1 July 2007

New Labour's Puritan Agenda

It was the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who said that the more insane and irrational a proposition the more faith is required to believe it, and the more effort required to prop up that belief. He was, as the forerunner of existentialist philosophy in an era dominated by the established church, referring to the Christian doctrine. But we might make a similar critique today of the Labour government's ideology of work which has been redolent of the frenzied rhetoric of the lay preacher, in the case of Tony Blair, and the musty smell of the manse that hangs around Gordon Brown.

John Smith, Blair's predecessor as Labour leader, was also a fervent member of the Church of Scotland. In 1993 he edited a collection of essays entitled Reclaiming The Ground: Christianity And Socialism. The book was produced by the Christian Socialist movement, which numbers many leading Labour ideologues amongst its members, most prominently Tony Blair. In his foreword to Smith's collection Blair wrote:

"Christianity is a very tough religion... It is judgemental. There is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable about such language. But when we look at our world today and how much needs to be done, we should not hesitate to make such judgements. And then follow them with determined action. That would be Christian Socialism." Yes, Tony, and that would also be the explanation for the horrendous misjudgement to invade Iraq.

In terms of their denomination, most of the contributors to this short but telling book are Methodists. Paul Boateng begins his essay with the statement that "The Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism". So it is worth noting that doctrines of Methodism were taken by EP Thompson in his classic study The Making of The English Working Class as the prototype of the disciplined worker. The creation of the punctual and punctilious workforce required by capitalist production systems was far from straightforward, as our ancestors were understandably loath to give up the many "holy days" they enjoyed each year.

This problem was solved by the invention of the ideology of work. It was the Methodists who invented the concept of the "calling": one's work-role in life, as assigned by God in some lottery that was both random and unavailable for inspection. The role of the good Christian was to work hard within whatever calling "God" had assigned, hence the following lines, typical of many Methodist hymns: A servant with this clause, Makes drudgery divine; Who sweeps a room as for thy laws, Makes that and the action fine The "clause", of course, is to perform the act in God's name.

Perhaps the line about making drudgery divine is most telling in terms of Labour's attitude to work policy. It is particularly sickening to learn that the author of this simple hymn, George Herbert, was himself a wealthy aristocrat and MP for Montgomery.

According to the 17th Century theologians, to question one's position in life, particularly one's work-station, was to question God's plan, and hence blasphemous. This was the ideological justification for the creation of disciplined workers, but the weapon that was used to achieve it was fear. Success in one's allotted station was taken as a sign of being favoured by God, and so increased one's likelihood of finding a place in heaven after death. People's energy and time was to be stolen here on earth in return for a promise of eternal life. No wonder Thomas Paine wrote that: "Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst; every other tyranny is limited to the world we live in; but this attempts to stride beyond the grave and seeks to pursue us into eternity."

1 comment:

  1. It seems Brown wants the protestant work ethic without the religion. At least with methodism you got heaven for your trouble.