A view from Calton Hill

Heraclitus, the notoriously enigmatic pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that existing objects could be characterised by pairs of contrary properties, and that these properties, by virtue of the tension between them, were essential to the continued flourishing of the whole. He termed this phenomenon the ‘unity of opposites’. Somehow, he thought, the ongoing conflict between opposite properties enabled a single, unified object to persist.

Although it is unlikely that Heraclitus – who is said to have preferred aristocratic models of government – would have intended it, his odd theory seems highly applicable in the field of politics (that is, as Heraclitus would probably have understood the term, ‘of, for or relating to citizens’). There is, I think, something to the idea that those societies that flourish and endure are, very often, characterised by just this sort of dynamic tension, between different classes or income groups – and that where the gap between those groups or classes becomes too great that cohesion is threatened.

I was thinking about this on Sunday as I walked up Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, with its curious collection of classical monuments (Dickens described it as ‘a rubbish heap of imaginative architecture’) and its tremendous views across the city and out to the Firth of Forth. This must be among the best places in Edinburgh to begin learning about the city and how it developed, from the smoke-blackened, boozy disorder of the Old Town and its narrow medieval streets, to the precise geometrical elegance of the New Town’s squares and circuses.

The development of the New Town in the late eighteenth century saw the wealthier citizens of Edinburgh move out of the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Old Town to more genteel, spacious homes set on wide roads, with large, green civic spaces. The poor remained in the relative – and fast deepening – squalor of the Old Town. Overcrowding, poverty and inadequate sanitation led to epidemics of cholera and other diseases in the first half of the next century.

The Old Town of the eighteenth century was cramped and it was dirty. But it was also vibrant, brilliant and exciting, a melting pot of new thinking and ideas, in which the poorest citizens rubbed shoulders daily with the wealthiest and most educated, and where the old order was taken apart and new principles put in its place. The Scots, David Hume wrote, were now ‘the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe’, and that at a time when ‘we have lost our Princes, Our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the presence of our chief Nobility’. This loss did not create a vacuum but rather a space for debate, fierce, convivial and fearless, much of it centred on the Old Town’s numerous taverns, of which Hume, among others, was a notable and enthusiastic frequenter.

A number of factors made the Scottish Enlightenment possible, among them the quality of Scottish education and its openness to ideas from the continent. The growth in the educated population of Scotland meant this renaissance in thought was not confined to a small number of literati, or to the ranks of the aristocracy, as it was in France, but was, as the historian Tom Devine notes, ‘widely diffused throughout the ranks of the educated classes’. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were not only aired and debated in the pubs of Edinburgh’s New Town, but were also ‘described, analysed, questioned and refuted in pamphlets and journals such as the Scots Magazine, in the contemporary press, in sermons and surveys like John Sinclair’s massive Statistical Account of Scotland, published in the 1790s, which provided an examination of the way of life of over 900 parishes compiled by the local ministers.’

It was this broad dissemination, Devine argues, that ‘ensured the social acceptance of basic ideas that might otherwise have remained arcane, remote and abstract’ and which helped ground them in observation and the practicalities of life in eighteenth-century Scotland. They saw human experience as the touchstone of true understanding. The Edinburgh literati may have been, to varying degrees, born to privilege but their lives were not so remote from those of other classes that they could be indifferent to them, while the spread of school education in Scotland during the second half of the seventeenth century and the rapidly expanding middle class meant there was a large and engaged audience interested in their ideas.

Undoubtedly, too, those ideas and the rejection of hitherto unquestioned – and unquestionable (Scotland’s last execution for heresy took place as recently as 1696) – authority seeped into the consciousness of the poorer classes of society. The wealthiest had close, face-to-face relationships with the poorest, often sharing the same buildings (the rich on the upper floors, the poor on the lower ones) and they frequented the same churches, brothels and alehouses. Skilled artisans helped swell the membership of the city’s numerous learned clubs and societies, and university access widened to include the children of merchants and tradesmen.

