On the Counterfactual in the Ethics of History

Mekong slalom[1].

[1] The argument goes or it tends to go it’s okay to have killed so many people because had we not done more would have died.
                This is a utilitarian argument.
                It can apply to Germany, Iraq, Japan.
                In some cases it relies on good scholarship.
                And always a counterfactual.
                One philosophical problem is if you accept the terms, you can equally say, had we not ignored early intelligence, and bent all our resources on stopping the Final Solution, we could have saved millions. Therefore, certain acts we undertook instead are unjustifiable.
                Had we rather invaded Congo than Iraq, etc.
                Had we not done.
                Consider this: I have to kill you, because if I don’t, two others will die. What’s my evidence? Why, scholarship derived from primary sources.
                When you tell a story from written evidence to show that had we not invaded Iraq more in the long run would have died than are now dead, you are weighing hundreds of thousands of lives, each as vivid as your own, against that story. Is this ethical?
                Even tentative words like ‘right’ and ‘justifiable’?
                The ethics of history compels us to reconstruct the mental states of historical actors. How well do you know your current mental state?
                It’s probably wrong to argue from, This choice was justified, to, This event or act is justified.
                How far ahead — and with what accuracy — can you predict the future?
                Proposition: You can never be certain enough about what might have been to cite your speculation about such in justification of killing.
 So why even make a ruminative attempt?
                Had they not bombed Nagasaki and me and my family, two hundred thousand more Americans and Japanese would eventually have died. And next week five Americans and a hundred Iraqis will die in Iraq.
I was glad until, a week after I wrote that, I watched the news.
                I was roughly right about the fatalities, but it turns out the Americans and some Iraqis died in battle. Had the Americans’ commander only paid his informants more, he would have known about the bombing of a Shia school, and sent his troops there.
                Had I not checked the news, I would be glad.



Whether the British ruling class are wicked or merely stupid is one of the most difficult questions of our time, and at certain moments a very important question.—George Orwell

David Cameron has always had a suspicious gloss to him. His confidence has hardly been sponsored by a dream of a country reordered along conservative lines, or even any mastery of policy; it is a product of the practised artifice of a cynic. Observing him do his routine, you feel that he is truest to whatever proportion of his performing self survives in private when circumstance calls on him to show anger, and he can combine a mood of righteousness with a tone of principled reprimand. 

Cameron has at PMQs typically told scripted gags with a careful spontaneity. But, engaging Mr Miliband for the eighth time three weeks ago, he looked brittle. Miliband needed only to stand opposite him: there is something about the highest rate of unemployment in six months and the fact that this autumn’s ‘recovery’ saw 35 000 more people out of work that makes a Prime Minister’s panicked willingness to play it for laughs—he said, ‘The Rt Hon. Gentleman wants to talk pantomime. I am afraid it will not be long before he is thinking, “Look behind you!”’—seem unworthy of the office. 

‘Responsibility’, like ‘individualism’, is a load-bearing word for conservatives. Like ‘the national interest’, too, it is a load-bearing word for the coalition, and can probably attributed to the Conservative majority, since it was Cameron who made a refrain of it on the hustings. Thanks to a minor paradox of its usage, this word is, of all those on the Tory playlist, uniquely liable to foster hypocrisy. Insofar as one talks about other people’s responsibility, one makes oneself responsible—to those people—for grounding one’s talk in moral reasoning: it is irresponsible to call someone irresponsible without good justification. Indeed, politicians who are independently irresponsible and put talk of responsibility to rhetorical use risk a fourfold transgression: a double hypocrisy in their being guilty themselves of what they criticise in others, and in criticising it hypocritically, which is irresponsible; and a double irresponsibility, one—this belying their rhetoric—to society, and a second to society's citizens for that hypocrisy. I want to show that David Cameron is doubly hypocritical and doubly irresponsible in just this way. 

