We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Thinking outside the box

I am not a great fan of Max Hastings but he does have a rather good article in the Guardian that makes points which should be obvious to everyone except state apparatchiks. He decries educational utilitarianism and Labour’s lack of realism about the dominance of western culture and the relevance of British history in view of that undeniable dominance.

However I think he rather misses the point that this attitude has been a significant element for quite some time under governments of both parties. Perhaps what makes this government more alarming is their taste for depreciating any sense of cultural identity for English people and, most importantly, failing to provide any historical context for the modern world. To have a broad grasp of history is to have an understanding of the present and future possibilities and it would appear that is not seen as helpful for the broad masses of people who the state would rather see concentrate on mere technical skills.

I wonder if there are some in Whitehall who really do think that ideally as few British people as possible should know there was not always a socialist ‘National Health Service’? If people do not know of a past without something they are perhaps less likely to imagine a future without it either. Perhaps none would really see things in quite such totalitarian terms yet it is not hard to see the attraction of such a view if you do not want people even discussing things which might reduce your power and influence by questioning certain axioms.

It is often my experience that the very notion that most regulatory planning is a quite modern imposition strikes a lot of people as bizarre. They think that without politically driven planning, everything would be chaos, and that must always have been true, right? Yet before the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which was the single most destructive abridgement of British liberty ever, people owned property with several rights that are unimaginable today. Civilization would not end if such conditions prevailed again tomorrow (far from it) yet the meta-contextual reality is that in 2005, most people quite literally cannot imagine a world without planning regulations and that makes it rather hard to have a discussion about the issue if you take a radical perspective (i.e. the mainstream perspective of about one hundred years ago).

Perhaps just as Orwell wrote about ‘newspeak’ and posited a totalitarian state which wanted to abridge the language to make even conceiving of dissent impossible, there may be some amongst the political class who like the idea of most people receiving nothing more than technical training as the less people know of radically different world views that are never the less relevant to western culture, the less likely they are to imagine society functioning just fine without a great many of the state institutions taken for granted today. What would happen if people start imagining a world which works just fine without much of the regulatory statism that the state wants you to accept as inevitable and natural?

Creating a non-statist meta-context in which such things can even be discussed is something I have often banged on about. By this I mean establishing frames of reference within which one develops and expresses opinions that are broader than those generally found in the mainstream media or academia today. This matters because the meta-context within which most discussions and analysis take place tends to define the basic range of views that are likely to emerge: for example, if the only method for effecting changes people can imagine involves force backed democratic political processes, their views will tend to develop with that underpinning assumption in mind.

I would be curious to know if people like education minister Charles Clarke really think about that sort of thing. I am quite willing to believe that rather than an sinister overarching world view designed to make us all technically trained drones monitored with panoptic surveillance and ubiquitous state enforced database monitoring, we are just seeing the results of dreary political hacks looking for ways to eliminate things they are too limited to see a use for themselves. Stupidity rather than malevolence is generally a more reliable explanation of wickedness than conspiracy theories… and yet when you take the broader view of this apparent dislike of non-technical education within the context of widespread abridgement of civil liberties by both main political parties, well, it makes you wonder.

22 comments to Thinking outside the box

  • Julian Morrison

    The good news is, this ignorance is likely to go away. For which we’re more likely to have Wikipedia to thank, than the government schools.

    You know, it strikes me as an interesting question: at what point are the state schools going to be faced with the fact that they aren’t the main source of education anymore – that kids are in effect home-schooled online whether they go to state school or not? I think it won’t be very long. Any kid who wants to revise or crib probably uses Wiki already. Could government dominance in schools be ended, not by a libertarian revolution, but by school’s obsolescence?

  • sanborn

    “Could government dominance in schools be ended, not by a libertarian revolution, but by school’s obsolescence?”


    The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School provides a free and appropriate course of study to the children of Pennsylvania families using high-quality, accredited courses of study, certified teachers, and state-of-the-art technology. PA Cyber has established the highest standards of student achievement and educational standards using both technology and regular contact among students, parents and staff.


  • guy herbert

    I’m sure you are right about the NHS, too. There are quite frequently ‘celebrations’ of its founding and its founders, but all without mentioning what went before.

    There may have been some disadvantages to the old patchwork of charitable and private provision, but its very existence seems to have been forgotten–which avoids having to discuss whether those disadvantages were really that great. The NHS is plainly much better than nothing, so let’s imagine no medicine for anyone but the rich before it… Bart’s has no history in the public mind between good jester Rahere and evil joker Nye Bevan.

