Old heroes stand, some fall, and posters are changed



I don’t watch TV anymore. I’d like to say it is because I think it’s a waste of time and that I can use that hour or three more productively by playing FreeCell on the computer. But what happened was that I had not paid in advance for my cable TV when I went to South Africa in July, and the lady who always came by to collect the money had my cable disconnected. The reason I haven’t had it turned on again is indeed political. I watched more CNN than any other channel and I couldn’t listen to one more word from George W. Bush and his chief warlord Donald Rumsfeld.

What I do now to make my breakfast more entertaining is to read. I recently recovered a book by L. S. Stavrianos from a friend who had borrowed it two years ago, and I thought it would make for pleasant reading material on an empty stomach. The title of the book is The World Since 1500 – A Global History. It includes chapters on the Renaissance, Protestantism, the Ottoman Empire, and the discovery by Western seafarers of countries they did not know existed. There is also a chapter on Europe’s scientific, industrial and political revolutions, and how they shaped the world we now call our own.

The Philosophes

A good history book sometimes leads to insights into your own life, how it came about that you live as you live, think like you think and believe what you believe. So it was the morning I came to the Enlightenment.

Along with my Australian oats, American muesli, and two other breakfast cereals I combined with the first two, I took in that the lead characters in the Enlightenment were the so-called Philosophes. This group, so I learned, should not be confused with academic philosophers. The Philosophes were not profound or systematic thinkers in any field. They were mainly literary figures, populists who had come from the journalistic rather than the academic fields.

The two main ideas of this group were Progress and Reason. They believed that human life slowly but surely improved as time went on, so that each generation lived better lives than the previous generation. How could this continual progress be maintained? By people using their reasoning ability.

These advocates of progress were generally opposed to the existing order. They wrote plays, novels, essays and versions of history to popularise their ideas, and to illustrate the need for change.

The Philosophes were strongly influenced by the findings of the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton. They believed, as Newton had demonstrated, that there were natural laws that not only regulated nature, but also human society. Based on this conviction, they applied reason to all areas of life in order to determine the natural laws that governed how things worked. People, institutions and traditions were subjected to the test of rationality.

This group of populists developed a set of revolutionary principles through which they proposed a complete reorganisation of society. In the field of economy their motto was “laissez-faire” – which meant that people should be allowed to undertake whatever economic activities they deemed good. The Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith argued in 1776 in his book An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations that individuals were motivated by self-interest when it came to economic activities, and that every man knew and understood his own interests better than any officer of the state.

In the field of religion, the Philosophes were strongly opposed to religious fanaticism and intolerance. Some became atheists, and felt that religion was nothing more than a tool in the hands of the state. Others were more agnostic in their belief, and reckoned they could not acknowledge or deny the existence of God. The majority were deists who acknowledged the existence of God, and that he was responsible for the creation of the universe. However, they insisted that after creation God allowed the world to operate according to certain natural laws, and that he does not interfere in the natural course of things.

The big idea in the field of politics was the Social Contract. One of the more famous Philosophes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that this contract is an agreement between equals, unlike the English philosopher John Locke who believed that government was a political contract between rulers and those over which they ruled. Rousseau, in his work of 1762, The Social Contract, described government as a “commission”. He furthermore believed that revolution was a justifiable action whereby people could reclaim their rightful power.

These ideas about economics, religion and politics were in conflict with the established institutions and practices of the day. In contrast to existing ideas, the Philosophes thought of themselves as members of the human race rather than Frenchmen or Europeans. Their focus was on the determination of social principles that could be applied universally, like Newton’s principles of the natural world.

That was my first big breakfast discovery. I hit my left palm with my right fist and yelled at the neighbour across the alley, “I always knew I was someone’s child!”

The Philosophes were populists. I consider myself not so much academically inclined as being focused on what is of practical value for the man and woman in the street.

The Philosophes opposed the traditional institutions and practices of their day. Of course! I’m an infant compared to wig-wearing veterans like Rousseau, but I too make faint noises against the traditional institutions and practices of my time.

Even in terms of religion, I’d rather have tea with atheists, or go bowling with agnostics and deists than with suburban evangelicals – except for the odd suburban evangelical who would also rather hang out with dissidents.

I also believe that it is possible for every generation to have better prospects than the one that preceded them, if everyone uses their heads.

All the ideas I want to propagate so enthusiastically thus originated long before my time. That is what I’ve always suspected, and I knew this or that, but now I can add dates and names to the foundations of my own beliefs.

However, the economic principles of the Enlightened should have given me a foretaste of what would give my breakfast a sour taste on a morning soon to follow.

A nasty truth: Is who I really am, who I think I am not, and is who I think I am in direct contradiction with who I really am?

