Interview with John Villis 1997

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Interview with John Villis 1997

The following interview took place in the residence of John Villis in the city of Durham sometime in the summer of 1997. I had befriended the unmistakeable, unique personality that is John Villis after drinking in the Market Tavern, Durham, during the first year of my MA. He became my friend and we subsequently enjoyed many interesting dialogues, about a variety of subjects. Usually, before long, John would break out into song, often into renditions of Welsh ballads, and could be relied upon to always carry about with him a small black book filled with his wildly imaginative illustrations. Pehaps most noticeably in the interview below are John's prescient forebodings about some of the less anticipated consequences of Blair's 1997 General Election victory. I have not seen John Villis since 2001, alas.

For thoughts of mine about John's sometimes startling and controversial views see the end of the interview.

Jonathan:

Jon, why is it that you do not respect democracy?

John:

I take it that you mean by democracy the post nineteenth century concept of democracy, in which case democracy, which has its place within a balanced constitution, becomes by itself and for itself and with itself the only means of expressing and carrying out political power within a state. Firstly, I would regard any particular mode of rule which was the only means of expression, or which expressed itself as the only means of expression, or as the only means by which political power could be expressed or accessed, as being inherently unbalanced. But in particular, secondly, democracy's unbalanced because as the danger in the seventeenth and eigthteenth centuries was unthinking, absolute monarchy so the danger in the late nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth centuries has been to give lip service to an unthinking, absolutist democracy. And absolute democracy, thirdly, is actually inherently more febrile and more unpleasant than absolutist monarchy because it is more manifestly obvious that absolute monarchy fails, because it depends upon the success or failure of one man. But because of the mode of access to power in democracy, because it depends on checks and balances within the demos, within the mob, it means that always no matter how unsatisfactory the last majority rule was, if you then find that the next majority rule is unsatisfactory but say in an equal and opposite way, then you have no response to it and no reply to it; whereas if the next tyrant is just as bad as the other tyrant then of course the traditional remedy for tyrants is available, and that of course is beheading them. With democracy this is impossible because it is a hydra with more than a million heads. Democracy is a tyrrany which is very difficult to remove.

Jonathan:

I think you may have come close to answering some of my second question, but I'll state it in case there's anything more you want to add. Just focussing on the notion of freedom and liberty, if you can perhaps give me some practical examples and concrete illustrations of how in day to day living democracy limits the freedom of individuals and peoples in general?

John:

Yes, this can be easily answered. Curiously enough there is no easy contrast between the older tyrannies and monarchies on the one hand and democracy on the other. In actual practice, as long as the taxes are paid, as long as men are available for the armies, tyrannies and absolute monarchies have been relatively tolerant of individual freedoms. What is very odd about democracies, very like in fact city states like Calvin's Geneva, is that because they care about their citizens so much, because they want their citizens to be involved, they are incapable of coping with those citizens who do not wish to be citizens, those citizens who are incapable of caring or those citizens who actively do not care for the state at all. In other words, the loner, the mountain man, the hunter, the man who is perfectly willing to get on with his own life, who doesn't want to interfere with the state at all. Thus it is very difficult for democracies, considered as a total system, to comprehend the outsider. One of my great hatreds for modern democracy is not that it is a democracy but that it is modern. In its totality the ancient monarchies would have been almost as oppressive if they had had the modern means of communication; but there is something very appropriate between the modern means of communication and democracies; it means that because the majority, say, don't like eating raw bacon there'll have to be a law passed which says raw bacon shall not be eaten. Supposing some people find the wearing of cod pieces obscene, because the majority are very unimaginative then suddenly there's a law against the wearing of cod pieces. What I'm afraid happens in sectional or factional democracies is that the majority tend to be right. And the majority by definition tend to have very flattened, unemotional and unimaginative views, so therefore in relation to freedoms like, say, the hunting of otters, the eating of sparrows, the eating of rooks, the dressing up in bizarre clothes, anything which involves extravagant or different behaviour tends to be less tolerated than in aristocratic republics or in agricultural republics or in monarchies or in any of the older states.

Jonathan:

And yet from that it might yet be suspected that you hold an elitist disrespect for and prejudice against the common man, the majority of people.

