Any idea, however brilliant, epoch making, or profound, has a half life, a period over which it becomes less relevant.
Any idea, however brilliant or epoch making, can become irrelevant over millennia or milliseconds, but so long as the arrow of time points forwards, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics must be obeyed.
An idea may be brilliant, but ideas decay.
Or they evolve. Look at the Theory of Gravitation. Formulated by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687 in one equation and good for explaining 90% of the universe. It stood for 228 years, only to be superseded in 1915 by Albert Einstein's theory of gravitation, also summarised in a single equation, and good for explaining 99% of the known universe. One hopes that three centuries or so from now, we may have figured out 99.9% of the known universe. And quite a bit about the unknown as well.
Newer, more relevant information becomes available. What we take to be true today turns out to be nonsense tomorrow. Yet what remains entrenched in our psyche and our cultural identity can seem like a marvel. Some ideas are spellbinding. They seem to be doing most good, usually when doing most harm.
A couple of months ago I was watching something on television. I forget what it was, but the CEO of RBS was being interviewed. During the interview, he uttered the immortal line that I have heard repeated at regular intervals throughout my life:
Capitalism may not be perfect, but it's the best system we have.
I think Churchill made the phrase popular, but I've heard many politicians chant the mantra, especially Tony Blair.
It tells you a lot about capitalism, and about politics in general, because the phrase itself is a deceit on any number of levels. For a start, if something is imperfect, then by that very nature, it can be improved. The last two centuries of industrial and technological advance amply attest to that. It's kind of what capitalism is built upon. I have to upgrade my phone every two years, so why am I stuck with the same economic and political model that I was born with?
More than that though, it's a self-serving statement. I've seen a lot of TV reports from the slums of the world, but I don't remember a single one where a slum dweller sang the praises of capitalist ideology. Of course Blair, Churchill and the head of RBS think capitalism is great, all have done well from the system. It would be like being told a member of the Polit-Bureau thought Communism was the best system we have. I would be surprised if he didn't think that.
Beyond even that though, I just can't get my head around this notion that greed and the acquisition of wealth are what's best for society. Society is supposed to be an aggregation of people, an attempt to accommodate everyone's needs as best we can. How is that meant to be achieved when everyone is fighting everyone else for scraps? Competition tends to kill co-operation dead.
If I think back, these kinds of ideas have always been fermenting at the back of my mind. As kids, mum would take us to church, which wasn't especially puritanical, but they would say things that jarred in my head. I tend to obsess over things and the concept of hell blew my mind, not because of its horror, but because I couldn't see how such a place could exist and fulfil its primary purpose. Even then I understood the subjective nature of pain and I couldn't understand how it would be possible to keep someone in torment forever. Didn't all sensations become commonplace after a time, even pain?
It's what I would later come to realise was called a logical fallacy. By the time I'd turned teenager, I had ascribed heaven and hell to the same origin as Santa Claus. God and the rest of religion soon followed.
Yet imaginary or not, heaven and hell were intangible, invisible places. It was the tangible world that was more confusing to me. I heard about the EU wine lake and the butter mountain and then I saw the pictures from the famine in Ethiopia and couldn't understand why we didn't just give them the food they needed. Didn't we have enough to go around? Wasn't it just going off in a warehouse somewhere? Weren't we supposed to be the good guys?
If you grew up in the 80s, that was the line you were always being fed. We were the good guys; we who saw off Hitler single-handed, we who kept Europe from becoming rife with Communism. Communism, that was a terrorist octopus (no, they really called it that), spawned in Moscow, its tentacles everywhere.
Then I grew up and came to hear about Guatemala and Chile and Brazil and Argentina and El Salvador and East Timor and Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos and Iran and Iraq and the First World War and the Philippines and the Kurds and the Opium Wars and the Slave Trade and the eradication of the Native Americans and the Highland Clearances and the Harrying of the North and on and on, back beyond recorded time, and this was how good guys behaved.
