notable about the scientists involved is their widespread lack of agreement), the ship of state may be able to fare forward more easily.

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