The art of the possible

That’s how Bismarck described politics, and that was a good working definition. But it’s backward-looking.

Bismark was so-o-o yesterday

Any number of men, from Sun Tzu to Aristotle to Machiavelli, had said something similar before him, or at least could have done. Pragmatic, slightly cynical realpolitik wasn’t something Bismarck invented.

By contrast, his younger contemporary Lenin uttered a phrase – actually just a fragment of one – that charted a route mankind hadn’t travelled before him, and has been travelling ever since.

The fragment I find so fascinating is “we can and therefore must…”. The great man was talking about robbing the churches of their valuables and shooting most priests, but that lapidary phrase has what chemists would call a high valence – it can attach to anything these days.

Bismarck could have completed his adage by adding: “And anything possible is imperative”. But he didn’t: he lacked Lenin’s scale and prophetic powers.

Bismarck still thought that in many situations ‘we can’ may be separated from ‘we must’ by any number of barriers, mainly moral ones. And even when he was willing to overstep those barriers, others kept him in check.

For example, when Prussian troops besieged Paris in 1870, Bismarck wanted to shell the city and keep doing so until Paris surrendered. But the Prussian high command, headed by the king, vetoed that idea. Such a bombardment, they said, would hurt civilians and violate the rules of engagement.

How retro can you get? If Lenin or any other modern, progressive ruler had been in charge, Paris would have been reduced to smouldering rubble and its population to a charnel house. Have you seen pictures of Dresden or Bakhmut? That would have been Paris, circa 1871.

Yet we don’t have to talk about such apocalyptical possibilities. The principle of ‘can, therefore must’ works hard at every level of modern society, in every walk of life, no matter how rapid or sluggish.

Look at welfare for example. In Britain, social assistance has been on offer throughout my lifetime. Yet in the past, and not all that distant past, many needy people felt embarrassed or even – incredibly! – ashamed to seek it. Those fossils knew they could, but didn’t think they should, get handouts from the state.

If you think such people still exist in any other than negligible numbers, a quick look at our social expenditure would disabuse you of the misapprehension. Moreover, one could prove figures in hand that supply-side economics, somewhat perverted, works there as well.

The supply of a particular benefit generates an ever-growing demand for it. Thus the single-mother benefit produces more single mothers than ever, the disability benefit creates more cripples than Britain had after either World War, the housing benefit is sought by more homeless people than we had during the great urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution.

“Can, therefore must” is hard at work in science and technology too. The other day, an interviewer asked me about artificial intelligence. Its potential  pluses are obvious, but are there any minuses? He suggested growing unemployment as one such.

I agreed there was that danger. However, I added, even if it could be irrefutably proved that AI would produce nothing short of an economic and demographic calamity, its development would still go ahead. “We can and therefore must…”.

Moving some three feet down from the cerebral, one can’t help wondering if Britain is living through a pandemic of gender dysphoria. Stories of young people ‘transitioning’ are filling the papers to the brim, and the leader of His Majesty’s Opposition has opined that Britain already boasts 340,000 women with penises.

That might have been a rhetorical flourish, but anyone with eyes to see will agree that even a generation ago nothing like that was in evidence. Since then, however, the moral philosophy of ‘can, therefore must’ has moved from the brain downwards. “You can”, says the government supported by the modern ethos. “We must,” reply youngsters on cue.

Modernity endlessly extends the boundaries of the allowable, a tendency called ‘progress’ in some quarters. In some other, much smaller, quarters it’s called anomie.

Anomie is the cancer of the mind and, once some cells are affected, the disease ineluctably progresses to Stage IV. So far mankind has come up with only one therapy capable of controlling the disease, and I’d call it ‘DM’, as in Dmitri Karamazov.

That Dostoyevsky character knew exactly what the therapy was, and he loathed its diminishing availability:

“But what will become of men then?” I asked him, “without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?”

They can. And if they can, they must. And if they must, they will. The art of the possible is guaranteed to become the art of the obligatory – and not just in politics.

2 thoughts on “The art of the possible”

  1. “when Prussian troops besieged Paris in 1870, Bismarck wanted to shell the city and keep doing so until Paris surrendered”

    Baron Haussmann obliterated in the aftermath of the war the narrow streets of Paris and created the spacious boulevards.

    So French artillery could fire down the length of a street and mow down the restive Parisian crowds wanting yet one revolution.

    What Bismarck wanted to do but could not Haussmann did for him.

  2. Excellent synopsis! Let’s get the more conservative political parties on both sides of the Atlantic to start summarizing the opposition’s platform with that exact phrase. “Can, therfore must!” How many would still vote Democrat or Labour behind such a Maoist slogan? I know, I am too optimistic; nobody would care.

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