J.S. Mill and The Problem With The English
How one of this country’s greatest political philosophers epitomises the inherent issues of this island nation
John Stuart Mill has been described as the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century.
As a politician and a philosopher, Mill was peerless in his day.
Perhaps even the most important liberal thinker of all time, he dramatically furthered the intellectual study of areas such as justice, liberty and representative democracy.
As a Member of Parliament, he was the first sitting politician to profess support for women’s suffrage, and he was an ardent proponent of political reform and progressive causes— advocating proportional representation, the recognition of unions, and more.
As far as 19th white males come, J.S. Mill was about as “woke” as they get.
Yet, at the very heart of the progressive idealism he espoused was a fundamental misunderstanding of the world — a misunderstanding that is still tightly wound into the psyche of the English.
This misunderstanding may well be the “first cause” of Brexit. It certainly explains the arrogance and myopia with which the government has pursued its Brexit agenda and the negotiations process.
It didn’t start with J.S. Mill, but because his patrician liberalism became the basis for much of late 19th — 20th-century British politics, his advocacy of such a mindset was certainly one of the most pivotal in legitimising and spreading it (a pre-internet meme, if you will).
So what exactly am I talking about, in terms of Mill’s philosophy?
In the main, it is his distinction between “civilised” and “barbaric” peoples, and as a result, a justification for “benevolent” colonial despotism.
Having worked for the British East India Company for over thirty years, it makes sense that Mill would seek to justify the continued oppression of colonised peoples — if only to assuage his own feelings around the part he had to play.
Now, of course, plenty will say “give the man some slack.” “He was just of his time”.
That excuse holds no water, for a man so far ahead of his time on almost every other facet of political life. If he could be the first MP to support women’s suffrage, he could certainly have taken time to reconsider the most facile and superficial of nationalist myths to permeate our culture.
Because, you see, it is this adherence to the idea of Britain as:
- Kind in doing so
…that has caused the bulk of problems we now face in politics today.
I am English, just in case that matters. I see much in my country and fellow English men and women of which to be proud. But this jingoistic fallacy, that is now becoming oh so apparent with Brexit, is the least of it.
The idea that Britain (or England) is better than other nations is embedded in our collective conscious as a people — whether it’s Waterloo or Dunkirk, fighting them on the beaches, or keeping calm and carrying on — the myth and narrative we’ve been fed as a nation is one of a uniquely stoic, inventive and superior character.
It simply isn’t true.
Even though I rationally know that, it still hurts me to say it, such is the depths with which this narrative has bored into my soul.
And J.S. Mill deserves a significant chunk of the blame for this, for in many of his major works, he felt a need to justify and legitimise British colonial barbarism by feeding this creation myth.
Of course, I’ve said Britain throughout this piece, as obviously, that was the name under which our colonialising was done, but clearly, it is England to whom we’re really referring.
The Scots, the Welsh and the Irish have none of this self-aggrandised posturing built into them, not in the way we English do.
Britain is a great country, but our holding on to the myth that we’re unique in our greatness is pulling us back — it’s preventing us from becoming a true leader. The country of the Magna Carta, of the oldest continuous parliament in the world, should be leading the world in political progression.
Instead, we hark back to the worst elements of our history by puffing up our own “civility” and importance, believing the hype that we can “make it on our own”.
This attitude was built by men like J.S. Mill. It is important we recognise their contribution to political society without blanketing over the clear problematic elements of their ideas.
Whereas the Enoch Powells and Oswald Mosleys are easy to disassemble and ridicule, due to their sheer ineffectuality and poorly-thought-out ideologies, it is the great men, the thinkers like Mill, who are the most dangerous if taken to be infallible in their thought.
Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better.