Tuesday 29 March 2016

Jacob Bronowski interview - the utopia of work?

This is a fascinating interview from 1973 with Jacob ´Ascent of Man´ Bronowski, who was at the time and for many years afterwards a great hero of mine. I watched and rewatched Ascent of Man many times, read and re-read his books many times -- indeed in about 1997 I even contacted his daughter offering to write a proper biography (she rebuffed me and said there was already somebody on the job; although a biography still has not appeared).

Bronowski was a man with great qualities as is, I think, apparent here - also a man of rather significant limitations as is also apparent. But the interview itself is remarkable. This is prime Saturday evening TV with Britain´s best known ´chat show´host ever, and the pace and depth of the discussion is remarkable. Partly this was how things used to be, partly it was due to the way that Bronowski, by strength of character and natural authority, was able to impose his own agenda on mere ´entertainment´.

It can also be seen how the scope of public discourse has been shut-down since - in relation to the discussion of race and intelligence (and bearing in mind, as is obvious enough, that Bronowski was a man of the left - close to being a pacifist and a communist or communist sympathizer like the great scientists JD Bernal and JBS Haldane, both of whom he mentions).

What you get from this is some real Old Left philosophy, based on atheism and an ingrained radicalism such that history is seen as a prolonged conflict between progressive enlightened forces, and theocratic dogma. For instance Bronowski wrote an influential book about the poet William Blake, which paints him in highly political terms and essentially ignores Blake´s blatantly obvious and in-your-face incandescent, visionary, mystical, heretical Christianity´.

For whatever reason, in the discussion of artistic bohemianism and how it contrasts with his image as a scinetist, Bronowski doesn´t mention his time on Mallorca in the 1930s living as a young poet with Robert Graves and Laura Riding, and with a mistress Eirlys Roberts (who later founded The Consumer Association) -- a life of fairly extreme bohemianism by the standards of that time. A touch of the whitewash there, perhaps?

But most telling is the near-final remark on his idea of utopia. Bronowski amplifies his point that he deeply believes that people want to work rather than be idle but are thwarted by the lack of meaningful work - so his utopia is a world where everybody has a satisfying job which he or she is good-at. This absurdity is a view which I shared as a teenager (under the influence of people from Bronowski´s generation) but by the time I was twenty had had thoroughly purged out of me by a crushing avalanche of counter examples from personal experience.

I continued to hold modified versions of this view for quite a while longer but was forced to abandon it when I realized that I was actually talking about myself and a tiny minority of others who are creatively motivated - and in fact hardly anybody is self-motivated, even under ideal conditions. Nearly everybody would prefer not to work. At the very least, most people need a strong social ethos of work to ´want´to do it, nearly everyone does work for rewards or to avoid punishments; and not for intrinsic satisfactions.

But the idea that such would be any kind of utopia is quite extraordinary now! - yet in 1973 was not unusual (as evidenced by the round of applause from the audience) and indeed the ecology (EF Schumacher) and self-sufficiency (John Seymour) movements added a considerable boost to this idea from around the time of this interview and for several years (Andre Gorz was another proponent). I mean the idea that the main political imperative ought to be the provision of Good Work. I think the idea came from the early socialists, reformers, and builders of model communities - perhaps especially William Morris.

I think this view was possible because that generation had been brought-up religiously, so their aethism carried a strong residue of belief in transcendental goods such as beauty, virtue, and honesty - values which Bronowski mentions specifically. And indeed he did indeed adhere to them and defend them strongly; furthermore he developed an integrated philosophy of life based around transcendentals which he expressed powerfully in his books and The Ascent of Man.

The trouble was, the next generation of cradle atheists abandoned all transcendental goods, and became selfish, short-termist and expedient in their actions. They knew about the transcendentals - in theory they approved of them - but lacking any deity could see no reason why they should adhere to them when it was inconvenient or risky. Thus we get the current world of lying careerist bureaucrats and lying public relations pundits which has swallowed-up professional science and the arts (and everything else large scale) until almost nothing remains.

They (we) became unprincipled cowards and slackers - and why not?... When God is dead and was never alive, religion a manipulative lie or a pathetic delusion, and fanatical religiousness (in practice, specifically Christianity) is seen the primary source of all evil through history and continuing (as Bronowski, and his like, taught us most thoroughly).

Anyway - I recommend this interview as containing a great deal of good material, and also revealing the seeds of error and pride which have led to such a pathetic collapse of art, science, politics and all serious human endeavour - in a way which would certainly have appalled Bronowski; although he would most likely have misdiagnosed its cause.


Bruce Charlton said...

@Mr T Not everybody knows what they are talking about.

knifecatcher said...

No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power. Jacob Bronowski

Bruce Charlton said...

C He showed considerable foresight on that matter - I quoted and cited him in my Not Even Trying book


Seeker said...

No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power. Jacob Bronowski

That's because all scientists are human, and therefore prone to sin.

However, many seem to hold the view that science has overturned religion and that science is all powerful. Following on from this, it is assumed that scientists are somehow all powerful and saintly truth tellers who are to be revered for their selfless and noble aims, which are inextricably linked with the public good.

That'll be right then.


Albrecht said...

First, this makes me think we have fallen very far from 1973. Today, reading Lin Yutang's The Wisdom of India (1942) it occurred to me that he and it were artifacts from a golden age of literacy that began sometime in the 19th Century with the widespread availability of books and periodicals and lasted until, say, the 1960s when electronic culture gained ascendancy. Bronowski, too, is a awe-inspiring specimen from that time. But what is even more remarkable is the fact that there was an audience for such a conversation.

I was struck by one glib comment he made. Around the 19 min. mark Bronowski cracks that "If there hadn't've been some monkeys who'd been very awkward children there'd have been no human race." Is that true, that it is solely the "rebels" who are the dynamos of human progress? It seems to me that social order and regularity create the social substrate necessary to support the free-thinking and imaginative. The Church gave us the university. Rebellion for its own sake leads all too often to chaos which leads to breakdown or tyranny. I should think by 1973 that would have been obvious.

Big Bill said...

His comments about treating everyone as an individual are rather quaint, too. It smacks of the early "Equality of opportunity" days in which you could still test employees. Nowadays, however, we have switched to "Equality of result" in which different races are held to be equal by lawlaw, and any difference in GROUP scores, or GROUP achievements, or GROUP promotions, or GROUP admissions are prima face discrimination.

And some groups can completely hide in other groups and their group over representation is never even noticed. For example the massive over representation of Asians and Jews in professions.

His was a quaint and supremely privileged period and attitude.

Bruce Charlton said...

BB. Yes. What we don't know is whether Bronowski would have abandoned his secular Leftism when it became apparent that the ideas were not having the desired effect. Because very few did so. Almost all the Old Left individualists did U turns to become New Left totalitarians while still claiming to be individualists. This, mainly because the Lefts true focus was the sexual revolution and they will not tolerate the restrictions religion always places on sex. B was a sexual revolutionary as a young man but I don't know whether this continued.