Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The World in a Mess?

Dealing with depression, as I am at the moment, one can question how much the way one perceives the wider world is influenced by the basic note of melancholy which overshadows one’s personal self-perception. When hope and joy become categories of intellectual certainty rather than lived experience their ability to colour the way we see things is weakened. This is something I feel I should take into account when I attempt to comment on the wider world, on events and trends beyond my own little world of direct experience.

Moreover, given my training as an historian, I am well aware of a fundamental human tendency to see the times in which one finds oneself as hopelessly corrupt and degenerate in comparison to the “good old days;” usually the times of one’s innocent youth when the sap was rising strongly and one was invulnerable and immortal in a world which was opening itself in a wonderful cornucopia of love, ideas, passions and possibilities.

And yet, even taking all this into account, I cannot discount my feeling that our world – particularly the western culture and society into which I was born and in which I have always lived – is in a bad way. I am not alone in this. In a comment on my last post, Susan said: “I'm depressed much of the time but I've come to see it as a natural byproduct of the unfairness we're expected to swallow without complaint every day. If instead of protesting at government buildings about particular wars, cutbacks, and financial improprieties, millions of people just gathered because they're bummed out, that would be at last a common truth.” Neil also commented: “I suspect depression is sometimes the strain of the struggle to retain sanity in a mad world.”

Our world is complex and one of the major problems it suffers from is a surfeit of idiots offering easy simplistic answers for the problems bedevilling it; one need only to look at the circus of potential candidates vying for the Republican nomination for next year’s presidential race in the USA. But sometimes it can help to look at history in broad sweeps, to see the movement of great waves, the birth, growth and death of paradigms which transcend borders and develop over decades.

The Second World War was a deeply traumatic experience for the generation around the world which experienced it, fought it and made the decisions which led to its ultimate conclusion. The new world order which the victors instituted contained many flaws, among them the acceptance of the division of the world between two rival systems. But one of the major motivations driving the western powers, under US leadership, was to try to create a system in which peace and economic prosperity would reinforce each other, within a democratic, free-market context. The United Nations, the Bretton Woods system, the Marshall Plan, the founding of the various organisations which evolved into the European Union and the roll-back of colonialism are all examples of impulses resulting from the experience of the war and the determination that the conditions which led to its outbreak should not be allowed to repeat themselves.

A second motivation for ordering (western) society following the war was the conceptual competition with Marxist and Soviet ideology. The promise the Marxist model offered for the masses was that its analysis and organisation of society were logically preferable for most people, as well as being historically inevitable. This provided a concrete incentive for those in power in the so-called “free world” to show that this was not the case; to demonstrate in practice that the Marxist claim that capitalism led to the exploitation, impoverishment and imprisonment in misery of the mass of ordinary people was untrue and that the free-market model led to increased prosperity and contentment for all – without the limitations on individual freedom which the centrally-planned, collective communist systems imposed.

Systems are always dynamic and change is unavoidable. But the eighties saw two major developments which led to a hollowing out of the post-war consensus. The first of these was the growing influence of a group of economic thinkers who rejected the Keynesian-inspired foundations of the prevailing economic order, particularly Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. The enthusiasm with which their ideas were taken up by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan dovetailed into a very different view of the individual and society, in which the individual was seen as completely paramount, with society being only the coincidental forum within which individuals interacted. Mrs Thatcher said in 1987, “They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

The result of this was to push any idea of the greater good firmly into the background, as well as to denigrate any thinking which inclined in the direction that specific economic policy could be used to forward particular societal goals. Markets were the context within which all human interaction took place. Any attempt to control and regulate them would only have negative consequences; left to themselves, markets were automatically self-regulating.

The second development which occurred was, of course, the collapse of the Soviet system and empire at the end of the decade. The competition between the two systems had been resolved; capitalism won, communism lost and disappeared (with a few paltry, stunted exceptions like Cuba and North Korea) into the midden heap of history.

And with it disappeared a continual, effective corrective to the extremes of capitalism. For as long as the socialist alternative existed, the societies of the west had an incentive to show that they were capable of providing a decent life for all their citizens without the totalitarianism and ideological control which guaranteed social security within the communist system entailed. Too much existential insecurity in western societies would lead to a growth of popularity of extreme leftist thinking among the masses and increasing attractiveness of the alternative on the other side of the Iron Curtain. So, particularly in Western Europe, which was the front line in the ideological struggle known as the Cold War, the social market system had developed, with continual efforts to ensure employment for the great majority of the population, universal access to relatively good quality education, public health care, decent, affordable housing, social welfare, pensions and enough disposable income to ensure moderately high rates of general consumption.

