Enlightenment: Marx vs Flaubert

The Enlightenment view of the human project as one of historical progress for society was perhaps a comforting worldview, though one not necessarily held by all. The works and inherent ideas of Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert in relation to the role of historical progress might be considered somewhat similar, but to what extent did these two figures agree that historical progress was a project destined to fail?

Karl Marx was a great believer in history in itself as a revelation of truth. He did not claim, though, to have any special insight into the nature of the development of history; however, he did believe class struggle in each sequence of history would create a new set of circumstances for society. This is documented in The Communist Manifesto, where he details the importance of historical eras upon the status quo with the famous line:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In this way what we are now comes from what is before, and what comes next is a result of our current struggle.

In order to determine Flaubert’s position by looking at his seminal work, Madame Bovary, I will consider a character that has increasing prominence throughout the novel, in the form of the pharmacist, Monsieur Homais who is described as, “a partisan of progress” (p.145). Homais can therefore be considered to be a representation on the Enlightenement in this work and, as such, he provides a useful tool with which to analyse Flaubert’s own consideration of the movement that promised to deliver an historical improvement to modern society.

In one key episode in the novel, Homais, armed with all the rational tools that Enlightenment brings (along with a great sense of self-importance) is attempting, together with Charles Bovary, to help and repair the condition of clubfoot in Hippolyte. Homais considers the operation a great success and prepares his own plaudits, meanwhile it becomes apparent that the truth is rather different:

“[Hyppolyte] was writhing…in atrocious convulsions, such that the contraption boxed round his leg was knocking against the wall.” (p.149)

We can see here that the ‘contraption’ of the enlightenment has failed to benefit society, in fact it has made it even worse (Hyppolyte later requires an amputation). Bovary himself dimly considers that this is simply something that is down to fate.

For Marx, the role of history is to teach us what was ‘really real’ about our current state and thus to institute reform, and progress. The solution to the contradictions presented by history, as he argues in the Communist Manifesto, was to be played out by the working classes. Political reform in this way, in a ideal world, would eventually realise this progress. However, the murky workings of politics got in the way of this vision and as the Ugly Revolution of 1848 proved the unsustainability of the working classes operating together with the bourgeoisie, Marx became disillusioned with the possibility of achieving this Utopian idea of progress borne from the Enlightenment philosophy.

Likewise, we can see a similar disillusionment apparent in Flaubert, as Madame Bovary ends with an even more scathing appraisal of the apparent progress of human society: Homais receives the Legion d’honneur for his services in the final line of the novel. For Flaubert, society has become so easily tricked by the falseness of this apparent ‘progress’ that it rewards it, even when it fails. In this way we can see the similarity in the views of Karl Marx and Gustave Flaubert who in the end, we might say, were both sceptics of the Enlightment perspective of the role of historical progress.


  1. Flaubert, G. (trans. Wall, G.) Madame Bovary (1992). London: Penguin Classics
  2. Marx, K., Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto. Referenced at Project Gutenberg [http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/61/pg61-images.html] Date referenced: 27/12/16



The pre-debate debate goes on, and on.

FINALLY, at last, and after much to-ing and fro-ing, there has been some kind of agreement and there will be a televised debate between Cameron and Miliband.

Clearly there was never very much to gain for the current Prime Minister, to look, as he does, all shiny-faced and Prime Ministerial, going head to head with a prospective usurper doing his best to look prospectively Prime Ministerial. It was a calculated risk, on the Tories behalf, to take a hit early on to avoid the potential of Miliband performing well in the debate. Presumably there was the genuine fear that without a backdrop of baying posh people, and away from any troublesome bacon rolls, that the substance of Ed’s words might actually prove more reasonable. But there is a time and a place for reasoned debate, and it’s not after the dissolution of parliament, during the run-up to an election, because that would detract from the important issues, according to Cameron. Neither, does it take place before the dissolution of parliament, during PMQs, according to the the same man, albeit a shinier version in 2008 before his plastic veneer had started to age.

Wait, I’m confused; when should the reasoned debating actually take place? It’s still very hard to say, even though Miliband devoted large portions of his PMQs yet again this week, to, er, debating the issue of debating. Since then, Cameron has moved the goalposts so that there will be a debate, not face to face but individually. Not really debating, then, more like avoiding questions by talking loudly with exaggerated hand gestures. And it’s to be with Paxo, who is completely toothless by now and will probably turn up in a wooly jumper with a mug of cocoa. After which there will be the multi party debate where we will all drown in the noise and fury from UKIP and the stuttering silence from the Greens. And all of this will not satisfy Labour as a real contest.

So, forget all that ‘finally, at last,’ nonsense from the top of this page, the pre-debating portion of the debates is far from over. But if the real event ever does happen we can suppose that everyone will be warmed up.

Debate: do citizens have a moral duty to vote?

Jeffrey Howard, University of Essex and Ben Saunders, University of Southampton

As the general election of 2015 approaches, members of the general public are once again called on to cast their votes and decide who will represent their interests in the next government of the United Kingdom. But do the citizens of democratic states have a moral duty to answer this call?

