In another post I was a bit critical of one of Micheal Oakeshott’s essays, so now I’m going pay him the highest compliment I can. This post compares his most famous work to an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The essay is Rationalism in Politics and the Buffy episode is Gingerbread.
SPOILER WARNING: this post discusses old TV and older political philosophy. Consider yourself warned.
Gingerbread starts routinely, with Buffy hunting vampires in a graveyard. She’s surprised by her mother, Joyce. Joyce has recently discovered that her teenage daughter is the vampire slayer, and feels she ought to take an interest. She’s brought a themos and sandwiches, and hopes that fighting the undead is ‘something we could share’. A vampire attacks, and they get separated in the melee. Alone, Joyce walks to a nearby playground and makes a grisly discovery. Two young children, a boy and a girl, lay dead, each marked with an occult symbol.
Buffy quickly rejoins Joyce, and the rest of the episode is structured around their different responses to this grim find. In a characteristic Buffy reversal, Buffy is the model of practical wisdom, and Joyce the model of a certain sort of naivete.
Buffy is upset, but her response is as simple and pointed as a stake. She’s going to find whoever did this, and make them stop before they do it again. It’s what she does. By this point, she’s been doing it for years.
Joyce is even more upset than Buffy, and she, too, wants to stop things like this happening. Unlike her daughter, however, she is new to all this. She hasn’t spent years fighting monsters, winning, then fighting new monsters. So her idea of ‘stopping things like this happening’ is different. She wants to stop all occult badness happening in the town, forever; and that takes politics, of a certain type. She calls a town hall meeting, creates a pressure group, and even prints lapel badges. Soon, all the adults in the town are fervent members of a new crusade.
The face of rationalism in politics?
I want to suggest that Joyce, in this episode, is much like the character of ‘the rationalist’ in Oakeshott’s essay. Oakeshott’s account of this character is based on an old distinction: the one between technical and practical knowledge. Technical knowledge is anything that ‘can be learned from a book’, but practical knowledge ‘exists only in practice’. It is all those things not reducible to book learning. For instance, I have training guides written by world-class rock climbers, but memorising their contents would not allow me to climb like the authors, even if I did have the necessary physical fitness.
For Oakeshott, rationalism is the focus on technical knowledge to the exclusion of all else. It is the the assertion that ‘practical knowledge is not knowledge at all’. In Gingerbread, there is an even better example of this than Joyce. Sheila, Willow’s mother, almost never sees her daughter; and is, perhaps significantly, an academic. This allows her to be played as a caricature of the rationalist mother: one with technical, but no practical, knowledge of motherhood.
On finding Willow has been in dabbling in witchcraft, Sheila says ‘identification with mythical icons is perfectly typical of your age group. It’s a classic adolescent response to the pressures of incipient adulthood’. Willow lets her know she’s missing the point, ‘mom, I’m not an age group. I’m me. Willow group’. Something is happening here that is useful for understanding Oakeshott’s essay. Willow isn’t upset that her mother understands her through the lens of half-arsed social theory. She’s upset that this is the only way her mother understands her. Similarly, Oakeshott isn’t opposed to technical knowledge, he is just suspicious of using it to the exclusion of practical knowledge.
For Oakeshott, rationalism leads to ‘the politics of the book’. The development of practical political skill is neglected for a plausible but shallow ‘expertise’ (a modern example would be Westminster’s ‘special political advisors’ appointed almost straight out of Oxford). It’s not just the practical skills of politics itself that are neglected, though. The rationalist politician is also unable to see the other areas of practical knowledge that their politics should be responsive to. Politics becomes entirely about using universal reason to solve technical problems. This leads to a certain sort of perfectionism, because conducting politics in this manner assumes that there is always, in principle, a solution. We see this in Buffy. Joyce says, ‘Evil pops up, you undo it, and that’s great! But is Sunnydale getting any better? Are they running out of vampires?’ The unspoken assumption here is that there is an option that will get rid of all the vampires for once and for all.
Technical knowledge is linguistic, but practical knowledge is inarticulate. This means technical ‘knowledge’, even when it is wrong, tends to be more persuasive than practical knowledge, which must rely on appeals to authority. We see this in Buffy’s response to Joyce’s challenge about the town not getting any better: ‘maybe I don’t have a plan’. Later, when she’s discussing her mother’s position with Angel, he, perhaps fittingly for someone seen with Sartre’s Nausea earlier in the season, makes a virtue of this lack of a grand narrative. He denies that they fight vampires to win any complete victory. ‘We never will. That’s not why we fight. We do it because there’s things worth fighting for’.
This draws attention to a difference in the reasons for action between the two camps. Joyce’s ultimate goals are impersonal. For instance, she calls a town hall meeting in order to mobilise people in order to rid Sunnydale of the occult. That ultimate end, getting rid of the occult, is grounded in a vision of how the town should be (‘this is not a good town’, she says), and that vision of the town is not about her personally.
Buffy’s ultimate goals, unlike Joyce’s, are personal: not in the sense of satisfying desires, for Buffy wants a normal life, but in the sense of fulfilling a role. Buffy conducts research, so she can kill the vampires, and she kills the vampires because she is the slayer, and that is what the slayer does. Oakeshott was writing before the modern philosophy of action really blossomed, but I would suggest that it is characteristic of the rationalist in politics to be deaf to reasons of this kind. Ignoring practical knowledge means that they also ignore the practical identities that practical knowledge creates. If you work as a gardener, a postman, or a nurse for long enough, then it shapes the kind of person that you are in ways that are not really under your control and are not easily reversible. This creates reasons for action that are neither universal nor directly grounded in personal desire. A true gardener might prune an apple tree in winter even if they are moving house and will not see any of the fruit; not so much to benefit the next occupant, but because it is, to them, simply the right thing to do. The rationalist, because they do not recognise practical knowledge, fails to recognise practical identity, and so fails to recognise that there is a wide class of reasons for action that are neither universal nor straightforwardly about desire satisfaction.
Indeed over-simplification is a general hallmark of the rationalist. In Gingerbread, Joyce has the occult books confiscated from the library. After all, the occult is the problem she is trying to fix. That, though, makes it harder for Buffy and her friends to research the specific occult danger they face now. If Joyce had practical experience of fighting the occult she would have known that.
Where does unfettered rationalism lead? Gingerbread’s answer is clear. As the episode unfolds, it turns out that there were no dead children. They were a vision caused by a demon, who is now manipulating the town through Joyce. Buffy, with her routines of research and attention to the particular case, works this out. She becomes puzzled that no-one knows the children’s names or who their families were. Joyce, with her grand plan, doesn’t pay much attention to the details of this case, and so is easily manipulated by the very evil she thinks she is fighting. Oakeshott would, I think, approve of the moral.
Finally, because it’s a common problem, a note on Oakeshott’s conservatism. It is both true and tends to be misleading to call Oakeshott a ‘conservative’. It is true, because he regretted the growth of rationalism in politics, and is profoundly dubious of state planning. It is misleading, because he had no more time for the rationalism of the right than for that of the left. He could see that big, centralised plans to ‘shrink the state’ were also rationalist (‘plans to end planning’), so I doubt that he would have any more patience with the current era of planned, centrally administered, ‘markets’ in healthcare and education than he had for the communist regimes of his own time. In character, he is far closer to the Daoist Zhuangzi, whose influence can be seen throughout the essay, than he is to Hayek, who he dismisses in a couple of sentences.
Buffy, too, has her Daoist moments, but that’s a matter for another day…