“What is it in the culture of Britain that would give rise to an economic outlook so focused on short-term gain that it might well destroy itself and the social system that gave it birth?”
It’s been said that the modern passion for free markets is a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon phenomenon because although global financial institutions and sundry think tanks give vocal support, the only governments to initially embrace market rule without reservation were those of Britain and its former colonies of North America New Zealand and Australia. But why would this be so? What is it in the culture of Britain that would give rise to an economic outlook so focused on short-term gain that it might well destroy itself and the social system that gave it birth?
The ruthless nature of free market philosophy, its utter disregard for the needs of the less capable must have its roots in some aspect of British history, some major factor not experienced by comparable nations. It’s been assumed by many (including this writer) that this ruthlessness developed as a natural aspect of capitalism, but it was actually present much earlier. A typical example is the closure of the commons in England beginning in the 12th Century (note that date!), the theft of the common lands on which communities depended for food, with subsequent deprivation forcing many to the towns and cities, creating a ready and compliant work force for the emergence of industrialisation. This was a major factor in Britain jumping ahead of the field in converting to an industrial economy, aided by the reluctance of competitors to force agricultural workers into the cities as a source of cheap labour. The needs of the few were given higher value than those of the many, and economic theory was designed to serve only the few from a point very early in British history, but what was that point?
Prior to the Norman invasion, Anglo-Saxon society was distinguished for its cohesiveness built on an advanced system of local government, but the Normans reversed that with the introduction of military feudalism; centralised control of the land by a network of hastily built fortifications that dotted the countryside. The rigid stratification of society that followed the conquest was not necessarily William’s original intention, even though the invasion “was not, like the Saxon or Danish invasions, a national migration. It was an aristocratic conquest led by a man who won a kingdom for himself, distributed land among his followers… to gain a power unprecedented among European kings” (emphasis added).  Of importance also, “The resultant almost total replacement of an English with a Norman aristocracy was paralleled by a similar change of personnel among the upper clergy and administrative officers.”  His wish was to be recognised as the rightful heir of the last king of the West Saxon line, and to rule an Anglo-Norman state in which English and Norman could work together. But repeated rebellions prevented such an outcome, induced William to lay waste to vast areas of land that supported the rebels, (a retribution so fierce the death toll and starvation aroused indignation and horror across Europe) and assisted in the creation of a ruling class and bureaucracy that saw the use of force against the populace as an acceptable tool for achieving an entirely new imperative; the utilisation of the nation’s resources for the exclusive enjoyment of the few.
And use force they did. Not a hundred years had passed since the conquest when the Welsh were attacked in 1157, and by 1210 the Scots and Irish had suffered similar fates. But it was not only near neighbours that suffered from this drive. The English working class was also tested, finally rising in revolt in 1381, a revolt so effective the rulers were forced to negotiate, but which was put down by deceit and bloodshed. As well as a poll tax, “probably the main grievance of the agricultural labourers and urban working classes was the Statute of Labourers (1351), which attempted to fix maximum wages during the labour shortage following the Black Death,”  an early sign that the laws of economics would always be “the preserve of the few.”  Though the revolt was put down, it showed that care had to be taken with domestic resources, so a pattern was begun of honing the fine arts of control and exploitation on near neighbours, to enable the real work of global imperialism to begin. 
Now it is true that the British were not alone in this, other European powers were equally determined when it came to domination and exploitation, but something about the British gave them an edge and left them not content with being mere colonisers. They set about establishing a global hegemony, a network of little Britains infused with British culture. Crucially, when the colonial era ended and the Brits departed, their structures and economic outlook in general remained, in contrast to the former colonies of Spain that have tried unsuccessfully for about a century to construct alternative economic and social frameworks, only to be thwarted by the military power of the USA. This clinging to all things British is a fine example of cultural hegemony as described by Gramsci, but is there an aspect to hegemony that Gramsci overlooked; did the British legacy contain a parasite?
