PoW: Clubs, Klans, plans and other curious phenomena

I’m waiting nervously by the door of the Green Man pub on Monday evening, with a room full of expectant club members waiting downstairs, and no sign of the speaker. My co-organizer, Filip, is sympathetic: ‘If he doesn’t turn up’ he tells me, ‘you’re ad-libbing for an hour’. Great.

But then he’s here: Lord Maurice Glasman of Stoke Newington, the newest addition to the House of Lords. ‘Sorry I’m late’, he says. ‘Have I got time for a fag?’ ‘Sure, no problem Maurice, can I get you a drink?’ ‘Oh brilliant, thanks. Could I get a double espresso and a Red Bull?'

Glasman is a Londoner. He lives in Stoke Newington, he plays the trumpet, he listens to Bob Dylan, he smokes rolies, he supports Spurs, he’s worked in London civic activism groups and academia his whole life. Like London, he is full of energy, sucking in natural resources to keep the lights sparkling.

He was made a Lord in March. Ed Miliband rang him up out of the blue, made him a Lord, and told him: ‘I like what you’re doing and want you to keep on doing it’. Miliband, it seems, is looking to Glasman to provide the Big Idea around which his Labour party can coalesce. Where David Cameron has Philip Blond, and his ideas of Red Tory and the Big Society, Miliband has Glasman, and his theories of Blue Labour and the Good Society.

Since that phone-call, Glasman’s life has changed dramatically. Suddenly, he is the most in-demand speaker in Labour policy circles. On Monday, he had spent the early evening debating with Tessa Jowell at Portcullis House, before dashing across town to speak to us at the London Philosophy Club. The next night, he went to speak to the Tawney Dialogue, where he surprised some by declaring that Jesus Christ was the most important figure in the Labour movement. He told us: “I’m out speaking at events like this almost every night, for free, because I love doing it.” No wonder he needs the Red Bull.

Despite the demands on him, he fielded our questions for over two hours, holding the microphone and pacing around the basement of the Green Man like a cross between a stand-up comic, a ballet dancer and a boxer. Sometimes it seemed hard to pin down his philosophy. He reminded me occasionally of Rumpelstiltskin: every time someone tried to define his philosophy he would dance away, saying: ‘Oh no, that’s not what I believe at all.’

But here’s what I think he stands for. His primary influence, he told us, was Aristotle, and his idea that humans are political animals, and it is in political activity that we achieve fulfillment. Liberalism sees the state as a neutral arbiter that merely protects us from each other. It goes back to Hobbes, for whom, as Maurice put it, “life in nature is like a 1970s Arsenal defender: nasty, brutish and short”.Glasman, by contrast, follows Aristotle in seeing politics as a fulfillment of our nature rather than a protection against it. In civic activity, we come together in friendship, to talk, debate, eat together (Aristotle was big on communal meals), celebrate life together, and create clubs, networks and associations like the London Philosophy Club. On the social and political importance of small clubs, by the way, check out Henry Hemming’s new book, it looks very good.

According to the Neo-Aristotelian Alasdair MacIntyre (another big influence on Glasman - they both teach at London Met), the foundation of a polis must be friendship. That’s what connects us, and makes a society more than a collection of atoms. MacIntyre writes that the basis of the city-state is “network of small groups of friends”, and that friendship is “a shared recognition of and pursuit of a good”. The liberal city-state, by contrast, is merely “civil war by other means”, in which no one knows each other or trusts each other, and everyone jostles and fights for their own interests. Sort of the Taxi Driver vision of society: the politicians may say 'We Are The People!', but really the liberal elite live detached from the atomised moral wasteland of the modern city.

So we should join together in friendship to pursue the Common Good. That sounds like fun. But Glasman, coming from the tradition of the Labour movement, also seems to see the goal of politics as organizing as interest groups in order to pursue your own particular community interests. So that doesn’t really seem to be that far from MacIntyre’s description of liberal society as ‘civil war by other means’ .

One could say the same of Philip Blond’s Big Society project, which also hopes we will all be morally regenerated through civic activism. But should the civil associations of the Big Society merely pursue their own private and particular interests? In which case, as the Walthamstowe MP Stella Creasy pointed out, couldn’t the BNP or the Ku Klux Klan claim to be part of the Big Society?

These are tensions within Aristotle’s own political philosophy, which veers between an idealist vision of human nature fulfilled in the Common Good, and a more pragmatic understanding of politics as a struggle between classes and interests.

As I wrote in IPPR’s magazine in February, Aristotle’s concept of an ethics and politics of eudaimonia (human flourishing) is now back at the centre of modern policy on both Left and Right. Neo-Aristotelian politics has three main ideas: firstly, education should shape citizens’ moral characters, and teach them how to govern themselves. Secondly, politics should enable citizens to develop their civic virtue through debate, participation and volunteering. Thirdly, the Good Life and the Good Society is one in which our rational, moral, social and political natures are fulfilled and flourishing.

There are many ways one can question this conception of politics, but here’s one: it implies that we have a core human nature that can be ‘fulfilled’. That means a fusion of neurobiology and ethics, to create a naturalistic ethics. We see such a fusion again and again in modern thinking: in the thought of Matthew Taylor at the RSA, in the New Atheist Sam Harris’ new book, even in the Archbishop of Canterbury, talking here in very Aristotelian terms about the need for evidence-based education to guide our emotional development towards virtue.

So here’s my question: doesn’t this attempt to create a ‘moral science’ of eudaimonia imply some sort of cosmic providential plan that leads to human fulfillment? Otherwise, what does fulfillment mean? Fulfillment implies a plan that is fulfilled. But this plan can’t be understood in simplistic Darwinian terms, because you can fulfill your DNA simply by visiting the sperm bank as often as possible, as Steven Pinker put it.

Eudaimonia literally means ‘having a good soul, or daimon. It implies that we are born with a soul with its own agenda, and we become fulfilled when we follow that soul’s agenda. That’s what ‘flow’ is, really: ‘being in tune with your daimon’. The psychologist who best seems to understand this is the Jungian psychologist James Hillman.

And a politics of eudaimonia likewise implies that there is some sort of arrow directing history to fulfillment, perhaps by creating ever-wider networks of interconnectedness, knowledge, and friendship. That’s the teleological vision described in Robert Wright’s book, Non-Zero, and it’s one that Martin Seligman embraces at the end of his book, Authentic Happiness, where he writes that a life of eudaimonia is “a life pregnant with meaning, and if God comes at the end, such a life is sacred”.

It seems to me it's difficult to talk about eudaimonia without implying something like the Greeks' idea of a Logos, or intelligence unfolding through history and reaching fulfillment in human consciousness. I'm not talking about an after-life and I'm certainly not embracing any particular religious dogma. But still, the many contemporary attempts to create secular sciences and politics of eudaimonia need to answer the question: If our nature can be fulfilled, doesn't that imply some design or plan that is being fulfilled? Whose plan?