Back to Basic Instincts
by Gwydion M. Williams, under the pen-name Walter Cobb
It can be no more than a coincidence that John Major chose to coin the phrase “back to basics” at much the same time as the notorious sex-and-blood film Basic Instinct was screened on Sky Television. Unless he has very much deceived us as to his character, that would not be his sort of film at all. Still, who knows what his speech writers might have been watching? Anyway, I think that the connection is not entirely accidental or superficial.
A Puritan is someone who suffers from sex instead of enjoying it. Most of the pioneering work of 18th and 19th century capitalism was done by English-speaking Puritans who thought that life was definitely not something that should be enjoyed. Armed with this spirit, and being also frugal, hard-working and well-educated, they overturned all established order.
The process of smashing up contented and well-established civilisations was begun by the Spanish in the New World. But English-speaking Puritans extended it to everyone who had survived the Spanish: to the Islamic world; to India; to China; to Japan. And then back to Europe, including the Spanish themselves in something the Spaniards had first begun. Finally, with great suitability, the English-speaking Puritans were themselves caught up in the very whirlwind that they had been generating for other people across the years.
In a world of genuinely free competition. English-speaking Puritans turn out not to be as superior as they supposed themselves to be. Germany. France and Italy are now comfortably ahead of Britain, just as they always had been until the 18th century. East Asia was richer and more sophisticated than Europe for most of human history. Having been forced into the world of modern trade and industry, they are showing that their human potential is at least equal to Europe’s. Maybe even superior.
Only a very vain and foolish sort of person will start a war of all against all, instead of seeking some reasonable coexistence. Only a very vain and foolish sort of person will try more of the same when things start visibly falling apart. But vanity and folly are embedded in the basic psychological make-up of English-speaking Puritans – particularly when they liberate themselves from direct dependency on the Bible. Belief in Grace, a supernatural exemption from the likely results of your own actions, was the inner force that energised those people. It encouraged them to impose their own ideas everywhere, no matter how unjustified or destructive the results might be.
Grace has a long and ambiguous history in Christian theology. Confusingly, the New Testament seems to say both that salvation is something you can win or lose and also that it is utterly fixed and preordained for each individual. The Catholic Church got the whole thing under control, convincing the mass of population that Grace was indeed something you could win or lose. Complexities were reserved for the private world of theology. But they overdid it when they organised a free market in Grace and forgiveness of sins, a blatantly corrupt process that was the immediate cause of Martin Luther’s protests. Still, they had their successes also. The Conquistadors who created Latin America were told that their numerous sins would be forgiven, provided only that they extended the scope of Papal authority. Rob and rape, loot and murder; it’s all OK boys, just so long as you deliver the survivors to the authority of the Church.
The wholesale marketing of Grace worked for Roman Catholicism, just so long as they curbed the more obvious corruption. But that very corruption and loss of control had encouraged those who reckoned that their own home-grown version of Grace was better than anything Rome could offer. And while Catholicism had always kept firm control of trade, saw poverty as holy and preserved the established order, the Protestants had other and very different notions. In particular, it you saw your own prosperity as an aspect of Grace, and your neighbour’s hardship as a sign that he lacks it, you had one essential element for capitalism.
Yet had the sincere Puritans been in charge. I doubt if such a thing as capitalism would every have emerged. Puritans had a vision of what the world should be. 1 he accumulation of wealth was never more than a means to an end. But Puritanism failed to consolidate itself during the revolutions of the 17th century. A largely new ruling class emerged in England, often of Puritan origin, but very un-Puritan in outlook. Covertly, they fought for their own values against a middle-class dominated by various forms of purified Christianity.
For much of the 19th century, the growth of democracy favoured Puritanism. Once again it might have consolidated itself, but did not. When democracy started bringing the working class into politics, they shared more of the outlook of the aristocrats. Most did not feel inclined to impose Puritan values on their neighbours, however they themselves might choose to live. The 1960s saw the official, permanent and decisive overturn of Puritan values among the various English-speaking peoples.
But when people cease to be Puritans, they do not necessarily become anything else. As Puritans, they had the notion of each man sufficient unto himself, but subject to the Law of God. Subtract God. let women start demanding the same freedoms as the men, do nothing at all to accommodate these changed social basics, and you have a formula for chaos and social breakdown
Dis-graced, those people cannot let go of the concept. They do not live by the standards of their ancestors. But they hang on to the feeling that life is definitely not something to be enjoyed. Anyone guilty of sex must pay for it. They are decadent puritans.
“Decadent puritans” is a phrase I first saw in The Economist. And I was not surprised when it vanished again after a couple of issues. It was much too good a description of the sort of people who are likely to buy that magazine. Even when their religious origin is something else, both Judaism and Catholicism are close enough to Puritanism to share most of its anxieties and its decay. Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists can all see sex as a legitimate human need. Much like eating, perfectly OK within the proper forms and rules. In principle Judaism should take the same view; in practice Jews commonly have their ideas swamped by the surrounding Catholic or Protestant population. (Sigmund Freud, for instance.)
Basic Instinct is bad for its social outlook, rather than its violence. I have not heard of any mass wave of women killing their sex-partners with ice picks, nor I am I expecting one. Even in America, millions of people enjoy sex without murdering anyone. None of the female villains are remotely plausible. Women seldom kill, and invariably do so out of greed, fear or jealousy. I would have switched the damn film off after the first ten minutes, except that I wanted to see if there was anything else that might justify its notorious reputation. I found only more of the same. So I have to assume that its reputation is based precisely on the things I found silly, nasty and trivial. So I started wondering why.
Major talks about ‘back to basics’, as if a world based on greed and self-indulgence is likely to suddenly revert to the more civilised values of the collapsed Puritan world order. Basic Instinct is more in .tune with the actual results of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Ordinary people are seen as constantly at war with each other, mostly for no good reason. Typically, the one seemingly good and gentle woman in the film is suddenly revealed as just another psychopath. Male violence is justified by even worse female violence. We descend into a hell without redemption, with the chief villainess getting ready to murder her lover. Incidentally, who the hell uses ice-picks, in this day and age? But realism hardly comes into it. It’s just a fable for decadent puritans. And its popularity is highly alarming- With socialism in eclipse, there are clearly a lot of them about.
This article appeared in May 1994, in Issue 41 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/ and https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/m-articles-by-topic/.