Neither fanatical absolutists nor atheist relativists can ever deliver justice
After population control, the biggest problem Man faces is the never-ending friction between the absolute and the relative. Too much belief in absolutes produces intolerance, argument, pogrom and war. And the casual acceptance of relativism leads to indifference, muddle and depravity. Allow only one answer, and sooner or later there will be injustice. Accept everything without thought for the consequences, and sooner or later there will be injustice.
Perhaps therefore the only way to achieve tranquility in life is simply to say, “There will be injustice”. Perhaps. For even here, one can say, “There will always be injustice, but we must try nevertheless to eradicate it”; or alternatively, “There will always be injustice, grow up and get over it”. I am in the former camp, and would be the first to admit it is a smallish minority. For most people, a reasonable enough combination of being busy, distracted, poor, creative, selfish and/or neurotic restricts much of their thinking to the immediate, the urgent, the family, and the bills.
The real trouble starts when societies seem to be divided between tyrannical absolutism and cynical relativism. The overwhelming majority of ‘advanced’ Western cultures display this riven structure today, and it is far greater than it was in my youth. Thirty years before my adolescence, it was in turn riven to an extent that led to war; a hundred years before that it was omnipresent. It was really only during the period 1950-1970 that consensus politics reigned in much of the West. Not unrelated to this (I believe) is the fact that human socio-material advance has never been more widespread than it was in that era. As to which was the chicken and which the egg, we could debate for years and still not reach a definitive answer.
One of the most prevalent features of politics since the early 1977-1983 shift (when consensus went into a hibernation from which it has never awoken) has been the emergence of four groups in the West: the tyrants of socialism, the tyrants of commercialism, the apolitical, and the concerned. I’d like to examine each in turn.
The two tyrant-sets have no common ground at all. There is never anything resembling an adult debate between them, and almost nothing of any substance about which they can agree. They are often branded ‘Left’ and ‘Right’, but it’s been about far more than that for nearly forty years now. I would crystallize the divide as being between those who insist on equality, and those who insist on freedom.
Don’t misunderstand me here: both sides use these emotive words as their rallying cry, but both sides use them as convenient rationalisations of their natural authority. The socialist view demands a forced equality that denies both the rights of merit, and the inbuilt genetic inequalities between individuals. The commercialist view demands an unregulated freedom that is really little more than license – denying both the rights of the community, and the inbuilt skill of the human pack animal to cooperate as well as compete.
The two world-outlooks (‘Weltanschauung’ as Hitler would’ve said) are – to me anyway – very obviously flawed. And almost unconsciously, both armies of rectitude seem to realise this. Thus they force-fit their one-eyed view into a golden outlook: usually ‘world peace’ in the case of the socialist, or ‘eternal prosperity’ in the case of the commercialist. Both are unachievable utopian ideals, and both produce dystopia when given a free hand to prove how perfect their theories are. Marx or Friedman – the result is always the same in the end: privilege for the few, and poverty for the many.
By the way, the membership of one side or another is far from being merely economic: the differences are marked by rigid belief, not philosophical discipline. The ecology, global warming, recycling, pc about minorities, vegetarian, artistic, multicultural axis is essentially socialist; the growth, progress, technology, military, geopolitical, mass media, neocon set is essentially commercialist. Truly creative people tend to be unhappy in either group. Fiercely religious people can happily exist in either.
The apoliticals represent the overwhelming majority of society, and without them neither form of tyrant would ever attain power. But this is a far from homogenous group. They could as easily be low-IQ dysfunctional Underclass chaotics as the UK Southern Counties/Middle American midbrow white collar platitudinous class. Most of them, given half a chance and somewhere to live, are decent people who want to be left alone. They see politicians as there to do a job: and, having bankrolled that profession with their taxes, see no reason at all why it should interest them. Further upmarket, they tend to refer to ‘the President’ or ‘The Queen’, or ‘The Government’. That is, they are reassured by benign authority. Further downmarket and under 30, they have an indifference based on disenfranchised isolation. In one way (and for one reason) or another, this group is, most of the time, indifferently relativist.
