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materialism is baloney

Bernardo Kastrup’s cheeky title here belies a serious book. It looks at the prevailing world view of materialist philosophy and uses materialism’s own logic to argue that it is self-contradictory, and leads to absurd conclusions. What this means is the view most of us have of the world, a place of “common sense” material stuff, is wrong. It also means none of the problems facing science and society today can be resolved from a materialist perspective. Why? Because the world is not what it seems, and neither are we.

Materialism is a mindset that looks at the mysteries of the universe and assumes everything is ultimately knowable through scientific reasoning. More, it tells us everything can be explained in material terms, even apparently immaterial things like consciousness. But the problems of materialism begin with quantum mechanics. This is the study of the nature of the foundations of what we think of as material stuff, or “matter”. But quantum mechanics also tells us matter cannot be said to exist until it is observed. This is awkward to say the least, and we get around the problem in daily life by politely ignoring it. Clearly though, there’s a gap in our thinking, and it will have to be reckoned with sooner or later.

The alternative view, one that might reconcile these paradoxes and explain the nature of consciousness, is philosophical idealism. Here Kastrup builds on the works of Emanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, and brings them forward into the twenty-first century. I’m not qualified to say whether he’s right or not, only that his views support the direction of my own thinking. His robust reasoning also provides a reassuringly intellectual rigour to what might otherwise, admittedly, seem a very strange way of looking at things.

Although a serious book, I found it engaging and accessible, but you’ll still need your wits about you, because the concepts here are so startling. Through the use of metaphor Kastrup introduces us to the idea of the universe as an infinite “thought”, that the material world is a phenomenon dreamed up by the consciousness of the universe itself. This is not to say the universe is “intelligent” or capable of self reflection, more that it is somehow blindly instinctive in bringing to fruition what we perceive of as life.

Philosophers call such a thing “Transcendental Idealism”, and one cannot delve into that subject without also touching on spiritual matters. So, as well as covering the nature of the universe, the book also looks at the purpose of life. From the more familiar Materialist perspective, life is meaningless but Idealism begs to differ. Indeed, it grants humankind a primary role. It tells us we are the eyes and the ears of a universe waking up and exploring its own nature the only way it can – by enfolding parts of its self into discrete pockets of self-reflective awareness. That’s us. Otherwise, the universe would be like an eye trying to see itself.

When we dream we accept the dream entirely as our reality, and it’s only when we wake we gain sufficient perspective to see the dream for what it was. In the same way, in the dream of the universe, we have no choice but to accept the dream of it as real. Indeed, it is real. It’s just that the nature of that reality is not what we think it is. It also means that ultimately we are the same as whatever we are looking at, because whatever is dreaming “it” into being, is dreaming us too. And equally startling, it means the sense of “I”, looking out through your eyes right now, is the same sense of “I” looking out though mine. The only difference between us, is our life story.

This book will appeal to anyone who finds the high-priests of materialism, and their more fundamentalist dogmas, a little too shrill. It will appeal also to anyone seeking to restore meaning to their lives but who are similarly repelled by religion, as well as finding the otherwise seductive language of the New Age at times somewhat anaemic. I think the world according Bernardo Kastrup is a very interesting one, and well worth exploring. It is both plausible and profoundly positive, building on a rich heritage of idealism, and putting us back at the very centre of a universe driven towards the creation of life.

Although essentially blind and instinctive, its evolutionary drift seems to be towards an awareness of itself, through us. So, while things may not be the way we think they are, what each of us sees and thinks and does, and feels in life,… about life,…

Really matters.

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on pendle hill

Pendle Hill Summit, December 2019

It was about six degrees in town this morning, with a light rain. It felt bitter and unwelcoming. The parking machine took most of my change, leaving little for the homeless guy sitting there with the thousand yard stare, but he accepted my bits of shrapnel with more enthusiasm than they deserved, and he called me sir. The coppers were all I could muster as symbols of my solidarity with his lot, and I felt in the “sir” a rebuff, not from him – he was grateful for anything – but more from within myself, the distance it implies, between me and him. I have never been comfortable being called “sir”.