I also heard about the twenty million dead Russians soldiers, how the Russians had lost more troops in the Battle of Stalingrad than the British and Americans lost during the entire war. How the Russians had defeated three quarters of the German Army singlehanded and might had marched on beyond Berlin if not for America's two shows of force at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Over time I stopped differentiating between this conflict or that, with their wide-ranging, but always dissembling reasons. Instead, I reduced them to a series of punishment beatings visited upon the poor, whether they be British Tommies or British Miners or Liverpool Dockers or Laotian Peasants. I was reminded the other day that the pre-industrial country of Laos had more tonnage of munitions dropped upon it by the USA between 1964 and 1973 than was dropped during the whole of World War Two. The cluster bomb was first tested on Laotian peasants (as napalm had been tested on French peasants at the end of World War Two). It remains littered with more unexploded munitions that any other country.
When asked why the north of Laos was being bombed, which had nothing to do with what was happening in Vietnam or Cambodia, one official let slip that there was a lessening of hostilities in North Vietnam, the air force had a load of B52s sitting around doing nothing, so why not give them something to do? Empty our silos of the old stock and send the bill for the next consignment to the folks back home. And the only people that get hurt are some peasants, who don't count for very much in a culture built around wealth and worthiness.
"Many men of course became extremely rich, but this was perfectly natural and nothing to be ashamed of because no one was really poor - at least no one worth speaking of." The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Of course, America's economy is practically built upon its arms industry. Selling weapons to the British during the Second World War was the main event that finally brought America out of the Great Depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street Crash. With the onset of the Cold War, most US research and development money went into applications of war, unlike, say, Japan, which was banned from having a military force, and so put all its R & D money into home applications. Japan ended up with Sony: America got Lockheed Martin.
Some ideas are spellbinding. I have friends who were barely alive when the Berlin Wall fell and yet the American military budget is now larger than ever. Shouldn't we have disarmed by now? Or at least re-aimed our missiles at the stars?
No. Instead we invent a new enemy that must be battled, so as to justify the ever expanding defence budget. The Evil Empire, as Chomsky so aptly named it, the Emmanuel Goldstein of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the scapegoat on to which we pour all of our hatred, to ensure that it is never focused on anyone or anything actually responsible for the current state of our society.
Islam it had to be. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Islam was the only game left in town big enough to scare the American public. The conceit, for the most part, has been about as accurate as it was during the Cold War. Most of Russia's alleged terrorist activities were black propaganda inventions of the C.I.A. Equally, the name Al Qaeda was largely an invention of the F.B.I. following the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dari Salaam in 1998. An attempt to create the image of a global Islamic terrorist network bent on destroying the west, despite the so-called Al Qaeda network at the time consisting of as little as twelve people. The name Al Qaeda was only used by Osama Bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks.
Yet as soon as the Soviet Union fell, the west's focus turned to the Middle East. From one Iraq War to another, through insinuations about the Oklahoma bomber, to the artificially inflated significance of the 1994 World Trade Centre bombing, to the threats and insinuations against Afghanistan, which might actually have led to the 9/11 attacks being launched as pre-emptive strike (a date for the US invasion of Afghanistan was announced and reported upon in May 2001). A self fulfilling prophecy, if ever there was one.
If you look at the west's involvement in wars throughout the 1990s, they can mostly be linked to attempts to prevent the curtailing of America's military budget. The first Gulf War, indeed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait irself, could have easily been prevented with a little diplomacy. Likewise, the bombing of Serbia had little to do with ending the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In fact, it triggered the vast majority of the violence against Muslims in retaliation for the aerial bombardment, exactly as the evidence indicated would happen at the time. Every time the questions, Do we need so large a military?, Is N.A.T.O. really relevant in a post Cold War environment? were being asked, boom, another war breaks out.
With the 9/11 attacks, the US has been able to throw off its childish attempts to set itself up as a World Policeman, because now its military has carte blanche to spend however much of the gross national product on however many weapons it takes to destroy the people who want to destroy its 'way of life'.
Except, now that enemy is whoever we say it is. In Pakistan, in Afghanistan, the drones are taking down anyone of military age, ensuring the next generation of Jihadi fighters, ensuring the growth of western military and defence sectors for generations to come.
