This is why the soft left always fails against Etonians


10:30 am - May 27th 2013

by Chris Dillow    


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Some people are unhappy that an Eton entrance exam asked candidates to write a speech justifying the shooting of protestors. Their disquiet reflects the discomfort the soft-headed left feels when confronted with the cold hard facts of life.

It is no accident that the question follows a passage from Machiavelli.

What we're seeing here is that Eton – the training ground for our future leaders rulers – instinctively understands the nature of power, whereas its soft left critics have always been simperingly naive about it. I mean this in five senses:

1. Political power rests, ultimately, upon force and violence. Plan A for the ruling class is to govern by consent. But there is a plan B.

2. Power comes with risks. If you give bosses power over companies, there's a danger they'll extract wealth for themselves at others' expense. If you give bankers' power over the economy there's a danger of damaging financial crises. And if you give guns to some people and not others, there's a danger people will be killed*. This is something New Labour never really understood. In creating so many new criminal offences and bolstering the power and self-importance of the police, it thought it was acting out of good intentions but was – to take only the latest example of many – merely giving them licence to bully old ladies.Good intentions are not enough.

3. Power depends upon mechanisms. The question rulers must ask is: what tools do we have to exercise our will? Eton knows that one such mechanism is force. Again, though, social democrats have long been naive here. One reason why New Labour was cringingly deferential towards bosses was that it thought that "leadership" was a magic which enabled things to get done, and that the secrets of such ju-ju were known by a priestly elite of "business leaders". But that naivete was nothing new. Back in 1931 a Labour government was replaced by a coalition government which promptly left the gold standard, prompting one Labour politician to bewail "Nobody told us we could do that." Both episodes betray social democrats' ignorance of the tools of power. But Eton's examiners know what the tools are.

4. The role of bad faith. The examiners are not asking for a philosophical defence of killing protestors, but for a speech. The difference is that political speeches need not be true or sincere. The legitimation of power rests partly upon lies and half-truths.

5. Who, whom? Lenin got it right. Power is about who does what to whom? Eton's examiners know that their charges will be the "who" and the rest of us the "whom."

A great thinker – well, greater than most on the non-Marxist left – once asked: "what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?" None at all, given that they know what power is whilst the soft left is just wimperingly emotive. 

* I nearly wrote here that there's a risk that power will be abused. But when people speak of the "abuse of power" they often mean what they mean when they speak of "drug abuse" – the routine use of it.

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


1. Shatterface

What we’re seeing here is that Eton – the training ground for our future leaders rulers – instinctively understands the nature of power, whereas its soft left critics have always been simperingly naive about it.

You’d have thought, given the history of the left, they’d have no difficulty in answering the question.

”Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

2. the a&e charge nurse

‘Their disquiet reflects the discomfort the soft-headed left feels when confronted with the cold hard facts of life’ – I read this differently.

During the last 60 odd years both the left and right have both presided over a period of relative social harmony, and relative economic prosperity – maybe the real theme implied by the Eton question (since it is set in 2040) is not so much the difference in the way the left or right rationalise state violence, but rather the fact the very fabric of western consumerism may be on the cusp of some sort of catastrophic collapse?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAyHIOg5aHk

If enough people are hungry and frightened they probably won’t care too much if there are 20 less people on the planet, and this would be still be the case irrespective if the spin came from a latter day DCam, or latter day Milli-bore.

I’m sorry, but this is a load of nonsense. The ability to write an essay or argue a particular position has NOTHING to do with ‘understanding’ power.

It simply has to do with the level of education that entrants have. Whether their parents have challenged them through their lives, whether they have been exposed to intellectual conversation, whether they have been pushed to think for themselves.

This exercise has nothing to do with understanding the underlying subject. What it is asking is whether someone is able to think critically and analytically to create arguments.

Why focus on Eton when two maintained schools within walking distance of where I sit achieve better average A-level results? Besides that, Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, IDS and Michael Howard, successive Conservative leaders before Cameron, didn’t go to Eton. We have to go back to Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and William Douglas-Home for examples of old Etonians as Conservative leaders and PMs. The first and last of those were notably unsuccessful as political leaders.

It makes more sense to focus on graduating from Oxford as the source of wisdom about exercising political power. Check out just how few leaders of the mainstream political parties since WW2 didn’t graduate from Oxford – Sunny Jim Callaghan, John Major, John Smith (Glasgow), Gordon Brown (Edinburgh), IDS, Michael Howard (Cambridge instead), Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy (Glasgow), Menzies Campbell (Glasgow) and Nick Clegg (Cambridge).

The Duke of Wellington said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton but he was notoriously unsuccessful in mainstream politics; After the first of his brief stints as PM (1828-30), he reportedly said: An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.

Demonstrations generally are against the status quo. Those who go to Eton I would argue are doing very well out of the system so would be in favour of keeping things as they are. Wouldn’t it extend the candidates more by asking them to speak in favour of shooting those with a public school education as it stifles the creation of an egalitarian society. Would many of them be up to it?

5

“Those who go to Eton I would argue are doing very well out of the system so would be in favour of keeping things as they are.”