Amid the ruins of this, my little market town, there has risen of late the paradox of a glittering high-rise that promises a “cinematic experience” and bowling, though these attractions have yet to appear. And of the quality-shopping also promised, over the years of this great carbunkle’s somewhat listless construction, only a Marks and Spencer food hall has opened. It sits uneasily like a top-hat among the ragged, alongside the vape-shops and the tattoo parlours and all the charity places.

Meanwhile I note the news-stands speak of war with Iran, the more right wing and tabloidy the title, the more strident and crass the headline, but whether to instil terror or glee I do not know. It will depend on your disposition I suppose. Me? I see only that the social fabric of the UK is in tatters, that it will improve not one jot in the decade to come, and the looming climate catastrophe is beyond help now.

Middle eastern politics never makes for comfortable reading and try as I might I’m not sure if we’ve been brought here by miscalculation or by artifice, for these are dark powers and completely beyond my knowing, but I do know another war played out as infotainment isn’t going to be fun viewing, and it’s certainly not going to fix anything that needs fixing.

Thus the New Year opens and leaves me casting round for a glimmer of hope and I am seeking it in the food aisles of M+S. A week ago I was on the top of a misty Pendle, feeling for a time that all was well. Everyone I met at 1800 feet looked fresh and happy, but that’s the tops for you and always worth the effort. It’s when you come back down to earth the shadows regroup.

I bought something for my tea, browsed the novels in Heart Foundation, but nothing took my eye. I bought a brew for the homeless guy from Gregs and walked it back up to the carpark, but he’d gone by then. So I sat in the car for a bit, watched the people cowed by winter and the flat murk that passes for daylight at this time of year, and I drank the tea myself. Milk and one sugar. That’s how I take it, but I had not stopped to think if it was all right for him.

It’s all very well, trying to help out a bit, but it’s better to pause and consider what it is that’s needed first. And maybe there’s no answer to that, no obvious place to start, which is why we’re going nowhere, and hope is so elusive.

Meanwhile I have snowdrops in the garden, green shoots appearing among the leaf-litter for the first time, and I sold another copy of The Inn at the Edge of light last night, which make two. Then I have seedlings of sweetpea to plant up for the windowsill, for planting out come spring, to bring some colour and the heady intoxication of their scent.

Small beginnings, but the best I can come up with for now.

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grayscale photo of human lying on ground covered of cardboard box

Photo by THE COLLAB. on Pexels.com

I caught the train at nine. It was smooth, sleek, and spotlessly clean, purring into the station bang on time, just like they do in Switzerland. There was plenty of room on board, though it was peak commuter period and we were heading into Manchester. I paid with my smart-phone, tapping it to the reader on the seat-back, and the seat folded down for me to use, smooth as silk, invited me to stretch out, to settle in the air-conditioned cool, and the train moved out with barely a sound.

They used to be so expensive and so rough I’d rarely ever take one, but now you’d be a fool not to. Much better to leave the car at home, not because the roads are so busy any more, because they’re not; it’s simply a relaxing way to travel, and the service is so frequent you never have to wait more than a quarter of an hour. It truly is the height of luxury, and cheap as chips. I’m told tourists the world over admire our rail-network. And if you’ll forgive me a moment of jingoism, it makes me proud to be British. Not that it was always like this.

It’s free to stand of course, and I did wonder about doing that, journey time into town now being only around a smooth ten minutes, when it used to take nearer a very jerky thirty, and most of that would be standing up because there were always too few carriages, and the old timers remind me we still had to pay the regular fare whether we go a seat or not, and all of us squished in like sardines. I didn’t suffer that indignity very often because mostly I used to drive, sit nose to tail on the M61 instead where the journey time could be anything up to an hour. It’s a wonder we put up with it, but I suppose we’d no choice back then.

