Making Art While Everything Burns

I have a schedule that is supposed to help me build positive work habits, so that I get my priority projects done. You know the theory: just make sure you put one foot in front of the other every day and take tiny steps toward your goals, so that the sheer enjoyment of the process of making art develops into a habit with its own momentum. Before long, you get to where you set out to go. Today is listed as “recording and guitar practice”, I have well-defined, small, next tasks to do and everything I need to do them, but I haven’t done any.

Right now, I have a chronic case of music producer’s block and I’m not entirely sure why. I’m finding it hard to show up and just do, without thinking, until my muse/inspiration joins me, some time into the process. There is no doubt I need to explore why that might be, to break this bad habit, but I confess I don’t have good answers at the moment. It might have something to do with what I am about to write and writing about it might help me work through it. We’ll see. I also have a chronic back ache, which isn’t helping.

So, instead of producing music, today, I find myself writing this blog post instead. I should have written it yesterday, but I didn’t show up for my scheduled writing time. Bad habit.

Here’s what’s bugging me. We’re seeing increasing evidence that points to the fact that we’re experiencing the very first signs of climate collapse. There are unprecedented droughts, desertification, wildfires, heatwaves, floods, storms and all kinds of climate records being broken. Abnormal has become the new normal, yet nobody is doing anything like enough to recognise and attempt to solve the problem. We’re all just blundering forward. There is, instead, an appreciable ascendancy of Fascism across the globe, as if coordinated by dark forces (maybe it is, maybe it isn’t). Our politicians blatantly lie to us and manipulate, aided and abetted by the media. Much of our democracy is being eroded by concerted campaigns, funded by plutocrats using offshore, tax-dodged, dark money. We can’t find out who is pulling the strings, making the donations or what they even want. There is no transparency.

In many metropolitan areas, the water is no longer safe to drink. Our oceans are saturated with plastic pollution, which enters the food chain and bio-accumulates and amplifies in the top predators (that would be us). Species extinction has seen decimation of our wildlife and the trend is accelerating. Our food, grown in exhausted, depleted soils, is lacking in vital nutrients, including the vitamins and minerals we need for good health. The global food production system is skewed towards providing foodstuffs that are increasingly recognised as being the root cause of a plethora of chronic and fatal human and animal diseases. What we eat doesn’t nourish us and worse, actually contributes to disability and premature demise. This food production system is built on unstable, fragile mono-cultures, so coupled with climate collapse, it means that future food supplies are by no means secure. The bees and insects that pollinate our crops and feed our wildlife are fast disappearing, eradicated by commercial pesticides. We drench our produce in glyphosate, which the manufacturer’s own internal company documents confirm is highly carcinogenic and may be the cause of many other grave health issues.

Our collective mental health has come under assault as never before, thanks to extreme, neoliberal, predatory capitalism, rampant inequality, stagnant real wages (for several generations) and an ideology of placing efficiency, profit and competition above all other concerns, while mental health services have dwindled and disappeared. We accept that there is one rule for the rich and another for the poor, but fail to recognise and deal with the implications of it. Hope is scarce.

It increasingly feels like we are ruled by an oligarch kleptocracy, which has scant regard for the plight of ordinary people, except as a resource to be milked and exploited. It’s an abusive relationship. We exist under a dark cloud of blanket surveillance and corporate-controlled censorship, as if deference to a small group of ecocidal, omnicidal psychopaths, their ambitions, plans and ideas is something we ought to content ourselves with unquestioningly. We might think they’re maniacs, hell bent on maniacal schemes, but we are never permitted to say so, or even think so. The Surveillance Capitalism manifesto appears to be, “You may only hear what we permit you to hear. You may only see what we permit you to see. What you hear, we hear. What you see, we see. Feel what we want you to feel, do as we want you to do, be as we want you to be.”

Against our better judgement and self-preservation instincts, we participate in and support endless wars, for corporate profit. Neoliberalism has created Neofeudalism instead. Along with this, we have witnessed a staggering disinvestment in people. Their potential lies fallow.

This is the question I keep returning to, without finding an answer: What should you do? Should you continue to make art, or do something else to try to stop the catastrophe unfolding before us?

They say you shouldn’t run from a situation you don’t like, but toward a motivating, exciting future that you envisage and want to reach. If where you want to reach is set against an ambient backdrop of a world nobody sane would want to aspire to inhabit, what do you do for motivation? Is establishing your own little island of blissful tranquillity, through immersion in your art practice, enough to overcome the certain knowledge that people are needlessly suffering and dying, to maintain deluded ideologies?

How can you even focus on making art, when everything is on fire and burning?

If you can focus on making art, does that mean you’re complacent? Are you a Nero figure, fiddling while Rome burns? Does it mean you don’t care, so therefore tacitly approve of what’s happening? What does focusing on your art say about your humanity, when it is obvious that you enjoy a rare and special privilege in being able to do art at all?

Should art be a comforting distraction, for maker and audience alike? Should making your art raise awareness and mobilise action against the fires? Would art be effective? Should you abandon art and become a front-line activist? Would that work?

Does art even matter, when everything is immolating?

Alison Croggon, the contemporary Australian poet, playwright, fantasy novelist, and librettist, says, “An artist’s job is to look at the world they live in, to think about it, to open possibility, to create connections. Art’s very existence is an argument against the atomising alienation that is the primary feature of late capitalism. Art opens contemplative spaces that allow us to step outside the routine structures that shape how we see the world. It reaches out of the diminishing present, connecting the past and the future”

Making art in the face of the forces of regress and rampant, predatory capitalism takes steely determination and almost bloody-minded focus. We do it to keep hope in a brighter, better future alive. It is the last vestige of connection to all that is civilised and worthwhile. Art is our daily reminder that there are things worth living for that are far more important than and superior to profit, efficiency and productivity. Real growth is growth of the spirit, our aesthetic senses and the intellect, not growth of the bank balance. While we’re surrounded by the wasteful disintegration of all that makes life thrive, creation is a revolutionary act.

These are deep, dark questions for all artists. They are tests of your soul.

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Lonely Robots and Hungry Ghosts

How do you make art in a world that is so atomised and fragmented; where every human being behaves like an automaton, programmed to consume, but not to interact with anybody else at a deep, meaningful level? When every member of your potential audience cares only about their own individuality and other artists are impossible to collaborate with, because they insist on operating as isolated, lone wolves, how do you form a community or build a following? When everybody has been conditioned to constantly try to satisfy their insatiable appetites, how do you create art that connects with them on a long-term basis? When everybody hungers for the next, new thing, how can you hope to build a lasting artistic career?

How did it get this way?

While it is readily apparent to anybody that looks into the matter in any depth, that wealthy elites have sought to remake the world according to their own vision of what would be ideal for them, not you, by any means necessary, it’s also true that they couldn’t have done any of this on their own. To set the agenda according to their will; to control the world by redefining and reiterating the dominant narratives that influence everybody’s thoughts and behaviour, they would have needed a lot of help. Mind-shifting on this scale is beyond the scope of a lone individual acting on their own.

The rulers over everything needed willing, enthusiastic collaborators who were willing to shape normality, so that everybody else assumes it to be reality. Even though their narratives promise one thing, only to conceal the real desires of these puppet masters behind the scenes, the deception is maintained by an army of skilled people doing their bidding. Their acts of bad faith, in pretending to espouse one thing, but acting in an opposite way, are carried out by faithful servants. They might not even be in the employ of the powerful. Some servants self-select on the lively expectation of favours to come. They think that by siding with those they perceive to be the winners, their needs and desires will be catered to, even if they’re aware that the price they have to pay is a loss of their integrity and other people’s trust in them.

It has to be admitted that some artists have been serving a master that acts in bad faith. These artists have become tools and collaborators of tyrants. Many of these rogue artists work in advertising, social media, television, or the main stream media. Even films, games, drama, and music is full of stories that push a world view which is antithetical to human flourishing. These artists have worked hard to divide people, so that they can be easily ruled.

What role did artists play in getting Donald Trump elected and Brexit to be the claimed “will of the people”? Who made all those scurrilous, dark ads and memes? Who wrote the copy, based on lies? Who presented it and ran “news and analysis” segments about it that only served to amplify the already distorted messages? Who wrote the software and gathered the data that permitted laser-targeted lies to sway the beliefs of susceptible individuals? Was Kleptofascism their goal? If so, why did they disguise it as democracy and “taking back control”, or “making America great again”? Why not honestly call it supremacism or nationalism, instead of claiming it was about better health and greater personal sovereignty? If the intention was to accelerate the processes of neoliberalism, at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable, stripping us all of hard-won rights and protections, why wasn’t that part of the spiel?

Did we, as artists, warn, educate, enlighten, edify, and inspire, or did we obfuscate, mislead, deceive, denigrate and conceal? Did we elucidate alternative, positive realities? Did we use our imaginations to create narratives describing what “better” would look like? Did we hold power to account, or encourage other thinkers to dream better dreams and raise the quality of thought? Or did we dumb things down, take the money, degenerate, escape into numbness and hedonism, and ignore the important things, so that we could individually live lives of splendid artistic detachment? Did we abandon a belief in the infinite possibilities of humanity long ago? Did we resist or reinforce division, extreme individualism, consumerism, and fragmentation of common interests? Did we rein in narcissism or fuel that fire with a combustible mixture of impossibly seductive images and a manic fixation on youth, aesthetics and fashion? What messages did artists deliver and who benefited?

The Apprentice, that carefully social-engineered and scripted “reality” television show which increased Donald Trump’s public profile, was made by artists. Journalists wrote all those Daily Mail articles that lampooned every piece of European legislation, grossly caricaturing what each law was intended to remedy. The “reality TV” shows about benefits cheats and immigrants, designed to delineate these people as members of impure, undeserving out groups, were also made by artists.

That’s how things got this way.

What we are left with is a society that has been undermined by selfish, narcissistic individualism and increasingly fragile mental health. Everybody lives a paycheck away from oblivion, on the very edge of viable existence. We have increasing numbers of the working poor, whose earnings don’t permit them to live a peaceful, decent life of comfort and safety. The solution to the induced mental health crisis, of course, is solidarity and companionship. Solving things together, rather than despairing alone, is what can begin to heal the wounds. Yet, most people instead seek “self-help”, or withdraw to personal sanctuaries, where they can neglect and abandon the rest of humanity, while they work on coping with their own situation, alone. It’s the least effective way to solve the big-picture problem that afflicts them. Extreme individualism is the very root of the problem, not part of the solution.

Now, a huge segment of humanity is so programmed, they see the unacceptable as normal. They defend every heinous new policy as necessary and even as God’s plan. We have an almost total inversion of decency, morals and ethics. Artists played their insidious parts in programming people, through the stories they were willing to tell and the images they depicted. Cruel violence is now seen as normal and the answer to every conflict. Punishment is seen as purifying, so dishing out punishment is seen to be evangelistic. The whole project, orchestrated by the wealthiest in society, has resulted in unaccountable destruction. We bear the costs, not them. Lies have been presented as truth.

The following few paragraphs draw from, paraphrase, clarify and expand upon an essay by Umair Haque. You can read the original here (if you are a paying member of

These days, it’s a commonplace to hear people proclaim nonsense like, “I don’t want my children growing up under socialism.” Why is this nonsense? Leave aside ideological quibbles over socialism, social democracy, capitalism, and so on. What this glib, seemingly throwaway statement also means is: “I don’t care about anyone else’s kids but my own!” The implications of that, in turn, are that anybody that makes such a statement genuinely has no idea what a democracy is, or what it means to be a citizen of one. You might think: “isn’t it perfectly rational and reasonable to only care about my own kids?” Perhaps, but in that very belief, you might not realise, you’ve given up on the idea of democracy.