John:

By no means, because what you have in democracy is not the common man as actually met, because if you actually meet the common man in pub or in cafe or go round to his house in either the suburbs or in the council estate, you discover that each has different views, some on what appears a very banal level. But that very democracy which claims to speak for them is very impoverished in relation to its art and the heart or style of living it gives or offers to them. The art in democracies is probably the lowest there has been for seven hundred years; whereas aristocratic seventeenth century cultures produced the Baroque, high medieaval monarchist cultures produced the Romanesque, the early rennaiscance the Gothic. Democracies can only produce the popular comic strip, the popular serial on television and the violent and action film. This is their highest form of art, because what you actually have, the individual, the citizen of democracy, is not the individual you meet in his actual house in the suburbs or in the council estate, the actual individual that you meet in the pub or the woman that you meet in the cafe or the wife delivering their child to the school gate; what you actually meet is a fictional, embodied object, this fictional, embodied object embodies in himself or herself all the lowest and the most banal qualities of all the given numbers of citizens, so we have venerated not the ideal aristocrat, not the priest, not the hermit, not the tramp, not even the brigand; you have instead the most banal, tax-paying, police loving, conformist citizen who does not actually exist. And if you did actually meet him he would be the most unpleasant, sneak thiefed, most likely to lie, of all the citizens of the country. So democracy actually has as its ideal an imaginary or fictive citizen, a citizen who so to speak incorporates in himself all the banality and all the squalor of twentieth century democracy, whereas in aristocratic, high republican or monarchistic cultures the subject was whatever that subject happened to be, as long as he or she was obedient to particular matters. A transcendental obedience is by definition not possible for the fictive democratic citizen; he enjoys his position, he has freedoms, he has rights, but of course these freedoms and rights are entirely illusory because they do not uphold upon a particular subjective individual as they would in a truly republican, aristocratic or monarchistic society; what they devolve upon is upon the fictive, involved citizen.

Jonathan:

Taking for granted that Roman Catholicism at heart is theocentric and theocratic and authoritarian to a great extent and unashamedly, so how do reconcile your own orthodox Roman Catholicism with your anarchism as such?

John:

You are indeed right. I think that even the most libertarian Catholics would have to admit that when it comes to the end, the end of dogma, that in some sense, although there are disagreements in so far as how much an actual political society- even if that political society is instantiated with Bishops and the hierarchy of the Church- should reflect the hierarchy in relation to God, one can't get away from the fact that all the metaphors, all the weight of symbolism, all the glory of the symbolism in the Catholic Church and indeed the Eastern Orthodox Church, and to a certain although lesser extent, even the traditional Lutheran Church, is indeed biased towards a highly hierarchical, authoritarian society because of the nature of God in relation to his creatures; but allowing for that, in what sense can any Catholic, whether a man or a woman or a child, claim to be an anarchist? But it is exactly in relation to the totalitarian pretensions of the modern state that I am an anarchist.

Jonathan:

So anarchy is a means to an end, its not an ideal in itself?

John:

I would say that it was in some sense a means to an end but even if the modern state was in some sense an absolutist monarchy, I would still be an anarchist in a certain sense, because I would say that there isn't enough leeway in the modern era, it doesn't allow for what the Greeks would call the adiaphora. What our countries and our states tend towards in the late twentieth century is "These things are allowed, these things are not allowed." There is no ambiguity in between. It is very much like totalitarian religious culture; but I would see Catholicism in its universal sense saying this, "These things are commanded, these things are allowed- there is a large adiaphora of things which you may take up or may not take up and may be ambiguous and may be dangerous, but its on your own head, and these things are forbidden." Modern democratic culture shares a certain totalitarianism with Fascism and Stalinism, which are in no sense liberal democratic, there being in many ways a common totalitarian programme between Stalinism, Fascism, Nazism and, say, Rooseveltian and National Health, Civil Service type democracy in that they are incapable of seeing that there is a leeway. I may not like fox hunting, for instance, but you can do it if you wish, and you're not enjoined to do it. But that is exactly where modern democracies, because of their totalitarian nature, are incapable of allowing leeway, where rules have to be unambiguous. And this is again, talking about my elitism, this is because they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator and it is notorious that in Post Industrial societies, and in industrial societies in their later stage- not in the stage of the machine breakers and the stage of the Luddites- but in Post industrial societies, after the breaking in of the working class, the old peasant class, that working class people tend to be more authoritarian and because they are afraid of their own emotions they expect the same strong discipline they feel obliged to exercise upon themselves to be exercised upon the middle class and upon the upper class, that is upon everybody without exception. Hence the great backing in multi-party states in the working class for the most authoritarian and the more rigorous parties; hence for instance the recent voting in of Tony Blair and his pretensions towards making people work and workfare programmes, the voting in of Clinton, the voting in of Stalin and Hitler in the 1930's and the general desire for there to be a "strong hand" where everybody is equal. Equality I'm afraid is incompatible with liberty. One of the great misuses of language in the French Revolution is the pretence that equality could ever be compatible with liberty.

