is my unease existential or rational – or, alternatively, a case of lazy “whataboutism”?

The events and aftermath this weekend in Paris underline how tenuous and fragile our sense of wellbeing can be.

Eight horrible people, funded we are told by a network of thousands of equally horrible people, have killed more than a hundred people – and injured hundreds more – more or less simultaneously in six different places in the French capital.

I live in another country; a sea divides us from France.  But I cannot help my feeling sick these past two days: truly, honestly, physically sick.  As if I were there, as if I saw it all.  As if members of my own circle – whether family or friends, in connected worlds it really doesn’t matter – had been struck down all the same.

And my immediate reaction has been one of solidarity.  Even though the verb doesn’t exist in English, as it frequently does in other languages; even though the adjective is curiously missing from our lexicon; even though this language I treasure, so generally rich in words for everything, struggles to put an easy-to-pronounce noun to the concept.

Then my thinking moves on.  And I begin to dance around the happenings: the “whataboutism” that afflicts many of us, to greater or lesser degree.  And I wonder: why this instinct?  Why, when someone deliberately attacks the progressive, enlightened and outreaching in society, do people like myself begin to wonder if it’s because those we identify with most closely – ie the progressive, enlightened and outreaching mentioned – have done something wrong?

I struggle with this process, because when someone does something horrible to me in my private life … well, I always find it easy to blame myself.  I didn’t do this or I went and did that; I forget to say what I should’ve said or find myself saying precisely what I shouldn’t’ve.

And so this impulse writ large, at a societal level, during public tragedy, makes me think twice, three times – or a hundred.

Is this a wider thing?  Do you do that too?  Is it a weakness of our civilisation – or a prime strength which the violent on all sides are desperately trying to eliminate?

I do wonder, have been wondering today, if in part the problem lies in our no longer valuing the individual over the mass.  We won the Cold War against the massification of anti-human rights by the Soviet Union (and by extension, the whole Eastern European bloc too) – but then we have proceeded, a posteriori, to massify almost everything a successful command and control economy could’ve done in the 1950s, if successful had – at the time – been within its reach.

Everything, that is, except human rights.  Instead of human rights being a prerequisite for 21st century economic development, they have been allowed to tag along at the tail-end somewhere down the line: oh yes, jam elsewhere for places you may already export to; alternatively, jam in a very tomorrow that fridges and mobiles may, some day, lead you to end up at.

Globalisation means freedom for capital, timidly for exportable labour, full-on for tourism, absolutely for technology … but human rights?  Let them flower by themselves.  Do let’s not be too proactive in this respect.

“Let them flower by themselves.”  Remind you of anything?  Yes, it does me too.  Sadly, as well.  The unplanned aftermaths of well-meaning and liberal invasions, which only created the conditions for an unspooling of distant society.

We will never be to blame for Paris.  But we are to blame for not having a strategy, for hobbling our way to a single-minded failure.  You may ask why, and you’d be right to do so.  Once, as a strategy, it actually worked.  Monolithic certainties won the battle against a pretty evil empire – an empire quite absent from human rights; an anti-human Communism of anything but the sacrosanct nature of the individual.

Eventually it did, anyhow.  Western democracies’ ultimate resilience won out against what were shown to be very puff-pastry Soviet politics.  No guarantees, of course; there never are in history.  But intuitively, pragmatically, industrially, economically … in the face of such inhumanity we had no alternative but to follow such psychologies.  And it worked out all right in the end.  To the extent that it did work out for the majority.  (Nor should we underestimate the importance of how we used to fete those refugees, those economic migrants even; those who managed to cross the Berlin Wall in their escaping of terrible politics.  But that is a theme for quite a separate post.  A post which talks of double standards.)

Compare and contrast with the current situation, at least as I am minded to see it.

Command and control economics – how globalisation is manifesting itself now both at nation-state and business level – has returned our philosophies to the times of the Cold War.  But instead of singular incompetence facing us on the other side of ideology – the enemy being that idiocy and flat-footedness of slow-burn, self-destructing Communism – our monolithic certainties are setting us on a path to becoming a reactive civilisation with little strategy at all.

In times of awful crisis such as this weekend, we citizens respond; we tweet; we protest our personal confusions – as we must, and rightly so.  The right to say the right thing or quite the wrong is, after all, precisely what we are defending.

Meanwhile, our politicians in their privilege began to find themselves incapable of delivering certain things – things which their rhetoric has previously auto-convinced us all they should be capable of.  How to live with such incoherence – a difficult task for the most level-headed of folk.  (Oh, and remember: not all those with privilege, nor all the less powerful littler people it must be said, are necessarily the most level-headed.  Just because you are small doesn’t make you good.  Just because you are big doesn’t make you bad.)