    It is not just history but geography that is tastefully airbrushed. There may be other socialised models which are becoming harder for the public to remain ignorant of in a world of cheap travel, but Whitehall itself contrives to ignore them. Comparison is always with the worst bits (never the good, or the average–how strange…) of the US.

  • Whilst I agree that forgetting our past leads to a false image of what has gone before and an equally false understanding of the present, I’m not sure that returning to the what are often unjustly thought of as the “Golden Years” is really what is needed. Back to the workhouses hmmm?

    And I tended to agree with comments on our history by George Monbiot – http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1673991,00.html

  • guy herbert

    There is something to be said for workhouses, actually. But few people here imagine a Golden Age in the past: the point of rationalism is not to throw away good ideas because they are old, or dismiss them because you don’t like the people who thought of them.

    A desire to learn from history doesn’t, however, sit well with Monbiot’s view of history, as demonstrated in that piece. It’s perfectly reasonable, and valuable, to point out our ignorance of selected Imperial atrocities. We ought to know the British Empire was often cruel, precisely in order to avoid Golden Age nonsense.

    But Monbiot’s use of those facts is to imply that somehow the present British government, which for all its sins doesn’t censor historians, ought to be estopped from criticising the Turkish ban on mentioning the Armenian holocaust, merely because its predecessors suppressed information about their murderous doings. Monbiot’s view of history in a nutshell is: however bad the things people do in other parts of the world, the West was/is worse, and can probably be held responsible for everybody else’s faults as well. You could call this the inverted imperialist vision.

    In the face of this sort of tripe, I prefer what would otherwise be trite generalisation: all people are capable of good and bad; all human institutions are conceived with positive intentions, but frequently those intentions are mistaken, and in other cases they go wrong; the people involved may do appalling things with or without the encouragement of the institutions. History at least instructs us what to look out for.

  • Derek Buxton

    Excellent article, I am old enough to remember the war years and the downward drift afterwards. To us education was an end in itself, it enabled us to move on. The old system of health provision served my parents and me well, even with a war on. I now watch with horror the so called education my grand-daughter is getting.

  • I’m not sure that returning to the what are often unjustly thought of as the “Golden Years” is really what is needed

    And who was suggesting that?

  • Rick Sund

    Bloody EXCELLENT article. I had never really though in terms of what you call meta-context and the mention in the sidebar (“We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future”) sort of just kind of washed over me, but now I finally “get it”.

    But I think you are too unwilling to attribute malevolence to what motivates these control freaky fuckers. I think just to be a politician is evidence of malevolence and metal disorder (a need to control others).

  • andrew duffin

    “…the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which was the single most destructive abridgement of British liberty ever…”

    I think maybe, that “ever” should be replaced by “so far”.

    I fear that we have not reached rock bottom yet.

  • Stupidity, when cultivated, becomes indistinguishable from malevolence and leads inexorably to wickedness. The Cambodian experience in the ’70s is one horrific example.

  • Luniversal

    Piffle and persiflage, Perry. The reason people don’t buy half-baked fantasies anout ‘individuals’ and their ‘freedom’ is because they’re half-baked fantasies, not because nobody can imagine anything but the status quo.

    Most folks under 40 find it impossible to conceive of a Britain with one monopoly broadcaster and telephone provider, but so it was for decades. And yet it changed. And maybe one day it’ll change back. Who gives a stuff, when you come down to it, but a few wonks and fetishists?

    Everything changes in the end– usually without much prodding from hermetic ideologues and when people least expect it. Everything changes, and nothing and nobody is ever much better or worse for it. We remain as stupid, ugly, ignorant and violent as ever, and we kid outselves that we have ‘progressed’. As the Red Queen said: ‘It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place.’ Some of us stop running and turn gratefully back to those backward, benighted barbarians Bach, Shakespeare and Plato. Somehow the call to rally round the social individualist meta-context doesn’t make our blood race any more. We’d rather find a corner of the wicked, fallen non-libertarian world and make ourselves cosy.

    Great takedown of the Wicked Witch of the West here:


  • bierce

    “…the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which was the single most destructive abridgement of British liberty ever…”

    I regard the enclosures acts in the 18th Century to be the most destructive abridement of British liberty.

    Undertaken by tories, I believe. With strong unions and a Labour Party it wouldn’t have happened.