Jonathan:

Now a series of interconnected questions. Answer them as you will. You're not an absolute monarchist but you are a monarchist. What kind of a king, with what powers, would protect the liberty of the people? How would he do this in practice? Would he exercise powers of coercion? If so how would this be reconciled with the liberty of the people? If he doesn't, how would he then command respect and authority?

John:

If you mean by absolutist the meaning that the monarch is the person to whom ultimately justice devolves then compared to some constitutional monarchists I would appear like an absolutist. The only reason I would allow the monarch to have the power ultimately of coercion, as you put it, is because it is better that such power should devolve upon one man, ritually annointed, or however annointed - maybe proclaimed by the people in a customary manner, because of course my sense of monarchy, although its very much tied up with my catholicism isn't necessarilly or logically connected with my Catholicism and its ritual annointings; I could imagine for instance an elective monarchy, although I wouldn't think it would be the best sort of monarchy possible. Otherwise what appeal is there, do you have a second house, how does consent emerge, do you make the legal system, the lawyers and the judges, the judiciary semi-independent, as they have done under the American constitutional system? There you have a ghostly monarch, you appeal, instead of to a living man who can make mistakes but can indeed say that he is sorry, only to a ghostly constitution, a so to speak deified piece of paper which exists as a ghostly immaterial king to whom there is no other appeal- its written in the constitution or ammended in the constitution and that is it. Whereas the King, although of course he could make mistakes, say you are indeed going to be hanged or beheaded or put away for life for murder and you appeal to the last court of appeal which indeed would be the monarch, of course the monarch could be wrong. But he wouldn't so to speak have to be ideologically wrong. The great thing about having the monarch in the position of ultimate arbiter of coercion is that it cuts away the judiciary from ideology; it depends entirely upon the fallible judgement of one man or woman.

Jonathan:

What kinds of things might the King be able to do to protect the liberty of the people that a modern Government and the modern democratic system does not do.

John:

A very good question. Well, I think I've already hinted at it. Just as in modern England there is a theoretical appeal to the House of Lords and ultimately to the Queen, in the sort of monarchy I envisage the access to the King and his ministers, that is to his immediate ministers as opposed to the elected ministers of Parliament, would be far more direct and far more healthily, so to speak, lubricated by use..so it wouldn't be so to speak a rare thing. Therefore the King would actively intervene to ensure that his or her ministers, whether elected in a Parliament or whether unelected in a House of Lords or whether Civil Servants or whether Army or Police did not abuse their powers to the citizen. There would be this last court of appeal that would be actively encouraged; of course in theory English Constitutional Law does claim that the Queen or King in England is the last court of appeal, but it is very little used, and it involves so to speak the Queen or the King in Parliament. The King or Queen in my monarchical system would be, of his or her nature, independent of Parliament or of the House of Lords and so to speak would appeal to all classes and to those people who are outside classes, for instance the Gypsies, the Jews, the Lunatics or whoever, so to speak, were a persecuted minority at any given time. He would be or she would be the guardian of the most oppressed and would be seen to be. And it would be in the interests of other interest groups, even the interest groups who had power themselves, to see that the King did not factionalise or the Queen did not factionalise their interests because otherwise they would be unable to bear the burden of their own autonomy in relation to the rest of society. Factions by definition being unable to express the whole of a given society.

