THE TRIUMPH OF REASON, OR A NEW DARK AGE?
There is a story (which may well be apocryphal) about an Italian politician who took a friend home to meet his mother. On the way, he warned his friend that his mother was a rather grand old lady, with high notions of decency and respectability. For this reason, he had not informed her that he was in politics, and asked his friend to keep his secret. “If she knew I was a minister in the government”, he said, “she would be appalled”.
His friend asked him what his mother thought he did do for a living. “She thinks I play the piano in a brothel”, replied the politician. “That’s far more respectable”.
This story is a reminder that politicians as a genus have never topped the public popularity stakes. Some very decent men and women do go into politics, but the system seems (and probably is) designed to prevent them from getting to the top. Ideally, our leaders would be taking a strategic view. All too often, however, they are too mired in trench-warfare to do this.
This means that we need to rely on ourselves, not wait for government to find solutions.
The need for solutions seems particularly imperative now. Even those who don’t subscribe to the interpretation of economics along surplus energy lines would find it hard to deny that there are strange tendencies afoot, not just in the world economy but in the social and political spheres as well.
It has been well said that “a country is more an idea than a place” – and much the same can be said of the world itself. Ideas are perhaps the most important influence of the lot. Politicians, theories, and even prosperity, come and go, but the fundamentals remain the same – how do we best manage the issues of getting along with those around us, balancing security with individual freedom, and combining prosperity with both harmony and sustainability?
At times, we have seemed tantalisingly close to success, only to slip off the rails, temporarily at least. Great thinkers – amongst them Smith, Voltaire, Gandhi and Mandela – have carried us forward, but never far enough, it can seem, to put the demons of greed, brutality and unreason finally behind us. We seem to have to endure recurrent periods of madness, examples in modern history including the First World War and the rise and fall of murderous regimes in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.
Solid evidence suggests that material conditions have a very significant bearing on the swings between enlightenment and darkness. Prosperity seemingly gives us the leisure to think, and the security to interact more constructively with others.
This linkage is particularly disturbing at a time when the established (though historically recent) expectation of continuous material advancement faces grave challenges. The danger is that a climate of unreason may advance hand-in-hand with a deterioration in prosperity. Indeed, it seems that this may already be happening.
This being so, preparations for new era of straitened material circumstances need to go far beyond practical preparations, such as learning new skills or stockpiling tools or food. I for one have never believed in the practicality of survivalist solutions, accepting instead that we need to do as much as we can to shore up civilization (which means reforming it), in order to depend less on prosperity, and more on reason.
I am reminded of the imperative of reason by the rapidity with which, in some situations at least, rationality appears to be breaking down. Nowhere does this seem more obvious at this moment than in Britain and America, though I should make it clear that my fear for the role of reason in both countries is not – repeat, not – based on the political choices that have been made.
Some have described the election of Donald Trump as an insane choice by American voters. Whilst I am not an admirer of Mr Trump, I do find this reaction unduly extreme. For starters, the alternative, Hillary Clinton, was an unappetising choice, less perhaps in herself than in what she represented. For good reasons, millions of Americans wanted something different, which was exactly what they would not have got from the Democrats’ archetypal establishment candidate. Some of the anti-Trump rhetoric seems strangely intense – and anyone painting Mr Trump as the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office must be suffering from convenient amnesia about the Iraq war.
Similarly, Britain’s “Brexit” decision to withdraw from the European Union (EU) was always going to prove divisive. But the debate, both before the referendum and since, has moved far beyond “divisive” and into “thoroughly nasty”. Perhaps because they lost, the Remain side seem the angrier, sneering at opponents whom they deride as stupid (and much worse). If the Leave camp had lost, we would probably have been hearing similar nastiness from them, whilst there does seem to be a link between nationalism and attacks (both metaphorical and literal) on EU citizens living in Britain. Neither side seems able to accept that the other side might have a scrap of logic or integrity – but experience surely teaches us that things are never, ever really as black and white as this.
What surely matters, in America as in Britain, is not why people take the positions that they do, but why they hold them with such intensity, and with such intemperate hostility towards those who disagree. There is a flavour of selfishness and arrogance in this, probably underpinned both by fear and by insecurity. In Britain, tub-thumping over Gibraltar is the most recent example of irrational hysteria – the future of the territory is a subject for negotiation, but not for threats or intemperate language.
