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.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Lack of Naturalness 2

Last week I was talking about why people are not living naturally in the present.

I noted a lack of good ideology (capitalism is a joke because it’s obviously self-destructive), and I could have mentioned lack of good religion too (Christianity being useless in this regard because it obviously isn’t true).

For a religion we should have one that is not based on worship of a false idol of a ‘sky-father’, cut off from the world he is supposed to have created. Instead we should embrace a religion that talks about life on earth and the energy that courses through natural systems as the energy that courses through us, our being and our instincts. We should also think of a religion that has regard to the ancestors and the descendants, and then we would not think so lightly of our treatment of the environment, or think that in talking of ‘discount rates’ and the consequent lack of any urgency in altering our actions, we were not excusing the worst of crimes.

In last week’s blog, I also noted people not sleeping enough, eating badly and having the wrong sort of exercise (if any) leading to a society where people live longer, however longer with poorer life quality, and where people are half-sick all the time.

This week I’m going to talk about other factors which ensure that people do not, in generally, have natural vitality.

I have already inveighed excessively against the lack of good literature in society. People are not used to creative use of language and hear only clich├ęs and half-truths and so tend to think with these, and then wonder why their lives don’t make sense.

Similarly I have already written about the lack of good music in society. In that blog post I was mainly talking about classical music, but I expect the same holds true for popular music: that despite a small stream of high quality music, the great majority of music produced is low-quality and highly stereotyped in form and content. The lack of vital music to listen to, is another reason for the dullness and stolidity of society.

In the same category belongs our lack of contact with the natural world and our lack of becoming hand-made things (just as the Arts and Crafts movement said). People everywhere should have access to the natural world in the sense that they should be able to walk from where they live and from where they work to ‘semi-natural habitat’ (as the ecologists say). If people could do this it would be a refreshment to their spirits and a tonic, and a source of wisdom to be able to observe life in the fields and paddocks and in woodland and forest.

And with hand-made artefacts the story is the same, it is the refreshment of spirit that comes from something well-made that fulfils its function well, not something that doesn’t work, looks ugly and is constantly in need of replacing, as with so many things.

All these points together cause me to diagnose society as being composed of people who are living longer, but living sub-optimally.

This brings us to the most difficult argument in these two posts. This is the argument that every failing of our society is redeemed by the increasingly peaceful nature of global society. This argument, based on the observation that violence has on average decreased across the world in the C20 and C21, despite the First and Second World Wars, has recently been summarised by Stephen Pinker in a book, The Better Angels of our Nature. This argument is a familiar one from those who like to trumpet western exceptionalism (and is similar to the one that celebrates longer western life-spans), but it only really applies to developed countries, and some non-developed countries, eg Congo, are more violent places than they have ever been. In this regard the peacefulness and lack of violence in the west can be seen in the same terms as the peacefulness and lack of violence in a US gated estate compared to outside.

Moreover, Pinker himself acknowledges that there is no guarantee than this state of affairs will continue (it won’t, as anyone reading these blogs will have released (and I hope realised before reading these blogs)).

I would argue, by contrast, that our allegedly peaceful society is none such, because its peacefulness conceals a lack of repose and an inner war. This is caused by the constant stress with no let up that people are subjected to in modernity. Our society is such a large-scale one, that people feel isolated and intimidated by seeing and interacting with so many people. In traditional societies people lived in smaller communities and interacted with a smaller circle of people. Violence then was more likely, but when it came, more predictable.

People in our society also have to perform work they don’t want to do and which they know to be futile and useless, this is obvious a state of peaceful violence. In the past people were often required to perform forced labour, but they didn’t have to pretend they liked it or that it was ‘a career’. In other societies people had their own work and looked out for their own. They could protect themselves against threats of violence. For example in C18 London gentlemen carried swords and other men (and women) carried cudgels and knew how to use them. If they went out after dark they expect that they might have to defend themselves. Nowadays no-one expects to have to defend themselves and few people can against people who are less inhibited than themselves: drugged-up adolescents, professional criminals and the violently insane.