My fellow passengers looked well dressed, clean, healthy and happy. It makes a difference, having a bit of money in your pocket. It took a while for things to pick up this way, but over the years I’ve watched that standard of living – modest though it is in most cases – piecing back people’s self respect, people’s dignity. But it’s also their sense of security, don’t forget. It’s hard to smile when you’re always looking back over your shoulder, worrying you’ll get fired for taking so much as a pee in work’s time. So all we fear now are the age old bogies of death and whether our kids will pass their exams, while from what I can gather, in the old days people were afraid of everything. Even rich people were afraid, though mostly what they were afraid of was being poor.

I remember my grandmother telling me how, well into the twenties, people used to go hungry even when they had a job. Wages were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat, she said – and even though she and granddad were both putting in sixty hour weeks, they could barely keep body and soul together, and that’s what finished him in the end. By the time he was forty, he looked seventy. It got so bad the charities had to set up food banks to stop people starving to death. It was like slavery, I suppose. Can you imagine that? It must have been so hard, so undignified having to go cap in hand for a free tin of beans. But what else could people do? I would sooner have died, but that’s easy for me to say, looking back from the luxury of these more enlightened times.

And there’d be people without homes, she said, though I’m not sure I believe that. Indeed a lot of what Gran told me about those days I take with a pinch of salt. I mean, I can’t imagine anyone letting things get so bad. They lived out in the open – these homeless people – summer, winter, rain or shine, lived in doorways or the better off had tents, the numbers rising year on year until you were stepping around them, even in the provincial market towns. But you’d see them out in the countryside too because they’d be set upon by yobs in towns and it was safer for them, out in the green – though many of them starved to death there for want of coin, or they froze in the cold snaps and Gran said the council would have to go out and collect the bodies.

I do remember there being really poor people, back when I was a kid and how all the cars stunk and belched gas, and I remember too my dad arguing with the landlord over the rents that kept going up and up, and having to move around a lot because they could kick you out for no good reason. Landlords could be the worst kind of scum back then, empty a man’s pocket before he’d even bought bread for his family.

We should be grateful I mean that our parents’ generation took the stand they did, or where do you think we’d all be now? Still, you wonder if you’d have the determination yourself if you were nailed to the ground by such grinding poverty all the time. I suppose if you were hungry enough, and living in a tent,…

But just listen to me, harping on about the old days, like I ever had it bad myself.

 

 

 

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manufacturing

I’m not much of a futurologist. I didn’t see BREXIT coming, or Trump. I’m better at retrospectives and can equate the decline of meaningful work in the west as a  consequence of de-industrialisation, and the off-shoring of manufacture. But then I ask the question: what next? Answer: I don’t know, other than: it cannot be more of the same.

Manufacturing was once a tremendous source of varied employment, taking people from a broad spectrum of practical and intellectual ability, then organising and deploying them in a way that brought fruition to physical objects that could be sold, either to a domestic market or, ideally, exported. People with degrees, people with no qualifications at all other than a willingness to work – all found their place in manufacturing. Such types used to be called factory fodder. I’m one of them.

But manufacturing paid its fodder well, if you were a boss or a labourer. It bought you a house, a car, and time to pursue interests. It paid you enough to purchase the spoils of the consumer society, also a pension to live in modest comfort in your senior years. It was not a bad way of life.

But efficiency in manufacturing is driven by certain basic economic rules that come down to the price of a pair of hands. If hands can be bought more cheaply in poorer parts of the world, that’s where manufacturing goes. The result for the west is de-industrialisation. People previously employed in manufacturing then find themselves competing for what’s left – mainly service sector jobs, or warehousing at wages set well below what anyone can actually live off. Why? Because there’s a glut of labour and prices, as with wages, are dictated by the law of supply and demand. Too many hands for not enough jobs  =  low wages.

The vacuum left by industrialisation is filled, at best, by exploitative and unscrupulous profit-mad employers, bereft of any social conscience, at worst by crooks and modern day criminal slavers. Couple this with a right leaning political system, one ideologically inclined towards the cutting of state benefits in order to elevate those already rich to even greater riches and we have a perfect storm. Homelessness, drug addiction fuelled by the need to escape appalling life chances, and a widening divide between the haves and have nots. All these things destroy the soul of nations.

