What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Impediments 8: Liberalism

At the beginning of this post I have to make it clear that I am talking about Liberalism in the sense of the political movement that emerged in the C19 dedicated to ensuring the political and personal freedom of individuals as the basis of its philosophy, not the American usage of anyone who believes in any form of political progressivism.

Liberalism aspires to noble ideals, as the Liberal Party of Australia’s website puts it: ‘[We believe] in the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples...’. However I believe that in reality Liberalism is selfishness erected on a philosophical pedestal. In practice Liberalism, like conservatism, simply protects the vested interests of society. The enquiring individual would be right to ask how the Liberal Party of Australia squares its beliefs in ‘the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples’, with, for example, the treatment of asylum seekers in (or external to) Australia during the Howard years.

Liberalism emerged in the C19 in Britain and other democracies as an alternative to the mainly conservative politics of earlier ages. In its early days there was plenty for it to do because European societies had not kept pace with the societal change that the beginnings of modernity had caused. And so in Britain for example there were many reforms such as electoral reform (widening the franchise), removing discrimination, (allowing non-Conformists to attend Oxford and Cambridge Universities, allowing Jews and atheists to sit in the House of Commons &c &c), and so forth.

These reforms were all well and good and Liberalism had a grand career in the later C19 in Britain until the years before the First World War, the Liberal administration from 1906 onwards, when with the passage of legislation such as that establishing old age pensions, reforming the House of Lords, increasing Income Tax the government began to tread new ground. It was becoming a social democratic party, using political office to change the power relations in society to benefit wider sections of the population. (And in Britain after the First World War it died away and was replaced by the Labour Party as the opposition to the Conservative Party).

This really is the problem with Liberalism, all its talk of unleashing individual talents is misleading because vey talented people are never held back, not even under the most backward and reactionary regimes. However, to unleashed the potential of rest of the people structural changes in society are required (to undo institutions which are holding people back, to set up alternative institutions, to redistribute income more equitably &c &c). Once this happens this is social democracy, not liberalism, and if liberalism does not cross this line, then it is simply a disguised version of conservatism. It is said that when founding the Liberal Party of Australia in 1944 Robert Menzies deliberately chose the word ‘Liberal’ to avoid the word ‘conservative’ which might have alienated some voters at the time; I don’t think many voters these days are in any doubt as the nature of the party.

(People in Britain at present will be reminded of the eventual fate of the remnants of C19 Liberalism, the Liberal Democrats, who after 70 years out of power of pretending to be a progressive party, recently threw in its lot with the very illiberal Conservative Party).

In the later C20 the crisis of liberalism grew more sharply defined because of the emergence of ‘market liberalism’, the belief, despite all evidence, that markets can more efficiency and rationally guide society than any of the other mechanisms hitherto tried. This was simply throwing in the towel and blindly following what western political thought and institutions had been trying to regulate for 150 years, and it led to the aimless and destructive boom and bust crisis-ecology of free-market capitalism, whose greatest triumphs were the Crash of 87 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 onwards (to say nothing of the ongoing war on the environment).

This, incidentally, is the problem in Australian politics at present. The current Labor government is supposed to be a social democratic party, but it is so tainted with market liberalism that its efforts on a number of fronts are seen by its supporters as feeble and sometimes misguided, for example its response to global warming which seems to consist largely in compensating the large polluters so they can carry on polluting.

However, this market liberalism is still not enough the conservative press and establishment who don’t see why they need a Labor government, even if it does do more or less what they want. They, after all, have the real thing in the form of the Liberal Party as the government in waiting.

At this time I am reminded of Yeats’ lines: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’

Liberalism was born of a time of plenty and cannot deal with scarcity. At least conservatism has some kind of idea somewhere in its psyche of limits and sacrifices that have to be made (usually by the poor to benefit the rich), but liberalism celebrates the endless liberation that personal freedom delivers, regardless of whether the environment to support this individual freedom and the high consumption it entails is actually available.

