If there is something I still admire about our North American friends – I mean, the USA bit and its colonial-like ability to teach us all about what they aspire to – it is their boundless optimism that everything has a fix. In fact, the original philosophy of this blog you’re reading right now was precisely that: if only we think hard enough – where thinking hard enough we assume is possible – a solution to any problem will always be found.
I stumbled across a wonderful blogpost by Ben Cobley yesterday, on the subject of philosophising and how Western culture is creating the very conditions for relentlessly excessive thought – the kind that people suffering from depression manifest – to become far more common. It’s called “A few thoughts on depression, and philosophy”, and, amongst other things, it touches on the link between our latterday consumer society and the trust that used to bind us:
[...] [Alastair] Campbell wrote a little book called ‘The Happy Depressive’, exploring his own experiences and depression as a public policy issue.
I won’t go into that book in detail here because I want to take a brief look at depression from a different angle, but one quotation wouldn’t go amiss:
“In the US, trust in other people being ‘nice’ has fallen from 60 per cent to 30 per cent in fifty years. It is the same story in the UK. In 1959, 60 per cent of people felt other people could generally be trusted. It has now halved. [Professor Richard] Layard [a Labour peer] believes that decline has matched the rise of consumerism which has been accompanied by a rise in the obsession with status, and envy of those who do better than us.”
This, if true, is a dreadful state of affairs. Whilst I have no way of corroborating the stats, at my own anecdotal level there seems little wrong with the assertions. The rise in mental ill health in Western societies has matched the introduction of neoliberal economic and sociocultural attitudes. That there should exist people and institutions determined to make societies work to their own particular benefit at the expense of the poor and already highly disadvantaged should clearly not surprise us. And that these individuals and entities should cover their backs by arguing it’s a natural state of affairs mustn’t lessen our resolve to fight back.
For here is where perhaps I diverge a little from Cobley’s space. As he explains on his About page in relation to standard perceptions of the remorseless, monolithic and unremitting Left:
What especially interests me is the censoriousness and opinion control that is so pervasive on my side of the political fence. It seems that, far from being a free-minded and free-thinking Left, we are stuck in a denuded, conformist and also rather boring rut.
I believe the Left should be generous and welcoming, open and tolerant, but also committed and ethical in the way it behaves. I am against ideologies like neoliberalism and ‘Vulgar’ Marxism, and also some of the forms that have emerged around the politics of identity, including strictly deterministic versions of feminism. Ideologies like these offer simplistic, all-encompassing explanations about the way the world is while setting different groups in society against each other.
They give people an excuse to stop seeing, hearing and thinking for themselves.
And with this, I find myself disagreeing very little. But interestingly – or perhaps (I’m beginning to wonder) I should say even coherently, in the light of the above data on Western mental-wellbeing – he also chooses to quote from Karl Popper in the following way:
“If you know that things are bound to happen whatever you do, then you may feel free to give up the fight against them.” ~ Karl Popper
Yes. Now, as I write, I can see why Cobley chooses this quote. The choice and option to do something others might not understand often takes away the need to act in such a way. To feel free to give up the fight against something quite overwhelming serves to empower us, just as freely, to continue such a fight. On the other hand, to exhort one to fight – remorselessly, monolithically, unremittingly – often traps the person who should feel liberty is their goal in an emotional and political ambush of terrifying incoherence.
Only yesterday, Paul Cotterill tweeted thus:
Sick of Labour HQ emails telling me I must “fight” for stuff. Using a word devoid of actual meaning hinders organisation & solidarity.
Re Lab’s use of “fight”: The misuse of language in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things (Heidegger)
That, I suppose, is what both Paul and Ben are getting at in their different ways – and where, perhaps, we might argue libertarians do have a point after all. In whatever we do, we must feel free to choose. That sense of choice – for the good and the bad – is what makes us these mysterious human beings living this mysterious life. And the Left, if it wishes to track such behaviours, to maintain its primary connect with all the human beings it is looking to serve, must surely not forget the importance of that concept of choice.
Not just the more obvious choices such as which schools, GPs, medical treatments and social services. No. Far more importantly, for the persistence of vision all political groupings must maintain, is the recognition that humanity itself will inevitably tend towards one way or another of behaving.
The political question is not only identifying that way, though.
It’s also working out how to promote the way that least bends us out of natural shape.
What the neoliberals have managed is to promote ways that benefit their narrow interests – whilst claiming at the same time that these ways are inherently human.
What we need to do, as free progressives if you like, is accept that social engineering is the name of their/this game – and in this inevitable knowledge begin to understand that the pendulum of battle must swing back sooner or later.
And sooner, if we choose never to give up.
That is to say, by ignoring most of the current remorseless, monolithic and unremitting Left – and, in turn, by following Popper’s advice. For only then shall we be truly human.
And only then shall our politics be truly accurate.