One of the curious aspects of the truth is that when finally allowed to breathe it proves itself to be remarkably simple. Educated and uneducated people across the world are aware that the problems we face, although potentially overwhelming in their cynicism and scope, are quite obvious. It is easy to understand that greed is at historic intensity. It is self-evident that greed creates wealth, that wealth buys power and that the more the acquisition of power is contingent on wealth, the more the wealthy will use that power to advance policy and cultural narratives to increase their wealth. Predictably, everybody else suffers and wealth and power concentrate. This unfair system creates and exacerbates an unfair society. From Persepolis through Babylon to the Robber Barons asymmetric concentrations of wealth and power are a by-line in the history of modern man. As a basic political construct, the existence of this arrangement is beyond doubt.
And yet, from the position of those who rule the world, doubt it we must. It would be a mistake to believe that outright disbelief is preferable – this is not necessary, nor is it realistically attainable. I suspect you would have to live in a cave at the bottom of the ocean to not register the widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Given the craft of modern manipulation, doubt in the reality of the political system will suffice quite nicely. In some respects, doubt may be more of a useful bulwark – it has the additional benefit of creating inner conflict, which inhibits action. At least in indignant rejection we are confident in our disbelief. And so doubt is now an industry, one that’s only goal is to poison our grip on a simple truth. How then, can it possibly succeed?
The answer is that it won’t. To be sure, it certainly has for thousands of years. But to deny the uniqueness of the modern world in causing seismic changes is to deny the existence of the singular trend where change waits swaddled in potential – and that is the gradual enlightenment of the youth. This change is exciting, but it must be understood that it carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. In an age of neurotic preoccupation, social media and its narcissism, the increasing powers of the surveillance state and meta-cognitive distortions, the youth must be strong in its defense of its principles and beliefs. And so we must understand the manufacturers of doubt as best as we can, in order to defeat them.
The accusation that the youth must endure from these “experts” is the most maddening of all accusations – that something that is intuitively simple is far more complicated than they think. We are told to be “reasonable”, to be “pragmatic”. We are told that change happens “incrementally”. We are told “not to rock the boat.” When the arbiters of power know they can’t convince us out of the truth, they must then seek to neutralize us with condescension. Unable to turn the truth into a lie they then try to turn it into a well-meaning, although lamentable, folly. This narrative is a carefully considered and deliberate set of rules by which conservatives define just what a “reasonable” citizen should be. It takes many forms, some of them superficial and spurious, others morally deplorable and dangerous.
In short, we are castigated for being “idealistic”; idealism here being synonymous with credulity. We must flip this on its head. It is an urgent reality to recognise that the “informed” or “experienced” intellectual is often a unique individual in a critical way – they alone possess the uncanny ability to spin complicated fictions from naked facts.
INEQUALITY AND THE FOLLY OF IDEALISM
So what are these facts? What motivates our passionate idealism? What is the shaky foundation from which it is assumed we reactively rage? Is it a general “anti-establishment” buzz that we wield uncritically? Is it a Utopian vision sketched out in hazy student dens around the bong? No, it’s nothing that sexy. It’s a bit of data and a few graphs taken from that most radical of institutions, the Inland Revenue Department.
It is not “idealistic” to confront the simple truth that since the 1980s the gap between the rich and poor in this country has grown faster than in any other developed nation on the planet. It is not “idealistic” to be worried that, after deducting the cost of housing, the average disposable income for someone in the bottom 10% of our nation is lower than it was in the 1980s. It is not “idealistic” to be concerned with the obscenity that although the middle class’ share of income has lamentably declined, the surge in income to the rich is shown to be off the backs of our nation’s poorest people. It is not “idealistic” to feel uneasy that “wealth” – defined as our income plus our accumulated assets – is even more unevenly distributed – the top 1% of adults own three times as much of New Zealand’s wealth as the entire lower 50% put together. It is not “idealistic” to find it alarming that the top 1% of the population own 16% of all of the country’s assets, while the lowest 50% own a total of 5%. And it is not idealistic to pull these threads together and to be deeply concerned about the result – that in a world of increasing productivity and connectivity, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. In fact, that is not even the best way to really frame this truth; it is clearer and more accurate to state that the rich are getting richer because the poor are getting poorer and that this is happening in New Zealand, previously a lauded model of egalitarianism in action, at a faster rate than anywhere else in the advanced world.
It is impossible to not have an opinion on these matters and it is willfully ignorant to not consider them a reasonable topic for discussion. It is not being “idealistic” to be shocked by this data and to ask questions about what it does to a society.