  • Old Jack Tar

    The reason people don’t buy half-baked fantasies anout ‘individuals’ and their ‘freedom’ is because they’re half-baked fantasies

    Truly Luniversal is an idiot, but then no one really needs me to point out the obvious. It is activists and commentators who challenge received wisdoms which poke and prod things into happening whilst worthless chattering fools like him make flatulent noises in the background.

  • Julian Morrison

    Luniversal is, of course, not an individual and unfree, and therefore collectively said that because they were made to.

  • anonymous coward


    That is a very interesting thought at the end that Britain is suffering not so much from politicians who draw the drapes and study their Gramsci by night as by politicians who are simply trying to arrange things most conveniently for themselves. In the US the politicians are not so much trying to abridge civil liberties by their gerrymandering as simply trying to make elections more reliable and convenient for themselves.


    In the US we have long seen that pupils are not really learning very much in the schools; they are learning many more things at home, provided the parents take the trouble to talk to the children. (Of course, some parents merely give golden lessons by examples in sloth and vice). What children learn at home is more important than the pittance they are taught at school. It was painful to see my children shuffle through school with little efforts and high marks, partly from how little was taught in school, and partly from the plenty they learned at home.

    When all is said and done, there is no one to be Westerners but ourselves (and those who choose to subscribe to Western values), so we might as well make a good job of it.

  • RAB

    In 1870, when the Education act was passed that basically nationalised education, the adult literacy level was 97%
    What do you think it is now? I’ve no idea, but I’d guess around 76% some improvement eh?
    Two world wars coupled with the rise of Communist/socialist ideas, encouraged the winning govts that as they had just fought and won a total war, they could equally manage a total peace.
    Hence in Britain they nationalised everything in sight, and we damn near went bust until Maggie came along.
    Education and the health service are the last citadels of the left, not to be re-privatised.
    Let’s prise them from their little cold dead leftie fingers.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    bierce, enclosure started under Henry V111 and his mass-looting of the abbeys, so I am not quite sure it originated as a Tory measure. In any event, let us not romanticise an English past full of commonly-owned land and happy peasants. That is the sort of quasi-Marxist version of Brit. history that no longer carries much credibility.

  • Julian,

    A friend of mine moved from clerical work to high paid computer programmer in his spare time over a few months, using a PC, books and help on forums. He passed his exams in the Java language.

    No degree, no 5-figure debt to pay for. I’m starting to question the value of a university education if you want to write software (unless you want to do something like work for Pixar or Intel).

  • Daveon

    I’m starting to question the value of a university education if you want to write software (unless you want to do something like work for Pixar or Intel).

    If all you want to do is write software then you’ll perhaps be ok with some native talent and quick study. If you get bored of cutting code then you’ll be in real trouble.

    I’ve a few friends who moved straight into developer jobs pretty much from school and were doing a lot better than the rest of us for years. The problems start to stack up when you are meant to hit your peak earning potential in your mid 30s onwards. That’s when the degree can come in handy.

    Admitidly, I am thinking of a sample of people who all finished schools in the 80s, so this might not translate. However, I’d not have my job without a degree. The problem I’m starting to encounter now is the next steps I want to take if I stay in the corporate world want me to get an MBA which is a whole other dollop of debt.

  • 1skeptic

    RAB, please could you provide a source for this, thanks;

    “In 1870, when the Education act was passed that basically nationalised education, the adult literacy level was 97%”

  • RAB

    Iskeptic, sorry I can’t.
    I read or heard that a while back. It was being stated as fact, but the thought crossed my mind “How did they know?” There were no polls taken and given that there wasn’t any goverment contol and reportage before this point in time.
    But I believe it.
    See my great grandfather was a headmaster of a school in Caerphilly in the 1860’s. It was fee paying, a penny a day or something. Talk about comprehensive! there were full grown adults and small children in the same class, all trying to gain mastery of the three R’s.
    Those who were too poor to pay didn’t. That was down to the discression of G-Gramp, but he usually got it right. We still have the record books.
    The point I was trying to make is that you value something more when you directly pay for it, rather than having it shovelled down your throat for free via taxation, and with a political agenda to let you know only what THEY want you to know.

  • Daveon

    I’ve done a quick googling and they seem to have based it assumptions taken from the reading population. Sounds like it was “guesstimated” statistic but probably not far from the truth when it comes to a basic grasp of literacy.

    Like most things, it’s all a lot more complicated than that.