Grist to the radical Mill

John Stuart Mill: Victorian firebrand by Richard Reeves (Atlantic Books), reviewed by Anthony Arblaster

September 20, 2008
6 min read

At a time when the need for champions of both freedom and equality, civil liberties and state regulation of the economy is as great as ever, it is worth reading or rereading John Stuart Mill. Anthony Arblaster explains his importance for socialists and radical liberals in this discussion of a recent political biography.

In the early years of the 19th century, when respectable families of all classes in Britain brought up their children as Christians of one variety or another, the philosopher John Stuart Mill received a purely secular education. He had it from his father, James Mill, and the founder of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. He was brought up as the heir to the utilitarian throne; and he never entirely renounced his inheritance.

Utilitarianism is very much a this-worldy doctrine. It teaches that the aim of all our actions, and the basis of morality, should be ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. As that famous phrase indicates, it is an egalitarian and democratic creed. What matters is not just the increase in the sum of human happiness, or well-being, but that it should be spread as widely as possible. If a few are blissfully happy, and the rest of us are miserable, that is far worse than if the happiness were spread more evenly, and we were all moderately satisfied and comfortable.

Bentham was a very consistent thinker. Anything that made people happy was good, provided it wasn’t at the expense of others. So ‘push-pin’ (bowling) was as good as poetry, when it came to happiness or pleasure. Whatever turns you on …

Education, education, education

John Stuart Mill wasn’t happy with this. He was a great believer in education, and he was firmly of the view that educated pleasures were superior to others. He also took the view that people should be literate and educated before they could vote; and that, ideally, the masses should defer to the wisdom of those with ‘superior minds’. Although he favoured the extension of the franchise and believed, unlike most 19th-century male liberals, that women should have the vote on the same terms as men, he did have serious misgivings about democracy.

This may seem paradoxical to some people, because Mill is best known as a philosopher and champion of classical liberalism. His most famous work, On Liberty, published in 1859, is still widely read, discussed and quoted. Richard Reeves, in his lively and extremely readable new biography, John Stuart Mill: Victorian firebrand, calls it ‘the new testament of liberalism’.

What sometimes comes as a surprise to its readers is that Mill locates the biggest threat to personal liberty not in government, but in society. What he fears most is ‘the tyranny of public opinion’, or, borrowing a phrase from Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘the tyranny of the majority’. Society, Mill wrote, can produce ‘a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression’.

No one with personal experience of racism, or homophobia, or mob hysteria of one kind or another, is likely to underestimate the terrible power of collective intolerance and hostility. And it should be said of Mill himself that he was utterly fearless in his championship of unpopular causes. He campaigned against Governor Eyre of Jamaica, who, following a small scale rebellion, had more than 400 Jamaicans executed and a further 600 flogged. He spoke up for the rights of Irish Fenians – the kind of people who would today be labelled ‘terrorists’. And, as an MP, he proposed a pro-women amendment to the second reform bill in 1867.

But Mill surely exaggerated the danger of a monolithic public opinion both then and now. Developed modern societies are more diverse than he expected them to be. People on the left are sometimes over-impressed by the vast efforts made by governments and the media to mould public opinion. But the very scale of these attempts to ‘manufacture consent’ in fact bear witness to the difficulty of the task. If it were that easy to mould people’s minds, they wouldn’t have to try so hard. The (uneven) spread of literacy and increasing access to a variety of sources of information mean that more and more people think for themselves, making for a deeply sceptical attitude towards those bodies whose opinions were once accepted as authoritative and reliable. Think of the dramatic decline in the power of the Catholic church over people’s minds in countries such as Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

For the same reasons, we cannot now go along with Mill’s efforts to preserve within democracy a dominant role for an elite of the ‘wise’ and the educated. People won’t stand for it.

Democracy and liberal values

The west pays lip service to democracy, but little more. If people freely elect the ‘wrong’ party or person – Chavez in Venezuela, Hamas in Palestine – they are isolated and, if possible, destabilised. But increasingly people are not satisfied with electoral charades. They want the real thing, a real choice, and those who deny this to them, like President Mwai Kibaki in Kenya, find that they have unleashed popular forces far beyond their control.

This is not to say that there is always and necessarily a perfect accord between democracy and liberal values. If democracy is construed as the unfettered rule of the majority, it easily leads to a denial of minority and individual rights. Remember the history of Northern Ireland under (majority) unionist rule? Mill understood this very well, and we need to understand it too.

But the principle threat to current freedoms comes not from public opinion, but from the state and its increasing authoritarianism. Just as, during the cold war, the supposed threat of communism was used, especially in the US, as an excuse for attacks on civil liberties and witch hunts against the left, so now the so-called ‘war on terror’ is relentlessly exploited to justify the erosion of basic freedoms and the rule of law.

This is a difficult issue for the traditional left. For more than a century now, socialist and radical liberals have argued in favour of using state power to curb and regulate capitalism (at least) and to create a humane and civilised society. That approach has not lost its force or relevance. But the left must also recognise that state power can be repressive as well as beneficial, and that when Labour politicians start to sneer at liberal opinion, and talk about civil liberties as luxuries that we can no longer afford, we are in real danger. Mill would have understood this. We still have much to learn from him.


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