You have to despair at the state of UK politics, and last week was an egregious example of the fine mess the current crop at Westminster have got us into. To make matters worse, we are being thrown around by politicians and the media like a political rugby ball, with spurious phrases like the 'will of the people' and the 'people's vote' spouted by both major parties in Westminster (although I do agree that there should be a second EU referendum).
I distrust these 'people' phrases and the folk who use them. They suggest that the speaker, somehow, has knowledge of the zeitgeist, or in Rousseau's terminology, the 'general will.' None of them 'know' the will of the people. Not even opinion polls can express the general will, because it's not clear that such a thing exists. I'd guess the 'people' themselves don't know what on earth to think about this gathering crisis and the appalling leadership, never mind what they are willing. If they're willing anything at all, it is surely to be delivered from a government with the political nous of Neville Chamberlain, combined with the negotiation skills of Atilla the Hun, and an opposition whose irresponsible response is 'to never interrupt your enemy while he's making a mistake.'
It is likely that most people are wishing desperately for the safe pair of hands of a stable, sensible and pragmatic leader to guide us through this shambles. But it is becoming increasingly evident that neither the Tories nor Labour are willing to give people the opportunity to have their say. So much for 'the people,' eh?
It was in this frame of mind that I picked up 'The Ant Trap' by Brian Epstein, whose book explores the nature of the social world and the foundations of the social sciences in an attempt, in part, to better understand the metaphysical concepts of zeitgeist and general will. As he points out, people have minds, so individuals have knowledge and beliefs, desires and fears, preferences and aversions. Individuals plan, judge, form intentions, and take actions. Individuals sometimes take pride in what they have done, and sometimes regret it, and they bear responsibility for their actions.
But what about groups? A group doesn't have a mind in any literal sense. So what does it mean to say that groups such as 'the people' or a legislative assembly or a supreme court 'form an intention, pass judgement, take action, or bear responsibility?' How can we make sense of that? It is difficult for us – and particularly politicians in democracies – not to reify groups, i.e. to treat groups as entities over and above their members. What more can be meaningfully said of a group, or group action, that transcends their individual action?
Not since Durkheim has the invocation of group think been more significant. It begins to look as though the rhetoric of zeitgeist or the 'will of the people,' is just that, meaningless rhetoric (or in Epstein's phrase, a belief in 'crazy social spirits'). Unforgivably brief here, Epstein does try find a route through to making sense of group action without resorting to talk of mystical social spirits. Not that our current crop of politicians will pay any attention, but at the very least, if they really want to prioritise and listen to the so-called 'will of the people,' instead of weaponising an incoherent social spirit in their own interests, give people their democratic right to vote on the most pressing issues of our time.
Succumbing to technological advance and macular degeneration, last week I bought a smart TV with a large screen. Single-handedly, I managed to screw it together and connect it to wi-fi. But could I tune it? Nope. But my technical incompetence had its compensations: no TV channels, no news, but instead a box-set binge on Netflix and BBC iplayer of the 'The Crown' and 'Bodyguard'.
The former, so far, is magnificent. Not, I hasten to add, because I am a royalist – far from it – I couldn't care less about the royal family to the extent that I can't even muster the motivation to be a republican. I have never understood the allure of the monarchy and am disgusted by its overwhelming privilege and opulence. At a dinner many years ago, I joked with an Oxford don about the Queen Mother's teeth. He was incensed and accused me of disrespect and a profound ignorance of the status and spiritual significance of the monarchy. He was right.
A quintessentially English institution, the monarchy is shrouded in mystery that I don't fully understand. But this series, with beautiful cinematography, brilliantly acted by the entire cast, with towering performances by Claire Foy (the Queen) and John Lithgow (Churchill), is historically accurate for the most part. Both interesting and informative, the first series stretches only to 1955 and the beginning of the Suez crisis.
It lays bare the tortuous dualism of Elizabeth the woman from that of the crown so clearly that many of my own questions about the crown's mystical status, its constitutional role as an anointment by God, at last made sense. Or rather, it makes sense in and of itself, but is bewilderingly irrational and truly remarkable that this woman has managed to sustain this archaic magical nonsense over a largely supplicant populace in modern times. A crazy social spirit? Yes, but formidable in its determination to survive. Such is the brilliance of the silent god-like influence that characterises Elizabeth the woman, I cannot imagine that the monarchy will survive long after her passing. A fascinating series, well worth watching.
Perhaps because I binge-watched the 'Bodyguard' with hardly a break, or perhaps because I had been watching 'The Crown' too, I was disappointed with this hugely enjoyable tense drama in the end. For some reason, I had constructed a complicated plot-line in my head, as did many others, that the assassinated home secretary wasn't assassinated after all. Too outlandish and clichéd a plot, I suppose. The jolly nice Richard Madden, who I came across recently in his role as Cosimo de Medici, should most definitely be given the role of the next James Bond.