The figures released in December should take no one but ideologues by surprise. If you sack people in a recession, unemployment goes up; if you jeopardise growth, so may spending on welfare. Few on the right reject this logic, even while many reject the claim that demand goes down as sacked workers lose their incomes. But there’s something about the issue of growth—this is the upshot of a worried column by Philip Stephens—which provokes Conservatives to ditch the logic entirely. It is strange—and not least because conservatives have in modern rhetoric been concerned to appropriate the phrase ‘common sense’. What’s the view of your common sense on whether, if the government cuts spending when demand is already low, after the harshest recession since the ’30s, the economy is likely to grow or contract as a result? 

People’s answers to this question do diverge. Manifesting the ordinary fallibility of human beings, they seem to depend first on prior allegiances in politics, not expertise (if, lacking expertise, I trust in this or that economist, is it because they render my intuitions back to me with a professional’s imprimatur?). What we must not pretend is that anyone has an answer on which they can act with unqualified certainty; and if we try to imagine ourselves acting on the basis of such imperfect knowledge, the essence of Cameron’s irresponsibility is exposed. He has made and endorsed policy as though it were obvious that the balance of evidence and expertise was on austerity’s side, not on that of the sceptics of austerity. 

In the extremity of his commitment to a single dogma, whose implications for governance stand unmodified by dialogue with a more than actuarial sense of their impact, Cameron has put the country and the coalition in the way of a frightening quantity of what financiers call downside risk. I can identify two not wholly distinguishable explanations for his apparent mishandling of the interests of polity and party. In one view, Cameron is an oblivious priest of Thatcherite ideology whose native bias leaves him all the more susceptible to Cable’s ‘fundamentalists’ at the Treasury, and whose ambition may well embrace the exploitation of hard economic times to repeal social democracy for good in Britain. Signs to this effect emanate from Nicholas Boles with his ‘Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing’; perhaps the guiding idea is that of an asceticism of responsibility, where it is responsible for government to reduce its responsibilities to the bottom limit of responsibility for itself, and for individuals to remake themselves in this image, so that everybody’s relationships of responsibility are pared back to what was always already basic, while we are denied the benefit and the release of using responsibilities for others to take responsibility for ourselves. 

I said ‘not wholly distinguishable explanations’ because the second account of the coalition’s choices rests on the prejudices of the economic right wing, and the reader’s opinion of these prejudices’ soundness will determine whether she accepts it as a rationalisation for the ideological programme that licenses the coalition’s irresponsible rigidity. In another view, then, the coalition reacted to the urgency of the situation in play when it took power—to the spectre of British default behind a misgiving bond market—with laudable pragmatism, going all-in on the only policy which it could have confidence would sustain our reputation, which was to cut spending enough to pay for the bailouts even as the forces of recession lowered revenue, and to broadcast at the same time a convincing hostility to compromise for the benefit of flaky bondholders. (Signs to this effect emanate from George Osborne, whom Alex Massie catches in the role of realist contra Reaganism: ‘it is a complete mirage to cut taxes one year, then have to borrow the money and put up the taxes later to have to pay for that borrowing’ are scarcely the words of a fanatic, unless one whose attention is trained exclusively on the deficit for now.) The left in any case need only observe that the coalition has addressed the uncertainties of the bond market by downplaying a more essential uncertainty: the question whether it is easier to reduce the deficit in a context of growth and rising revenues which a government has applied all its policy wherewithal in the cause of encouraging than to do that with cuts, when cuts would withdraw a crucial source of demand from the economy just as it was coming round, and consecrate bondholders’ animal terrors in a concession that merely defers the fate it courts—which is the Irish fate. Is not moreover the bond market so capricious as to underwrite the divination of a host of futures, and aren’t the necessities inferred from its movements malleable ones—whatever it prescribes being the most necessary when it is the most useful, as in Clegg’s excuses for his role in maiming comprehensively Britain’s culture of higher education?

