At the End of the Day

I’m wondering if the problem we all have as Western nations – facing as we do economic catastrophe under the rule of fiscal nihilists – is that we are all institutionalised.

We often refer in a socio-cultural sense to various institutions as being central to what makes us British, French, American or Greek. Indeed, we  express dismay at the decline in influence and importance of those institutions. And we are all (like it or not) subject to being institutionalised from within hours of our birth: the family, school, University, a trade, and then the workplace: all of them institutionalise us. Even when we are ill, we go into hospital and get used to rituals and care that make it a shock for us when we return to the outside world.

But beyond individual lives, the same principle applies: every job function renders its practitioners incapable of seeing life from outside the bubble: police, armed forces, legislators, journalists, the clergy, bankers, lawyers, admen, PRs, multinational executives, academics, and the retired are all reshaped by the artificial world that constrains their thinking. What’s more, the malign effect is exacerbated in a deregulated job market where long hours and dedication to a narrow goal represent the best way to ensure continued employment. Time spent inside family normality becomes more restricted as neoliberalist capitalism becomes increasingly demanding and desperate.

Worst of all, media obsessions have forced those inside the many bubbles to inaccurately reevaluate what they bring to the social party. The political Executive wants the power to control comment, the police want to please the political Executive, the clergy want to be politically correct and free from media suspicion, and the media want to press the agendas of Citizen Kane owners or 19th century philosophers.

Not one of these retains an interest in putting something into society: they all want to exploit to the maximum what they can get out of it. The free-thinking individual is rapidly squeezed out of the picture. Hence selfishness dominates, and society becomes both directionless and risk-averse. What was a fund to which the citizen contributed becomes a mine that the exploiters empty without thought for the consequences.

Today is Thanksgiving Day in America. This evening I watched the movie Shane on Film4. It’s a film devoted to the ideal of an individual whose values protect Right from Might. At about the same time (the early 1950s) Hollywood also produced the seminal western High Noon. Here too we see the quiet American refusing to go with cowardly acceptance of the status quo…..choosing instead to protect a cowering townspeople from psychopathic gunmen intent on revenge.

Institutions are just another form of tribalism. Tribalism is an entirely valid means of species protection from threat, alongside organised cooperation with other tribes. But tribes become a tyranny over the individual when the self-appointed Alphas have run out of ideas – and so rely upon repression in order to maintain their rule. When they do this, the messages they send down to us define and confirm what the institution has become: a mental institution where the lunatics are in charge.

One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a Ken Kesey book (and a film) that revealed the true insanity of the robotic in charge of the eccentric. I think it would do no harm this Christmas if, over the festive period when most people are en famille, one evening was devoted to filmed studies of the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind. Away for at least a week or so from their own chosen institutions, it might make some professionals rethink the worth of what they do for all or most of the waking hours.

Earlier at The Slog: The banker’s astonishing freedom from prosecution