The nineteenth century saw Edinburgh’s New Town flourish, while the Old Town plunged deeper into squalor and increasingly wretched poverty. The rich and the poor began to lead separate lives. By 1880, when the educationalist, environmentalist and town planner Patrick Geddes moved there, the Old Town was notorious for its appalling housing and poor living conditions. Geddes moved into James Court, where David Hume had once lived but which was now little more than a slum. Geddes believed that social change needed to come from the bottom up, rather than be imposed from above (however well-meaningly). He improved his own building and encouraged his neighbours to work together in improving theirs as well as their wider community. Geddes also believed that a vibrant community required a mixture of people from different backgrounds living side by side and enjoying the kind of face-to-face relationships they had in mid-eighteenth century Edinburgh. He founded a hall of residence in renovated properties around Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, including one in Riddle’s Court, another former Hume residence, which now houses, among other things, the Edinburgh offices of the Workers’ Educational Association (appropriately, Geddes’s Latin inscription above the archway to Riddle’s Court reads Vivendo Disciumus – ‘By Living We Learn’)

Geddes didn’t believe in getting rid of tradition. His idea was to build around it, improving what was good and valuable, building better housing where necessary, and making use of derelict spaces, often through the creation of gardens and other green spaces, which he thought essential to the flourishing of community. He saw the city as a microcosm of society, as a kind of blueprint for wider social organisation. A flourishing community, he thought, meant people of different classes living common lives. This created the best conditions for making successful societies. Likewise, in his academic life (Geddes purchased the Outlook Tower on Castle Hill – now known as the Camera Obscura – to be a sort of sociological laboratory), he believed in bringing disciplines together, in thinking and learning holistically – that our view is better when we see the connections, the ways in which things are held together, as well as the things themselves. Places of learning, like people, need spaces in common.

I’ve written before about Machiavelli’s Discourses and his view of social conflict as useful, even necessary, to the success of a state. He is perhaps as unlikely a bedfellow of Geddes as you could wish to find, but they do have one thing in common. Machiavelli, like Geddes, saw that a stable, successful society required a degree of commonality between classes, a sense that all classes are living comparable lives, a part of the same society. The rich, Machiavelli argued, should not become so rich that they become arrogant and indifferent to the needs and demands of other groups, and the poor perceive them as remote and out of touch. And the poor should not be so poor that they live without hope or the prospect of a better life. These ‘opposites’, to borrow again the language of Heraclitus, need to be in close enough proximity to make possible the sort of dynamic tension that is necessary for the survival and flourishing of a society. As Geddes also saw, vibrant communities are untidy communities, mixed, diverse and dynamic, with a rough equality between classes – enough at least for people to see that they are living their lives in common.

This is a hard lesson for us today. In recent decades we have seen, on a larger scale, a process not dissimilar to that which split Edinburgh in two in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The rich have become richer, their lives ever more remote, their wealth unimaginable to the vast majority of ordinary people and their grip on politics, the professions, the arts and the higher reaches of the education system increasingly firm. At the same time, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned this week, insecure, low-paid work is putting record numbers of working families in poverty. Two-thirds of the people who have found work in the past year are employed in jobs paying less than the living wage (with many on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of minimum hours). Between 2008 and 2013 average pay for the lowest paid fell by 70p per hour for men and 40p per hour for women, while the richest 1,000 Britons increased their wealth by more than £155 billion. Growing inequality unsurprisingly correlates with declining upward mobility. Life chances are increasingly dependent on who your parents are.

The education system, one of the key means by which we might reduce poverty and narrow the income gap, is, at the same time, becoming more and more polarised, with a broad liberal education – another fairly basic requirement of human flourishing – increasingly the preserve of the children of the rich, while the less advantaged make do with training which may give them skills but falls some way short of providing them with an education. As Michael Young foresaw in his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, an education system which confers approval on a small minority of its population (and qualifies the success of everyone else) effectively hands that minority control of the means to reproduce itself. To see the consequences of this you might compare, as Young later did, the social origins of members of Atlee’s post-war cabinet with those of Tony Blair’s – or with those of Ed MIliband’s shadow cabinet.

Little wonder then that the political class has become less plural and politics a much narrower business in which most fundamental questions – including those about the conditions in which people can best flourish – are off limits. Austerity politics has become a most effective cloak under which to pursue often fairly radical ideological goals to which human ends are secondary – all largely unchallenged by a compliant media with an equally strong and undisclosed ideological commitment. It is depressing indeed, but perhaps unsurprising, that in times such as these a party of closed-mined xenophobes – a coalition of the rich, the ignorant and the desperate – should be considered a compelling, even progressive, alternative.