Jonathan:

Do you consider that the creative arts, not just painting, have or should have a function beyond either entertainment or intellectual pleasure? And if so what would this be?

John:

I do indeed think that there is a function beyond entertainment or mere pleasure or intellectual pleasure, in your use of it. Indeed pleasure is perhaps one of the greatest functions of the creative arts because pleasure is in the end of the Kingdom of Heaven. But in any healthy society the arts are a measure of its display, a measure of its beauty, a measure of its efflorescence. If a society became purely work orientated or utile then indeed we would have become a people without vision, a people without dreams. That the arts are not to be seen, and are not now seen as being important is an indication that their real function is their function of waste; and the arts should be wasteful- they are an extra, they are an extra that is necessary for the human. We are not ants, we are not the philosophy of the antheap. The arts display the wonder of a free man or a free woman or a free child contemplating the wonder of the creature, the wonder of natura, of nature and the wonder of Almighty God, that should indeed be reflected in the derived glory of the King.

Jonathan:

Do you think that art can also be used in a political capacity to satirize, to criticise the kind of banal culture we might live in at the moment?

John:

There are two modes of political use of the arts. One is the degraded, mercenary use of the arts by political faction fighters, for instance Stalin or Hitler or by the Arts Council in this country, so that the arts become internally or essentially politicised, and then there is a non-essential politicisation of the arts, where the artists themselves, because they are unable to perform their full function of glorifying the King, the people, nature and God, turn against the factions and add a useful and salty and most salutary exercise of satire against factions and against abuses within the state.

Jonathan:

This medieval order of the world that you eulogise, do you actually believe a reversion to such a world to be possible now, practically possible.

John:

I believe that the Middle Ages, in so far as it ever functioned as it desired to functioned, which of course was fairly rarely, was no longer the "Middle Ages". You know, once the Jews are happy amongst their own family and people they no longer think of themselves as being especially Jewish. In the same way a free Medieval or Catholic order of Christendom is no longer especially strange or ideologically so to speak special once it actually established itself. In other words I see the actual art and science of the Middle Ages as being accidental. What was good about the Middle Ages was the ability to keep in balance apparently contradictory and bizarre forces which are not even allowed for within our polity; and a new Middle Ages, so to speak, would not be a return, in fact it would be highly fascistic and highly unmedieval to return, to an actual copy of the Middle Ages. But to be able to hold in tension the same group, so to speak, of apparently incontrovertible forces of science, of progress, of superstition, of the beggar, of the fool, of the artist, of the merchant, of the Jew, of the noble, of the King, and to be able to hold these in order and in some sense in some sort of organic balance, is what I see greatest about the Middle Ages, so to speak an efflorescence of indiivdual and city state freedom, with an overarching belief in the order of Christendom.

Jonathan:

And you would see that as possible?

John:

I'd see that as very possible. In fact I would see that there are many signs, since the 1970's of such an order emerging and a synergy between Latin America, North America, Canada and Western Europe, with possibly Russia joining as well.

Jonathan:

How is the Christian Gospel unique and superior to other religions in what it says about God and man; and if it is no better or not unique why are you an orthodox Roman Catholic?

John:

I can answer that in two ways. It is manifestly obvious by its own dogmas and doctrines that the Christian Gospel proclaims itself as being unique because although God indeed manifests himself by sundry means and by sundry methods and in sundry places and to many people and to many tribes and through many people, only once, as the Catholic Church and orthodox Christians in general teach, did God intervene in human history in an action not only comparable with but greater than the action of the ex nihilo when God created all things out of nothing; when God chose a sixteen year old girl and became incarnate in her womb, and by that act, not some act of metamorphosis or reincarnation, as is believed by the Hindus, as if Krishna many times could be bull, could be elephant, could be young man, could be girl, could be Lord, could be diva, but once only, in this particular historical place, this baby, this child, this boy, this man walking the dusty lanes of Palestine, this on the cross, is Adonai Elohim, he who created all the worlds, who died on the cross for our salvation. And this is a claim so great that, as a poet and a painter and also as a Catholic, I would give it some credence even if it were not true, but that I believe it to be true is not because I assert it to be true the way I assert that A is B and B is C and therefore A is C, I assert it to be true by the gift of grace. By the gift of grace I assert this to be true. Therefore I would hold that I am a Catholic not merely for aesthetic reasons and because only in Catholicism do I see the full power and rigour of this dreadful and absolutist doctrine taught but because, may God be my judge, I believe I have the grace to hope to believe that I do believe; I hope that I do believe that to be the case.

