This essay was commissioned for inclusion in an academic book on ‘Culture and Power in the Modern World’.
A Darkening Sky: Power, Culture and Freedom in the Modern World.
Progress has brought us to a strange place. On the one hand, machines do most of the hard work; medicine cures (or takes the edge off) most of our illnesses; travel and communication have never been cheaper, and luxuries can be enjoyed by more and more people. On the other hand, wars rage; we are polluting and destroying nature; we are warming the Earth so that it may soon be uninhabitable by ourselves; economic inequality is at an all-time high; and in the more affluent world – the paradise we all aspire to – a high proportion of people need mind-altering drugs, legal or illegal, to get through their days.
This essay is about the discrepancy between these two snapshots of modern life. Taking them together, it seems that in proportion to our understanding and power over Nature we are making a mess of things, including Nature. This means we must eventually make a mess of everything, because we depend upon Nature for existence and our daily lives. How do we understand the discrepancy in terms of deeper fundamentals – of culture, morals, and the limited role played by common sense in our collective behaviour? Have we always been this bad at managing our common affairs? Is it just because we are more powerful, that we can be so much more destructive? What would it take, to turn us away from what seems to be a headlong rush to self-destruction? These are the kind of questions this essay looks at.
Globalization is taking the power and culture of the West into almost every corner of the Earth. The fruits of progress are seductive; the powers introducing them are overwhelming. The challenge is obvious for all of us: to cultivate the good, to reject and restrain the bad in progress. That is easier said than done.
The argument of this essay is that the very same devices which concentrated power in the West are now threatening the peace, stability and future of the world. Roughly, these devices are: the illusion that representative government is democratic (which disarms popular opposition to what representatives actually get up to); corporations given human rights (which has enabled voraciously destructive commercial behaviour worldwide); and the Western method of creating money out of nothing (which concentrates excessive power in governments and business corporations – powers which now effectively act as one).
As a result of these developments, the stated ideals of the West – democracy, freedom, charity and equality of opportunity– are becoming a mirage. The West, far from living up to its promise, has become a threat and a danger. Those in charge try strenuously to maintain that the West is a bastion of fairness, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law: like a happy, well-run chicken coop, it is surrounded on all sides by envious foxes intent on murder and destruction. Many of us, however, have a sense that all is not right with the chicken coop itself, and that this not-rightness is spreading to the rest of the world.
This essay is also about culture. The job of culture is to cultivate the good, and reject or restrain the bad. Culture may, however, do the opposite, minimising the good, encouraging destruction and self-destruction. A culture consists of all the things that influence the collective behaviour of a people: knowledge, wisdom, institutions, beliefs, laws, morals, manners, arts and entertainments, the media: all of these and more.
‘The corruption of the best is the worst’ is an ancient saying. Everything that has been invented for human good can be corrupted to become a source of evil. Science, politics, morality, law, religion… Where to start? Perhaps with morality itself: ideas of what is good, what is bad.
We live in times of great and swift change. The importance of morality stays the same, but social change makes some morals appear redundant while others endure, and seem absolute. It is hard, for instance, to imagine a society in which personal, premeditated murder is perfectly acceptable. On the other hand, prescriptions against abortion and homosexuality seem to belong to a time when the world was underpopulated and the great religions ordered humanity to ‘go forth and multiply’. Sex was only proper if it was devoted to the production of children. Now that the planet is so overcrowded, that no longer makes sense.
There is, however, an underlying moral sense which endures and struggles to finds its way in different circumstances. Many have tried to give it a single-sentence definition, such as ‘do as you would be done by’, but there are always exceptions to such simple definitions. It is perhaps more promising to try to understand the role of morality in our life as a species.
When Charles Darwin wrote his book on human evolution, The Descent of Man, he devoted a large section of it to exploring the role of morality (chapters 3, 4 and 5). He begins with this assertion: “of all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is by far the most important”. Morality is crucial to our survival as a species, he wrote. It developed by natural selection (i.e. by the relative non-survival of those without it). He called morality a ‘social instinct’ meaning we are born with it. Furthermore, he wrote, during our lives we cultivate and develop our moral sense because it is a source of pleasure to us: of harmony, trust, and joy in each other’s company. We are social animals and as we become more civilized, our sympathies will extend to people of all nations and races.
No sooner had Darwin come up with this, than others seized upon natural selection and corrupted it into a message of competition and lethal hatreds. Herbert Spencer coined the ambivalent expression ‘survival of the fittest’ to describe evolution by natural selection. ‘Fittest’ can mean either ‘most appropriate’ or ‘most mean and muscly’ and the expression was used by Spencer and others (for instance Haeckel and Hartmann) to explain, and in some cases justify, malevolence and the ‘war of all against all’. The current High Priest of this pseudo-science is Richard Dawkins, who began his most famous book with the statement that humans are ‘robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes’. Many have pointed out that although this may be an attractive way of talking, as science it is nonsense. Genes are not ‘preserved’ and the influence of genes, in their hundreds of thousands, on behaviour is collaborative and collective. Among social animals, such as ourselves, cooperation and the desire to do right by each other are instinctive. The idea that individual genes are struggling to ‘preserve’ themselves is a fiction, a resonant lie to justify a guiltily selfish culture. Hypotheses non fingo – ‘I don’t make theories out of thin air’ – was Newton’s, and modern science’s, founding motto. When temptation calls, scientists tend to forget it.
