The modern misanthrope’s creed, as elucidated upon in his journal, is one of both bitter disappointment and resignation. Pushed beyond hatred, his is the ultimate melancholy; derived of the missed opportunity that is, and soon to be was, mankind.
Welcome to the end days, dear reader. Welcome to the world of the modern misanthrope. His is a world perpetuated by infuriating wastrals, naive sheep and myopic clones, apathetic pop culture junkies and the greedy corrupted horders of power and influence. All deserve nothing less than these salvos of vitriol and derision let loose upon them.
Come and be critical and criticising, constructive or saracstic, foaming at the mouth with vehemence or zen like in your placid wisdom. Come and comment about the nuclear issue / science / politics / environmentalism, or the madness and mystery of this strange modern world we have made for ourselves.
These are the greatest days of humanity for they are our last. These are our end days. Join me as I document them…
I’m not a Times reader but their Eureka supplement is excellent. Very cogent and convincing editorial in yesterdays edition. Mark Henderson is spot on. Science funding and our economic future are inextricably intertwined. Unfortunately in these times of defect fetishism and quantitative easing the view is decidedly myopic. We need to ring fence the science budget, maybe even increase it in real terms, or risk an irreversible brain drain and forever becoming a nation of financiers and hedge fund managers.
Obscured behind the smokescreen of recent shocking headlines and epic rolling news stories there are storms building that, should they be unleashed, will effect every single one of us and could plunge the world economy over the edge. We’re not out of the woods yet.
In a month of predominating news stories it is perhaps worth remembering how easily such rolling stories and shocking headlines can temporarily eclipse other events. In any ‘normal’ news week such events may have grabbed the headlines and provoked far wider discussion and debate but in the shadow of such preoccupied news agendas they tend to lose some of the gravitas they rightly deserve. But if we were to take a step back for a moment and, with a dispassionate eye, look at the pull these stories have had over our base emotions (the temerity of Murdoch, the tragedy of Norway, the wasted talent of Winehouse) we not only start to appreciate the predominance they have etched out in our mind, but can also perhaps, start to acknowledge the blinkered state this can leave us in. There is only a finite amount of energy we can channel into our emotions and the huge news stories of the past month have acted like a vacuum for this energy.
I have no doubt that the News International scandal followed by the horrific events in Norway last Friday will go down, not only as two of the big news stories of the year but ingrained in the history books as events of lasting significance and consequence in their relevant countries and quite possibly beyond.
But there is a news story that has been bubbling away under the surface for some time now, whose scale is of a more epochal and potentially global nature, hovering as it has done for some time, two or three news stories below the big headlines of the day but now slowly starting to work its way up the agenda. For as the dusts settle over Norway and News International the dark thunder clouds of the US Debt Crisis begin to roll in, moving across the landscape of the news agendas with a growing sense of menace, threatening to batter and pelt the shaky framework the world’s economy now rests on and plunge the world back into recession. Beyond this stormy weather are yet more thunderclouds, as Europe’s sovereign debt crisis continue to wreak havoc upon the monetary union as it continues to kick the can further down the road in a desperate attempt to avert meltdown.
The fact that this crisis across the pond is unfolding at the same time as the scale of the contagion in Europe becomes clear, with Italy (an economy too big to rescue) now looking dangerously vulnerable, is surely a sign that we could be witnessing the beginnings of the perfect storm. More specifically the culmination of these debt crises are perhaps the most disturbing and telling indicator yet that the astronomical government bailouts that were needed to prevent the world’s financial institutions all falling over like dominoes, have now worked their way through the pipework of the world’s economic systems to be reborn as a crises of nation states and government treasuries.
Today John Boehner, the Republican speaker, was forced to go back to the drawing board and rewrite his party’s proposals to lift the US debt ceiling, allowing the government to continue borrowing. With the prospect of the largest economy on earth not being able to fund itself and defaulting on it’s debts for the first time in it’s history, of a country upon which much of the deeply interconnected capitalist infrastructure sits, of a nation now locked together in a bitter partisan struggle, we today learnt that the man opposing Obama and leading the right wing charge had lost his calculator.
There are times, dear reader, when I struggle to find the words, I really do. I struggle to make sense of people like John Boehner and the Republican party he represents. It is a depressing testament to the American right’s complete and unfaltering adherence to the doctrines of the Washington Agreement and the total supremacy corporate America still has over the rights of ‘the average Joe’, even though it is the average Joe that has now bailed out corporate America. If the last 3 years can’t put a dent in the American Dream then nothing can.