It seems to me that a common strand which links intemperance, intolerance and unreason in Britain and America is the set of shared attitudes to which both have been subjected. The catch-word we can use for this is “neoliberalism”, though labels matter far less than substance. If the vast majority of Britons and Americans are to become more at ease with themselves and others, they need to start by challenging the thinking (as well as the economic quackery) of neoliberalism.
If one stands back and thinks about it, the intellectual case for neoliberalism is extraordinarily threadbare and tawdry, and about as rational as Soviet communism. Where the Communists made “profit” a dirty word, the neoliberals have elevated it to the status of Holy Writ. Both attitudes are idiotic. To make a profit is not automatically wrong, but neither is profit a mantra which can justify everything.
According to neoliberals, the profit motive is supreme, triumphing over all other values. Human beings, then, are portrayed by neoliberals as motivated almost entirely by personal greed. This is a puerile argument, because there are many values of comparable, indeed of far greater, importance, values which include compassion, co-operation and culture. To be dominated by the pursuit of material gain, or for that matter by a craving for celebrity, is to become mentally stunted. In a sane society, these incentives have their place, but should not reign supreme. Thus elevated, they lead to the nastiness of unfettered selfishness.
A balanced observation of where this has led surely underlines this point. Advertising, for example, has become a vast propaganda machine proselytizing material values over all else. Our happiness, this argument runs, can be gauged, and our worth measured, by our comparative success in accumulating money and possessions.
The sheer banality of this sometimes beggars belief. If one buys a certain beer, or so the ads imply, one will instantly be partying with sports stars and celebrities. The purchase of a particular car will place you on a winding mountain road, or on strangely depopulated city streets, in both instances magically freed from the daily reality of traffic jams, speed limits and the police. Buying the right fragrance will make you instantly irresistible to members of the opposite sex. A particularly nasty subtext here is that these things will put you ahead of others – this is life lived purely comparatively, not by any real sense of self-worth.
The motives behind this are as transparent as the argument is banal. Many big corporates subjugate all else to the pursuit of sales and profit. This is not done to advance the interests of shareholders (who bear the burdens when things go wrong), let alone of workers, as the outsourcing of jobs and the casualization of employment surely attest.
Moreover, if profit and personal gain justify everything, cheating and dishonesty lose any moral dimension, and penalties become merely snakes on a board dominated by ladders. Such is the grip that this thinking has exerted that shareholders, not decision-makers, are punished for corporate misbehaviour, whilst the politicians who should challenge this equation seem happier instead to pass on by, on their journey to retirement into the materialist nirvana of “consultancies” and “the lecture circuit”.
Even by its own lights, this neoliberal orthodoxy has failed, becoming progressively more economically destructive. Outsourcing skilled, well-paid jobs whilst maintaining the relentless adulation of consumption has driven debt sharply upwards, such that ten-year growth of £215bn in British GDP has been accompanied by a £1,370bn escalation in debt. Undermining the tax base has undercut the provision of public services, whilst monetary policies geared towards co-existence with debt have created huge deficits in pension provision. The emphasis on the pursuit of quick material gain has favoured speculation whilst undermining the patient creation of value through innovation and initiative. The uncomfortable suspicion lurks that, when the economy slumps, pension provision collapses and the debt burden becomes overwhelming, the masterminds of this state of affairs will already have departed to pastures new.
Of course, there are policy initiatives that the public could pursue to improve the situation, most obviously by capping the earnings of politicians and administrators in retirement, and by legislating to make executives accountable for corporate misbehaviour. Both would help. But such initiatives would be purely cosmetic if they fail to address fundamental patterns of thought.
Rather, what we surely need to do is to enlist reason to make pragmatic choices. Has the neoliberal formula made most of us more prosperous, or happier? Since it clearly has not done these things, we should repudiate it, not just through the ballot box but by promoting intellectual resistance. Pragmatism seems to tell us that the “mixed economy” works best, combining both private enterprise and public provision where each is most effective. If that is so, we should demand it.
Happiness is not promoted by material prosperity alone, but by security and a sense of worth at work, and by solidarity and co-operation more generally. We need to develop a mental toughness which rejects the blandishments of the most blatantly commercial, and a reason-based balance which prevents us from thinking that anything, ever, is either totally right or totally wrong.
Had I been writing this in a Soviet bloc country in the 1980s, I would have been concluding that communism was a bad idea, damaging to society as well as economically inept. As it is, the detrimental tendency today is towards self-serving neoliberalism, with its cult of selfish materialism and its willingness to subjugate all other values to this tawdry doctrine.
We are better than neoliberalism portrays us. We need to remind ourselves of this, and enlist reason to assert it.