Last of the Westland Whigs

In the late 17th century, the 'Westland Whigs' were the radical descendants of earlier Covenanters who had defied the absolutist rule of Stuart kings in south west Scotland.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Beyond Mechanism : Rhetoric Ends, Politics Begins

Beyond Mechanism OR Where Rhetoric Ends, Politics Begins

Image: Craigenputtock - see Carlyle section below

For the past six months I have been a post-graduate student at Glasgow University’s Crichton Campus. I have been studying the cultural heritage of South West Scotland. Through economic necessity as much as any desire to minimise my ‘carbon footprint’, I have travelled to and from the Crichton by public transport. As a result I have spent much ‘waiting’ time in Dumfries town centre. On more than one occasion, these lines from William Blake’s poem ’London’ have come to mind:

I wander through each chartered street, Near where the chartered Thames does flow, And mark in every face I meet, Marks of weakness, marks of woe. In every cry of every man, In every infant's cry of fear, In every voice, in every ban, The mind-forged manacles I hear…

Blake wrote the poem in 1791, the same year Robert Burns moved to Dumfries from Ellisland farm. But for me, Dumfries evokes Blake not Burns. It does so because the town centre reminds me more strongly of the decaying centre of Hackney in east London (where I lived for ten years) than it does the vibrant and lively Dumfries Burns knew and celebrated. This should not be so. Hackney has a population of 200 000 crammed into an area of only eight square miles. It is a ‘third world’ enclave of public squalor and poverty bordering on the gleaming towers and global financial affluence of the City of London.

Dumfries has its problems, but hardly on such a scale. Indeed, in a world which must put environmentally sustainable economic theory into practice if we are to have viable future, Dumfries has immense and untapped potential. As the capital of a region which does not have the burden of an unsustainable urban industrial heritage Dumfries could once more become the lively and vibrant town Burns knew. But to do so we must throw off the ‘mind-forged manacles’ which bind us to the out-dated, mechanistic, urban industrial way of thinking which created Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’.

We live in a green and pleasant land, one which inspired another local writer, the sadly neglected Thomas Carlyle, to rage against the ‘machine’ at the very beginning of the industrial age. Like Blake, Carlyle was not just opposing the obvious signs of the times
- the steam-powered cotton mills of Paisley and Manchester. Rather, as Charles Dickens grasped in his ‘industrial’ novel ‘Hard Times’ which he dedicated to Carlyle, Carlyle was opposed to the mechanistic philosophy which ground down and reduced the richness and complexity of human life and culture to only that which can be measured.

In Hard Times, Dickens shows the damaging impact of this philosophy when applied to education. Sissy Jupe, whose father trains horses for a circus act cannot factually answer the question ’ What is a horse?‘ A fellow pupil can:

'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.'

The government inspector of schools reinforces this exclusively ‘factual’ definition of a horse:

'You are to be in all things regulated and governed,' said the gentleman, 'by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use of ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don't walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don't find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,' said the gentleman, 'for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.'

This ‘fact’ is why we are told that there is no economic (factual) need for education in the (non-factual) Liberal Arts in Dumfries and Galloway.

To reinforce my point, here is Carlyle from ‘ Signs of the Times’, written at Craigenputtock in Dumfries and Galloway in 1829:

Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends. Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance. For the simplest operation, some helps and accompaniments, some cunning abbreviating process is in readiness. Our old modes of exertion are all discredited, and thrown aside. On every hand, the living artisan is driven from his workshop, to make room for a speedier, inanimate one. The shuttle drops from the fingers of the weaver, and falls into iron fingers that ply it faster. The sailor furls his sail, and lays down his oar; and bids a strong, unwearied servant, on vaporous wings, bear him through the waters. Men have crossed oceans by steam; the Birmingham Fire-king has visited the fabulous East; … There is no end to machinery. Even the horse is stripped of his harness, and finds a fleet firehorse yoked in his stead. Nay, we have an artist that hatches chickens by steam; the very brood-hen is to be superseded! For all earthly, and for some unearthly purposes, we have machines and mechanic furtherances; for mincing our cabbages; for casting us into magnetic sleep. We remove mountains, and make seas our smooth highway; nothing can resist us. We war with rude Nature; and, by our resistless engines, come off always victorious, and loaded with spoils.
Carlyle’s vision did more than just inspire Dickens and other Victorian novelists. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were also inspired by Carlyle in the writing of their Communist Manifesto of 1848. However, where Carlyle despaired, Marx and Engels were optimistic. From their materialistic interpretation of German philosopher Hegel’s belief in ‘progress through contradiction’, they believed that the economic tensions and internal contradictions of Carlyle’s Mechanical Age would lead to a social revolution…

Carlyle, it would seem, was the better prophet. But, it would also seem, in our ‘war with rude Nature’ and despite our ‘resistless engines’ we are no longer ‘always victorious’. Rather we must become educated in the philosophy of an ’Organic Age’ and apply its lessons if we are to salvage some remnants of civilisation from the barbarism of the Mechanical Age.

Where rhetoric ends, politics begins.

It begins with hard and difficult questions. How can we salvage something from the ruin of Dumfries’ town centre? How can we salvage something from the Crichton Campus crisis? How can we turn a slogan - Dumfries and Galloway as ‘The Natural Place’ - into the reality it must become?

The Mechanical Age is ending. But what will take its place?

I can but hope that those elected to represent Dumfries and Galloway on 3rd of May will, when critical decisions have to be made, reflect on and bear in mind what Thomas Carlyle glimpsed of the ‘mechanical’ future at Craigenputtock back in 1828.

And choose a different path.


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