A few days later – and a few decades later in my history book, I was sitting with a bowl of breakfast mix and a cup of black coffee ready to start another day with a brief history lesson. The first great political revolutions of the Western world over for the time being, I came to the three major ideologies that would lead to more rebellion and change – nationalism, liberalism and socialism.

At this point it is important to mention that for the past decade I have been of the opinion that I am somewhat of a socialist. If it were just a game of opinion, I would have waved my flag for the Bolsheviks rather than the czar in 1917, for Mao Zedong and his Red Army rather than the nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese civil war, Fidel Castro rather than Batista in 1959, and definitely for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels rather than for the exploiters of men, women and children in amongst other places the factories of nineteenth-century England. (The reality that would sour people’s lives within a few years in Bolshevik Russia, Red China under Mao, Cuba under Castro and many other so-called socialist republics is an entirely different story.)

I see myself as more liberal than conservative. But what do these labels of identity mean in historical context?

To call yourself a liberal means, according to definition, that you commit yourself to the idea of emancipation of the individual from limitations laid down by class, company or government. Okay, so far my breakfast tastes as good as any other day, and I am nodding my head as I once again see my own face in the text in front of me.

The next sentence, however, compelled me to reach for my bitter black coffee: “[The rise of liberalism] was intimately related to the rise of the middle class [and] it has remained essentially a middle-class movement in its theory and source of support.” (Own emphasis)

“What does this mean?” I cried out in panic. “Am I middle-class just because I consider myself a liberal rather than a conservative, and because I believe in the emancipation of the individual?”

The history of liberalism seemed increasingly bleak the further I read.

Liberalism in England in the seventeenth century served middle-class interests. The American constitution – a liberal document according to the measure of the time – was carefully drafted to protect and promote the interests of the class of property owners. Even the French Revolution, which was more radical in their liberal principles, was mainly focused on the interests of the French middle class!

The liberalism that took shape during the English, American and French Revolutions were focused on equal civil rights, and not necessarily equal political and social rights.

Liberalism, however, could not remain unchanged. The working masses – those whose hands and faces were dirty at the end of a long workday – increasingly flexed their muscles as a result of an increase in literacy, and also as a result of trade union organisation. Classical liberalism had to make way for a somewhat more democratic version over the course of a century or so. One result was that most men, at least, had the right at the end of the nineteenth century to draw a cross on a ballot paper.

The principle of laissez-faire – a central idea of the Enlightened of the eighteenth century that suited the middle class so well in the nineteenth century – also had to be adjusted. The policy of minimal interference from government in economic affairs did not look good in the face of the bitter daily reality of the working class. Civil rights and voting rights did not initially have much effect on poverty and social distress caused by low wages, long working days, unemployment, disease and old age. The workers therefore began to use their voting rights and trade union organisation to present their case for social reforms.

This process led to a new set of ideas called democratic liberalism – and leaders who preached that the state is responsible for all its citizens, not just the middle class. (The reforms of this time would eventually lead to the welfare state of the current era.)

Despite the new, more humanistic jacket liberalism started wearing since the late nineteenth century, it lost its lustre among the ideologies of the day. The main reason for this was that the advocates of the new movement had failed to win sufficient support amongst the growing working class.

Why on earth would the men and women of the dust-and-soot class not embrace democratic liberalism? Why would they not welcome it as the best policy they would ever get in their miserable lives? The reason was a new ideology, pleasant on their tongues like hot soup that would make a starving man hope for better days on a winter morning – and believe it, too! Workers increasingly gave their support and their votes to different socialist tendencies. This development pushed the liberals in several countries in between the conservatives on the right and the socialists on the left.

* * *

What does this all have to do with me?

If you don’t have a problem with the middle stratum of the industrialised world and the kind of life that is usually associated with it, all of this history might be nothing more than mildly interesting reading material. My dilemma is that I have carefully crafted an identity and put together an accompanying personal doctrine to the effect that I am opposed to many aspects of middle-class existence – or then my own sometimes one-dimensional portrait of it. At one time or another since my university days I also came to the conclusion that my anti-middle class sentiments made me a supporter of socialism. I have therefore increasingly associated myself with the “working class” – because of my own background and my personal lifestyle, and in terms of my personal politics.

I was always aware of the contradictions. The “workers” in my own family are primarily interested in a stable middle-class life, and they shift around uncomfortably – on couches they were only too happy to buy on credit – when I speak of a year or two in Taiwan and how much money they can save if they ever decided to try something along those lines. “Real” workers care more for a stable labour situation, and dream of perhaps a better car. I am willing to give up comfort and many pleasures of life as long as I can give free expression to my experience of reality and don’t have to call anyone “Boss”. “Real” workers, or then at least the ones with whom I have personal contact, mostly accept the world as it is – which is not to say that they don’t also want to be rich and free, and feel the need to mock the “Boss” behind his back every now and then.