I could be wrong, of course.  Maybe the psychology isn’t thus.  Maybe our politicians are right after all: those politicians who say this is the biggest test of our generation (when what they really mean is their generation.  Generations are multiple – many existing simultaneously; you can probably talk about a nation, a civilisation, a set of values even – but hardly one generation we all belong to.)

In their monolithic firm responses, then, perhaps they do provide us with the bedrock that more woolly-minded citizens like myself are unable to construct with that necessary resilience already described and alluded to.

But all the same, unease remains.  I sense it around.  I’m sure you do, too.  Is it existential, then?  Or is it rational, this unease?

Are we in the grip of an intellectually lazy “whataboutism” – or are we fairly questioning the fundamentals of how we are approaching the 21st century?

And if the latter were the case, in some small measure at all, do we then have the right to react existentially, logically and “whataboutedly”?

Entirely compatible reactions for human beings living in worlds which they control less and less – at all levels, and in all areas, of their experience?


Update to this post, 15/11/2015: this video has just come my way via Rob Evans of the Guardian‘s Twitter feed.  If only the woman speaking were president – or, indeed, prime minister …

Further reading, 16/11/2015: much as I have argued in this post, Isis have a strategy and the West really does not.  We do little more than counter-message at masses, whilst Isis talks to individuals one-to-one.  This is not good enough on our part, and does explain a lot of what appears to be going wrong:

We have “counter-narratives”, unappealing and unsuccessful. Mostly negative, they rely on mass messaging at youth rather than intimate dialogue. As one former Isis imam told us: “The young who came to us were not to be lectured at like witless children; they are for the most part understanding and compassionate, but misguided.” Again, there is discernible method in the Isis approach.

Eager to recruit, the group may spend hundreds of hours trying to enlist a single individual, to learn how their personal problems and grievances fit into a universal theme of persecution against all Muslims.

so was austerity designed to stop or promote unconditional basic incomes?

More of these stories appear by the minute.  This from Finland, for example, has been rumbling away for a while:

The growing demand for a solution to austerity economics seems unstoppable – and in many parts of the world, unconditional basic incomes (UBI) are gaining ground.

In the eyes and on the tongues of the chattering classes, at least.

I’ve already argued elsewhere that UBI – and its guaranteed income streams, both for essentials as well as items of a more luxurious nature – could mean the end of traditional business models, in particular for the content industry:

Once #UBI comes in, tech, food, leisure and car corps will of course benefit from such predictable spending. But in every big change in society, someone always will lose out. And in this particular case it will surely be the content industry as it currently stands. Who’ll need paid-up journalists – or even a resource-hungry ad-plagued website – when volunteers, using cheap or zero-cost social media, tablets, smartphones and PCs they inevitably have for other purposes, can supplement their guaranteed income from the state with other activities of such a pleasurable and community-focussed nature?

And so seeing how, in this way, UBI would suit significant parts of the techie sides of big-business capitalism down to the ground, I automatically assumed that austerity’s promoters and sponsors were working in cahoots with the aforementioned big business.

But now I’m not so sure.

Let’s analyse what the Tory-led government here in the UK was doing since 2010.  That is to say, demonising the poor, in particular those dependent on state benefits, to such an extent that they have ultimately been blamed for the supposedly parlous state of the wider economy.

Yes.  Many have explained the strategy away as a distracting action to divert attention from the truly culpable individuals and orgs, mainly involved in the murky ins and outs of the financial services sector.  But it’s an awfully complex movement of smoke and mirrors, simply to hide from the public what they already know, fully know, to be the truth: rich people like rich people, and want to remain rich in the future.

Why go to all that trouble, knowing the British are always going to tend to put up with a helluva lot more than that?  Revolution and riots – with very few exceptions – are simply not what the long-suffering inhabitants of these islands get up to.

I think those who plan these things, or at the very least think carefully beforehand, are aware that the right wing of any politics – never mind that of the British body politic – would lose all reason to exist, absolutely entirely, if unconditional basic incomes became par for the course.

It’s not the redistribution of money that would destroy the right wing either.  No.  It’s simply the opportunity to turn one group of people against the other that would become fairly impossible.

But it’s not only the right wing which would lose out with the introduction of UBI.

Imagine a society where workers no longer needed to unionise.

Imagine a society where work was a weekend break.

Imagine a society where leisure was the 9 to 5.

Imagine a society where the sacred bond between jam tomorrow and striving today was broken forever more.

It’s not just the right which is looking to promote – and needs to perpetuate – austerity.  It’s also a certain group on the left which can’t believe in a civilisation where we actually spend most of our time carrying out civilised acts of gentlenesses, kindnesses, love, humour and discussion.

Where leisure and pleasure rule over dialectic and critique.

Where people can do what actually makes them happy … and not what makes them tiresomely weary.