The final group I’ve dubbed ‘Concerned’ but this may be a mistake. By this term I mean that they can be moved to unselfish actions at times, and are interested and intelligent enough to see the flaws in all forms of tyrannical thinking; but it would take very serious conditions indeed to make them activist. The European Union, investment banking, and Gun control lobbies are perhaps the three things in our contemporary world about which they feel irritated.
But they would be unlikely to join the Tea Party or UKip: oddly enough, it is increasingly the apolitical who seem attracted to them. Perhaps this reflects the tendency of the apolitical to be anything from reductive in their thinking to unthinkingly desperate. They’re offered what seems like a simple solution, and so they go for it. As I wrote earlier, the apolitical group is a multivariate one. Some in it would see David Cameron as “a nice bloke”, Tony Blair as “a safe pair of hands”, and Boris Johnson as “a chap like us who speaks his mind”. Others would merely express boredom about the entire subject – others still a belief that all such people are irrelevant.
One cannot put exact figures on the relative size of these groups across cultures in the West, but after years of wrestling with voting behaviour (a pursuit known as psephology that likes to see itself as pathology, but isn’t) I would say there is a degree of consistency. Dependent on circumstances and issues, the total tyrant population is around 8%, the apolitical 75%, and the concerned 17%. When I was at University in the mid 1960s – and here we should ignore student politics entirely – I would’ve put these same percentages at around 3%, 40%, and 57%. That’s to say, there was more respect for, and consensus about, the business of politics.
Without trying to be too sweeping about it, since the 1977-83 shift period, politics has basically become the process of selling simplistic bollocks to people who aren’t paying attention. As a direct result of this, we are now the unhappy owners in the West of political correctness, UK divorce law, rising Islamism, unhealthy levels of personal and sovereign debt, deregulated financial marketing, demutualised saving, Things can only Get Better, the Markets Must Decide, multiculturalism, the euro, trillions in unhedged derivatives, wind turbines, employee insecurity, monetarist austerity, the UK Coalition, Barack Obama, Jeremy Hunt, phone hacking, diluted personal liberty, quota-based affirmative action, the US deficit circus, growing calls for the control of free speech, the investor nightmare of crooked markets, the X-Factor, the Syrian civil war, and the unelected hegemony of bankers and bureaucrats.
My own former profession of advertising both capitalised upon this change and exacerbated it. But before the usual holy-snide cracks flood into the comment thread, let me just observe that throughout my career I held and stuck to a belief in banning all political advertising – to the point of turning down business in that area on two occasions. A central theme of this piece today is that simplification of complex socio-political issues is one of the cancers of our age. Nowhere is this more evident than media advertising on behalf of political Parties. In 1979, the UK had “Labour isn’t working”, a poster immediately followed by the election of Margaret Thatcher, and a doubling of unemployment. In 1997, it had “Britain deserves Better”, followed by the election of Blair and things getting steadily worse. In 1972, Richard Nixon won with the line ‘Re-elect the President’, suggesting to do so was a duty. He resigned two years later. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on the platform of “Yes we Can”, followed by five years during which it has been brutally clear that actually no, we can’t.
If you don’t like Guinness, you only ever invest in one pint of it to find out. If you’re misled by Neil Kinnock, David Cameron or Nigel Farage, the consequences are nearly always going to be far too impactful for the whole thing to be reduced to a soundbite contest.
Let me try and draw all this together. While they have nothing ideologically in common, there is a very clear commonality of mindset between the two tyrant sets: they believe that Might is Right, and Big is Better. In a world in which almost all of the certainties of a previous age are disappearing –from the safety of our bank deposits via the blessing of liberal democracy, to a pensioned old age in a largely peaceful world – both sides offer a simple set of alternatives: climatic disaster v material wellbeing, entrepreneurial freedom v State bureaucracy, high-wire entertainment v safety-net, Deregulation v Red Tape, Conspiracy drivel v Reality, Progressive v Reversionist, Feminism v Misogyny, Economic Stimulation v Tax cuts….on and on they go. So much apparent substance is presented, but none of it is anything like that simple. The truth is, neither of them has the answer: all they have is old ideas to polish up, repackage, and sell as something new.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written this, and it won’t be the last – because it is absolutely crucial to the task of grasping where we are going wrong. The definitive issue for civilisation over the next two decades will be about Big Dictatorial v Small Vulnerable. And it is an issue in which tyrannical absolutists and the cynically apolitical are, respectively, the spider and the fly.