Moral sense, both inborn and cultivated, varies a lot between individuals. If someone is entirely without it, we call them a psychopath. Descriptions such as ‘selfish’ ‘ruthless’ and ‘uncaring’ denote a relative lack of moral sense; ‘selfless’ ‘compassionate’ and ‘loving’ denote a good supply. At the opposite end of the spectrum to ‘psychopath’ is probably ‘saintly’.
Individuals from many positions on the moral spectrum may prosper in the world. Ruthlessness (for instance) may be an unpleasant characteristic, but ruthless characters often do well. They may even be useful to a society or a population when survival is at stake. And yet the nearer an individual lies on the spectrum towards being a psychopath, the less we generally want him or her in charge of our lives. A big part of res publica (the art of managing matters that concern us all) should consist of preventing such types from seizing power and control. We, the people, have massively failed: we have allowed such people to design institutions and set the agenda in politics, in corporate business, in media, in the arts, in law, in science, in academia.
Moral decision-making is, like it or not, the core of our judgements and of day-to-day human living. We still have freedom to behave well or badly, not just as individuals, but also as groups, cultures, religious communities, and nations. The ‘daily bread of good and evil’ is recognised as the essence of human living not just by ordinary people but also by philosophers, historians, and even (occasionally) by scientists and politicians.
Which leads to…
Freedom and Power.
Freedom in ancient Greece was associated with Bacchus, god of wine, presumably because a sense of pure freedom can be felt most convincingly in drunkenness. Almost as pure, perhaps, is the sense of freedom felt by someone just let out of prison, able at last to walk down the street without anyone shouting or waving a stick at them. Exhilarating for a while, but then – no job and no money might soon take the edge off it.
More fundamentally and more long-term, freedom is surely the opportunity to make – or fail to make – something of our lives, unhindered by malicious or exploitative powers. This kind of freedom emerges best from living in a just, equitable and compassionate society. Other freedoms – such as to worship how we please, to be rude about our rulers, to express our opinions without being arrested – are secondary elements in this freedom, of being unhampered in one’s efforts to build a good life.
Power is obviously the enemy of freedom. One person’s power to command is another person’s obligation to obey. However, we may voluntarily enter into situations where we agree to obey – such as jobs – and in that situation, power is mitigated by our power to withdraw from the agreement. Slavery and childhood are examples where power is not submitted to voluntarily; the State is a third. Its authority is something we inherit, which is one reason why its power should be limited as much as possible.
The word ‘power’ has a number of different meanings, and in one sense it can be said that freedom IS power: the power to do as we choose. Laws, when good, set limits to this power, so that one person’s freedom does not stifle the freedom of others. Freedom is a moral quality: enjoyed by all, it is good; enjoyed at the expense of others, bad. Freedoms to batter, bamboozle and burgle are not on the legal or the moral plus-lists.
When corrupted, freedom becomes the freedom to overpower others. Our political system, we are told, holds freedom as virtue number one. What kind of freedom? Freedom to rob, cheat, steal? Or freedom to do what we believe is morally right?
Probably the biggest illusion in the West today is the illusion that we are ‘democratic’. The word democracy means ‘rule by the people’. Since we elect others to rule for us, we are not ruling ourselves, just as if we hire someone to clean our windows we are not cleaning them ourselves. Actually, most people are probably not under any illusion that they have a real say in ruling. The word ‘democracy’ is a shorthand way of describing our political system, which is rule by elected representatives and the political parties they represent, with voters having the occasional power to choose between them. Believing that we are meaningfully democratic is as fanciful as believing that Father Christmas flies in a chariot pulled by reindeer.
There is, however, such a thing as true democracy. It has a long and intricate history. Many types of institution have been meaningfully democratic: local assemblies, indirect election, political juries whose members are chosen by lot, scrutiny of public servants (to check they are not robbing the till) and the referendum. This is not the place to go into detail: I have done that in my book In The Name Of The People. In our political system ‘the people’ are excluded by the very device that is said to be democratic: by being, supposedly, ‘represented’. In simple reality, representatives represent first their own interests, then the interests of their party, and only thirdly some aggregate idea of what they think citizens want or need.
