Be afraid, be very afraid - a liberal mediates on Halloween

Last week saw the celebration of Halloween. (According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica):

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain eve was observed on October 31, at the end of summer. This date was also the eve of the new year in both Celtic and Anglo-Saxon times and was the occasion for one of the ancient fire festivals when huge bonfires were set on hilltops to frighten away evil spirits. The date was connected with the return of herds from pasture, and laws and land tenures were renewed. The souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day, and the autumnal festival acquired sinister significance, with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds said to be roaming about. It was the time to placate the supernatural powers controlling the processes of nature. In addition, Halloween was thought to be the most favourable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes. These pagan observances influenced the Christian festival of All Hallow's (that is to say All Saints) Eve.

Now there are many useful reasons why, in the modern context, one might explore aspects of Halloween but today I'm going to use it to bring out one of the significant weak points of liberalism and to suggest one possible response to this - naturally it is one that, in general terms, I favour.

In his most recent work A Secular Age the philosopher Charles Taylor notes that pre-modern societies included in their make up a complementary "play of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code" and that this "either takes the form of the code's being momentarily suspended or transgressed; or else . . . the code itself allows for a counter principle to the dominant source of power; it opens the space for a complimentary 'power of the weak'" (Charles Taylor: A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts 2007 (pp. 48-49). He goes on to note that it is "as though there were a felt need to complement the structure of power with its opposite." (ibid. p. 49).

Taylor points first of all to the simple fact that the pressure of the code needs to be relaxed from time to time and that we need to let off steam now and then. I'm sure all of us would understand the straightforward psychological need for this. But he quickly points to another aspect which is that were the code "relentlessly applied" it would drain us of all energy and that "the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle." In other words valued structures and codes were interdependently related to their inverse forms.

So, to turn again for a moment to Halloween, it's celebration (if that is the word) in pre-modern times certainly fits into this idea of the existence of code, structure, anti-code and anti-structure; God's good world really does suddenly become filled with ghosts, witches, hobgoblins, black cats, fairies, and demons of all kinds. Satan is a real leader of a real anti-structure to heaven - namely, hell and his minions were going to have their day, or rather their night. And, strange though it might seem to us today, the temporary yet subjectively real presence of a dark anti-code and anti-structure in people's lives served not to over turn or truly to threaten God's reign, but instead to reinvigorate it. All Hallow's Eve and its reign of darkness clearly showed to people why it was so important that code and the structure should be upheld by their society.

But, you may say, what has this got to do with the contemporary 'celebration' of Halloween? Surely, nowadays it is simply to do with having a bit of fun - the letting off of steam - with only the merest fictitious frisson of the dark side? After all as a culture we don't any more really believe in ghosts, ghoulies and things that go bump in the night, let alone the idea that Prince of Darkness and his minions would carousing through our communities on a certain night of the year.

As Taylor observes, the modern secular context - which has ineluctably shaped us all - "anti-structure is no longer recognised at the level of the whole society, and in relation to its official, political-jural structure" (ibid. p. 50).

The chief reason this is so is because, from the seventeenth century onwards, western philosophies became increasingly concerned to arrive at (invent?) universal perspectives and from then to derive perfect ideal codes by which the greatest number of people might live. Importantly, it was believed these codes would be unlimited - complete. In other words as a culture we began to seek world views that contained everything - there was to be nothing outside then and so no real possibility (nor need) for an anti-code and anti-structure to keep things in balance.

As Taylor notes:

The idea that a code need leave no space for the principal that contradicts it, that there need be no limit to its enforcement, which is the spirit of totalitarianism, is not just one of the consequences of the eclipse of anti-structure in modernity. That is certainly true. But it is also the case that the temptation to put into effect a code which brooks no limit came first. Yielding to this temptation is what helped to bring modern secularity, in all its senses, into being (ibid. p. 51).

Now I don't know if these words have made Taylor's startling charge completely clear so I'll be rather more up-front and blunt about it. Modern secular culture - which often likes to add the adjective 'liberal' to itself - is founded on its yielding to the temptation to brook no limit to its own absolute principles. It may have used and, indeed, continues to use the language of inclusivity and diversity as it did this but, at heart, it is a kind of totalitarianism because it came to believe that outside it's own ideal forms there is nothing.

