A riposte to Danyl Mclauchlan

Novelist, blogger and Twitter recusant Danyl McLauchlan has been reading about Trotsky. More fool him, I say, although I will confess to having read the book he cites, the Isaac Deutscher biography, back when I did a Russian history paper and I picked up that and Deutscher’s companion book on Stalin, in battered second-hand editions, at Dominion Books.

He ponders the power of Marxism in the first half of the 20th Century and how it has run into the political sand in recent years:


There are various critiques of contemporary capitalism out there. … But there’s no modern central unifying theory or writer or thinker or even group of thinkers or philosophy (that I can think of) that really articulates what the left is trying to do, and why. Alternatively:

  • There is and I’m oblivious to it
  • The failure of Marxism demonstrates the danger of totalising systems, so such a unifying theory would be undesirable.
  • There is no workable alternative to capitalism and all the left can do is try and mitigate its flaws through the political process according to our values (This is probably closest to my current viewpoint)
  • To paraphrase Keynes, the failures of capitalism are not moral (or philosophical) but rather a series of separate technical challenges to be solved=


My own views here are probably closest to his second option. There is a great exchange in letters between David Hume and Adam Smith, which is somewhere in one of my books but I can’t find the damn thing right now, where they talk about opposing ‘systems’  and the idea anyone can come up with an all-encompassing theory for society. They may have been discussing Edmund Burke’s writings. 

(And in my own, personal, pantheon of philosophers, a nexus of Hume, Smith and Burke, the three sceptical Celts, is as close to philosophical heaven as is possible in an imperfect and ultimately unknowable universe).

The notion human beings to come up with a ‘central unifying theory’ which explains everything strikes me as being foolish at best and totalitarian at worst. I don’t think it is possible to do this for society or humanity as a whole.

The other false premise is that capitalism is a theory which manages to actually do this.

Capitalism isn’t an ‘ism’. It isn’t a unified theory, arguably it isn’t a theory at all. And calling it a ‘system’ as both defenders and attackers sometimes do, seems to me to be stretching things a bit.

Remember that capitalism, as a concept, was defined not by people who would be considered capitalists, but by people who were opposing what was going on  – in that case, the industrial revolution – and were seeking to find a unified theory to encompass what they saw and did not like.

What we have come to call capitalism wasn’t devised in advance as a theory to make society better. Therefore it wasn’t a theory which people had to be made – say, at the point of a gun – to fit. 

And nor should ‘capitalism’ be turned into something like this (cf Chile under Pinochet).

What we’ve come to call capitalism evolved out of people doing what comes naturally. As such, it represents all the ingenuity and orneriness, all that is admirable and all that is reprehensible, in the human spirit.

It wasn’t, like Marxism and its Leninist and Trotskyist and Stalinist and Maoist descendants, worked out by some weird social misfits with a grudge against society, as a way of making people better. 

There are two notable characterises of unified theories of everything: one is they all too often end up butchering people to make systems and societies fit those theories.

Perhaps the best, most accessible novelist on this is Terry Pratchett in some of the later, darker, Discworld novels. Pratchett’s satire on theocracies, ‘Small Gods’ has torturers, along with the philosopher Didactylos who is a magnificnet enscapulation of the glories of doubt and uncertainty, scepticism and humanity. 

Amongst other shafts of wisdom from Didactylos is the pithy ‘We are here and this is now. After that, everything tends towards guesswork.’ This is *real* humility and humanity, I think. 

The second characteristic is the religious nature of such unified theories of everything. It is no coincidence, I think, that the rise of these ideologies came at a time the sea of Christian faith was receding rather rapidly, and the desperate hammering to cobble together new, unified theories to explain life and society rose to a crescendo to drown out the long, melancholy, withdrawing roar of retreating certainties.

Oh, and since the starting point of this was a blog post by Danyl McL, let me recommend his latest novel.

I have just started reading it. It looks good.



Terry Pratchett, writing, and God

There’s a feeling that I think is only possible to get when you are a child and discover books: it’s a kind of fizz: you want to read everything that’s in print before it evaporates before your eyes.