Let’s summarise the outlook of the Norman invaders. After the conquest they found themselves in control of a land in constant rebellion for a considerable period, a military state was formed, a siege mentality grew, the use of brutal force against the people became the norm, and a strong sense of “otherness” developed, a sense that the masses were a lesser species, a resource to be utilised for the benefit of the conquerors. This was compounded by the loss of Normandy about one hundred and fifty years after the invasion, a shattering loss that increased the sense of isolation of the Normans whose ties to the Continent were severed. Now alone, now without roots or a sense of belonging, survival became paramount.
It seems to have gone unnoticed by historians that this mind-set survived the gradual absorption of the Normans into British society. This fear and suspicion, this seeing every man as an enemy, this ruthlessness and urge to power, sense of isolation and otherness, failure to see society as an organic whole, emerged intact as a pseudo-philosophy around four hundred years later, the philosophy of liberalism (economic individualism) as expounded by Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes’ false view of society as a battleground with every man pitted against every other man still permeates liberal thinking today, and so strong was the urge to power in Locke’s thinking that he openly advocated revolution to advance bourgeois interests. So liberalism with its fetish for free markets is not quite an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon as some have suggested, but is instead Anglo-Norman. Economic individualism, this deeply flawed outlook that with the benefit of hindsight we should half expect of an alienated people clinging to a delusion of superiority, has survived by its natural appeal to those of similarly retarded social instincts.
Of course the scenario presented here is beginning to look very much like “meme theory” as described by Richard Dawkins (Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University); a meme being an idea, concept, or cultural feature which self-replicates, spreading from host to host and therefore subject to natural selection, a parasitical entity that has no “purpose” other than survival. As Dawkins pointed out, the memes that survive best are those that actively encourage their own reproduction and spread as do certain religious beliefs, and clearly those pushing the cult of free markets and economic individualism have a similar zeal, a fundamentalist approach to spreading and enforcing the gospel of the market. 
So is the argument valid? Is the modern passion for free markets merely the visible symptom of a parasitical entity born of social crises unique to Britain, exported across the globe wherever the British put down roots, forced by natural selection to alter form, to adapt to changing environments, occasionally flourishing, never quite dying out, re-emerging in the late 20th Century to wreak havoc once again as the long-suffering people of Iraq can attest? (Remember that despite the democratic ideal being the final desperate justification for the conquest of Iraq, once the country was controlled by the Western forces privatisation occurred before democratisation.) It seems almost outlandish to attribute the present direction of the global economy to a military campaign that occurred in 1066, but the parallels between the outlook of the Normans and that of the marketeers, the determination of both to enforce an elitist economic agenda through a centralised government eager to exercise superior military might, are just too great to ignore. Furthermore, as we are looking at what was once a uniquely British phenomenon that must have its roots in British history only, no other incident or episode covers all the questions nearly as well. And while a link between the Normans and free markets at first seems tenuous at best, keep in mind that the free market aspect is merely the latest window dressing for a consistent underlying economic agenda that is socially unacceptable and therefore in constant need of repackaging to neutralise community resistance. Meme theory might not adequately explain the crude Market Darwinism of an individual such as Herbert Spencer, but it would explain why such an outrageous outlook still enjoys significant unspoken support and has become the basis of the Australian Liberal Government’s industrial relations reforms. It would explain why Charles Darwin’s declaration that mankind’s social instincts are primary and individual instincts secondary  was and still is ignored by the British establishment. It would explain, bearing in mind that a meme’s primary “concern” is survival, the motives of the British diplomat who told his US counterpart, once Britain had slipped from its position of pre-eminence, that the Brits were passing the baton to the U.S. It explains