Why we should remove the desire to evolve humanity from politics
Veteran Sloggers will be well aware of my tendency to witter on perhaps a bit too much about social anthropology, and the fact that not one British MP took the subject at University. This is sometimes mistaken for evidence of my frustrated desire to be a Professor of something or other, but that could not be more misguided a view: my social democratic theory tutor (one Robert Kilroy-Silk) made strenuous efforts to persuade me to take both MA and PhD in political studies, but after three years of academic life the prospect filled me with a horror of what I felt sure would lead to a life of uncontrolled onanism. Bob went on to be a wanker in politics, and the rest is history. Or something.
Applied social anthropology is for me akin to cognitive behaviour therapy: it takes what is, and eschews theories about how wonderful it would be to change the nature of humanity. Rather, both disciplines suggest coping strategies to make being human altogether more bearable – and eventually, enjoyable again. But they do so on the basis of fieldwork, neuroscience and case history. Talking about oneself to some eccentric Freudian voyeur for ten years at a hundred quid a pop is not included in the methodology. The results speak for themselves: ASA and CBT can teach everyone something useful. Psychiatry, by contrast – and this conclusion includes my long and frustrating personal experience of it – confuses diagnosis with cure. The main reason I am forever cured of going to shrinks is that they rarely if ever cure anything.
The same is true of most politicians. And it is without doubt true of all genuine ‘conviction’ politicians – that is to say, those who – like Pot, Mao,Thatcher, Reagan, Delors, Hitler, Foot and Harman – were careful never to allow even one single shaft of light to enter the hermetically sealed certainties of their dark souls. (I suspect the same may well be true of Corbyn, but it’s early days as yet).
However, the chief commonality among such ideologists is that they all thought the human being could be changed forever in order to suit their madcap theories. It was and is the wrong starting point – and it has produced, whenever tried, outcomes that become increasingly dysfunctional as time goes on. Worse still, because of the nature of the inflexible mind in charge, the presentations of failure as success take on an air of first oddity, then incredibility…and finally, surreality.
I do not have ‘politics’ any more, because across the spectrum they run like jack rabbits from reality. I do not, however, cleave to the Thomas Hobbes brutish world – which he believed should be accepted as is, and repressed with all the available power of the State. Rather, I believe in keeping Homo sapiens in its preferred world based on the anthropological evidence – viz, that of a smallish community with a functional balance between the individual and the total membership of it. In that natural world, pack species like ours benefit from hierarchy and specialism within the pack, and cooperative trade with other packs.
Why do I ‘believe’ this? Because the scientific study of evolution and selection proves it over and over again. There is more to life than empiricism – without aspiration to something better for everyone, we are nothing – but almost all political theorists and practitioners suffer from what I call Icarus Syndrome: they aspire to something that, in this Universe, is impossible. We cannot physically voyage to the sun (not even at night) and we cannot make everyone as streetwise as Alan Sugar, as materially disinterested as Christ, as talented as Pablo Picasso, or as blessed with ingenious insight and humility as Einstein.
Two centuries ahead of his ‘time’, the English social philosopher Jeremy Bentham played the perfect card in favour of recognition of imperfection by observing that the entire purpose of politics and government was to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. We now know that happiness is a relative thing, but the only change I would offer as an improvement on that goal 117 years after his death would be to seek the greatest fulfilment of the greatest number.
I have been a Bentham follower since 1968 when I first studied his ideas in any depth. The great thing about being so is that there is no need for an ideology: there is only the acceptance of human frailty, and the wish to inspire the human spirit. Nowhere in Bentham’s writings is there the erroneous belief in an evolving human species which can become the sole home of Perfect Beings in thirty years flat. And nowhere is there the manic desire to bend reality in favour of a flawed theory.
Evolution takes tens of thousands of years to complete, but very few politicos get beyond adherence to centuries-old ideologies left behind by decades of change. This is because we are, on the whole, physical nonentities mistakenly* given a large brain containing an infinite ego. The serial attempts of this ego to believe in Utopia are at the heart of all human failure and misery….as indeed are the Left-brain Nasty theorists who believe in merely exploiting an existing Dystopia.
The contemporary duopolous politics of the West based on opposing perfections are really just a series of firework displays put on to try and outdo the other side. They are by definition not just extreme: they are extremely and expensively ephemeral gestures.
My own observation of the last thirty years is that its outstanding characteristic has been the headlong rush to escape community reality. Indeed, the escape has been made more culturally acceptable by using the word itself: we talk of virtual reality, of reality television and so forth.
TVs and pcs in every room ensure that we no longer eat together. Facebook allows us to pretend we are staying in touch, when all we are doing is broadcasting our activities. Google gives often ignorant people the ability to seem ‘well read’. Mobile phones tell significant others we are “on the 5.30 train”: but the genuine phone call to ask what’s new and to rekindle real friendships is almost dead…because they read what you were doing on Facebook anyway, didn’t they? People don’t write about feelings, they text about arrangements. And above all, universally cheap access to the virtual soapbox – a website – has ensured the escape of every kind of megalomanic fantasist from the locked attic into the vicarious freedom of ‘mainstream’ debate.
Citizens in the West have become the prisoners of self-styled ‘élite’ ideology. I am a follower of Bentham, but to me the word ‘Benthamism’ is an oxymoron: for all ‘isms’ create closed minds. Sexism, feminism, socialism, fascism, Thatcherism, neoliberalism, communism, multiculturalism and racism all demand adherence to settled science…which is itself perhaps the greatest oxymoron of all.
My main fear at the moment is that we are about to enter an era during which people will be led to believe in the idea of Bad Fire and Good Fire: to accept the empty Brechtian idea of ‘the good lie’, and believe that the only way to fight fire is with an equal and opposite fire. But there has only ever been one sort of fire…and no amount of spin can ever make it anything other than utterly destructive.
The only way to fight fire is with the power hose of extinguishing water. Then once the fire is out, we can all sit down together and decide how to rebuild from the destruction. This will, naturally, involve raining on many parades: MayDay Parades in Moscow, Olympic Parades in Beijing, Disneyland Christmas Parades in Paris, and the St Patrick’s Day Parade in New York. But anything that dampens the enthusiasm for false Gods is fine by me.