A democracy is a self-governing entity, under which we are all “sovereign”, but that sovereignty requires something quite important. It requires a public interest. We are not just little, isolated atoms, pleading for our own narrow, blinkered self-interest, like spoiled-rotten children. Instead, we are adults, governing ourselves through the idea of a shared, common public interest. The fundamental idea is that of people capable of developing, expressing and acting upon a public interest, which means people who can think beyond their own egoistic, egotistic selves, who can develop broader, truer, moral and ethical horizons. It’s about unity and solidarity, not individualism.

So, a democracy is built on a foundation of people who can think of society as a whole, and judge what is in society’s best interest; not just people who think of “my kids”, but “our kids”, or better yet, “all kids.” If all I care about is my kids, then I have failed at being a citizen of a democracy. I have no conception of, or interest in, the public interest whatsoever, and so there can’t be any building of a society for anyone else. Democracy becomes superfluous and a marketplace will suffice.

If all you’re concerned with is immediate gratification of self-interest, you want a Walmart, or the stock market trading floor. A democracy, on the other hand, exists so that people can express and pursue some notion of a public interest. If I have no conceptual idea of a public interest whatsoever, then I will never vote for public healthcare, education, media, welfare, social safety nets –  let alone regulation, decency, and stability. I simply don’t care.

A society made up of such people will never have these things. It will only ever have out-of-town retail barns, realtors, stock markets and That’s all it cares about, except and until the vicissitudes of bad luck and capitalism put those people in dire need of affordable healthcare, education, welfare and so on. Running out of money shouldn’t mean foreclosing on your life, yet in the absence of a democracy, life-sustaining necessities won’t be available to you at all, in a marketplace. Your lack of money will mean you’re priced out of sustaining your own existence, even if you’re in full time work.

Why did people give up on the fundamental principle of a public interest? In a word: capitalism. If you are told that capitalism is the sole ordering force a society needs, as proven by the miserable demise of Soviet-style communism, then there’s no need for a public interest. Capitalism only wants our self-interest (and, more specifically, the cash in our wallets we’ll spend and the hours of our working lives we’ll dedicate to supporting our self-interest). It tells us that any expression of a joint or shared interest is “inefficient”, “unproductive”, and wasteful friction in the gears of the sacred profit-making machine.

All kinds of public interest, institutions, and goods,  whether they’re unions, cooperatives, laws, regulations, norms, human rights, safety standards, shared values, public healthcare, education and finance systems,  are things that get in the way of churning out ever increasing profits. They’re branded “obstacles to growth”. Capitalism has long tried to teach people the myth that self-interest is the only organising force a society needs — that everyone is just a kind of selfish, hungry, lonely robot with insatiable appetites — but that is what is in capitalism’s self-interest, not yours. The myth is not true, as a cursory glance at more successful social-democratic societies readily shows.

People chose capitalism over genuine democracy. Conservatives have always had a fraught, fractured relationship with the idea of a public interest, and yet it’s true to say that at their best, some Conservatives did help accomplish enhancements to the public interest, even if they had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. The “public interest” they’ve championed, however, has often been something exclusively for nuclear, white, upper middle class families. It’s for “our” kids, but not all kids.

This is what happens when people are taught, for too long, that they are worthless (which is what “self-interest” really is: I believe I am worthy, but that you are worthless). When people are taught that everyone is worthless for long enough and treated that way consistently, they eventually believe it and at that moment, a democracy governing in the public interest ceases to exist, even if some sham of a remnant, zombie democracy goes on.

William C. Moyers, vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, said, “I have an illness with origins in the brain, but I also suffer with the other component of this illness. I was born with what I like to call a hole in my soul, a pain that came from the reality that I just wasn’t good enough. That I wasn’t deserving enough. That you weren’t paying attention to me all the time. That maybe you didn’t like me enough… For us addicts, recovery is more than just taking a pill or maybe getting a shot. Recovery is also about the spirit, about dealing with that hole in the soul.” This is the other thing that happens when people are taught they are worthless. They develop a hole in their soul, which if left unadressed, leads to self-destructive and self-negating behaviours. Democracy is barely able to function, when each of its citizens believes themselves (and by implication, everybody else) to have no value and hence no reason to live, improve, thrive or flourish.

By now, it should be pretty clear that without solidarity and participation, we have no democracy. Anything that further isolates us and dissociates us from others only serves as a corrosive agent to what’s left of our public interest. It atomises society even further. With that in mind, I was alarmed to see the Royal Society for Public Health, no less, campaigning for Scroll Free September. The idea is that people simply log off from social media for a month. This encourages people to not debate, not interact and not display any empathy or concern for the people they only know through social media contact. It’s the same as pretending your friends are strangers, for a month. If you ditch your friends, why should they ever come back?

The timing is poor, as September is when much of the Brexit agreement will be concluded, we are told. Stifling dissent on social media at this critical time is just a way to manufacture consent. It’s a sinister way to quell rebellion. Their appeal is for people to protect their own mental health and emotional well being by pretending decisions that will materially influence their lives are simply not taking place. In that sense, it’s just a game of mass delusion, as if by ignoring it all, everything will be fine and the difficult things will simply go away. What happens, in practice, is those that control the narrative get to do what they want without challenge.

Besides, signing up to vanish from social media entirely, even if for just thirty days, is a form of virtue signalling, saying to others that you are switched on to the trend to guard mental health. Yes, social media is manipulative and addictive, but that’s not the only thing it is. For all it’s egregious faults, it still affords human contact and the ability to interact with other minds. It is, in it’s own less than satisfactory way, a means of stemming the atomisation of society and a bulwark against the destruction of solidarity. Those that use social media, despite its many flaws and the proliferation of nastiness and rabid falsehoods it is saturated with, do so to reach out to other people and include them in their circles of concern. Social media is often a supportive, comforting and empowering place, but that is denied by Scroll Free September. How not logging into social media makes people feel good enough, deserving enough, or sufficiently appreciated and liked baffles me. To my way of thinking, it only enlarges that hole in the soul that people need to deal with, in order to resist an addiction like social media can be. In other words, abandoning social media is the wrong solution to the problem of feeling isolated, alienated, worthless and powerless.

I have deep sympathy for people that feel overwhelmed by the relentless tide of bad news and nastiness on-line, but they feel it acutely because they’re isolated and alone. They don’t need to solve this problem on their own. They won’t even solve it as a group of people that individually turn their Internet off. It can’t be solved by making people feel even more isolated and alone, even if it feels like a welcome, temporary truce, in the short term. The problem isn’t too much connection with other people, it’s too little.

The way to improve your mental health, in the face of the onslaught of things you don’t like happening in the world, and a stream of information that ensures you are made painfully aware of it all, is to resist it and to withdraw your consent. Individually, alone, that’s a meaningless gesture. As a population, it’s massive. Plutocrats spend billions manufacturing your consent because they need it. Without it, they lose control of the narrative and they can’t enact their nefarious plans. They need to tell you what they intend to do and no matter how evil, for everybody else to shrug, go “OK”, or ignore it. Not resisting is the same as tacitly supporting their agenda. If they want war, or to strip you of any and all rights in a society, then if you’ve logged out of social media, you’re giving your support to them. You’re not making your dissenting voice heard and you’re not mutually encouraging and empowering others to speak up bravely about things they don’t want in the world.

If you only participate in resisting the plutocrats and deny your consent for what they do when it suits you, that is precisely the same as not participating in democracy at all. You have to uphold your democracy at all times and it’s very had work in the face of the barrage of determined attacks by plutocrats to undermine it. If you lose your democracy, it’s gone and it’s very difficult to get back. You might think participating in and defending democracy is gruelling and onerous on your mental health, but try having to fight fascists, authoritarians and totalitarians to forcibly restore it. Keeping it alive is easier than trying to resurrect it by far. Ask any Russian.

You might wonder how it came to be that we are all so concerned about ourselves and so little concerned about each other and our common interests. How did individualism come to be viewed as a sacrosanct doctrine? Historically, humanity only survived by acting socially and helping each other out. None of us, individually, were a match for a ravenous sabre toothed tiger. We’re here only because our ancestors collaborated to thwart the threat of predators. We need to be even more determined to face our modern-day predators – those capitalists that would strip us to the very bone, for gain.

Adam Curtis made a series for television about the history of this peculiar set of ideas about humanity, called “The Trap”. He looked into the origins of these notions of selfish, self-interested people acting always to optimise their own personal gains. In unearthing the roots of these now pervasive ideas, he discovered a story so riddled with ridiculous assumptions, faulty reasoning, bad science and pure hubris that you couldn’t make it up as fiction. He conclusively proves that the individualist ideals that underpin so much of modern economic and political theory and practice are, in fact, based on faulty premises and so are, in all likelihood, desperately wrong. The rugged individual, the self-made man, the self-sufficient person taking care of himself and his nearest, equipped only with his own wits and resources – these are all fictitious myths. There never was such a person and there could never be such a person. If such persons were to exist, it would not be a good thing, because of the impoverishment of democracy this would entail.

Much of the following is based on a plot synopsis of the series, available in Wikipedia.

The story of selfish individualism starts with mathematician John Nash and his paranoid/schizophrenic game theory. He invented system games that reflected his beliefs about human behaviour (at a time before he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic), including one he called ‘Fuck You Buddy’ (later published as “So Long Sucker”). He was deeply suspicious of everyone around him, including his colleagues, and was convinced that many were involved in conspiracies against him. It was this mistaken belief, the product of an unstable and unbalanced mind, that led to his view of people as a whole, that formed the basis for his theories. When attempts were made to validate his model with real people, it was found that only psychopaths and economists conformed to it. Everybody else made a-priori agreements to share equally. They collaborated, rather than betraying a fellow human being. Game theory is, as a consequence, actually wrong, founded as it was on a delusional assessment of human nature.

Yet game theory was used to create the US government’s nuclear strategy during the Cold War. Because no nuclear war occurred, it was believed that game theory had been correct in dictating the creation and maintenance of a massive American nuclear arsenal. It was felt that game theory had been vindicated. Of course, the fact that no nuclear war took place is not proof of the validity of the theory. It’s an assumption. The Russians may not have unleashed nuclear Armageddon for any number of other more worthy reasons. The theory of selfish, calculating, conniving human behaviour is, once again, not proven.

The next chapter of the story of rugged individualism is the work of R.D. Laing, whose work in psychiatry led him to model familial interactions using game theory (which we have already seen is a flawed model of human behaviour). His conclusion was that humans are inherently selfish and shrewd. He asserted that they spontaneously generate stratagems during everyday interactions. Laing’s theories became more developed when he concluded that some forms of mental illness were merely artificial labels, used by the State to suppress individual suffering. This belief became a staple tenet of counter-culture in the 1960s. Once again, it proved to be a tissue of baseless supposition.

His theory was thrown into doubt by an experiment run by one of Laing’s students, David Rosenhan, in which bogus patients, self-presenting at a number of American psychiatric institutions, were falsely diagnosed as having mental disorders, while institutions, informed that they were to receive bogus patients, misidentified genuine patients as impostors. The results of the experiment were a disaster for American psychiatry, because they destroyed the idea that psychiatrists were a privileged elite that was genuinely able to diagnose, and therefore treat, mental illness. Not only was Laing’s theory disproved, but all of psychiatry was undermined as a profession.

The Rosenhan experiment was the inspiration to create a computer model of mental health. Input to the program consisted of answers to a questionnaire. Psychiatrists devised a plan to test the computer model by issuing questionnaires to “hundreds of thousands” of randomly selected Americans. The diagnostic program identified over 50% of the ordinary people tested as suffering from some kind of mental disorder. According to Dr. Jerome Wakefield, who refers to the test as “these studies”, the results it found were viewed as a general conclusion that “there is a hidden epidemic.” Unsurprisingly, leaders in the psychiatric field never addressed whether the Laing computer model was being tested or used without having been validated in any way, but rather used the model to justify vastly increasing the portion of the population they were treating. Obviously, this is an example of bad science, used as a means of saving a profession’s face, rather than something that offers genuine insight into the state of people’s minds and behaviour.