The argument against the passionate idealist also routinely levels the charge that idealism throws a blanket over all social ills and thereby ignores the nuances and discrete nature of each issue. It also implies a naiveté that the idealist youth believes in some kind of panacea. The Prime Minister gave an excellent example of this in his response to the TPPA protest, claiming that the “rent-a-crowd” would “protest anything…I even saw a 1080 sign.” Key’s statement is not an off-the-cuff rebuke, it is a deliberate attempt to not only ridicule protesters, but devalue the very concept of protest. It is a critique of the idea that the ability to have multiple views about many issues and to make an attempt to formulate and work from an understanding of the basic architecture that sustains them is to fly off from the orbit of reason. In his intellectually cynical worldview, to be ignorant of how one issue may influence another and to resist attempts to draw connections between issues is the very nature of a rational and responsible citizen.
This has obvious parallels to the ability to dismiss hypotheses of cause and effect as “conspiracy theories”. The definition of this term has basically become one that is politically expedient. Traditionally, not to mention semantically, a conspiracy theory is a hypothesis that seems to suggest less than honourable behavior occurring among particular parties that is deliberately concealed from the public. Another word for that is corruption. The evidence of corrupt government practice in this country over the last ten years barely needs to be recounted. Is it any wonder the public becomes mistrustful and primed to detect the next example of collusive bad behavior? Rather, this would seem to suggest a relatively rational stance grounded in civic responsibility.
This leads to one of the most troubling, although predictable ways of suppressing dissent – the oblique identification of the protester or opponent with mental illness or functional incapacity. Let us make no mistake – this is a foul insinuation that bodes ill for the state of tolerance in our society. The critical comments on social media for various protests in this country, unfiltered by the realpolitik, routinely betray this belief. Similarly and no less utilized is the characterization of the protesters as all being poor, brown, ungrateful, reliant on WINZ and not qualified – i.e. without the right to protest.
THE UNHOODED WOLVES
Even if it were true that poor people, beneficiaries and those with mental illness were over-represented in the population that protest, why would that be in any way an intellectually sound rebuke? Why is it difficult to understand that those most exposed to negative fortunes, those who feel most keenly the detrimental effects of economic and political decisions are more likely to protest? It’s not difficult to understand that the most vocal supporters for climate change action are those compelled by necessity, for example populations in low-lying island nations and in coastal and rural areas of the developing world. The correct response to these quasi-fascist statements on social media then becomes not an indignant “that’s not true!” but a more qualified “well, you might be right, but why do you use that as a rebuke?” The answer to that question brings us to the frontier of what it means to co-exist in a society predicated on empathy. The deliberate tactic of the National PR machine in this arena is to seek to erode the empathic bond between us as citizens – to construct a caricatured Frankenstein protester that is part harlequin idiot, part the ungrateful poor and part the worthless, superfluous mentally ill. That is a dangerous method that should worry all New Zealanders. It has been the enabling step in many a dreadful march towards atrocity and as a cheap and dirty political tactic, it is as old as they come.
The other lamentation is the tired cliché of a “bleeding heart” – that sensitivity to the plight of others demonstrates a weakness, particularly in critical faculties, and acts as a smokescreen, obscuring methods that can actually help people who are suffering. It is almost pointless to clarify that the majority of incidents of real change for people at the bottom have come via campaigns with spiritual or collectivist ideology at their base – the Civil Rights Movement, or Gandhi’s Ahimsa and Non-Aggression. It is rare to have seen real economic change occur for these people by pragmatic and emotionally un-invested technocrats – 30 years of this as the dominant force demonstrates the very opposite. In truth, the drift towards a less empathic society presented in conservative and corporate media just allowed the wolf to slip off part of the sheep’s clothing. The popular media is replete with un-hooded wolves, attempting transparently to convince us that their considered proposals to alleviate suffering aren’t what they so obviously are – sublimated disdain for the poor.
THE GREAT ENVY
The fact that sensitivity itself is an object of ridicule by conservative commentators is something that frightens people fighting for social and economic justice – as it should. Ignorance and stupidity is a reasonable excuse for many. For others I can only guess at the reasons for their behaviour, with the aid of some professional experience dealing with people with inner conflict and the myriad ways in which they deceive themselves. I must make it clear that without a full history and appreciation of the context of a person’s self and world, it would be unwise to start throwing around comments or diagnostic labels. Rather I will make a few general points about the state of mind or condition that can produce such egregious commentators, including my own hypothesis, which is just that, a theory of character.
Perhaps the apparent “heartlessness” of some particularly nasty conservative critics is a result of the displacement of what makes us feel connected to each other by the need to be an “island unto ourselves.” The need to have your own island suggests a need to leave the mainland – a fundamental inability to participate productively as a self in a world of other selves. While we all need solitude at times for growth and personal development, the need to transact with others and the world around us is vital to our sense of well-being. It is also vital to the maintenance of an honest relationship with reality. It allows us to test ourselves and our ideas against reality and to modify and refine them accordingly.
