Et in Arcadia Ego: Miliband and the value of intellectuals in Britain

Daniel R. Smith

A stream of photos of Lord Rothermere with Adolf Hitler was all I found when I returned home yesterday and checked my Facebook page. On the radio was also a segment on Ed Miliband’s attack on the Daily Mail’s position toward his father’s purported hatred of Britain. My left-leaning academic friends on Facebook have engaged in the classic trick of British left-leaning academics: turn to contradictions. Of course, their love of dialectics naturally predisposes them to such claims of hypocrisy on the part of the out-and-out claims of the Daily Mail. And, of course, these contradictions abound. But how helpful are they for the legacy of Ralph Miliband and his sons?The question might be answered by looking at what non-British born academics working in the UK have worked on since their entry into British sociology, and their contribution.

This line of inquiry is what Matthias Varul has brought to my attention with his thoughts on the matter. I thought back to when he recommended I read Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1937). After reading Mannheim’s work, which is a highly detailed and yet lucid account of the various ideologies that accompany political position, I was struck by how this line of sociology – the sociology of knowledge as manifest through political persuasion and linked back to the various models of the ‘perfect society’ (utopia) they envisage – has been something of a leitmotif of non-British academics who, through their work, have contributed British sociology and the sociological imagination of students they have taught, either in person or through their texts.

One can trace from Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1937) to Bauman’s work from his 1987 Legislators and Interpreters through to his 1993’s Postmodern Ethics, there has been a concern with ideologies. That is, the role of this utopian thinking and knowledge in the construction of identity – to think politically is to think of a perfect society. Politics is, to quote a phrase of David Graeber’s, about the meaning of life (Graeber, 2001). And if this is so, it’s strange that it is often seen as only left of centre intellectuals who do such ‘thinking’ and ‘reflecting’, all their theorising about a perfect society, the most tiresome and yet obvious example being the meta-narrative of Marx’s ‘communism’. It is the right of centre who merely act, ‘get on with things’, know what’s what and should remain as such; conserve.

Indeed this ‘small c conservative’ attitude is seen as a national trait but it took Mannheim (1937) to point out why this is: the conservative utopia is a perfect society that has already been and gone. The phrase that ‘the Owl of wisdom takes flight at dusk’ is apt for this observation. It is both a product of continental Europe (as it derives from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) and excellently sums up the British curmudgeon attitude to most things: all the good has been and gone, and we long for a British of old. A Britain where the social hierarchy is fixed; where roles are known and places kept; a Britain that is only about 10 miles in each direction – the Village green, the manor, the estate, the patricians and the plebs, the divided society that is harmonious in its functions and doesn’t need a state for internal functions for why would it? All order is socially established from a bygone age as its customs live on as one ‘gets on with it’. Any form of state redistribution of wealth would be a perversion in this world.

And yet this bygone age is still with us in Downton Abbey, in Jane Austen serials and it remains in the politics of the Daily Mail and their attack on Ralph Miliband. The politics of the labour party in a post-industrial society cannot properly speak of the socialism in practice, it can, however, speak of its ideology. And this ideology is a future society. It is the future that the left have spoken about and it has been based on millennialism: the coming of a future society that will be perfect, contrasted with the once perfect ideal of the conservative model, as Mannheim contrasts them (1937).

The previous generation of critical social scientists, that of Ralph Miliband, Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawn and Perry Anderson, but Miliband especially, stand not for socialism, as understood by the Daily Mail, but rather its ideology: the coming of a future society that is more equal, with justice based upon contribution not social standing, with redistribution over and above a parochial attitude that Britain is one’s immediate existence in a ten mile radius. And why Ralph Miliband stands as a beacon of criticism isn’t because of writings from the industrial period, rather it is this ideology, this knowledge clung to that what is best for Britain is future thinking. This is why David Miliband recourses to claiming he is a socialist like his father before him: he is working forward, not looking back.

The world of Cameron and Clegg is gentry Britain which is summed up in the phrase Et in Arcadia Ego, ‘And in Arcadia I, too, have dwelt’: theirs is the world of stable hierarchies, minimal state intervention and redistribution; leaders who lead through national perspective but manifest through local authority. The Gentry model is now call ‘The Big Society’. As Adam Nicolson explains:

“The powerful and central state, of which they were now in control, was bad for wellbeing. Power and authority should descend again to the localities, to the very county communities with which the stories in this book [The Gentry: Stories of the English] have been involved. The word ‘gentry’ was never mentioned – it still carried the baggage of its twentieth century failure – but nothing that either David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister, or his deputy, the Liberal Nick Clegg, described in their first formative days of government was hostile to a longstanding gentry ideology.” (Nicolson, 2011:417, brackets added)

Going on to cite Cameron’s introduction of the Big Society speech where he desired ‘families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever’, Nicolson puts it perfectly:

“what else had the gentry ever dedicated their existence to? But this modern version of the gentry vision has a flaw: it is sentimentalised. It doesn’t grasp the fact …that competition, unkindness, rivalry and dominance always lay behind the beautiful sense of community which the gentry world embodied.” (Nicolson, 2011:418)

We may expand on Nicolson’s trenchant observations of this sentimental gentry world of top-down social hierarchy and ‘seamless fabric’ vision of local communities that is found in the Cameron-Clegg government. It leaves the Labour party with the only option but to speak through the voices of the past, also. Anything that goes against this ‘Big Society’ model is State Socialism. For while the sentimental attitude of the gentry model is present, the problem it leaves labour with is their own ideology, their own story. What are they to do? The solution so far has been to speak through the voices of the previous generation, for Ed Miliband to speak through the ideals of his father, for he, too, dwelt in Arcadia.

Ed Miliband’s defence of his father is a political act in a world that is far from post-ideological. The ideals of his father remain the source of his political ideal in a world defined by the conservative utopia of gentry England. And because Miliband’s vision of a perfect society and the meaning of life comes down from the past, also, in the form of what his father before him stood for, the Daily Mail’s attack is not slander. It is an attack on ideology that stands opposed to their, one that is in favour of the gentry model it stands with. We are far from through with the past.

Ralph Miliband’s sociology, and that of his colleagues – especially Edward Thompson (see, 1993) –  knew that ideology was far from irrelevant and it may be worth sociologists remaining attentive to the voices of the past – as they are dominating politics, we may wish to listen. For as Marx of social change, people “conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise.” (Marx, 1994:188) And speaking of Marx’s essay on Louis Bonaparte, it might be worth quoting the same passage of Shakespeare as he does, to sum up the work of the Miliband generation of social science, from Mannheim onwards. It is, of course, from a man most haunted by the ghost of his father:

“Well said, Old Mole! Can thou work in the earth so fast? A worthy pioneer!” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5; see Marx, 1994:198)


Bauman, Zygmunt (1987), Legislators and Interpreters, (Cambridge: Polity)

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993), Postmodern Ethics, (Cambridge: Polity)

Greaber, David (2001), The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, (Hampshire: Palgrave)

Mannheim, Karl (1937), Ideology and Utopia: an introduction to the sociology of knowledge, (London: Routledge)

Marx, Karl (1994) ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, (Indianapolis: Hackett)

Nicolson, Adam (2011), The Gentry: stories of the English, (London: Harper Press)

Thompson, E. P. (1993), ‘The Patricians and the Plebs’ in Customs in Common, (New York: The Free Press)


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