The fact that our democracy is an illusion is not the worst thing about it. True democracy brings people together: party politics is divisive. Political parties appeal to different interest groups, setting one interest against another. This squaring-up can be for real and it can even be lethal on a grand scale; but in the West it has become mostly theatrical. For many years in Western countries there was a genuine division between ‘left’ (more power to the state) and ‘right’ (more power to corporate business). Today, left and right act together, with only minor differences of emphasis in policy between them. Corporate state and corporate business realised that they need not be in competition: they can cooperate. A vulture is like other birds: it needs two wings to fly.
Undoubtedly, many people go into politics with the best of intentions, but by the time they have risen high in the party structure, it would appear that a checklist of qualifications for success might read something like this:
- Has huge supplies of energy.
- Is talented in the arts of simplification, evasion and misrepresentation.
- Is happy to serve party and pursuit of power, while pretending to serve the people.
- Is prepared to make selective use of information to serve a purpose.
- Is prepared to lie whenever it suits – if they can (probably) get away with it.
Not many people have these characteristics; not many people can find happiness in such behaviour. The kinds of individuals who tick these boxes should be generally kept out of politics and public life, not welcomed in as ideal for the job. Power, like money, is an addiction. Addicts are notoriously dismissive of what gets between themselves and their narcotic: in particular, morality goes out of the window.
Going back to Darwin’s observation, most humans are inclined to be moral. But the common morality of ordinary people is excluded from politics, to such an extent that the very word ‘political’ has come to mean everything that is manipulative, amoral, deceitful, and done behind the backs of those who should know. Party politics is not a search for the best solutions to particular problems but a competition to find the promise (often a deception) which will secure more power for the political party, an already powerful organisation. Election by election, promise by broken promise, the power of government, its allies and fund-masters grows.
In a world where every few years as many votes as possible must be won, certain conditions must be cultivated:
- The people must be flattered, never blamed;
- Education must be designed around socialization, conformity and fitting in, rather than developing understanding;
- Propaganda must continually inform ‘the people’ that whatever the drawbacks of the current system, other systems are worse.
The person who ends up as ‘leader’ among politicians conforms to the general type with some added characteristics: charisma, extreme self-belief, and a conviction that he or she can ‘really get things done’. The inventor of the political ‘leader’ (in German, führer) was Adolf Hitler: before him a prominent politician ‘presided’ (President), supervised the implementation of rules (ruler, monarch), or exercised authority and power (autocrat, democrat, aristocrat).
Leaders feel it is their duty to motivate, rather than to adjudicate. The country begins to resemble a corporation, even an army, rather than a collection of free individuals who need law as to way of living together. Leaders often like to take their countries to war, whether or not their peoples initially want war: patriotism takes over and unites the people behind them. In this scenario, of course, morality is very far away indeed. Since the defeat of the extreme and overwhelming evil of Nazism, the righteous West has conducted wars and slaughter on a massive scale. Nuclear and carpet-bombing of Japan set the tone. Carpet-bombing in North Korea (1950-3) killed off 20% of the population according to General Curtis LeMay, in charge of Strategic Air Command at the time. ‘There are no innocent civilians,’ LeMay said. ‘It is their government and you are fighting a people, you are not trying to fight an armed force anymore. So it doesn’t bother me so much to be killing the so-called innocent bystanders’. In Cambodia, 1969-70, carpet-bombing also took place: no reliable estimates of casualties exist. In both countries, cities and infrastructure were destroyed and terrible regimes emerged; the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, which conducted a genocide, and the North Korean regime which still survives today.
The pattern continues. When, today, cities are visibly razed, do we believe it when a government spokesperson announces ‘no civilian casualties’? Life-sustaining infrastructures are destroyed, after which disease and malnutrition carry on killing. ‘Foreign aid’ is now more and more directed towards selling armaments.
The war of terror with Islam has been brewing for at least sixty years – since the deposition of the (elected) Iranian Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953 by the secret agencies of Britain and the United States. Since then, in return for oil and political influence, the West has supported regimes of torture and murder, has influenced and helped to rig elections, and has subverted regimes when they disappoint. Uncounted victims later, the West finds itself dealing with a movement (ISIS) prepared to use mass murder of civilians, genocide and bombing.
Politicians do two things: they make decisions, and they make laws. We tend to notice decisions more than laws; but in the long term laws make as much, or more, difference. And so to…
Law may be used to create a just and equitable society or, when corrupted, to concentrate and increase power among the already powerful. This section takes a look at two creations of law that help concentrate power in undesirable hands: the corporation, and debt-money.
Savigny wrote (1816): “All law exists for the sake of the moral freedom inherent in every individual human being. Therefore, the original concept of the person or legal subject must coincide with the concept of the human being.” Even as he wrote those words, he was acknowledging that a different kind of legal person, very unlike a human being, was growing in significance: the corporation.
Large multi-national corporations are, with the exception of half-a-dozen large nations, the most powerful agents in the world today. They claim, and enjoy, most of the rights that human beings have fought for across the centuries. On top of those, they enjoy the right to own one another.
