Maybe Guy Fawkes was on to something

Guy Fawkes, the eminent political scientist

Last night London sounded like Beirut, c. 1980. Mercifully, it was fireworks rather than mortars, but the nervous souls among us jumped up all the same each time a bomb-like device went off.

The staccato cannonade had a crescendo built in, and tonight it’ll reach a thunderous finale (Penelope, where the hell are those earplugs you got me last year?). Technically the big bang should come tomorrow night, but weekends are more conducive to festivities.

“Always remember the fifth of November”, goes the popular ditty, and obedient Londoners always do. That’s why every year on this day, give or take a couple, fireworks light up the night sky, turning light sleepers like me into swearing insomniacs.

Bonfire Night is a big event, celebrating the failure of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, when the professional soldier and converted Catholic Guy Fawkes placed 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament.

The aim was to blow up King James I, along with the House of Lords, to trigger a popular revolt and restore Catholic monarchs to the throne. The plot failed, and England remained staunchly Protestant, which ineluctably led to her becoming staunchly atheist.

This observation is inspired not by any personal convictions but simply by observation: the Reformation demonstrably acted as the anteroom to atheism.

Invited by Descartes (himself a semi-lapsed Catholic) to doubt everything, by Luther to become their own priests and by Calvin to disdain all spiritual authority, people were cast adrift in the raging sea of their own devices.

The reefs of atheism beckoned invitingly, and people happily sailed towards them. A Richard Dawkins – throngs of Richard Dawkinses – became inevitable, new prophets of the new materialistic gods always athirst.

These are the most obvious thoughts that Guy Fawkes night bangs into my mind. There are also less obvious ones, those having to with politics, not religion.

My contention is that violence is the only way to supplant any modern democratic state.

I’m not talking here about people voting to replace, say, Socialists Lite, aka Tories, with Socialists Full Strength, aka Labour. What I have in mind is rather changing significantly the existing constitutional arrangement if it doesn’t work well.

This brings us to ‘consent of the governed’, the defining feature of the modern state in the eyes of its founders. As do so many liberal notions, this one derives from Hobbes and mostly Locke, the inspiration behind both American and French revolutions, and therefore modern politics.

An idealised picture Locke must have had in mind was that of ‘the people’ coming together at some instant in the past to decide on accepting or rejecting the post-Christian idea of secular government unaccountable to any absolute moral authority.

Upon mature deliberation they chose to give their consent to the liberal, secular state. No doubt a show of hands must have been involved, all perfectly equitable and democratic.

This idea is doubtless attractive and it would become even more so if any evidence could be found to suggest that this meeting of minds ever took place. Alas, no such evidence exists.

In fact, no modern attempt to replace a traditional monarchy with a ‘liberal’ republic, be that the English revolutions of the seventeenth century, the American and French ones of the eighteenth, or the Russian ones of the twentieth, involved campaigning for the ‘people’s’ consent or asking them what they wanted.

What they all did involve was unbridled violence unleashed in ‘the people’s’ name by a small cadre of subversives and their variously named revolutionary committees.

Since neither Locke nor his followers could pinpoint the granting of ‘consent’ to any specific historical event, they had to talk about some nebulous ‘compact’ or ‘social contract’, to use the phrase first popularised by Democritus and later by Hobbes and especially Rousseau.

However, according to the legal principle going back to the Old Testament, for any contract to be valid it has to be adjudicated by an authority holding sway over both parties, one whose judgment they accept as binding. In any reasonable sense such an authority has to be institutionally superior to the two parties.

The only authority that can be deemed superior to both the state and the individual is God. Hence frequent, if insincere, appeals to the deity in various founding documents of the early liberal states.

However, one would look in vain for any scriptural references either to ‘government by consent’ or to ‘social contract’. Nowhere does it say that a third of the electorate, a proportion deemed adequate in most modern democracies including Britain, can cast their vote in a way that will give them absolute sovereignty over the remaining two-thirds.

An important aspect of ‘consent’, as understood by Lockeans everywhere, is that it’s irrevocable: once given, or presumed to have been given, it can’t be reclaimed by any peaceful means.

Yet in no conceivable way could it be true that a third or even a fourth of the population voting in a government has given consent on behalf of the rest of the people as well. This is patently ludicrous, as is the whole idea of consent, which in reality is neither sought by politicians nor given by voters.

Any real agreement includes terms under which it may be terminated. In the absence of a higher adjudicating authority, no ‘social contract’ can have such a clause.

Therefore violence is the only recourse either party has, meaning that in a modern state a revolution is not so much an aberration as a logical extension of the ‘social contract’, the only way for the people to withdraw their ‘consent’.

I don’t know whether Hobbes and Locke realised that their theories implicitly issued a carte blanche to revolutionary conspiracies. But Guy Fawkes illustrated – and presaged – their theories perfectly.

So perhaps some of the fireworks should be set off to commemorate his valuable contribution to political science – rather than to celebrate the failure of his attempt to put it into practice.

Was he aware of his pioneering effort? Who knows. A penny for your thoughts, Guy.

4 thoughts on “Maybe Guy Fawkes was on to something”

  1. I can’t for the life of me see what’s happy about sailing to the reefs of atheism. I mean people say the appeal is being unencumbered by morality behind closed doors, but really, that’s hardly going to console one in the end.

  2. Consent of the governed? Speaking of which, I recall the words of the late comedian Paul Lynde…”There’s a real scary holiday coming up…Election Day.”

  3. Bonfire Night for some time in England. Now Purge Night in France. Riotous “yuof” run wild. All reminds me of the Devil’s Night in Detroit. Watching the fires in Detroit burn was a popular tourist attraction for some time. Sit in a restaurant in a downtown high rise and watch. Under control now the Devil’s Night they tell us. More than likely they burned down just about anything that could be burned down.

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