What can explain the hateful and grotesque caricatures paraded by our most vitriolic political commentators. Perhaps their increasingly brazen and vindictive commentary over the years is just the reaction to their increasing distance from any real, collective human relationship. Indeed, I believe it is this retreat from others that creates these people. There is some, unidentifiable, deep inner conflict about their place in the world and they can no longer see that the distaste they have for people who suffer is really just a longing for real communion with others. It is the reaction to a profound envy – an envy that understands that despite their impoverishment, their helplessness and their struggle for ends meet, it seems the poor can still participate as connected human beings in a community of others. It casts into high-relief the fact that they cannot.
Indeed, the apparent solidarity of the ridiculed peoples – the poor, the underclass, the mentally ill, the indigenous population – and their representation in protest is an example of this community. Perhaps this is why the most hateful aspects of society today want to destroy it. Not just because they consider it a threat to political order itself, but because on a deeper level, an unconscious level, it reminds them of their own solitude and disconnection. And so it becomes a pitiful feedback loop. The solidarity of the protester acts as their hateful clarion call. This may explain why, despite clearly possessing an intellect, the need to justify a premise so self-deceptive means they can so wildly abuse the truth. They are men in possession of so many things – wealth, power, influence, an “island” of their own – but owing to their lack of personal understanding – they are fundamentally unable to be in possession of the facts.
These kinds of men (and they are usually always men) stink of the unconscious – whenever one encounters conscious behaviors that seem so divorced from reality, so distorted and affected – it is almost invariably because an unconscious conflict powers them from underneath. To me, it is rather obvious that these men hate themselves, not the poor. Unfortunately it takes courage to reflect on oneself and one’s limitations and it is much easier to highlight someone else’s. They are not truly bad people, merely cowardly ones.
THE GREAT HOPE
If there is hope to be found in this state of affairs it lies in the growth and arrival of a new type of person. A person for whom their ideas and beliefs are not victims of manufactured doubt, nor are they immutable to criticism. A person for whom the old ideologies appear more and more absurd. A person with access to a range of sources and information and the discipline to daily be aware of the world and the many types of people who populate it. A person who understands that there are such things as monsters in the world. It requires a person for whom the tyranny of their elders, their church, their identity, or their state has been overcome. In short, it requires an enlightened legion, and right now that appears to be crystallising amongst the younger generations worlwide.
Yet we must not relinquish this vigilance, nor let it be bought or sold, commercialised or made the victim of parasitism. Goethe, writing in the 19th century, adding to and preempting existential tenets, wrote on this vigilance:
Yes! To this thought I hold with firm persistence
The last result of wisdom stamps it true
He only earns his freedom and existence
Who daily conquers them anew.
If we stick to this concept, to a perpetual regeneration of our values and steer clear of the whirlpool of apathy, revolution is only a matter of time and demographics. I also believe that the corporate and conservative media have overplayed their hand. The wolf has become even more than unhooded, he is bare to waist. Say what you like about Trump’s horrendous policy ideas or bigoted statements, he’s done something for which the left should be most grateful – he has put an ugly face on ugly policy. Glenn Greenwald, speaking in an interview on the Jimmy Dore show recently, went so far as to suggest that Trump will help reanimate the anti-war movement in the United States, which had become complacent and soft during the latter half of Obama’s administration. This raises two important next steps – one is that the liberal left needs to recognise how poorly it fought for its principles in this area during Obama’s tenure and why and how that happened. The second is that steps need to be made to ensure that it never occurs again.
If there is anything to be learnt from the behavior of the establishment, it is that despite their “conservative” label, they are anything but in the context of an ongoing positive return. They will seek to maximize their advantage while the getting is good. And in the context of their agenda succeeding – ever increasing wealth concentration, corporate welfare and political and media dominance – they push harder and harder. And this is why they will fail – it has already begun. The severity of their policies and the unreality of their posturing and discourse has meant that the emergence of a radical alternative, something they foolishly considered anathema within the public discourse they assumed they controlled, ends up being wildly popular, even revolutionarily popular. This is evident in the Democratic Socialist movements of the last two years, including Syriza in Greece, Podemas in Spain, the appointment of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party in the UK and the groundswell of support for Bernie Sanders in the United States. All of these groups rely on one significant shared factor for their support – young people. It is as if the darkness was so oppressive that the merest shaft of light pulled all the moths at once. In the foolish pursuit that only blind greed can conduct so irrationally, the conservative movement will realize they have completely squandered the advantage they worked so hard to gain. Then it will be our time – a time for reason and tolerance.