An old observation is that corporations behave far worse than the individuals in them would, left to their own devices. Commercial corporations oblige humans, legally, to maximise profit regardless of conscience, morality, common sense and even (when possible) law. The power a corporation enjoys over its workers obliges them to feel absolved from their own consciences in what they do for the corporation. It is best for them, if they want to keep their jobs, not to consider the effect their work is having on the world.
It has been said: authorising the corporation obliges most of us to work for psychopaths: it would be a good joke, were there not so much truth in it.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of the corporation is that by continuous selection it chooses certain character types to exert power. Compliance to the corporate aim of making as much money as possible is the first requirement; ruthlessness in this pursuit is what gets people to the top. A strange thing, an institution with human rights and agency, but with no human feelings – only a legally-defined objective, to make as much money as possible for its remote owners. Through its gates walks a never-ending supply of humans seeking livelihood. The constant turnover of employees delivers a threat: if human moral values and reservations are not shrugged off by individual employees, others wait to take their place.
Corporations are great accumulators of wealth and have a kind of immortality. Human generations, on the other hand, are great dissipaters of wealth. What one generation amasses, a second may increase but a third usually dissipates: ‘rags to riches to rags, in three generations’ is a saying with equivalents all over the world. A corporation maintains and increases its power by discarding personnel who don’t conform efficiently, and it only ‘dies’ when another, more efficient and monstrous monster gobbles it up. The new monster then incorporates the amassed wealth and resources of the gobbled one into its ownership.
Corporations are powerful agents in law-making, devoting billions of dollars every year to influencing law-makers. This activity is known as ‘regulatory capture’. It goes almost unnoticed by voters. Lobbyists are paid huge money to influence law-makers, and law-makers are swayed, whether by arguments of increased productivity and sales, by offers of lucrative future directorships, or by straightforward corrupt payment.
The original, foundational ‘regulatory capture’ of the modern West was not by a corporation, however, but by a class in charge of government: the wealthy members of the English Parliament, voted in by the wealthy males of England. And that leads to ‘economics’.
Finance and Money Creation.
‘Aaargh!’ is the reaction of the normal human being at the mention of the word ‘economics’. Eyes glaze over, the head turns away; isn’t there something more enjoyable to talk about? I will keep this section short.
Most people probably think of economics as the study of money. In fact, economics avoids the subject of money almost completely. The classic explanation is provided by Schumpeter (1954): ‘so long as it functions normally, it [money] does not affect the economic process, which behaves in the same way as it would in a barter economy’.
Who creates the money supply enjoys an advantage, to put it mildly, especially when it is created out of nothing – when money is mere digits in bank ledgers and bits of paper. The advantage becomes massive when money is created as debt, so that in addition to the profits of creation, the money supply pays interest. The advantages of money creation are enjoyed by governments, commercial banks and financial predators. The way money is created means that activities destructive to the planet, human life and culture are highly rewarded, while activities beneficial to humanity and the planet are poorly rewarded or not rewarded at all.
A law authorising money to be created as debt was first passed by the English Parliament in 1704, and then adopted by other governments across the world. The new law meant that debt could pass between people as currency, enabling banks to create money in the act of lending it. The device is extremely simple: starting from nothing, the bank says ‘I owe you and you owe me the same amounts (which add up to zero); meanwhile, you can transfer what I owe you to other people, to pay them.’ With some of their profits, the banks supply services to their customers. Because of these services, and the convenience of paying via bank accounts, bank-debt gradually displaced cash as currency, until cash is less than 3% of currency today, the rest being ‘bank obligations’ – what the banks owe to us.
This creation of monetary value was the founding act of the British Empire, financing war and the takeover of assets of other nations. Now, the device is available across the world, with a number of sophisticated (and computer-assisted) add-ons (secondary claims and derivatives). A massive industry is now devoted to the creation of value for the already rich. It has become an enormous cancer on humanity, draining life and livelihood from the working, the would-be working and the world’s poor – which is now an ever-increasing portion of the world’s population, despite massive advances in science, technology, entrepreneurship, productivity, mechanisation and organisation.
Money, power and status are highly addictive: enough is never enough. The pursuit of more becomes a consuming activity. And the corollary is less for everyone else. When Oxfam announces that eighty or so individuals own as much as the poorest four billion individuals, it means that a tiny insatiable minority is denying billions the opportunity for a free, prosperous and satisfactory life. Jacob Burckhardt wrote: ‘Power is in itself an evil; it is a lust and therefore insatiable, doomed to unhappiness in itself and to making others unhappy too.’ (The original: ‘Und nun ist die Macht an sich bose, gleichviel wer sie ausube. Sie ist kein Beharren, sondern eine Gier und eo ipso unerfullbar, daher in sich unglucklich und muß also andere unglucklich machen.’)