There’s a strange religosity to the American mindset that goes way beyond their Puritan Christian heritage. The Republican party’s continuing intransigence towards raising taxes on the very wealthy as well as spending cuts, as Obama has sensibly and justly proposed, is something I can only liken to a fundamentalist mindset. It’s as if they’ve been indoctrinated, nay brainwashed, into thinking that taxing corporate America is somehow punishing success and that this is a betrayal of the American Dream. Deviation from this orthodoxy is heresy; in this case meaning being branded unpatriotic or worse still, a lefty. But in the wake of a financial crash, in the midst of a global recession, the fantasies of the American dream may well be turning into the rest of the world’s nightmare.
The view that the American political establishment is playing chicken with the Global Economy, is to a large degree true. Perhaps understandably most people on the outside aren’t concerned with the machinations of Washington, they just want to avert disaster. Time is, after all, of the essence and if America defaults on its debt then the economic shockwaves would be worldwide. Many outside America, especially those in China, are in shock at US’s dysfunctional political system and with credit rating agency’s and markets beginning to start factoring in risk. America’s polarising politics is shaming it not only in the eyes of the world but in the eyes of the world economy and this is not a good thing for those who wish things to carry on as they are. If the US loses its AAA credit rating it will inevitably cost it more to borrow and it’s debt problem (currently standing at $14.3 trn) will only get worse. Undoubtedly we are, and have been for some time, witnessing the wane of American hegemony and the rise of China, but in the bubble that is the Republican mindset this simply doesn’t compute.
US politicians on both sides need to come up with some kind of deal because it will be all of us that will suffer as a result of their malfunctioning politics. But we cannot and should not forget that failure to win this ideological war over capitalism in its heartland and bring about a sea-change in the way it functions, will inevitably involve the rich corporate interests of the few trumping the rights of the taxpayers that have bailed them out. And if they can get away with it once, you bet your Lehmans Brothers they will think they can do it again.
We often talk about the sanctity of democracy in the West. It’s as if merely questioning this system of governance and its underlying efficacy is deemed a form of moral blasphemy.
In many ways democracy as a concept can be viewed as an irresistible force that appeals to our sense of right and wrong, but as a survival system it may infact be majorly flawed. When democratic governments are faced with complex long term structural issues that demand massively unpopular solutions their tendency will always be towards populism and postponement not informed brinkmanship and tough decision making.
Many people may argue more sanguinely that democracy is indeed flawed but ‘it’s the best system we have’ and besides, the alternatives aren’t worth considering. Whilst I don’t disagree with the moral impetus upon which this assumption is based I do think it is somewhat presumptuous given the circumstances we now find ourselves in. The ramifications of democratic governments collectively failing to prevent runaway climate change are surely more chilling than the consequences any abandonment of democracy may precipitate.
We are now living in an era known as the anthropocene within which humanity is effecting changes to the earth’s ecosystems at such a rate as to actually constitute a completely new geological era. Extinction rates are soaring hundreds of times above normal ‘background’ levels and we are changing the composition of our atmosphere at such an alarming rate that science can barely keep up with the task of explaining all the highly intricate and complex interconnections within the biosphere and the scale to which all of them are now becoming unbalanced.
The most ethically and morally challenging dilemma our species has ever had to face
As a system which relies on consensus and the support of a national electorate, democracy is at present failing catastrophically to slow emissions to anywhere near the most conservative of emissions quotas scientists suggest to prevent runaway climate change. Could it be that it is the unquestioning idolatary that democracy has attained in the West that may be blinding us to the moral imperative of our species very survival and of considering an alternative system to one based on consensus? If this is true then the inability of democratic systems to mitigate these unprecedented man made threats to our planet’s biosphere and prevent runaway climate change is perhaps the most ethically and morally challenging dilemma our species has ever had to face.
The heart of the problem lies in the fact that the majority of public opinion in modern democracies across the globe (including huge swathes of supposedly intellectual opinion) just doesn’t regard the issue high as important enough to put it anywhere near the top of the political agenda and there are still shameful numbers that do not even believe in man made climate change at all, despite the overwhelming evidence. These sentiments are mirrored by – or perhaps in some ways, a result of – the popular press, themselves powerful drivers of public opinion. And without popular support, the engines of democracies simply cannot build up enough momentum to effectively legislate to curb emissions, regardless of those in the public arena who attempt to push the issue higher up the agenda.
But why is this? Where is our sense of collective dread at the prospect of mass extinction within maybe as little as a century? Are we that blinded to things that aren’t immediately relevant to us? Surely when we may have as little as a decade or two to bring rising emissions under control one would expect a sense of emergency and alarm manifesting itself on a wider scale?
