Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam*

Here's George Orwell on what he calls neo-pessimism (which some of you may recall is a topic which interests me at embarassingly great lengths):

The danger of ignoring the neo-pessimists lies in the fact that up to a point they are right. So long as one thinks in short periods it is wise not to be hopeful about the future. Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist. By and large the prophets of doom have been righter than those who imagined that a real step forward would be achieved by universal education, female suffrage, the League of Nations, or what not.

The real answer is to dissociate Socialism from Utopianism. Nearly all neo-pessimist apologetics consist in putting up a man of straw and knocking him down again. The man of straw is called Human Perfectibility. Socialists are accused of believing that society can be—and indeed, after the establishment of Socialism, will be—completely perfect; also that progress is inevitable. Debunking such beliefs is money for jam, of course.

The answer, which ought to be uttered more loudly than it usually is, is that Socialism is not perfectionist, perhaps not even hedonistic. Socialists don’t claim to be able to make the world perfect: they claim to be able to make it better. And any thinking Socialist will concede to the Catholic that when economic injustice has been righted, the fundamental problem of man’s place in the universe will still remain. But what the Socialist does claim is that that problem cannot be dealt with while the average human being’s preoccupations are necessarily economic. It is all summed up in Marx’s saying that after Socialism has arrived, human history can begin. Meanwhile the neo-pessimists are there, well entrenched in the press of every country in the world, and they have more influence and make more converts among the young than we sometimes care to admit.
I identify with the last paragraph in particular. Socialism in the twentyfirst century should be a policy of cautious optimism, if for no other reason but that it's the only way we'll ever get anything done. But this should not prevent us from setting big goals. It's like Heat, the book by George Monbiot I keep rambling about: it sets a goal of a 90 % reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. Monbiot has very little hope that this will be accomplished, but shows that it is in fact feasible, if only the political will could manifest itself. But there is a really good balance in that book there between hope and vision on the one hand and feasibility on the other. Even if we don't reach those goals - in which case we have worse things to worry about - we might aim for them, and maybe we'll get much farther with them than we would without them.

Striking the right balance between idealism and pragmatism or vision and realism seems to be a huge problem for the left wing. There's an enormous battle between people on the far left who refuse to do anything unless they can do everything at once (hangover from the revolutionary days, I suppose) and those who are so far into the minutiae of practical politics that they forget they have a vision they need to clarify and work towards.

* * *

And by the by, in another section of the column, Orwell quotes a figure of 5000 Carthaginians in Carthage when the city was razed. In fact, there were half a million, 50.000 of whom were sold as slaves. So to amend Orwell's point: the annihilation of an enemy was never easy, even in an age where human life was cheap.

How cheap? Know what the word "decimate" means? It's the Roman word for killing every tenth person in a legion that had been mutinous; they had a word for it. Those crazy Romans.

* * *

Oh, and for those of you who crave, nay, demand knowledge of my home cooking projects, I woke up this morning and the sourdough was all bubbly and smelled like yoghurt and almonds and beer. I feel like Dr. Frankenstein. Igor, more flour, please!

* Because what this blog really needs is more titles in latin.

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Blogger Mikkel said...

I dare you to name even one civilization contemporary to Rome and less crazy.

November 03, 2007 3:20 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

The Carthaginians were pretty good. Oh, except the lets-attack-Rome-on-elephants -over-the-Alps -thing. And I hear there was this one little village in France that seemed pretty sane.

Btw, I'm about to start reading "Rubicon". Read it?

November 03, 2007 4:08 pm  
Blogger Mikkel said...

I suppose the Carthagians were pretty good, if by "pretty good" you mean "sacrificed their children to Ba'al Hammon."

Which Rubicon are you talking about?

November 03, 2007 7:20 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Oh, psh. Who among us can honestly say that they've never sacrificed a child to Ba'al? To make an omelet, you've got to break some eggs. If the so-called human-rights advocates* had had their wussy way with the children-sacrificing, the Romans would have burned Carthage completely to the ground with their weapons of mass destruction (I hear that even now, the Romans are developing salt). The Romans plot and lurk, and the ancient Carthaginians had to be strong and tough and sacrifice the necessary children. Afterwards, they broke some eggs and had an omelette a la Moloch.

* I refer to the Ancient Carthage office of Amnesty International, and other pansies.

November 03, 2007 7:47 pm  
Blogger mrtn said...

Oh, the Rubicon is Tom Holland's.

November 03, 2007 7:47 pm  

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