No society calling itself civilised is ever going to remain so unless those at the top set an example. This may come across like a blinding glimpse of the obvious; but there is no crime in repeating a cliché – especially if the élite has forgotten it completely, and the youth of the nation are increasingly confused as to what the example should be in the first place.
Right across the world at the moment, those not already drowning in cynicism could be excused for thinking that the keynote behaviours expected of citizens are don’t get caught, if in doubt lie, the bigger the lie the better, help yourself to other people’s money, if it feels good do it, don’t let the facts get in the way of your route to power, and never, ever weigh up the consequences of your actions in advance.
There are supposedly intelligent people on the Left of politics, society and show business right now gaily glorifying censorship, witch hunts, identity narcissism, religious fanaticism, flagrant propaganda, and ridiculous correlations as if they had never heard of Nazi book-burning, Krystallnacht, the Cultural Revolution, the Spanish Inquisition, the Stalin terror and cod Aryan eugenic theory.
‘We cannot be bad,’ they hiss, ‘because we are liberals. It’s all for the good of the cause’. Probably because they’ve never heard of Berthold Brecht either.
Over on the Rabid Right, things are equally devoid of sane consideration.
Consider: the production/profit “growth” economic model that dominates the planet is completely dependent on two factors in order to sustain itself. First, constant – one might say almost feverish – replacement purchases; and second, constantly falling real wage values.
To achieve those objectives, five complementary strategies are being employed: shoddy manufacture, built-in obsolesence, cheap credit, deregulated employment practices and robotisation….this last sometimes referred to as AI – “artificial intelligence”.
But this decade’s solutions are the next decade’s problems:
1. You can’t have ever-higher rates of repurchase if consumers earn wages with ever-falling value
2. You can disguise the flaw temporarily with low interest rates, but broader issues demand that they go up….and indeed, are starting at last so to do. What happens then?
3. You can keep pouring in more QE and retreat back into Zirp, but (a) that cripples senior citizen spending power and (b) even with Zirpermanency, we half seen that credit gets maxed out and most people lack the confidence to stretch themselves.
4. You can keep wages low by firing more and more people, but then they will need more and more welfare….and have idle hands. What do we do then, eat them?
5. It’s all very well for Boris Johnson to order more and more riot hoses and crowd-control gating, but ultimately that will become the equivalent of urinating petrol onto a forest fire. Sooner or later – timescale dependent on myriad factors – AI will start to render legal clerks, bourse traders, journalists, policemen, designers, urban planners, senior administrators (even the likes of accountants, marketing executives, nurses, cleaners, firemen and tax officers) redundant.
What are all these people going to do? And how are their citizen and subsistence rights to be protected from the ideologues?
Whether those pushed into inactivity become “radical” or not is obviously going to differ by how far the élites push their economic cannibalism, and the resident culture they may or may not choose to inflict it on.
So far, the portents aren’t good.
It’s four years since I was in Greece; it was pretty bad then, and has got a lot worse since. Young people there have emigrated in droves – a short term solution for them, but diaspora has obvious limits. A foreign power has taken control leaving a puppet socialist government to do its bidding by eschewing all the compassion that Leftism might have.
In the US, real Asian-style poverty is rare, but on the other hand expectations have been dashed. The population there is armed, and increasing numbers at both ends of the political spectrum have lost faith in the system to deliver. Above the sous-classe, however, nobody is living anywhere near the global definition of “poverty”.
In Italy, all faith has been lost in the system and anti-Brussels/euro sentiment is rising rapidly. The shattered infrastructure there is by far the worst I’ve observed in Europe. Youth unemployment remains high, as it does in Spain. Also like Spain, there are strong regional identities.
I’ve spent the last two months in one of the more prosperous regions of India. Over the last thirty years, much of the Western aid no longer forthcoming has been replaced by mixed-economy growth….but with the accent very much on neoliberal neglect of social investment and welfare.
Here, the poverty of the aged, disabled (and the lowest rungs of a service economy) is evident for all those with eyes – and exacerbated by a crushing caste system. The problems with unplanned traffic, illiteracy, deregulated road use, untackled pollution and widespread corruption are leading very obviously towards a form of controlled chaos.
Low interest rates give the economy an illusion of booming growth. But typically, borrower quality ratings are almost non-existent. Two years ago I blogged about India’s potential for downturn and disaster. Having seen things for myself, I am even more nervous about the consequences of a reversal. (In turn, I feel strongly that Erdogan’s Turkey is heading for an even bigger shock).
