A post all about our individuality. Sorry, YOUR individuality.

I didn't have a relevant photo for this post but I love Balinese temples.

It hardly makes sense to collectively describe individualism does it? Except that it is one of the problems of living in a society where people obsess about their individuality that the social constraints upon us are less transparent than in other times and places. These social constraints always exist, always place pressure on us, always influence our decisions, but because we are all pretending that we are heroic individuals we have to kind of blank out all this social influence in case we realise how little our choices have to do with ourselves.

As well as constantly talking of ourselves as atomistic individuals another weird way we use language is to refer to our ‘social lives’ and ‘work lives’ as different things. I know that by ‘social life’ people often mean what they do to relax with other people, but the distinction obscures something that would be obvious to an anthropologist or a native of a Brazilian basin tribe: that a work environment is a strongly social environment.

It follows then that a lot of the social constraints and pressures on us originate not from friends we chose, or from family or even the work colleagues we ‘socialise’ with, but from the constant social interaction in the working environment in which we spend 8-10 hours a day (less if you’re one of the new army of part-timers who can’t get more hours – this post should make you feel better).

But let’s think about what this working environment is: a top-down, internally authoritarian structure, often with a deliberately created organisational ‘culture’. It also has specific aims, and in the private sector and much of the targetted and monitored public sector, the aims are around constant efficiency calculations, constant cost-benefit analyses, and assumptions such as individuals needing to suffer for the sake of the organisation.

In conclusion, not only are we not as individualistic as we like to claim, but a lot of the influence on us comes from an essentially authoritarian environment that mandates particular ways of thinking and working. You can leave the organisation any time of course. But since most organisations – from charities through the public sector to academia – have deliberately adoped business methods in recent years, there aren’t many places to run to that would actually offer something different.

The point of this is not that we should all be more individualistic, simply that the hypocrisy involved in pretending to be individualistic while living most of your day in an authoritarian culture is enough to make anyone turn to working with trees.

Travel report: on cake and the idiocy of economists

The cafe of free exchange during a rainstorm the next day

As regular readers may or may not know I am currently on the road in South American. Normal service shall therefore be replaced with brief travel reports.

In a small town in a poor part of the Peruvian Andes I was sitting in a cafe eating cake (not, by most standards, particularly good cake – the significance of this will be revealed in a moment). An old Quechua woman, a campesina, came to the entrance of the cafe and sat on the step waiting to be served. The waitress ignored her for a good long time but eventually came over to her and took from her a bag of freshly dug potatoes. In return the old woman received a single slice of cake.

A whole bag of potatoes, probably dug by her own hands, carried on her bent old back, for a single slice of cake! It’s true the cost of the two would be similar back home, but there the potatoes would have been harvested in 2 seconds by a machine. Of course, even if prices were consistent across countries, ‘the market’ is not interested in how the potatoes were grown, harvested or transported.

An economist would say that what I witnessed was free exchange. And the woman had, at a particular point in time, chosen to exchange potatoes for cake. No-one held a gun to her head while she did it. But if you look at the history of Peruvian campesinos and the history of cake, the story looks a little bit different.

Cake is a nice thing and in the form sold in that cafe has spread across the world carried by rich people and the people who cook for rich people. It is something that people want to eat and those with cake-making capital have a certain power over those who cannot afford the ingredients for cake, or the oven in which to make cake.

The history of Peruvian campesinos meanwhile is the history of perhaps the most consistently oppressed people on earth. First the Incas, then the Spanish conquistadors, then global capitalism. The latter, while less obviously (it depends how much attention you’re paying) or constantly violent than the slave labour imposed under the previous two systems, prefers wi-fi in central Lima parks to installing water to campesinos houses.

The old woman presumably offered a bag of potatoes for cake because that was what she had to offer. That was what she had to offer because of various systems of violence imposed upon her and her ancestors since the beginning of recorded history. Can this – just because the woman wanted cake enough to offer something – really be described as ‘free exchange’? Surely the only people who could make free exchange would be those with a free history, if such a thing existed.

Economics – or the cultish form of it that dominates politics and academia – is full of facile notions like free exchange that take no account of power or history or, for that matter, reality. Economists are idiots. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly that they have always had easy access to cake.

Heartwarming Tales: The story of a Fundamentally Decent Nation

Or: A foreign imposter in Malaya

It is not often I quote Richard Littlejohn, but today it will help kick off the story of how Britain became a Fundamentally Decent Nation. That sensitive and gentle man wrote this in a column in response to the earthquake in Japan:

Anyone who has visited or worked in Japan will tell you it is like landing on another planet. Beyond the baseball caps and Western clothes, the Japanese people have a distinct culture of their own, which is entirely alien to our own values. They are militantly racist and in the past have been capable of great cruelty.

This makes a couple of important points about our Fundamental Decentness as Brits. Firstly, it very often involves going to other countries and treating the inhabitants of those lands as an alien species. It’s a habit we acquired some time ago and, like crack cocaine and electing Old Etonians, we’ve found it to be moreish and difficult to kick.

The second important point I think we can glean from this Littlejohn gem is that Britain has never been militant, racist or capable of cruelty. These are the habits of foreigners. This is enlightening and will help clear up some of the problems that historians have had to face when reconciling the Fundamental Decentness of the British Character with facts.

Since it was not us who invented concentration camps in the Boer War, it must have been the result of infiltration by foreign types. No doubt all those involved in planning and executing the use of concentration camps were merely masquerading as Brits. I believe the slaughter thousands of men at Omdurman using far superior weaponry must also have been due to foreign infiltration. No doubt the bombing of the French navy at the beginning of WWII was not ordered by Churchill at all but by some foreign imposter looking like him. Likewise I’m sure it wasn’t really him who couldn’t be bothered to spare a few planes to destroy Nazi gas chambers.

The British people have remained Fundamentally Decent through all these trials, even as for decades and through multiple changes of government the British state expended its full resources to fight and defeat the powerless inhabitants of a small island. This just goes to show how deeply embedded the foreign menace is in the British establishment. And yet we, the British people, heroically shrug it off. That is not us. We beat the Nazis. That’s us.

But I am sorry to say that the foreign infiltrators are still among us, working away in our ranks, doing things that no Fundamentally Decent people like us could possibly contemplate. The British government, suffering from this pernicious foreign influence, recently arbitrarily capped the number of refugees the country would take. This means that foreign agents in our midst are right now sending people back to countries – such as Iraq – where it is known that the people forcibly returned will be tortured. Will this vile foreign sabotage never end? But at least it is not Brits putting the refugees onto the planes. It is impossible to imagine people so Fundamentally Decent doing such a thing.

On the topic of Iraq, that war was a classic example of a foreign plot to force us into a war with a country that posed us no threat. Certainly Britain and British people would never dream of engaging in wars of aggression. Our Fundamental Decentness would prevent it. And the razing of Fallujah that killed 6000 people can definitely be pinned on the Americans, whose army – this is well known though we are usually too polite to tell them – has always been Less Decent than ours. The fact that Britain played a supporting role in the massacre – sorry, the re-taking of Fallujah – can almost certainly be attributed to the creeping effects of foreigners in our midst.

We, Britain, became the Fundamentally Decent Nation we are today by not doing bad things. Definitely not. It wasn’t us. We would never behave like those Japanese types, or like Germans, or like Serbs. We just don’t have it in us. And it is so sad to see what a bunch of foreign infiltrators can do to make such a Fundamentally Decent Nation look so cruel.