“What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”
William Lamb, Lord Melbourne
Back in early December, after a dinner between the British negotiating team and their EU counterparts, a photograph was released that, it was said, “sums everything up”. A characteristically dishevelled Boris Johnson was unflatteringly contrasted with the smartly dressed Michel Barnier. “Johnson’s loose tie, shapeless suit and messy hair alongside Frost’s errant collar stood out somewhat beside an immaculately turned out Ursula von der Leyen and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier” reported the Huffington Post, while reproducing a series of damning twitter observations. “Torvill and Dean meet The Chuckle Brothers” was one. Benny Hill and Worzel Gummidge were other points of comparison.
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The subtext was clear: Brexit chaos. It has become a favourite headline over the last few months. Chaos at the posts, chaos in the negotiations. The EU represents order, the UK disorder. Fool Britannia. As Der Spegel described it:
“The United Kingdom is currently demonstrating how a country can make a fool of itself before the eyes of the entire world. What was once the most powerful empire on earth is now a country that can’t even find its way to the door without tripping over its own feet.”
As a scholar of medieval French, the lead negotiator of the British delegation, Lord Frost, may have allowed himself a wry smile at these comparisons. In medieval Europe, and in France especially, the period between Christmas and New Year was often marked by the Feast of Fools. Some traditions centred this on Monday’s Feast of Holy Innocents, others on today’s Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. Young boys would be elected as bishops, authority was mocked with ridicule, the established order was temporarily overthrown. These traditions began in the late 12th century, often as liturgical enactments of various New Testament passages that spoke of the world being turned upside down.
“He has brought down the mighty from their seats and lifted up the lowly,” says Mary in the Magnificat from Luke’s gospel. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” writes St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Armed with texts like these, a kind of populist and disruptive revelry was given licence, first in the churches and cathedrals and soon spilling out beyond them. By the beginning of the 15thcentury the official church had had enough. The Feast of Fools was banned by the Council of Basle in 1435.
Conventional thinking always prioritises order over chaos. Indeed, even the Bible presents the founding work of creation as the imposition of order on chaos. Order = good, chaos = bad. Chaos is dangerous. The vulnerable are harmed. The wicked prosper. But there is a minority report on chaos that regards it as the necessary birth pangs of a new order, and represents the recognition that human freedom is often experienced as chaotic by those who would overly regulate our lives. In his introduction to In Praise of Chaos the theologian Sean Caulfield writes: “I have written a book in praise of the splendid chaos of life that saves us from the fate of clones and robots, and opens the way to incredible futures.”
Christmas is indeed one such eruption of chaos, which is why the Feast of Fools falls at Christmastide. The idea of a child being God is the ultimate expression of the Topsy Turvy world that Quasimodo sings about in (the Disney version of) The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
Once a year we throw a party here in town,
Once a year we turn all Paris upside down,
Every man’s a king and every king’s a clown,
Once again it’s Topsy Turvy Day.
The chaotic opening of presents, the children taking over the house, the too much to drink festivities — at Christmas chaos reigns supreme.
A non-Christian version of In Praise of Chaos would probably reference Dionysus, and Nietzsche’s contention that Dionysus represents a kind of life force, a disruptive energy that, admittedly, has to be held in check by the orderly forces of what he calls the “Apollonian”, but cannot be quashed by it.
His Dionysus/Apollo distinction is the yin and yang of an eternal struggle, neither pole being allowed to obliterate the other, both contributing to the creative energies of human existence. And not everywhere is the Apollonian to be given some default priority. Writing about internet governance, for instance, the Economist has argued: “For something so central to the modern world, the internet is shambolically governed”, but that the “chaos” of the internet “is a lot better than the alternative — which nearly always in this case means governments bringing the internet under their control.” Indeed, when the Chinese government attacks the “chaos” of the internet, we are all right to worry.
It is probably true that the Left, with its preference for centrally planned economies, has a historic partiality to order as opposed to creative chaos, which may be why they also have a predilection for endless committee meetings and calling for reports whenever they are faced with anything new and challenging. Process brings order to chaos. And, of course, this has a place. It rightly aims to protect those who might be drowned in the waters of chaos. But it can also have a deadening effect on the bubbling up of the messy, creative energy that gives life its vitality.
The problem with an orderly approach to things such as Brexit is that most problems, especially the large ones, are always going to be imperfectly and incompletely specified. In such a context, it is not always a straightforward matter to argue in a linear way from problem to solution. Indeed, when situations seem to require some sort of paradigm shift, the rules of the old order present a block on the emergence of the new. Things will always seem chaotic when change does not travel according to pre-established ideas of how one thing follows from another.
In his fascinating book Obliquity, the economist John Kay describes the shortcomings of turning decision making within a complex environment into some sort of algebra. Often, he argues, “complex outcomes are achieved without knowledge of an overall purpose”. The importance of rational consistency is exaggerated. Some values are incommensurable, not plottable on a single system of reference. In such situations, neatness is overrated, distorting even.
That, I take it, is partly why Boris Johnson remains ahead in the polls, even now. Yes his shambolic manner, strongly contrasted with Keir Starmer’s orderly, lawyerly disposition, speaks to a refusal of some imposed authority. It’s a kind of trick, perhaps, given that he is the authority. And Old Etonians are not typically chosen as “the lowly” who are lifted up as per the Magnificat.
But the importance of Johnson “the fool” exceeds the fact that he has become an unlikely poster-boy of some unspecified insurgency against the established European rules based system of governance. The fool understands something the rationally wise does not. “Man plans, God laughs” goes an old Jewish proverb. Much to the deep frustration of its proponents, order can never be finally imposed upon chaos. And those who are comfortable with this, celebrate it even, are often better able to negotiate the complexities of life. Being chaotic might just turn out to be Johnson’s unlikely super-power.
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