Historically the result is populist politicians seizing power by manipulating mass resentment – blaming the “foreign other” for ills that are purely domestic also sniping at  libertarian ideals as pandering to a loss of moral fibre, so we see a rise in anti-gay, indeed anti just about anything not white, male straight Ango-Saxon and Christian. In the worst of cases, this leads to internal suppression, death, and the distraction of foreign wars  before we come to our senses and a more egalitarian zeitgeist is ushered in on a wave of revulsion at our own stupidity.

That history may be about to repeat itself here goes without saying, but I remain hopeful we have not yet entirely failed to learn the lessons of past upheavals. That said, our industries are not coming back. And worse, those low level service jobs, those warehouse jobs that pay next to nothing – they will be automated out of existence in the next decade, because this is the inevitable goal of those “scientific” management aspirations birthed in the late Victorian era, the absolute maximisation of profit by the elimination of paid labour.

The result is hardly controversial: Western nations are looking at a future in which tens of millions of citizens will have no realistic prospect of gaining any kind of employment at all. Even those who have followed the gruelling path of the degree system will find themselves competing for scant resources – clambering over one another for every petty bullshit spreadsheet jockey job imaginable.

So, if we follow the current model of Capitalism, as it stands, tens of millions must logically be consigned to homelessness, and starving to death on our streets. However, it can hardly be expected the masses do so quietly. When a man has nothing left to lose he will behave unpredictably. Therefore a solution will be found, because the monied are perfectly aware they will otherwise find themselves impaled on pitchforks.

Demonisation of the poor is a common trope of the monied. Blame it on lack of morals, rather than lack of money or life chances. Lose your job to downsizing and you suffer the double ignominy of being blamed for your own unemployment, while discovering the state funded safety net has its ropes spread so thin by austerity its easy to fall through, your days spent searching for non-existent work and your state funded security axed on the slightest pretext. Right leaning states and amoral commerce act as one in this, obey the same rules, turn a blind eye to starvation, to homelessness, to drug addiction, they blame it on moral weakness, on immigration, on anything but a corrupt system incapable of sustaining life for all but an unspeakably wealthy minority.

Only a radically different approach can coax our future towards less turbulent times. And one of those approaches involves paying everyone an amount of money to cover their basic needs, to grant them the dignity of being able to afford to refuse undignified, demeaning or exploitative paid work.

To this end it’s proposed the state benefit system is altered, abolishing its overarching, penny pinching bureaucracy and instead everyone, irrespective of their circumstances is given free money, a so called universal basic income. It sounds bizarre but when the only beneficiaries of “business” will be the business owners themselves and, by means of taxation on profits, the state, how else are populations to be supported?

Naturally, it is the political left who are most sympathetic to this idea, while the right struggle with it, quoting the “immorality” of paying “scroungers” to stay at home while others work. But in a future world without any meaningful work whatsoever for the majority, whether they want to work or not, the options, other than starvation, seem limited.

We are seeing various experimental trials of universal basic income now, including one in Finland which awards £500 a month – no strings, no means test. It doesn’t sound like a lot – and that’s because it isn’t. You’d need to be a magician to survive for long off that, and there’s the rub. It’s clearly no panacea, but results are encouraging.

Left leaning administrations will be more generous than the right in setting this level of subsistence, but the poor can hardly go on strike to demand an increase, so may find themselves trapped in poverty anyway, while a technocratic elite continue to reap the lions share of paid work, in addition of course to the basic income.

But it is at least a question being asked by those serious about the future. The answers are varied and uncertain for now, but without such progressive thinking all visions of a future for the west are at best unsettling, at worst unthinkable.

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pardiseIt’s a difficult period to bear witness to, at least for one who’s always had a naive faith in the idea western society would, by dint of superior economic, moral and social models, continue to thrive. I never once thought the opposite was more likely true, until that is until the coming of this lost decade when it seems we have been thoroughly undermined by our own avarice.