And so you get what we had in Woolwich. Which is the way they want it. Don't you think that if we were really serious about defeating fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, we'd have done all we could to play down the horrific events in Woolwich? Wouldn't we describe those two men as insane, like the media did when a British woman was beheaded in Tenerife earlier in the year? Or just not report it all, like weeks before, when a Muslim man was stabbed to death on the street by a racist gang in Birmingham? Wouldn't we do all we could to stress that those two man do not represent Islam, rather than focusing heavily on the fact of their religion, so as to avoid dealing with any political point they might have been making? Wouldn't we want to understand every facet of this barbaric act, to ensure that it never happens to anyone ever again?
Yet this doesn't fit our current narrative of scary Muslims, so we fall back on lazy stereotypes, which require no original thought. Clearly, hacking someone to death on the street in so causal a manner is the act of someone with mental health problems, whatever their stated cause. I mean, how many abortion doctors have been killed by fundamentalist Christians? These aren't labelled terrorist attacks. They're called what they are, extremist misunderstandings of vague and ancient texts. It doesn't mean Christians should be expected to apologise for the actions of a few random dickheads. Neither should Muslims.
Nor can we be entirely surprised that events like this happen. The national reaction actually said a lot about our collective sense of guilt. Scapegoats were called scapegoats, because they used to be exactly that: goats that people touched with their hands, in order to transfer the guilt of the person to the animal. A entire drove of goats would be used, sometimes slaughtered, sometimes released into the wild, depending on the local tradition. However, this idea of animals or individuals personifying the sins of society is as old as civilisation itself.
We blame Muslims and it absolves us of our guilt for twelve years of apathy towards the occupation of Afghanistan; our failure to bring anyone to account for the invasion of Iraq (the findings of the Iraq Inquiry will almost certainly not be published during the lifetime of this parliament); our grief at the number of our young men that have come home dead or disabled (and for what gain?); our shame at the thousands of lives that have been destroyed around the world; but most of all, it is our fear. Fear at the retaliation that awaits us. Fear that all of this death and destruction will have to be answered for someday. I may not believe in God, but I do believe in Karma. After all, Karma is nothing but a restating of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Entropy increases, things even themselves out over the course of a season.
We evolve or we decay. Our economy is built upon industries that are toxic to modern society: oil, arms, banking and the like. Each has its tendrils deep in the minds of governments around the world and yet each is an anachronism, a throwback to a previous age, like the appendix or that ridge at the roof of your mouth that your reptilian ancestors used as a sensory pit. We have Google, Amazon and Starbucks to contend with now, so why are BAe, BP and Barclays still calling the shots?
To borrow from an astrophysics analogy, the only difference between the old Communist east and the Capitalist west is that the west is larger and so has other resources to draw upon, to stay-off its imminent collapse, but collapse it must. The east imploded, crushed by the differences in pressure between the image Russia portrayed of itself, and the reality of its situation. The west will go the same way, only with a bang, like another Rome falling. We seem to be ignoring this with the same casual regard that we ignore the evidence that global warming is occurring. I mean, we admit that it is probably happening, but no one seems to be doing very much about it. In both cases the signs are becoming less and less ignorable, yet day by day we do nothing. After 500 years of unfettered growth, the sun is finally beginning to set on the west. China, India and Brazil are where the future lie. These are the places where evolution is taking place. All thanks to the western expansion of globalisation. Thanks. And, you're fired.
Welcome to your capitalist utopia. Please brace for impact.
Even that they're calling it Capitalism again should be an indication of how bold they've become. There was a time, about twenty years ago, when the word capitalism was rarely heard. It was a dirty word. Then it got a rebrand: Consumerism. See, 'capitalism' suggests toffs in dinner jackets, top hats and bulging stomachs, lighting cigars off of £50 notes. Whereas, 'consumerism' focuses the mind back on sleepy shoppers shuffling around Tesco. Capitalists are heartless bastards, but consumers are lovely. What's more, the customer is always right. And if the customer is always right, then by extension, capitalism must always be right.
