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Off Piste: A song and dance about Western values

Contrary to expectations, it seems that we have succeeded in developing forms of society in which doing the hokey-cokey is what it's all about. Roy Harris pays tribute to an inspirational text

Poppleton University's Philosophy Department recently produced a rare pearl without price: "What if the hokey-cokey is really what it's all about?" (Times Higher Education, 12 June). As a thought for the day, it's streets ahead of anything you are likely to find on the noticeboard of any "real" philosophy department at a "real" university. But no sooner had that occurred to me than I realised that a similar question had been raised half a century ago by a distinguished philosopher.

If I had to nominate one short text by a non-Western writer that should be compulsory reading for every intelligent Western adult, my vote would unhesitatingly go to an essay written by Ananda Coomaraswamy. It is called "The bugbear of democracy, freedom and equality". Reading it once upon a time made me rethink my assumptions about what I was doing with my own life, and what I ought to do. And I know of no higher praise that can be bestowed on any text you are likely to read in a literate society.

A neater title might have been "The bugbear of civilisation". For what Coomaraswamy probes with nagging insistence is the basis of what the West likes to think of as its "civilised values". It's an essay that bears rereading at a time when Western politicians are constantly prating about fighting a "war on terror" and asking the world to believe that exporting approved forms of democracy (by force if need be) to the countries of the Middle East is some kind of sacred mission entrusted to them by the Almighty. It is in the name of democracy, freedom and equality that we are nowadays recruited to the cause of the Great Crusade.

Coomaraswamy's argument can be interpreted in various ways. But that is a characteristic of all great texts. The account that follows is the way I read it. But I can imagine the original text being read at a more superficial level where it sounds like a simplistic diatribe against the West, disguised by a wealth of learned philosophical allusions to Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, the Rigveda and the Bhagavadgita. At the time it was written, India and Ceylon were still part of the British Raj and were to remain so throughout Coomaraswamy's life. His perspective was always that of one belonging to those lesser breeds without the Law.

Readers who are totally unsympathetic to that perspective might even construe the essay as a perverse apologia for the caste system. The author himself seems to have anticipated this reaction because he says more than once that he is not trying to defend the caste system but simply to explain it. The explanation is necessary, in his view, in the face of the almost uniform failure by Western anthropologists and sociologists to understand it. (One exception, he notes, is the maverick anthropologist Arthur Hocart.)

Almost universally condemned by European writers from Benjamin Constant and James Mill onwards, the caste system appears to sin fundamentally against the Western sacred gospel of equality. Coomaraswamy spurns the facile tit-for-tat argument that the West maintains an inherited caste system of its own in all but name. Instead, he chooses to take issue with the Western concept of equality at a deeper level, claiming that what the West calls equality is not true equality at all, since the current Western interpretation of that concept has been grossly perverted both by the social consequences of industrialisation and by the West's narrow political view of democracy.

Coomaraswamy, as I read him, believes that the West lost its way, both intellectually and spiritually, by progressively blurring the distinction between the inner self and the outer self. It was the latter that was increasingly taken as the basis for establishing values. I think he hits the nail on the head here. Instead of relating "equality" to the fulfilment of each person's capabilities, the West (including Marxist Russia) had reduced it to questions of economics and statistics (comparability of income, and of living standards, plus the hallowed electoral principle of "one man, one vote").

For Coomaraswamy, on the other hand, "it is precisely from the standpoint of the caste system that an Indian can most confidently and effectively criticise modern Western civilisation". This is because caste has its raison d'etre in recognition of the need for society to provide not only for its own stability and survival, but also for a division of labour in which the rights and responsibilities of all are clear and consistent for the duration of a human lifetime. This last bit is what seems to Western eyes the most reprehensible feature of the caste system; namely, its hereditary character. According to Coomaraswamy, it is in fact a mechanism designed to provide the opportunity for every member of society to play a productive role in the collectivity. Behind this, in turn, lies a conception of "work" that is not a mere means of earning money, nor even the performance of a useful activity, but the creative expression of a sacred duty of self-fulfilment. This has been almost lost in the West, except perhaps among certain practitioners of the so-called "fine arts" and followers of William Morris. But the philosophy underlying the caste system regards every occupation, however humble, as involving creative skills. "I say", Coomaraswamy proclaims, "that no man can be happy but in 'that station of life to which it has pleased God to call him'."

Perhaps those who have studied Coomaraswamy's thinking in more depth than I have will say that my account does not do it justice. But I don't think that matters a great deal for my next point, which in any case takes the argument further than it is taken in Coomaraswamy's essay. I suspect that Coomaraswamy was describing an idealised version of caste rather than the repressive system in force during his own lifetime. (Here I am way off-piste, having had no personal experience at all of the caste system as it operated in India.)

Coomaraswamy might even have conceded the point about idealisation. But if he was right to question the equation of civilised values with current Western notions of democracy, freedom and equality, the implications of that challenge cut both ways. We are brought, I think, to see that all forms of civilisation, including those based on caste, necessarily involve the imposition of thinking designed to narrow - not broaden - the way we look at the world and the way we are prepared to behave in it. To put it in Poppletonian terms, the human race has developed forms of society in which doing the hokey-cokey is what it's all about.

