Lost cheeses and impersonal cruelty
On Austerity Wensleydale and the liberalism of fear
When I was younger, I thought that political philosophy should be more like repairing an old machine than drafting the blueprint of a new building. Elaborate philosophies starting from first principles seemed to distract from the real question of how people, with all our flaws and irrationalities, should live in society. Besides, I reflected, there was little need to start from scratch. The history of human thought is a dusty garage full of tools that can be put to good use.
Now that I’m older, I realise the metaphor of repairing an old machine is not quite right. Good political thought is more like making cheese. Some things are the same as for repairing a machine. No-one devises a great cheese from scratch. They refine and tinker. Beyond that, though, a cheese only lives in the making. The milk will have its say. The variety of the animal, where it is in its cycle, terroir: all have their influence. As the teacher says, a cheesemaker must adapt to the milk. And not only to the milk. The cellar, with its unique mix of ripening organisms, will have its say too.
Fixing a machine with found parts is an example of human ingenuity. Making a cheese is too, but it is also something more. It is an example of faith, of placing trust in forces that we do not fully understand. Cheesemakers should know the science, but say a prayer to Saint Brigid anyway. It is the same for those who attempt political thought. We should seek to understand everything that we can, then say a prayer to Saint Catherine anyway.
All of this is by way of an introduction. Using cheese as a metaphor for political thought is barely scraping past the rind. Cheese can also teach us directly, if we learn a little of its history.
Back in 1910, GK Chesterton wrote a short piece simply called ‘Cheese’.
“Once in endeavouring to lecture in several places at once, I made an eccentric journey across England, a journey of so irregular and even illogical shape that it necessitated my having lunch on four successive days in four roadside inns in four different counties. In each inn they had nothing but bread and cheese; nor can I imagine why a man should want more than bread and cheese, if he can get enough of it. In each inn the cheese was good; and in each inn it was different. There was a noble Wensleydale cheese in Yorkshire, a Cheshire cheese in Cheshire, and so on.”
This leads him to what may be the best metaphor for the Machine that anyone has produced before or since:
“Now, it is just here that true poetic civilization differs from that paltry and mechanical civilization which holds us all in bondage. Bad customs are universal and rigid, like modern militarism. Good customs are universal and varied, like native chivalry and self-defence. Both the good and bad civilization cover us as with a canopy, and protect us from all that is outside. But a good civilization spreads over us freely like a tree, varying and yielding because it is alive. A bad civilization stands up and sticks out above us like an umbrella—artificial, mathematical in shape; not merely universal, but uniform.”
As Chesterton was writing, mechanical civilisation was already eroding the valley-by-valley individuality of the British cheeses that he celebrated. Imports of factory-produced cheese from first the USA and then Canada, Australia, and New Zealand accounted for two-thirds of the cheese sold here. This was cheese as an industrial product. Ned Palmer, the great intellectual historian of British cheese, describes it as ‘cheap, consistent, and good enough’. Chesterton’s act of ‘approaching Nature in one of her myriad tints of mood, as in the holy act of eating cheese’, though, was gone. This was cheese for the belly, not for the soul.
Now, some might say that if someone is hungry, cheese for the belly is good enough; and that Chesterton’s delight in regional difference was just a luxury for the comfortably off. Anyone taking this position is making a fundamental error. An error because they would be partaking in a patrician disdain that reduces the poor to livestock that can aspire only to be fed. An error, too, because they would be failing to pay attention to history. By the 1930’s, imports had driven the price of cheese below the price of the milk used to produce it. Dairying areas across the country were economically devastated, and many bellies were left empty.
World War II and rationing was the final blow for many British cheeses: often literally, but sometimes in less than obvious ways. The greatest Yorkshire cheese is, as Wallace and Gromit taught the world, Wensleydale; and, although it has survived, it has had a century of struggles. Before the war, it was a creamy, flaky, and often blue cheese. When food production was nationalised, these types of cheese, less durable and impossible to cut into small rations without wastage, were banned. The people of Wensleydale began to make a hard cheese, although without enthusiasm. They called it ‘Austerity Wensleydale’.
Farmhouse cheese production in Britain never really recovered from rationing and the competition of imports and then factories. By 1974, only sixty two farms were making cheese in the entire country. Wensleydale itself survived only due to efforts of a heroic figure, Kit Calvert; and only by moving some way towards the factory production model. The soft and moist Wensleydales of the past were not revived, nor were the blue Wensleydales. What came after the end of rationing was not exactly Austerity Wensleydale, but it remained a much firmer cheese. And despite adapting to modern production, the creamery barely survived. In 1992, production almost moved to Lancashire; and only the strange power of Wallace and Gromit has stabilised things since.
The story of Wensleydale, though, is not a Machine-age tragedy. It is a story of unlikely rebirth and growth. Starting slowly in the 1970’s, with a handful of selfless individuals, a renaissance took place in British cheese. By the 2000’s, it was in full swing. Small producers revived pre-war Wensleydale recipes, and the creamery stocks a blue again. These cheeses cannot be identical to those that were lost. Cheese is not that simple. They are, nevertheless, a sudden rallying by something that was dying. Although only a tiny proportion of the market, and very much a luxury good, they are preserving something old and valuable.
Cheese can teach us a lot. One thing it has taught me is to think a more carefully about cruelty.
