The First Priority

Image result for liberty

Everything flows from the first choice. The first choice is between liberty and politics. You cannot have it three ways: liberté! égalité! fraternité! It’s liberty, or a utopian fantasy morphing into a tyranny.

The logic of liberty is: “Leave me alone.” The logic of equality is: “Interfere with me; confiscate my privileges; steal my house.” How can you enforce equality without invading a lot of people’s liberties? Liberty says, “You will not impose your political ideas on me.” Equality says, “Our idea is much more important than leaving you alone.” Nobody is safe from equality. The martyrs of the last hundred years keen in their millions. Tens of millions. Yes, really – tens of millions.

Outskirts of Harbin 5 April 1968

What is liberty? It is the two legal rights established in Magna Carta. The rulers cannot steal your house (because courts will uphold your property rights); and the rulers cannot arrest you without producing persuasive evidence against you in front of an independent court, within two days, and holding a fair trial in front of twelve of your peers and an independent judge.

Party chiefs in Harbin are denounced in front of a large crowd in April 1967. Photo: Li Zhensheng (The Chinese University Press)Party chiefs in Harbin are denounced in front of a large crowd 1967. Not a proper trial with legal counsel, impartial jury and independent judge, but a ‘struggle session’

It would be nice to have more equality and fraternity as well, of course, and we can move towards that ideal once liberty is firmly established as the bedrock, but anyone who prioritises equality over liberty is going to steal your big house in the name of the people and end up shooting you if you object. And anyone who idealises the virtues of the so-called “collective” over the despised “individualistic” will justify the murdering of you. Of course they will – regretfully, maybe – because the logic dictates it. Prioritise the collective and the individual will have to suffer if she objects. The martyrs to collectivisation in the last hundred years are also legion.

Li Zhensheng, Public shaming by the Red Guards in front of the masses, 1966. © Li Zhensheng, SIPF 2016. ‘Public Shaming by the Red Guards in Front of the Masses.’ Struggle session, 1966.

How is it that so many of my educated friends, including several historians, people who have lived through many decades of the last hundred years, have not noticed these obvious truths? Do they imagine that the inexorable logic will not work when someone well-meaning implements it? The earlier generations of socialists were also well-meaning. Do they have some cognitive trick that fools them into believing that their form of socialism has nothing to do with communism, although it has the same ideals and priorities? Theirs will end in joy, this time, following the same principles that ended in horror last time: ‘equality’ and ‘the collective’? History does teach one lesson: anyone who has a bigger political idea than liberty is a terrible danger to you. For all her good intentions  and moralistic fervour, she will end up terrorising you in the name of equality, or race, or religion.


Ren Zhongyi, the former party chief in Harbin city, wearing a dunce’s hat and being publicly humiliated, in a ‘struggle session’ when people were shaved, forced to wear tall hats [of humiliation], had their homes searched, and were executed .

What about “democratic socialism” – surely that is harmless? Yes, if it prioritises democracy and its liberties as we in the United Kingdom understand them, it will serve a very useful function in administering the state more fairly. But, if it prioritises socialist ideals, it will invade your liberties to further its political agenda of establishing a millenarian vision of a perfect society of equals. This will not be popular, so those in charge – regretfully, maybe – will never let you vote again. It is not an accident that socialist societies have denied you your liberties and your democracy and devoured their own children. If you think that has nothing to do with your beloved socialist ideals you are fooling yourself. It is the inevitable logic of prioritising equality over liberty. 

All photographs of the Cultural Revolution by Li Zhensheng from Red-Color News Soldier Phaidon 2003


Bull taming, shark taming: an argument for our absurd honours system

There are supercharged, bullish high achievers in the gene pool, many of them ruthless and hubristic. The political question is: how do we stop these big beasts becoming tyrannical monsters.

Under capitalism the sharks make money. They also buy political influence, or, where there is no functioning democracy, grab power. Under socialism they join the Party and run it for themselves and their cronies, as we have seen in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Cuba, various newly independent African countries, etc. They become tyrants with a monopoly of power, money, propaganda and the law. There is no defence against them. Since we are not going to eradicate over-confident and brilliant go-getters (and would not want to), the question becomes, how do we integrate them and limit their excesses?

By accident of history, the British have stumbled upon the answer: let them make money; tickle their tummies and whisper about generosity and public-spiritedness whilst dangling in front of their eyes, but at a distance, peerages. “You can be recruited into the lovely ceremonial aristocracy… for services to charity.”

Arguments for honouring school dinner-ladies and long serving lollipop men are fine, but much too sensible. They miss the point. The function of these honours is to keep the sharks from seizing real power in our country, to tempt them towards public works. And very cunning it is.

‘Lack’ – or ‘Luminous Essence’?

