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June 28, 2007

In every aspect of our lives we are over-governed - Robinson Crusoe shows us that another world is possible, argues David Womersley: Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe

Posted by David Womersley

Robinson Crusoe
by Daniel Defoe
first published in 1719

edited by Thomas Keymer and James Kelly
Pp. lii + 322. Oxford World's Classics
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007
Paperback, 4.99

Is it necessary for all the major pillars of a society to be intellectually coherent each with the other? Is it better for the members of a society if its policies and practices in respect of religion, economics and politics are consonant with one another, or is it worse? The current fashion for "joined up" thinking would imply that we find this kind of coherence desirable. But do we really have it, and if we have it, do we have it as the consequence of deliberate and rational policy? Moreover, should we desire it?

In religion, although we still possess the language and the symbolism of a confessional state, in practice our national religious life has been so eroded and diluted that, to all intents and purposes, there is a severance between the state and religion in Britain every bit as complete as you will find in those nations, such as the United States, where such a separation is a cardinal constitutional principle.

Yet religious opinions, of whatever stripe, have never been so protected. This entails not just a right to believe whatever you wish in the matter of religion, but also a right to protection from mockery and scorn for holding those beliefs. This is the curious terminus of a policy of religious toleration. Toleration dwindled into indifference; the toxic introduction of the concept of universal human rights, now unopposed by any strong distinctions between religious opinions which were entitled to social protection and those which were not, suddenly embraced the whole vast realm of human conviction and credulity concerning the supernatural origins and governance of the universe; and the upshot is the ludicrous spectacle of the law being used to compel people to be polite in what they say about other people's religion, no matter how ridiculous or poisonous its doctrines may be. The spectacle of an agnostic state so insistently policing the realm of religious opinion is ludicrous.

That same feature of a purposeless drift into a content-less authoritarianism is evident in our economic life, where the basic principle of allowing people the maximum freedom compatible with orderliness has been steadily eroded as more areas of national life have been drawn into the sphere of government responsibility. Once the government is held responsible for, not just putting in place regulations which will promote, but actually for delivering health, education and economic prosperity, the dreadful logic of the expansion of the state makes it "reasonable" for government to intrude into all aspects of our lives. The process is a ratchet, as the ultimately unavailing Thatcherite reforms intended to slim the state demonstrated: further expansions require ever-greater amounts of tax, which in their turn make possible further expansions of government activity.

In respect of politics, the necessity of economic expansion has led to an intensification of the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament, which now effectively means the sovereignty of the leaders of the party which can command a majority in the House of Commons. For five-year periods we are governed by an oligarchy of perhaps two dozen people, in charge of a government machine committed to perform, and assume responsibility for, ever more, but at the same time (as recent policy on religious opinions shows) condemned to be ever less adequate in its discharging of those burdens. Late at night in Whitehall, even they must sometimes wish that it could all be unwound, and we could return to a state of affairs in which people were prepared to take more responsibility for themselves, and in which expectations of government were fewer, more modest, and therefore more achievable.

Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719, is many things - a publishing phenomenon, a wonderful children's story (once some of the more shocking details in it have been tidied up), and also a parabolic investigation of the composition of modern societies and the co-existence within them of religious, political and economic activity. Defoe was brought up as a Dissenter, and wrote strongly in the dissenting interest during his career as a journalist. This leaves its mark on Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is brought to an understanding of the reality of divine providence by his experiences on the island, but this does not issue in doctrinal religion - one of the more important and amusing episodes in this respect is when Crusoe is bested in theological debate by Friday, and can give no convincing account of why his beliefs about the nature of God are superior to Friday's. However, this does not develop into any modern doctrine of the equal validity of all cultural and religious practices. There seems to be a ritualistic aspect to the activities of the cannibals who infest part of the island, but Crusoe nevertheless has no hesitation in doing all he can to extirpate them.

Crusoe's undogmatic piety, however, exists alongside a fairly untrammelled possessive individualism. The accumulation of useful objects, the precise recording of activity, the meticulous measuring out of time - all these features of economic life are present on Crusoe's island, and his attempts to make bread in isolation paradoxically leads him to a Smithian insight into the intricate economic organisation of society (p. 100):

'tis a little wonderful, and what I believe few People have thought much upon, [viz.] the strange multitude of little Things necessary in the Providing, Producing, Curing, Dressing, Making and Finishing this one Article of Bread.
Nor does Crusoe entertain any sentimental ideas about the basis of a right to property. For him, this has nothing to do with mere possession - utility and improvement confer the right of property, and so he has no hesitation in claiming the island for his own, without regard to the potential claims of the indigenous savages. And that right of property is also the basis for Crusoe's complete political authority on the island. The language in which he expresses that plenitude of political power is, as has been pointed out, tinged with a rueful self-mockery, but this is surely prompted more by the fewness of his subjects and the slenderness of his domaine, rather than by any doubts about the principle. Moreover, no one in the novel challenges Crusoe's belief that the roots of political power are to be found in property. Just as he is the absolute owner of the island, so he is its absolute ruler.

Robinson Crusoe displays the primacy of possessive individualism, tempered however by undogmatic piety and curbed by an absolute, but as yet not intrusive, political authority. Part of the freedom which Crusoe enjoys on the island derives, not just from the absence of other people, but also from the incoherence of the economic, religious and political aspects of the life he creates for himself there. We find ourselves in a situation very different from Crusoe's: we have little to oppose to a knock-kneed political authority which however recognises no limits to its operation. This new edition of Robinson Crusoe, with excellent notes and introduction, reminds us that it need not be so.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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Crusoe's inheritance is, of course, a wreck: and that is what we are perhaps bequeathing to the next generation. The ubiquity of 'the state' is not the ubiquity of the kind of state that would be recognised as such by, say, Hobbes. It is a state made the servant of an infinite multiplicity of unearned privileges called 'human rights' (it taking little effort to be born human), and as such merely the market in another name: 'civil society' is all there is: and we see, in our dithering about 'what to do' about terror (30 days? 90 days?) , the outcome of decades in which little attention has been paid to the features and gesticulations of Leviathan and all too much to the delights of (pardon me Defoe) Crusoe's Treasure Island . .

Posted by: jon gower davies at July 2, 2007 04:52 PM
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