George Orwell pointed out that while the British Empire was delivering good government – or at least, better government than might otherwise be had – there was some justification for the wealth of the world pouring into the hands of a few Englishmen; but, he added, reform is long overdue. A society without law is a terrible thing; a society in which crime is legal is even worse. We are used to thinking of crime as anything which is against the law, but a wider definition is ‘Any action or activity considered to be evil, shameful, or wrong.’ When the ruling class can legally rob the rest, creating monetary value where nothing existed before, we can say the law itself is criminal; the ruling class has become a criminal organisation. There is a very old saying: Remota itaque iustitia, quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? – ‘Without justice, what are States but big gangs of robbers?’ The modern word for such a system is ‘kleptocracy’ – rule by thieves.
Like all professions, economics attracts a certain kind of person. Acceptance of a fictitious account of the world is the first requirement of anyone who would study economics. Joan Robinson (herself an eminent economist) wrote that one studies economics not to ‘find answers’ but ‘to avoid being deceived by economists’. For the purposes of this essay, it is enough to state that economics hides an important fact: the way money is created drains it from those who work, shackles those who want to work, and gives power to those who abuse it.
After 300 years of this English-invented system, the world is in crisis. Most of humanity still works, produces, and earns in a conscientious and law-abiding fashion; they must certainly be aware that great robberies are taking place (for instance via tax-avoidance) but they are mostly ignorant of the practices which make this robbery possible and easy; and they are completely unaware of the constant drain of money from poor to rich which is built into the system. How our money-system works is seldom even referred to. And so, no movement for reform develops among the disadvantaged. Beneficiaries of the system of course have no incentive to reform, and every incentive to encourage obscurantism.
All this is the subject of my continuing work on the websites Positive Money and The Cobden Centre.
Propaganda: Media, News, Advertising.
The German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was, supposedly, the first to fully understand how a population can be manipulated by state-controlled propaganda.
The West today is not managed internally by terror + propaganda, as was the Nazi state; it is managed by monetary control + propaganda. The faucet or tap which controls the supply of comforts and freedoms is enough to ensure conformity, obedience and the important psychological factor of complicity. Individuals who rock the boat or refuse to join in are not rounded up for death: they are irrelevant, they are simply ignored. The majority are complicit and compliant. Where compliance is not fed with rewards, it is fixed by feelings of helplessness. A just society is further and further out of reach, in spite of a great deal of propaganda that tells us how hard our politicians and others are trying. Since ‘left’ and ‘right’ joined forces, no new ideas for political change have inspired the public imagination.
The principle form of propaganda for a society in which power = money is advertising, which saturates human minds from infancy, especially via television. Advertising moulds the values, expectations and ambitions of the population, creating a mind-set in which well-being is measured in money and things. Other values and goals lose their significance and disappear. Dissenting voices also disappear. ‘The good life here,’ wrote Michael Oakeshott (philosopher) ‘is nothing other than the enjoyment by more and more people of more and more of everything . . . So far as I am concerned it involves a revolting nothingness which has only to be successful to reduce human life to absolute insignificance’.
Moving to a more familiar idea of propaganda – news manipulation – there are also, increasingly, formal restrictions on what may be broadcast. A strong principal of censorship by the State is ‘do not worry people unnecessarily.’ A great deal of information is withheld from the public on this principle. In war conditions – which are now, with the ‘war against terror’ almost continual – reportage of crimes by the West is limited by laws and regulations: reporters are not allowed in the theatre of war without permission and supervision. But the strongest factor in news provision, as in all corporate structures, is compliance: the eager compliance of the ambitious, and the resigned compliance of those who merely wish to keep their jobs.
The media is now concentrated in just a few corporations. During the 1950’s there was a battle of resistance against the ever-increasing control of news provision by a few large corporations, all with roughly the same interests. That battle is now long-lost. As in other corporate environments, successful employees sense what is required, then do it. The internet has opened new opportunities for news providers, but their wider influence is not great. Small flames of truth are kept alive, but they go unnoticed in the glare of a thousand searchlights that dazzle rather than illuminate.
Journalism itself has been affected by the general insecurity and precariousness of life under corporate power. Many people are puzzled by the way journalists behave like a flock of birds, turning their attention en masse first here, then there. What moves the flock? The reality of corporate power means that the successful journalist is not one who searches out and reveals the truth but one who is sensitive to what readers want to hear, to what the bosses want said, and who is permanently anxious they might be missing the boat. The corporate obligation to maximise income brings other restrictions, for instance not offending advertisers or any other group substantial enough to cause a dent in profits. These restrictions threaten what has been the most powerful restraint on power over the past 150 years: investigative reporting.
When, year after year, decade after decade, those who whistle-blow reap exclusion and punishment, a feeling of ‘there’s not much we can do about it’ saturates not just the media and academia, but society as a whole. Groups such as Greenpeace can and do make a difference in limited areas. Is it possible to imagine a group successfully challenging the basic illusions and obfuscations that support the corporate powers?