In the UK, the Conservatives have reached a bridge too far in terms of welfare cuts and austerity, and there has been a massive swing to Labour. However, clear evidence of uncontrolled borders after Brexit would see another swing away from both major Parties to UKIP….if (and it’s a big if) the Party can solve its leadership problem.
In France, Macron makes enemies on a daily basis, and large whoppers continue to be told about the economy. But welfare levels are relatively generous, and the agricultural sector makes the country self-sufficient in theory….one of the many reasons I live there.
The overall point here is that, for one reason or another – low rates, divided opposition, emigration, a largeish smug minority, fake news, can-kicking and so forth – the conditions for violent resentment are in place…but only further economic shocks, financial crises and central government increasingly selling out to corporate demands will provide catalysts to turn conditions into action.
So to return to my original question – what are the workless going to do? – that’s going to depend on corporate actions, culture and individual problems region by region. But one thing is gradually being lost right across the piece….something that hasn’t been apparent beyond Africa and the Soviet Union for a hundred years.
That missing ingredient is a widespread level of respect for the Law – by both rulers and ruled.
Much of this is about belief – or lack of it: belief on the one hand in an ideology that seems somehow to have a greater moral authority than the legislature or the police; and on the other, lost belief in the political will to tackle the root cause of problems, equality before the Law, or the existence of a higher authority beyond this temporal world.
In a nutshell, promises that dash hopes, authority that crushes hope, and no hope of a better world to come.
Although deity-focused religious belief systems have no place in an empirically aware, educated world, the stick-and-carrot mix of damnation and eternal peace was a powerful opiate. The one religion still offering it – Islam – does indeed offer a radical alternative to materialism, but it is far too cruel, violent, misogynist and intolerant to interest any but the most alienated of ignorant women and controlling men.
But none of that invalidates the importance of behavioural ethics flourishing on a foundation of moral values and belief.
2018 is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More’s book, Utopia.
More was a religious philospher and senior court advisor executed for defying Henry VIII at the age of 65. He wrote Utopia for fun long before he became Henry’s mediaeval euivalent of Attorney General. A slim volume meant as a lark nevertheless turned out to be one of the most influential books in history.
Given that reality, it may seem at first sight odd that the book has been variously hailed – right across the ideological spectrum from reactionary Catholics via 18th century radicals to Soviet communists during the 1920s – as a major influence on Opus Dei, Cobbett and Lenin. But More lived a high profile life in an age when it didn’t do to argue with, or ridicule, monarchs….least of all murderous Tudors like Henry VIII. To survive as an influential writer of tracts, it was vital to be able to deny sedition; and the safest way to do that was make one’s words open to a dozen or more interpretations.
However, More (while he may indeed have seemed a Man for all Seasons) was consistent on one point…..and it was this consistency that sent him first to the Tower, and then to the executioner. He was, he insisted “The King’s servant – after God”. That is to say, he balked at flippant divorce and chopping the wife’s head off. He did not believe, ultimately, in the ends justifying the means.
In Utopia, this “God before King” rule is ever-present. He sees a lot of good in the way Utopians live, but he gently satirises human hubris – especially royal hubris. He calls the capital of this land “Air Castle” and the canal system “Nowater”. The narrator who has discovered Utopia is called “Nosense”. Utopia itself means “Noland”.
More is a man after my own heart because first, his central theme is the flawed, morally frail nature of Homo sapiens; and second, beyond the worship of God, he finds belief rigidity dysfunctional. “It is not a weakness,” he wrote elsewhere, “to decide that the first idea was wrong”.
As in the parable of the Tower of Babel, he sees Man’s aspirations to greatness and perfection as doomed, dangerous, and above all funny. That’s the other lovable thing about Thomas More: he thought one should laugh at all forms of pomposity and vanity. As he stood on the scaffold a few minutes from death, he was still cracking self-denigratory jokes.
But all this was half a millennium ago. More’s point was that you wouldn’t get a fair, meritocratic and compassionate society from a Sovereign or a material oligarchy: you would only get it by belief in God, studying the scriptures, and refusing to obey authority that went against those “higher” other-worldly rules.
For once, Marx was right when he said “Religion is the opiate of the People”, because he knew where Sir Thomas More’s theory of behaviour would eventually lead: élites using the church to enforce obedience to them. Ironically of course, the man now sanctified by both Communists and religious zealots died in the very act he advocated: rebellion.
Most citizens don’t have his power, motivation, faith and principles. And although Church and State are now (beyond Islam) largely separate, his faith has been shown – by scientific experiment and discovery – to have been almost certainly misplaced.