The fundamental changes I have sketched here did not become immediately apparent. The liberation of the markets from their fetters initially gave rise to increased growth, a growth fuelled by globalisation and the opening of new markets and opportunities, above all, for reduced costs through the relocation of labour-intensive production processes in areas of the world where wage and ancillary (e.g. environmental controls) costs, as well as taxation were lower, a development aided by the increased ease with which capital could be transferred. Though Reagan’s Republicans and Thatcher’s Conservatives had been replaced by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair’s New Labour, deregulation continued. For as long as the “peace dividend” could be enjoyed, the negative consequences of unfettered so-called free-market capitalism were disguised.

Now that the crash has inevitably come, the results are becoming clear. While the old paradigm of democratic participation, of empowerment in shaping our societies, has continued to have lip-service paid to it, we are discovering that it has become meaningless. The whole post-Cold War system of unregulated global markets could only half-way function through rapid growth, some of it real (if frequently based on exploitative, inhuman, commercial corporate neo-colonialism) but even more of it the artificial inflation of all sorts of virtual bubbles, so often masquerading under the name of financial “products” and “services.”

The price has been frighteningly high. Western countries have priced themselves out of global markets for most simpler labour tasks, thus giving rise to growing under-classes of those lacking the necessary social and intellectual skills and networks to make their own way and forge their own dignity and values in the societies in which they find themselves. Here are the true roots of the violence and destruction which have erupted in the Parisian suburbs and London in the past years. Identification with wider societal values and concepts such as the common good or service of others have given way to a general ethos of social Darwinism and individual selfishness. After all, as Mrs Thatcher said, there is no such thing as society. So why should someone who does not have the purchasing power hesitate to loot a shop for a new TV, a games console or a new pair of Nikes (stitched together by a Chinese labourer earning two dollars a day) if the opportunity presents itself? After all, they have been bombarded all their lives with the message that these are the things they must possess in order to be happy. And that this happiness is their right, as long as they are strong enough to get it. They don’t see themselves getting it any other way.

Meanwhile, we are also becoming aware that we have mortgaged our say in what happens, in our futures and those of our children to out-of-control markets, driven more and more by software programmes written by people who didn’t understand the consequences of their programming apart from maximising profits in every situation; rising markets, falling markets, swing markets. That such virtual gambling has serious consequences in the real world doesn’t matter, for ethical responsibility – insofar as it exists at all – is defined solely with respect to maximising profits for share- and bond-holders.

To those with enough money and power it doesn’t really matter anyway. No matter what happens, they remain on the winning side. And, in handing over control of the future to the corporations, to the banks and the rating agencies, we have unwittingly sold out our democracies to the representatives of that small minority who possess most of the wealth, nationally and globally.

That is the real lesson of what happened in the wake of the crash of 2008; having seriously damaged the real world economy through their irresponsible hubris, the financial institutions – as representatives of that small rich elite – demanded and got their losses equalised and more from the ordinary taxpayers (for the rich themselves pay little or no taxes) of the countries whose economies they had wrecked. Our elected representatives failed to face them down. More, the control the rich elite exercises over much of the media, and thus their ability to manipulate public opinion, is so overwhelming that they have persuaded large amounts of the little people in the USA (through their Tea Party instrument) to protest against tax increases for the rich.

If we don’t find some way to change all this, I see the future as being very bleak for most of us. But, despite being personally down at the moment, there is still a part of me which refuses to despair. When Pandora opened the box in the legend, thus setting free all the ills to which humanity is heir, hope was the one thing which remained. There are so many creative, intelligent, generous people around, all trying in their own ways to live out and project values such as decency, respect, honesty and solidarity. In recent months the young people of countries as dissimilar as Spain and Israel, refusing to accept that their futures should remain bleak and hopeless, have taken to the streets to peacefully protest. It is seeds like this which need nurturing.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. You make it sound as if Margaret Thatcher, by saying "They're casting their problem on society", somehow created the problems that her enemies blame on her. My answer: "They're casting their problems on Margaret Thatcher."

    Personally I think that when one is depressed and also when one isn't, it is best to avoid looking at what is wrong with the world, apart from one's own narrow responsibility in it. The world is far too big to worry about.

