Simple Things Made Complex: Things go up and down

Obama: up and down in a single man

This is a new series of posts in which I intend to talk about simple things. I will however extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them complicated. I’m not getting paid by the word but it will probably start to feel like that to you. I like writing is the problem. What you people need is a blogger who doesn’t actually like it. Or you could try twitter.

People don’t always know what I mean when I say that religion saturates our culture still. Most of us don’t believe in God or do what the priest says and most of us think we can shag whoever we want and gay is okay now, so where’s the religion?

The idea of ‘free will’ is an example. This was something theologians had to invent to make God’s harsh judgements of us okay. And we still think we have a deep-running facility for choice, that we can pull our actions out of a vacuum. And yes, it’s true, from the inside of our heads we perceive choices, but other religions at other times have spotted this for the illusion it is and it is a legacy of monotheism that we put up so much resistance to breaking the illusion.

As soon as you question the idea of free will people immediately think you are trying to ‘excuse’ people who do bad things. Really all you are saying is that our judging of each other performs a social function rather than referring to some objective moral code. This has always been the case of course, but the objective moral code became so lodged in people’s minds that they had to re-write it as human rights even as religion was fading in the Western world. So now we still have laws for everything and we imagine our free will allows us to obey or disobey them.

It’s not that I deny responsibility for my disobedience. I’m just aware my desires are embedded within complex social and historical structures that lead me to want to disobey policemen. And I do want to disobey them, I do. I just can’t explain it, because no one has the information gathering or processing ability to trace my impulses into my dark/tedious past and the past of everything else too.

This is a long introduction to what I really wanted to talk about: the two positions that many people fall into when regarding their society as a whole. Either they think that things will generally be okay, that the people in charge will more or less keep everything under control and their life will go on as usual, or they think that the world is sliding into some terminal (social, ecological, moral) decline from which it will never emerge.

The vague sense that everything will be okay could be a common-or-garden complacency common to all comfortably-off humans, but there is something more suspicious about it I think. We know that many people think (a) that politicians are in charge and (b) they are some of the least trustworthy humans in existence. On a personal level many people regard politicians with disgust, while acknowledging them as the actors who make our world. So where does this faith that things will be ok come from? We can’t trace it to one cause, but I do know a religion that, despite a stream of thought concerned with social justice, liked to create the mentality that if we put our heads down and do the will of the Lord, everything will be okay in the end. The habit of faith is hard to break it seems.

As for the apocalyptic tendency within Christianity, this barely needs pointing out. Everyone knows the nutty hallucinatory doom-mongering of batty old John. It extends back into the Old Testament too: Judaism pretty much invented the prophet of doom. The apocalyptic prophecy in monotheism is deeply bound up with moral judgement, and not just a moral judgement of individuals either. It relies on passing a moral judgement on the whole of society. Think about that for a while. It’s a fucked up thing to do. It doesn’t make any sense. Peak oil is not a punishment for ‘our’ sins. It is a consequence of certain organisational forms in our society, designed for the benefit of certain people, but here’s the more important point: since it isn’t a punishment, it won’t bring the world to an end. Really. There will be a long tail after the peak, not a sudden apocalypse.

Things aren’t going to be okay. The world isn’t going to end. Instead what is going to happen in the future is that things will go up and down. At the same time. I know this, because this is what has always happened. Some things get better, some things will worse – for who, when, how, we don’t know. But things won’t be okay and the world won’t end.

Having reached that certainty there is one major ambiguity left: the actors in this unsatisfying up and down drama (if you ever watched Heroes you’ll be familiar with the form). Who makes things go up and down? And so we see that my lengthy prevarication on the topic of free will at the beginning was not as self-indulgent as it first appeared but in fact an integral part of this post. HA! I snuck that one up on you!! The notion that it is our leaders who make things happen, that it is the famous names or even the bankers behind the scenes who create our world, seems a bit too simple once we question the idea of free will. For the same reasons it seems too simple to say that ‘we’, the people, make history, as some proponents of ‘the masses’ like to say.

That doesn’t rob us of all power. We are actors in the drama of history if we choose to see ourselves that way. We can still make the choices in our heads, make things happen in the real world, try and work out improvements to what we see in the world and put them into practice. But the reason that things go up and down now becomes apparent: no one is in charge, not even the people in charge. God is dead, you see. Many people think they know that but they’ve just made God fuzzier and hidden him away somewhere. They pretend he doesn’t exist while still he’s everywhere in their minds, making the world ok or sending it to hell.

5 Reasons Why Good Intentions Don’t Count

Every time you believe in your good intentions Bono gets a little piece of your soul

1. If you’ve ever opened a crap present, and someone says ‘It’s the thought that counts’ and you secretly thought ‘No it isn’t! I’d much rather have a good present!’ then you know we should be suspicious of good intentions. Good intentions have crap effects. Often.

2. Your good intentions frequently serve the purpose of making you feel good. By having good intentions the point you have established – beyond any doubt whatsover – is that you are the sort of person who has good intentions. Well, you’ve established it in your mind anyway. But let’s be honest, most people have good intentions in some way or other. They’re really nothing special. Sorry.