Despite this, a big and exceedingly awkward question haunts contemporary humanity: what genuine higher authority could now be invoked to inspire both the better behaviour and “discerning rebellion” among the populous required to deliver a less corrupt, more egalitarian, more just, and more accountable civic structure in which civilisation and fulfilment can flourish?
Ideologues would argue that it can only be achieved by strict adherence to their rules – which are, predictably, presented as Universal Laws. The four main ones in 2018 are neoliberalism, socialism, Islamism and what might best be termed ‘Identityism’ – or more exactly, narcissism.
The constant problems with all of them are that they beget élites and are intrinsically divisive. Nationalism is making some sort of comeback, but remains what it always was: tribalism on a larger scale that is too easily perverted by ideas of imperial glory, hatred and Lebensraum.
I believe, however there is a much more central flaw in all ideologies: they idolise (and idealise) a systemic goal for Man, without ever thinking about whether Man could ever achieve it….or would even want to.
Be the goal material wealth, perfect socio-economic equality, Universal obedience to Allah, worship for every individual on the planet, gender-based dominance or Defence of the Realm, the ideologue’s aim is always a form of megalomania foreign to the vast majority of human beings. And sooner or later, there will be a megalomanic personality cult: Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara.
Sooner rather than later, the lofty ideas of The Movement are perverted, and the national hero becomes a tyrant. Once the clay feet are spotted, the statues come tumbling down.
I do not conclude from this that All Men Need Gods. I conclude that, be they ethereal or incarnate, false heroes are used by cynical control freaks to keep the People happy…and they always get found out in the end.
The failure thus far in our species history is the élite cynicism that has chosen the counterfeit rather than the genuine.
Forty-six years ago – isn’t that a terrifying number for a mortal being? – I was employed by J Walter Thompson as an advertising researcher engaged in the launch of Kodak’s Pocket Instamatic Camera in the UK. The great thing about media communications research in particular is that, even though every project is goal-orientated, it teaches one the basic precepts of social anthropology in an almost crash-course manner.
The study involved doing a massive number of focus groups among a broad scale target audience, and examined their reactions to various potential subjects for photographs. It was being conducted across the world, and three of us worked on the UK study – after which, we all got to see the global results.
Despite some variations by culture, the overwhelming (and not that surprising) finding was that over 95% of all photos taken and then kept were of immediate family, kids, pets, close friends, and events in the local community. Holiday sights, work colleagues, chance events and wildlife came a long, long way behind.
Ten years earlier, President Kennedy made a famous speech in favour of coexistence with the Soviet Union:
“Whatever our differences, we are all human. We all breathe the same air, we all rear families, and we all want the best for our children. Above all, we inhabit only one Earth – to which, for now, there is no alternative”.
Although seen by revisionist historians (most of whom had a political agenda) as the consummate politician peddling kitsch emotions, JFK was anything but: his father pushed him into politics, and once President he refused to compromise on the key human issues. This genuine compassion and common sense almost certainly sealed his date with destiny in Dallas; but he was expressing intuitively what we were able to confirm in research about mass-market cameras: that most people are wired to care about first family, and then community. And by inference, anything that might threaten their continued existence should be avoided at all cost. This drives what they record and treasure.
Top-down systemics promise the family/community/planetary fulfillment people want. They don’t deliver because those “running” the system don’t understand the difference between important social stuff and personal ego. It always has been – and always will be – the difference between the 3% and the 97%.
Bottom up starts with each individual, unique human being. The only goal worth pursuing is the greatest fulfilment of the greatest number of citizens: the art of the possible, not the idealised Utopian impossible.
To start with the individual at the familial/community level means massive devolution of power, and the end of remote centralised power weilded by the faceless unelected. It means personal potential orientated education at the more holistic level of civics, literacy, health awareness and appreciation of another’s personal space. It means placing emphasis on personal discernment about information, and the willingness to critique received truths. It means the teaching of accountability, and the encouragement of creative talent in all its myriad forms.
Above all, it means setting a goal that can be both rationally and emotionally important to most of the People most of the time. Most of us thrive in a balanced family unit within a viable (and manageable) community. Most of us understand that, without a properly functioning ecology, atmosphere and food chain, all of us will die before our time.
This is the existence influenced by curiosity, discovery and scientific enquiry that can represent the new Higher Goal to replace religion. A richer physical Life with spiritual inspiration, rather than the promise of something better after Death.
The Christian religion underwent a Reformation. Now our species needs to do the same.