Many people look to the world of academia to be a focus of scrutiny and resistance. But academia is funded by the corporate powers, and has adapted itself to their requirements.
Academia is increasingly important as a sub-department of the propaganda industry. Other departments besides economics exclude considerations uncongenial to power.
Political theory departments generally exclude a number of themes that might upset the powerful: for instance, the theme that electoral representation is not democracy.
History departments de-emphasize aspects of the past which reflect badly upon our modern age. For instance: since the West defeated Nazism, which was undoubtedly an outbreak of manifest evil, it has devoted itself to installing and supporting regimes across the world of almost equal evil for purposes of exploiting labour and resources.
Conformity in academia develops in the same way as it develops in the media: instinctual recognition of the requirements of power; ambition; and the simple need to earn a living.
The strange phenomenon known as ‘political correctness’ embraces a number of practices and beliefs whose common goal is the acquisition and exercise of power – the power to silence other people. The common element is to identify some group that is underprivileged, and in their name control a monopoly of discourse. This exercise only offends the corporate powers if their own power is challenged, which political correctness never does. A panoply of small tyrannies develop which steer well clear of challenging great evils, and argue for more power to combat smaller ones. Thus the old maxim, ‘divide and rule’.
Many victories of political correctness make life easier for the powerful. For instance, if we all see ourselves as victims relative to others among us, we are diverted from noticing the great power that exploits us all. Another example: ‘Multiculturalism’ can either be stated as a fact, or asserted as an ideology. As a simple fact, it means that civilizations always contain a variety of cultures. As an ideology, it means that all cultures must be treated ‘equally’: the result is again ‘divide and rule’ in that no one culture will be strong enough to stand up to power. Again, the ‘politically correct’ doctrine that we humans are all the same obscures the fact – obvious to everyone if they care to notice – that the ingenuity, greed and invented institutions of ‘white’ people are responsible for most of what is damaging the world today. The same doctrine obscures the genocides of small tribes which take place when their lands are appropriated for Western exploitation (documented by the charity Survival International).
These days, religion gets a bad press. It is irrational, it is superstition; it fosters extremism; it is responsible for war and hatred; it is unenlightened. And yet it obstinately survives, in recognition of our human frailty and our limited comprehension. The most irrational religion is atheism: without some creator, where did all this come from?
This is not the place to consider how rational or sensible it is to look for meaning in life, to believe in a greater power or an intelligent design to the universe. Religion was born at a time when people understood the power of stories to transcend reality. Did God literally create the world in seven days? The question only becomes relevant when religion is corrupted into a structure of power: when ‘believe or die!’ takes over from contemplation. Once that happens, the simple fact that stories can be profounder, and their resonances truer than the temporary rulings of science, is lost.
What is certainly true is that religions carry traditions of morality and prescriptions for good living within their communities. Traditions change, but are resistant to change: their very essence is to endure across generations. A tradition of morality necessarily embodies some exercise of power: the power of parent over child, of ‘Don’t do that!’ backed by some kind of authority. In times of swift change and pervasive propaganda, traditions struggle to adapt and survive. This does not mean that they are to be thrown away like the baby with the bathwater. Each religion carries a pure tradition somewhere within, behind accretions of power and crime.
Many people say that humanity is perfectly capable of moral behaviour without religion. Religious bodies have organised a great deal of murderous behaviour. On the other hand, the organisers of the worst behaviour in human history – Hitler, Stalin and other modern totalitarian dictators – have first dispensed with religion, which seems to recoil from evil without limit. It is true that individuals are capable of moral behaviour without religion; but whether a continuity of moral behaviour can be sustained without the power of religious story-telling is a matter of doubt. The idea of deference to some higher power, imaginary perhaps but all the more important for not being ‘worldly’, simply never lodges in developing minds unless it is transmitted within a tradition. To deny the existence of some higher power is irrational in the extreme – it means asserting that everything arrived from nothing and nowhere.
Religion has not only, or even primarily, been a source of murderous behaviour; it has also been a locus for resistance, a focus for the activity of moral human instincts, capable of countering and restraining the insatiable powers of politics and greed. When religion loses influence, or supports other more worldly powers, people seek some other force of resistance.
Where are they to find it? This became an acute problem in the West during the nineteenth century, as commercial power began to exercise heartless domination over its workers, and as religion became accommodating and friendly to the new power. As a political force, socialism emerged. Out of necessity, it formed a power structure of its own: trades unions, political parties, institutions of economic and state control. From early on, socialism showed signs of wanting to be the monopoly power and it was clear that freedom might eventually need to be protected against yet another potentially overwhelming force.
And so, culture (in the sense of the creative arts) took up the baton. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many artists and writers took on the role of challenging power, and asserting the rights of people below to dignity, freedom, and material welfare above the utter degradation to which power had brought them. So far, so good; but soon the law that everything good can be corrupted kicked in.