What a civilisation proclaims as its "values" is actually an idealisation of the way its institutions are supposed to work and the benefits they are supposed to provide. It is in everyone's interest that these "values" should be lauded and inculcated as widely as possible, because then it is more likely that this form of civilisation will flourish as it is theoretically intended to, and compete successfully with rival civilisations, or else with anarchy. That's what it's all about. It's just that different civilisations have different versions of the hokey-cokey. The Muslim version is never going to coincide with the Pope's.

Furthermore, there is no independent basis on which values can be compared across civilisations. To that extent Coomaraswamy, it seems to me, was both a relativist and a holist. He says at one point: "Wholes are immanent in all their parts; and the parts are intelligible only in the context of the whole." (One main thrust of his essay is the criticism that Western scholars deplore the caste system because they have decontextualised it and treated it as if it were something envisaged as being imposed on Western society. This they regard - understandably - with abhorrence.)

But he ceases to be a relativist, at least, when he declares his own belief in the sacral nature of work. The worker must be "able to feel that in doing of what is his to do he is not only performing a social service and thereby earning a livelihood, but also serving God". There I have to part company with him, never having felt that earning my livelihood had anything to do with serving God. "That's exactly what you would say," Coomaraswamy would doubtless reply, "because you have tacitly adopted those mercantile values that make earning money by selling your intellectual labour a natural, necessary and self-justifying activity sui generis. Western civilisation has corrupted you."

I wonder what Coomaraswamy would have had to say about a television programme such as The Apprentice, which openly glorifies the selfish, competitive pursuit of business success in front of a gaping audience of millions. For me, the way the BBC blatantly ignores the ethical dimension of this programme is convincing evidence that Coomaraswamy's basic thesis about the West is not far wide of the mark.

Supporting evidence is how we flock each week to buy Lottery tickets, hoping to win untold riches, and benignly encouraged in that habit by the government of the day. But I would go further and suggest that once a civilisation succeeds in divorcing the lives of a majority of urban dwellers from the chains of cause and effect that are responsible for producing the food they eat and the clothes they wear, it imposes moral blinkers on their view of the world. Most of us do not even inquire where what we buy comes from or at what human cost: we just complain when supermarket prices go up. Even travel no longer broadens our minds: the tourist industry ensures that what we see is a suitably picturesque version of how other people live, always on show not too far from our hotel swimming pool, where the local cuisine has been dumbed down to suit tourist palates.

The very same blinkers make it possible for us to lament third-world poverty and send contributions to famine relief, while at the same time doing nothing to prevent home armaments industries from thriving by supplying the wherewithal for massacres abroad, or governments building up their own military forces to impose their country's will on others "when necessary". That has even become part of the modern definition of what a "free" country is, and ministries of aggression are invariably called ministries of "defence".

What conclusion do I draw from all this? I think Coomaraswamy is right to suppose that the West is committed to reducing the world's populations to the same cultural "ant-heap" (a favourite metaphor of his) that it has already created in Europe and America. Given the collapse of Communism in Russia, and China's creeping capitulation to capitalism, the structure of this global ant-heap, sociologically and economically, is now irreversibly established, short of some global cataclysm. To that extent, it is not given to any individual to change the world. (A proposition to be distinguished from asserting that the actions of one individual may not in fact, ultimately, change the world. Julius Caesar changed the world, but by no means in ways that he intended or could even have envisaged, unless he were much more far-sighted than historians tell us he seems to have been. Hitler would be a more recent example. Individuals can leave legacies, although not necessarily the legacies they themselves intend.)

Coomaraswamy also wrote an essay called "What is civilisation?" I can do no better than end by quoting one of its concluding sentences. "It has often been said that one can be a good Christian even in a factory; it is no less true that one could be an even better Christian in the arena. But neither of these facts means that either factories or arenas are Christian or desirable institutions."

In this wise observation, substitute for "Christian" the name of whatever system of values seems to you appropriate.

Readers' comments (2)

  • Seems like the good professor needed a quick and easy publication for his CV, speaking from self-professed positions as a non-expert. So full of holes, the quick response I started to write would have been longer than Harris’ article.

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  • I have observed academics who overinflate the benign to dumb down our celebratory culture led by cheerleading squads. I have also observed academics who in their academic brilliance are able to reduce complex experiences into simple uplifting ideas that bring the contentment of enlightenment.

    Professor Harris belongs to the latter type of serious academics who are increasingly rare, and which you would only find in the cloisters of Oxford, Cambridge and broom cupboards of the LSE.

    I feel humbled by Emeritus Professor Harris’s courage in challenging his ‘own’ culture (which no doubt will be attracting ridicule by his detractors who prance their allegiance to Western Civilisation) when he reduced the complex ideas of democracy and ‘market’ values practiced in a ‘civil’ society, which has been blemished by a rise of intolerance driven by religious dogma.

    This article is a refreshing reminder that we need not see the world in terms of “you’re either with us or you’re against us” view of civilization.

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