  2. You've written an excellent summation of a number of the factors that have made for a much less optimistic environment than we'd like. The elites have always been indifferent to the poor but compound that with free market fundamentalism and the realities of political corruption and we're looking at a situation whose scale has never been seen before. We're in trouble as a species and a danger to all the other species we share the planet with.

    I try to stay positive and enjoy what's good in the world - and there is a lot to be enjoyed when one is lucky enough to be decently housed and fed. Unfortunately, budget cutbacks bring social disaster in their wake which makes it ever more difficult for us to find solutions. When the US blows, it’s going to be much worse than the UK, and the people in power are going to react even more stupidly.

    I will continue to keep my fingers crossed for our children and theirs to get to the other side and forge more sensible solutions. The thing about the future is that it's unknown but to paraphrase Hegel in his remarks about history: nobody ever learned from it.

  3. You are often in my thoughts lately Francis. If I were a practicing Christian I'd say I was praying for you. For us all really. I understand your anxiety. I agree with Vincent. Worry about Francis and his family and his problems first and stop agonizing or even giving more then a casual intellectual thought to the world's problems. Be aware and prepare because you are right; we really don't have any control over what governments do as individuals.

    The simplistic utterances of Republican candidates are mirrored by the other side. The same political speeches about government waste and overspending we're hearing from the Tea Party today were given by Obama in 2006 as a Senator. It's recycled propaganda. We know there are no easy answers. We know hard times are here and likely to get worse.

    I think it's incorrect to say Conservatives discarded ideas that focused on the benefit of society. What about abortion? What about tax breaks for families and massively increased spending on education and health care? It's easy to argue these attempts haven't worked but it's entirely wrong to say nothing was done. I'm speaking about the USA here of course.

    I didn't see Thatcher's comments in the same light as you apparently did. I understand her quote as telling people to focus on themselves and their community over some nebulous notion of 'society'. Family, neighbors, friends. In today's modern world of social media like this and G+ and Facebook etc. our networks have broadened widely. This is a good thing. This is where hope lies for me.

    That said, what I see here in the USA is far too much reliance on government assistance from those of us that don't really require it. They have the intelligence and the physical and emotional ability to earn a living but choose not to. Most of these folks actually think that because they were born here they deserve to be taken care of. This is anathema to me. I really don't understand this line of thinking. There are folks that need assistance that don't get enough because we have far too many 2 percenters sucking up all the available largess. It makes me angry. Means testing is coming because it has to. Because I have been cautious and conservative I will no doubt be deemed ineligible for full s.s. benefits. I expect it. My taxes will go up as well because they have to. The political posturing is just that. Eventually something has to pass that both cuts expenditures and increases revenue. It has to or we are all dooooomed.

  4. Well, Francis, once again you highlighted very accurately what ails our system. Democracy as a lip-service, indeed. No government, no parliament "rules" anything anymore today. While telling us to be happy because we're living in democratic countries and allowed to vote, leaders worldwide have always promoted the two most tedious dictatorships ever invented: capitalistic economy and bureaucracy. You don't have a say with whatever stupid decision a big company can come up with. Companies, and thus the whole economic block, are only interested in profit, at any cost. And bureaucracy has developped, as Hannah Ahrendt has foretold in the 50s, into the "reign of no one", i.e. decisions being made and implemented without anyone being responsible.

    Btw, I did understand Mrs. Thatcher the same way you seem to do. To say that "there are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first" is to deny the responsability of politicians and to declare that social Darwinism is the only way to solve problems. Strange how rightwing politicians (and political philosophers since de Maîstre at the beginning of the 19th century) always doubted that mankind was amendable or that it could be genuinely, originally good and only needed some gentle guidance in order to live peacefully. Yet at the same time, those same thinkers and doers would blindly have faith in some "happy few", which means those who make economical decisions. I don't knwo if I express well what I wanted to say.

    Anyway, as you have also pointed out, hope's never far away. While reading, I wanted to yell a "And what about the Spanish youth?" to you. But you wrote about it, as well I was sure you would. And there's still some literature worth being read; there are still some movies who do not merely aim to make lots of cash; there's still some Mozart and Bruckner and Mahler and Arvo Pärth one can listen to; there are still cherry trees blossoming somewhere in the countrydside in spring; there are still some lonesome beaches wher eone can wander around.

    And there are still friends out there. Here's one, for instance, who wishes you well. And who dreams of a better world, like you seem to do.