All which complications imply that in thinking about the extent of Cameron’s irresponsibility the right distinction is not between ideology and pragmatism (or opportunism, its delinquent relative), because pragmatism can be variously ideological, but between ideology and strategy, because the moral difference is manifest: strategy, ideological or not, knows its own strength, where ideology doesn’t. Which of the possible stories about the coalition you give credence to—and which moral criteria you judge it by—will depend on guesses about facts that are available now only as rumours and (as such) more than usually in need of informed interpretation. What for example is Cameron’s operating assessment of the durability of the coalition? If we knew him to think it capable of withstanding two or three years of weak growth, we would be much better equipped to picture his intentions. What, apart from deficit reduction, does he believe the four-year outcome of ‘austerity’ economics will be? Going to the country in 2015 or whenever, does he expect fiscal solvency and passable growth, a nifty leg-up from the Bank of England or even expect to have the record of a Thatcherite saviour; and does he expect his liberal partners to suffer disproportionately at the polls for the coalition’s missteps? 

Two journalists whom we would be justified in turning to for rumours and interpretation, Andrew Rawnsley and John Rentoul, offer views of the Cameron doctrine which at first seem irreconcilable. Rentoul, who doesn’t have sources like Rawnsley, praises the Prime Minister’s ‘ideological flexibility’, arguing that ‘his convictions are adaptable’. But Rawnsley writes of the Maoist ‘radicalism of this government’. Quoting two cabinet Tories on the government’s ‘reforming zeal’, he nails an ideal juxtaposition:

One Conservative member of the cabinet says: “The state of the public finances has forced us to be more radical.” Another Tory cabinet minister offers a differently nuanced explanation: “It has been politically easier to argue for reform – it gave us an excuse, if you like.”

Perhaps the second gives away the method of the first. The image of a flexible zealot shaking hands with the Queen somewhat suggests that one of these commentators is asleep at the wheel. More illuminating, though, is where they overlap. Note the word in common: ‘Cameron's chairman-like style of managing the cabinet’ (Rawnsley); ‘he has shown a sure touch, appearing to be the chairman of a collegiate government’ (Rentoul). Cameron’s signature idea—that ingenuity prospers where authority abdicates its charges—they find embodied in his personal style. (Could such consistency be a good omen?) If it has been applied in cabinet, this adaptable touch would seem only to have facilitated the radicalism of the rightwingers Cameron is surrounded by; if he has been flexible, he has bent with their pressure, empowering their ideology all the same. Applied in government, this idea would entail—for example in tax policy—that the state should redistribute less to the poor through the tax system because it will be good for them, and in irremediable cases that volunteers will compensate. And applied in his government’s plans, this kind of Cameronism ends up demanding management from Whitehall as interventionist as any ukase launched from the Blair sofa. For what does budgetary retrenchment made in the name either of the Big Society or of deficit emergency amount to but the active stamping-out of thriving endeavour? It doesn’t simply mean a few sensitive types from the shires denied the Bohemian possibility, but the termination of ways of life. If big government makes itself scarce to await an unexampled boom in child literacy, and child literacy falls, the government is implicated in radicalism of a negative kind. If in the wake of a historically inordinate contraction the government cuts spending to a historically inordinate degree and growth stalls, the government is guilty of a regressive radicalism and its leader has disregarded his responsibility not to permit that in uncertain times. Flexible in one direction, Cameron’s stewardship of the coalition to a new decade has promised to vindicate left suspicions about a cannily restyled but corporeally unregenerate Conservative party, proceeding as it has with the force but without the form of zeal. 

We sense that, were he a strategist who knew his own strength, Cameron’s irresponsibility would be more reprehensible than that of an ideologue who did not. Intentions count, we sense, and the intentions of an ideologue, lost to illusion, are uselessly good. The intention of a strategist, however, is reducible to the nihilism of the supremacy of his group. An ideologue may be dangerous and need containment, and may certainly be manipulated by strategists, but strategy is always inauspicious, because the strategist is willing to shirk any responsibilities in quest of his and his side’s furtherance. It’s too early in the coalition’s life to characterise a judgement on this matter as definitive. 

