Imperialist Leather: British Empire Honours as Fetish Objects
I didn’t get much work done last week. My Facebook post (to a Yes-sympathetic group) on the incongruity of Yessers accepting New Year honours exploded in my face. But before rotting away to petty name-calling, the thread had blossomed, spanning subjects including intentionality, rationalist ethics, Nietzsche, ethology, Benjamin Zephaniah, Parfitian objectivism, scatology and James Corden.
The original post was a general-terms objection highlighting the ‘lack of principle’, which I stated was causing me ‘cognitive dissonance’. However, as the thread unfolded, I felt it would be more honest to ‘call out’ one particular recent recipient of an honour to respond to my post. Gamely, he engaged. Apparently, the honour was ‘for his work’ (evidently, superior to others’ work, or all hard-working people would be appointed OBEs). His other justifications were no more coherent; he went through most of my logical fallacy checklist within a few paragraphs. Then came the inevitable charges by others that I had personally attacked him. It’s one thing to object to the system, it’s another altogether to question the logic and principles of a named individual.
But what if the individuals are the fetid, anachronistic system? Not because they’re necessarily bad or unprincipled, but because they choose to participate and thus perpetuate it. Lacking the key principle that prevents its propagation will perpetuate it by default. It’s a precision-engineered rancorous mess; the us/them divisions created by imperial patronage are the very object of the game. Objections to the system become ad hominem by default. And defence of named recipients becomes defence of the system by default, because of course we can name – and perhaps know personally – decent people who have received honours. ‘I hate the Honours system, but my mate’s got an OBE, he’s worked hard for it and he’s OK’ is support, not qualified condemnation.
Honours are shiny. Even those recipients who don’t start out with the Gollum-ish ‘I wants it’ tendency become enchanted by them over time. They’re addictive, scintillating rings of visibility granting their wearers charmed lives of access to people, positions and resources denied the majority. In certain quarters, they transmute into sleek and sexy garments with the line, whiff and new-squeak of tight-fitting leather trousers. It’s understandable that people seek such access and Hello! magazine glamour, or find it hard to turn down when it arrives in the mail, but that doesn’t make it right. In fact, it’s hideous, ill-fitting and more than a little shrivelling.
Many see it as a monarchists vs. republicans issue, but that is simplistic. Of course there is room in the debate for independence-supporters who wish to keep a symbolic monarchy. What strains credulity, however, is the idea of British state supporters who want Scottish independence. And how else should we see acceptance of honours from the British-Empire-state but as at least tacit support for it? It’s a bizarre line of (un)reasoning: ‘I’ve been appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, but that doesn’t mean I actually support it. It’s just an award, like a BAFTA or something.’
So, just an award. Just a symbol. But symbolic of what, precisely? Another argument I heard was that people don’t take the Empire seriously any more – it has become a bit of a joke. Should we also laugh off the crimes of that empire? The paranoia and brutality of the injured beast as it lost its grip on ‘Possession’ after ‘Possession’ is well documented but seldom discussed. Professor Caroline Elkins won a Pulitzer prize for her book Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya in which she lays bare the starvation, torture, rape and murder of detainees at purpose-built camps and in villages across Kenya. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, and some even estimate the entire population, were detained by the British. The Empire’s pretext for detention was its strenuous efforts to quell the Mau Mau uprising. Employing the well-honed barbarity of their troops, and their proven divide and rule strategy, the British defeated the uprising.
But that’s ancient history, right? Well, only if you consider 1960 ancient history. The further back you go, the grimmer it gets. The Empire’s mastery of the technology of subjugation – concentration camps proved a useful tool in South Africa during the Second Boer War – obliterated insurgency after insurgency across the ‘possessed’ world (coloured red).
How can those of us who believe in an independent Scotland take up appointments as ‘Members’, ‘Officers’, ‘Knights’ of an aberration like this – a gloating, unrepentant, undead empire that would see our hopes dashed and our cause dispersed on the winds of history? (But hows can we not, Precioussss, hows can we not?)
As the main, independence-supporting political party, the SNP urgently needs a policy on its representatives holding British honours. Champagne (the good stuff) swilling, moth-eaten hereditary peers are the relatively easy targets within the system; the test of courage will be to look within Scottish politics and recognise the poor judgement, conflicts of interest and political non-sequiturs that MBEs, OBEs and KBEs represent here. This self-examination might well sting a bit, but those, like Jean Urquhart (independent MSP), who have relinquished their honours have shown that it can be done with admirable candour and with the dignified wisdom to admit that in accepting them they just got it wrong.
In terms of the philosophy of Karl Marx, British Empire honours can be seen as ‘social objects’ and also as ‘fetish objects’: they have no inherent power/value and we may even claim that it is harmless to possess them because of this; nevertheless, our society invests them with power and value, so they become potent, meaningful and dangerous. Finding ourselves in a society that sets great store in status symbols and little in egalitarianism, we lust after them or become addicted to them. Not unrelatedly, Freud focussed on the sexual potency of fetish objects: as usual with Freud, something to do with mothers, death, and penis envy.
For me, the very concept of empire is flawed, repellent and immoral. The British state shouldn’t be revelling in its imperial past (?) by handing out commemorative baubles; it should be begging forgiveness for its crimes.
If you are offered a British Empire ‘honour’, refuse it. If you already have one, let it go. And if you can’t give it up, then at very, very least have the human decency to put the ugly thing away and stop rubbing it.