The crux of the matter here is my own identity, how I think I fit in the polychrome landscape of socio-economic classes and political and economic ideologies and associated labels, and how a combination of beliefs makes it possible to operate successfully in modern society.

The hammer shatters the mirror

As already mentioned, for the past few years I have increasingly thought of myself as “left-wing”, and as “working class” rather than “middle class”. To provide more clarity on how I see myself, a few years ago I started quoting with great enthusiasm what Noam Chomsky once said: “Classical liberal tradition in the eighteenth century [stated that] at the root of human nature is the need for free, creative work under one’s own control. That must be at the basis of any decent society.”[1]

I definitely believe in the right of individuals to make their own case and to express themselves as they deem fit (as long as no one else suffers much damage). I also believe in the right of every person to strive for fulfilment of the inherent need for creative work under their own control.

Until recently, if I had to look at myself in the mirror to ask about my own name and place in the Greater Landscape, I could proudly recite: “I’m a classical liberal, with a strong affinity for socialist ideas.” (And then, seeing that I was staring into the mirror, I’d flex my biceps ever so slightly to ponder the possibility of joining other members of the working class in lifting a crate onto a truck.)

It was a great shock, therefore – and even more unpleasant than the first shock of the relationship between classical liberalism and the middle class – when I read this morning that socialism is the great antithesis of classical liberalism! How can my one set of beliefs be the exact opposite of my other set of beliefs?

According to Mr Stavrianos, liberalism emphasises the individual and his or her rights. Socialism places the emphasis on the community, and on collective welfare. Liberals see society as the product of natural laws. Socialists believe that people can set up their own social system and associated relationships through the use of rational thought and action. They further believe that human nature is largely the product of the social system in which people are born, in which they grow up and in which they live and work as adults.

According to these principles, socialists believe that the evils of the world could be eliminated through the establishment of a society that is focused on promoting collective welfare rather than personal gain, and by encouraging cooperation among the population rather than competition.

The emphasis of socialism therefore lies in the larger community rather than the individual – and in comprehensive planning and management of social change rather than in allowing things to develop naturally.

Dazed and choking on my dry porridge and cold coffee, I also read about Plato who thought a dictatorship of philosophers could save the world, about Utopian Socialists who worked out comprehensive plans and principles for model communities, and, of course, about Karl Marx which differed from the Utopians in that he studied the historical evolution and functioning of the existing capitalist world, and came to the conclusion that capitalism would be smashed to pieces by the hammer of workers in a class struggle that would establish a socialist society.

The hammer had already smashed my identity to smithereens, and the sickle had ripped my careful planning of how I fit in the world to tatters. Am I, after all these years, after all the pieces I wrote in scorn and fear of the middle class, after the neat puzzle that I had cut and fit to explain how I fit into the larger reality, forced to admit what I have always feared? Am I middle class?


I don’t read my history book anymore. Or, I’ve stopped reading it every morning with breakfast. I could certainly argue it is because detailed information about ideologies made me think twice about my place in society. What actually happened was that I had reached the end of a chapter, and I could no longer ignore the stack of unread newspapers beside my chair.

What do the details in this essay matter if a large percentage of the world population does not even receive sufficient education to understand the difference between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? Does it matter whether I have a poster of Karl Marx or Jean-Jacques Rousseau on my wall if more than half of the world population have not had a proper meal to eat today?

I feel a bit self-conscious about my obsession with identity and my place in the world, and as a result an interest in the development of the ideology of “free work under one’s own control”. Are these things important for anyone else? Does this so-called literary project of mine barely have half a chance of a place on anyone’s bookshelf because the average reader can’t read Tom Clancy or Stephen King every day? Does everyone know more or less where they fit in society? Will someone one day pause between meetings and business lunches to tap me on the shoulder and say, “We all think about these things, we just don’t have time to brood about it constantly”?

Why does it matter how and where I fit in the Greater Whole? It matters because no one can operate above a primitive level if they do not know how and where they fit in.

I still don’t know how and where I fit in. The reasons why I don’t know … well, that’s what I’ve been trying to explain in the hundreds of pages that form part of this project.

(I can always confine myself to a reduced reality where it would be easier to make sense of things, and where my role and function would be better defined, or easier to define. The thing is, my current world is already quite limited. If I reduce it even more, I can just as well become a member of a religious cult, or start one.)

One would like to say, “Even if you don’t know the correct academic formulation of your place in society, surely you know the difference between yourself and a poor man or woman who suffers in the slums of Kolkata, or Lagos, or even Johannesburg?”

Fair enough. But what exactly is the difference? I eat more, and more frequently. I sleep in a comfortable bed every night. If I get sick, I can go to a doctor. I don’t have a car, but I have a bicycle. I don’t own the property that I currently mark with my posters and which I have populated with my furniture and which I fill with my physical presence, but if I don’t live in this apartment, there are other apartments where I can close a door behind me in the evenings.