Culture: Art, Music, Literature etc.
Biologists say that we living creatures are ‘locally negentropic’, meaning we organise our local environments to suit our needs. We humans are more complex, sophisticated and varied in our organisations than other living creatures: we organise not just comforts and systems of provision and protection, but also institutions, laws, governments, and many other devices designed to regulate our lives for the purpose of living with each other peacefully and harmoniously. These, of course, frequently go wrong or are corrupted, leading to outcomes of theft, oppression, war and other evils – the subject of this essay.
We also live within another, bigger, order which is not of our making, which has rules of its own and holds no special favours: the natural order, whose laws, observed by science, affect all alike. The universe, as far as reason can tell, is indifferent to whether we flourish or self-destruct. Our own efforts to come to terms with the natural order must determine our long-term future, just as our efforts to transform our environment determine our short-term future.
Culture is about exploring these different orderings, our own and the natural order: how they marry up, interact and conflict; how we value and respond to each of them, reconciling the one to the other, and ourselves to them all. In this way, culture may give us an understanding of how best to live. Acts and items of culture may also provide us with beauty, wonder and delight. There is pleasure to be had in acknowledging and contemplating the greatness of things beyond our little human world. This pleasure, this awareness, with its call to human cooperation for purposes of happiness and survival, is an important component of the moral sense which – going back again to Darwin – has enabled human groupings to endure.
Culture may have a narrow, or a wide definition. The rest of this essay addresses the narrow definition of culture, meaning those imaginative products of the human mind which influence how we live: books, films, games, music, art, dance, theatre, etcetera.
When culture fails to engage with its profound role in human survival, and promotes self-destruction, it may be called anti-culture. How does culture become anti-culture?
Culture becomes anti-culture by serving power. Totalitarian culture is a system of lies, half-truths and misrepresentations manufactured to prop up power. We find this very obvious in a culture we have been taught to despise. We are not deceived by a representation of a happy, prosperous worker in a Stalinist poster produced at a time when oppression or even starvation was the norm; nor by the Aryan superman crushing ‘inferior’ types with boots and weapons; nor by shining god-like statues and posters of dictators we know are guilty of terrible crimes.
Culture in the West is very different – or is it? The powers favoured in our present system – government, corporations and private wealth – are heavily involved in ‘culture provision’. Government bodies sponsor culture with public money; cultural foundations do the same with private money. As for popular culture, corporate media groups seize control of provision and distribution via television, film, books, newspapers, magazines, computer games and popular music.
The dominant theme in culture both high and low today is ‘transgression’. ‘Daring’, ‘risky’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘avant-garde’, ‘shocking’ are praise-words, though no one explains why it is brave to be transgressive from a computer chair, carefully plotting the acquisition of money, praise and prizes. The origin of this false bravery is, however, to be found in a corruption of something truly praiseworthy and daring: resistance to power.
As power became concentrated in commercial and government hands, so artists set themselves to speak truth to this power and restrain its excesses. A persona of ‘speaking truth to power’ has never been completely foreign to culture. We might think of the Tamil poet Kovur Kilar who challenged his King not to kill the children of a defeated enemy, or the murals of ‘Good and Bad Government’ in Siena. But battles over justice, mercy, dominion, good government etcetera have in the West historically been fought between worldly powers, with culture as a prize and not a weapon. It was only in the nineteenth century, when industrial power became crueller than slavery in its throw-away attitude to human life, that novelists, dramatists and artists generally felt it a duty to expose, reveal and object.
In many countries (though not in the West), when culture speaks truth to political power it can be dangerous for the artist. In many countries artists are murdered, imprisoned, ordered into silence or confined to house arrest. But power in the West does not behave like that. Resistance is not attacked, but effortlessly soaked up and put to use. Politicians enjoy cartoons that depict them as monsters; they hang them in their toilets at home, and enjoy them in the House of Commons (a large exhibition of cartoons by Gerald Scarfe was greatly enjoyed there by MPs in 2008). Commercial media corporations are also remarkable and inventive organisms: they have learnt that films depicting the evil of corporate power can make money (and more power) for a corporation.
In the West, by the end of the nineteenth century, the impulse to transgress had swapped a difficult target for an easy one. Instead of challenging abuse of power, it began to challenge morality. The dangerous transgression of challenging power became, at a flip, the enjoyable and lucrative one of mocking the moral impulses of ordinary people. It seemed almost as daring, but without the risk.
In fact, the new line of attack was pleasing to the new ruling class, which was neither moral nor bourgeois, and which quickly adopted the arts of mockery and moral transgression as its own. Épater les bourgeois – outraging the middle class – became the hobby and delight of the new elite. No one was noticing that the new ruling class was the exact opposite of bourgeois with its stolid moralities of duty and service to a higher purpose. The new ruling class (in so far as it consists of human persons) was then in its infancy, but has now emerged in its full glory: it consists simply of those individuals prepared to devote themselves to pure pursuit of money and power, and who possess the necessary talents, advantage, luck, and lack of moral inhibition necessary to succeed.