But, as we know from other historical examples, attempts to suppress absolutely divergent voices lead, eventually, to some kind of revolution, whether violent or otherwise. Such obvious suppression is not the way liberal secular democracies like to perceive themselves as proceeding so one way in which possible tension was headed off was by pushing anti-codes and anti-structures into the private domain. Taylor notes:

The private/public distinction, and the wide area of negative freedom, is the equivalent zone in these societies to the festivals of reversal in their predecessors. It is here, on our own, among friends and family, or in voluntary associations, that we can 'drop out', throw off our coded rules, think and feel with our whole being, and find various intense forms of community. Without this zone, life in modern society would be unlivable (ibid. 52).

For many years (certainly during the lifetime of all of us here) this strategy has worked but, increasingly, the dangers of this private/public distinction are revealing themselves all over the place. Although this modern space for anti-structure offered and still offers undreamed of possibilities for certain kinds of creativity and behaviour it has also brought with it "hitherto unexperienced dangers of isolation and loss of meaning." It is vital to realise that in this very modern private fantasy space (it is the adjective private that is important here) that the new violent religious fundamentalisms are enabled to grow and strengthen and where all kinds of hidden networks are created for the promulgation of all kinds of sex, drugs and slavery. Some of these fantasies, these neo-anti-codes and structures, as they grow are coming to believe that they can themselves replace the prevailing secular culture - western-born violent radical Islam being the most obvious contemproary example. But they are not really anti-codes and structures which are in balance with their opposites because they see themselves as new perfect codes that also need no moral boundaries and so also brook no anti-structure. As Taylor frighteningly sums up, they are "anti-structures to end all anti-structures" and that their dreams, if carried through, will turn into a "nightmare".

So a message entirely appropriate to Halloween that must be delivered to liberals is to be afraid, be very afraid of the classical liberal private/public distinction because its consequences are beginning to prove very dangerous indeed.

The liberal obsession with the development of universally applicable ideas and philosophies simply fails fully to take into account the incredibly incomplete contingent and largely irrational nature of humankind and that, in consequence we all contain elements of structure and anti-structure, code and anti-code. (Here it is worth noting that in mathematics and thence into other areas of science Gödel's 'incompleteness theorems' have, in their own spheres, dealt with the impossibility of covering all aspects of reality in a quite beautiful fashion.)

We have to remind ourselves that the perfectly rational human being simply does not exist and that knowing this, hard though it is for certain kinds of liberal to admit this, we have to start thinking a lot less theologically and ideally and begin to act much more practically and politically - lower case 'p'. Since the days of Socrates, we have been seduced into believing that we begin to create a better world by first appealing to rational supposedly universal ideas, such as those as goodness or justice but I'm increasingly with the Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss who is insistent that we must start with the difficult and dark question famously posed by Lenin: "Who, whom?" That is to say, in any actual society, to ask who has power, what do they use it for, and who suffers as a result? (See Philosophy and Real Politics, Cambridge University Press 2008).

If, as self-procalimed liberals, we do not start asking this political question at every opportunity (whilst simultaneously acknowledging once again the profoundly inconsistent and irrational shadow side of humanity) then the scary monsters that are starting to jump out of our societies may prove in the long run to be more frightening and dangerous than even old pre-modern believers in Halloween could have imagined.


Yewtree said…
I agree that various Pagan festivals had as their aim the inversion of the usual hierarchical order of things - this is certainly true of Saturnalia in ancient Rome, where masters served slaves; and it was also true of the medieval Feast of Fools or Lord of Misrule. I think it is also true that these safety valves meant that the usual order was less likely to be overthrown. But the ancient version of Samhain probably was not one of those safety valves (it was about freedom); and the festival as celebrated by modern Pagans isn't either (it's about ancestors). Though the medieval Hallowe'en might well have been as described in your opening quote.

Your observation that the public/private distinction is the new "safety valve" is interesting, and certainly rings true. It's almost the opposite of "the personal is political". The other day someone said to me (slightly incredulously), "It really matters to you what people believe, doesn't it?" and I said, well yes, insofar as it affects what they DO (e.g. someone who believes homosexuality is anathema will probably treat LGBT people badly, and so on).