Patrick Geddes recognised that people, like any life form (Geddes was also a botanist), thrive in the right conditions. Politics should be about identifying and helping improve these conditions for everyone. As those great theorists of adult education John Dewey and R.H. Tawney also saw, at the heart of this must be the idea of a common life – a life which embraces all in a community, treats every member as free and equal, and attaches equal value to the needs and aspirations of all. Sadly, we are fast becoming not one but two countries – divided by wealth, opportunity and prospects for advancement. Working-class people are not only unrepresented (fulfilling Michael Young’s prediction of the consequences of educational selection) but, by and large, unheard, except in contexts which demean or diminish them. As Geddes realised, only by being immersed in the lives people lead can you begin to understand them. The government’s boasts about the resilience of the economy mean little when the lives of so many are getting worse, with little out there to give them hope of something better in the future. I doubt many members of the current political class have much understanding of how utterly demoralising and damaging it is to be branded a failure by the education system and then denied the means of turning things around and making your life better. It seems that everywhere you look second chances are either disappearing or becoming unaffordable to most. Geddes showed that people can build communities which are rich, vibrant and fulfilling, but we must first create conditions which, in the enduringly brilliant words of Raymond Williams, ‘make hope practical rather than despair convincing’.

Reading Machiavelli: Why conflict can be good and inequality is bad for everyone

Thanks to the notoriety of his most famous work, The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli’s name has become synonymous with the ruthless and cynical exercise of power. Bertrand Russell described the work as little more than ‘a handbook for gangsters’ (it was even name-checked in The Sopranos – though Tony Soprano claimed he prefered Sun Tzu’s Art of War) and there is no doubt that Machiavelli gives an unflinching account of what an autocratic leader must be prepared to do in order to win and retain power.

Yet, as the Bolshevik and Soviet politician Lev Kamenev argued in a late essay (Stalin had him executed shortly after publication), Machiavelli’s reputation owes less to his actual political outlook than it does to the ugly realities of political life which he was attempting to describe and demystify, on the basis of his own first-hand observations of the use of power in sixteenth-century Florence. As Kamenev hints, the ‘true countenance’ of Florentine political life was not so different to that of the Soviet Union under Stalin: ‘an oppressive class of masters struggling amongst themselves for power over the laboring masses’.

It is this ‘naked truthfulness’ that sets Machiavelli apart from most other political theorists and explains the still extraordinary urgency and relevance of his writing. His works continue to resonate because the reality he describes is a reality which, in some fundamental ways, we continue to recognise. Of course, Machiavelli did not anticipate the detail of political life in modern liberal democracies and had a limited view of what democracy could consist in; but he gives a hugely persuasive, and wholly unflattering, account of the real face of power and its tendency to corrupt both those who exercise it and those who are subject to it. Equally, the political philosophy behind The Prince, best expressed in his other major work, The Discourses, has a great deal that is useful and constructive to say about contemporary political concerns such as class, conflict and inequality. It is this, I think, that makes Machiavelli particularly worth reading today.

In The Prince, Machiavelli informs his readers that he is to deal exclusively with principalities, having dealt extensively with republics in another work, meaning The Discourses. It is here that Machiavelli expresses his own political philosophy and asserts the superiority of republics over principalities. He is no advocate of autocratic rule, though he accepts that in certain circumstances it is necessary, for example, to save a failing state or to found a new one. In normal circumstances, however, a republic is to be preferred. Government ‘by the populace’ is better than government by princes, he says, since ‘if account be taken of all the disorders due to populaces and of all those due to princes, and of all the glories won by populaces and all those won by princes, it will be found that alike in goodness and in glory the populace is far superior’.

For Machiavelli, a republic is a ‘government of the people’ in the sense that its citizens play a significant part in grounding and stabilising a form of political and civic life which is typified by consent and spirited participation rather than by force. He paints a picture of the best-managed republics as mixed governments involving a healthy and malleable combination of ‘regal power’, middle-class influence and popular government. The strength of each element can vary according to circumstance, but Machiavelli believed the best states to be those that mobilise the people rather than rely on their passivity or indifference. By involving all three elements, in whatever degree, ‘a republic has a fuller life and enjoys good fortune for a longer time than a principality, since it is better able to adapt itself to diverse circumstances owing to the diversity found among its citizens than a prince can do.’