3. Look, I know this is scraping through the bottom of the barrel of rhetoric before I’ve even got to point five but I’m going to say it anyway: Hitler probably had good intentions. In fact, no probably about it. He wanted to elevate his people and give them better lives. You aren’t Hitler (Yet – careful now!) but do you really feel sure there are no dodgy ideas and perceptions in your mind distorting your thinking?

4. The structures within which you live and operate will twist your intentions to their own ends. They always do. You can’t ever entirely calculate the effects of your actions, even when you’ve done them. But that’s no excuse for charging ahead borne along purely on the conviction that your intentions are good so it must be worth doing. We should at least try to take account of how our intentions will be interpreted, used, and distorted.

5. Good intentions without thinking through the context in which you perform them, without attempting to work out the reason for the failures that have gone before you, without wondering what the price of failure would be, are lazy as well as egotistical. It’s not that good intentions don’t count at all, it’s that good intentions alone don’t count. Stop being so fucking lazy. (If you are not lazy and not convinced of the inherent worth of your good intentions please forgive this minor rudeness – it was well-intentioned.)

Jousting with your Inner Thatcher: Part 2 – ‘You shouldn’t need the government to do it for you’

In the style of Adam Curtis: “This is a series of posts about how our politicians became so successful at promoting a US-style form of individualism that we all – even those who claim to hate her – came to have a little Margaret Thatcher hiding inside of us, guiding our every move.”

That goes for the anarchists too in my experience. In fact I spoke to a couple who were quite confused when Cameron unveiled The Big Society. It sounded to them like a step towards anarchism. Many on both left and right these days tend to agree that the government shouldn’t do too much for us. Ultimately, say these people, it would be great if we did without the government altogether.

Now, if what you’re saying to me is that our government is run by greedy, selfish scum and we shouldn’t trust them to organise anything bigger than a tea-and-scones picnic for us then I’m bound to agree with you. It doesn’t strike me as an idea that could be argued with – except by people who directly benefit from the current state of affairs of course, which isn’t as many as it should be.

And that’s the big problem that the left at least should understand (the right are precisely the right because they refuse to be concerned about it): resources are distributed very unequally in our society. And no, they don’t go to people based on merit, and if they did, whose idea of merit would it be? And what of those born without merit? Are they condemned to a life of poverty? The question of the mechanics  of inequality is not as obvious as people think, and involves moving away from the comedic idea that people people earn what they deserve.

Where people are right is that we can always get more involved in creating our own lives. We live a life that is consumerist in a deeper way than us being able to buy lots of silly shit in the shops. Everything is done for us, often by professionals. Education is done for us. The local gym is run by other people. Charity is done by professionals. Pubs are run for us. Food is made elsewhere. Festivals are created for us. It lulls us into a strange state of active passivity such that even when we decide we want to break away from mainstream society, we assume, as we  run around doing lots of stuff, that someone else will sort out the cool shit we want to be involved in.

We should organise more stuff ourselves. We should make our lives our own. It’s all true. But over it all hangs one important cloud: a form of economic organising – companies and corporations in a government-created market environment – that concentrates wealth in people and places where we can’t get at it. Until we find another way of organising our economy, there is only one body with the power and ability to redistribute that wealth in a more reasonable way: the body that creates the legal structure of companies in the first place.

We can argue all day about how the government should be organised and who gets the power of decision-making, and how to distribute resources without concentrating too much power in their hands, but the idea of reducing the government while corporations run free is the Thatcherite utopia. People in power deliberately obscure the question of resources in the name of an individualism they expect us all agree with. We shouldn’t let them. We shouldn’t let our inner Thatcher whisper ‘Yes’ as we hear them talk about taking responsibility for our lives. They mean something different by it than we do.

So yeah, it turns out that, even if some of those Tories believe their own rhetoric, The Big Society is a cover for a massive transfer of wealth from ordinary people to those who already have it. It isn’t a Big Society at all, it’s a Big Shit On Our Heads. Work for free because we (the rich) don’t want to pay for it. If you don’t have the services you want, you’re to blame. A lot of people have noticed this by now and I’m not saying anything new. But if you want to know the kind of thing I mean by ‘government-created market environment’, have you noticed that according to the politicians (as well as their backers, of course) what rich people need to incentivise them is higher salaries, while what poor people need to incentivise them is…lower salaries? They build their tax and welfare policies accordingly.

We don’t need the government to organise everything, but until our economic structures change, we do need our central governing body – whatever form it takes – to distribute wealth a little more evenly, and to take steps to lower the huge wealth gap that they’ve been busy creating. That is what this current government will never do, and so their vision of ‘small government’ is not in favour of freedom, as they claim, but in favour of corporate power, i.e. in favour of themselves and their friends. As for your inner Thatcher, I recommend a sharp blow of a mace to the skull. Do it quick, before she starts whispering to you again.