Public figures like Russell Brand and Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, have weighed in on the debate. Now, The Conversation has asked two professors of political philosophy to set out their arguments for and against.

Jeffrey Howard – affirmative

“The history of the world has given to us many sublime undertakings,” proclaimed Frederick Douglass in his 1888 speech on the struggle for universal suffrage, “but none more sublime than this.” Today, few would doubt that the fight for universal democratic empowerment was among the most morally significant struggles in history. But what, exactly, was it a fight for?

“The right to vote” seems to be the answer: but it is a misleading one. My suggestion is that those who struggled for suffrage during the past two centuries were not simply fighting for the option to vote. They were fighting for something deeper: the job of the citizen. They were fighting for a seat at the table at which the great moral challenges of their nation are debated and decided.

The job of the citizen, I believe, places moral demands on those who hold it. Voting is one of those demands. Citizens have obligations to make their societies more just and, as others have argued, to refrain from being an accomplice – however minor – to injustice.

Voting in favour of just proposals, or in support of representatives who enact them, discharges both duties in one fell swoop. By voting, we join together with like-minded citizens to collectively nudge our nation in a morally better direction. And even if we are unsuccessful – even if the forces of injustice win out – our action disassociates us from complicity with that injustice. Voting frees us of the blame that rightly attaches to citizens who vote for evil or who sit silently as others do so.

Ben Saunders – negative

Jeff Howard’s vision of citizens striving to make their societies more just may be an ideal that we should aspire to, but is it really a duty incumbent on us all? I think not.

First, note that the duty envisaged is not simply a duty to vote, but to vote for just policies (or representatives who will enact them). This is more demanding, since it implies that many voters act wrongly.

Granting, for now, that there is such a duty, it is misleading to say that citizens have a duty to vote as such. Obviously, one can only vote rightly if one votes, but there is no distinct duty to vote. Those who vote for unjust policies are no better – and presumably worse -– than those who do not vote, and surely cannot escape blame for collective wrongdoing.

Indeed, it is not clear that those who vote rightly avoid complicity. We ordinarily expect those who take part in a democratic process to accept the legitimacy of the outcome, even if outvoted. Perhaps, therefore, it is better not to vote if the decision will be unjust.

Where there is serious prospect of grave injustice, citizens promote justice through other actions, such as protesting. Voting alone does little to achieve this.

Could civilian movements like the poll tax protest be a better way of fighting for justice?
Chris Bacon/PA

Jeffrey Howard

Ben Saunders has issued a powerful, three-pronged challenge to the thesis that citizens are morally required to vote.

First, he notes that it is implausible to think that all votes are morally meritorious. Votes for unjust policies should be condemned, not celebrated. He is right: the duty to vote must be a duty to vote well. And to do that, it is not enough simply to show up on election day and flip a coin. Voting is rightly preceded by thoughtful reflection on matters of public concern. If citizens have not done so, then they should not vote, just as a surgeon who has not researched a particular surgery should not perform it. The duty to vote, then, functions within a package of other related responsibilities.

Secondly, Ben suggests that those who vote for justice but lose may still be complicit with injustice, since their vote legitimises the process and could even obligate them to obey it. This is an important worry, but I have doubts. It cannot be true that those who go to the polls to register their fierce opposition to slavery are bound to support slavery if their opponents win the day.

Finally, Ben suggests that if achieving justice is our objective, voting may be an ineffective method, compared to other alternatives. No doubt this is sometimes so, but I believe voting retains a distinctive significance. Protests are useful, I suggest, precisely because they can alter people’s intentions about what policies and politicians they will vote for. Protests can move people to head toward a particular door, but only through voting can they unlock it.

Ben Saunders

Jeff suggests that voting can unlock the door to a more just society, but this is rather unusual. If a slave-owning society were having a referendum on the abolition of slavery, then all citizens may have an obligation to vote for its abolition (though my earlier point, that this is not a duty to vote as such, still stands). That some citizens are sometimes under an obligation to vote, however, is relatively trivial – one could easily demonstrate this simply by promising to vote.

My concern is whether citizens generally have a moral duty to vote, simply in virtue of being citizens. I do not think Jeff’s arguments give us sufficient reason to think that they do. Even if all citizens are under a duty to promote a just society, voting would only be one way to further that end, and not a particularly effective one at that.

We rarely face a situation like the slavery referendum, where there is a clear choice between justice and injustice. Ordinarily, citizens must choose between parties whose policies, taken as a package, may differ little from the viewpoint of justice. In such circumstances, citizens may better promote justice in other ways, such as by volunteering for charity.

Do you think there is a moral duty to vote? Share your views in the comments below.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Where, exactly, are the Caucasus?

AN adviser is advising a potential Presidential candidate. “All right, hold on, I’ll make this simpler,” he says, neatly bringing up a map on a handy TV screen. Pointing, he says, “Here, to the Caucasus.” He looks at the woman to make sure she is still following. “That’s Russia’s sphere of influence,” he adds, helpfully.