In short, Machiavelli considers republics preferable to principalities because they are stronger, more stable and more adaptable. Stability is a critical consideration in Machiavelli’s thought. A well-managed republic is characterised by a free, open political culture in which both nobility and the people are engaged, and dissent and conflict are not discouraged but seen as essential elements of a flourishing society. What is interesting about Machiavelli’s discussion here is that he has a very clear view of conflict as contributing to the stability of society. This, I think, is quite different to the prevailing view of today’s political class. Conflict of any sort is actively discouraged, as threatening either the stability or security of our social or political life. Union action is condemned as a matter of course, while political demonstrations, even when peaceful, are routinely met with the disapproval of every mainstream party. Machiavelli, on the other hand, recognised that ‘in every republic there are two different dispositions, that of the populace and that of the upper class and that all legislation favourable to liberty is brought about by the clash between them’. It was conflict of this sort that enlarged the freedoms enjoyed by the citizens of a republic – he did not subscribe to the view, still entertained by some politicians, that rights and freedoms were benevolently conferred by those at the top upon those below them.

It is better for the life and freedom of the state that all sections of the populace are engaged politically. For Machiavelli, active citizenship is an essential part of any flourishing republic – it cannot thrive without it. Securing it, however, is dependent on a number of factors, including the presence of a large and engaged middle class and the absence of extremes of inequality. The later point is particularly interesting. Machiavelli does not call for equality for all, though he does argue for a rough equality between citizens (meaning those who pay tax or own property). More intriguingly, he argues that inequality between the classes should be limited and not allowed to reach extreme proportions. The rich must not become so rich and powerful that they can afford to ignore the will of the people, and the poor must not become so poor and wretched that they have no hope of either improving their lot or influencing their environment for the better. Where such inequalities do exist, the rich become corrupt and the poor desperate, thus threatening the health and stability of the state.

I suspect Machiavelli would have deplored the levels of inequality we now tolerate in our own society, as he would the gradual shrinking of the middle-class, the culture of deference and quietism that characterises our political life and the parlous state of public debate in our society. More importantly, though, so should we. As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson have eloquently demonstrated, inequality is not only bad for the poor; it is bad for all of us. It pollutes every aspect of national life. It makes us less happy, less healthy and less honest. It means the economy misses out on the skills and excellence of large numbers of its young people. It is responsible for the complacency with which we are governed and the desperation of many of those so governed. It affects the way we think of ourselves, our mental wellbeing and our sense of what we are capable of achieving. As Danny Dorling argued recently, it also makes us believe stupid things, among them that some people are superior to others:

We work best, behave best, play best and think best when we are not laboring under the assumption that some of us are better, more deserving or so much more able than others. We perform the worst, are most atrocious in our conduct, are least relaxed and most unimaginative in outlook, when we live under the weight of great inequalities – and especially when we live with the illusion that these are somehow warranted.

What is most depressing about the current state of public debate about these issues is the idea that gross inequalities are somehow inevitable or natural, that there is no point in challenging them or making any concerted, meaningful effort to change things. This is reinforced by an education system which, in the main, appears to be designed to reproduce privilege, reserving elite education for people who can afford to attend elite schools, very often the same elite schools their parents attended. Although more of Britain’s poorest young people are going to university, just one in five young people from comprehensive schools and further education colleges got into the top third most selective universities this year, compared with 86 per cent of privately educated young people. For far, far too many of our children, life chances seem to depend almost entirely on the circumstances of their birth. And second chances are harder to come by. Meanwhile, we embrace a programme of austerity measures, justified by political sleight of hand, which see the poorest and most vulnerable bearing the greatest burden of fiscal belt-tightening while those responsible for the financial crisis get away, in the main, scot free – effectively underwriting the greed and recklessness of global investors with public money. It is no wonder that a third of young people who leave school with poor grades fear they will face a ‘life without hope’.

I mentioned The Sopranos at the start of the article. One of the show’s themes – perhaps its main theme – was that a man cannot wholly shed his humanity, however hard he might push it from him, however deep he might bury it; that even the most corrupt and brutalised among us remain capable of considering the greater good and even (on occasion) acting on it. Machiavelli too allows himself a heavily qualified optimism about human nature. A prince must learn not to be virtuous, he says. He is not born to it. It is in us all – perhaps even in our natures – to play an active and equal role in the political life of our society. The cynicism and indifference produced by extremes of inequality may do harm to hopes for a genuinely progressive politics, frequently thwarting our best thoughts and aspirations, but they aren’t inevitable, and they needn’t be permanent.