You could also say that of Oxford grads, like Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair or Ted Heath and Margaret Thatcher. I know avowed leftists like to demonise Old Etonians but doubt most of the rest of us care one way or t’other apart from a swathe of Conservatives who are impressed by the expense of Eton school fees. After all, Nigel Farage didn’t go to Eton or to Oxford and look what that has done for him.

Apart from a few ultra-leftists, no one else seems to hold it against George Orwell for being an Old Etonian but then he didn’t go on to Oxford.

Agree with #3. This is rubbish. In fact, this sort of rationalisation of the abuse of power is exactly the same sort of deification of power that the author rightly criticises in Nu Labour.
Peaceful protest against your rulers is a human right. The question of shooting protesters is, therefore, utterly illegitimate without precise detail regarding the nature of the protest: has it turned violent? Are innocent lives at risk? What alternatives to deadly force can be deployed? I challenge anyone to present a plausible scenario for the UK where the police would consider firing live rounds into a crowd of protesters. Its just a bullshit masturbatory fantasy for wannabe authoritarians and any commentators are right to point this out and decry the presentation of such an essay topic to children. What’s next? How about a discussion of the legitimate uses of deportation? The question of when its okay to torture? When should a nation be allowed to impoverish the poor and disabled?

N.B. I’ve shown the decency not to Godwin here but its the logical conclusion to my rant.

8. Derek Hattons Tailor

It’s getting them ready for the Oxbridge exam, and is clearly an exercise in thinking on your feet and deploying logic to support an argument. The subject is completely irrelevant. Being able to support and defend a position, even one you don’t agree with, is the cornerstone of rational debate. Educational progressives think that every aspect of the curriculum has to be based on something “relevant” (meaning a social concern which is a subject of current discourse in soft left fora). Putting together an argument against controlling CO2 emissions teaches you as much, or as little, about the subject as putting together an argument for controlling them. Knowledge of the subject, or getting the “right” answer isn’t the point, the point is explaining why that is your answer.

It’s getting them ready for the Oxbridge exam, and is clearly an exercise in thinking on your feet and deploying logic to support an argument.

It’s not you know – it’s a scholarship exam, meaning that the boys sitting it are 12. But you’re clearly, obviously right on the second part. It’s a three part question asking an examinee to summarise a passage of philosophy, point out its moral shortcomings and then apply it to a contemporary scenario.

I challenge anyone to present a plausible scenario for the UK where the police would consider firing live rounds into a crowd of protesters

Short memories we have here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloody_Sunday_(1972)

10. Luis Enrique

the soft left fails against Etonians because the latter know that one day they may have to shoot protesters? How does that work then? I mean, accepting the premise, how does this translate into the soft left failing?

Jolly good post. Trouble is the Left has long forgotten their opponents are “lower than vermin”… indeed the “vermin” took over much of the Left and consumed it from the inside out – hence the working class and ideological stuff about power was jettisoned for a list of middle class “isms” to make it feel good about itself and cover the fact that it was shafting the very people it once claimed to represent, like “that bigoted woman”.

12. Derek Hattons Tailor

@ 9 No it’s not literally preparing them for Oxbridge immediately, it’s the start of it though. In 6 years a good many of them will be sitting it.

In this context, it is also a use of power to set a morally loaded question which is unclear about the parameters in which its moral assumptions can be legitimately questioned without being marked down.

Many 13 year olds would not agree with the moral loading and may also not agree with the idea that it is good training to argue a case against your highest conscience to manipulate others, including a marker. Such young people would fear either being marked down or make compromises not required of students with other moral inclinations.

The question it asks in other words is: Can you be an effective spin-doctor for political repression? If so, we would love to have you!

I don’t think left-wingers are more or less likely to approve of this set-up than right-wingers. Educational hierarchies constructing “merit” in this way are also using a form of power, in order to develop spindoctors who use rhetorical power to legitimise whatever goals. Ultimately backed up by violence no doubt.

Wanting violence to back up more ethically informed structures and goals is not necessarily the same as denying how power operates. It may be a more sensitive understanding of power’s many interweaving dimensions that makes people object to the question.

14. Chaise Guevara

@ 13 AT

Oh, calm down. Given the strong whiff of manufactured outrage in this stupid article, I’m guessing that the whole bloody point of the question is to make people defend a position they don’t support. That’s a solid indicator of brainpower, and is incidentally an excellent test of moral character: are you capable of considering the other side’s point of view? That’s an underrated talent, one we could all do with a bit more of.

And yes, it does show spin-doctor skills. But it’s hardly surprising that intelligence is a prerequisite to being a spin-doctor. This really isn’t scary stuff, it’s people making mountains out of molehills.

Chaise Guevara

I agree, this is small everyday stuff. I thought the original post was interesting though.

But I would not see brainpower reflected in arguing for things you don’t believe. In some circumstances I agree it is a skill, but not more profound than being able to say read the script of a language you don’t understand, or recite a prayer in Latin from memory.

