An older favourite
Category Archive: Simple Things Made Complex
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These are trying times for politicians and for those being screwed by them. Crises are happening. Decisions MUST be made. Those of us not willing to have everything good and lovely stolen from us by powerful people who don’t even know our names feel we must take a stand. We must take a POSITION.
And sometimes it seems like project management, but with less appalling jargon. We must make a series of decisions that will take us where we want to go. We must follow the decision tree. But without calling it such a wanky name. Should we vote? Y/N. Should we confront? Y/N
It seems obvious we have to take a position in politics, but there is a problem. As individuals our decisions are usually almost imperceptible, and to the degree that the world at large does notice them, they (people, organisations) will decode our decisions as they feel like. And politics should not be about being sure of our rightness in our own heads, it should be about relating well and getting good things to happen. Meanwhile our decisions being decoded by others may have – for all we know – been caused by someone asking us the wrong question, or phrasing the question in a way that created an artificial dichotomy.
Not making decisions one way or the other can cause tensions inside us, but the world is full of tensions anyway. Tensions between different positions will only be resolved by death, and if you’re a Catholic, not even then.
In a way we do have to take a position in this world, or rather, we find ourselves in a position. I’m not sure it’s our decisions that get us there. We are not as rational as we pretend. We choose sides according to…what we feel like. That’s fine, and we can even dream up rationalisations for it if we are that way inclined, but that’s no reason to go resolving all the tensions.
Should we vote or not vote?
Should we confront or nudge?
Should we work from inside or outside institutions?
Should we aim for revolution or reform?
Do both. Together. Consecutively. Alternately. Do whatever seems appropriate with those around you at that particular time. It may seem strange to choose a life with more tension, but it also means choosing a life less defined by the questions people choose to ask you and more defined by your relationships and making stuff happen.
Anyone who isn’t immensely rich or a secret psychopath (in the Cabinet there’s a lot of overlap between these two groups) is currently mourning the Great Leap Forward in dismantling the NHS. It’s one of those political moments when we know that nothing we did worked and the bill we failed to stop will kill people and everything seems hopeless and we wonder how much worse it is going to get and how much more of the country they can sell off and pretty much every morning the news remind us that if they aren’t stopped the answer is ‘everything’.
In the midst of such doom and gloom the bright rays of sunshine in our midst will want to strike a positive note. ‘The Poll Tax was defeated after it became law’ say some. ‘We can punish them at the next election’ say others. And of course as always there are people to remind us that people fighting together can beat abusive rulers.
Well, yes. While not known for being a ray of sunshine myself, I agree with that. I also think we need to think positive – if only to stop everyone involved in fighting this government from killing themselves in a fit of depression. But I want to instead suggest that when things seem bad we should think positive, and negative, and positive, and negative, and then positive.
It could go something like this:
Positive voice: There’s got to be a way out of this mess. We have to throw ourselves into the fight again.
Negative voice: But everything we’ve done has failed. Every demo, every petition, every action was for nothing. It is clear that the government cannot be pressured because we are not their constituency. ‘Democracy’ appears to mean doing what the rich want.
Positive voice: That’s fine. That’s the situation we’re in. Relax about it. People have been in worse situations.
Negative voice: That’s your positivity? That’s the best you can do? You’re agreeing with me that we’re in the shit!
Positive voice: Stop being such a drama queen. The situation is as bad as it is. We should face it. But let’s not make it worse by getting all apocalyptic and acting like the world is going to end. Even Tories die – even if takes a stake through the heart – and not only will this particular government come to an end but this entire system of government will come to an end. All of them do. We just have to work to make sure it is a happy end for us all.
Negative voice: And what about all the people who will be made homeless, kill themselves or die for lack of treatment in the meantime?
Positive voice: Listen Mr Negativo, you’ve had your turns – count them! But since you ask, we’ll have to look after each other as best we can with what resources we can chip off the edge of Privatised Britain. Meanwhile we start working out how to dismantle this sinister political and economic apparatus over which we have so little control. To do that we have to accept that the petitions and the demos don’t do anything and the politicians couldn’t give a toss what we think – and that’s what we’ve got to work with. It’s a judicious mix of negative and positive that’s going to get us through this. Having accepted the negatives we can say ‘worse things happen at sea’ (or at least in the British Empire – we really aren’t in the worst situation anyone has ever been in) and start organising to win.
This is a series of posts in which I talk about simple things but extend my commentary on the simple things to several paragraphs, thus making them more complex.
It seems clear, I think, to most people, that when a thing does not work, it is not working. If your motorised trebuchet does not work then it is failing to throw rocks at the Palace of Westminster and we can all agree that it is not working as a motorised trebuchet should.
When people say that capitalism is not working – and I have heard various people say just this lately – the point tends to be more controversial. The reasons why it is controversial (besides the definition of capitalism) are interesting. Firstly, let’s complicate this further, since that is the task of these posts.
In my experience people tend to mean two quite different and separate things when they say ‘capitalism isn’t working’. They either mean (a) It isn’t working as it should right now or (b) It has never worked. The former gets more sympathy at the moment, because a lot of people in the UK are getting poorer right now.
So this statement (a) is clearly true on one level, in that we experience the lowered standard of living brought about, apparently, by some of the lynchpins of the capitalist system. But the implication of it is that the system can be fixed.
But let me put a third point of view. Let’s call it (c). This viewpoint says (c) capitalism is working just fine thanks, and we just have a few glitches to iron out. And here is the evidence for that point of view:
What this exposes for me is that the question of whether capitalism works is, unlike a motorised trebuchet, a matter of your point of view. That graph is from the US but last year in the UK wages for most people stayed flat or even fell, while CEOs picked up 30% pay rises – as they have been doing all through the credit crisis and recession (including the current recession they are pretending isn’t happening because certain growth figures don’t technically say it is yet). I also suspect that not shown on this graph is a 9% or so who have had rising incomes (though not as steep) either as owners of property and capital on a smaller scale or as high level managers of various types – managers and salesmen to those with the real money.
So now we see that statement (a) – capitalism isn’t working right now – is possibly largely from the point of view of people who have felt they have benefited from it in the past. Capitalism working ‘as it should’ means capitalism working for them.
Meanwhile statement (b) – capitalism has never worked – must come from another viewpoint once again. In my case it is usually from the viewpoint of the very large number of people in the world who live in poverty while we clearly have the technology and resources to prevent the situation. I feel a little bit unsympathetic to the people who claim (a), because they just got saddled with the kind of ‘austerity measures’ (corporate bonanza) that ‘we’ (our glorious leaders) used to force on poor countries. So now suddenly capitalism isn’t working. But there were other ways of looking at it all along, no?
Capitalism: not a motorised trebuchet.
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.