This clunky piece of overt patronising is not a slice of real life, but happens in a recent episode of House of Cards. Let’s assume, for the moment, that the writers are not consciously trying to draw any parallels with Sarah Palin, but instead betting that the majority of their viewers might not actually know where the Caucasus are, and that Russia has interests in that area, or where the Jordan Valley is, and that it is largely occupied by Israel.

Which all might well be true. Now that I think about it, it would be rather nice to have an aide to clarify things for me when I’m befuddled. In the meantime, I’ll have to make do with: Siri, where are the Caucasus? No, Siri, I said CAUC-a-sus.

The Art of the Hatchet Job

Zoella pic

Enormous-eyed Zoella. Photo: http://www.zoella.co.uk

FAIR comment can be a tightrope walk for a columnist. What makes the difference between teetering and falling? Two articles published, in two nominally broadsheet newspapers, in the last few days would suggest that it’s whichever onlookers are shouting the loudest.

Chloe Hamilton writes in the Independent about the worthiness of Zoella, a successful fashion/beauty vlogger, as a role model for teenage girls. The journalist describes her stratospheric rise to fame, the subsequent power she wields over her audience and then bemoans the fact that she is misusing such influence in reinforcing stereotypes of femininity, rather than advancing the cause of feminism. The journalist’s chief gripe is a recent quote from Zoella, saying, “you don’t need to worry about […] image, appearance.” Chloe’s point being to illustrate the irony of such a statement coming from someone who advises people on the subject of beauty. And of course she does have the right to make such a point; this is in the comment pages after all. I mean, imagine if Jeremy Clarkson started telling people not to drive cars. Or if Michel Roux took up advertising for Macdonalds. Zoella’s fans, however, did not take this as fair comment.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Peter Robinson writes a piece on Chris Moyles. The former DJ, and self-proclaimed Saviour of Radio 1, has resorted to vlogging himself, funnily enough, and, the writer says, seems to have fallen on hard times, referring to his “career nosedive.” The article claims that his current fanbase on YouTube is a mere 0.2% of what he would have been used to, and is even still in steady decline. It then goes on to deconstruct the causes of this failed endeavour, before (redeemably) turning to comparable cases in an effort to suggest a way back for the “talented broadcaster.”

Career nose-diver, Chris Moyles. Photo: Youtube/Guardian montage

Now, both of these articles are quite reasonable in their own right. They both give fair comment on an individual, whilst giving some sort of analysis in relation to culture or society. Neither article could justifiably be called a hatchet job, but here is where the comments below the line come into play and it soon becomes clear that whether or not a piece is a hatchet job is very much in the eye of the beholder.

If we consider the effect on the subjects themselves, we can assume that the first article is unlikely to put the smallest dent in the confidence of Zoella. She is in the fortunate position of being a star on the rise, young, beautiful (although of course that shouldn’t matter), with publishers falling at her feet and a legion of adoring fans. Outspoken fans, it must be said, who were furious at the journalist’s treatment of her. Many were especially annoyed at the perceived hypocrisy of the first paragraph:

“Her eyes are enormous. She looks like a startled bird; albeit a bird with the gorgeous, flowing locks of Rapunzel, the high-pitched giggle of Tinkerbell, and a name so irritatingly Disney-fied it makes my stomach churn: Zoella.”

Hardly the most malicious of personal attacks posted by a columnist, (I don’t remember Kelvin Mackenzie ever calling any of his enemies ‘gorgeous’) but from the flood of vitriol from commenters below the line, you would imagine the journalist had just published a pornographic sketch of the prophet Mohammed. Their insistent line being that it is simply unacceptable to criticise the image of Zoella, and that, in any case, she does in fact sometimes post without makeup on and everything. The crowd yells, ‘Hatchet job!’.

Chris Moyles, on the other hand, is a man languishing in that most awful of wildernesses, for a media figure, of insignificance. On top of this, underneath an article detailing his poor life choices and situation, he has to read Roguestatement9000 say:

“Moyles was – and always will be – a loudmouth dirtbag – so who the fuck cares if he is cleaning toilets in Accrington, selling sexual services at Kings Cross or incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay?”

The majority of the rest of the comments are united in a choorus of shadenfreude. And so one journalist gets backslaps for bringing a guy down a peg or two when he’s already presumably on the lower pegs, while another journalist who dares to criticise a teenage role model is forced to post this tweet:

Is a hatchet always a hatchet? It depends on the court of public opinion.

Bombing ISIS isn’t working – Stop the War Coalition

The Sound Of Summer

Let me be absolutely 100% clear here.  I served in The UK armed forces and will always support those put in harms way by our Government.

The current conflict across the Middle East will not be affected in the slightest by the current bombing campaign by the western coalition.  The British armed forces learned that you cannot win a military victory against terrorists.  Many years of conflict in Northern Ireland was not ended by force of arms.  It was ended by a political solution.  Unfortunately the western coalitions policies in the Middle East simply continue to make things worse.  When I trained as an electronics technician in the Royal Navy the Government of the day was raising money by selling weapons and training to both Iran & Iraq.  I trained alongside sailors from those countries.  A few years later we were fighting them and they were using weapons we sold…

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