The truth behind this intransigence lies not only in the shortcomings of democratic systems to implement unpopular change, but is fundamental to the way our very brains work.
The catastrophic problem with a short term mindset
The failure of democratic systems to deal with the long term problems of climate change is largely part down to the short term nature of parliamentary cycles which necessarily infringe and constrain its policy making apparatus. Although electoral cycles are fundamental to any democracy as they allow the people to regularly exercise their will and elect their own representatives, the imbue upon our politicians a vote winning mindset that undermines any sense of long term outlook and casts it as idealism. The result is a political class that think in four or five year cycles. From this trend naturally follows the horse trading we see in all democracies, in which ones ideals are traded for concessions to another more pressing ideal; any deviation from this model is simply untenable and impotent. And so we are stuck in a system fundamentally myopic and incapable of making changes on the basis of events twenty, thirty or even one hundred years down the line.
But this short termism isn’t just endemic to democratic systems; it is hardwired into the human brain.
Our inability to grasp the concept of what scientists call ‘deep time’ whereby events unfold over thousands or even millions of years, is not down just to a lack of individual intelligence or even understanding; it is a byproduct of our evolutionary heritage. We have no need to react to the movement of glaciers or tectonic plates but predators do move a lot faster and so our human minds have evolved to have a short term bias. It is this inability to react to long term threats that may well be our undoing. It is somewhat of an amusing irony then, that natural selection, in producing something as devloped and sophisticated as the human brain, may have inadvertently left us with the evolutionary baggage of our own demise.
So what are the alternatives open to us.
Whether we like it or not, autocracies don’t tend to work in cycles at all as they’re politicians aren’t elected in and out of office. These systems are therefore better suited to enact programmes whose turnaround time is long term. With an executive informed by rationalism and scientific objectivity, instead of an inexpert, myopic and emotionally driven electorate, we could potentially mitigate against climate changes worst effects on our species. But whilst the changes this kind of legislative impunity could usher in could well prove decisive in halting warming, they could also backfire in the most disastrous way. This is where the paradox of the benign dictatorship rears its ugly head.
To combat climate change it is argued that a more autocratic system is needed to enact and push through fundamental legislation without challenge or popular dissent, but if we take the old truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely then we are presented with a very unpredictable situation. Could we be sure that any future benign one party state would stay the course and commit unconditionally to the long and difficult task of curbing climate change when faced with the self interest of individuals and the trappings of short term power. These are inherent human issues and it could be argued that because of the degrees of power bestowed upon individuals, autocracies are perhaps just, if not more, susceptible to the trappings of the short term mindset than any democratic system.
But there is another problem.
The problems of a nationalistic bias
Unfortunately for us the solution to discovering a way of mitigating against runaway climate change is multilateral and not unilateral and it is in this final point that I think given the current lack of any overarching and powerful international body (the UN is unable to prevent its members going to war with Middle Eastern countries and in this sense is largely impotent and incapable of effecting change in itself) democracy as a framework for change becomes almost completely untenable. Because democratic are inherently nationalistic in that they rely on the support of electorates within their own borders, they are also inherently inward looking. As Woodrow Wilson once put it, ‘foreign policy is domestic policy with its top hat on’. National democratic governments will only push their electorates so far (in other words, not far enough to lose power).
Today China is the worlds second most powerful economy and in the not too distant future it will be the largest. It is also a one party state and a one of the key players in the deadlock in international climate talks. For the time being China refuses to budge on agreeing any significant leeway on emissions targets, having pointed out that the majority of man made CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was put up there by the West in the decades following the industrial revolution. Its contention is that unless it can be significantly compensated for this profligate and profitable period of history in which western nations advanced and it stood still, then now its China’s turn. Although this argument does carry significant moral weight it fails to see the harsh reality of the present situation. If China’s industrial revolution continues unchecked at its present rate and climate talks remain in deadlock with no effective framework agreed on curbing targets internationally, we will inevitably get runaway climate change. Perhaps in as little as twenty or thirty years. China is cutting its nose off to spite its face.
It seems unlikely that America and Europe, beguiled as their governments have become by corporate power, can ever convince their electorates to tolerate hugely unpopular and financially punitive policies that will prevent something that significant numbers of them still don’t even believe is happening. Any hope of a real paradigm shift seems even more unlikely in the wake of a banking crisis and global recession. More unlikely still is the prospect that these governments can cooperate and legislate multi-laterally through currently infective bodies like the UN and the IPCC to set significant and legally binding targets to curb emissions, putting the ball back in China’s court.
A path of no return?
