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‘Is it reasonable to hope for a better world?’ Illustration: Michael Kirkham

There was an excellent piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian last Saturday. I meant to share it sooner but got side-tracked by events. What he offers is a secular solution to our dangerous predicament but even so it’s very much along the lines of the Bahá’í spiritual one. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Donald Trump. North Korea. Hurricanes. Neoliberalism. Is there any hope of a better world? Yes, but we have to come together to tell a new, kinder story explaining who we are, and how we should live.

Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? Study the cruelty and indifference of governments, the disarray of opposition parties, the apparently inexorable slide towards climate breakdown, the renewed threat of nuclear war, and the answer appears to be no. Our problems look intractable, our leaders dangerous, while voters are cowed and baffled. Despair looks like the only rational response. But over the past two years, I have been struck by four observations. What they reveal is that political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. They suggest to me that it is despair, not hope, that is irrational. I believe they light a path towards a better world.

The first observation is the least original. It is the realisation that it is not strong leaders or parties that dominate politics as much as powerful political narratives. The political history of the second half of the 20th century could be summarised as the conflict between its two great narratives: the stories told by Keynesian social democracy and by neoliberalism. First one and then the other captured the minds of people across the political spectrum. When the social democracy story dominated, even the Conservatives and Republicans adopted key elements of the programme. When neoliberalism took its place, political parties everywhere, regardless of their colour, fell under its spell. These stories overrode everything: personality, identity and party history.

This should not surprise us. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world.

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Photograph: Murdo Macleod/Guardian

Given my current sequence of posts analysing our subliminal thought processes in the complex context of such issues as climate change, today’s penetrating Guardian article by   on how healthy scepticism has shifted into dangerous cynicism on this issue is a must read.  It’s a long article but for anyone concerned about the forces at work in our society it is intensely rewarding. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link

Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?

. . . . Climate science has become a red rag to the political right. The scientific consensus is clear: more than 95% of climate researchers agree that human activity is causing global warming, and that without action to combat it we are on a path to dangerous temperature rises from pre-industrial levels. But the mere existence of this consensus gets taken by its political opponents as a priori evidence of a stitch-up. Why else would scientists and left-leaning politicians be agreeing with each other all the time if they weren’t scratching each others’ backs? Knowledge is easily turned into “elite” knowledge, which is tantamount to privileged snobs telling ordinary people what to think. Trump’s stance reflects the mutual intolerance that now exists between those promoting the scientific consensus and those for whom the consensus is just another political racket. Trump didn’t create this division. He is simply exploiting it.

It is tempting for anyone on the scientific side of the divide to want to apportion all the blame to the “alt-facts” crowd, who see elite conspiracies everywhere. But there is more going on here than dumb politics versus smart science. The facts are not just the innocent victims of politics. The facts have long been put in the service of politics, which is what fuels the suspicions of those who wish to deny them. The politicisation can cut both ways.

The politics of climate change poses a stark dilemma for anyone wanting to push back against the purveyors of post-truth. Should they bide their time and trust that the facts will win out in the end? Or do they use the evidence as weapons in the political fight, in which case they risk confirming the suspicion that they have gone beyond the facts? It is not just climate scientists who find themselves in this bind. Economists making the case against Brexit found that the more they insisted on agreement inside the profession about the dangers, the more it was viewed with suspicion from the outside by people who regarded it as a political con.

Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.

Not all climate sceptics are part of the “alt-right”. But everyone in the alt-right is now a climate sceptic. That’s what makes the politics so toxic. It means that climate scepticism is being driven out by climate cynicism. A sceptic questions the evidence for a given claim and asks whether it is believable. A cynic questions the motives of the people who deploy the evidence, regardless of whether it is believable or not. Any attempt to defend the facts gets presented as evidence that the facts simply suit the interests of the people peddling them.

Climate change is the defining political issue of our times and not simply because of the risks we run if we get it wrong. An inadequate response – if we do too little, too late – could inflict untold damage on the habitable environment. But even before that day comes, the contest over the truth about climate change is doing serious damage to our democracy.

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts will appear no consecutive days.

Recently, in a meeting of the committee of a small charity a possibly symptomatic exchange occurred.

‘Can we avoid using the word marketing and talk about publicity instead?’

‘Why? What’s wrong with saying marketing?’

‘Well, it sounds as though we are selling something when we’re not. We’re a charity.’

‘But that’s the way everyone talks nowadays. It’s the current term for what we want to do: make more people aware of us and keen to help us.’

