Sir Martin Rees and Harun al-Rashid

Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and ex-President of the Royal Society, had an article in Prospect Magazine last month entitled “We need an enlightened despot to save our vulnerable planet”:

http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/regulars/if-i-ruled-the-world-martin-rees

Sir Martin is worried about progress, and about the short-termism inherent in democratic politics. He’s not against scientific progress as such, but he worries about some of its side-effects:

“Pandemics could spread at the speed of jet aircraft, causing maximal havoc in the shambolic megacities of the developing world. Social media could spread psychic contagion—rumours and panic—literally at the speed of light.”

Sir Martin’s nagging worry about speed is odd, coming from an Astronomer Royal. If pandemics can spread at the speed of jet aircraft, so can medical supplies. And are rumours more dangerous when they travel at the speed of light, instead of at the speed of sound, as they used to in the good old days when I was a lad?

There are two problems with his article: first, in calling for an enlightened despot to replace democracy, Sir Martin is placing himself at the extreme right of the political spectrum, along with the guys in balaclavas who break up meetings of the British National Party, accusing them of being a bunch of democratic wimps. In a word, Sir Martin is embracing fascism. The truly disturbing thing is that neither he nor Prospect Magazine seem to be aware of the implications of his argument. Enlightened despots don’t suddenly appear because some member of the Establishment wishes them into existence by writing thoughtful magazine articles. They emerge from periods of bloody struggle, and much of the blood is on their hands. (Who is he thinking of, anyway? Surely not any of the despots of the past century? Though many enlightened members of the Establishment put their faith in Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Franco.)

Genghis Khan gets a good press these days, since the sufferings of his victims are less well documented than those of more recent despots. and he was good on architecture and commerce and suchlike. I suppose most people thing of figures on the borderline of mythology, like the Emperor Augustus, Alfred the Great, or Harun al-Rashid. I must admit I quite like the idea of Sir Martin disguising himself as a simple citizen and going among the common folk to discover what they think.

Which is more or less what he has done in this article. I suppose for the likes of Sir Martin, writing an article in Prospect Magazine must seem like wandering the streets of Baghdad in disguise, or minding the cakes in a peasant’s cottage. But if his purpose was to sound out the opinions of the peasants, it must be accounted a failure, since not one peasant has left a comment.

I tried, but you have to register, and possibly pay, to comment at Prospect. I left out my objections to fascism (which are uninteresting anyway) and concentrated on my second criticism of Sir Martin’s article, which concerns his method of reasoning, which is not reasoning at all, but simple assertion: “I say this, this, and this, so therefore democracy is crap and I want a Real Man I can fawn to.”

I didn’t say it like that in the comment I wrote for Prospect, since I wanted it published. There’s a lot of other things I didn’t say about my analysis of the motivations of very old men  (Sir Martin is four years older than me) who want  what their grandchildren will be allowed to think and say and do  to be dictated by the enlightened despots they hope to see replace our current political system. This is the comment I didn’t leave at Prospect:

“The silence which has greeted Sir Martin Rees’s demand for an enlightened despot is such a welcome sign of intelligence on the part of Prospect readers that it seems a pity to break it, but I find Sir Martin’s style of reasoning – which might be termed the Argument from Assertion – too tempting to resist. So here are my carefully crafted replies, using the same logical method as the ex-President of the Royal Society.

“Space-ship Earth” is hurtling through space. Its passengers are anxious and fractious.” 

No they’re not.

“We downplay what’s happening in impoverished far-away countries.”

No we don’t. We know and care more about  what’s happening in impoverished far-away countries than any people in history.

“Only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely.”

No he couldn’t.

“Shouldn’t we worry about “worst case” climate scenarios?” 

No.

“The despot would willingly pay a higher insurance premium to guard against future catastrophes;” 

No he wouldn’t.

“He or she would generate a vast “sovereign wealth fund” to finance infrastructure and research and development at low interest rates.”

Why?

“Indeed many philosophers would assign equal value to the rights of those not yet born:”

Really? Name one. 

We know that we are stewards of a precious ‘pale blue dot’”.

No we’re not. We live on a big fat green and blue planet, with lots of room for everyone.

“We need rulers who care what happens in the 22nd century and beyond.”

No we don’t. Perhaps we need rulers – and thinkers – who can appreciate the profound humility of Keynes’s throwaway remark that “’in the long run we are all dead”.

I assumed in my first sentence that the silence of Prospect readers at Sir Martin Rees’s suggestion was a sign of civility on their part, but an alternative, less attractive explanation suggests itself. Perhaps people haven’t seized the implications of his demand for an enlightened despot. 

Such folk don’t turn up because a number of civilised intelligent people wish them into existence. They only appear in the wake of the bloody overthrow of legitimate government . Is that what Sir Martin wants?”

I read somewhere (probably in the Guardian) that when we abolished hanging for murder, we left on the statute books a load of other punishments, like drawing and quartering for such crimes as rape of a royal princess, or arson in Her Majesty’s dockyards.

I’m wondering whether there isn’t some obscure statute which is applicable to a servant of Her Majesty (such as the Astronomer Royal) who proposes overthrowing Her Majesty’s Loyal Government in favour of some benevolent despot in jackboots with shares in a solar energy company?

Will we see Sir Martin Rees hanged drawn and quartered in Trafalgar Square? I sincerely hope so.

Benevolent despot, Me? Here’s hoping.

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4 Responses to Sir Martin Rees and Harun al-Rashid

  1. omnologos says:

    Why would a benevolent despot divert resources to the unborn, who might as well remain unborn if the current generations are made to pay too high a price?

    “Lord’ truly has transformed itself from a title into a matter of concern.

  2. alexjc38 says:

    They can’t help themselves can they; fluttering about totalitarianism like moths around a candle flame. Here’s a previous iteration, with James Lovelock talking to Leo Hickman in the Graun, 2010:
    http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/mar/29/james-lovelock-climate-change

  3. omnologos says:

    Come to think Alex – the benevolent despot idea is very much mainstream Marxism nowadays. Who will have the courage to say that to Geoff???

  4. omnologos
    I’m not aware of any Marxist theory which supports benevolent despots. Certainly there are people who can be described as benevolent despots who are also Marxists, like Fidel Castro. He would undoubtedly still win any fair election, just as Ho Chi Minh would have won any fair election in Viet Nam, as the CIA recognised.
    Sir Martin, like his successor Sir Paul Nurse, has described his politics as “Old Labour”. I’m not aware of anything in the programme of the late Michael Foot or Tony Benn which can be described as “benevolent despotism”. I suspect that Rees and Nurse see the “science” of “global warming” as supplying the missing ingredient which transforms their vague egalitarian ideals into a scientific theory.
    Every time I hear Rees mentioned, I think of his Reith lectures, which were highlighted at an article at ClimateResistance; and which provoked a question from the audience which started: “I drive an Aston Martin, but I keep bees to compensate….”

    (“Oh, the bees, the bees…”)

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