I believe that paying attention to cruelty is central to political thought. In this, I am following one of the most important political philosophers of the past century, Judith Shklar, who I have mentioned before. Shklar was a ‘political liberal’, a term that has a fairly precise meaning in political philosophy. It does not necessarily mean that a philosophical position is ‘liberal’ about particular economic or social policies. Rather, it means that the position affirms that people cannot reach a shared vision of the Good, and so concludes that politics should seek to provide a neutral framework that allows people with their different ideals to live in society together. This is not necessarily a matter of absolutes. A society can be politically liberal to a greater or lesser degree. Shklar’s style of political liberalism was, however, distinctive. In Charles Taylor’s words, it was ‘a chastened, negative Liberalism, which has learned from the excesses of its own demonic potentiality. Practice decency, avoid suffering, fight oppression’. In her own words, it was the ‘liberalism of fear’.
Taking in a long sweep of intellectual history. Shklar distinguished three overlapping liberal political traditions. There is the ‘liberalism of natural rights’, which seeks to ensure that human civilisations accord with what it believes are universal principles. The language of the Universal Declaration, which phrases human rights in absolute and exception-less terms, is an example. There is also the ‘liberalism of personal development’, which asserts that freedom is necessary for personal and social progress. This strand can be seen in the ‘progressive’ parts of the left and in economic liberals who emphasise development and growth.
The liberalism of rights and the liberalism of progress share an orientation towards the future. The liberalism of fear is different. It is ‘a party of memory rather than a party of hope’. It knows that ‘we say “never again” but somewhere someone is being tortured right now, and acute fear has again become the most common form of social control’. This is a liberalism that starts with an ‘assumption, amply justified by every page of political history, …that some agents of the government will behave lawlessly and brutally in small or big ways most of the time unless they are prevented from doing so’. It is a liberalism that refuses to offer a summum bonum, a greatest good, to which all should strive. Instead, it proposes a summum malum, a greatest evil, that all must seek to avoid. That evil to be avoided is cruelty.
The liberalism of fear is the quiet sister. It has no universal declaration and it does not shout that the future is on its side. For that reason, it is unfamiliar and often misunderstood. When the liberalism of fear says ‘avoid cruelty’ it is not saying ‘make cruelty illegal’. That would be the liberalism of natural rights speaking. It is not saying, either, ‘build a better society that is less cruel’. That would be the liberalism of development speaking. The liberalism of fear belongs to the party of memory, so it knows that trying to follow either of these paths would require more centralised power, and that such power would only breed more cruelty. When the liberalism of fear says, ‘avoid cruelty’ it speaks in a different register to the other liberalisms. As Bernard Williams observed, it is not only directed to the powerful, to those who make universal declarations and social movements, but to ‘a different and much wider set of listeners: roughly, everybody’. When the quiet sister says ‘avoid cruelty’, she means, very simply, ‘do not be cruel’.
And so I return to cheese. If the instruction of the liberalism of fear is an instruction to every one of us to avoid cruelty, then we must learn to know what cruelty is. I had thought that Shklar’s definition was pretty good: ‘the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group by stronger ones in order to achieve some end, tangible or intangible, of the latter’. I now think the history of cheese tells me that there is something more to cruelty than this: an impersonal cruelty that is characteristic of our era.
The loss of our historic cheeses inflicted emotional and physical pain on those who depended on them for their livelihoods, but this was not the deliberate choice of any individual or group. Rather, it emerged from the decisions of multiple groups, scattered across continents, over a period of decades. If there is a unified agent here, it is one without a personality: some demonic sliver of the Machine itself. This is, I think, the first political lesson of cheese. If we seek not to be cruel, then it is not enough to avoid interpersonal cruelty. We must also cultivate the ability to identify and avoid the diffuse cruelties that belong to no-one: those impersonal cruelties that give each of us a plausible enough alibi.
There is a second impersonal cruelty that Shklar’s definition fails to capture. A cruelty that leads the liberalism of fear away from being a purely humanistic philosophy and into stranger lands: a cruelty it is hard to properly express in words. Here I falter, but I want to say that there would have been cruelty in the extinction of those cheeses even if no human had suffered in the loss. There would have been cruelty because those cheeses had value simply by being, as Chesterton said, nature in one of her ‘myriad moods’. A mind that can contemplates extinguishing a thing like that is a mind that can also contemplate inflicting pain on another human being. It is a cruel mind, and we should fear it.
Image: Milkmaid, possibly St Brigid, milking a cow (2012) by Simon Crook. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.
I love Wallace and Gromit. I also love cheese. (“I’m just crackers about cheese!”) Once upon a time, before we had kids, my husband and I ventured into the middle of deepest, darkest Houston, Texas, to visit a very large specialty wine and cheese shop. There was a whole aisle just for chocolate, another whole aisle just for olive oil, and a locked display cabinet of very expensive caviar, but what made my day was that as I gazed droolingly into the cheese case, which seemed to be about as long as a city block, what should I see but Wallace and Gromit gazing right back at me. Their image was on the wrapper of a Wensleydale cheese! Imagine my delight. Of course, I bought it and brought it home, shared it with extended family, and bestowed the wrapper upon my father, who took it to his place of employment and pinned it up on the notice-board. For all I know, Wallace and Gromit are there still, twentyish years later, blessing everyone who sees them.
Now, my children love Wallace and Gromit, too. There is something sacred about being able to pass down to one’s children one’s favorite bits and pieces of life. I feel the need to find some Wensleydale and share that with them next.
Thank you for the essay.
I grew up and have lived in the suburbs. The analogous "cheese" of the suburbs is Velveeta. It isn't even cheese but rather "cheese food." If you've ever tasted Velveeta, you've tasted the American suburbs. Either that, or the powdered cheese packets of Kraft macaroni and cheese.