Before I begin this series of grumbles I’d just like to say that I was filled with admiration a few weeks ago by an article on the ABC website by Jeff Sparrow. This puts so much more elegantly and succinctly than I did the case for considering conservatism and liberalism as two sides of the same coin: conservatism talks constantly about moral values, which are then overturned by the essential amorality of the free-market that liberalism embraces. However, the obvious fact that the market cares nothing for morality is disguised by conservative writers, who blame the left, the poor, the disadvantaged, immigrants, minorities &c &c for society’s ills (as in the recent reporting of the London riots).
In this first grumble I want to expand on a point I made earlier in these pieces about the end-states envisaged by different political philosophies. In an earlier piece I said that the Christian imperative was to believe, die and go to heaven. So clearly the Christian end-state is death (from a worldly perspective). Christianity’s offspring, capitalism, has, as we saw when considering Adam Smith, no end state either, because the great wheel of circulation must continue to circulate endlessly, for some reason or another. Here is a graph:
Like many a graph of modernity’s statistics—land-use for agriculture, GDP, energy use—this one tends upwards towards natural limits; plenty of things can be done to postpone the day of reckoning, but in the end it arrives.
By contrast, the political philosophy I am arguing for here foregrounds sustainability, and a steady state economy. With a low global population of around a billion people living at the same technological level and in societies of much greater social equality than today’s society, humanity would persist for thousands of years at a similar level of population, resource use, and economic activity. [‘Let the states be small and people few.’ (Daode jing 80)]
This isn’t ‘living in harmony with nature’, because there is no such thing as harmony, for any period. What it is, though, is making sure that humanity’s varying activities vary within certain limits. As technological progress in this type of society occurred it would probably demand greater use of resources (as progress does), but these would have to be paid for by a more restrained use of resources in other areas and progress would therefore be slower than in the present—which would be a good thing.
People in this paradigm would be comfortable living in a similar world to that which their ancestors lived in and could look forward to humanity continuing to live in a similar way into the future; by contrast I guess that a lot of angst and anger in the world now is caused by the fact that people recognise that a world constantly changing is one in which their lives will not be remembered and celebrated by posterity. Endless economic growth is not possible but, if it were, people of the present would be right to fear that they would simply be laughed at by future generations as clueless hicks (because this is how we think of past generations currently). Worse still, as endless economic growth is not possible, we will simply be derided by future generations as stupid vandals and wreckers unless we begin to change around the way we do things.
It is important to realise that as humanity has constantly been expanding its activities and population (especially in the last two hundred years), then really the people who rise up to lead and commission the history-books are the expansionists, as it were. This is a certain type of person, well-described in the Daode jing during an earlier phase of unwarranted expansion (C3 BCE in China):
The courts are swept very clean;
While the fields are full of weeds;
And the granaries are all empty.
Their clothing—richly embroidered and colored;
While at their waists they carry sharp swords.
They gorge themselves on food, and of possessions and goods they have plenty.
This is called thievery!
And thievery certainly isn’t the Way! (53)
By contrast in a steady-state future other personality types will be favoured:
Therefore, one who is good at being a warrior doesn’t make a show of his might;
One who is good in battle doesn’t get angry;
One who is good at defeating the enemy doesn’t engage him.
And one who is good at using men places himself below them.
This is called the virtue of not competing; (68)
For this new paradigm we certain need the ‘steady-state’ personality for the people who will lead: calm and resourceful people, ones not filled with drive and anxiety, and bullshit, as are the leaders we currently have:
Those who know don’t talk about it; those who talk don’t know it. (56)
Ironically one of the characteristics of the world of modernity-heading-rapidly-towards-destruction is an inability of change, to change course, to stop reproducing the same behaviours that have brought us to this state. Although our lives are vastly different from what they were even 15 or 20 years ago (I can remember a time before the internet and PCs), the conditions of them haven’t really altered—false wealth is still the idol that is worshipped.
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s ‘Britain’ (as we called it then, not ‘England’) was a society that was moving towards a greater social equality than it had had for hundreds of years and a more rational way of living. This of course was turned on its head by eleven years of Tory rule and the governments that succeeded it have continued on this course. In Britain, seemingly, nothing can change for the better (with the possibly exception of self-government for Scotland and Wales): the House of Lords remain substantially unreformed; the absurd first-past-the-post electoral system remains in place; society remains wedded to producing profits for the rich and crumbs for the poor, and to a mind-set that can’t even conceptualise the notion of ecological deficit.
Likewise in Australia, I have had pretty much the same experience, society keeps on heading in the wrong direction, refusing to change, and have been few changes-for-the-better to celebrate (some of these would include an Australian Republic, getting rid of the States, proportional representation, ecological accounting used in government). Not all of these of course are necessarily connected with moving towards a sustainable future, but if some of them had happened then it might give more hope that really meaningful changes could be proposed and introduced without the absurd conservative heel-dragging that always goes on.
Common sense, as well as the weight of traditional advice contained in such works as the Yijing, the Daode jing and Ecclesiastes, tells us that people who cannot adapt to change will not fare well; we know this instinctively, and the fact that our society will not change in any meaningful way is a source of conscious or unconscious grief to us.
Next week: Stupidity