Buddhist intellectuals David Loy and Ken Jones theorise that human beings have a fundamental “lack”, a hole in the middle, and that their frenetic materialism, ambition, fetishism, their obsessions, their neuroses, their greed and so on are all attempts to fill the hole, to compensate for what is missing. This “lack” is a form of dukkha, the Buddha’s word for suffering, an anxiety for certainty, permanence and meaning (and the lack is due to impermanence and no-self, anicca and anatta). It accounts for all the wild and futile busy-ness  of people and is their driving force.

I am unpersuaded. I do not feel, and have never felt, as far as I know, this sense of fundamental lack in myself, and I certainly don’t feel a fundamental lack in the world of nature. I don’t see a lot of evidence for it. Many of the people who are pursuing materialism and ambition are highly content with their achievements and quite unaware that anything is missing. There are some lacks, yes: it is not delusional to pursue a living wage if one lacks money; we all have difficuIties in relationships leading to unsatisfactoriness, but that is relative to happier times, not a fundamental vacuum. I prefer another kind of explanation which blames

  • being distracted
  • being side-tracked
  • being confused
  • being drawn into activity

Master Lu, the great Daoist, is my guide. He says that five kinds of false consciousness obstruct the mind:

  • sudden wandering thoughts “drawing forth an outburst like wild animals galloping in all directions”
  • worrying about the future, wearying the spirit
  • getting attached to the beauty of sounds and forms and averse to the ugliness of sounds and forms until “the luminous essence of mind is covered by shadows and you become feeble-minded, unable to attain clarity”
  • people get upset and confused about the past
  • people think that they are intelligent and knowledgeable and “go back and forth in a fog, stagnant, without expanding… it actually destroys essential life.”

This makes more sense to me. There is not a fundamental lack or hole in the centre which we fear and flee from and try to deny with frantic activity. There is a “luminous essence of mind” which gets obscured, covered by shadows, distracted, sidetracked, wearied. Energy is wasted in worries and attachments and life loses its vitality. The mind gets confused and shrinks.

“Luminous essence” is the default state, not lack.


Political Correctness


Political Correctness is not too intimidating in most parts of our country and we have a fairly indulgent attitude towards it. But its purpose is to make you toe the party line, and to frighten you off from thinking or saying anything “incorrect.” It is what the Taliban do. It is what Stalin’s purges and Mao’s purges did. It is a form of terrorism to impose uniformity of thought. It is hostile to the individual, the unorthodox, the eccentric; and it defines any deviation as evil.

Reading The Tragedy of Liberation* recently I was reminded of our British forms of political correctness. In The Tragedy of Liberation Mao’s purges are described in detail. There were four main forms of intimidation:

  • ‘Struggle meetings,’ in which the entire workforce of an institution gathered to see one of its members attacked by a local official for incorrect political attitudes; the crowd was under pressure to join in the attack;
  • ‘Denunciation rallies,’ in which people proved their loyalty and deflected the danger from themselves by denouncing their colleagues or friends or neighbours for incorrect political attitudes;
  • ‘Self-criticism,’ in which loyalists confessed that they had once had other views, or been tempted away from the true path (these self-criticisms were kept on the record and would condemn them some years later);
  • And killing quotas. The usual killing quota for a Maoist campaign was between one point two and two point five persons per thousand of the population. That was the proportion that the leadership estimated would be sufficient to cow and terrify all the people. So, for example, 56,700 people in the province of Henan were killed in the purge of 1950;  45,500 in the province of Hebei;  61,400 in the province of Hunan, and so on. The total for six provinces out of the twenty six, reported to the central administration, was 301,800, so the country-wide total must have been four or five times as many. Unlike Stalin, who disappeared people in the night, without explanation, Mao made his terror explicit and public and forced everybody to watch. In following years there were similar campaigns aimed at ‘Entrepreneurs,’ ‘Capitalist Roaders’ and ‘Foreign Spies.’ When the local administrators had to find these sorts of numbers of ‘foreign spies’ to kill in every province  – in a completely closed country – you can imagine how justice was served.

What I was reminded of was Tony Benn’s de-selection campaign in the Labour Party in the early eighties. He whipped up recruitment of young idealist Red Guards, urging committed left wingers to join local constituency Labour Parties and attack the sitting MPs in meetings modelled on Chinese struggle meetings and denunciation rallies  – for being insufficiently left wing (which meant Bennite – the whole thing was a power grab to control the Labour Party, and ultimately the country).  Ask Frank Field how it felt to be on the receiving end of a campaign of orchestrated vilification.

Far fetched? Bennite bullying did not include the killing quotas, I’ll grant you. Benn signed the book of condolence in the Chinese embassy when the monster Mao died and expressed his admiration for the vicious old brute. He was our Maoist.