Jonathan:

Some people might think that the function of Religion is to further a ruling class moral regulation of a society in-this world for its own political purposes, and that that's the be all and the end all of Religion. There's another view, though, that Christianity in particular both prophecies, and is moving the human race or part of the human race towards, a transfigured world or transfigured universe. With which of these understandings do you identify Christianity? What is Christianity driving at, is it driving towards a better world, a Kingdom of Heaven which would be completely different from the structures of life as we know it, or is the main function of Christianity to give order and shape and coherence and morality to people so that humanity can "flourish" in- this- world.

John:

This seems to me to be a particularly confused question. That incidentally Christianity and the Catholic Church teaches Natural law, that which has been believed by most people in most places and universally, one would expect. But its primary function cannot be to teach morality. One would expect the same morality by any reasonable atheist, let alone by anybody who believed in the existence of God, let alone anybody who believed in the existence of the Jewish God, let alone anybody who believed in the existence of the Catholic God who is both Father, Son and Holy Spirit and who is incarnate in Jesus Christ. We would expect that general morality- i.e we do not eat babies, we do not disembowell women in the street, we do not do any of the gross things which become possible in a fully so called "free" from any restraints society, then what can be said other than coercion. No it is not a problem for the Catholic. The Catholic indeed holds that the nature of the Kingdom of God and the reason for our existence is ultimate universal happiness, happiness for each one of us. Struggle indeed and choice and moral restraint in this world, in so far as it establishes the freedom of all men and women and all creatures that all creatures, all men and women, all children, everybody, should be transformed in a new Heaven and new Earth, when all stains are washed away and all creatures are transformed, all creatures, not merely human beings, all stones, all crystals, all planets, the sun, the moon and the stars, all the elemental forces that make up all the millions of years of our existence, will be transformed and brought to their true origin and their true pleasure and delight in the everlasting mercy of God.




My Thoughts

Given that the above was an interview, and not a discussion, my main intention was to ferret out John's opinions on certain matters, not to engage in arguments or challenge his opinions. On the other hand, the choice of question was entirely in my hands, so in a sense I was a driver, if only a back seat one.

I will break down the views I see John expressing, and which provoke a response in me, into their component parts and briefly comment on these below. I will quote him, for fear of misrepresenting him.

I stress that what I write is my interpretation and response to John's words, not necessarily in accord with the meaning he would attach to them.

"Democracy is a tyranny which is very difficult to remove"

Although I am wary of stipulating what kind of polity might usefully replace democracy, it seems true that democracy as we have it in the west is far from an ideal system, even if it is conceivably the best system we have on offer, as Churchill famously said.

Once a Government has won an election, it will consider itself, as George Bush freely admitted in late 2004, to have 'political capital' that it can spend over the next 4 or 5 years in a manner it sees fit. During this period, its only worry will be to win sufficient votes at the next election so that the party that it bases itself on will again be returned to power. In order to secure these votes, the Government will court popularity, especially near to election time, by engaging in destructive criticism of rival parties, by massaging the populace's perception of its own track record, and by making various extravagant vague or not so vague promises about its future behaviour. It does not particularly matter if its criticisms of the rival parties are accurate or if the promises it makes are not realised after a victory is secured. What matters is that its arguments against the rivals sound persuasive and that it offers more, in a more lyrical, attractive manner, than the opposition. Until the next election, as long as it controls the legislature, or else can ignore it, the Government is free to do as it wishes with the enormous powers and resources at its disposal. During this period of its Governance, the direct accountability of the Government to the electorate is non-existent; its only accountablility is an informal, unoffical one - to the media, which itself may or may not be in the hands of the Government and its backers in some way. Such a media, it might be added, is almost entirely in control of every way in which the Government and most of the people can interact.

