Ultimately, the answer must lie in the distinction between the general, and the specific and personal. Take two contrasted examples.
If you believe that the political system in your country is broken beyond repair, then there are two things you can do when elections come round One is not to vote. If a large enough group of people refuse to vote, the system itself loses credibility. In several countries now, barely 50% of the population now vote even in the most important elections. A political system where less than 40% of the people voted would simply not be viable and would have to be replaced. The other thing you can do is to vote deliberately for parties that are going to crash the system more quickly than would otherwise be the case. They may be incompetent, they may be extremist, they may be completely out of their heads, but votes for them take away votes from the established parties, and so hasten the end of a system which is anyway doomed to disappear.
On the other hand, and in spite of Brecht’s thesis, we shouldn’t neglect our human duties. Giving food to the hungry or money to beggars doesn’t really perpetuate a system. Not doing so is often just a pretext to justify selfishness. There’s a big difference, in other words, between things we can directly influence, and those where our influence is only indirect.
But there are objections to this thesis aren’t there? Won’t it just make things worse?
OK, the system is broken, and nobody with the power to do so has an interest in fixing it. So what do the rest of us do, those who have no power beyond that which we can personally influence?
There are two approaches to this; the hardline and the squeamish. If you want an example of the first, go and read Brecht’s play The Measures Taken. It relates how, in the context of the civil war in China, Communist party members decided not to give food to starving people, because their deaths would sharpen the revolutionary mood and so bring the revolution closer. Brecht actually gt into trouble with his own Communist Party for blurting out inconvenient truths.
The squeamish approach, which in many ways is admirable, says that we should do good deeds and help those in difficulty, even if the effect is to prop up the system and enable it to survive. We become complicit in evil through wanting to do good: but then, are you just going to leave them to die?
Is there a solution? I think there is.
Our society will only be mended if elites think it is in their interests to mend it. So long as their interests and ours are aligned, or at least not opposed to each other, then there is some cause for hope.
This was the case in the past. Most western states realised in the nineteenth century that they would only survive if they built modern administrative systems, if they educated their people, and if they provided them with jobs and a measure of security. Asian states realised the same thing not long after. For about two hundred years from the time of the French Revolution, elites were sufficiently worried about the possibility of popular uprisings, and even revolutions, that they acted with a bit of circumspection, and threw the common people bones. In some countries – Britain in the nineteenth century, several European countries post-WW2 – religion was also a powerful moderating influence.
That’s all over now. Elites today do not need, or want, an educated workforce or a settled populace. They can buy or rent a workforce from abroad for the few jobs that still need doing, and they have succeeded in convincing most of the people that their ideology of unrestrained liberalism red in tooth and claw is the only one possible. You don’t need to put people in prison when you have convinced them that there’s no hope of a better system ever emerging, whatever their efforts, and so rebellion is pointless.
And if the elites don’t see the need for change, and the common people can’t imagine it, where’s the change going to come from?
When we say a system is broken, we mean it’s not working properly. There are two, connected, ways in which this might be the case and both are true in the modern world.
The first way is internal and technical, which is to say that the actual processes that should make the system work are functioning badly, or not at all. The system may manage, more or less, to produce outputs, but not as easily and as well as in the past. Universities, for example, still just about manage to produce graduates, but with much more waste, conflict and bureaucracy than in the past. Hospitals still, as far as they can, heal people, but they are being strangled by management and private sector involvement and drowning under massively increased demand. Perhaps the totemic example of process failure is Brexit: whatever you think about it, the UK should never, ever, have got into the situation it’s now in, and if the system had functioned properly it wouldn’t have done.
The second is teleological and outcome-based, which is to say that the system is unwilling to, or incapable of, producing the necessary outputs. Schools in a number of major countries are scarcely capable of producing school-leavers who can read and write: in France, once renowned for its education system, about 20% of 11-Year-olds are functionally illiterate. But nobody cares because they are largely from the poor and immigrant communities. Sometimes the system doesn’t even try: today’s private sector, for example, no longer even pretends to deliver jobs and investment. It’s become a mechanism for allowing a cabal of managers to loot the assets of the company, the economy and often the state as well, in the form of subsidies and tax-breaks.
