Fatalist Activism in America… and now the UK

My favourite Fatalist joke goes like this:

Two farmers in conversation.
‘What would you do if you won a million dollars?”
“I’d just keep on farming until it ran out.”

Despite the fact that this joke comes from America and was once quoted in the Senate, the US is not the first place one thinks of when considering fatalism. The national image is of the rugged individualist, forging their way towards an unlimited future. Lady Liberty, not Lady Luck is the national emblem. Yes we can! is a recent version of a very well established national stereotype (even though it was stolen from south of the border – Si se puede!). Given that individualism is so well established, is it hard for Americans to think of any real alternative? That they can think of another ideal, is how they manage to have two political parties, how they have two political viewpoints, ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. But there are more than two ways of organising. Grid-group cultural theory argues that we ignore these at our peril. What we ignore won’t go away, it just comes back to bite us.

It’s more helpful, arguably, to identify four, not two ways of organising. The liberal versus conservative dichotomy roughly corresponds to the conflict between hierarchies and markets, but there is also an egalitarian mode of organising which corresponds to neither. Then there is the fatalist way or organising – and it is sometimes hard to see it as a way of organising at all. However, it certainly is and an exemplar of fatalism is Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan. Taleb has recently spent time in the company of British Conservative leader David Cameron. It’s an uncomfortable alliance (if indeed it goes even that far), since Taleb isn’t straightforwardly a capital C Conservative. Perhaps now he’s learnt that the only thing less predictable than the markets is the British media.

That David Cameron thinks Taleb ‘s ideas worth listening to hints at a shift in Conservative ideology. The long Conservative experiment with Friedman-style, Hayek-inspired Individualism, begun with the likes of Keith Joseph and then Margaret Thatcher is for now over. The Times saw this as a shift back towards the more traditional Conservatism of Michael Oakeshott. I would name this, rather, as a flirtation with Fatalism, which in the ideas of Taleb (and perhaps, indeed, Oakeshott) is about as close as its going to get to a political ideology. Here is Oakeshott’s take on Fatalism, though he never names it as such (and though he himself has been called a liberal and a nihilist as well as a conservative):

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. (On Being Conservative, 1962, quoted in Peter Loptson, ed. 1998, Readings on Human Nature, Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, p. 202)

And here is Fatalism dressed up by Roger Scruton as ‘natural’ conservatism:

There is a natural instinct in the unthinking man who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on him, and unwilling to lodge blame where he sees no remedy, seeks fulfillment in the world that is to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born. This instinct, which I have attempted to translate into the self-conscious language of political dogma, is rooted in human nature. (from The Meaning of Conservatism)

At a time when the exuberance of the neo-liberal growth model seems a little out of fashion, no doubt this kind of resignation to fate as a political stance would have a growing appeal somewhere in politics. Fatalism was always there, it’s just that it’s become more acceptable to mention it.

Read more on Nassim Taleb and Fatalist Activism

and even more on How to be a Fatalist

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