Reigning cats and dogs

What cats can tell us about politics — that it's for dogs.

I have been reading Stephen Budiansky on cats, and it’s given me a new insight into human politics.

Budiansky says dogs treat us like other dogs: they want to please their superiors, and to keep inferiors in their place. This is how their ancestors the wolves behave, and humans have simply been assimilated to this pattern, one hopes at the head of the pack.

Cats are entirely different. As Budiansky writes:

“For all the misunderstandings that still occur … most human dog owners succeed in getting at least their general intentions across most of the time because ... the social tool kit with which dogs are equipped by virtue of their social ancestry is the adaptable stuff that binds our two species together.

“The domestic cat’s wild progenitor is, by contrast, completely solitary in its natural state … Wildcats interact cordially with others of their kind only for the brief time when males and females meet to mate, and during the first four or five months of life when the kittens of a litter are together with one another and with their mother.”

Domestic cats have modified this pattern a little so that they live like New Yorkers, tolerating the proximity of others with disdain, coming together when they need to mate before leaving in search of more interesting partners. Either way, every cat knows that they are the centre of the universe. Dogs, by contrast, believe it is their own pack which binds the world together.

The humans who live with either species understand this perfectly well. Some of us prefer to associate with cats, on cat-like terms; others would rather be dogs in a pack. But almost everyone senses some of the attraction of both animals. We wouldn’t want to be entirely one or the other.

But what has this to do with political theory? The answer is that until quite recently almost all political thinkers have taken for granted that people are fundamentally dogs, not cats at all: that we are pack animals, fulfilled in social groups which are more important than we are as individuals, and that these societies have a naturally emerging inner hierarchy. The greatest happiness is to be secure in our place.

Liberals generally thought that this was a bad thing, and that we should be more cat-like. But until around 1979 they did not, I think, believe that human beings would be happy to live entirely as cats and to suppress the doggy aspects of our nature.

This is not a straightforward Left-Right divide, to the extent that those terms still mean anything. The solidarity of trades unions and the patriotic disciplines of the Right were both profoundly canine; on the other side the bohemian artist and the billionaire are equally feline predators, for whom all transactions are contractual and temporary.

The split between cat and dog, or contract and covenant, ran right through the middle of Thatcherism. In the face of the market we were all to be solitary felines, but the Falklands war was an appeal to our pack solidarity and anyone who made clear-headed calculations of profit and loss was anathematised.

Blair’s triumph over the Labour party was a landmark victory for felinity over the canine loyalties of the old Left. Only cat-like people would thrive in the future he imagined; our doggy yearnings were dismissed as the forces of reaction. What was dangerous about this was its sincerity. He believed, along with all enlightened and progressive opinion at the time, that people really were true cats deep down, and could only be happy and fulfilled in catlike social arrangements, where individual freedom is the highest, truest value.

This is of course also the doctrine of American progressives as well as most of the American Right. Everyone is to unleash their inner cat, to do as they truly desire, and all will miraculously be well. The sexual market will clear, so that everyone ends up with the right partner, just as the job market is supposed to find the right place for everyone. In moments of honest distress, when we whimper like abandoned puppies, we all know this isn’t how the world really works, but no matter: the cure, we’re told, for our distress is that we should become better cats.

In this perspective, Brexit makes sense as the great revolt of our doggy nature. Never mind that the Brexiteers were led by the great tomcat Johnson and his ally the alley cat Cummings. Their rhetoric was an appeal to the sensibilities of the loyal, decent and stupid doglike patriotism of the left behind.

It seems to me that the real crisis of the Left is the way that progressive ideology has become locked to the notion that humans really are cats and can only flourish when they recognise and submit to this destiny. The denial and repression of the doggy side of our nature has had terrible consequences for the people who still call themselves progressives and for anyone who was hoping for help from them.

Like any repressed part of the personality, the dog nature returns in dark strange forms. Vast crowds serenading Jeremy Corbyn was only nature imitating the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where a hillside full of disciples all shout in unison that they are individuals. This isn’t an entirely new development. In the Thirties, both Auden and Orwell warned in their different ways against the Left’s denial of the common loyalties of life. Never mind that both men were themselves cats of strikingly independent minds and temperaments: I think it was their possession of the real thing which allowed them to to understand so well both its opposites and its fakes. Orwell’s patriotism is well known, but as this blog seems haunted by Auden I think I will close with his take:

To the man-in-the-street, who, I’m sorry to say, 
                     Is a keen observer of life, 
The word “intellectual” suggests right away 
                    A man who’s untrue to his wife.

Loading more posts…