[Incidentally, this is probably why much populist media product is fear-based in its approach. People in modernity live in a constant state of tension, but without any obvious violence or dramatic events to correspond to their inner feelings. And so the yellow press has discovered that by covering every story from the point of view of ‘be afraid of...’, ‘the threat to your family...’ they can chime with readers’ emotions and get more attention for themselves (though not nowadays make more money).]

It would be my argument that people are happy when they are able to concentrate on their own work and live in small communities, sometimes having to defend themselves against others, than people who have to live as we do, endlessly stressed and never relaxed. [The stresses caused by advertising and the siren-songs of consumerism should not be underestimated in this regard either.]

The former of these states is real life, not a mock-life as we have.

Next Week: the Future

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Interlude: Lack of naturalness 1

Last week I blandly stated we are not living natural lives and gave a few examples. I have have decided to go a little deeper into this.

Daoism, the frame of reference adopted in these pieces, favours naturalness and not stress and artifice. The Sage, according to Chuang Zi, is to ‘mingle with the myriad things and become one with them’ (Chap 1). Elsewhere in the Chunagzi naturalness is figured in much less exalted terms: ‘Follow the middle; go by what is constant, and you can stay in one piece, keep yourself alive, look after your parents, and live out your years’ (Chap 3). And of course the Daodejing provides us with the test as to whether people, or societies, are following the Dao as they should: ‘What is not the Way will come to an early end’ (TTC 55).

There is a danger, in talking about naturalness, of people thinking that you are falling into Arts and Crafts type nostalgia. The Arts and Crafts movement began in the later C19 in England under the impetus of the Pre-Raphaelite artists and William Morris. It opposed industrialisation and everything associated with it. It stressed handicrafts, local production, traditional crafts and designs and rural living. All these things are goods in themselves of course, but the way they were figured by many in the movement condemned them, as it were, always to be located somewhere in the past and lost, (the preferred location was the English Middle Ages, or early modern period).

The point, of course, in discussing a better way of life, is not to identify a period to ‘return to’, but a suite of features from different societies which, taken together, could make us better than we are. There have been very many imperfect societies in the past, and many good ones. If we can imitate the good ones (especially the sustainable ones), then we can become better, our society can last longer and under better conditions than our current outlook promises.

To return for a moment to the Arts and Crafts movement; although this movement had no practical influence on the development of English society, it has shaped many attitudes both in England, the US, Australia and elsewhere. I personally don’t like William Morris’s poetry, or his wallpapers, but I do like the music of Gerald Finzi, and the poetry of Edward Thomas, both arguably influenced by the movement, and I am glad that under its influence Vaughan Williams and others began collecting English folk-song and Arnold Dolmetsch starting making lutes, viols and other neglected instruments again (thus beginning the Early Music revival). I can also recognise the influence of this movement on the later C20 Green movement and I celebrate this.

The point is not to say ‘here is an ideology that is ahistoric, mistaken in part and wrong in its emphases’, it is to say, ‘here are these influences, let us weave these into our beliefs where they serve, (and seek out other influences that can add to our world-view, like Daoism).’ We cannot escape being part of an ideology that is blind to certain aspects of the world (‘The way that can be expressed is not the true Way’), but we can instead accept this and always be working on our ideology to make it better suit the times.

In fact, as chronicled through these blog posts, lack of a good ideology is the principal reason why we have unnatural lives; we need an ideology that helps us with living, not with what our lives might be in some impossible future.

To deal with some aspects of unnaturalness:

People in today’s society do not sleep enough, which is a danger to health, and do not follow the natural pattern of the day, by rising early with the sun and going to bed soon after it sets. It is also natural for people to sleep a little in the afternoon (the siesta). Alas the Anglo-Saxon culture of busyness has decreed that people have to work long hours pointlessly, so naturally many people in our society try to fit in everything they have to or want to do on top this and end up sleep deprived. The northern European cold-climate non-siesta culture is also infecting the world, making even people in warmer climates conform to this foolish frenzy of activity.

