What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Facing our Problems 2

In my piece last week I argued that of the two major problems facing humanity, climate change and global economic overreach (for which the solution is the encouragement of a decline in population), the first, climate change, was comparatively easy to address as the solutions to it do not differ from existing technological solutions, requiring only the abandonment of fossil fuels in favour of renewables.

And it has been pointed out to me how here in Australia the recent move by a very reluctant Labor Federal Government to implement a carbon pricing mechanism, initially by a carbon tax, demonstrates this. The Government would clearly love to move in traditional ways still, exploiting Australia’s vast coal reserves to earn export dollars and recycling this in the form of middle-class welfare to buy votes. Instead it has begun the process of implementing a carbon pricing mechanism and although we are almost as far away as we ever were from a solution to increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere, at least we have begun (‘a journey of thousand miles…’ and all that).

However, I argued last week, global economic overreach and population are not yet seen as problem in the same way, and solutions to this need a large change in thinking before they can be generally accepted. A good current example of this is the reaction in the comments section of a climate change site, Real Climate, to some passages cited from an editorial in journal Air Water Soil Pollution. In part these read:

The current USA is an example of a failed capitalistic state in which essential long-term goals such as prevention of climate change and limitation of human population growth are subjugated to the short-term profit motive and the principle of economic growth.

Various people providing comments on Real Climate throw up their hands in horror at these comments, and other passages, which to me seem simply to be stating facts.


The question I want to discuss this week, following on from the above, is why people
don’t follow their own interests, why do continue to exist in various forms of denial leaving glaring problems unaddressed?

This is subject of quite a volume of popular political writing, including the well-known book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (2004) by Thomas Frank. This work explores how conservatism in the form of the Republican Party has capture previously left-leaning areas such as Kansas, persuading people to vote for a party which, Frank argues, consistently works against their economic interests.

The answer is that although liberal individualism, and a face-value reading of Darwin, would predispose us to expect people follow their own interests, a closer look will reveal that the pursuit of pure individual advantage would be a highly difficult undertaking for humans. Humans, and most of related primate species (and therefore presumably our primate ancestors) are intensely social animals. Any success that is achieved by humans is in the context of a family, a group, a society and the Darwinian imperative to follows one’s own interest should be expanded to say ‘follow one’s own interests so long as this does not involve unwinnable or unmanageable conflict with others’.

In the context of Kansas, for example, we can surmise that in the eyes of the rural and urban poor their interests are better served by fitting in with a conservative and reactionary social mindset which can provide some support services (for example various Christian churches in the US function as a non-state-based welfare system for people identifying as church members) and, as political evolution has occurred in the late C20 in the midwest a sufficient number of poor Americans have found that identifying with conservatism brings more dependable support than, for example, the patchy and timid social programs espoused by the Democrats.

In the western world it was found in the C19 that an expansion of the franchise to lower social classes did not result in immediate social revolution and an end to capitalism. What was found was that the newly enfranchised voters fitted in with the existing party politics, and that although in Britain, for example, a radical political movement existed, and towards the end of the century the Labour Party came into being, society was transformed very slowly.

This is because as well as ‘fitting in’ and deriving small benefits from the existing situation, there was the prospect of social mobility: people could aspire to climb out of their class. In fact I would lay down as a rule that people in hierarchical societies tend not to identify with their actual social class, but tend instead to identify with the next class above theirs, the one they hope to climb into. Thus they are easily manipulated by politicians, business interests &c.

Logically, of course, social mobility is a nonsense. People have always been able to rise out their class, even in societies where the lowest rung were slaves. However, everyone can’t rise out of their class, otherwise nothing changes. What can happen is that a general rise in prosperity across society can be mistaken for social mobility, and this is the history of developed world in capitalism, from the Reform Act of 1832 (in Britain) to the present. It is this necessity for the appearance of rising prosperity and causes people to cling so desperately to a political and economic order which is killing the planet.

(Recently I read an account of the effort of US House Representative Republicans tying to remove regulatory powers from the EPA for atmospheric CO2 and I was amused by the commentators mordant observation: ‘Darwin would have been amazed how desperately people can struggle for their own extinction’.)

This appearance of prosperity is what has allowed the creation of the 30/30/40 society; this model for society sees the top 40% of society as rich and secure, the middle 30% as the harassed middle classes, convinced they are wealthy when in fact they are merely mortgage slaves, and the remaining 30% as the traditional working class, only now they are excluded from much in way of assistance or welfare that they had in the post-war period, are out of reach of home-ownership, and are restricted to unskilled and casual work, but nevertheless still mainly identify with their society and believe in the system that so structures them.*

Which returns us to our original problem, we can’t think our way around our mindset because we can’t acknowledge any threat to the ‘prosperity’ than gives the illusion of social mobility.

But this, of course, leaves the basic situation unchanged. People who are concentrating on being good and loyal members of their social groups and global capitalist society, and hoping to climb into the next class up, cannot spare a thought for dire ecological situation we are in. And, as I will discuss in my next post, the guardians of that global capitalist society make sure that that remains unchanged by withholding, or distorting the information that we receive.

* The journalist Will Hutton coined the ‘30/30/40’ model in a book published in 1995. For what it’s worth from my own observations of Britain (growing up there) I would have the proportions as more like 40:40:20 (working class, middle class, privileged). I believe that Hutton has a rather rosy-spectacled view of society.

Next week: the Media

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