The ways in which Big would like to dictate span the full spectrum across both tyrant elites: media monopolies, State surveillance, Family interventionism, internet invasionism, Berlin-am-Brussels hubris, market price manipulation, ecological authoritarianism, wealth redistribution, data-blagging, multinational monopolism, technocratic fascism, blogosphere censorship, and the creeping tendency towards commercial ‘sponsorship’ of politics as the antidote to voter apathy and disgust.
We are hierarchically driven pack animals, and nothing beyond uncertain evolution is going to change that. But the most successful packs remain those following the Benthamite principle of greatest possible contentment from top to bottom. Packs and tribes that ignore this natural reality – be they socialist or commercialist in their determination to preach theories rather than worship citizen rights – are subject to constant leadership challenges and instability. Eventually, closed minds at the top lead to open warfare from below.
As in every walk of life, the entirely unregulated Dr Jekyll tends to produce Mr Hyde. We have shown ourselves throughout history to be an appetitive and irrational species which can, despite itself, more or less happily accept a degree of control in return for the safety of the stockade. From the safety of the stockade comes time to produce culture. All tyrannies are destructive of positive cultural development. All elites employing earplugs will fail to hear the approaching bullet.
Creating contentment for the West from here on cannot lie in the exhausted polemics and discredited ideas of the past; it must be built upon creative thinking about the future. Tyrannies never, ever think creatively. In the US, the UK, and the European Union, a battle is going on between the socialists and commercialists as to who can most determinedly fail next. All of these States have largely closed-shop elites unable to see what’s coming down the road: their instinct is not for creativity, it is for control….the control of vulnerable Small by dictatorial Big.
It could be that a decadent West – and we are decadent, even depraved, in some of our behaviours – is no longer capable of dealing with dangerous drunk-drivers by grabbing the wheel. But I’m not so sure. I have often argued previously for a Resistance movement comprising an alliance between the normally apolitical and the concerned….based if nothing else upon a real fear that the Rule of Law and Equality before it can endanger bank accounts every bit as much as liberties. Cyprus has proved this: but for most people, Cyprus is a long way away. Once the Template-that-isn’t-a-Template comes closer to home, such things can turn from wishful thinking into action. The Poll Tax revolt in 1980s Britain was a classic case of the desperate having had enough, and the concerned stepping in to regulate a tyrant. Many among you, I know, will question both the validity and correctness of that move. But despite some previous triumphs, Margaret Thatcher had by that point lost touch with the electorate’s pulse.
I use words like revolt and resistance not because I wish to incite violence, but because of my continuing belief that yet another Party trying to break the Establishment stranglehold is not the answer. The answer is to remind insouciant fanatics like Jeremy Hunt, Harriet Harman, Michael Fallon, Tom Watson, Boris Johnson and George Galloway that the Concerned will step in if they look like destroying everything.
The seeming contradiction of my belief that “There will always be injustice, but we must try nevertheless to eradicate it” is nothing of the sort. It is based rather on the wisdom of per adua ad astra: if you don’t try for the stars, your backside will inevitably descend into the ditch. In 1940, concerned people became activist enough to reach for the sky: they came from Rhodesia, Australia, Canada – and the US before it declared war – to fly alongside UK RAF pilots in an attempt to stop Europe descending into the ditch of Nazism.
They were The Few then, and they may well be even fewer in number now. But as Stalin remarked, “History is made by those who turn up”. It is time for the concerned to turn up…before the cynical get too desperate.