So, the last point I want to make is that Liberalism is merely another version of conservatism. True conservatism desires nothing should change, ever, Liberalism believes that once we have climbed on the railway carriage of ‘progress’, we should never get off. In fact, as I noted last week the first position is foolish, because things are always changing and cannot be stopped from doing so. The second position is also foolish because it’s been clear that since the mid C20 ‘progress’ is causing increasing ecological impoverishment and devastation, and now, global warming. Getting off the train will be hard, but not getting off will be, to complete the metaphor, a train wreck.

Next Week: Growth

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Impediments 7: Conservatism

There are two senses to the word ‘conservatism’ (actually I’m going to use the word in a third way next week as well). The two I’m going to discuss this week are political conservatism and personal conservatism.

On one level political conservatism is just dumb: if you can say that political conservatism’s motto is ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’, you can also say that no one ever proposes to fix something that isn’t broken, if they come up with proposals for change it must be because they genuinely believe that change is required. And if concerns are widely raised then there is likely to be a reason this impetus, and things as they currently are are broken. And for conservatism to stand in the way of necessary change, or act as a drag upon it, is, well, dumb.

On the other hand in most of human history, doing nothing new was the best course, or at least the one with the fewest risks, and in this sense conservatism has some sort of appeal, and as a relic of this personal conservatism (the second sense) is a widespread mentality.

Political conservatism, having flourished throughout most of human history ran into trouble at the beginnings of modernity (the C18), when it became apparent that technological and societal change could produce such dramatic transformations, and that these changes weren’t going to stop after a few years, but were going to become the very feature of modernity itself. Thus in Britain conservatism in its strict form died with Duke of Wellington, and in Australia with Wentworth’s successful foiling of the plans for the ‘Bunyip aristocracy’.

Since then conservatism has become a sorry thing, condemned to play catch-up with liberalism at all times (this was the form of conservatism formulated by Disraeli and other Conservative Party luminaries in Britain, and in another form, by Bismarck in Germany). This strategy consisted in supporting the principles of reform, but opposing most actual reforms proposed by parties to the left of the conservatives, and only implementing reforms on a very small scale, or in a form where the effects of these reforms could be easily controlled.

This is modern political conservatism at its best, at other times modern political conservatism has had a pretty sorry history of cuddling up to various groups that nothing to do with conservatism, strictly speaking; a list of such entanglements might include:

  • fascists (eg the German conservative politicians who invited the Nazi Party into coalition in 1933 and got swallowed up);
  • populists (people who can believe six impossible things before breakfast), (eg the current entanglement of the US Republican Party with the Tea Party, or John Howard’s manoeuvring to secure One Nation voters in the 1990s);
  • racists (eg the Howard Government’s refugee policies passim);
  • agrarian socialists (eg the National Party/Liberal Party Coalition in Australia, the enormous farming subsidies in the US, endorsed by both political parties);
  • liberals (in the non-US sense), (eg the sad history of the liberals in the ‘Liberal’ Party in Australia, the current bear-hug of the UK Liberal Democrats by the Tories).

And finally there is that strange beast which I can’t even think of a name for, the prurient political movement whose major interest is in other people’s sexuality, and trying to control it (good luck!).

All this is because political conservatism has a powerful constituency, something like 30% of the electorate who really believe that nothing should change, everything is fine (though it was better in the 1950s (even though conservatives then thought it had been even better in 1930s)), and to gain the extra few percent of the vote required to form government it has to find another set of voters from the list above to secure its ‘mandate’.

Against this we need to set the observation that change cannot be avoided and conservatism is basically a confidence trick as no actual functioning conservative government has even been able to get away with changing nothing, however hard they tried (President Eisenhower in the US tried quite hard). In practice the functioning of conservatism is to cleave closely to the pillars of respectable society, such as financial institutions, business and industry groups, professional groups, and allow them to dictate policy, even where the changes that these groups require are quite radical and hurt the conservative bloc that forms the backbone of conservative parties’ support. How ironic.

