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 Medium.com): https://eand.co/how-republicans-sold-out-genuine-republicanism-to-capitalism-5cf143e8d41b
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 Amazon.com. 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. Medium.com 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.