Everything real is broken now. You might not notice it as you walk the consumerist delusion of London’s Oxford Street, the Capital seeming as prosperous as ever, but walk any other street, especially in the North, and you’ll understand where the pain is being felt, and why. Here, there has been no recovery from the crash of 2008 and now, a decade, on we are entirely disabused of the notion there will ever be one. That the poorest would one day be reliant upon charitable handouts of food, even those in work, would once have been beyond imagining. Now it’s normal.

I’m approaching retirement from a profession on its uppers, but it’ll see me out, and I have the cushion of one of the last final salaried pension schemes to take me into old age, so I write from a somewhat detached perspective, neither rich nor poor, but anyone with compassion cannot but be moved by what they see about them. And anyone with children cannot but be alarmed for their prospects.

My life began in a working class family, sustained by my father’s energy and intellect. In the mines he worked his way up from collier, to shot-firer, to deputy. Night school in his teens and twenties, and the earnest application of his craft in the very depths of the earth yielded sufficient reward to support a wife and two kids, a modest three bed semi, and a second hand car. He wanted nothing more.

When my father died early, his Coal Board pension sustained my mother for the rest of her life. It stood me on relatively secure ground too, saw me through the early years until I could work my way into a profession of my own. What I am now would not have been possible without my parents, and what they achieved, modest though it was, would not have been possible without a supportive society, a Britain that was by and large benevolent, providing those who had begun lowly in life with a basic financial catch-all, and a ladder to improve themselves.

This grand experiment ended in the 1980’s with another experiment, one founded on the redistribution of money into private hands. The theory was that, while this would naturally render certain individuals obscenely rich, their riches, through investment, would somehow spawn enterprise that would in turn allow money to trickle down and sustain the whole of society. What happened was rather different.

They entered into a kind of warfare against the masses, also against the governments who represented them. They developed ways of becoming richer, of evading laws, and where necessary lobbying sympathetic lawmakers into dismantling the financial checks and balances created to ensure decent and fair practice. Thus the financial systems pulsating throughout the nineties and the early noughties were already akin to legalised swindles.

As the rich prospered, they moved their money into secret places beyond the reach of the taxman, while industries providing employment for millions collapsed for want of investment. The industries were not replaced. The poor became poorer, and the ladder allowing them to become richer by means of diligence was kicked away. Reliant on by now severely rationed state handouts, and on ever more demeaning and dead end work that paid virtually nothing, they clutched at the devil of credit-trickery to makes ends meet, and fell headlong into a cunning debt slavery from which there was no escape. As if this were not enough, they were also vilified in rich men’s newspapers as n’er-do-wells and scroungers.

This appalling system fell apart in 2008, the result of one last financial swindle that spun the roulette wheel so hard its axle broke. The world would have ended then had it not been for the largely unacknowledged efforts of a former and much maligned British PM. But it was not enough to restore the world, even to pre 2008 levels of declining prosperity, and the decade since has been one deliberately contrived to render the masses poorer, increasingly insecure, and more despairing than they were before. Meanwhile the rich have continued to prosper so much they have begun gold-plating their Rolls-Royces,..

My ‘phone was bleeping every five minutes this last week as the Paradise Papers broke, my left-of-centre news-feeds breathless with yet one more revelation of how the rich keep their money safe from the rest of us, and what obscene frivolities they spend it on. None of it surprises us. We’ve heard it all before. If you take money from the masses, deprive us of meaningful work, you cannot expect us to support ourselves, let alone prosper and pay taxes for the benefit of society as a whole. We whither, and society withers with us, becomes cheap, threadbare, fragile. The rich have inherited all the convertible wealth of earth, dumped the rest of us among all the waste that’s left over.

We have no control over the circumstances into which we are born, and nowadays less opportunity to alter those circumstances as the rich secure their fortress positions and kick the ladders away. If one is born poor, it’s likely we shall remain so all our lives. The rich do not have a greater right to life than the rest of us, yet one might be forgiven for thinking they do since money is life, at least in the type of society we have created. To hoard riches beyond the reach and benefit of the masses is to deny security, and the sense that life means anything at all. But this is not a safe sport for the rich to play in the long term.