But it is also true that I do not write these words in the country where I have a natural right to live. I live in this country because I make a profit for businesses that sell English classes to parents of mainly primary school children. I have permission from the authorities to live here as long as I continue to meet the requirements on which they agreed to my presence on this island. If I no longer fulfil my prescribed labour role in this place, I have to leave.

Should I find myself back in the country where I do have a birthright to make myself at home, the answer to the question of the difference between me and a homeless person in any city in the world will initially be the same: I will eat every day, sleep comfortably, and so on. However, I would only be able to take these differences for granted if I were in a drunken stupor and not thinking beyond my bed in someone’s guest room.

“If it’s to a large extent a matter of a job and an income, you still have your qualifications,” someone will again venture an opinion. “Surely it wouldn’t be too difficult for you to get a job in any major city in your own country, right?”

It is as follows: It is certainly possible for me to find someone somewhere to whom I can sell my time. Just a pity that I have eaten of the fruit of creative freedom. Just a pity that I’m aware of the effect that the Industrial Revolution has had on contemporary labour relations, and of the value of the individual as a cog in corporate machinery. If only I could forget about all these things, and while I’m busy doing that, also misplace the memories of first-hand experience of how a middle-class life can go wrong, I’d be able to start from scratch; I might accept a much more modest fate that probably would befall me; I would probably even be grateful for the quality of life that I could call my own in the face of so many people who eat dust before they get comfortable in their storm drainage pipes for the night.

This brings us to a good point in this essay to ask one last question: Do I owe it to the beggars, the street children, and countless others who live less fortunate lives than me to stop writing unpublishable, self-centred material and instead get a job?

* * *

Thousands of words were tossed about in this piece, dates and names were piled together, and as part of the process many bowls of cereal were swallowed down with many cups of coffee, all with seemingly one goal in mind: to solve the question of what ideological label I, the author of this piece, can carry with credibility and conviction.

I almost lost my appetite the morning when I discovered what central role the classical liberals played in the conquest of the world by the middle class – a socio-economic grouping from which I have been running for years (even if I myself crack the whip behind me as I’m fleeing). So many of the classical liberal ideas are exactly the kind of thoughts with which I soothe myself to sleep at night! What to do with such a nasty contradiction?

On the other hand was the equally unpleasant discovery that I have been misidentifying myself as a “socialist”. In my defence I can state that this identification was probably motivated by nothing other than the fact that they were the biggest and strongest gang who also spit in the direction of the middle class. Just a pity that, in addition to this antagonism against the bourgeoisie, socialists also believe that individuals should be willing to sacrifice their own dreams and ambitions, their individuality, free creative expression of their experience of reality, and sometimes even their lives for the welfare of the community, and ultimately for the welfare of the state.

I respect the intellectual talents of people like Marx and Lenin, and I think that they really did have empathy for the common man, woman and child in dirty slums, soul-crushing factories and dusty villages. I also think – although many lives were destroyed in the process – that one can even have respect for the dedication and determination with which the Bolsheviks sought to transform the largest political unit in the world, on the basis of a set ideas that many of them truly believed would lead to a more equitable system for the majority of the population.

I cannot ignore the role of classical liberalism in the excesses of the Industrial Revolution and in the accompanying development of the contemporary middle class. Likewise, I cannot mutter something else during the Creed of Communists where they recite that “If the state wants you to work ten hours a day in a factory, you should do it because it would be good for the welfare of the community.” (“Plus, you’re only a meaningless piece of the bigger picture that won’t be missed if you should disappear in the middle of the night.”)

Do I owe it to any Community of Classical Liberals to be a good Classic Liberal? Do I owe it to any contemporary Communist to be a good Socialist or Communist? If I wanted to hang these labels around my neck to be accepted as part of a group, it might be necessary for me to recite their creeds. If group membership is not my first priority, I can continue to claim for myself what I deem fit from all these ideologies, and from the personal contributions of the leaders of the accompanying movements.

I still believe, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his peers, that natural laws make the world go round – so to speak; also that if people just use their common sense, we can create a better world for all of us and our descendants. I also believe in the right of the individual to give free, creative expression to his or her personal experience of reality, whether the community or the state likes it or not, as long as it does not inhibit the right of others to do the same. I will also continue to tip my hat for people like Marx and Lenin who earnestly and sincerely committed their lives to contemplating a better, more just world, and for taking action to bring about such a world – even if the results of their efforts did not turn out as they had hoped.

What “heroes” will I honour from now on if I want to hang a poster behind a door, in order to better illustrate my identity and place in the world? Here’s a suggestion: a coal sketch of myself, with a bushy beard, an eighteenth-century French wig with grey curls, and on top of the wig a Russian conductor’s cap, circa 1917.

[1] Noam Chomsky, Secrets, Lies and Democracy