The economist James M. Buchanan decried the notion of the “public interest”, asking what it is and suggesting that it consists purely of the self-interest of the governing bureaucrats. Buchanan also proposed that organisations should employ managers who are motivated only by money. He describes those who are motivated by other factors—such as job satisfaction or a sense of public duty—as “zealots”. As with much of the theory asserting that humans are only really motivated by self interest and greed, it is based on pure supposition. As far as is known, there was no hard data underlying his pronouncements. Only a confidence in his ideas and an appeal to his professional credentials for credibility. In denying the existence of a public interest, he essentially denied democracy, as has already been discussed. Without a common good, without a notion of what’s good for society, democracy ceases to exist.

At the start of the 1970s, the theories of Laing and the mathematical models of Nash began to converge, leading to a popular belief that the State (a surrogate family) was purely and simply a mechanism of social control which calculatedly kept power out of the hands of the public. It was this belief which allowed the neoliberal economic theories of Friedrich Hayek to look credible, and underpinned the free-market beliefs of Margaret Thatcher, who sincerely believed that by dismantling as much of the British state as possible—and placing former nationalised institutions into the hands of public shareholders—a form of social equilibrium could be reached. History shows that it wasn’t. In fact, social inequality soared as the wealthy increasingly preyed on the impoverished. This mathematically modelled society, which we now inhabit, is run on data—performance targets, quotas, statistics—and these figures, combined with the exaggerated belief in human selfishness, have created “a cage” for Western humans, that we’ve been trapped in ever since. It’s based on theories that are either baseless or demonstrably wrong.

As previously noted, psychiatrists, having concluded that more people were mentally disordered than previously suspected, on the basis of an unvalidated computer model and checklist, vastly increased the portion of the population they were treating. Drugs such as Prozac and lists of psychological symptoms which might indicate anxiety or depression were used to normalise behaviour and make humans behave more predictably, like machines. This was not the result of an elaborate conspiracy, but as a logical (although unpredicted) outcome of market-driven self-diagnosis by check-list based on symptoms, but not actual causes.

People with standard mood fluctuations diagnosed themselves as abnormal. They then presented themselves at psychiatrist’s offices, fulfilled the diagnostic criteria without offering personal histories, and were medicated. The alleged result is that vast numbers of Western people have had their behaviour and mental activity modified by SSRIs without any strict medical necessity, or indeed adequate data to prove that SSRIs have any therapeutic effect whatsoever. The serotonin deficiency hypothesis has never been proven. The science is appallingly bad.

Anthropologists have asserted that violent, competitive conflict is inherent in human nature, by reference to studies of tribes such as the Yanomami, but the studies seeded the violence they were intending to study by offering valuable and desirable items (machetes) to the tribesmen as an incentive to perform. Ignoring the effect of a film crew in the middle of an intensely violent tribal conflict is junk science, yet this is presented to us as proof of the essential violent nature of humanity. As anthropologists, they assert this has been the case since time immemorial, though their data is gathered from a single, contemporary tribe. It’s just plain wrong to stretch distorted observations, made in the present day, to 65,000 years of human history. There is no basis for such a wild extrapolation.

Over several decades, the severely reductionist ideas of Richard Dawkins, with his gene-centred view of human evolution, has lead to ideas of genetically-programmed behaviour being slowly absorbed by mainstream culture. We even speak of “memes” on a daily basis – a word coined by Dawkins to describe the genetic-like inheritance of ideas. However, it has been shown that cells are able to selectively replicate parts of their DNA dependent on current contextual need. This proves that genetic predetermination of behaviour is nonsense, because individual cells can respond to prevailing conditions by changing their genes. Such evidence detracts from the simplified economic models of human beings.

This brings us back to the economic models of Hayek and the game theories of the Cold War. With the “robotic” description of mankind apparently validated by geneticists (but clearly not, as we have just noted), the game theory systems gained even more currency with society’s engineers. The Clinton administration gave in to market theorists in the US and New Labour in the UK decided to measure everything they could by introducing arbitrary and unmeasurable targets, in the belief that their approach was scientifically valid. In industry and public services, this way of thinking led to a plethora of targets, quotas and plans. It was meant to set workers free to achieve these targets in any way they chose. What the government did not realise was that the players, faced with impossible demands, would cheat. The measurements were falsified and the statistic fudged by simple re-categorisations, in order to appear to meet the targets, when the actuality was entirely different. These targets were worse than useless, based as they were on unsound premises, because they caused harmful behaviours that would otherwise not have arisen at all.

The theory of the free market was also zealously applied to education. In the UK, the introduction of school performance league tables was intended to give individual schools more power and autonomy, to enable them to compete for pupils, the theory being that it would motivate the worst-performing schools to improve, It was an attempt to move away from the rigid state control that had offered little choice to parents, while failing to improve educational standards, and towards a culture of free choice and incentivisation, without going as far as privatising the schools (though more recently, academies have more or less privatised education). Following publication of the school league tables, wealthier parents moved into the catchment areas of the best schools, causing house prices in those areas to rise dramatically—ensuring that poor children were left with the worst-performing schools. Under the theory of free markets, income inequality has soared and that has a direct consequence to life chances. Babies in the poorest areas in the UK are twice as likely to die in their first year as children from prosperous areas.

Game theory and the free market model is now undergoing interrogation by economists who suspect a more irrational model of behaviour is appropriate and useful. In fact, in formal experiments the only people who behaved exactly according to the mathematical models created by game theory are economists themselves, and psychopaths, as previously noted.

The concepts of positive and negative liberty were introduced in the 1950s by the liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Negative liberty can be defined as freedom from coercion and positive liberty as the opportunity to strive to fulfil one’s potential. UK prime minister Tony Blair read Berlin’s essays on the topic and wrote to him, in the late 1990s, arguing that positive and negative liberty could be mutually compatible. As Berlin was on his deathbed at the time, however, Blair never got a reply.

“The Two Concepts of Liberty” was the inaugural lecture delivered by Isaiah Berlin before the University of Oxford on 31 October 1958. It was Berlin’s opinion that, since it lacked coercion, negative liberty was the safest of the two concepts. However, many political groups that sought their vision of freedom (negative liberty – freedom from coercion) ended up using violence to achieve it. For example, the French revolutionaries wished to overthrow a monarchical system which they viewed as antithetical to freedom, but in doing so they ended up with the Reign of Terror. Similarly, the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia, who sought to overthrow the established order and replace it with a society in which everyone is equal, ended up creating a totalitarian regime which used violence to achieve its objectives. Using violence, not simply as a means to achieve one’s goals, but also as an expression of freedom from Western bourgeois norms, was an idea developed by Afro-Caribbean revolutionary Frantz Fanon. He developed it from the existentialist ideology of Jean-Paul Sartre, who argued that terrorism was a “terrible weapon, but the oppressed poor have no others.” These views were expressed, for example, in the revolutionary film The Battle of Algiers.

Economic freedom has been used in Russia since the 1990s and it has introduced myriad problems. A set of policies known as “shock therapy” (also described in the 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Klein) were brought in mainly by outsiders, which had the effect of destroying the social safety net that existed in most other western nations and Russia. In the latter, the sudden removal of the subsidies for basic goods caused their prices to rise enormously, making them hardly affordable to ordinary people. An economic crisis escalated during the 1990s and some people were paid in goods rather than money. Then-president Boris Yeltsin was accused by his parliamentary deputies of “economic genocide” due to the large numbers of people now too poor to eat. Yeltsin responded to this by removing parliament’s power and becoming more autocratic.

At the same time, many formerly state-owned industries were sold to private businesses, often at a fraction of their real value. Ordinary people, often in dire financial difficulties, would sell shares, which to them were worthless, for cash, without appreciating or realising their true value. This culminated in the rise of the “Oligarchs”—super-rich businessmen who attributed their rise to the sell-offs of the 90s. It resulted in a polarisation of society into the poor and ultra-rich, and indirectly led to a more autocratic style of government under Vladimir Putin, which, while less free, promised to give people dignity and basic living requirements. Much of the wealth purloined by the oligarchs was moved out of Russia, into offshore accounts, property investments and tax havens. Indeed, this influx of money lead to real estate in many of the world’s capital cities inflating to the point that ordinary people could no longer afford to live in those cities, as property was turned into a store of value, rather than being used as living machines.

There is a similar situation in post-war Iraq, in which an even more extreme “shock therapy” was employed—the removal from government of all Ba’ath party employees and the introduction of economic models which followed the simplified economic model of human beings outlined earlier—this resulted in the immediate disintegration of Iraqi society and the rise of two strongly autocratic insurgencies: one based on Sunni-Ba’athist ideals and another based on revolutionary Shi’a philosophies. Far from delivering democracy and freedom from tyranny, the life of ordinary Iraqis is now infinitely more constrained and subject to coercion than it was under the regime that was removed by America’s “shock and awe” war tactics.

Look at the neoconservative agenda of the 1980s. Like Sartre, they argued that violence is sometimes necessary to achieve their goals, except they wished to spread what they described as democracy. General Alexander Haig, then-US Secretary of State, as said that, “Some things were worth fighting for.” However, although the version of society espoused by the neoconservatives made some concessions towards freedom, it did not offer true freedom. Although the neoconservatives, for example, forced the Augusto Pinochet regime in Chile and the Ferdinand Marcos regime in the Philippines to hold democratic elections, these transformations to democracy essentially replaced one elite with another, and the gap between those who have power and wealth, and those who have neither, remained; the freedom the change provided was therefore relatively narrow in concept.

The neoconservatives wanted to change or overthrow the Sandinistas — a socialist group in Nicaragua — who were seen as tyrannical, destabilising, and a threat to US security; the US therefore supported anti-communist rebels known collectively as the Contras, who carried out many violations of human rights, including the torture and murder of civilians. US Government financial support to the Contras had been banned by the US Congress, so other means were used to continue financing them, including the CIA allegedly providing aircraft for the rebels to fly cocaine into the United States, as well as the Iran–Contra affair in which the US illegally supplied weapons to the Iranian government, originally in exchange for assistance to gain the release of US prisoners in Lebanon, but also allegedly for cash which was then given to the Contras. This is another example of how the neoconservatives had fallen into the trap that Berlin had predicted: although they wanted to spread negative freedom, because they saw their ideology as an absolute truth, they were able to justify using coercion and lies and also to support violence in order to perpetuate it. Negative liberty, evidence shows, is not the safer and hence most desirable form of liberty at all.

However such policies did not always result in the achievement of neoconservative aims and occasionally threw up genuine surprises. The Western-backed government of the Shah in Iran, in mixing Sartre’s positive libertarian ideals with Shia religious philosophy, led to the revolution which overthrew it. Having previously been a meek philosophy of acceptance of the social order, in the minds of revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati and Ayatollah Khomeini, Revolutionary Shia Islam became a meaningful force to overthrow tyranny.

Consider the government of Tony Blair and its role in achieving its vision of a stable society. In fact, the Blair government created the opposite of freedom, in that the type of liberty it engendered wholly lacked any kind of meaning. Its military intervention in Iraq provoked terrorist actions in the UK and these terrorist actions are, in turn, used to justify restrictions on liberty, especially civil liberty. Blairites supported an austerity agenda that has seen children deprived of free school meals, free childcare and a properly funded education. It was by applying the doctrine of free markets that Britain now has an overburdened national health service, rampant privatisation of public services (which are now failing spectacularly, requiring public subsidy to continue to operate), rising childhood poverty, a class of people called “the working poor” who now depend on charitable donations of food to survive, despite holding down full time jobs and swingeing cuts to support for elderly and disabled people that has resulted in the suffering and premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people. All of this was intended to liberate people from the yoke of state coercion. It was enforced negative liberty, while assiduously avoiding supporting self-actualising positive liberty, through which people could attain mastery.