As the meeting progressed some people said ‘marketing’ before immediately correcting themselves, others used the m word and showed no remorse, and a minority said ‘publicity’ with a barely concealed air of moral superiority.

Why one earth does it matter what one small group of people did or said in a side-room in a small town?

Well, for the same reason it mattered when someone in high office in a televised interview referred to a ‘swarm’ of refugees. The words we choose to use subliminally affect the world-views of others and often unintentionally leak our own unconscious biases. Philip Zimbardo, as I recently quoted, is well aware of the potentially pernicious effects of starting down this slippery slope  (The Lucifer Effect – page 456):

. . .  be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures.

What happened in miniature in the side-room with the word marketing is similarly serious, though dealing with a different issue, and is happening all the time everywhere in our culture on big stages and small ones: and the cumulative effect is to show just how far we are all infected with the assumption that markets are natural and harmless. We simply don’t question it at all most of the time. That’s how the world does its business – and there’s another word that highlights the same problem.

At one time busy meant active and probably still does for the most part, but business has had a long history of ambiguity meaning activity or trade from as early as the 15th Century, before crystallising  nowadays into meaning primarily an activity or enterprise that makes money. Although you still might say, of course, that this is none of my business!

A Culture of Contest

This habitual acceptance of competition and profit as natural blinds us to the problematic nature of our culture. Our ‘culture of contest,’ to borrow Michael Karlberg’s evocative phrase, is a broken model that: (a) prevents the truth being discovered and justice reliably being achieved in court rooms where the whole point in most Western countries is for two opposing teams to wrangle until one wins, (b) thwarts equity as well as increasing inequality in the economic sphere, where the prize of increasing wealth goes to the most effective competitor rather than the most worthy one, and (c) obstructs wise decision-making in the political sphere because the main point is to defeat one’s opponents in elections and remain in power for as long as possible.

Beyond the Culture of ContestTo use present day party politics and the economic model as the two most relevant examples, we can see first of all that a competitive model doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants in the political sphere. Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly (Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46):

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

Recent events illustrate how competitive divides corrode relationships even within the same political party.

In terms of economics, the same deficiencies appear in a different guise, and in fact we ignore the fundamental principle of moral restraint on markets cited by one of the founding father’s of economic thinking, Adam Smith (page 38-42):

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition. Indeed, competition has become the pre-eminent value of a deeply materialistic age. And in the absence of external and internal market regulation, its culture of competition – or culture of contest – has led to widespread social conflict and ecologically degradation.

He goes on to describe these as the causes of (1) extremes of economic inequality, driven by the capitalist’s ‘attempt to extract the maximum surplus value from the labour force that is the primary source of their wealth,’ (2) rivalries between nations, and (3) a ‘relative absence of both external state regulation and internal moral regulation’ resulting in ‘unprecedented conflict between our own species and most other species on the planet.’

I won’t go any deeper into the politics of this at present.

For now I’m simply going to take the risk of sharing my sense of what might be wrong with the unregulated market place, or perhaps any market place at all, as a firm foundation upon which to build a better society in the future.

PostcapitalismMy Trigger

So what’s triggered this sudden excursion outside my relatively circumscribed field of expertise? Why don’t I just stick to consciousness and poetry?

Blame historian Bettany Hughes. The other night, I sat down to watch a programme I had recorded.

Her previous series, such as that on the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, held my attention and enriched my understanding. She is now tackling Marx, Nietsche and Freud in her latest sequence. All three of them are Marmite thinkers: you either love them or hate them. Only the first programme on Marx had been broadcast when I started writing this (it’s available on iPlayer till the middle of July). That was the one I watched.

Much of it was already familiar ground to me, and I ended up watching the programme in three instalments, not sure if I’d actually get to the end. I’m glad I did though.

In the last fifteen minutes or so there is a brief contribution by Paul Mason, another Marmite man probably. I’ve already read his recent book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future. His analysis of where Marx’s key ideas are still worth pondering on gave some valuable insights that I will perhaps blog about in more detail sometime.

What impressed me about his contribution to the programme was how he was able to capture in a few straightforward sentences one of the key ideas in his book. Given that I only ever managed to read less than half of Das Kapital in my socialist days, I’m grateful for his insights, which capture more fully some of the implications of Marx’s ideas than I had managed to grasp by my own unaided efforts.

He spoke of surplus value, as does Karlberg in the passage I quoted above, which he believes is still a valid concept and a much neglected one.

Surplus Value

Apart from the question in the middle these are his words as best as I could capture them.

