A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?




There's this little bit in the New Confessions by William Boyd where a character who's a Jewish refugee has become a big shot producer in Hollywood - and someone - maybe a young starlet-in-embryo - voices the opinion that you should always tell the truth, no matter what. The Jewish refugee-turned-big-shot-producer examines the gold rings on his hand, takes a draw on his cigar and says "If I'd have believed that, I'd be a lampshade." And there we have the crux of a problem that's not likely to go away anytime soon - what's "right", and what has to be done to win/survive aren't the same thing.

So this Jeremy Corbyn thing is interesting. There seem to be two main strands of thought in response to a politician who wants to improve the lot of the poor and not kill people in illegal wars.

  1. How can you possibly have any problems with a man who wants to improve the lot of the poor and avoid killing people?

This is the line pushed by "Corbynites" who are either poor people, or people who think that government should be "ethical".

  1. You'll never get anywhere in life (least of all into No 10 Downing Street) by trying to improve the lot of the poor and avoid killing people.

This is the line pushed by all the Tories - and most of the parliamentary Labour party.

The difficulty is that they're both right.

Nietzsche calls these different moralities Herrenmoral and Sklavenmoral. And just reading through the Wikipedia entry on this concept, it's striking how many of the controversies of the last few days (not singing the national anthem, threatening not to kneel in front of the queen, not going to a rugby game) are obvious rejections of Herrenmoral. It's also interesting that the rumours that he might be a shagger (Diane Abbott - talk about fucking bravery) are regarded as evidence against him. It takes me back to my schooldays in Yorkshire where one of the grounds for suspicion that you might be "gay" was that you had a girlfriend.

Herrenmoral is the moral of the masters, and therefore it's the morality of the military, the morality of those who win by force. Herrenmoral is the Machiavellian morality. And it's absolutely the morality of most politicians. It's the morality of ends over means (cf Tony Blair - "I prefer winning."). It doesn't matter whether you lie or cheat to get what you want. All that matters is that you get what you want and don't get caught.

Sklavenmoral is the morality of those who aren't in power. It's the morality of Jesus - if not of many Christians. It's a morality that believes to quote Auden - "we must love one another or die." sklavenmoral is prissy and boring, but without it we are just savages. Without some basic decency, the herrenmoral dudes spend their time killing and raping each other.

Guess what? Maybe it's a symbiotic relationship. Maybe humanity is in fact two species - sociopaths and do-gooders, and maybe the irony is that they literally can't live without each other.