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Something beautiful and worthy in its own right

One of the happier moments, in what has begun to feel like a long life (for I have now lived through three dekaenneateric cycles), was in the Khan Market at New Delhi.

This was some time ago. There was a bookstore in that market (perhaps there still?) and I am happy as a simile in a bookstore. It was before the Indian economy had turned, in merry cartwheels of Vedic Thatcherism—before the Khan Market had become one of the world’s most expensive retail locations. In those days it was merely well-appointed, and (for India) almost provocatively clean.

It was something about the condition of the light, and the cool air (a late winter afternoon); the understated display of all goods; the polite modesty of both salesmen and customers; the gorgeousness of Delhi ladies in their saris. I felt for a moment that I was in Utopia, and that this was its corner market.

The district around was (is still) full of civil servants. I had an invitation to dinner with a couple of retired ones, and we would talk about their memories. I was fascinated by the ideals they represented, from the earliest days of Indian independence. These were members of the Indian elite, wonderfully if often satirically described in books by the late Nirad Chaudhuri, which made him persona non grata right across the subcontinent.

It was a class of people in some ways less Indian than the Indians, and more British than the British. The couple I was interviewing were themselves products of London intellectual life, with degrees from the LSE, and connections to the Bloomsbury aristocracy, impregnated with all the old Fabian ideals. Like Nehru himself, they spoke and thought in English, and as they freely admitted, came back to India “speaking Hindi with a heavy English accent, if at all.” Yet now they ruled in their own country.

With this—with both the Fabianism and the Brahmanism—came a mysterious affiliation with Gandhi, who also had his feet in both camps, and had been Easternized only after being Westernized. With that, came the desire to be outwardly holy.

I despise “the Left,” despise its hypocrisies, despise the tyranny implicit in the hypocrisy ( “do as I say, not as I do”) but often can’t help loving the people. Hypocrites do not know they are hypocrites, narcissists do not know they are narcissists, except on some level accessed through irony. Hence the ironies with which our present world is dripping.

I despise Utopianism, in every form, yet it must be said that much of the craving for Utopia, and therefore the craving for “progress” towards it, is perfectly sincere.

The couple I have mentioned lived in the sort of house that only civil servants could afford, in the old socialist India. Yet by western standards of wealth, it was small and modest—on the scale of an English cottage—and its denizens made a point of living simply. With hawk eyes, I could not spot a single example of “conspicuous consumption.”

And so throughout the neighbourhood: a model estate, a “garden city” of purely Indian materials, yet somehow redolent of William Morris and Ruskin.

Something of the same Bloomsbury spirit was exported to Canada, too, and is written, esthetically, into the ethos of Canadian socialism. It was an ideal of equality, originally dictated by people at the top. For there was no big government, to start with, and the Nanny State we have since inherited, with its dysfunctional bureaucratic regulation and parasitical taxation, was only an accidental byproduct of those Fabian ideals.

“Equality” can mean many things, but our particular form of it descends from a particular cultural history, and life trying to imitate art. So, for that matter, are the socialist traditions in every other culture; for there was a French, a German, an Italian way of expressing egalitarian ideals—descending in each case from art and literature.

My admired economist, Friedrich Hayek, understood this fairly well, when he dedicated his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944), “To the socialists of all parties.” He understood the degree to which well-educated men and women, motivated by something like goodwill, had filled our world with unintended consequences. Through decades of research, he diligently traced the intellectual sources of their unfortunate miscalculations.

But the real, original cause of error was not intellectual miscalculation. The neighbourhood of the Khan Market showed what could be achieved; something worthy and beautiful in its own right. It was the best that could be done with human will and foresight, in the absence of religious faith.

They did not reckon with the wolf in human nature; only with the sheep. The “Bloomsbury” elites in all times and places trade on this common oversight. They are invariably the descendants of religious zealots, who lost their faith; the product of “spilled religion.” They continue to preach, replacing “God” with “Man.”

Yet in the end, no one listens. For, oddly enough, men will not long do for men what they will do for God.

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