But what if even this distinction is insufficient, and Cameron—a strategist for Tory rule and the power of the party’s favourites—turns out to be an ideologue de facto? This is possible if the aims that are implicit in Tory behaviour as the majority partner in the coalition align with an intelligible set of Tory beliefs. For lack of a stable supply of rumour and interpretation, it is prudent only to say that Tory aims demonstrate a striking minimalism: they want to extricate the Bullingdon class from fiscal involvement with the poor, unless to rob them. It’s fortunate, but this aim does align with an intelligible set of Tory beliefs, or rather one belief, which is the belief in the necessity of extricating the Bullingdon class from fiscal involvement with the poor, unless to rob them

An effective test of whether Cameron is an ideologue or a strategist would be to see if he can waive beliefs which frustrate his strategy. Yet I would argue that in view of the social homogeneity of the Tory leadership—one fact about it that is conspicuous—it’s possible that their strategy is their governing belief: insofar as they serve it, they are engaged in effecting the corollaries of a fuller ideology, but the strategy to work in the interests of the Bullingdon class is self-sufficient and needs nothing more from ideology than a notion of its virtue. That air of ideological passion many have detected could well be unwitting, then, provided that Bullingdon ascendancy is the top Tories’ raison d’être; in this case the salient question is how far Bullingdon conflicts with political self-interest. Here speculation comes to an end: if the results for the country are grievous, the interiors of a few monied souls cannot, I think, be our first recourse for evidence of their malignity. 

As for Labour: if it had the courage of Ed Balls’ convictions, Labour would be milking Cameron’s misestimation of the importance of growth. If Labour read their Krugman—as they should, given he is all in all the best commentator on the anglophone left—they will count the belief that cutting spending should touch off growth as an inherent weakness of the coalition—count in so risky, indeed, that its possibly a bluff. Even Ruth Lea of the Arbuthnot Banking Group, herself deliverer of this unignorable opinion, ‘Dangerously, the City is being pilloried, just when we should be nurturing it’, predicts that ‘for the next four years […] the private sector will have to be the sole deliverer of growth.’ It’s telling that, mere paragraphs before, she writes: ‘Providing the economy continues to grow, [public sector job] losses should be made up by new openings in the private sector, though this cannot be guaranteed.’ If the private sector is the sole deliverer both of openings and of growth, and growth is a necessary condition for openings (though it cannot be guaranteed), coalition MPs had better hope that growth isn’t at the mercy of anything so trivial as jumps in unemployment. Neoliberals—even neoliberals—say Good luck with that

From the Guardian article reporting the 7.9% unemployment rate: ‘“Anyone who thinks the private sector can take up the slack from the public sector is out of touch with what's happening on the ground,” [insolvency practitioner] Birne said.’ And from Philip Stephens, retailing ‘the government’s answer’ to low growth: ‘exports and investment will do the trick. The very radicalism of its planned fiscal retrenchment will persuade business that better times are around the corner.’ 

Cameron must know that, before they show a flicker of success, his policies will bring challenges. (If he didn’t, the December protests were an education.) But according to doctrine Labour should credit, they will bring only challenge after challenge; and Cameron is as likely to be unready for this as he is to have overrated the policies’ hopes of success. With a state of affairs so favourable to its reinstatement, Labour has been nerveless in opposition, and proved a redundant tribune of popular discontent. It is true that the modern party contains many of the talents who neglected to conserve boom surpluses in advance of the bust, but the Republicans have just shown that a party can overcome far graver sins off the back of an economy which incumbents are failing to revive, and if Labour was irresponsible in its omission, I have argued that for enacting vicious contractionary measures with a recession so recently in the past, Cameron’s is the irresponsibility to stop the show. Should Miliband’s Labour choose to stare at the floor until the coalition finally succumbs to path-dependency, groupthink, macroeconomics (contemporary words for ancient things), they will visit upon my generation the disappointment familiar to people of the soft left throughout time and space, that the signal merit of their party is its distinction from the one with the fruitcakes in it. Inhabitants, as we are, of what Geoffrey Hill (quoting Henry Adams) calls a ‘banker’s Olympus’,  we must prepare to learn that even the established left wing abases itself before the gods of graft. December’s turmoil, though, suggest this won’t matter much: before any élite can make victims of them, enough in British society will have declined to model themselves on Samantha Cameron, wilting against her responsible husband with the peaceable femininity of a chattel, and will resist, and should.