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  • Davide Barbarino

The politcs of the unpolitical: reading Herbert Read

Updated: Sep 10, 2019


The politics of the unpolitical—these are the politics of those who desire to be pure in heart: the politics of men without personal ambition; of those who have not desired wealth or an unequal share of worldly possessions; of those who have always striven, whatever their race or condition, for human values and not for national or sectional interests.


The plain fact about democracy is that it is a physical impossibility. In an aggregation of millions of individuals such as we always have in modern society, we may get government of the people and even government for the people, but never for a moment government by the people. But that is the essential test, for if a people does not govern itself, it is governed by somebody else; ipso facto it is no longer a democracy. This is not merely a logical quibble: democracy never has in fact existed in modern times.


In our own time a new oligarchy, the oligarchy of the trade unions, as exclusive a caste as ever aspired to power, has competed, luckily in vain, for the control of the state. It is now openly merging itself with the ascendant oligarchy of monopoly capitalism, to form what James Burnham has called “the managerial class”.


The political doctrine known as democracy has implied an important principle which, it were not systematically misinterpreted and misunderstood, would still justify us in using the word. This is the principle of equality—an ethical doctrine,even a religious dogma. The equality of man implies many things, but never its literal meaning. No one believes that all men are equal in capacity or talent: they are in fact outrageously diverse. But nevertheless, in Christian phraseology, they are all equal in the sight of God; and to affirm our common humanity is the first article of freedom. Whatever government we establish, whatever way of life we follow, all our faith is built on error unless we respect the rights of the person—that is to say, his right to be a person, a unique entity, “human left, from human free”.


The spiritual measure has been discarded, and mm is left to dangle in material scales; and for centuries the counter-weight has been a piece of silver. The only way in which democracy has been able to assess equality is in the terms of money, and it is the inability of the trade union movement, especially in Great Britain and Germany, to break away from this cash valuation of humanity which has, more than any other single factor, made the democratic working-class movement a futile diversion of revolutionary effort.


By what values a man shall be judged absolutely we will not discuss here, but socially, as a man among his fellow-men, he should be judged by his creative ability, by his power to add to the common stock of goods. The value of a man is the value of the art he practises—whether it is the art of healing or the art of making music, the art of road-mending or the art of cooking. We might place first of all the art of making children, because on that the continuance of the human race depends. Procreation is perhaps the only art which is literally creative: the rest of the arts are merely inventive.


Decentralization is also of the essence of this alternative to democracy. “Real politics are local politics”,and power and authority should be devolved and segmented to the utmost limit of practicability. Only in such a way can the person every person in society—be assured of an adequate sense of responsibility and human dignity. These qualities for the average person only emerge in his actual sphere of work and in his regional environment.


The trend to centralization is a disease of democracy, and not, as is so often assumed, of the machine. It arises inevitably from the concentration of power in parliament, from the separation made between responsibility and creative activity, from the massing of production for greater profits and higher wages. The evolution of democracy is parallel to the growth of centralization, and centralization is in no sense an inevitable process. The centralization of control in a democratic state is clumsy, inhuman and inert.


The health and happiness of society depend on the labour and science of its members but neither health nor happiness; is possible unless that work and science are directed and controlled by the workers themselves. A guild is by definition autonomous and self-governing. Every man who is a master of his craft acquires thereby the right to a voice in the direction of his workshop. The talents and acquired skill of a person are his property: his contribution to the common wealth. The human values involved, and not an abstract and numerical profit, will be the criterion.


Education, in such a society, is initiation. It is the revelation of innate capacities, the training of these capacities in socially useful activities, the disciplining of these activities to aesthetic and moral ends.


Such a natural organization of society leaves little activity to the state as such. The state remains merely as the arbiter, to decide in the interests of the whole the conflicts which emerge in the parts. Such a function is already exercised by an independent judiciary, which might well extend its functions to cover the rights of the citizen as consumer. An Economic Council, constituted by much the same means as the Bench, would be necessary to safeguard society as a whole against a policy of restrictionism in any particular guild, to direct the general volume of production and to maintain a balanced output among its tributary guilds. It is difficult to see the necessity for any other central authority.


To be unpolitical does not mean to be without politics; every attitude that is more than egoistic is to that extent social, and a social attitude is a political attitude. But it is one thing to have politics, and another thing to pursue them. It is one thing to have a faith, and another thing to trade on the credulity of the faithful. It is not the substance of politics we should object to, but the methods of the politician. We should refuse to invest our private interests in a public policy, for we know that what cannot be won by a change of heart, which is also, a revolution of reason, is only won by cheats and impostors.


Let me summarize the essential features of a natural society:


I. The liberty of the person.

II. The integrity of the family.

III. The reward of qualifications.


IV. The self-government of the guilds.

V. The abolition of parliament and centralized government.

VI. The institution of arbitrament.

VII. The delegation of authority.

VIII. The humanization of industry.


The social order thus envisaged is international because it is essentially pacific: it is pacific because it is essentially international. It aims at the production of world-wide plenty, at the humanization of work, and at the eradication of all economic conflicts.


The world is waiting for a new faith—especially the youth of the world is waiting for a new faith. The old institutions, the old parties, are dead at the roots; they receive no refresh- ment. The young men and women stand apart, indifferent, inactive. But do not let us mistake their indifference for apathy, their inactivity for laziness. Intellectually, they are very wide awake. But they have rejected our abstract slogans and the hollow institutions in which old men gibber about freedom, democracy and culture. They don’t want freedom if it means the freedom to exploit their fellow-men; they don’t want democracy if it means the ridiculous bagmen of Westminster; they don’t want culture if it means the intellectual dope of our academies and universities. They want to get rid of the profiteers and the advertising men, the petty tyrannical bureaucrats and the screaming journalists, the clubmen and the still too numerous flock of rentiers for ever cackling over their threatened nest-eggs. They want a world that is morally clean and socially just, naturally productive and aesthetically beautiful. And they know they won’t get it from any of the existing parties from any of the existing political systems. They hate fascism, they recoil from communism, and they despise democracy. They are groping towards a new faith, a new order, a new world. They are not a party and never will be a party: they have no name and will perhaps never have a name. But they will act, and onto the ruins of war they will cast the tarnished baubles and stale furnishings of those parliaments which brought death and despair to two successive generations of young men.

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