31 July 2009

On Gurkhas and Gramsci and...

Joanna Lumley's campaign (and she is the first to point out that she is just the media figurehead of a very serious and researched campaign behind the scenes) to grant the right to UK residence for former soldiers in the British army has rightly been celebrated.

But recently there has been newspaper correspondence and features in radio news (the sources are not particularly critical to the argument and I have finally given up after an hour of trying to cite them directly--sorry!) suggesting that while the opportunity to come to the UK was great for the former soldiers and their families themselves... what would be the impact on the communities they left behind?

It has been argued that former soldiers (and their pensions) have been critical to the (relative) prosperity of some communities in Nepal. It has not merely (merely?) been that the regular income from former soldiers' families have helped to sustain a wider family, and indeed by sustaining local trade, a whole community. It is that the presence of elders with a wide experience of the world has been an important asset to those often isolated communities.

For them to leave for the UK would be to deprive those villages of an incalculable resource, it has been claimed.

My view is that there are separate issues here. This is not a legitimate argument against the right of former soldiers to live in the country they were prepared to die for. The relationship of the Gurkhas to the British army goes far beyond that of "mercenaries", which would normally characterise nationals of one country enlisted in the armed forces of another.

So I am all for these ex-servicemen having the right to come and live in the UK.
I do hope that they will not exercise it.

Why? Because these men are what Gramsci called the "organic intellectuals" of their communities. They are the embedded "wise men" (factually they are all men). I have no idea how they feel about their obligations to their communities versus their opportunities abroad, which may well--as in the case of their military service--include remittances home. But their contribution will, I'm sure, not have been merely economic.

I'm not going on about this purely concerning the Gurkhas. Their case illustrates a more general principle about the naive promotion of "social mobility" as a political good. In particular it touches on government policies of promoting proportional targets for participation in higher education...

Mrs Gaskell, for example, (Mary Barton, 1848; North and South, 1854) makes much of the importance of autodidacts (self-taught scholars) in sustaining impoverished communities. In her day, those people could not escape their birth community. There was no social mobility. The minimal up-side of the situation was that the efforts of some very resourceful people were contained and employed in the interests of their home communities.

Once social mobility comes into the picture, there is a route out for these "community leaders" (as we might now term them--but only for some reason if they belong to an ethnic minority). And they go. And leave the less talented or committed or enterprising behind, to form an underclass. Michael Young had an inkling of this in "The Rise of the Meritocracy" (1958).

Does that mean we should not widen participation or promote social mobility? No, but...

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree with your summary of the recent news events and Joanna Lumley's part in this. I can also see where you're coming from when discussing the right for the gurkhas to move or not to move ... and I think we are agreeing that they should have this choice (even though that could mean a problem for the villages they leave). The argument you have picked up from some of the media is outrageous and I'm appalled that we still have such partronising, colonial attitudes. These comments are probably coming from people who have had the right to choose where they live and work and how dare they suggest that "for the greater good" we should block the attempts of some individual who want to better their lot (however they see that, and if for them that means moving to the UK, so be it).
    I often wish I had saved a newspaper cartoon from years ago when I was living in S America - a picture of a lean, ragged man about to chop down a tree and beside him a huge limo with a fat man (+ cigar) popping his head out of the roof and shouting "don't cut that down - we need it!".
    Well, there you go ... I've gone all moralistic .... but have calmed down now and can appreciate your measured, careful post! Thanks


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