(Just as an aside, can anyone think of social reforms that have been proposed from the C19 onwards that have not, in the end, been enacted, excluding a few things like abolition of private property which never had much of a chance of success? If you look back at the catalogue of changes demanded, including votes for women, sexually equality enacted in legislation, no-faults divorce, abortion rights, legalisation of homosexuality &c &c, all of these have been granted eventually, despite all the heel-dragging in the world by conservatism. I suspect this means that current progressive ‘demands’ are eventually going to be ‘granted’ regardless of what conservatism thinks.)

Against conservatism, we have to argue that things are always changing, and always will be changing. Nothing stays in place for any length of time, as Heraclitus and the Yi Jing* concur. Conservatism heel-dragging does not ensure that change only occurs when wise heads have pondered deeply and only the best changes are enacted, because some of the most radial and least well-advised changes in the C20 and C21 have occurred under conservative governments, such as those under Thatcher in Britain, Reagan in the US and Howard here in Australia.

And, as this blog keeps on insisting, humanity at the moment is faced with ecological changes that are so momentous that only immediate and radical change can prevent disaster. If conservatism is allowed to continue its slow, and ill-advised, attitude to change we will not see a failure to act in the face of ecological change, we will see a properly conservative reaction: this will be very ugly and will probably involve killing, or at the least allowing-to-die, on the widest scale and several generations of organised cannibalism to enable the survival of a few societies.

By contrast changes that can be contemplated and enacted soon and in a willing and intelligent way, I hope, can make the transition to the future that modernity has entailed, one that can preserve as much of humanity as possible and provide a proper sense of continuance and continuity for humanity (ironically what conservatism wants, but never delivers).

* For Yi Jing aficionados I’d say we’re probably at 12, ䷋, (pǐ, ‘obstruction’) right now.

Next Week: Impediments 8: Liberalism

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Impediments 6: Bad Religion 2

Last week I argued that Christianity is bad religion. This is because it began as a niche marketing exercise on the part of Paul of Tarsus in the mid C1 CE and tried to produce a viable religion out of a illicit mixture of Judaism and Greek paganism (the oil and water of C1 CE politics). Unlike other religions Christianity didn’t emerge and develop spontaneously and have the benefit of people working at it and refining it over several centuries.

After this bad beginning Christianity took a long time to become widespread, so long in fact that by the time it came to the notice of pagan thinkers that the original context for its emergence had been completely lost sight of and anti-Christian polemicists were left struggling to account for it. Eventually Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, but only because it happened to have been the personal faith of the Emperor Constantine, not because of any particular features of the religion. Once patronised by the imperial family, of course, it’s future was golden. (We have to remember that all accounts of early Christian origins and history were either written by Christians or edited by them afterwards, and so claims about the popularity and prominence of Christianity in the early centuries contained in those works have to be taken with a grain of salt).

Whatever its historical success, however, Christianity is left with a number of problems. The first is the basic metaphor that Paul uses to describe the believer’s investment in his faith. As Paul was a businessman (a tent-maker we are told) he spent his life borrowing money to invest in trading and manufacturing projects and then recouped it when these ventures succeeded. This was, however, in the days before insurance and business regulation, and so the process was inherently risky and the venturer stood to either gain great wealth, or be left with nothing (as in The Merchant of Venice). Paul takes this metaphor and applies it to faith: the believer must have absolute faith that his spiritual investment will succeed, even when everyone around doubts him. So pressing is this need to succeed that the believer would actually be happier if he died at the moment of his success, so that he could never lose the gamble of faith again.