Similarly people do not eat well. Humans are highly adaptable omnivores and human society can show a vast range of diets from vegetarianism to almost total carnivory. Nevertheless in modernity people’s diet have become detached from all reason: the food industry that we have evolved in the C19 to supply the industrial workers with cheap and dependable slop. This is in contrast to earlier less dependable food provision which could sometimes dry up leading to famines. After this age of low quality abundance began people were no better off except for escaping the chance of inconveniently starving some times. Their diet did not supply all the nutrients required for good health, but people died of infectious diseases or accidents long before they died from the chronic ones produced by their diet.

However, now in the C21 century people are increasingly suffering from chronic diseases brought on by this poor diet and are being kept artificially alive by modern medicine.

Specifically our diet is mostly composed of low-quality carbohydrates and fats, with most foods being processed with these ingredients and stored far longer than they should be. Our food is same all year round, with none of the variety of seasonal foods that our ancestors ate (vegetables, for example, are often available year round, but in order for this to happen they have to be stored too long in cold storage, or (insanely) transported around the world).

Thirdly, people do not have the right types of activity to keep healthy. People used to keep healthy by their day to day activity, but people now have to find time to fit in ‘exercise’, which is frequently the wrong type of exercise at the wrong time of day (evening, when energy levels are naturally low). People think that exercise that tires you out and leaves you aching is good exercise. Contrast this to exercise that actually conserves your energy (such as Tai Chi and other traditional Chinese exercises). These exercises increase a person’s energy and strengthen the joints, instead of sapping one’s energy and straining the joints and muscles.

Many people, of course, do no exercise at all.

The net effect of these three types of unnaturalness is a population which has a long lifespan, but which passes it in a state of artificially-maintained life; a sickly population full of aches and pains and prone increasingly to auto-immune conditions, and with no vitality.


Next week: To be continued

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Grumble 13: Obstacles to a Virtuous Populace

In these posts I keep on circling around this issue and have already written a full post on the lack of virtue in society.

If we had virtue widely in our society we would not be in the mess we are currently in (people would easily see through political conservatism, advertising, public relations, and all other manifestations of unprinciple). We would probably not have got into our earth-killing rut in the first place.

What seems to me to be the main obstacles to virtue in our society is that:

  • People don’t have skills, and have pointless jobs
  • People have a sense of entitlement
  • People are cut off from the facts of the world
  • People lead unnatural lives

In the past people had all these things and it was easier for them to be virtuous, instinctively virtuous. The only advantage we have now is more information, so it is easier to be intellectually virtuous, not misled by ignorance. But intellectual virtue is less useful than instinctive sort, and is more easily led astray.

For example in these pieces I have been relying on a type of ecological analysis known as ‘global footprint analysis’. Now for many years thousands of highly intelligent and highly educated people have been looking at the ecological impacts of various human activities. Almost all of these have concluded that our activities are sustainable, but almost all of these have in fact confused the issue by saying in effect, ‘this activity by itself is unsustainable, that is it requires further inputs from outside the system considered, however, we have confidence that ultimately it will be found that the totality of human activities will be found to be sustainable, and therefore inputs can be sourced from outside this system with confidence.’

It is only recently that people have begun to do the whole calculation, adding up the totality of human activities, and have found that this totality has in fact been unsustainable since the 1960s. (‘It is easy to cheat when you work for men, but harder to cheat when you work for Heaven.’ Chuang zi Chap 4*).

Now it would be argument that concentrating on one part of the range of human activities and not considering the whole, though understandable, is not virtuous. It is a type of the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ thinking that our individualistic society encourages and supports all the time.

To expand on my points above.

