Brand has come under fire from many quarters, but it is the Telegraph’s response which I think is the most insidious. It is not a gutless ad-hominem attack like many, but considered and ideological. Tom Chivers, like many others including my parents, buys into the vulgar progressivism that engulfed my childhood school and home:
Wherever you live in the world, the odds are that you will have an easier life than someone born in the same place 200 years ago. Not everywhere – there are pockets of regression, little eddies in the forward current – but generally speaking, humans have it better than ever before.
He goes on to speak of the last five years of austerity, of a shrinking horizon of possibility for most working people, as an aberration. He ignores the cuts and privatisation that we have seen in these years are extensions of efforts that date back to our days of affluence, that the social forces that desired an emasculated welfare system have simply used austerity to their advantage. Similarly he ignores the slow failure of civil society.
I straddle a generation where my school books trumpeted the freedom to travel without papers, the sanctity of the private individual and the presumption of their innocence, and the so-cherished freedom to dissent and to associate as a triumph of western civilisation against the dangerous Soviet Union. Then the Soviet Union collapsed. I trained myself to become an adult in service to this society that I was raised by both state and mother and father to believe in and I watched these achievements, true triumphs on par with the greatest of our technological breakthroughs, discarded like the propaganda they were always meant to be.
We were granted these freedoms by a state and economy that was interested in avoiding our defection to the Soviet Union and as the need for our docility faded so too did the interest of political and economic leaders. So by the time I entered the workforce you needed papers to travel in Arizona if you were too brown, the PATRIOT act was signed into law (and many other nations followed suit), the New York Police Department started an intelligence division that spied on Muslims worldwide (with no result other than giving massive surveillance capacity to an organization that, by the rules of our civil society, it should not have), and every half-way successful political protest (environmental, Occupy, anti-war, etc.) has been branded a form of terrorism and suppressed.
These aren’t isolated or temporary incidents for me, they are the entirety of my lived political experience. In an era in dire need of whistle-blowers journalists are imprisoned and harassed for ideals that were celebrated when they brought down Nixon, unemployment assistance is now simply a source of cheap labour and actively undermines labour conditions instead of supplementing them, services seen as essential to a civilised society (ie UK’s National Health Service, Canada’s Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) are being gutted or privatised, and science is regularly suppressed or marginalized when it affects a political parties agenda. And this is just in our oh-so ‘advanced’ western nations; we continue to look on idly as our excesses fuel economic uncertainty in other nations and further buttress dictatorships and speculation in less developed regions.
And all of this is just warm-fuzzies socio-economic morality in the face of the material reality on the ground. Paul Mason of Channel 4 cuts to the chase with “Russell’s audience get pay cheques, but their real spending power is falling.” You regularly hear US adults of my parents age saying “Well I worked through college, I don’t see what the big deal is.” Parents have a distorted view of the modern cost of education because they are paying it with pay cheques that are buttressed by the Golden Era of post-war capitalism and non-parents simply don’t realize how much wages have not grown to match tuitions. You can’t pay for a university education in the English-speaking world on a McDonalds paycheque. Then the advice turns to “well you should just go somewhere and look for work in what you want to do” as if that won’t be full of unpaid internships or a churn-and-burn approach to entry-level employees. My parents are fundamentally shocked every time my sister imparts another story of conditions in a local restaurant, but for my peers and I this is what normalcy looks like. My father told me “unions are unnecessary in modern businesses” while one of my best friends works for a top-flight tech company and gets a mere 12 days vacation and is encouraged not to take them.
So when Jon Chivers speaks of “pockets of regression” I know he has missed out on the great macabre humour of my generation in Old Economy Steve (perhaps a modern Mr. Block). And if I seem wildly depressing it is only in relation to the unexamined assumptions underlying Chivers’ assertion. “Things will get better because they are better than 200 years ago” is a terrible piece of inductive reasoning (even better, it comes from a science writer). This ignores the seemingly unbeatable Great Depression, which was ended only by the near-total failure of democracy against fascism, and the following destabilizing geo-politics of the Cold War and its constant threat of nuclear annihilation. In the deeper past we see the collapse of progressive civilisation after progressive civilisation. He substitutes clear, critical thinking about our present state of affairs with a promise that it will get better, without a when, that it has always gotten better, without a how, and to believe in the “political system”, without a why. This is a severe intellectual dishonesty in the face of Brand’s self-deprecating “I don’t really have a complete answer” because Brand is actually giving you the answer: Don’t believe things will “just get better” or that the current system will work it out. The reason things have gotten better is because of constant vigilance against injustice and tireless work towards a better world, regardless of mainstream approval. This is why there is no more legal segregation, why the US has a ragged social safety net instead of a labour Thunderdome, and why Germany has progressive environmental laws. Leaning back and waiting for “progress” to win out is more pathetic that apathetic non-voting because it depends on the deep and demanding sacrifices of great citizens, and then in the end Chivers will say “Look how things just naturally get better.”
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”