Where does profit come from? Marx says it comes from work… everything that’s gone into getting [a small boy] to work – the food, the clothing, maybe the education, certainly the housing – costs some money, and his labour is worth all of that, but the amount of work he does during that working day… is way above what he needs, and the difference between . . . what it should take (what his work is really worth) and what he is actually working, is a surplus. That’s where profit comes from, and we know, actually, that (Marx) is trawling through this stuff for these acute examples of exploitation, because he wants to shove the concept of exploitation right down the throats of mainstream economics. Mainstream economics, then and today, doesn’t even accept that exploitation exists.

When a factory falls on the heads of a bunch of Bangladeshi garment workers, that’s an accident. To Marx, it’s one of the most fundamental laws of capitalism that the capitalist will extract the maximum amount of surplus value that they can.

“What’s the future of capitalism?” Bettany asks.

Marx isn’t predicting the imminent doom of capitalism. He understands that it is a fully functioning system. But he identifies its fragility. That in any system based on profit, where all the profit is extracted from the work of people, then you hit limits. The first limit you hit is the working day. You can’t extend the working day forever. You must innovate. You must create machines and the machines squeeze the worker more and more out of the production process, then the very source of all the profit is squeezed into a tiny area.

So you get repeated crises of profitability. People in Marx’s time were asking whose fault was it that XYZ company went bust. Marks says it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s the fault of the Profit System, which is based on the exploitation of workers, and the exploitation of workers cannot keep on producing the profits at the rate that is required to expand the system forever.

It’s possible, of course, that it is all slightly more complicated than that. But consideration of this will have to wait till the next post tomorrow.

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Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Recently, in a meeting of the committee of a small charity a possibly symptomatic exchange occurred.

‘Can we avoid using the word marketing and talk about publicity instead?’

‘Why? What’s wrong with saying marketing?’

‘Well, it sounds as though we are selling something when we’re not. We’re a charity.’

‘But that’s the way everyone talks nowadays. It’s the current term for what we want to do: make more people aware of us and keen to help us.’

As the meeting progressed some people said ‘marketing’ before immediately correcting themselves, others used the m word and showed no remorse, and a minority said ‘publicity’ with a barely concealed air of moral superiority.

Why one earth does it matter what one small group of people did or said in a side-room in a small town?

Well, for the same reason it mattered when someone in high office in a televised interview referred to a ‘swarm’ of refugees. The words we choose to use subliminally affect the world-views of others and often unintentionally leak our own unconscious biases. Philip Zimbardo, as I recently quoted, is well aware of the potentially pernicious effects of starting down this slippery slope  (The Lucifer Effect – page 456):

. . .  be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures.

What happened in miniature in the side-room with the word marketing is similarly serious, though dealing with a different issue, and is happening all the time everywhere in our culture on big stages and small ones: and the cumulative effect is to show just how far we are all infected with the assumption that markets are natural and harmless. We simply don’t question it at all most of the time. That’s how the world does its business – and there’s another word that highlights the same problem.

At one time busy meant active and probably still does for the most part, but business has had a long history of ambiguity meaning activity or trade from as early as the 15th Century, before crystallising  nowadays into meaning primarily an activity or enterprise that makes money. Although you still might say, of course, that this is none of my business!

A Culture of Contest

This habitual acceptance of competition and profit as natural blinds us to the problematic nature of our culture. Our ‘culture of contest,’ to borrow Michael Karlberg’s evocative phrase, is a broken model that: (a) prevents the truth being discovered and justice reliably being achieved in court rooms where the whole point in most Western countries is for two opposing teams to wrangle until one wins, (b) thwarts equity as well as increasing inequality in the economic sphere, where the prize of increasing wealth goes to the most effective competitor rather than the most worthy one, and (c) obstructs wise decision-making in the political sphere because the main point is to defeat one’s opponents in elections and remain in power for as long as possible.

Beyond the Culture of ContestTo use present day party politics and the economic model as the two most relevant examples, we can see first of all that a competitive model doesn’t do a lot to widen the moral imaginations of its participants in the political sphere. Karlberg presents the weaknesses of this system clearly (Beyond the Culture of Contest: Pages 44-46):

As Held points out:

“Parties may aim to realise a programme of ‘ideal’ political principles, but unless their activities are based on systematic strategies for achieving electoral success they will be doomed to insignificance. Accordingly, parties become transformed, above all else, into means for fighting and winning elections.”

. . . . Once political leadership and control is determined through these adversarial contests, processes of public decision-making are also structured in an adversarial manner.