  5. There's a time to be born and a time to die". Is a new global world order being born? Or is the fractured world order we live in too diseased to survive and must die? Perhaps there something in between? When I watch the sun come up in the morning I feel hope, when I watch it disappear at dusk and be replaced by cablenews, so goes my hope. If there is a God he/she seems to have made humans ill-equipped to be guardians of such a precious planet. But those on whose shoulders we stand have faced their fears and mankind has survivied. Hopefully, we have time to face our fears and suvive.

  6. This is a very well-written insightful work. I printed it out and highlighted every other line.

    Despite the rumors, I realize that you were not so much looking for what's wrong with the world, which in this case stands glowing before us, no need to seek.

    You are looking at "why" it may be wrong; when did it happen and how? Asking "why" is always good. Trying to come up with answers, is even better.

    Great job. EVERYONE who read this article could learn from your example.

  7. We've known each other long enough for you to know I agree all this Francis - this 'knowing' is also part of the issue as we've never met other than 'electronically' - I have some hope that such 'technology' may help.
    I came across Max Stirner's famed by largely unread book whilst digging in a box the other day. I don't get that personally anarchist, but suspect the message of not going far enough in critique has positive uses.
    The work we haven't done is on what "life is after religion", perhaps after the demolition of authority-based morality and ethics and what this "demolition" really is.
    An old friend hit one of the nails square on in describing postmodernism as really railing on about issues of justice and all the rest we want to believe in. Lyotad's seminal work is actually full of this and the much-quoted 'postmodernism is incredulity towards metanarratives' is actually preceded by 'oversimplifying to the extreme'.
    We end up with doubt, much as I suspect genuine religious reflection leads to.
    I'm off into an essay! Science also leads in this doubting direction, as we think about "light" and find exceptions to Lorentz transformation in near absolute zero graphene (etc.).
    What we lack is a rallying point at which we don't have to bend the knee to what we don't believe, but gives us fellowship we do (as social animals). My own view is that we are in the grip of "organised crime" - though this term needs much unpacking and biology is at the heart of what I mean as well as 'economics'. We can cry freedom - but this is essentially not much use because we don't have much idea of what a social freedom would be - certainly not one 'free of biology' or free of an understanding we have so little idea of what we are 'here for' - waiting around for the heat death of the universe, forever engaging the death drive - or looking the other way as Vincent almost suggests? We need something that disengages us from terror - whether of Gaddafis or having to keep roofs over heads, that doesn't tale all motivation away. The standard current route is 'living in ignorance' as pack members taking what comfort we can.

    I suspect what we lack in simple terms is the understanding we can make this the 'land of plenty' without complex finance and banking. This is no longer 'Marxist' but scientific-technological. That it remains 'impossible' obvious when I ask a class to identify what decile they are in in GDP terms and how this decile has faired since they were born. They have no clue and really can't believe what I have to tell them. They have as little clue on imperialist history, most imagining the Opium Wars involved the Royal Navy chasing down drug-runners! What we don't do is get enough truth into education to be enable a realistic public dialogue. I thus suspect much of the pain of depression lies in our education and what we haven't made of it for others. One creates pain just by telling the truth with no answers as to the cure. My students are in the bottom deciles and have been made poorer in each year they have lived, in a downward curve from 14% of liquid assets when born to 1% now, gifted debt to learn this lesson. 'We' tell them to work hard for future opportunities and lie every bit as much as a priest who has discovered just how nasty the Vatican is and how false his doctrine. Along the way, one might be a Good Samaritan, but this has declined to near zero in the jobsworth-careerist culture. My biologist guess is we suffer depression as pack animals suffer 'Omega' status. I frankly have run away to the lonesome trail of the outcast! (Neil - still 'outcast' by the blogger technology!)

  8. Yes, the world is a mess, but one thing I always try to remember is that the world has always been a mess.

  9. I know it's maybe not the best moment, and perhaps you even don't care for some silly Blog Award anyway. And still... I was given the "Liebster Blog Award" quite surprisingly by someone whose blog I do not regularly read. And I have to hand it on (you know, that sort of chain-thingie). Now I cannot do this without nominating the blogs I really read and really appreciate. So yours is amongst them. Of course.
    I hope you're getting better and better as days go by. If you've got a minute, hop over to my blog-space and read what that Award-stuff is all about. Those awards surely don't mean anything in the bigger scheme of this world; I for one don't care if I get one or not. Yet believe me when I say that I don't give it to others without meaning or feelings.
    The very very best to you.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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