Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Richard Dawkins. Photo: Shane Pope/Flickr
Richard Dawkins, professional atheist and Twitter provocateur, has branched out beyond his recent foray into Muslim journalist-baiting to offer his recommendations for parliamentary reform. Following Labour ex-minister Frank Field’s call for the new Archbishop of Canterbury to give up the 25 seats the Church of England appoints to the House of Lords, and have the seats awarded instead to people from civil society, Dawkins burped out a series of tweets saying that these seats should be given to scientists and other ‘elites’.
‘Replace Lord Bishops by (elected) heads of Royal Society, British Academy, Roy Coll Physicians, Royal Academy etc,’ he tweeted, adding: ‘I want to be operated on by elite surgeons, flown by elite pilots, have my car fixed by elite mechanics. Why not elite electors of Lords?’
Each of these colleges of presumably godless elites would select their own representatives to the upper chamber, a suggestion that was met with a chorus of approving retweetage from the atheist brigadier’s amassed troops of skeptics, secularists and science fans.
However fond of science and evidence one may be, it should be simple to spot the problem here. Who chooses which colleges of elite experts, scientists, technocrats? Perhaps we could have an expert panel that has an expertise in choosing experts. But then how is that expert panel chosen? Perhaps there are experts in expert panels that have expertise in choosing experts. One way out of this infinite regression is that grizzled old idea, democracy.
Dawkins is not alone these days in his greater faith in elite experts than in lumpen voters. The crisis response of the European Union has been to hollow out democracy and put in place new institutional mechanisms that remove fiscal policy-making from elected chambers and place it in the hands of unelected technocrats, central bankers, judges and diplomats instead.
As they could not be trusted to push through the necessary austerity and structural adjustment in the face of popular opposition, elected leaders have been thrown under the bus in Greece, Italy and Portugal by EU powerbrokers. And across the European periphery, ‘troika’ wonks are flown in to superintend governance. Without experts at the reins, Brussels says, electorates will keep voting themselves ever deeper into debt.
This elite anti-political stance – encompassing a fear of ‘excessive’ democracy, contempt for ordinary people and a faith in experts – is just the contemporary expression of an older distaste for taking democracy too far that dates back to the revolutionary republican upheavals that followed Dawkins’ beloved Enlightenment. Kings may have been overthrown or cowed by the insurgent Enlightenment-reading bourgeois, but that was as far as it was supposed to go.
Upper houses – Senates, Bundesrats, Chambers of Peers, Councils of State and so on – were all intended as wiser, wealthier, more knowledgeable checks on what US founding father James Madison described as the ‘fickleness and passion’ of lower chambers. They are in essence houses of republican nobility. (And, in the House of Lords, actual nobility, but its bicameralism is defended for the same reasons.)
As one of the world’s leading historians of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel, has documented, there were in fact two Enlightenments: the moderate Enlightenment of Rousseau, Newton and Kant that embraced science and secularism but made its peace with or defended established power; and the radical Enlightenment of a hardier bunch inspired by Baruch Spinoza, the ‘prince of philosophers’, who went further, targeting the injustice of the entire social order and demanding democracy, equality and what we now call human rights.
There is much to be celebrated in the arrival in recent years of a popular militant secularism and cheering of science and reason. From the youthful Skeptics in the Pub groups popping up across the country, to homeopathy overdose die-ins, to the popularity of ‘science comedy’, it is hard to be curmudgeonly about a revival in Enlightenment thinking when Louisiana schools are teaching that the Loch Ness Monster disproves evolution.
But there can also be at times something a little bit sneering and, well, elitist, about bits of this ‘movement’, the same attitude that inheres in the affinity of Dawkins and his followers for a scientised House of Lords, that democrats amongst the geeks would do well to try to excise. There is insufficient effort at understanding why people might embrace religion, New Age mumbo-jumbo, or alternative medicine, and occasionally a smug dismissal of the dumb, unlettered mass of humanity. Is this not the contemporary analogue of the moderate Enlightenment, an elitist rationalism comfortable with illegitimate power and disdainful of ordinary people?
Another famous haranguer of religion, Karl Marx, understood religion to be a protest against real suffering, and that the struggle against religion is pointless without a struggle against a political economy that requires religion as its analgesic. His frequently over-shortened quote, that religion is the opium of the people, continues: ‘The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.’
A House of Lords with 25 extra godless scientists is still a House of Lords. The living flower would not have been plucked.
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself