hope that this post finds you all well and enjoying the summer. For anyone with a passion for kayaking, the rainy weather is not too unwelcome. Every cloud has a silver lining!
Things are busy here. As well as all of the river courses, I am currently teaching kids at the Salmon Leap Canoe Club in Leixlip. It’s great to work with young people again. They are often far wiser and infinitely more insightful than most of us “grown-ups”! So influenced by the wisdom of children, a few things in the media over the past few months and the writings of poets, historians, philosophers and chancers, I have written a little passage which I have included below. If you have the time and the interest have a look and feel free to drop any feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org (so long as you don’t want to call me a moran in which case you send any feedback to one of my competitors!!!). Any day now I will start writing about sweep strokes and buoyancy aids!!!
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains…”
Writing in the Irish Times a few weeks ago Vincent Browne alluded to the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The article was largely a discussion about sovereignty set against our current economic situation. Rousseau intimated that man is born free but that this freedom is repressed by the constructs of the society into which he is born. The Oxford English Dictionary defines sovereignty as “the authority of a state to govern itself or another state” and “a self-governing state”. The same dictionary defines state as “a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government”. Rousseau described the sovereign and the government as separate entities with the former determining the collective will for the good of all and the latter enforcing it. The sovereign must be comprised of the whole population. Without total populace inclusion sovereignty could not be achieved.
Notions of sovereignty have varied through the ages and from philosopher to philosopher but the Wikipedia definition identifies something common throughout;
In theoretical terms, the idea of “sovereignty”, historically, from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes, has always necessitated a moral imperative on the entity exercising it.
For centuries past, the idea that a state could be sovereign was always connected to its ability to guarantee the best interests of its own citizens. Thus, if a state could not act in the best interests of its own citizens, it could not be thought of as a “sovereign” state.
So we have the moral imperative as highlighted by Rousseau and many other political thinkers and philosophers and summarised above by Wikipedia and the collective imperative as highlighted by Rousseau (amongst others) and the OED since the idea of a nation as an organised political community governing itself suggests common interests, living in the same place or sharing (OED definition of community).
The word sovereignty appears quite regularly in our media, mostly in relation to our economic situation. From headlines of bailouts, bondholders and bankruptcy is generated fear and uncertainty. Mournful cries of we have lost, or we are losing our sovereignty ring out. Fear is in the air. Come back sovereignty. Don’t leave us in our hour of need. However it seems that we may fear the loss of something that we never actually had.
Perhaps what we actually had was the OED definition of sovereignty if the word nation were to be removed from the definition of state. Ie.an organised political community governing itself to serve its common interests.
Largely absent was the moral imperative, the inclusiveness and the driving force of the collective will to represent common interests. Although some social improvement did occur we were not a sovereign state.
So whilst we profess fear of loss of sovereignty, perhaps our fear is a more personal self-preservational fear which is exacerbated by a less then impartial media. Self-preservation is after all the main reason for our biochemical response to fear.
That is our nature. Perhaps what we fear is loss. Perhaps what we fear is change. As John McGahern said
“Who would want change since change will come without wanting?”.
Perhaps we fear a change to our circumstance, a change in how society is constructed that may affect our circumstance. A change to the way the world as we have known it works. Fear that change may result in loss to our pocket which ultimately might result in less freedom. Fear that we may end up with less. This fear keeps us in chains.
As a society we are guilty of over consumption. Materially speaking, we have so much because others have so little. The influence of the corporate in our daily lives is great. Our education system has been dramatically influenced by corporate demand. We have churned out the workers. We have taught ourselves to see success in terms of possessions. We have taught ourselves to have an insatiable hunger. We have taught ourselves to regurgitate and replicate. We are creating the supply and the demand of and for things we don’t need. Economically we can survive with less supply. Economically we can survive with less demand. It is a question of distribution. We have willingly conceded to homogenisation in matters of language, fashion, food and education but we are abhorred when this is extended to include economics. In Europe we are moving closer to a singular state. We are living without borders both physically and metaphorically. That is the reality.
As a post-colonial nation we have often defined ourselves in terms of what we are not. We are not “the other”. We are not the colonisers. Men and women have fought and died for an independent nation. Men and women have dedicated their lives according to a vision of how our nation ought to be. The same men and women are now being asked to imagine a different society. History has shown us that after revolution comes unrest, upheaval, civil war and finally a struggle to forge a national identity. In recent years part of our national identity was based upon our thriving economy as well as our separateness from the old colonisers. As we relinquish some control of our economic affairs to the ECB, the foundations upon which we have forged our national identity have crumbled. We are no longer wealthy and affluent. We are no longer separate from the other. That is a massive psychological blow to the national ego. It is a blow to our concept of who we are as individuals and as a nation. It can be extremely painful when our view of ourselves and our belief in who we are is challenged.
But let there be light. Perhaps like our sovereignty, our concept of national identity was built upon something that we never really had. Perhaps we were never strong and independent and perhaps our wealth was making some more equal than others and was poisoning us. During our years as a wealthy “successful” nation, the numbers living in the margins were great. Although there was much to applaud in terms of social improvement, there was much to be desired . “Success” as a destination was an illusory Nirvana. Having been educated to believe that money and material things were akin to success which was akin to happiness, our “successful” citizens were left bewildered by the emptiness of the destination while our “less successful” citizens struggled with a rapidly changing material society. Addictions, stress and poor mental health irreverently stretched across social strata regardless of material station.