OK, then: before we go on, is there any hope for the future?
The chances are that if you speak to a random stranger in most western countries today they’ll give you a variant of « the system is broken. »
They may be talking about the organisation or company they work for, their children’s’ school or university, the health system, or the whole government of the country. The older among them will also say, truthfully, that it wasn’t always like that and that things generally worked better in the past. Younger people, having grown up in a society where nothing worked, have lower expectations, and often a more fatalistic attitude.
But if the system is broken, what are we going to do? Well, when something is broken, you usually try to fix it. But after forty years during which the system has been deliberately and continuously broken for political and financial profit, it’s now too late. Attempts to rescue the system will only create more problems.
So the system, in all its manifestations, is broken beyond repair. Now what?
“Madness” is so much of a routine political insult that these days it means nothing much more than “something I disagree with.”
But I have begun to think over the last few weeks that very large numbers of the political, business, media and pontificating classes of the West have gone, quite literally, mad, or whatever is the current euphemism. That is to say that their behaviour, individually and collectively, shows symptoms which are typically described in studies of abnormal psychology. Put simply, the western ruling class is having a nervous breakdown, and no longer has much of a grip on reality. Ignorance is Strength, War (as of this week) is Peace. No doubt Freedom will soon be Slavery. The difference is that George Orwell saw these slogans as cynical attempts at manipulation by a Party which did not believe its own propaganda . The kind of people who see Russians under the bed or believe that peace in Syria is a bad idea do, in sense, believe what they say.
They believe what they say because they have become unhinged from reality. They live in a world made up of of fantasies and nightmares. They control nuclear weapons, unbelievable amounts of economic power, and the destiny of nations. God help the rest of us.
I’m not going to comment on the so-called “Russiagate” affair, since there is nothing to comment on. But there are two questions that are actually worth asking. First, how could a political class lose its mind so quickly and completely, and second, is this the end of the US party system as we know it?
The answer to the first is clear enough: it’s the phenomenon known to psychologists as Cognitive Dissonance, where people try to hold two conflicting truths in their mind at the same time, and this causes stress which has to be resolved by manipulating one or both of the truths. In this case, the truth that has to be manipulated is that Trump won the election. He can’t have done, therefore he didn’t, therefore somebody must have “interfered” with the elections.
The other truth, perhaps more interesting, comes from the overwhelming self-regard and arrogance of the Clinton camp, for whom the idea that they could actually lose did not seem real. This was not a mundane question of policies, strategies or turnouts, but an absolute belief in their own righteous nature, and an assumption that the universe would provide the result they anticipated, and that Clinton had been pursuing for decades. Clinton was leading a fragmented and argumentative set of single-issue identity cliques, whose dislike for each other was only exceeded by their self-righteousness and their desire for power. Those who disagreed were hunted down and destroyed if they were within the circle. If they were outside it, they were mocked and despised and treated as irrelevant. Well, we know what happened. But they don’t: the belief in their absolute entitlement to rule had come up against the brute reality of electoral loss. Something had to give, and it was obviously going to be reality.
That said, this may not have been a wise move even for a desperate political clique. Because there are signs that, having been used originally to explain away the unexplainable, the narrative has escaped the grasp of its authors, and is now being used to crush dissent all across the political spectrum. How long before it rebounds against the very people who started it? (After all, if the Russians really wanted to damage the US political system, wouldn’t they start hares running just like this, and then stand back and watch as the system fell apart?) Perhaps Hilary Clinton is a Russian agent. I mean, is there any proof she’s not?
I don’t normally write about American politics, partly out of boredom, partly because the blogosphere is full of little else these days.