People are not virtuous because generally they have no skills: a hundred years ago most people were multi-skilled, that is, any task that was not very highly specialised could be performed by anyone. Nowadays not only do people not have these skills, but even if they do, are not allowed to practise them. For example, I might have very good teaching skills, but I couldn’t walk into classroom and begin to teach unless I had requisite qualifications (which if I did wouldn’t guarantee I was a good teacher). In the Great Depression many Australians, men and women, who were out of work and desperate just went bush, living off the land for shorter or longer periods. It’s difficult to think of so many people doing this successfully nowadays (and the occasion for this situation to recur might be nearer than people think).

If we add to this the fact that most people have worthless jobs which perform no useful function, we can see how people are far away from having a life that is meaningful and which would encourage them to think virtuously. It is all very well for our beloved Prime Minister Julia Gillard to bang on about the dignity of work, but work only has dignity when it performs a useful function. At present in our societies very few jobs do and whole sectors of the economy are completely redundant: advertising, marketing, public relations, insurance, ‘entertainment’ &c &c.

The protestant work ethic didn’t start with Protestantism, it started with agriculture. In hunter-gatherer societies it’s obvious that if you don’t go hunting or gathering you’re not going to eat. When agriculture began it was necessary to invent a work ethic to motivate the less imaginative members of society—‘if you don’t plough this field today, you won’t eat in eight months time’. Nowadays we should recognise that necessary work to keep society going adds up to a few hours per person per day, not nearly 8 hours a day, and to keep people at work for longer than this is dishonest and deleterious to people’s wellbeing and sense of what is right, and it entrenches the existence of parasitic and useless ‘industries’, such as those listed earlier, and others.

I have already fulminated about middle class welfare last week and talking about ‘a sense of entitlement’ isn’t a dig at people who don’t have jobs and who, in my view, have a legitimate right to expect better treatment at the hands of society than they get. If society had a better distribution of necessary work, then everyone would have enough to do and no-one too much.

My last two points are one: because we are cut off from real life, we cannot have real, virtuous feelings and thoughts. Amongst Native Americans, it is said, young people as part of an initiation had to go into wild country to undergo ordeals (going without food, water or shelter). During these they would have visions of the spirit world and it would be revealed to them which animal or bird would be their spirit guardian. A parallel case is the totemic system of Aboriginal Australian traditional life. Obviously we now have no general first-hand knowledge of how animals and birds live and behave in natural habitats and we do not have the knowledge and spiritual strength that such knowledge would give us.

When you add to this our unnatural lifestyles (not getting up at dawn and going to bed at nightfall, not sleeping in the middle of the day, eating the same types of food year round, lack of access to real foods, exposure to harmful chemicals at every turn, lack of the right types of exercise), it is obvious that it is impossible for most people to understand and be guided by the turning of seasons and the life of the natural world. And this is why people can, ‘unvirtuously’, countenance the destructiveness of our environment; ‘unvirtuously’ because virtue is a dedication to and following of life in its most vital forms and our ecological destructiveness cuts against that in the most direct and unconscionable way possible.

If we fight against the environment we are fighting against ourselves, if we destroy the natural world we are destroying ourselves—we will not long survive the loss of so many fellow species at this time, in the same way that we would not be able to survive losing a large part of our bodies. Virtue is recognising this, or, more properly, living so that this issue never arises. As is easy to understand, virtue is difficult to find and difficult to live at present.

* Trans Burton Watson, Columbia UP 1968.

Next Week: Another Interlude, ‘Unnaturalness’

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Grumble 12: Lack of Leadership

In the previous post I was arguing that our society finds it difficult to make necessary changes because the holders of power (the 1%) have made sure that their media has brainwashed people into supporting their interests, not their own interests.

One of the problems we have at present that contributes to this is a lack of leadership. Now leadership of the properly virtuous kind is a thankless task, firstly because to be properly virtuous is immensely difficult, and to be properly virtuous for long stretches is impossible, and secondly because to be truly virtuous in this age is to stand against received wisdom at every turn and be battered and bloodied by the wrath of media.

Nevertheless, to my way of thinking, the effort is worth making, even if results in nothing, because what is the point of entering public life only to do the wrong things?