And this is the basic metaphor of Christianity: believe, die, and go to heaven. This is a doctrine that doesn’t really leave the believer with much interest in the here and now, and has resulted in the notorious Christian indifference to the world. Of course it can be argued that other religions, or all religions, serve as a salvific against the fact of death, but other religions don’t hate the world as much as Christianity does. Although one must acknowledge progressive Christian groups’ activity in various social causes in the last few centuries, they are not very evident in environmental causes, and it is only recently that notions of human stewardship of world, as opposed to the traditional outright domination, have begun to be formulated within Christianity.

(Indeed I have never understand why fundamentalist Christians are not the most zealous conservationists. If I was a fundamentalist Christian and believed that God created every species uniquely, then I would be up in arms against anything that endangered any of God’s unique creations—the answer is, of course, for these type of people that the world is about to end at any moment and creation will be destroyed, so it doesn’t matter if we anticipate Yahweh (or is it Shiva?) a little).

A second problem for Christianity is the number of strange and illogical doctrines it has to defend which arose as the result of the poor thinking of Paul of Tarsus and other early Christian luminaries. (By contrast to Christianity, a belief in an omnipotent deity who does not interfere supernaturally in the course of history would be much easier to defend).

Leaving aside such oddities as the virgin birth, the strangest of these strange doctrines is that of the Trinity. This, needless to say, is nowhere to be found in scripture, and I have never heard a good explanation of where it comes from. It is a concept of quite unique complexity (giving rise to jibes from other religions about Christians worshipping three gods), and no obvious appeal. I would have thought that a divine father/human son, or divine father/divine son diarchy, would have far more emotional appeal. However, some compelling reason now lost to history caused the early Christians to insist on it and persist with it, despite the number of heresies and schisms and persecutions it caused.

I wouldn’t deny that at each period in Christianity it has produced noble lives, but we can rely on human nature to produce a few people of true nobility in each generation, Christian or not. The real question is what Christianity does to society as a whole in each generation. Indeed, at almost every stage in Christianity (the present one included) the detached observer would be right in thinking that things could have been so much better. There a number of especially notable missed opportunities in Christian history where you can almost feel the wrong path being taken.

  • In the early C5 the western church was wracked with a conflict between Augustine of Hippo and his followers and Pelagius and his supporters. Pelagius was a British monk who had a much more reasonable view of original sin than Augustine (though he was no humanist). If doctrines like those of Pelagius had become official doctrine in place of the savage and Manichaean doctrines of Augustine, then, you feel that the church could have become more likeable and less hardline about the world and open to more reasonable influences from late classical neo-Platonism.
  • The late Middle Ages, especially in England, was a time when the church almost reverted to paganism. Popular religion at this time emphasised two things: in church and in processions the adoration of the consecrated host, and in popular festivals and private devotions the figure of Virgin Mary. Again, this was a point at which the church could have turned down a more worldly path. Granted that the figure of the Virgin was officially still subordinate, ‘the fount of creation’ was one title, creation of course being inferior to…. something or other, but in popular eyes she was Queen of Heaven, Mother of God &c &c. You only have to listen to the inspired Marian antiphons of composers such as John Brown (from The Eton Choir Book) or William Cornysh to gauge the extent to which Marianism was approaching shaktism at this time.
  • This period was shattered by the Reformation, which could have had a wonderful effect, destroying the authority of the church and vesting authority in local churches whilst preserving the popular paganism of late Middle Ages. Of course it did neither, in northern Europe is destroyed the power of the church, but it replaced it with sour reformation zeal that hated the world more than the Catholics did*, and the Catholic church, learning from the reformers, in the Counter-Reformation turned itself into the dislikeable authoritarian anachronism that it has been ever since.