Following the path of negative liberty to its logical conclusions, as governments have done in the West for the past fifty years, results in a society without meaning, populated only by selfish automatons. There was some value in positive liberty after all, in that it allowed people to strive to better themselves. Isiah Berlin was wrong. If Western humans are ever to find their way out of the “trap” of unfettered free-market individualism, they will have to realise that Isaiah Berlin was wrong, and that not all attempts to change the world for the better necessarily lead to tyranny. I’d go further to suggest that the route out involves everybody simultaneously upgrading the quality of their thoughts and for each person in a democracy to strive to better themselves and their society, so that the common good is enhanced.

To round out the story of enforced negative liberty, no matter the consequences, free market zealotry, selfish individualism, crooked science, baseless assertion and stupid ideas, it is perhaps fitting to end this examination of the roots of it all with fiction author Ayn Rand, whose works fetishise self-sufficiency to an absurd degree. Serious academic philosophers have either discounted, dismissed or ignored her theories of human nature and economic freedom, but they’ve taken root as if they were laws of physics, not least by Alan Greenspan, one of her acolytes, who served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board of the United States from 1987 to 2006. Objectivism, as her “philosophy” is known, underpinned the decisions of the man with his hand on the tiller of the entire world economy, during this period. As a result of his ascendancy, the ideas of Rand gained currency and popularity.

Rand described Objectivism as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”. In other words, anything goes, as long as you’re having fun. Objectivism’s central tenets are that reality exists independently of consciousness, that human beings have direct contact with reality through sense perception, that one can attain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation and inductive logic, that the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness (rational egoism), that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embodied in laissez-faire (meaning “predatory”) capitalism, and that the role of art in human life is to transform humans’ metaphysical ideas by selective reproduction of reality into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and to which one can respond emotionally. It was a mish-mash of ideas that glorify unrestrained selfishness, as if that was the true and natural state of mankind. Sadly, people have tended to forget these ideas were from a work of fiction, not a rigorous, scientific study of the nature of humanity. It was all made up in the author’s head, yet these ideas now influence the thought processes and agendas of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet. Why? Because it lets them get away with anything they want, justifying it as somehow moral. It’s how you turn privileged entitlement into a crusading mission.

So, here we find ourselves – stuck – lumbered with the dubious ideas and bizarre theories of long-dead, crackpot academics and authors, perpetuating systems of control that are out of kilter with human nature, human values, environmental sustainability, the maintenance of a common good and democracy itself. In short, these ideas are not fit for contemporary purpose, yet in the absence of people willing and able to propose anything better, we look into the void for solutions. It doesn’t have to be a trap that we remain in. We can open the cage. There are many alternative ideas that were discarded at the time, for their lack of conformance to the prevailing orthodoxy, but now we know the conventional theories are wrong. We can see that with evidence. There is nothing whatsoever to stop us advancing agendas entirely different to the dominant neoliberal plan that has afflicted us.

We are programmed by our elites, through the media, to stop us thinking about ideas that might actually free us, allow us to realise our untapped potentials, live lives of equality and peace or enhance the common good. We’re distracted from thinking about things like anarchism and socialism, or working out what our common interests are and taking collective action to secure them. We’re taught to consume instead, to make us happy, but we know consumption doesn’t make us very happy. Why do the elites do this? Elites fundamentally do not believe they are happiest and most fulfilled when everybody else is. They want all the power and comfort for themselves, so that they can live lives like opulent, virtual kings. This is the extent of their conception of an ideal existence and it falls short for everybody – not just the have-nots. It’s a vacuous, insubstantial way to live, based as it is on decades of very faulty thinking.

Yet ordinary people would rather die than confront the need to do better as a species. VP of Editorial, Siobhan O’Connor, writes: “The human desire for escape is a strong one. In fact, our brains are wired for it. We are wired to avoid discomfort. To fantasise. To drink wine or do drugs or play video games to make it all go away. For those humans in confinement, mental or physical, the urge to seek freedom from terrible situations is desperately real. On a more mundane level, we all want fun, adventure, and play — that’s escape too.” Unfortunately, escapism leaves the problems wholly unaddressed and as a result, they’re recurrent. It’s a dead end. It doesn’t lead to a way out of the trap. Scroll Free September isn’t going to get us there.

Doctors in general practice now informally talk about a condition they’ve named “Shit Life Syndrome” – defined as a lack of community support for thriving, happy lives. It’s not the same as depression, except as a rational response to awful life circumstances. It can’t be treated with pills. Indeed, it’s not a medical problem at all, at root, except for the devastating knock-on health consequences that arise as a result of having a shit life. Yet as a society, we treat the afflicted as losers, afraid the contagion will spread to us, rather than rescuing the drowning. We behave as if Shit Life Syndrome is not our problem. Instead, we punish those that are suffering, in the belief that increased cruelty can make the problem go away. Indeed, this is the official policy of the Department of Work and Pensions and people voted for it. As a society, we do anything but embrace each other in solidarity and compassion, holding each other gently and reverently, in common purpose.

There’s an American psychiatrist that says the way to deal with “Trump Trauma” is optimism. I don’t think so. I agree with author Umair Haque that people “need to learn something about America’s dark side and [understand its inherent] flaws.” Then you can gain some power, because you can begin to see solutions and the arbitrary nature of the constraints that give rise to the problems. “Optimism”, he says, is a nonsensical response, at this point. You can’t use naive belief in things magically working out for the best as your way out of an event as traumatic as a fascist collapse, which is precisely what we are beginning to witness, globally. According to Haque, you need to start at square one. “For many of us, that means rebuilding our identities, the meanings of ourselves and our societies, reevaluating moral and social worlds. It’s not easy. It’s real psychological work.”

We need to address our insatiable hungers and the shame we carry for knowing our cravings are pathological by building safety, gratification and connection. The solution won’t be found through self-compassion that operates solely on the individual as an isolated unit, but it might as a species. This isn’t about self-help. Compassion toward all people is sorely needed. While trying to cure ourselves of excess greedy individualism, the solution cannot be to turn inward and try to do it on your own. If mindfulness can help each person feel less shame for having been programmed to desire things they can neither use nor need, then surely mindfulness of an entire population can heal a society that has grown rapacious, selfish, cruel, domineering, venal, conquering, mean, narcissistic and brutal. Our society will only heal itself through participation in it, not abandonment of it.

True self-sufficiency is a myth, so attempting to ease your own discomfort with the way the world treats you by trying to be even more self-sufficient is folly of the highest order. The leaders that pretend to be strongmen are deceiving you. They are no better equipped to soothe the intense loneliness, feelings of unworthiness, feelings of worthlessness, feelings of insatiable hunger and shame for feeling that way than any other human being. Increasing the isolation and cruelty, or punishing those you think weak and undeserving, won’t reduce our sense of neediness, the futility of grasping, our competitiveness and the layers of self-hatred we attempt to smother it with. We can’t possibly fill the aching internal hollowness by corroding our own souls away even further.

Happiness isn’t something you get. It’s something you give.

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The Corporate Takeover of Humanity

Humanity suffers from many anxieties – both real and imagined. Perhaps one of the most foreboding is the rise of the machines, whereby a combination of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation renders humans obsolete. This thought generally terrifies us, especially if we already live precarious lives, clinging on desperately to eke out a living that only just pays for our continued existence. When you’re staring into the abyss of annihilation and oblivion, from the very edge of viability, the idea that something tireless, cheaper and ruthlessly efficient can throw you out of the niche you need to occupy to safeguard your existence is very threatening indeed.

What unnerves us most is the indifference of our foe. It doesn’t care at all about human well-being, programmed as it is to maximise profit, efficiency and growth. Humans are mere collateral damage in this relentless march toward economic optimisation. Machines have no empathy or compassion and are single-minded in their pursuit of their pre-programmed aims, enduring far beyond human endurance. We know we lack the capacity to compete, because we have needs for food, sleep, rest and relationships, which our adversaries are able to eschew without hindrance. In addition, it could command an intelligence far beyond the capabilities of the human mind. It’s very easy to feel doomed.

The scenario that terrifies us most is that, in spite of our best intentions, we might create a force more powerful than all of humanity, with a value system that doesn’t necessarily incorporate human welfare. Once it reaches a critical mass, this force could take over the world, control human activity, and essentially suck all life out of the Earth, while it optimizes for its own ends. It’s a terrifying prospect, which some of our most intelligent thinkers, such as the late Stephen Hawking, regard as “the worst event in the history of our civilisation”, were it to come to fruition.

While we dread this scenario as some future, dystopian misery, we’ve overlooked something very obvious. Humanity is already facing an existential threat from an artificial intelligence we created hundreds of years ago. This doomsday machine has been operating relentlessly against us, since its inception, growing in power and effectiveness, year-by-year. Our human invention is now so powerful, that governments and individuals are virtually powerless in opposition to it. It commands unimaginably vast resources and is answerable only to its owners, but even then only in aggregate, not as individuals. It’s called the Corporation.

This line of argument is developed cogently and lucidly, by the author Jeremy Lent, in this excellent article, which I urge you to read:

The thrust of the article is that the threat we fear most is already here, hiding in plain sight, but we don’t dare acknowledge it, so afeared of it have we become. To quote from the article, “If corporations were in fact real persons, they would be sociopaths, completely lacking the ability for empathy that is a crucial element of normal human behavior. Unlike humans, however, corporations are theoretically immortal, cannot be put in prison, and the larger multinationals are not constrained by the laws of any individual country.”

In other words, we already live in the dystopia we dread and have done for hundreds of years. That’s not meant to comfort you and lull you into the torpor of complacency. It’s an alarm. Things are already worse than we think. The time to take corrective action is now. The time for preventative action is long past. We can but marvel at the stupidity and blindness of our forebears. How did they allow this terrible thing to be born, let alone grow into the monster it has become?

Corporations behave like cancer. They’re programmed to grow at all costs, consuming whatever they need to consume, to achieve the single-minded goal of growth. It doesn’t need a reason, or justification to grow – just an imperative. It’s impulse is to crush whatever obstacles it encounters and to continue to grow, even when further growth makes no rational or objective sense. Like cancer, it metastasises and is very difficult to cure or kill. All it knows how to do is spread and dominate, overwhelming and devouring all that it encounters.

Unlike AI, though, the thinking substrate underlying the Corporation’s actions is not a machine. It’s intelligence is not a programme, so its consequences are not inevitable. They can be resisted and changed. We can change the operating system by modifying the wetware.

Corporations have founders and these people are human beings, not computer code running on banks of faceless servers, in mammoth data centres. They’re people, not machines. It is their behaviour that is giving Corporations their inhuman and inhumane complexion. They set the tone and expectations. It’s their culture which the corporation replicates and ruthlessly executes. If the founder, or board, or management team have sociopathic tendencies, the corporation will magnify and propagate them. Corporations do what they’re told.

The explicit mission of corporations can be distilled into a single intention: make all the profit.

Control it all and deny any of it to any other entity. Become the sole repository of any and all profit it is possible to have. Don’t leave a single penny lying on the table. Do whatever it takes to grab all the profit. That’s the entire programme. In the final analysis, this is all corporations do and were ever intended to do. They have no other explicit purpose.

Here’s why it’s a brain-damaged programme: once corporations have made all the profit, they don’t know what to do with it. Like a small dog chasing a bus, corporations don’t know what to do with the money, if they ever catch it. All the terrible damage to humanity, the living world and the planet is done during this blind, misdirected pursuit, which has no meaningful purpose. Corporations grow and make profit only to grow and make profit.

Corporations have owners and they’re people too. Wealthy people. The wealthiest corporate owners live absurd lives, devoid of any idea of what to do with their insane wealth. Just like their corporations, they don’t know what to do usefully with all that money either. They lack the wisdom, empathy and humanity to do much more that shower themselves in pampered opulence, or else use their wealth to exert their power and influence, coercing other humans to comply with their whims and will. The failure of their collective imagination is staggering.

Instead of shaping the world they inhabit into a paradise for all, which is well within their means, they propose colonising Mars, tacitly admitting they’ve terminally trashed Earth in the process of making all the profit. That’s folly. They’d miss piano music, for one thing. How long do you suppose it will be before anyone could make a Mars-built piano, out of only Martian resources? It’s a project beyond the wealth of our billionaires, by orders of magnitude. And that’s just pianos. Imagine the literally millions of other aspects of a good life on Earth that Martian immigrants would lack and miss terribly, whose absence would impoverish existence. There aren’t enough resources on Earth to fully terraform a remote planet.

This is the salient point. Corporations are comprised of human beings, playing the role of sociopathic robots, in a massive act of collective self-harm. Each person behave like there is no alternative, but this absurd proposition is far from true. Corporations do not need to be programmed the way they are. The humans that comprise them do not have to behave sociopathically, in the image of the corporations they serve. There is nothing inevitable about what corporations do, or how its human members behave. We invented corporations. They are an abstract construct we thought up. For that reason, they could have any other intention we gave them.

It’s unfortunately undeniable that, given the corporation’s mandate, many individuals take it as license to behave sociopathically. They gleefully exercise petty authority, subtly torturing their colleagues in myriad passive-aggressive ways. They get off on it. This begs a very important question: why are some people attracted to being able to misbehave like this on a daily basis? What’s wrong with them? From whence springs the tendency for Sadism, when the sum total of the corporation’s activities ultimately leads to shared, prolonged misery for all of humanity?

Who destroys the environment? Who crushes competitors? Who strives for monopoly positions, so that they can exploit humanity to the extreme, by creating and imposing artificial scarcities? It’s corporate members. When you’re devoting your life to the cause of maximising artificial scarcity, it can only mean something like: “I impoverish people.” My work is to make life less tolerable for other people.

For an excellent perspective on why artificial scarcity is anathema to human well-being, I recommend you read this:

How do we go home, after a day’s work in a typical corporate job and imagine the destructive robot destroying our lives and our environment is “corporations”? It’s not. It’s us. Look in the mirror. It’s our mindsets that have been taken over.

We invented corporations, made the rules, then allowed ourselves to lower our standards of moral and ethical behaviour to the bare minimum required by law of the corporations we work in. We use our membership of the corporation as our “out”. Our appeal is always that we were just following corporate orders, as mandated by their legally-defined mission to grow, irrespective of what laws need to be broken, or the damage done in the process. The failure is our own.

If we develop artificial intelligence, machine learning, robots and automation like we built corporations, then we truly risk unleashing something dark and autonomous, which no longer comprises fallible, but ultimately correctable human beings. It will be out of our control. It will be a creation with no “off” switch that can annihilate us all.

If we can’t demonstrate a willingness and determination to correct what’s wrong at the heart of corporations, then we demonstrably lack the insight or wisdom to unleash artificial intelligence on an unsuspecting world. The challenge of reconstructing and reforming the corporation is our last and only chance to prove we can create something that puts human and living system well-being above other values. If we can’t make empathetic, compassionate corporations, we definitely can’t construct empathetic and compassionate robots. That will be the proof.

At least most artists don’t participate in corporations, though it’s almost unavoidable to have to interact with them in some capacity. We can use the values and behaviour of artists as the chrysalis of a model for how corporations can be remade into servants of humanity, rather than runaway, renegade, ruthless, cruel masters. Regrettably, nobody is discussing revising the core purpose of corporations in these terms. It’s as if it’s a non-problem. Yet, I submit we are at a crossroads and taming the excesses of corporate behaviour is an acid test of our ability, as human beings, to raise the quality of our thought beyond that of the simple automatons we created three hundred and fifty years ago, when we brought corporations into existence. We either continue to emulate sociopathic robots, both individually and as a population, or we aim for something higher.

The gauntlet had been thrown down before us. The choice is ours to make.

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Old, Ignored Ideas

Writing something worth reading has become difficult, lately. Due to the chaotic state of global politics, we’re awash with shocking, sickening, outrageous, alarming, disgusting, unprecedented things to read all the time. There are more polemics, accusations and denials than you can shake a stick at. We’re all more or less fully occupied grappling with what it all portends, or else hiding from it like scared little children, that moments of clarity are exceedingly rare.

Distressingly, many people, when presented with incontrovertible evidence of their own government’s malfeasance, go into a kind of manic, violent, blinkered meltdown, insisting that they’re still the good guys and at least they’re not as bad as the horrible bogeymen they’ve been programmed to fear and despise since childhood, but the truth is different. The truth is that their system of government has been every bit as evil and murderous as any other system of government, if not more so. The problem is and always was blind obedience to hierarchies of corrupted power. It is government.

Denial of this kind is just another species of hiding like scared little children. It’s infantile, because it comes from a place of wilful ignorance. They believe what they’ve been told, accepted uncritically, without independent reading or investigation. The cognitive dissonance they’re experiencing now is so overwhelming that they must resort to pure fantasy to avert breakdown.

It’s time to behave courageously, like proper adults. If we don’t, who will? Do we believe that hiding or hand wringing will save us? If events leave us confused and paralysed, is that an adequate response? More importantly, how is looking after your own mental health, as the only effective action you take, going to help? Will it work, or simply perpetuate the constant assault on your mental health and maybe even amplify it? Now is the right time to take events in hand and seek to control them a bit more, rather than simply reacting the whole time.

At moments like this, in history, it’s worth stepping back to identify what isn’t being discussed and debated, but ought to be. What isn’t on the rolling news agenda, that should be added with urgency? We’re all so caught up in the drama of betrayal and dirty tricks, by shysters and charlatans, where key decisions of national importance are taken solely on the basis of deceptive dark money influence and nasty, sordid blackmail, that few people are paying much attention to what to do next. We collectively have no viable plan. We’re all just rolling over and playing dead. There isn’t a lively discussion about how to move forward positively and with optimism.

Instead, there are numerous appeals to return everything to some previous known state of stability. That’s impossible and undesirable. Even if you could do it, if that state of affairs, in our rose-tinted past, which we vaguely recall and maybe completely imagined, was so solid and dependable, we couldn’t have gotten here from there. Rewinding the tape and replaying it all again just gets you to the same end point. That’s just not the answer.

Going back to how it was before, or applying our previous solutions, but this time with more commitment, simply isn’t going to work. More Neoliberalism, Stalinism, Predatory Surveillance Capitalism, Objectivism, Statism, Religion, inequality, competition, cruelty and technology-led, artificially-intelligent automation can’t get us there. Those ideas have played out and are exhausted.

We have to learn from our collective failures and innovate, but where to start? What haven’t we seriously tried?

It turns out there were threads of thought that came to nothing, in the past, not because they were no good, disproven, fruitless, unworkable or impractical, but simply because we lost interest in developing those ideas any further, at the time. We abandoned them, half-baked, because we were distracted by something else – usually by calls to stay the course, or to redouble our efforts on some existing plan of action that patently wasn’t working. Consequently, we’ve left many potentially good ideas lying on the table.

Dusting some of these orphaned ideas off and remodelling them for current circumstances gives us something useful to think about. Our way forward might emerge from seeding our thinking with long forgotten ideas, representing the road not yet travelled. This, I claim, is how to catalyse innovation on what we could do to get ourselves out of the present mess.

Here’s why I think this way. At the risk of trivialising my case, I have some tiny examples, from the practice of making art, that prove the point in microcosm. The painting technique known as glazing is rarely pursued, these days, because it’s slow and messy, requiring a great deal of patience and discipline, but the results are wonderful. Manufacturers of art supplies haven’t sold premixed, short open time glazes, which would make the process easier and faster. Could that happen? For sure. Why hasn’t it? Because it’s an old, ignored idea. Similarly, some spectacular painting effects are possible with acrylic gels and mediums, but too few painters experiment with them or know how to use them effectively. More old, ignored ideas. In music, voice leading rules reveal much about musical consonance and tension resolution, but few musicians study them. Old, ignored ideas.

As a species, we seem to spend a lot of time needlessly, wilfully lost, as solutions have already been found, but we fail to acknowledge them. What to do to reverse the epidemic of obesity has been known since Banting. Sugar has been known to be the toxic root cause of multiple prematurely fatal and debilitating diseases at least since Yudkin. Health, today, is becoming less mysterious through simply reviving and rethinking some old, forgotten, ignored ideas.

So, what are some old, ignored ideas that could begin to inform discussions about a brighter economic, environmental and political future for the inhabitants of this small, fragile, intimately interconnected planet? We’re dogged by problems due to staggering and accelerating inequality, underemployment, environmental destruction, failures of both governance and government and plagued by corrupted hierarchies of power. These problems have observable impacts and consequences in our personal and working lives, as individuals, as well as for society as a whole.

Society is comprised of us. If anybody is going to take corrective action to fix what’s broken in our cultures and societies, it’s going to have to be us. There isn’t anybody else. We’ve left the management of these issues to professional, paid bureaucrats and elected representatives, but it patently hasn’t worked. We’ll all have to contribute to the solutions and where humanity is found wanting, we each will need to change ourselves before we can expect any changes for the betterment of society. We are society.

Let’s address inequality, to start with. Some people don’t acknowledge it as a problem at all, but those that think higher quality thoughts have already accurately identified it as a root cause for multiple, egregious, societal maladies. What should we do about inequality? What to do about inequality has been known since Silvio Gessel, Margrit Kennedy, and Henry George. Thomas Piketty, Bernard Lietaer and David Graeber are only some of the more recent contributors of insightful analysis and plausible solutions.

There’s a large body of well-considered thought that’s worth discussing and experimenting with. We need not be helpless and clueless in the face of growing inequality and there is no justification to allow it to continue to get any worse, which is the default position of most politicians, intellectuals, pundits and the media. The general public has been kept ignorant of the positive possibilities simply because those that shape modern day narratives refuse to discuss them or make them part of their agendas. How stupid is that?

What to do about underemployment has been known since William Morris and Edward Bellamy. David Graeber has also made recent valuable contributions to the solution space. Our choices are not limited to abject unemployment, where we are annihilated because we are unable to pay for own existence and the precarity of take-it-or-leave-it zero hours contracts and the mind-numbing, exploitative, race-to-the-bottom gig economy. We squander vast reserves of human potential and well-being through our irrational fixation on the religious dogma of the Protestant work ethic.

Other ways of existing and living fulfilling, purposeful, meaningful lives exist. We just have to dust them off, consider them seriously, experiment with them and try to do better than the disastrous stalemate we’ve got. Yet you wouldn’t know it, of course, for all the exposure these ideas get in the media and corridors of power. Our institutions of governance fail us by sins of omission. When plausible, existing solutions are not acknowledged or realistically considered at all, we’re being short-changed by the ruling class, in whom we have misguidedly placed our absolute faith.

That brings us to our failing organs of governance. What to do about governance has been known since Antonio Gramsci and Albert Parsons, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Bukarin. It has been updated by Nicolas Walter and, more recently, by Ziga Vodovnik. To claim that our current democratic arrangements are the best we can do, or the least worst of all possible systems, as is glibly parroted by lazy apologists for the mess we’re in, is the very height of absurdity. Far superior systems of personal and public life – of conducting human affairs peaceably and collaboratively – are very well characterised. The literature contains a veritable feast of ideas almost never put into practice; not because they are impossible to implement or utopian (therefore unobtainable), but because the will to do so has been forever undermined by those of a conservative mindset, determined to perpetuate the bloody circus we endure now (and their own selfish privileges). This amounts to a monumental crime against humanity.