These scams and schemes are deftly gamed by the pulse takers and the money-lenders, and all the barrow-boys of the financial temples, but it is a crime, if not in the eyes of the state any more, then in the eyes of God. And if you do not fear God then perhaps it is the poor themselves you should be wary of, for there is little protection to be had from an ordinary man who’s already had everything taken from him.

But that the Paradise papers have come to light is itself a glimmer of hope, that someone working in the turgid murk of those sequestered riches possessed sufficient moral outrage to expose them. Look, someone’s saying, this really isn’t right! It could be something small, this thing, a brief cry in the dark and it’ll go the way of all such yesterday’s news, or it could be the start of something big, a viral howl of outrage to usher in a new, more socially responsible zeitgeist.

It is not my generation, the baby-boomers, who will solve this problem; we’re still too close to the myth of the golden olden times to put up much of a fight. But the young have and will suffer more, lose more than they have lost already, indeed they have grown up in a period that has eroded trust and faith in authority, a period that has equated wealth and power and privilege with corruption and the abuse of the powerless on an Herculean scale. This has been their bread and butter, and they are sick of it, and they are coming of age.

I forgive the young in advance their ire at so monumental a betrayal. The rich, who avoid their dues and bend the rule of law to suit themselves, I forgive nothing. I’ve no idea what the next decade will bring, but as the West stands today in the light of these revelations from paradise, the best I can see is a long haul, wading knee deep in the mud, while the bastions of the rich are dismantled one golden brick at a time. The worst I can imagine is that nothing changes at all.

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southport pierSince 2007 we’ve been observing a world in freefall. Something’s gone wrong with the money machine, and the machine is a mystery to me. Try as I might, I just can’t figure out how it works so, like my car, I tend to leave such things to the mechanics. All I know is that the mechanics tell us we can’t just print money when we run out of it. If we print it, they say, the prices in the shops go up, so we run out of money again and have to print even more. The result is a never ending and upwardly inflating spiral of destruction.

The problem is, of course, we have indeed run out of money – lost it apparently – but such is the depth of my ignorance, I don’t understand where the money has gone. I know money is largely computerised now, but when the pundits opine that billions have been wiped off the value of the stock market, does that mean there’s a computer program somewhere deleting it?

If I only understood these things a little more I’m sure I’d be less cynical when we hear the tired old politicians’ saw that we’re all in this together and tough decisions must be made. But I’m not so ignorant I don’t understand that phrase: “tough decisions”. It means diverting money away from anything that betters society – diverting it to where, exactly, I’m not sure, but certainly nowhere it will do the majority of us any good. Those tough decisions may be expedient in terms of getting the  machine going again, but it seems also morally perverse, no matter what the money mechanics tell us.

To my eyes, something is wrong at the heart of the machine, yet the solution the mechanics are groping towards appears to be a painstaking restoration of the very thing responsible for the breakdown in the first place. It seems unwise to merely restore a system we know has imperfections so deeply ingrained it cannot help but impale itself again on the future shards of its own avarice. I’m aware this is a naïve view and it’s probably why I’m unsuited to the field of money mechanics.

The majority of people remain silent on these things, like me, lost in ignorance and apathy, focussing purely on the next pay-cheque, the next bill. We regard the economy the same way as the weather – something we must occasionally take shelter from, and are powerless to control. So, we look on in dismay and gather those closest to us, that we might comfort them with platitudes as the tornado cuts another swathe. But human beings are not meant to live like this for long. And six years of “tough decisions” is a long time.

We are all of us aspirational. If we cannot feel the thrill of life, however we define it as individuals, it makes us crazy. We might be tempted to expand ourselves in directions we ordinarily would not. And if the compassionate, inclusive directions in life are closed to us, what then?