Of course the worst aspects of the Reformation was how, on both sides the popular paganism of mariolatry was suppressed, and the lands of the church were taken by the protestant (and catholic) sovereigns and redistributed to the grasping middle classes. Hitherto the church had preserved up to third of land away from the ‘great wheel of circulation’ (Adam Smith). The introduction of this new wealth to the growing pre-capitalist economy was a powerful impetus to it.**

And this is, of course, my main problem with Christianity, that capitalism is simply a heretical form of it (see Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, though I believe that the impulse that Weber describes is not limited to protestant capitalism). In Christianity, I have argued, the basic impulse is to believe, die and go to heaven, in capitalism the impulse is to invest, invest and invest, only because there isn’t even the prospect of heaven (only the hell of poverty), capitalism is even more fevered and unprincipled than Christianity, because it has even less of a believable goal at the centre of it (what, exactly does capitalism has as its ideal state?). And from Christianity capitalism derived its hatred of the world and its refusal ever to pay the ecological costs of its activities. The general lack of action on global warming currently is symptomatic of this.

* And, incidentally, persecuted those who took the Reformation’s insistence on radical enquiry further than the reformers were prepared to go (which was not very far). Theologians such as Michael Servetus, who questioned the Trinity, received very short shrift.
** For those interested in the comparative history of cultures it is interesting that a very similar thing happened in mediaeval Korea when the Buddhist Goryeo dynasty was replaced by the Confucian Joseon dynasty in 1392. The proceeds from the lands of the Buddhist monasteries, however, did not produce an outbreak of early capitalism in Korea.

Next Week: Impediments 7: Conservatism  

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Impediments 5: Bad Religion

In this ‘impediments’ series of blogs I have been looking at factors which I believe make us as a society unable to accept the ecological realities which we are faced with. All of these impediments so far have been current realities and at times it probably seemed as though I was arguing mostly against features of modernity.

However I now want to talk about something which has been part of the western psyche for a long time, namely Christianity. The title of the blog might lead readers to suppose that I am going enter into one of those Religion v Atheism debates which stigmatise one or the other side as the darkness and the other as the light. I am not, although I am more sympathetic to the atheism side I think these debates are pretty pointless because they focus too much on one set of beliefs (those concerning a higher power, supernaturalism &c). The fact is that one of humans’ key adaptations is a very powerful propensity to seek for causes amongst observed phenomena, and it is hardly surprising that most people throughout history have accepted the philosophical slippage from causes to Causes, or the First Cause, without too much soul-searching (pun intended).

However, this type of thinking is not confined to religion, the same thinking can be seen in any process that reifies a phenomenon, mental or social: people may believe in a God or gods, but they are also likely to believe in other reified entities such as the Tribe, the Nation, the Individual, Reason, Science, a particular political party, or even their favourite football team (of whatever code). They grant to these abstractions power and permanence that do not belong to them, and, as with religion, these adherences have consequences that range from the trivial to the serious and culpable. (These adherences can also have positive effects, it goes without saying—although I am less than impressed with sociological surveys which purport to show that religious people are happier than non-religious people, such surveys are hardly very rigorous in my view).

But it would be wrong to simply dismiss religion, (as though all religions we were one), as a quaint or even dangerous habit of humanity and at the same time ignore that fact that different versions of religion can have different effects. It would be my argument that the west, which is the cultural group which has lead and still leads the war on the environment that is modernity, was in some way pre-programmed to act in the way it did in modernity, once that alignment of technology and social changes had occurred, by the fact that it had been a Christian society for 1500 years before.

I believe that Christianity, by its original nature, sets up its adherents, taken as a population, to behave in characteristic ways. But to see why this is I’d like to go back to its origins.

The origins of Christianity are a very difficult area because so much is at stake. Militant atheists will view the question as trivial and deny there is any significance in the traditional texts that surround Christian origins. Christian scholars on the other hand either view these texts as gospel truth (ha ha), or take analyse them in a fashion that seems historical until you realise that this is not historical because it doesn’t try to break through to a better understanding of ‘what happened’, but tries, with varying degrees of sophistication, to preserve Christian-truth-in-history.

My analysis of these documents is without supernaturalism. If I read in the gospels that Jesus was crucified, died, was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb and then rose from the dead and was seen by people again afterwards alive, then, if they do record actual historical events, the most likely explanation that lies behind them is that Jesus was crucified but was taken down from the cross before death and lay in a coma for three days, then revived, since people don’t normally die and come back to life, but occasionally do go into comas and then revive.