We’re nothing at all without our natural home; the planet we inhabit. If we destroy it, as we’re incentivised to do under the prevailing systems of global economics, we perish. If economics owes its origins to sensible household management, our current economic theories lead us to behave as if burning down the house is the best and only way to manage our household. It’s clear to anybody that observes with their own two eyes that we’re hurtling down the wrong track at speed, despite who claims to be making money. What to do about the environment has been known since Murray Bookchin. Kate Raworth has made recent, valuable contributions. So, why do our politicians, oligarchs, corporations, thinkers, consumers and commentators pretend this is a non-problem, with intractable challenges and no solutions? They’re lying to us and we’re deceiving ourselves.

There are fruitful discussions to be had about options for remedial environmental actions, provided we have the will to have them. The fact that none of this is front and centre in our consciousnesses, and only superficially paid lip service by those that set the agenda of the prevailing narrative – the stories we tell ourselves – is just another vivid illustration of how terminally broken and deficient our institutions of governance really are. We have to address them both.

We’re wedded to our myriad dysfunctional hierarchies and bureaucratic power structures. Everything takes on the complexion of Feudalism, with their equivalents of kings, vassals and serfs. Every goddam organisation is a little tyranny, modelled after a mini-monarchy. How to replace hierarchies with other forms of organisation has been known since hyperlinks. Our entire Internet is literally a living, working example of a viable and superior solution. Does anybody apply it to their corporation or national government? Do they reshape their public services this way? No!

The thing that is most galling for those of us that have done the reading and made ourselves aware of the seeds of possibility is that we routinely and monotonously encounter a point-blank refusal to resurrect old, ignored ideas to find a way to change things for the better. They’re not even entertained, but rather dismissed immediately, as if they had already been comprehensively discredited and disproven. This eagerness to refuse to consider these ideas is rooted in blind prejudices and ossified class distinctions. Their objections are invariably regurgitated counter-propaganda, promulgated at the time, to kill these possibilities at birth. Why? Because vested interests didn’t want to risk their wealth and privileges, staked on a gamble of a better future for all.

Small, cowardly minds shut these alternatives down, before they could take root, for reasons of pure fear and selfishness – unrelated to the quality or viability of the proposals. “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” in the immortal, satirical words of Groucho Marx. This habit of killing promising innovations at their very inception is not one of humanity’s more admirable and edifying tendencies.

What do we have instead? Fixed mindsets, wallowing in the mire of filth of unsatisfactory, unworkable settlements within our society. Tensions build to breaking point, yet they remain obsessed by appeals to ideas that haven’t worked and have no possibility of working. Dead horses are viciously flogged. “Stay the course and keep the faith,” they cry.

Dominic Raab, the latest British minister for negotiating Brexit, believes in more of the same Neoliberal solutions that have been imposed on the populace since the time of Margaret Thatcher, only greatly amplified. He doesn’t believe in economic, human and social rights (only because he already has his). What his colleagues in the ERG (European Research Group) believe is that we should all endure a thinly disguised form of slavery, while the ruling classes enjoy the spoils. This, to them, is the natural and proper order of things, with themselves at the pinnacle of their permanent hierarchy. It’s feudal and ignorant, based on nothing more substantial than pure presumption and prejudice, in order to purposely preserve existing inequalities, but magnify them. Indeed, this is and has always been the main function of a State.

Yet, there is a discussion to be had, by all of society, about whether this arrangement will do. For the vast majority, it represents unrelenting misery, punctuated only by the unmitigated terror of having one’s life prematurely annihilated by a stroke of random misfortune. It won’t do at all and seeking to impose it by force will lead to unpredictable, unintended consequences. It always does, in the end.

Billionaire Robert Mercer seeks to change your beliefs (in both the US and the UK, given his funding footprint) to his own Objectivist views, through artificial intelligence, micro-targeted propaganda and personal social media data, harvested illicitly as feedstock for privately funded psy-ops. He seeks to change minds, without those minds even being aware that they’re being cynically manipulated, for someone else’s opaque ends. Unfortunately, his ideas are an extreme version of Neoliberalism, not social, humanist or anarchistic, based as they are on the cod philosophy of a hypocritical and long-dead author. He wants to be at the top of the global hierarchy he envisages, not the bottom. In essence, he wants freedom without equality, but anarchists, for one group of thinkers, concluded long ago that freedom and equality are two aspects of the very same thing. I have no meaningful freedom, if you don’t have yours. Equality is a necessary pre-condition for anybody to enjoy freedom. You can’t have freedom without equality. Objectivism is a pipe dream.

It’s a brutal information war, though, waged by the established order, using deception and disinformation, against those that wish to create a better world. It plays out in your world view, mind, belief systems, frameworks of understanding, mental health and ultimately the ballot box. Our likes and preferences have been weaponised against us. The battlefield is inside all our heads. Your thoughts are not your own and your head is filled with garbage that somebody else benefits from you believing. Most of it isn’t even true. That’s where we are now.

In the 60s, the US federal authorities reacted to the New Left’s growing power by establishing COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), whose primary objective was to systematically “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralise” leftist activists and political organisations. The words of the document with which the program was enforced are merely a euphemism for the many assassinations of visible members of the movements, including some highly visible artists working in popular culture. Their deaths were explained away as rock star excess, leading to regrettable misadventure. This, of course, was a massive lie.

The intelligence programme worked. The diseased, moribund, corrupted edifice of the existing order continued unchallenged, from that day to this. A dead hand has obstructed human progress, so that a tiny elite could continue to profit and for these guys, too much is never enough – their appetites are never satiated. The price we all pay, of course, is that pressing existential threats to our survival remained (and remain) unaddressed and were greatly exacerbated. The cost of all that opulent profiteering was imperilling life on Earth.

Now, billionaires are using the same tactics and techniques to accomplish the same thing the intelligence agencies used to busy themselves with, like good obedient dogs. They fund and execute private campaigns that are almost indistinguishable from COINTELPRO in nature. That’s why promising alternatives are never discussed. Things are deliberately (and expensively) arranged so that it can never happen.

If it weren’t for the active and deliberate suppression of ideas that are alternatives to the prevailing status quo, we could, today, be having a lively public debate about Transcendentalism, as originally expounded by Thoreau and Whitman, for example. How would we adapt that for modern circumstances? Could that be made compatible with a Universal Basic Income, designed to be maximally empathetic and compassionate? How could we, as a society, better invest in people, communities and the infrastructure that unites us all in common purpose and interest? Could we unlock untapped human potential better than we accomplish with predatory capitalism?

Do we believe in universal personhood and humanism, or are we lonely, calculating, self-interested, consumption robots, as current economic theory and government policy would have you believe? Are we alive only to enrich a select few, or is our greater purpose to ensure everybody thrives? Is there a way we could all upgrade the quality of our thinking? Could debt cancellation, along the lines of ancient jubilees, allow us to break deadlocks and reset our society, entangled as it is in financial servitude? Would decentralisation of systems and governance break the monopoly stranglehold on unequal power that paralyses so much of society today? How can we change the orthodoxies and prevailing narratives creatively?

As you can, I hope, see, there’s a lot we could be considering and thinking about, together, which could radically alter the complexion of our lives for the better, but we’re not because we’re led by the nose, slavishly following the dominant media agenda. Is that how you want to spend your brief time on Earth and one precious life?

The more astute of you that go and research the ideas I’ve mentioned will learn that some of them have a common ancestor in anarchist thought. This association alone may tempt you to immediately dismiss everything out of hand, but you’d be throwing the baby out with the bath water. It can’t be denied that factions within the anarchist tradition have, at various times, advocated and engaged in violence, but I claim they’re an irrelevant minority today, no longer operative and that the core anarchist philosophy has much to offer, despite the historical taint of destruction.

Remember that the caricature of the anarchist, maniacally bent on mayhem, disorder and chaos, with a bomb hidden under their coat, is one that the establishment propagated to exaggerate and neutralise the threat of an idea that could have shifted power substantially away from them, the then ruling elite. As a movement, it was purposefully vilified, ridiculed and humiliated, turning it into a joke at best, or an idea decent people didn’t even think about at worst, by the oligarchs of the day. The reason the idea was so feared was that it contained within it a deep and undeniable truth about the nature of humanity – nobody wants to be owned by anybody.

The result of the extended negative portrayal of this philosophical tradition is that the mud sticks, even to this day. It matters little that modern thinkers have reshaped and refined the basic ideas into something far more benign and peaceable than the governments they seek to replace. People still associate its key ideas with frightening, fearful, murdrous crime waves, without end. They don’t see it as a cooperative, collaborative, mutually-beneficial, social enterprise, with obligations and responsibilities that our current elected representatives only too gleefully abrogate.

Because this ruler-free mindset has been designated “unthinkable” for generations, the consequence has been that our current democracies have, in fact, been turned into authoritarian “Representative Oligarchies”, over time. They are now rapidly morphing into Kleptofascism. I urge you to approach potentially workable ideas without the baggage of century-old propaganda. There’s much more to them, if you care to do the reading.

Instead of ordinary people asserting their sovereignty, en masse, we are instead invited to place our faith in think tanks, as sources of innovative policies for the betterment of society. A little bit of cursory research into the origins and function of these largely opaque think tanks reveals that such faith is terribly misplaced. Think tanks are not going to innovate or change the orthodoxy of current policy. They are explicitly “dealers in second hand ideas”, not originators.

Some of the more forceful of the think tanks are merely peddling regurgitated, but markedly distorted and corrupted versions of Hayek’s Neoliberalism – a mechanistic, technocratic, self-contradictory body of ideas that seeks to establish pure market freedom by top-down government manipulation, planning, distortion and control. It badly misjudges the motivations and values of humanity. The application of Neoliberalism and it’s bastard cousin Monetarism has not only singularly failed to deliver the predicted benefits, but its unintended, unforeseen consequences have literally killed people.

The best ideas think tanks have to offer have run out of road, yet up to this present moment, that’s what zealots in government are pushing forward, with gusto. In their blind faith, they’re proposing and enacting “purer” forms of this catastrophic body of theory, greatly worsening and deepening the damage. Think tanks are more like AstroTurf PR organisations and agitators, like big tobacco famously employed, rather than deep, original thinkers. They pretend to represent the grass-roots opinion of a majority of people, but are in reality the mouthpieces of the vested interests that fund them, who assiduously remain cloaked and anonymous. Think tanks have conned us and taken us for a ride.

Orthodox political thought can become so ossified and sclerotic that those in power fail to understand why unexpected sectors of the demographic seek to reform and replace them. It catches them unawares, by surprise. To quote the author Edward Lengel, “One of the biggest blind spots of the US government from 1918-1945 was its underestimation of communism’s public appeal. Many officials thought the doctrine so obviously pernicious—and foreign—that it would find followers only among the foolish, the desperate, and the criminal. In fact, many American converts to communism were well-placed intellectuals, social elites, and civil servants. The proximate cause of their attraction to communism was the catastrophe of the Great Depression, which led many in the western world to believe that capitalism and democracy were no longer viable. Men in the FBI and intelligence services often simply refused to believe the evidence before their eyes that intelligent, privileged and well-placed Americans not only sympathized with communism but were prepared to work for the Soviet Union. When the truth finally emerged, it instigated shock leading both to determined awareness and paranoia that some erstwhile traitors used for their own purpose.”

Unfortunately, this historical experience means that the intelligence services are, today, hypervigilant and hair-trigger paranoid about ideas that challenge the established orthodoxy of Capitalism, as it is currently practiced. Now, as then, they cannot see why ideas “so obviously pernicious” would appeal to well-placed, intelligent and privileged people, but they underestimate the fact that predatory, neoliberal capitalism is widely seen as he proximate cause of the 2008 banking catastrophe, its subsequent public bail-outs, the resultant austerity policies and the bare-faced insolence of the unrepentant financial community, who went back to reckless business as usual, priming a repeat of the sudden breakdown of the global economy, only to a much greater degree, in the near, anticipated, indeterminate future.

Despite the dangers, the only viable way to prevent global disaster is for ordinary people, not intellectuals, corporate executives, politicians, pundits, lobbyists and security services, to begin to discuss, debate and reshape old, ignored ideas, independent of the think tanks we all believed were supposed to be doing that for us.

The twitter account @SageThinker recently observed: “As you are well aware, the best minds of our generation are serving the stupidest whims of the super wealthy people. The entire system is a pyramid scheme that is grinding the souls and intellectual life of people into dust from our vertebrae.” We don’t have to accept that role. It’s crucial that we don’t.

If you do answer the call to action, to start discussing and shaping alternative systems of organising human affairs than we endure and suffer today, be forewarned. It’s really difficult to fight your own biases and propagandised programming, to think differently and adopt new assumptions, habits and behaviour. We start from a position of having had our minds utterly corrupted and poisoned. Self-awareness of the imposed limits of our objectivity is a necessary pre-condition for thinking up innovative ways to remake society. We’re all hampered by the lies we’ve been told; most of which we still regard as truth, despite he glaring inconsistencies.

“Few understand how deeply their worldview is shaped by narratives advanced by manipulators with ulterior motives, whether by mass media propaganda, by family members, or by ancient religions promoted by ancient governments. Who has benefited from the ideas you hold in your mind?” writes Caitlin Johnstone.

“Many people would rather die than see themselves proven wrong,” says Bob Marshall. “The less [people] know about a subject, the less expertise they have in a field or domain, the more aggrieved and aggressive they get about that warped relationship,” adds Umair Haque.

So much of what people believe is incorrect, but they’re too cowardly to entertain the possibility of the alternative, in practice. They lack the courage to live in a different way to the generally intolerable way they live today. It’s maddeningly self-sabotaging, but any open, public debate that seeks to question, challenge and replace apparently stable institutions and ways of living that are seemingly intractably embedded in our lives, will need to grapple with this perverse reality. The people that need things to change most will welcome those changes least. They’ll resist, against their own interests, not because the change is wrong, but because they cannot envisage an improved reality. They fear, somewhat rationally, that the promises won’t be fulfilled. They definitely won’t be, unless we’re prepared to try, learn and adapt.

“Americans don’t seem to even understand, remember, or know that collective action exists’” says Umair Haque. The same could be said of most democratic nations. Collective courage comes from lots of individuals, acting in solidarity, resisting together, as one.

A brighter future, in which we thrive, enjoying universal prosperity, is no mystery. We just have to stop billionaires and oligarchs from suppressing these ideas, propagandising against them and calling all the shots. We have become so possessed by the ideology of our age that we cannot think outside it. Libertarianism isn’t a licence to behave like predators; it’s an obligation to behave with compassion and generosity. That idea got lost, somewhere along the way.

Saying you don’t like politics and don’t want to talk about it condemns you to being a distressed and helpless passenger on the train wreck. For the sake of your mental health, learn about and begin discussing the alternative possibilities. This is your best chance to take back control – with your own mind and hands, not delegated to crooks with questionable motivations. Don’t free ride on somebody else’s conception of what’s clearly good for them, but unacceptable for you.

You can get people to internalise beliefs by addressing them as if they already had those beliefs. That’s what has been done to you. You’ve internalised beliefs because the authorities and the media have spoken to you as if you already think those thoughts. Now, you need to examine those planted beliefs and question whether they’re really in your best interests. Usually they’re not. Once public discussion determines new, preferential, benign ideas for a way out of the current mess, those can be internalised by people that initially oppose them, by the same means. Speak to them as if they already believe the new, alternative ideas. It works both ways, you see.

People hide like scared children from political chaos because they don’t know what to do, to achieve some positive outcome or effect. They feel powerless and helpless because they were taught to feel that way, but they have agency and sovereignty, which they can choose to exercise. Discussions starting from old, ignored ideas could offer enlightenment and encouragement and that’s a good enough reason to have them. We have to discuss what to do next, starting from promising threads of thought that were never seriously pursued, because that’s the only viable course of action we have left. The present approaches are demonstrably broken beyond repair.

Enough analysis. Let’s get on with some synthesis. Let’s re-examine some old, ignored ideas.

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Infinite Options, Finite Self

Have you ever heard that phrase, “drowning, not waving”? It can feel that way when you’ve bitten off lots of projects, but you’re struggling to complete any of them. Suddenly, you can feel like you’re under water, barely coping with the self-imposed workload. That alone can begin to erode your confidence and optimism. You lose motivation because of the enormity of the tasks you’ve set yourself.Right now, I have projects galore. It’s honestly insane. The sheer volume of tasks waiting for me to do them can start to feel oppressive. No matter what you get done, you feel guilty for not doing something else that needs doing. It’s a problem all of my own making. Like the hapless coyote chasing the seemingly turbo-charged roadrunner, the suffering can stop in an instant, simply by giving up.This situation has lead me to a realisation. I used to think that the number of things I could take on was limited by the time and money I had to devote to them. To a first approximation, this has indeed been true for much of my life. I was working very hard just to get by, so any other creative pursuits were a luxury, constrained by how much spare time I had left over and the extent of my disposable income, which has been extremely limited at times. As I get older, I’ve come to realise that there are many other limits, most of which I was able to completely ignore before, because time and money constraints predominated. These days, I encounter the limits of my courage, confidence, mindset for growth and learning, my available brain power, how long I can stay focused, the speed at which I can learn and the temptations of doing other easier things instead. Also, I increasingly bump into my body’s finite energy, which is a function of my health.Everybody ages and working hard for decades takes its toll on your general health. You’re not as energetic and abusable as you were in your twenties and thirties. Now, I find I have to ration my energy carefully. The decades of neglecting my well being, in order to pull all-nighters, work stressful sixty hour weeks or fly all over the planet, for the good of the company I depended on to get by, means that I don’t have the resilience and reserves of energy I once had. They’ve been depleted.The money and tools or materials you need to attempt the things you want to do is a difficult, but sometimes solvable problem. So is finding the time. Through unfortunate circumstances, I found myself with both the time and money to try to do some new things, this year. Although painful, it actually presented me with the rare opportunity to invest in myself and my family, so that we could attempt some personal moonshots. I’m grateful for that. It’s not an opportunity that comes often, in a lifetime.The sudden appearance of such an opportunity tempts you to try to play catch up, so you launch twenty or thirty pent up projects you’ve always wanted to do, at the same time, simply because the opportunity to do so comes so rarely and you feel compelled to seize it, when it does. Who’s to say that’s wrong? I feel if you can do something that pushes you to grow personally, then you should. It’s your duty. The only down side is you don’t know where any of it will lead, if anywhere at all. All you know is that you’re engaged in personal development and growth.It’s all on you.That’s a heavy realisation. If you don’t reach your goals, it’s because you weren’t tenacious or persistent enough, not focused enough, not resilient enough, not brave enough, not optimistic enough, not fast enough or bright enough, not healthy enough, not confident enough, not as good as you needed to be, fast enough. Your failure, a prerequisite for your learning, will be all your own.The constant fear is that the opportunity will evaporate as quickly as it appeared, before you achieve any traction. Not body wants to blow a golden opportunity.For all my life, I’ve felt ready, willing and able to attempt ambitious projects, but was usually without the means to start them. What happens when you find you have the means, but maybe aren’t as ready, or willing, or able as you thought you were and need to be? All you can do is address whichever ones you’re not. You can make yourself ready to climb your personal mountain by developing disciplined work habits. Just show up regularly and move forward by intentional, small steps. Heck, that’s hard enough. You can increase your ability to work hard on your dreams by addressing your health. There are bound to be things you can do to arrest the decline resulting from aging and neglect. Time spent restoring your mind and body is time well spent. If you find you’re lacking the will, then any time you spend working out your “Why” – the motivation for wanting to do these new things in the first place – can yield moments of clarity.In short, the first project you need to get done is to work on yourself. Address your own fears, doubts, fatigue and physical state. Failure to do so will continually tax your many other projects. Usually, you’ll have to work on yourself while you’re working on your other projects. Be aware that this is what’s slowing you down, though.Another new realisation that comes from having the opportunity to try and learn new things is that getting good at what you’re learning takes much longer than you think. This is why good work habits are so important. You just have to put in the work and accept that your initial efforts are going to disappoint you, perhaps for years and years, before things start to gel. There just isn’t any way around this. You’re going to suffer with how badly you suck at what you want to do well for quite a while, multiplied by the number of new things you’re attempting to learn. The pain and struggle is real and praise or appreciation for your efforts is in the far future, if it ever comes at all. Some artists die long before the public comes to appreciate their work.I’ll end this post with a quote from self-described rogue journalist Caitlin Johnstone:“If you don’t depend on running the rat race for some corporate boss in order for your family to have health insurance, you’re suddenly free to innovate, create, and become an economically powerful entrepreneur yourself.” It’s not that done a deal, though. Entrepreneurial work is hard. Innovation and creation are even harder. Being free to try is only clearing the first obstacle. Getting it done will mean facing your personal limitations like never before. Once you have the means and opportunity to recreate and upgrade yourself, then and only then the real struggle begins.

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The Veneer of Civility

To be an artist is to risk more or less constant opprobrium from the more conservative-minded members of the population.

We know this to be true. We’ve all experienced it, in response to some mildly radical artistic statement we may have made, at one time or another, even if inadvertently. There are some people only too eager to denigrate your work and tell you all the reasons why they don’t like it, whether or not you’ve asked for their opinion.

They dislike disruption, change or having their world views or belief systems challenged in any way. Seeing things differently causes them intense cognitive discomfort. Consequently, they tend to be the sharpest and most vicious critics of contemporary artists. Often, their criticisms amount to little more than a peculiar set of personal preferences, rather than appeals to objective quality or aesthetic criteria.

Who are the people that critique our art? What are they like? Are they as wise and all-knowing as they pretend to be? Do they have a connection to some mystical, objective, superior insight or truth, as they like to posture? Why do they feel an entitlement to pontificate, as if they have the weight of a sensible majority on their side? Indeed, what makes a popularly-held point of view inherently virtuous and correct? History is littered with concrete evidence to the contrary.

Let’s put their assumed wisdom under scrutiny. What does it really amount to?

At the risk of unfairly stereotyping, let me attempt to sketch a typical specimen. The unifying idea that seems to underpin the values of all those that vociferously criticise creative people has its roots in a Bronze Age parable – the punishment meted out by God to Adam and Eve for their original sin. They were sentenced to the burden of childbirth and of enforced labour to feed, house and clothe a family.

As a consequence of unquestioned belief in this biblical story, being a hard-worker is seen as commendable; almost virtuous. The insult, “get a job” is intended to insinuate that someone is lazy and contributing very little to society, while “hard-working people” are considered morally decent citizens. In the eyes of people that consider themselves to be hard-working, all artists are jobless and hence, lazy and parasitic. Their very independence is taken as justification to dehumanise them.

Let’s put aside, for the moment, that the people that consider themselves to be hard-working rarely make useful things, or provide care, but are instead engaged in various forms of stealing value, or living off unearned incomes (such as share or property speculation, derivatives, abstruse financial instruments or otherwise collecting rent on engineered scarcities). They don’t think of the work they do as pointless, unnecessary or immoral, because it provides the requisite penitence. Their suffering, in commuting nine to five to engage in labour of dubious value, is their badge of honour.

It’s essentially a religious idea. To work is to self-mortify, in the eyes of God. Suffering has become a token of economic citizenship. Like all religious ideas, it’s an article of faith; seldom subjected to rigorous, objective analysis. It’s simply taken as axiomatic – a given. Occupying this moral high ground entitles the holder to pontificate on the worth of any artistic work by dint of their moral superiority over a dirty, lazy artist, in this hierarchical framework of privilege.