Winston Churchill’s belief in “the Anglo-sphere”, a world dominated by British and US culture. (The Anglo-sphere is a concept still active in the minds of such luminaries as Conrad Black.) It explains why market rule and military power are so tightly interwoven as to be two sides of the one coin, why the liberal reverence for competition is as William Morris pointed out, merely a veiled form of warfare, why liberals cannot live peacefully alongside rival political models and why they had to invent an enemy when the Cold War ended. It explains their obsession with eroding social infrastructure and evaluating everything in economic terms, why liberalism evolved an extreme offshoot, libertarianism, and why libertarians such as Hayek became enamoured of British culture and history. It would even explain why ordinary Britons, those unmoved by elitist aspirations, still feel aggrieved; still feel a sense of loss resulting from the events of 1066. Perhaps a counter-meme exists, a meme of resistance to “Normanisation” with its intolerance, its divisiveness, its unquenchable thirst for conflict with enemies both without and within. Perhaps Tolkien, consciously or unconsciously, struck a chord with the public by expressing this meme of resistance in his Lord of the Rings, a tale of the determination of little folk to not be trampled underfoot, to preserve simple wholesome values in harmony with the natural world, to reject the lure of power and maintain a sense of community. Meme theory would certainly explain why the present fortress of liberalism, the corporation, has many of the features of the Anglo-Norman state, for the corporation is expansionist, fearful of competitors, devoid of social empathy or obligation, exercising absolute centralised control over a workforce that is technically free but in practice in a position of vassalage, and why, like the Anglo-Norman state, the corporation is concerned with two priorities only; distributing wealth to an elite group, and survival.
Henrietta Leyser, historian of Oxford University, made the point on the television documentary ‘The Normans, a Dynasty that Changed the World’,  that the suspicion still felt by the East towards the West can be put squarely at the feet of the Normans for the role they played in the Crusades. Sadly that’s only the half of it. The economic legacy of the Normans is the catalyst today not just for ill-feeling, but for what is seen by many as a battle for cultural and economic survival.
Shortly after Dark Lords was published in State of Nature, (an earlier version was published in Voice March 2006) I came across the 24th annual John Bonython Lecture delivered by Lawrence M. Mead of the Department of Politics at New York University to The Centre For Independent Studies, an Australian right-wing think-tank, on 27 June 2007. His lecture was titled Anglo Primacy at the End of History: The Deep Roots of Power. Mead’s basic theme was that US supremacy was embedded deep in British history and would continue indefinitely due to “Anglo” exceptionalism. Though he ignored the immorality and hypocrisy involved in the Anglo pursuit of power, somehow seeing immorality as ethical conduct, the lecture confirmed the essence of the argument put in ‘Dark Lords’ that capitalism based on the British model is a parasitical aberration that has its roots in the Norman conquest of England. Mead argued the following:
• That British exceptionalism began in the 12th century, (i.e., as soon as Britain was ‘Normanised’.)
• That this cultural change is a virtue, and one that has been transplanted to the US, New Zealand and Australia. (In other words it is a cultural entity or meme that spreads from host to host.)
• That this cultural change is seen as having conferred superiority to the British in the field of economic organisation. (Therefore the market economics that reigns supreme today, and is controlled as Mead points out, by the Anglos, came directly from the Normans, so liberalism is in fact Normanism.)
• That this superiority gives Anglos the right to arrange the world to suit themselves, and to use force where necessary to achieve this. (Showing that the readiness of the Normans to use military force to achieve economic ends has not diminished with the passage of time.)
Here’s some short extracts: “And within Europe, Britain was again out in front. England achieves the rule of law in the twelfth century and government by consent in the thirteenth century – way ahead of any other large European state. This early development, I think, is the most fortunate thing that has ever happened in politics, since the Roman Empire. It is the essential reason why the Anglo countries are so prosperous and secure today. Britain’s precocious regime was then a principal reason why the country developed its effective market economy, and then grew rich, and then projected that power to the ends of the earth.” (Mead’s emphasis.)