The martyrs to Mao are seventy million dead. The number terrorised is an incalculable billion plus. The paranoia in China has not fully abated yet. As for North Koreans, still suffering what Stalin initiated and Mao perfected… may they find their liberation from the liberators soon.

*The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-57  by Frank Dikȍtter,  published 2013 by Bloomsbury.


Daoism, Life and Politics

The themes of this blog are likely to be Daoism applied to life and politics, Aristotelian criticism applied to films and books, and reflections on art exhibitions. But we’ll see what emerges.

June 2013 – Terrorism and Torture

The Islamist extremists who send half-wits and bullied women out as suicide bombers and explode thousands of people indiscriminately and behead charity workers  and engineers on video are so ludicrously villainous, and so relish the role of cackling Doctor Deaths, that it plays right into the hands of those like Bush who react to provocation with predictable moral outrage and vengeful threats. There always have been, and always will be, very naughty boys who know just how to wind up authoritarian parents. Is the best way to play this game to torture them and drone them? This is our family, after all. It’s a form of dialogue, with two roles. It’s an eternal cycle. Do you think you will put an end to it by declaring war on terror?

Nelson Mandela did not face some naughty boys trying to irritate him into a rash indiscretion. He faced real enemies. He faced a powerful ruling population that had been brutalising his people for many decades. But he showed real leadership. He stopped his vengeful supporters in their tracks. Do not doubt, the South African blacks would have been very happy to take revenge. Many were ready for a blood bath. But their leader was a man of immense integrity and vision. Would that there was a Syrian Mandela, a Ruandan Mandela, an Iraqi Mandela, an American Mandela. Mandela led his people in Truth and Reconciliation, if not total forgiveness. He led them with a sense of their own dignity and their hope for a humane future.

The torturers of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld regime with their deniable extraordinary renditions, Guantanamo Bay, and extra-judicial assassination policies have fallen straight into Doctor Death’s embrace. They have conceded the one great advantage they once had. They have trashed America’s reputation for being legalistic and having moral integrity. They are no longer a beacon of justice and due process, an example to the world full of dictators and bigots, showing how things should be done. They have followed the lead of second rate dramatists writing for the Stallones, Seagals and Schwarzeneggers. They have cut corners to get a quick, clean, violent solution, assuming that their violence is qualitatively better than the violence of others because they have white hats on, and are goodies. Why are they the goodies? Well, of course, because they are Americans, and have the scriptwriter on their side.

Laozi and Sunzi would recognise that this is not a shooting war but a moral war. It is the kind of war that will not be won on the battlefield but in reputation. Laozi and Sunzi would be happy with this conflict because they always preferred to win a war without having to fight. You have to box clever, especially against an intimate who knows just how to wind you up and does it with stunning theatricality – airliners! into skyscrapers! on TV! in New York! It shocked us to the core, it really did. The naughtiest thing I’ve ever seen.

Watching two films this week I sat through many American torture scenes. Rendition (with Meryl Streep as the villain) and Zero Dark Thirty (a CIA heroine hunts for Usama Bin Laden) showed bluff handsome Americans who regretfully had to shoulder the burden of torturing their enemies – they were not like the Nazi torturers I have seen on film, oh no! not at all!

It would indeed be better, I concluded, that terrorists should blow up people in my city, or blow a plane out of the sky, than that we should stoop to torture in order to forestall them. “One life!” I hear you cry. “It is worth it if one life is saved.” Life, you will intone, is a value beyond all calculation. I have two answers to that. The first is, why don’t you ban cars? They kill more than one person. Because you have made a calculation that the improvement in transport and communications is worth a certain amount of collateral damage, a few hundred lives. And the second answer is another calculation. If using torture, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, drone assassinations, and bellicose rhetoric about evil create tens of thousands more recruits to the extremist cause, and prolong the conflict, and spread it to many other territories, and kill more and more people in the long run, you will not have saved lives but lost them by forestalling one atrocity against an airliner. Worse than that, you will find yourself with no moral authority with which to put the world back together when the dust settles. The only point of being outraged at terrorists is to show that the better way to be is to keep to the law. To respect superior, enlightened, civilised principles. Naughty boys will test your resolve to the limit. That is what they are for.

Let terrorists take responsibility for their crimes. We should mourn the victims but not ever indulge in disgusting violence against people unable to defend themselves, for whom we are responsible when they are in our custody.

Laozi writes (in the excellent translation of Addiss and Lombardo): “… the good person is the bad person’s teacher, and the bad person is the good person’s resource. Not to value the teacher, not to love the resource, causes great confusion even for the intelligent. This is called the vital secret.”