In truth, if UBI came in, the political classes would lose huge rafts of control over us.  For one thing, the economic decisions which always augur “tough medicine” would no longer need to be boorishly wheeled out.  The rich would remain rich of course, but who’d care if we received the humane minimum which we’d need to live and let live?  And all kinds of new systems of time banks, maybe even barter, the virtual exchange of services and products for sure, would sprout up in hyperlocal communities, as little people decided to remain little in the full knowledge that happiness was far more important than the accumulation of unnecessary wealth.

Meanwhile, aspiration would be seen to be the empty and hollow concept it’s probably always been all along.  Instead of being a political tool to fashion a vacuous lottery of material futures, designed principally to keep ordinary people under the lock and key of consumerism, we could see our way through to reforging its nature so that financial measures were no longer the definers of our lives.

Austerity as a kickstarter for getting UBI in place more quickly?  Maybe, a tad cruelly in the event, for some it has been so after all.

Maybe they thought, in the beginning anyway, that more good would eventually come out of the process than bad.

But more and more, I’m beginning to think that at least with respect to its purely political promoters – not necessarily transnational businesspeople either but, rather, those very vested national interests whose positions in society depend entirely on keeping otherwise rounded people in preordained and squarely painful boxes – much of austerity has been aimed at constructing a firewall around predictable changes to a society whose nature could be turned utterly upside down … especially if work was no longer to be a political tool of control, nor human dignity’s denial a way of keeping the workers fearful and down.

why porn may be the safety valve the surveillance state needs

Yesterday I curiously compared one of my favourite activities, proofreading, to what I described as “good sex” – ie voyeuristic sex:

But if truth be told, proofreading is like good sex – or voyeuristic sex, anyway. Unlike the role of writer, when everything unspools, when a handle on the work’s direction does not entirely belong to the author, when the characters themselves take on lives of their own … unlike the writer or the thinker or the salesperson, the proofreader sees everything – but everything – at a single glance.

Two things I’d observe with these lines: one, I never realised I might personally define good sex as voyeurism – though living in a world where everyone watches everyone, it’s perhaps hardly surprising that this has become the case.  From the state and its intelligence arms to neighbours on Facebook, taking in readers and their journalists along the way, all of us are fascinated by everything the rest of us do.

My second observation focusses, however, specifically on the question of the state.  In yesterday’s post, I go on to say the following (the bold is mine today):

Networks are popular things these days: everything, as you can see, can be interpreted as a network.  There is, of course, in all our lives a real place for love and attachment, with all its happy and sad complications.  But surely there is also a place for where we can feel in charge: something which briefly reassures our sense of being; of emotion; of character; of simple existence.

I wonder, then, in a society and civilisation where the levels of permanent, dragnet surveillance are increasing frighteningly, exponentially, in most anti-liberal ways, whether it’s an altogether intelligent thing to pursue – as the British do at least – those who consume online porn.  I would argue, at least today, and in the absence of any feedback which indicates otherwise, that the purpose of online porn – politically incorrectly of course, and something my inner sense and sensibility will automatically (maybe knee-jerkingly!) disagree with – is primarily to feed its users’ desire to be in sexually charge of the landscape they view.

This is probably a definition of bad sex in most people’s books.  So why do I think I may have described the instinct as good?  Maybe, for starters, I’m a bad person.  Maybe that’s the reality out there.  I don’t think it is: I think I’m just a normal person.  But the possibility must always be contemplated.

There is another explanation we could consider, however: as our inability to control our lives spreads to all parts of our existences, as large companies track and stalk our every online expression using big data, as governments watch our every intimacy, as even our friends and family gather in chat rooms, so our need (as I suggest above) to “feel in charge”, to have “something which briefly reassures our sense of being; of emotion; of character; of simple existence” … this all becomes so very important – and yet, simultaneously beyond us.

I’m not saying the surveillance state makes porn a physical necessity.  I’m being rather more complex (as is my wont) than that: rather, I would suggest that it – or something analogous – is needed to allow us to feel we still control our destinies.

There is nothing worse, nor more final for a thinking psyche, than to wonder if life is a set of aggressively trammelled tracks, out of which no being can step.

We need the tracks; of course we do.  Society needs structure to survive.  But as human beings, as social beings, we also thirst for freedom of choice.

And an intelligent society and civilisation, which doesn’t want to see itself self-consumed, should understand that before it’s too late.

I don’t think it is yet.

But one day it may be.

So just to make it clear and ultimately manifest: I’m not saying we need online porn to stick together as a species.  I am, however, suggesting that the temporary sense of control over what we are that online porn clearly provides is an instinct and impulse that any government worth its people would be well advised to study, assess and comprehend.

Finally, I’d be interested on your thoughts on this one.  Anything I’ve missed out, or got wrong, in particular.

Until the next time …