Of course, some people will deny that Jesus existed at all, or dispute his status in some other way. Robert Eisenam, for example, argues that Jesus was a minor figure in a family of Jewish revolutionary leaders of whom the most important was Jesus’s brother, James (‘the Just’), and that Christianity was simply an invention after the fact by the Roman political establishment to elide the historical memory of the Jewish nationalist movements that resulted in the major revolts of 66-70 CE and 132-135 CE and other uprisings.

These caveats aside, my own analysis of Christian origins is as follows*:

Jesus was a Jewish rabbi of the school of Hillel, who operated in the Galilee area and at some point was recruited by Jewish nationalists to lead a revolt against Roman rule.
This failed, Jesus was crucified by the Romans, but was taken down before death and survived, after this he probably went into exile outside the Roman empire. A group of Jewish people preserved Jesus’ teaching and called themselves his followers.

A few years after this, Paul of Tarsus, engaged by the collaborationist Temple establishment in Jerusalem as security officer, came across the story of Jesus and was immediately taken with it. He saw in it the possibility for a new religion especially suited to the community of business-people around the Mediterranean (of which he was a member) who had dealings with the Jewish business community and had drawn close to them, but who baulked at the final stage of conversion to Judaism, which involved male circumcision. Paul taught a new religion in which Jesus was figured as a Greek-style dying-and-reviving demigod, who had come signal a new religious dispensation in which the moral import of the Jewish scriptures could be followed without the ritual obligations.

Paul established various communities around the eastern Mediterranean but his career came to an end when he was executed by the Romans as part of their clamp down on any activities connected with Judaism in the early stages of the first Jewish revolt.

However, some of Paul’s communities survived, and other religious teachers continued his ‘cross-over’ religious teachings and towards the end of the C1 CE various documents which recorded Jesus teachings came into the hands of these communities from the Jewish followers of Jesus (now dying out) and were converted by them into writings which eventuated in the four canonical gospels.

I have run up against my self-imposed word-limit this week, but next week will talk about what I think the characteristics of this new religion, and how it affected the subsequent course of civilisation.

* It will be obvious that I am indebted to works by Robert Graves and Joshua Podro, Hugh Schonfield, Hyam Maccoby and others.

Next Week: Bad Religion 2

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Impediments 4: Government/Private Sector

This week I want to talk about our attitudes towards government versus the private sector. At present I believe we are, in Australia, the US, Britain and elsewhere, suffering from a bad case of anti-governmen-itis—the ‘get government off my back’ meme that has manifested itself in the Tea-Party movement in the US, the fatalistic acceptance of Tory government vandalism of social institutions in Britain in the name of fiscal rectitude, and in Australia the current unbelievable popularity of the federal Opposition.

It is, of course, a given that almost all the centre ground in politics in Anglo-Saxon countries at present is taken up by market liberalism, the belief that the market (the aggregate of private sector activity) always delivers the best outcomes for society and the less that it is tainted with government intervention the better.

On a global level this is clearly nonsense. As this blog repeats ad nauseam (because the fact is not widely recognised) currently global economic activity is registering at 150% of global ecological capacity. So the free market has clearly failed to produce the best outcome for humanity (and, it should be pointed out, were it not for government interventions, such as pollution controls, conservation measures &c, the situation would be even worse).

To parody the learned Tony Abbott, Adam’s Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ of the market is the cancer that is paralysing the planet, or more accurately, the cancer that is killing the systems that support continued human existence.

Smith’s argument about the invisible hand had much more credibility when he made it in 1770s because then economic activity was so small compared the ecological resources of the planet anyone could be forgiven for not realising that in less than two centuries global economic activity would overshadow natural systems. Now it is absurd (I word I seem to using a lot in these blogs) to pretend that we can get by without limits being set to economic activity, and obviously business itself cannot do this. Global institutions are presently without sufficient power to carry out this task, so the only institutions left to carry out this task are national governments. (This is particularly the case as in the future businesses will be dropping like flies, unable to maintain profits in the face of collapsing demand and shortages of raw materials and power).