I suspect author Terry Pratchett, somehow, kept this kind of fizz in his heart when
he wrote. It’s an excerpt from his recent collection of non-fiction, A Slip of the Keyboard.
 Pratchett seems to have maintained within himself how it felt to be a child – a knowing, clear-eyed child, for all that. In another piece in the same collection he writes of his first visit to a department store, at the age of around five: “I remember it in colours so bright that I’m surprised the light doesn’t shine out my ears.”
We lose one of the funniest, deep, thoughtful and above all humane authors of our time.
It is rare to get those qualities all together. Often funny is not humane or particularly deep. Deep and humane is often a bit po-faced. 
But with Pratchett, you can get shrewd and often sharp insights into the human condition, next to bad puns or references to old-and-sometimes-a-bit-dirty jokes. 
He was, proudly, a ‘fantasy’ writer – the only one, personally, I’ve ever bothered with (Tolkien, who inspired him originally, left me cold).
But he could be very sharp about such literary distinctions. ‘Magical realism’ he says in one of the pieces collected in A Slip of the Keyboard is a  term ‘invented by critics to describe fantasy fiction written by people they were at university with.’ 
And he makes what should be – but isn’t – the fairly obvious point that all fiction is fantasy.
‘What Agatha Christie wrote was fantasy. What Tom Clancy writes is fantasy. What Jilly Cooper writes is fantasy – at least, I hope for her sake it is.’
The problem many have had with him is not so much that he is a fantasy writer, he suggested: ‘as a genre fantasy has become quite respectable in recent years. At least it can demonstrably make lots and lots and lots of money, which passes for respectable these days. But I’m a humorous writer too and humour is a real problem.’
That problem is people – well, the kind of people who tend to sit in literary judgment – can  be a bit overly straight-laced and frightened of not being taken seriously, so they confuse humour with not-being-serious. 
The problem is we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious isn’t serious….
Humour has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole when seriousness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge.
This isn’t the only time he cites Chesterton: to those who deride his books as escapism, or worse, and bad for children,  Pratchett returns to Chesterton’s insight into a child’s world. 
The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragon can be killed.
 And since Chesterton’s time, Pratchett notes darkly, we have learned many of the dragons are in our own heads. 
Pratchett’s Discworld novels are set on a world that is ‘a world and a mirror of worlds’ –  and sometimes the mirror, as is the nature of mirrors,  shows things we would rather not be shown.
There is evil: Carcer, the villain in Night Watch, is pure gleeful psychopathy (and what a great name for a villain  – evocative of cancer and something coldly, viciously knife-edged).
There are torturers in several books: it is part of Pratchett’s clear-eyed, unsentimental look into human nature that their workplace has coffee mugs with ‘you don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps’ etched around them. 
There is – whisper this – the death penalty – Carcer is hanged, in the end, and in a sidebar to one of the Lancre witch novels, the villagers hang a child killer after the deeply, fearsomely moral witch Granny Weatherwax delivers the judgment ‘finish it with hemp’.
But when the villagers pronounce  ‘justice was done’ she wheels on them for their smugness, telling them to go home and pray to whatever gods they believe in it is never done to them. 
Ah, yes. Gods. There are plenty of these in Pratchett’s Discworld – many are rather common, living it up in their celestial realm known as Dunmanifestin’. There is the ‘Oh God’ of Hangovers, and various gods which are vaguely Scandinavian, or at least north European, turn up in several books, generally not really knowing what is going on. 
Gods are mostly, in Pratchett’s Discworld, bumbling and careless of the people who worship them. This is, again, an example of both Pratchett’s wisdom, humour, and humanity.
Perhaps the most explicitly theologically focused of the Discworld series, Small Gods, contains a desert to where gods who are no longer worshiped are banished. The more true believers a god has, the greater the creature they can manifest themselves as.
The great god Om, who supposedly has an entire, viciously theocratic state of Omnia worshipping him, manifests himself only to discover instead of some fearsome beast he is a rather slow, one-eyed tortoise. 
Only one, decent and earnest but rather thick monk, named Brutha,  genuinely believes: everyone else just believes in the terror which will come their way if they are suspected of heresy. 

And then there is neighbouring city state of  Ephebe, which is like a parody of our vaguely received ideas about Ancient Greece: the place is full of philosophers leaping out of baths or arguing in pubs. 

The greatest of these philosophers is Didactylos, who lives in a barrel (both the name and the residence are neat historical jokes) and who describes his philosophy as

 a mixture of three famous schools—the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans—and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, “You can’t trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so let’s have a drink. Mine’s a double, if you’re buying.”

 Hogfather, a kind of satire on Christmas, climaxes in an exchange about why beings such as the Hogfather,   Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, gods and demons, have been invented by humans.
It is significant who the question is asked of: Death. 
It is one of Pratchett’s best jokes-that-is-more-than-a-joke that Death – who talks in a VOICE OF DOOM LIKE THIS – is one of the most sympathetic characters in the entire series: he has a huge, if puzzled and often inept, care and concern for humanity.
I don’t think Pratchett ever said so anywhere, but I’m convinced Death represents Pratchett’s own view in his novels.
It is the culminating joke on the more overtly intellectual critics who annoyed Pratchett so much: not do much a post modern Death of the Author, more a case of Death as the author.

Sensible Susan, Death’s granddaughter, wants to know why people need such beings: Death’s reply shows he has learned a few things in the course of his work.

The exchange makes explicit what is implicit in much of Pratchett’s work and  is worth quoting in full.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”


“So we can believe the big ones?”


“They’re not the same at all!”



“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”


The A Slip of the Keyboard collection, mostly of unpublished articles and lectures, also has a magnificent short piece on ‘The God Moment’ written after some British newspaper suggested he had found God. 
“I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.’
Pratchett has though always refused to join the ‘religion is the cause of most of the wars/torture/etc.’ school of thought. 
While not believing in ‘big beards in the sky’ he was brought up in a traditional Church of England home, ‘which is to say that while churchgoing did not figure in my family’s plans for the Sabbath, practically all the ten commandments were obeyed by instinct and a general air of reason, kindness and decency prevailed
…possibly because of this, I’ve never disliked religion. I think it has some purpose in our evolution. I don’t have much truck with the ‘religion is the cause of most of our wars’ school of thought, because in fact that’s manifestly done by mad, manipulative and power hungry men who cloak their ambition in God.

But he wrote of recent moments of feelings of transcendence, of ‘the memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was okay and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world had felt at peace.

Where did that come from?
Me, actually – the part of all of us that, in my cause caused me to stop and listen in awe the first time I heard Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alum…’
‘When the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet, beyond the grasp of Hawking.
 It doesn’t require worship but I think rewards, intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.
I don’t think I’ve found God but I may have seen where gods come from.