The specific point John seems to be making is that it is precisely the claim that is made by the Government that it is a Government 'by the people, for the people' which makes it next to impossible for that Government to be challenged, except by the often farcical ways that it is at election times. So it is implicitly or explicitly said by a newly elected Government to the people: "We have a democratic system in place, which honours your political dignity, and which, unlike tyrannies and despotisms of the past and in certain regions of the world today, has involved you in the Governing process. It has involved you, because it has given you the decision to make our party (or coalition of parties), as opposed to any other, the Government that you now see. You have put us here...so shut up and let us rule on your behalf."

Because there are grains of truth in this statement, and because of the vanity of voters, who like to believe that they are significant, and because people are often so infuriated and disenchanted with the outgoing Government that any change is likely to be welcomed as a basis for hope, this bitter pill is usually swallowed. Which is why until the next election the people are impotent to express their imagined political sovereignty.

It is the flattery and sycophancy that the Government offers to the people that is the basis for the disempowering of the people.

Even a slave, if he is told night and day that he is free by the people who give him shelter, food and water, might eventually come to believe it. Especially if those people have nice smiles and seem sexy or cool.

Still, it is not time to man the barricades. Things could most certainly be alot worse than they are..and the end does not justify the means....rather the means are the only end that is real. To get what you want through violence is to say that what you want is violence.

"the majority tend to be right."

A wonderful presentation this of how Democracy inclines to privilege, wrongly in John's view, the majority over the minority. On the surface this sounds worrying, and might remind us of an authoritarianism of minority individuals or factions lording it over the masses. Yet John is not advocating such tyrannies, as is clear from his later comments. Nor is John pursuing a track that might be construed as 'Nietzschean', which one might expect of someone championing minorities, namely that only an elite - the most talented, gifted and responsible people (who are necessarily in the minority) -have the right to exercise political power. Maybe John in some way believes this but this thought does not form the basis of his argument here. Rather, what he is saying is that the 'the majority' has 'flattened, unemotional and unimaginative views' and that as such it can only detract from the expressiveness and freedom of the individual if its views and tastes are allowed to become prescriptive and/or prohibitive for all.

A problem, of course, about the majority is that most people have an inbuilt preference to belong to it than not to. Unless some important personal issue is at stake, most people will rather conform than not, as much in their thoughts as their behaviour. This may be all well and good for those lacking in any distinct individuality (or rather lacking the courage to explore and develop their latent indivduality), but what about those endowed with that marvellous faculty of consciousness that actually leads them to be and want to be, and to encourage other people to be, distinct. Why must they be oppressed?

It is clear that when speaking about minorities John is not referring to distinct social minority groups (gays, cooloured people, the disabled, those of minority religions etc), but to anyone, from any group, or gender, who in their tastes and sensibilities and nature is not like most people, but rather stands distinct.

Of course it could be argued that this natural difference of personality and tendency to difference found amongst the minority, and the opposing pressures put upon them to conform by the majority, is a question of nature more than of politics. Indeed this may be so. Human nature tends to divide itself into herd animal and lonely mountain goat. But the question then to ask is whether it is the role of the polity to reflect and express this way of nature, or to in some cases constrain and manage nature's tendencies to tyranny and injustice. Surely civilisation must recognise itself, in its essence, as the attempt to control and marshall nature according to an image devised by the human mind.

Despite the rise of a neo-pagan, misanthropic, nature-worshipping strain within the environmentalist movement, which might condemn civilisation for its tendencies to interfere with nature, I believe we should accept that this is what civilisation is, and that this in-itself is no bad thing; that civilisation is to be valued for trying to refashion nature. The only problem in the past, it can be argued, is that it has tried to influence nature in the wrong way.

I would suggest that one good way civilisation should proceed is to be vigilant in the protection of the minority,and in consequence the liberty of the individual, of which the majority is also comprised, from the abstract, media manipulable, flattened and flattening, levelled and levelling, mindless intolerance of the masses.

All this in practice requires is for everyone to place a higher value on individuality per se, whilst not compromising the importance for the individual to recognise his own dependence upon community. After all, only the individual who thinks for himself is a real asset to the community.