But my eye was caught yesterday by the release of a Top Secret memo on the surveillance of a Trump supporter in 2016, issued by a House of Representatives Committee which is supposed to oversee the intelligence community. Like most people who have worked in government, I know what Top Secret document looks like, and this is nothing like a Top Secret document.
All it records is that the FBI applied to special secret court for permission to spy on a US citizen on the basis of allegations made in a dossier paid for by opponents of Trump, and supported by a Yahoo News story which ultimately turned out to be from the same source. This is pretty incompetent practice at the best of times, and worrying, if true, for anyone who still believed that the intelligence agencies in the US were under any kind of control at all. But why Top Secret – unless there was an actual operation to stop getting Trump elected? But that couldn’t possible be true, could it?
The history of British engagement with Europe has oscillated between tragedy and farce for the whole of my adult life: tragedy that Britain was not involved from the beginning, building a better and more sensible Europe than the one we have; farce in the domestic political “debate” on Europe, if debate is not too kind a word. But now we seem to have entered a new register entirely: that of the victim.
It’s unusual for politicians not to take credit for their successes, but that’s what’s happening here. The Brexiters, having got what they want, are now mortified by the complexity and devastation that are the likely results, and are starting, slowly but surely, to transition to a rhetoric which presents Britain as a victim of European manipulation, rather than the author of the problem itself. Don’t ask me how this can be justified logically, because it can’t, but it does have a certain twisted logic of its own if you are familiar with victim cultures.
In victim cultures, your country has suffered, helplessly, from the evil machinations of others. These might be other countries, multinational corporations, the world financial system, or even small groups capable of letting off explosions. Pretty much every country in the world today considers itself wronged, humiliated, a victim of something or other, whether it’s because of today’s events, or because of a past hundreds of years ago. the competition, within and between states, is to be the biggest victim, because being a victim means never having to say you’re sorry. If you are familiar with Africa and the Middle east you will have seen this culture in its purest form.
That’s what’s going on now; The struggle is not to succeed with Brexit or to stop it; the struggle is to take ownership of the victim status that will be claimed as a result of the inevitable chaos. Who would ever have thought a political system could undergo a moral and ideological collapse as quickly as this?
It’s common enough in politics to call your enemies or people you disagree with idiots, and it’s not always an exaggeration. But the staggering level of incompetence and insouciance displayed by the UK’s current government towards the Brexit negotiations actually puts us into entirely new territory for malevolent stupidity and a complete inability to see past the political advantage that might accrue this week.
Of course, as Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics. Of course every major political actor will be calculating how to get out of the Brexit débacle with a whole skin. Of course there will be very few figures thoughtfully contemplating the consequences of their actions in a decade’s time, ready to sacrifice their political careers for the greater good if necessary. That’s politics, and the rules don’t change very much.
But the British people have, in general, been entitled to expect a minimum level of sheer competence from their politicians, even if they don’t agree with them. You don’t aspire to be Prime Minister if you lack even the most rudimentary political skills, any more than you expect to be a champion footballer if you have two left feet. But the general level of total uselessness on display in the present government is quite unprecedented. In earlier times, it would have been safe to say that the British government machine (once the envy of the world, remember?) was capable and efficient enough to deal with Ministers who were complete idiots – and there were quite a few. No longer: the machine has been vandalized and sabotaged to the point where it simply cannot cope any more.
At the moment, ordinary people don’t see this. The realization will dawn when things start to go seriously wrong, when imports don’t come, when exports don’t go, when planes don’t fly and holidays are cancelled, because the government has frittered away time when it should have been negotiating, striking political poses and stabbing each other in the back. Then, I think, the wrath of the British people will be terrible to behold.
It’s already clear that the Tory line will be “it’s all the fault of Brussels” and it’s true as well that Brussels has played its hand badly from a PR point of view. But governments are in the end responsible, and I don’t think that’s going to work as an excuse. If I were Theresa May I’d start running well befog 2019. Now would be a good time.