When the global financial crisis hit in 2008 it was, after all, governments which had to bail out the private sector, although in some cases governments were compromised by their foolish economic policies. It was most famously the President of the US who said to the banks ‘tell you what, let’s pretend that these trillions of dollars of worthless US Government bonds do in fact represent genuine assets against which money can be borrowed’, found funds to allow bank bailouts on a grand scale.

In the future, because of the likely ecological and societal chaos caused by global warming and ecological breakdown, it will obviously fall to government to take control and ration and regulate. Writing this sentence I am reminded that about a decade ago I was sorting out my parents’ papers in the UK and came across a document saying ‘Petrol Ration Book’ on the cover. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘a Second World War document’. On closer inspection, however, I noticed that it dated from 1973, the post Yom Kippur oil crisis, when the British government had passed legislation and prepared a scheme to ration petrol in the event of supplies running out. This was not implemented at the time, but we will be seeing activity like this before too long on many fronts I don’t doubt.

None of the above, of course, is meant to imply that governments are always correct or clear-sighted in their activities, (or that every government program or activity is warranted or necessary). Quite the contrary, in fact for the past 40 years or so governments have usually been abdicating their responsibilities and facilitating unwarranted aggregation of power to the private sector. I need only mention here the ‘privatisation’ movement, which resulted in the theft of publicly-owned assets from their owners, the citizens, and their sale at knock-down prices to the private-sector under the misapprehension that the private sector could run them more efficiently. (Actually I don’t believe that many politicians at the time really believed this, it was simply that they were corrupted by business-interests and were, in many cases, well rewarded afterwards).

One of the most effective rallying calls of the ‘get government off my back’ movement is that taxes are too high. You would have more respect for people who proclaim this if such people were not perpetually deceived by the ‘tax-cuts’ that are proclaimed at every budget in Australia, only to be taken back quickly by ‘bracket-creep’ so that the same tax-cut is given over and over again.

In reality, far from needing to cut government services to fund tax cuts, what we really need is to reform our society so is not so dysfunctional that expensive social services are required, and we need to get used to paying for the ones we have no option but to pay for. We have to recognise that such costs as healthcare and education are very expensive and there is nothing anyone can do about that (we can, of course, make healthcare and education better and more efficient, but this will not lower the costs by much). If these costs are pushed more on the individual then poorer individuals will fall behind and be disadvantaged, society will become more unequal and the money saved by these false economies will have to be spent on other social ‘services’, like prisons.

Speaking personally I don’t bother about taxes because I don’t consider my gross income as mine. I only think of my after tax income as ‘mine’ and so I don’t care how high taxes are, so long as the net income is enough to meet my needs. Other people, of course, especially the self-employed, do see their gross income and then have to part with a portion of it. But there is something a little dishonest in complaining about taxes whilst benefitting from services funded by them (health, law and order, education, roads &c). Sure, people may object to certain schemes that are funded by taxes (I object to federal government money being given to wealthy private schools, and as subsidies to the coal-industry and other corporate welfare bludgers), but there you are, it’s up to you to use your vote to try to get a government that spends as you would wish.

The fundamental thing we should recognise is that business and the private sector have enormous power to corrupt and deform the political process (as we saw during the campaign in Australia in 2010 by the mining industry to avoid paying new taxes), but very little power to do anything constructive other than their core business (which may, of course, not be constructive). Even worthy activity by private enterprise and the efforts of individual wealthy philanthropists are transitory and cannot be sustained easily in the legal framework our society operates under. Only government has the permanence and power to preside over society in the long-term interests of citizens (even though government at present is a essay in short-termism).

Next week: Bad Religion