There is a terrible, problematic consequence of this way of thinking and living, however. People who are too busy working, especially if their work is pointless, don’t have the time or inclination to perform their civic duties, develop intellectual or creative interests, collaborate in community-building activities, exercise their creativity and agency, or develop sophisticated morals. They never actually develop as human beings beyond the stage of adolescents.

For these reasons, they can reach late middle age with scant exposure to, experience of or empathy for people less fortunate than themselves. They lack insight into other forms of suffering, social injustice or how the other half lives. They’ve been so self-involved in the vacuum of their careers, that they simply haven’t rounded out as human beings.

Before long, they begin to believe they have everything figured out and, by virtue of their suffering, must be infallible. You get letters to the editor like these, written by such people:

This is pure ignorance, disguised beneath superficial manners and a posh accent. It’s spiteful and frankly none of her business, but she feels compelled to expound her baseless, simplistic and empirically discredited theories anyway. She’s wholly unaware of the mounting evidence or solid science around the root causes of obesity, but doesn’t care, because she sees herself as virtuous and therefore above reproach. Her solution, in common with most people of her type, is to inflict more punishment. Suffering is virtue, after all.

I would hazard a guess that this correspondent is not an endocrinologist, with any qualifications in diet-related metabolic disorders. Clearly, she has no experience of, empathy for or insight into what it must be like to have a carbohydrate sensitivity, in a world that adds sugar and starch to most (i.e. almost all) pre-prepared food and in which official government advice offers strong encouragement to consume what is slowly killing them. Instead, she takes glee in shaming and humiliating the obese; stripping them of their dignity, personhood and right to be alive.

Welcome to conservatism with a small “c”. It lacks civility.

Conservatism, with a small “c” (though it also applies to the large “C” political philosophy) is a fear of having to think morally and ethically, or taking responsibility. Instead, there are simple rules that must be followed, without question. Cold, hard, cruel, inflexible rules. Anybody that doesn’t comply or obey is considered a threat.

Conservative-minded people have effectively outsourced civilisation, leaving it to corrupt elected representatives and the power-crazed authorities, so they can live on autopilot, pretending to be sage and sensible, but that stance being based on no direct evidence or first hand experience of living among diverse people and circumstances. It frees them to work and to to suffer. From these fertile soils springs the “what you reckon” society. It doesn’t matter what the facts are, so long as you believe fervently in your opinion.

I think that living like this, without emancipation from the very machine they participate in maintaining, which keeps everybody subservient, is a manifestation of venal cowardice. It is the real “project fear”.

The strict adherence to enforced rules, typical of this mindset, gives rise to unconscionable bullying. You may have detected this bullying attitude in the specimen letter to the editor previously cited. This thread, taken from Twitter, nicely characterises the salient features of the bully:

So, there you have it. At root, it’s all about weakness and insecurity.

Americans and Home Counties English people have this myth of themselves as radical revolutionaries, but the truth is that they’re wholly defined by incremental change. Even today, Asians, Muslims, immigrants and people of colour don’t have full personhood, in the eyes of predominantly white, conservative-minded people. They consider these “others” to be below them in their socioeconomic hierarchy and that this demarcation is right and natural. In other words, people that aren’t exactly like they are must be less than human. Artists are included in the category of untermenschen.

This extreme, incrementalist conservatism has run out of road. The time has come to let this delusional world view go. For all their posturing as wise sages, with a steady hand on the tiller, their belief system is intellectually bankrupt and indefensible. Their imagined natural hierarchy has no empirical basis or legitimacy.

The real radical revolutionaries, who include artists among their number, are fighting against the rising forces of ignorance, darkness, inhumanity, falsehood and folly; globally. Extremists, nationalists, neoconservatives, neo-fascists, racists and supremacists have risen from the ranks of small “c”conservatism. They’re a reactionary force, resisting a few undeniable, self-evident ideas as violently as their cognitive dissonance compels them. They must be faced down and resisted.

The following ideas are unarguable and self-evident, except by resort to the false comforts of supremacism and personal exceptionalism. The first idea is that every human being is entitled to full personhood. There are no vermin, animals, plagues or infestations. Every human life has the right to being regarded as a person, without discounted or denied rights, or conditional acceptance criteria. You’re either a human being, or you’re not. You can’t be a lesser human or a semi human.

Given that every human is a full person, then they’re entitled to live with dignity. There should be no shaming or humiliation, degrading treatment or violence toward them. This second idea is axiomatic. If you deny anyone their dignity, you’re denying their humanity and full personhood. That makes you a thorough-going supremacist.

The third self-evident idea is that living with dignity means you are not beholden to, or subservient to anybody. In other words, dignity requires emancipation from any and all forms of enslavement, including self-enslavement to an imaginary social hierarchy, where you are compelled to work hard at something that causes you suffering, simply to earn admission to the ranks of commendable, virtuous, morally acceptable, decent citizens. A dignified life is self-directed, self-governed and self-fulfilled. To live life as an independent artist is to taste a dignified life.

You either believe in these three big ideas, or you don’t. This, more accurately than any other dichotomy, currently categorises the two different factions of humanity currently in open conflict and delineates the points of disagreement between conservative-minded people and progressives.

Sadly, Surrey busybodies and their ilk are not yet willing to have civil discussions with people they disagree with. Yet, uncomfortable conversations are essential. The conservative mindset extrapolates to atrocity and we are alarmingly far along that path already. It’s time for something more than gradual, incremental change. Those currently living with a boot on their neck can’t and won’t wait.

We were all taught that compliance was the highest good from an early age. The opposite of compliance, we were told, is failure. Failure, when we were children, meant shame, humiliation, loss of face, loss of status, degradation and exclusion. It was abject, not recoverable through resilience, persistence and tenacity. Today, we know failure is an essential pre-requisite for learning and progress. In other words, compliance stifles us all. To amplify compliance, people in authority have instilled in us not just a fear of failure, but worse, a fear of that fear itself. This is why so many people are conservative-minded.

The reason it’s so hard to push ourselves, even when there’s no external downside of doing so, is our meta-fear – this fear of the fear of failure. That feeling of insufficiency and doom we dread, which failure would bring, pushes us to seek the comfort of compliance instead. This is the root cause of our collective, venal cowardice, insecurity and weakness. It’s why we bully.

We ought not condemn younger generations to suffer the long-term consequences of short-termist decisions we make, but won’t live to see through to fruition. Today, the forces of extreme conservatism are doing precisely that, shaping the world in ways that will take a lot of cleaning up, if it’s possible to rectify the situation at all. Why impose this on people that will have to live with it, long after we’re dead and buried?

So, these are the critics of your art – people with such a muddle-headed, fear-riddled, prejudicial, ignorant viewpoint on pretty much everything. Their criticism is of very limited value to you, as an artist. Indeed, their contribution to the debate on most important human concerns is of very limited value to the collective consciousness too.

They hide behind the thin veneer of civility, but they are wrecking civilisation wholesale. In doing so, they are uncivil and uncivilised. We have no reason to treat them with civility and every reason to confront them with their destructive beliefs and projects. Civilisation means universal personhood, universal dignity and universal emancipation. Anybody that denies one or more of these axioms is a force for regress. Regress must be resisted, or progress will not be possible.

If you can, press your art into the service of changing conservative mindsets.

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Occasionally, you lose sight of your own future – the one you envision for yourself and strive toward. It’s very disorienting when that happens. That ideal life you’d like to lead becomes a diffuse and obscure cloud of confusion. When you lose your sense of direction, you can begin to feel very lost, very quickly.

It used to be easy. I could always go and manage some engineering team or other and that would be enough to pay my bills. These days, though, the biggest sector of the engineering industry, in this country at least, is weaponry. Who wants to work hard to contribute to that? Death, destruction and war are not things I wish to enable. By far the next largest sector, by venture investment, is surveillance capitalism, which is basically spying on your fellow man, by one means or another. There are almost no jobs that allow you to produce products which increase personal agency.

Engineering, especially software engineering, is a deeply ageist culture. Decades of experience are derided, rather than respected or cherished. The young bucks are more pliable and compliant, so infinitely preferable employees, compared to wizened, aware and awake older guys. The youngsters are willing to sacrifice health and home life for the appearance of getting ahead. Greedy employers love the self-sacrifice. It’s very profitable.

The younger engineers also truly believe they invented everything technical under the sun. Any other older idea, to them, is valueless. They don’t read history and their humanity skills are often sorely lacking, due to their obsessive focus on technology. It makes them lacking in empathy and compassion, so ill-suited to making solutions that solve people’s pressing problems. Those problems are in their blind spot. In short, they make rather tiresome work colleagues.

Meanwhile, product management (a field I am highly skilled in) puts you in the middle of the brutal tug of war between people who make things (who demand increasing self-determination, collaborative work environments and a great deal of scope for personal initiative) and the people who hire them (who demand feudal deference, command and control and who intuitively distrust “unmanageable” developers). I’ve been crushed between the jaws of that particular vice more than I’d care to admit. It’s not an experience I relish repeating.

Fortunately, I’m creative and artistic and the creative industries are rapidly closing the gap on the production of weaponry, in terms of sheer gross income. Design and it’s creative cousins are of growing significance, importance and contribution. That ought to be good news. Unfortunately, I remain more confused than ever.

I write, I paint, I design things and I make music. None of these things can easily pay your bills, despite the growing importance of this sector of the economy. Creative artefacts remains largely unrecognised as an industry, hence badly neglected and undersupported. Also, I’m not connected to any “scene”. I don’t belong to a thriving community of writers, my paintings are quite unlike what most other successful painters I know make and my music is made without the benefit of a band, or being part of a similar tribe of professional music makers. I’m not a member of any of the networks that might lead to openings or opportunities. In every case, I’m relegated to the role of bystander.

When it comes to design, I find myself again working alone. This means I have to do everything myself and this is slow, inefficient and constantly challenging. I think I have good design ideas, particularly with respect to music-related products, but I don’t know any of the current manufacturers, who have always had a bit of a “not invented here“ mentality anyway. It feels like a daunting mountain to climb. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like trying to build an entire industry, rather than an enterprise.

My whole family are experiencing their own career crossroads at the moment, too. My wife is changing career direction, with an uncertain outcome. My daughter is trying to clarify what she wants to study at university and my son’s further education could go a number of different ways, depending on how he is adjudicated. Everything is up in the air for everybody in the household and we’re undoubtedly cross-contaminating each other with our barely suppressed anxieties.

So, we press on, putting one foot in front of the other, continuing to create and learn. Hopefully, that determination will lead us all somewhere we want to go. It just isn’t clear to me, at the moment, where that is or even might be. We’re all marching into the unknown, hoping it will all work out somehow.

Consequently, I feel stuck. I feel like I have reached an impasse. I’m waiting for something to happen and for things to change, knowing full well I have to make it happen and change. It takes a lot of energy and resilience. Half the time, I feel like whatever I am making or learning, it’s the wrong thing and I ought to be spending my time on something else. That’s the result of losing that vision of where you might be and what you might be doing in future, if things go well. I just cannot grasp what that might look like, anymore. I’m flying blind, without instruments and it can be very scary.

Meanwhile, the political and economic backdrop, globally, is arguably the worst I have ever known it, throughout my lifetime. The signs are not encouraging and rather discouraging. It’s a hard time to be venturing forth, unaided. I don’t think like the most powerful people do. They believe in hierarchies of power, domination, predation and dog-eat-dog competition. I don’t. I believe there is abundant success to go around, but the wealthiest seem determined to hoard theirs. Hence, I find myself at odds with the prevailing patterns of thought. This makes it even harder to network. I rarely meet people with the same basic belief system as me.

So, here I am. Kind of lost. Kind of disoriented, but trying to make forward progress anyway. I imagine this is a common experience, especially for artists, but I don’t know for sure. I just hope things resolve positively somehow.

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