While we were busy congratulating ourselves and celebrating our position as a strong independent nation, we were being colonised. Just like all of the most successful colonisations throughout history, we were willing participants and we barely even noticed it happening. It was an insidious colonisation and since there was no war or dramatic historic event to mark its beginnings, who knows when it started. We invited it in. We enticed it in. We educated ourselves for it. Corporate colonisation. The corporate now exceeds the national in terms of power. It is footloose with no fixed abode. It’s distribution of wealth is even more uneven. It’s governance is far more singular. This is one of the reasons for its success.
We have been instrumental in our own colonisation. As soon as we can recognise ourselves individually and collectively we can begin to change. Just as soon as we accept responsibility for our actions then we have the power to change them. If we can understand how we got here, we can understand how to move on. We have been holding ourselves back or focusing our attention in the wrong places. The key to our chains is in our pockets. It has been there all the time. Our voices count. Our voices matter. Together we are the sovereign. When will we say that we have enough? That we have had enough? The only place to start is with ourselves. This is both the simplest and the most difficult thing to do .
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754
The more cohesive we are in terms of government, the closer we get to sovereignty. Singularity of government is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a question of management. Our resources are finite. We will not survive alone. That is the reality.
Rousseau suggested that some states were too large to achieve Sovereignty. However, Rousseau did not live in an age where information and ideas could be shared instantaneously. We are living through an age of technological revolution. The development of the internet means that physical borders are not as relevant as they once were. Practically speaking the sovereign could communicate and voice the common will with relative ease when compared with Rousseau’s time.
He also argued that the larger the state the more singular the government ought to be. This is the most efficient model. The role of the government is to enforce the collective will for the common good as dictated by the sovereign. It is not for the government to decide what the collective will should be. The common good should be central to our thinking. That which is best for humanity as a whole. Last week’s online OED quotation of the week from Terry Pratchett sums it up
Personal isn’t the same as important
History is full of examples of powerful men and women who once in positions of power abused that power for self-gratification, self-enrichment or to further ideologies which were contrary to the common good. Lord Acton’s words warn us that
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.
The bad men and women who were particularly effective were those who were the most organised. Where there was a singularity of government with complex and organised support networks. Perhaps we could employ similar organisation for good. Why were these men bad? Was it the power that corrupted them or something else. Could it be that we have structured our society in such a way as to facilitate the rise to power of bad men (and women) as well as good.
“[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”
—Herbert Spencer, The Study of Sociology
History is also full of examples of powerful men and women who once in positions of power used that power for the benefit of others. Great men (and women) are not always bad men (and women).
There is nothing in the history of man that suggests is it is impossible to achieve sovereignty. There is nothing in the study of the human brain and human behaviour to suggest that it is impossible. We continue to evolve as a species. We continue to learn more about ourselves.
Our technological revolution has empowered us to connect with each other. Our technological revolution has given us the power to look beyond our own media, our own version of history and our own particular systems. Technology is helping to unite us. Technology is helping to educate us. Technology is helping us to learn more about ourselves.
We are experiencing social revolution. While we are forging links across borders and territories, we are also returning to the local and to the community. This exactly what we should be doing. We are looking within and without. Politically we are heading toward singularity. We are beginning to think about wellbeing. We have much to celebrate in terms of social care and inclusiveness although we have a very long way to go. Things have improved and we have made some progress. There is no reason that things cannot continue to improve. The collective will can determine the common good. We can learn to diminish our appetites just as we have learned to hunger. We can learn from our mistakes. We can teach ourselves to care again. Education can help to set us free.
We can learn from our children. In Emile, Rousseau suggested that children are naturally good. Children are born with a sense of wonder and appreciation for things that are natural. Children derive happiness and contentment from the natural world. As a society we have become disconnected from nature and it is time to reconnect.
In the early developmental stages of life Rousseau suggested that children should be encouraged to learn experientially without the corrupting influence of “adult reason”. Sometimes it is our sense of “reason” that holds us back, restricts possibility and keeps our chains locked. There is no need to tell our children how the world is. It would be better to teach them to think. Changes are already underway. We are rethinking how we educate ourselves.
Rousseau also extolled an individualised approach to learning. As a society we have tended towards adherence to the status quo. The status quo has not been determined by the sovereign. We have tended toward uniformity. We have not celebrated individualism as much as we could. This has been to the benefit of our colonisers.
It is possible to celebrate individualism without affecting our ability to work together. The more confident and happy the individual is, the better contribution he/she can make to others and to the group. This is as true for children in a learning environment as it is for citizens of a nation and nations in a union. We can be stronger together by celebrating our differences. In order to celebrate our differences we need to figure out who we are.
It is time for us to examine our fears that we may understand ourselves better. We must recognise what we had and who were in order to see what we might have and who we might be. We need to look beneath the surface of things to see what is really going on but we cannot turn our heads until we have cast our chains aside.
Education for education’s sake. Art for art’s sake. Life for life’s sake. Sovereignty for everybody’s sake.
an extract from Advent by Patrick Kavanagh
charm back the luxury
Of a child’s soul, we’ll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.
And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.
O after Christmas we’ll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We’ll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we’ll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
An extract from A Prayer for Sleep by Michael Hartnett
And let me dream, if I dream at all,
No child of Yours has come to harm.
An extract from It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go by Nancy Griffith
It’s a hard life
It’s a hard life
It’s a very hard life
It’s a hard life wherever you go
But if we poison our children with hatred
Then a hard life is all that they’ll know