If a non-democratic form of government is needed then how will we reconcile this with our belief in the sanctity of representation, equality and human rights and what kind of alternative will we adopt? To what degree can we justify our own species’ survival by jesttisoning a method of governence that is the closest thing we have in the West to an international belief system. Would we be able to return to a democracy when our global economy is decidedly more green and we have weaned ourselves off fossil fuels, or would this be a path of no return?
Democracy has allowed us to express ourselves and live a life of choices and freedom that was unthought of throughout most of human history. Is it our cruel fate that this freedom to choose has resulted in us being left with no choice at all.
Media attention to the phone hacking scandal may not necessarily mirror public mood but its obsession is entirely justified
There’s almost too many aspects of the News of the World phone hacking scandal and its vast array of implications for anyone commentator to fully take in and process right now. The result of the Guardian’s expose and the resulting tsunami of public outrage and political back peddling have sent shock waves across all aspects of the British establishment, from Westminster to Wapping to Scotland Yard.
It is important to note however that whilst this new Zeitgeist is ostensibly fed by a sense of public outrage and condemnation, this outrage and condemnation has a transience to it that the media and politicians don’t entirely share. And understandably so. For many in the media and Westminster this has been a long time coming. Indeed some of the actual public outrage itself may have even been overstated in the first place, as the 4.6 million people who bought the NoW on it’s last day surely testified to (one does not get nostalgic for a publication that one is intensely repulsed by, regardless of its history).
There is then perhaps, more of a disconnect between the chattering classes and the working man and woman on the street, than the constant barrage of news about Murdoch’s News International would lead us to believe. Many people I have spoken to have expressed their frustration at this constant coverage (now in its third week). One astute individual pointed out to me that whilst this may be damaging Cameron, it is providing an effective smokescreen behind which the Coalition’s swinging cuts are continuing unabated (yesterday it was announced that the Armed Forces numbers were being cut to levels not seen in this country since the Boer War). This brings to mind that now infamous phrase that we heard first surfaced in an e mail from a political aide in the aftermath of 9/11 that now is “a good time to bury bad news”. How ironic that this mantra could be resurrected now.
Whether this ever evolving scandal is being used a smokescreen or not though, its importance still cannot be understated and in this sense I think the media attention is entirely justified. For decades now News International has been telling people what to think and politicians what to do. It is this cancerous three way relationship between media propaganda, government policy and public opinion, that has until now dominated the British landscape, which is now being exposed in its full extent for the first time. So long has this insidious merry go-round existed that it has simply become the accepted paradigm, embedding itself into the social subconscious. Now it seems that we could be on the cusp of a genuine watershed; something almost akin to a religious awakening.
Of course the media have always influenced politicians and it is true that not all the right wing press are owned by News International (public enemy number 1 to anyone on the progressive left surely has to be the Daily Mail after all). But it is the level to which the Murdoch press has subverted, corrupted and distorted politics and policing in this country that has allowed it to lead the way and set the standard of collusion, corruption and illegality for others to follow. This is what sets all this apart from mere ‘scandal.’
The exposure of this rotten edifice at the heart of British power has implications and consequences that go way beyond New International and News Corp. The shockwaves now rippling through the ivory towers of Fleet Street and New Scotland Yard have already taken serious casualties. So far no political heads have rolled but with the UK’s two senior policemen resigning within 24 hours of each other and News Corp Lieutenants either jumping ship or being arrested, one can get distracted very easily by the day to day scandalous nature of this story and its villains and heroes as it develops on a literally hour by hour basis. But there could be something far more long term and fundamental to come out of this than a fleeting sense of adulation within the chattering classes at the spectacle of the Guardian’s David bringing Murdoch’s Goliath to it’s knees or a sense of relief amongst the working classes that the red tops are finally talking about another scandal, or the politicians twinkle-toed manoeuvrings away from the Murdoch Empire and its once necessitating patronage. The various investigations and inquiries will take months and in some cases years, and I’ve no doubt this story will soon be replaced in the headlines by the growing contagion in the Eurozone and America’s debt crisis before long, but we can go to bed at night realising that this whole debacle and the media circus that has followed its every twist and turn has forced the current government into finally shining a spotlight on this and in time it will be obliged to make systemic changes.
Surely we have turned a corner, as the unprecedented cross bench derision of Murdoch and his hold over the British Media will indeed testify. And for that reason alone, there is every reason to be optimistic. Because beyond the short term political point scoring that Ed Milliband is now enjoying and the awkward squirming that David Cameron is now engaged in, beyond the machinations of Westminster politics in general, is the prospect of a healthier relationship between the media, the public, the government and the police and the establishment of regulatory bodies with enough teeth to keep this edifice from ever becoming so rotten again.