The original post makes it seem like a useful preparation for the cold hard facts of life, so I was just pointing out if life is cold and hard, we also have some small role ourselves in making it so.

16. Robin Levett

@AT #15:

But I would not see brainpower reflected in arguing for things you don’t believe.

I would. It is easy to recognise and make the arguments for what you believe in; but to do so doesn’t reflect any understanding of the arguments or the issues involved. Recognising and effectively making the arguments for the contrary position requires far more intellectual effort. It also requires some degree of empathy…

17. Chaise Guevara

@ 15 AT

“But I would not see brainpower reflected in arguing for things you don’t believe.”

Really? Because arguing for things you do believe in is easy. You’ll already have plenty of arguments marshalled – many of which you probably didn’t think of yourself, but are parroting after hearing them elsewhere.

Arguing for a position you dislike tends to require deeper thought.

“In some circumstances I agree it is a skill, but not more profound than being able to say read the script of a language you don’t understand, or recite a prayer in Latin from memory.”

Firstly, it’s not a competition – all these things show talents. Secondly, the above two examples test different skills anyway.

“The original post makes it seem like a useful preparation for the cold hard facts of life, so I was just pointing out if life is cold and hard, we also have some small role ourselves in making it so.”

Absolutely. But Eton isn’t doing so by trying to recruit people who want to shoot protesters. You seemed to be saying it was.

16/17 – I wonder if this explains (to a certain extent) the tendency of some to assign bad faith to their political opponents? Unable, or unwilling, to understand a contrary viewpoint, they conclude that the other person can’t really think like that, and therefore must be lying, and that must be because they’re a bad person.

19. Chaise Guevara

@ 18 Tim J

My favourite example of that is religious folk who can’t conceive that someone might not believe in a god, so assume that we know Jesus is divine and are just claiming otherwise out of spite.

Well, people are different I guess. I think it is far easier for me to make arguments which use conventional narratives to rationalise my position than to take a critical stance which questions assumptions. Especially when I was 13! You can keep shifting the grounds of justification, focus on narrow goals, catastrophise alternatives and throw suspicion on the motives of opponents, for example.

I really don’t see how it it is harder than trying to remain faithful to principles, or giving weight to interests other than your own without discrimination in a given situation, working out how the needs and principles might fit together, and expressing the more complex position it leaves you in.

But perhaps I misunderstand what you mean by arguing against a position you believe in. Robin Levett, Chaise, Guevara, you both seem to have a model where individuals have well-formed beliefs which are not very confused, and find it more difficult to understand why others have different opinions. In that situation, I can see why such an exercise would be an antidote against very rigid dogmatism. And I would agree dogmatism is something which is easier than arguing for an opposing point of view if you are emotionally invested in your dogma. But I think, emotions apart, the process of arguing for a one dogmatic position is generally not different from arguing for another: making convenient assumptions, presenting rigid, self-reinforcing arguments, marginalising counter-arguments and manipulating symbols to present this as a matter of good versus evil.

So from my perspective it is doing something easy (arguing without critical thought) and deploying it in the service of something you don’t believe in. This may be emotionally difficult for people with heavy investment in a position, but not a problem if you don’t. I don’t think it is a matter of greater brainpower.

I don’t think this is the end of the world, I just thought it was interesting. Have I understood your position well? Have I explained my own clearly enough 🙂

19 – I think I see it most often here, from Jim.

22. Chaise Guevara

@ Tim J

Ha, yes, the font of reasoned debate himself.

@ AT

I don’t mean testing for someone’s ability to argue dishonestly (although I can’t deny it’s a valuable life skill). You can argue for a position you disagree with without rationalising, straw manning, ad homming etc. You can argue for a position you disagree with while openly admitting you don’t agree with it.

In fact, doing so is critical in deciding what you do agree with! If you haven’t considered the real arguments in favour of the other side then you haven’t actually explored the issue enough to have a sensible opinion.

In my experience, very few hot topics of debate come down to “one side is utterly wrong, the other completely right”. For example, I see some merit in some pro-life arguments, I just come down as pro-choice because I think the pro-choice arguments trump them. And even in cases where one side is utterly wrong (being based entirely on incorrect facts or insane troll logic), you can’t know that till you’ve looked into it.

@Chaise Guevara, while I accept there are lots of different ways to argue both for a position you agree with and one you disagree with. And that part of working out what you think ideally considers others’ views. Chris Dillow was arguing that the value of arguing for a case opposed to any particular moral commitments was it accepted the role of bad faith in power.

I thought the question as presented seemed more in line with Chris Dillow’s reading of it than yours. The question does not test students’ abilities to see all sides of a moral argument. It assumes the ends and tests how effectively students can justify it. Chris Dillow presents this as important because the legitimising of power relies partly on lies and half-truths.

What is your view – is it more effective to justify killing protesters using lies and half-truths, or more effective to do so by focusing only on the arguments on the other side which you do agree with?

I think I agree with you in principle, that using our brains to work out what we agree and disagree with and presenting it honestly is harder than making a case with no particular moral commitment to honesty and fairness. But is it more effective? And is that really what is being tested in this particular case?


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