With political language, you should always be mindful of where your attention is being drawn and where it's being directed away from.
It's the same when we portray our soldiers as heroes. Now, I don't have anything against the military really. In an ideal world we wouldn't need an army, but we don't live in an ideal world, so an armed presence is sometimes required. I exist because my parents met on a naval base, so I've also seen how the country treats its heroes, once they've served their useful purpose. Bit of a pension and that's your lot. Don't even get special dispensation when you're long term unemployed. My mum was working, so he lost his benefit, died some months later. This is what you get for defending your country. Sorry, I may be a little bitter about the whole thing.
Wars are unpopular, especially the ones Britain has become embroiled in since the millennium, so we borrow from Capitalism's trick and shift focus. Rebrand. War is bad, but soldiers are heroes, fit young men in uniforms, defending our country from terror, even as they are invading someone else's country. A bit of sleight of hand and, Abracadabra, we pull attention away from the actual event, the invasion of a sovereign state (described in the Nuremburg Laws as the supreme international crime), and no one ever has to take responsibility for anything. At least, no one worth speaking of.
None of us like going to war, but you like soldiers don't you? You support our troops don't you? You are patriotic, aren't you?
I'm fairly indifferent to the country in which I live, as you'll know if you've read my essay on PJ Harvey. And while I'm not indifferent to the plight of British soldiers, the truth is that I don't see why they deserve my special attention over any other group that serves interests outside of mine. I don't want them being hacked down in the street, but neither do I want that for Muslims, doctors, or gay men either. Society is an aggregation of people, an aggregation of types, fitting within the agreed boundaries of society. Boundaries that change, as the evolution of our understanding leads us to expand the boundaries of what our society will allow. It fails when it blames one of us for the sins of us all, whether they be soldiers, Muslims, immigrants or the disabled. And if it fails one of us, it fails us all.
We should be very careful about the language that we use. I don't like the word hero, because it suggests a perfect state, which doesn't require any input from us. Heroes don't need help. I've met a few squaddies and some were sound and some were pricks, most were ok. I don't support the actions they are asked to carry out, but I don't blame them for them either. They're following orders and I just assume that the vast majority of serving personnel act, believing that their orders are given to them in good faith. So I prefer to think of them as victims of the same lies and distortions of which we are all victims. All to keep alive an economic model forged in the death throes of the Second World War.
'So our young men hit with guns in the dirt, and in the dark places' (as PJ Harvey so hauntingly sings it), let us treat them better than heaping meaningless plaudits onto them, which make us feel better, but do nothing for them. If we instead thought of them as victims of the same global forces that swirl around us all, we might start to treat them a little better and, moreover, come to a better understanding about the people representing the Evil Empire of the moment. We might forge some kind of peace through negotiation and empathy and understanding for a change, instead of more boom, boom, boom. And in doing so, finally defeat our one true common enemy: the person pointing out all our enemies.
In the Victorian Age, the richest men built schools and hospitals and the country grew as a result. Today the same sections of the community are building PFI hospitals and prisons and pocketing the change. Instead of building people up, we've realised we've lifted them up far too far and are now trying to knock them back down again. In these days of Disaster Capitalism, making people miserable is the key, because profit can be made from human misery. Human misery is the great untapped well. Have you ever seen a list of the companies that Dick Cheney is involved with? It's a litany to human suffering, all monetised and extracted for most profit. America has the largest prison population in history, the bottom strata of American society having been criminalised and locked away, making cheap goods, in conditions fairly indistinguishable from slavery.
Shouldn't the best system that we know of be able to do a little better than this? Wouldn't our best system, having once abolished slavery, feel no need to reinvent it? Hasn't something gone terribly, terribly wrong?
Ultimately I hate the idea that capitalism is the best system we have because it's a statement of ownership. A message to ordinary people to say, we own you, and don't you ever do anything to try and change that, 'cause that shit's written in stone.
Mostly what it makes me want to do is try and change the system to a fairer and more equitable one: More like the one we were promised, once we got rid of the commies.
Isn't it time for some better ideas?
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|"It's a round world, last time I checked." Bill Hicks|