Back To The Future

by George_East on February 11, 2015

Back to the futureBy Guest Blogger – Mike Killingworth

It is a commonplace of human nature to suppose that the way things are now is either “normal” or else represents a decay from the “normality” of our childhoods. Of course, if “normal” means “what I am familiar with” then the commonplace is not that misguided – but “normal” doesn’t really mean that, as a few moments’ reflection will reveal.

Two elements of this misplaced normality which have great salience for the development of 21st century politics in Western cultures are the benevolence of economic growth and the primacy of the individual as the basic building block of society. The latter, of course, is a consequence of the former. Both, however, are innovations, being less than 300 years old at most and both represent a radical departure from what was normal in all previous ages and still is in most other parts of the Earth.

Traditionally, continuity was seen as desirable, whilst change was regarded as problematic if not downright dangerous. The concept of “progress” (other than as a synonym for journey) was unknown. It is one of the great contributions of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, part of the wider process of setting up Reason as the final authority in human affairs, rather than Tradition. Most people were extremely dubious of this development: did it not threaten religion, for example, and thus their chance of a reward in heaven for earthly sorrow? There were other scary novelties, too: living in towns rather than the countryside, and the consequent detachment of life and work from the round of the seasons. We are used to thinking of the “making of the English working class” as a herald of the kind of left-wing politics we have known over the last century – but it was, in truth, at least as much a cry for the return of a lost rural dream.

Growth means change, and the ability of the human heart to adapt is a good deal smaller than we think it to be. And modernity denigrates the heart, just as it makes a temple – or do I mean a fetish? – of the mind, and redefines the personality not as a capacity for future eternal rest, but as a set of electrical discharges inside the brain, as process rather than matter.

Capitalism began by meeting needs (not that there is the slightest evidence that people were any happier in the 1820s than in, say, the 1520s) but because it is itself an ever-expanding machine, the needs of the people were soon enough incapable of meeting the needs of the system and it became necessary to convince people that they had desires far beyond their needs, and to extend the reach of commodification ever further, year after year. We have presently got to universities and will shortly reach hospitals.

Simultaneously firms sought not only new products and services that would themselves create new desires (whoever wanted to tweet before Twitter began?) but also to minimise labour costs – which, until the last generation, capitalists had proved so incompetent at doing that many of them pretended, even to themselves, that they weren’t even trying to do it. But globalisation made it possible (and democratic elections, by forcing rulers to prioritise the short-term over the longer ones, made globalization possible) and so a generation of south-east Asians are being lifted from rural squalor into urban chaos – a short-term fix until it becomes possible to mechanise and robotise virtually all forms of production and service delivery.

And then what? As earnings decline, spending is financed by debt, both public and private. Year on year, a higher proportion of such debts will become unrepayable. Year on year, a higher proportion of business leaders (who, like the rest of us, no longer feel the social glue of the solidarity of the war effort) resort to outright fraud to-day because they cannot see themselves being honestly competitive the day after to-morrow. Year on year, the State becomes less benign and more intrusive, more fearful and less competent – indeed, our politicians are rapidly joining the House of Windsor as an element of what Walter Bagehot once called the “dignified” rather than the “efficient” part of Government.

For now, the primacy of the individual is unquestioned, in both the economic and cultural spheres. But I hope I have shown that Marx was right to see crisis as being as integral to the “modern” system as credit itself. And when this crisis – perhaps I should say, catastrophe – is reached, both individualism and rationality will be revealed as intrinsic components of the problem – the only way out will be the way back, the return to more traditional, more “normal” modes of doing and being.

Instead of Enlightened Reason, we shall relapse into the Traditional Authoritarianism which few if any of our ethnic minority communities have ever truly abandoned (and which, of course, lies behind the conflict between Western and Islamic concepts of how we should live, among others). Instead of celebrating the individual personalities of our children, we shall be moulding them to meet the needs (not the desires, we will no longer be able to afford those) of our families and extended families. Authority will return to the elders (or such of them as have adapted themselves to the new conditions) and misery to old and young alike. For few will be able to feed or house themselves. The commonest way to find food and shelter will be to offer oneself as a servant – or worse – to one of the tiny number of super-rich whose extended households and fiefdoms will come to replace many of the smaller nation-states.  Cities may even decay into deserts, just as they did in the Ancient Mediterranean world. And the human heart will find its consolations in all the old places, in temples and in rituals, in myths and in mystifications. A sustainable normality will have replaced the magnificent but ultimately self-destructive society that is the West at the beginning of the 21st century.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Alx w February 12, 2015 at 8:36 am

Not sure the genie could go back into the bottle. Do you not think that if the squeeze continued that we would not see violence and revolution? If Marx is right on this level, might he not be right about a revolutionary response to this problem. After all debt is an abstract concept, I only owe money by tacit agreement. We could all just rip it up and declare ourselves bankrupt? To avert this potential situation a jubilee style model remains open to those holding more debt than they ever need. The super rich elite and gets still have room to manoeuvre if they recognise where the present set up is leading.


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