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Elias in the Financial Times!

Posted on by Stephen Mennell

Eric Jones drew my attention to a favourable mention of Elias in an unexpected place. I wrote the following comment to appear in the Figurations newsletter 43, but there wasn’t space for it, so here it is. – SJM

Simon Kuper, ‘Why safety now trumps freedom’, Financial Times, Weekend Magazine, 27–28 June 2015

It’s good to see Elias being cited enthusiastically in the Financial Times. But, when Eric Jones tipped me off about Kuper’s article, from its title I drew the false conclusion that it related to world affairs. Kuper writes about the apparent decline in violent behaviour in many countries, referring not just to Elias but also to ‘one disciple of Elias, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’ and to Manuel Eisner’s data on trends in homicide. But he uses all this to infer that there has been a generational shift in Western countries from the rather wild generation of the 1960s, preoccupied with ‘freedom’, to ‘a new type of being: the well-behaved teen’. Kuper should have read Cas Wouters!

Of course, Kuper may prove to be right. But in the technical sense in which we use the term, ‘civilising processes’ are slow, fluctuating and reversible – so, to echo Chou En-Lai, it is too early to say.

Kuper does argue, in a neat but over-simple dictum summarising Elias’s argument, that ‘States forced [people] to behave, and growing trade encouraged them to’. (Trade and markets also force people to do certain things – it isn’t just a matter of incentives.) The point I want to make, though, is that the general safety and predictability of everyday life – a diminishing danger of suffering harm or death, whether by violence, famine, disease or whatever – plays an essential part in the development of the greater capacity for habitual self-control that we called ‘civilised behaviour’. It also facilitates the growth of trade, which therefore is not an ‘independent variable’ but one thread in a number of intertwining long-term processes.

So how does this relate to foreign policy? Well, I would argue that the West has consistently underestimated the value of the simple calculability and safety of everyday life, mainly because its leaders take too much for granted something that – by and large – they enjoy for themselves. The other side of this coin is that they ignore (in both the English and French senses of the verb) the whole literature on the social foundations of democracy. In consequence, they choose – for other people – what they think of as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ over everyday security.

To be more concrete, take the example of Syria. Yes, Assad was (before the outbreak of the civil war) a tyrant, but for most people most of the time only a moderately oppressive tyrant. One had to keep one’s nose clean, but the risk of being killed or bombed out of one’s home was relatively small. This is not to set him on any kind of pedestal (though reflect on the fact that it is not all that many years since he was a guest at Buckingham Palace during a state visit). It is merely to say most Syrians today, I suspect, would gladly go back to the status quo ante, to the lives they lived before the civil war.

It is also to point to another corollary of Elias’s theory, that the unleashing – whether intended or unintended – of the kind of violence, danger and instability that we now see in the Middle East has precisely the consequence of generating lower levels of ‘civilised behaviour’.

This is not to undervalue ‘democracy’. As Elias notes in Studies on the Germans, a democratic political regime is more conducive to producing a ‘civilised habitus’ than a tyrannical and arbitrary one. But that is over and above the need for everyday physical safety.

Stephen Mennell