“And among Western countries, it’s not just America but all the Anglo nations that stand supreme. By Anglo nations I mean Britain and all the countries that were settled chiefly from Britain – The U.S. but also Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Not only are these, as a group, the richest of all countries – they are also more or less running the world.”
“You need a strong and honest government to run an effective market economy. And you need it to translate wealth into military power and to project it abroad.”
“All of our potential rivals are weak in one or another of the dimensions I have discussed. Either they lack a native propensity for capitalism, or they lack an individualist society, or they lack good government. Only America and the other Anglo countries have all these assets. So today, they are still running the world, and I see no end to that any time soon.”
For full text go to http://www.cis.org.au/Media/releases/Bonython_07.pdf
General: As I understand meme theory, a meme does not itself adapt to changing conditions as it has no consciousness, instead the reverse is the case, as a self-replicating entity circumstances change it over time. That seems a little hard to grasp, but presumably as each person expresses a meme in a slightly different way, those expressions that more readily find a receptive host will have the greater chance of survival and spread. This means that we should see incremental change over time, and so we do with for example, some varieties of popular Christianity. That’s also the case with free market ideology. Its proponents in the late 19th Century were capable of expressing the most callous disregard for the freely admitted suffering of those unable to compete economically, were capable of almost celebrating their misfortune. However as the world has become more civilised in outlook, more civilised justifications, albeit still fraudulent, had to be found. Dawkin’s analogy of a meme as a virus or parasite is particularly apt in this case. Just as some of us have a resistance to certain infections, so some of us are resistant to the enticements of free market rhetoric. And just as a virus or parasite has the potential to cripple or kill its host, so free market ideology with its fixation on individual wants rather than needs, has the potential to cripple human society as we know it. (My embrace of meme theory should not be taken as a similar endorsement of Dawkins’ deeply flawed theory of selfish genes.)
It would be a mistake to assume, as marketeers would have us believe, that the present dominance of free market ideology is the culmination of an evolutionary process driven by an alleged need to consume, an inevitability against which resistance is futile. Capitalism based on the British model is in some cases adopted by those awed by its productivity and blind to its social consequences, is in some cases installed and maintained by force, but is in all cases flawed by an inherent process of alienation described so well by the great 19th Century socialist thinkers. Now it might be intriguing, even useful to speculate as we have here as to the origin of that alienation, but the point to keep in mind is that other viable models of economic development exist.
1. Doris Mary Stenton, English Society in the Early Middle Ages, 4th ed. (Penguin, 1965), 13-14.
2. ‘Norman Conquest’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Standard Edition CD ROM, 2002.
3. ‘Peasants’ Revolt’, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Standard Edition CD ROM, 2002.
4. Barry Hughes, Exit Full Employment (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980), 221. The sentence is worth quoting in full: “Only when the pursuit of self-interest remains the preserve of the few does the system remain workable.”
5. Noam Chomsky, Year 501, The Conquest Continues (London: Verso, 1993), 3-7.
6. The term “gospel of the market” has been taken up by most critics of free market ideology, but was possibly first used by its proponents, notably Bill Clinton at the Asia-Pacific summit in Seattle where according to Chomsky he expounded his “grand vision for Asia” bringing leaders together “to preach the gospel of open markets and to secure America’s foothold in the world’s fastest growing economic community.” Noam Chomsky, ‘Some Truths and Myths About free Market Rhetoric’, Lies of Our Times, Jan 7, 1994.
7. In his Descent of Man, available online at Project Gutenburg, Charles Darwin devoted two full chapters, 4 and 5, to the importance of sociality in evolution and concluded that in humans, as in most other animals, the social instinct is primary and the individual instinct secondary.
8. ‘Lost Worlds – The Normans, a Dynasty that Changed the World’, a three-part British documentary presented by Melvyn Bragg, was broadcast on SBS Australia in April 2005.
Steve Davis is the author of Rise Like Lions - The Hijacking of Australian History (Canberra: Ginninderra Press, 2000).