This mocking form of ‘high’ culture has struggled for many years to reach a wider audience. Propaganda continues to maintain that audiences are ‘shocked’ rather than just bored and deprived of a meaningful culture. Outside the cultural elite, there are still not many people who believe that a can of human excrement is a work of art.
Here are a few other cultural products from the last hundred years or so that have brought their creators acclaim from the establishment (and often instant celebrity): Strauss’s Salome, preferably naked and covered in blood, dancing erotically with John the Baptist’s severed head (1905); Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ Urinal (1917), Georges Bataille’s celebration of Gilles de Raïs, child rapist, torturer and mass-murderer (1959); Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), Tarantino’s celebration of criminal torture in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992); Tracy Emin’s sperm-stained ‘My Bed’ (1998). The first piece of publicly-funded and promoted art I remember seeing (1968?) was a blood-caked tampon in a little child’s-toy crib titled ‘Nativity’.
How are we to understand the ethical character of a culture given over to moral nihilism and transgression? Anthropologists look at cultural artefacts and form inferences about the society that produced them. What would an anthropologist from some imagined future say about our ‘high’ culture? Might they say that our corporate powers, so busy destroying life, promote a message which supports their ends: that human life is meaningless and tawdry anyway – so where is the odium in destroying it?
The artefacts listed above are items of ‘high’ culture. A great deal of ‘middle’ culture is provided by committees. ‘Provision’ means using public money, taken from the work of all, to subsidise cultural activity that is supposedly good for us all. Committee-approved culture is not the product of free interaction between those who create and those who want. Because it must be decided by committee, the process is routinized. Ticking boxes produces bland and formulaic culture, earnestly directed at education or some other social good.
Remnants of older culture still survive, of course. Old classics come under attack in new productions. Setting Hamlet among gangsters, for instance, erases the underlying idea that there is such a thing as a just ruler: all are equally derelict. Setting Don Giovanni in a sado-masochistic brothel destroys the opera’s exploration of human attraction to evil by blurring the distinction.
As for popular culture, ‘entertainment’ is the word. In spite of what snobbish people like to believe, culture is a property of all social levels. Just as manifestations of culture differ according to social level, so its corruptions also differ. A corrupt ruling class celebrates its power and scorns any sense of limitation or duty. Those obliged to conform to the demands of power seek escape to make life bearable. They are well-provided-for. Vicarious living is available in all formats. In novels, film, computer games and television, we may cavort with the beautiful, kill people, endure terrible hardships, and even heroically stand up to power. And after, life goes on.
The spirit of true culture (at whatever level) does not die, it springs anew with every generation. Takeover and corruption of culture involves continual effort, but the rewards, measured in terms of social prestige, money and power, are great indeed to those who succeed.
Individuals who actively resist the degradation of culture are soon identified and excluded; not by secret police or any agency specifically devoted to the purpose, but my mere process of corporate power. Today, excluded individuals from all walks of life, conscious that their complaints sound like personal gripes, exist in scattered and isolated pockets of one or two. They are in no position to form a concerted resistance to anything, let alone to the creeping totalitarianism of our time.
Today, we are apt to confuse totalitarianism with despotism. We tend to think that a despot – a Hitler, a Stalin a Pol Pot – is a pre-requisite for totalitarianism. But despotism and totalitarianism are distinct. Despots of past times were often lazy, their systems of control ineffectual, their upper classes sometimes liberal. ‘Labruyere inhabited the palace of Louis XIV when he composed his chapter upon ‘the Great’, and Moliere criticised the courtiers in plays which were acted before the Court,’ wrote Tocqueville of life under Louis XIV and XV.
Totalitarianism is pervasive power. It depends not upon a despot, but upon efficient systems and willing executants of supervision and control. Today’s creeping totalitarianism consists of cooperating corporate powers whose most trusted executants move through ‘revolving doors’ between government, industry, finance, culture and other areas of administration. Below, myriads of paid functionaries are obliged to obey agenda set by those executants in obedience to corporate goals. In practice, many functionaries spend a great deal of time resisting, or mitigating the effects of, the orders they receive. Human and individual morality still calls to them.
The question of reform is not: What reforms would make the situation better? That is easy to answer. The burning question is: What could possibly cause reform to happen?
If the premises of this essay are accepted, these reforms need to be undertaken:
- Re-fashioning constitutions so that they are both democratic and responsible;
- Removing authority from corporations, to restore moral independence to individual human beings; and
- Abolishing laws which make debt into a negotiable instrument and instituting the creation of money and monetary value so that it does not favour any group of people.
Sadly, at the moment all or any of these are out of the question. To those who think this conclusion is too gloomy I can only say, ‘I hope you are right, and I am wrong!’