A true leader has to do two things. Firstly he or she has to find out what is the correct course of action for a given situation. Secondly, he or she has to work out how the existing opinions and dispositions of the people can work towards the correct solution. Additionally the true leader has to find ways to deflect wrong opinions from the public so that they do not affect public policy.

The very worst kind of leader is the kind that seeks out all the bad ideas and incorrect positions that the people hold and panders to them (I’m sure that the reader will be able to think of several recent leaders of countries who fall into this category).

Now the interesting thing is that although there are very few politicians in the world today who are prepared to go through the process of steering their people on the correct path, there are and have been many who have used all their skills and energy leading people the wrong way. For example Paul Keating, former Prime Minister of Australia, took Australia down the path of deregulation and globalisation (globalisation=accelerating ecological destruction in the name of prosperity). When he was queried about his ‘economic rationalism’ he replied ‘would you prefer economic irrationality?’ To describe living beyond our ecological means as ‘rationality’, of course, is to give the word a sense it has never had before.

The good news is, I think, that most people still have a fundamental sense of what should happen, even if this sense has been manipulated by engines of public opinion production. For example many Australians are fervent racists. However, instead of deploring this, I prefer to believe that this is partly a survival of the human (or social primate) instinct to distrust anyone who isn’t a part of your group, and also a survival of the very acute sense that social primates possess for when their own group gets too large for its resource base.

Australians’ racism has been noted and channelled by the powerful into an anti-immigrant sentiment, and more recently further refined into a hatred of asylum-seekers. This last animus is very convenient for unscrupulous politicians as they can be seen to be ‘tough on refugees’, and deflect people’s attention away from the 120,000 odd immigrants that Australia accepts each year, who, realistically, are far more likely to ‘take away the jobs of Australians’ than are the 10,000 refugees taken each year.

In this case true leadership would not hide behind racism but might say: ‘I recognise that you are concerned about the future of the country. I believe that the future of the country is best served by having a declining population; so we are planning to reduce to almost nothing the intake of immigrants, (though we will continue to take refugees). However, we have to recognise that even if we cut off immigration Australia’s birth-rate is still too high and we will need to introduce policies to encourage people to have fewer children.’

A notable feature of the sorry story of democracy in the latter half of the C20 and into the C21 is the corruption of key demographics by selective tax cuts or other government benefits (‘Middle Class Welfare’). Elements of this in Australia include federal government funding of ‘private’ education at the expense of public education, a rebate for ‘private’ health insurance at the expense of the public health system, negative gearing for would-be property speculators at the expense of people wanting to buy a house for the first time, and ‘family benefits’ which are paid too high up the income scale at the expense of the poor, whose own welfare benefits are almost non-existent. It should be a principle of good government that benefits are only paid to people who need them, if they are paid to people who don’t it simply inflates prices in, eg education, health and housing.

I did also point out earlier in one of these pieces that our woeful and out-of-date electoral system makes it too easy for politicians to choose the demographic to bribe and cobble together a majority in parliament from the bribed and less-than-virtuous citizenry in the constituencies.

By contrast to modern politicians consider Winston Churchill, taking office as PM of the UK in May 1940. Faced with the disasters of the Norwegian Campaign, followed closely by the prospect of the Fall of France, you might have expected him to introduce a tax cut or two, or announce a new welfare benefit for the middle classes. Instead of this he said: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.’ Can you imagine any politician of the present saying that, and then being followed by the majority of public opinion? Sadly I don’t think I can, and yet, the situation we are in currently is worse than that of Britain in May 1940. Granted we don’t (metaphorically) have Panzer divisions revving their engines across the English Channel, or the London Blitz, but, in contrast the situation of May 1940, the crisis we are in is literally global, and there is no possibility of evading the consequences of ecological overreach, no USA to come and save us, merely the prospect of facing these consequences.

To do this we need better, in the sense of more virtuous, and cleverer politicians than we currently have.

Next week: Grumble 13: lack of a virtuous populace