. . . .Western-liberal apologists defend this competitive system of electioneering, debate, lobbying and so forth as the rational alternative to political violence and war. Based on this commonsense premise, we structure our political systems as nonviolent contests, even though most people recognise that these contests tend to favour more powerful social groups. . . . . [T]his premise embodies a false choice that arises when the concept of democracy is conflated with the concept of partisanship. . . . . [W]e lose sight of a third alternative – non-partisan democracy – that might be more desirable.

Recent events illustrate how competitive divides corrode relationships even within the same political party.

In terms of economics, the same deficiencies appear in a different guise, and in fact we ignore the fundamental principle of moral restraint on markets cited by one of the founding father’s of economic thinking, Adam Smith (page 38-42):

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition. Indeed, competition has become the pre-eminent value of a deeply materialistic age. And in the absence of external and internal market regulation, its culture of competition – or culture of contest – has led to widespread social conflict and ecologically degradation.

He goes on to describe these as the causes of (1) extremes of economic inequality, driven by the capitalist’s ‘attempt to extract the maximum surplus value from the labour force that is the primary source of their wealth,’ (2) rivalries between nations, and (3) a ‘relative absence of both external state regulation and internal moral regulation’ resulting in ‘unprecedented conflict between our own species and most other species on the planet.’

I won’t go any deeper into the politics of this at present.

For now I’m simply going to take the risk of sharing my sense of what might be wrong with the unregulated market place, or perhaps any market place at all, as a firm foundation upon which to build a better society in the future.

PostcapitalismMy Trigger

So what’s triggered this sudden excursion outside my relatively circumscribed field of expertise? Why don’t I just stick to consciousness and poetry?

Blame historian Bettany Hughes. The other night, I sat down to watch a programme I had recorded.

Her previous series, such as that on the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates, held my attention and enriched my understanding. She is now tackling Marx, Nietsche and Freud in her latest sequence. All three of them are Marmite thinkers: you either love them or hate them. Only the first programme on Marx had been broadcast when I started writing this (it’s available on iPlayer till the middle of July). That was the one I watched.

Much of it was already familiar ground to me, and I ended up watching the programme in three instalments, not sure if I’d actually get to the end. I’m glad I did though.

In the last fifteen minutes or so there is a brief contribution by Paul Mason, another Marmite man probably. I’ve already read his recent book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future. His analysis of where Marx’s key ideas are still worth pondering on gave some valuable insights that I will perhaps blog about in more detail sometime.

What impressed me about his contribution to the programme was how he was able to capture in a few straightforward sentences one of the key ideas in his book. Given that I only ever managed to read less than half of Das Kapital in my socialist days, I’m grateful for his insights, which capture more fully some of the implications of Marx’s ideas than I had managed to grasp by my own unaided efforts.

He spoke of surplus value, as does Karlberg in the passage I quoted above, which he believes is still a valid concept and a much neglected one.

Surplus Value

Apart from the question in the middle these are his words as best as I could capture them.

Where does profit come from? Marx says it comes from work… everything that’s gone into getting [a small boy] to work – the food, the clothing, maybe the education, certainly the housing – costs some money, and his labour is worth all of that, but the amount of work he does during that working day… is way above what he needs, and the difference between . . . what it should take (what his work is really worth) and what he is actually working, is a surplus. That’s where profit comes from, and we know, actually, that (Marx) is trawling through this stuff for these acute examples of exploitation, because he wants to shove the concept of exploitation right down the throats of mainstream economics. Mainstream economics, then and today, doesn’t even accept that exploitation exists.

When a factory falls on the heads of a bunch of Bangladeshi garment workers, that’s an accident. To Marx, it’s one of the most fundamental laws of capitalism that the capitalist will extract the maximum amount of surplus value that they can.

“What’s the future of capitalism?” Bettany asks.

Marx isn’t predicting the imminent doom of capitalism. He understands that it is a fully functioning system. But he identifies its fragility. That in any system based on profit, where all the profit is extracted from the work of people, then you hit limits. The first limit you hit is the working day. You can’t extend the working day forever. You must innovate. You must create machines and the machines squeeze the worker more and more out of the production process, then the very source of all the profit is squeezed into a tiny area.

So you get repeated crises of profitability. People in Marx’s time were asking whose fault was it that XYZ company went bust. Marks says it’s not anybody’s fault. It’s the fault of the Profit System, which is based on the exploitation of workers, and the exploitation of workers cannot keep on producing the profits at the rate that is required to expand the system forever.

It’s possible, of course, that it is all slightly more complicated than that. But consideration of this will have to wait till the next post on Monday.

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