They say there are no powerful ideologies any more – left or right leaning, that we run in the safe groove of the middle ground. Indeed someone famously declared the end of history with the fall of communism in the 1980’s. I think that was premature, for what is the avaricious freemarket economy, if not an ideology? And what are ideologies anyway, but irrational beliefs, each born from the ashes of the ideology that preceded it? But the thing with ideologies is the seeds of the old ways remain, like prehistoric grasses, frozen into the glacier of the new. And that glacier of the free market economy, has been melting so very fast of late. At what point will it release, drip by drip, those ancient seeds?

In Britain the ancient seeds are most visibly represented by the minority politicians who occupy the far right. I saw their footsoldiers in the summer. They went leafleting en-mass along the promenade of a wealthy seaside town in my locale. Bright eyed, jolly lads, they were. White, shaven headed and patriotically tattooed, they strode out with a purpose. But they also seemed intent on a parody of themselves as they handed out their literature of race-hate.

The Britain of my personal experience remains for the most part inclusive and fair minded, and I’m happy to report those leaflets were received with largely contemptuous ripostes. But I wonder at what point will those fair minded summer crowds be rendered vulnerable enough for the dark seeds take root?

Although the money mechanics remain by far the most vociferous of the media pundits, it’s clear by now this is much more than a financial crisis. It’s something that has reached to the psychic roots of our being and has begun to reshape us as people. We must therefore take care in the ideals we hold to, as individuals, for the only cure the mechanics can come up with is more of the same – namely the ruin of nations and the impoverishment of our children, generation upon generation.

In order to repair our world along the old familiar lines, it seems we must first destroy it.

So, as we stand on the cusp of this new age, and look to the future, we must be mindful of the times to come, that we shall at times feel our hands so tied we can no longer do any good in the world, that we will feel at times ever more restrained, unable to expand and feel the aliveness within us. Yet expand we must, for this is our nature. But whatever path we choose, let us remember the old doctor’s saw, that we must first do no harm.

There is an axiomatic kernel of decency in all of us, no matter how cynical and pressed. It’s an ancient thing, God given and born of dreams. It would always have us act to safeguard our fellow man, not out of legal necessity, nor national interest, nor economic expedience, but out of compassion. If we could only wake up to such an ideal as that, we might fix the machine properly so it works for all of us, instead of so intractably against most of us.

There has to be another way.

I know, I know,… I write stories, and most of them are fantasies too, but I remain hopeful.

 

Graeme out.

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green goddessWisdom sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. I had a neighbour – a man of little education, and long retired when I met him, a man of simple tastes, fond of his garden, not well off, but perfectly content in the bosom of his family. I forget how our conversation got on to the topic of consumerism, but he said his motto was that if you needed something, and you’d the money, then you should get it, but if you merely wanted a thing, then you shouldn’t get it, even if you’d the money.

Like it or loathe it, consumerism has changed the face of the western world, and it’s changed us. Prior to 1900, it was believed people were motivated by logical responses to available data: give them the relevant information and they’d make a rational choice based upon personal need. But the work of psychoanalysts like Freud,  showed how we in fact respond to things in ways that are far from logical, that we are also driven by unconscious desires of a purely emotional and entirely irrational nature.

The advertising of goods used to focus on practical issues like how reliable the goods were, or what they did that was bigger/better/faster than all the other similar stuff out there. But it was found you could sell more goods if you could also sell the myth that a thing would make a person feel better about themselves in ways beyond the mere function of the thing itself. From then on manufactured goods were no longer practical necessities, they became lifestyle choices. We bought things because we desired them, because we wanted a piece of the mythical lifestyle that came with owning that product. It also meant that if our desires could be sated in this way, we were less likely to satisfy them in other ways, ways that might be socially or politically undesirable – things like taking to the streets in protest for example?

All of this sounds bizarre now, but a look back at the history of psychoanalysis and its links with advertising shows how our unconscious urges have been analysed, categorised and manipulated in order to maximise the sale of goods. Psychoanalysis has many critics, but we are all the living proof of how its theories have been put to devastatingly practical use, including, some might say, the control of large populations – you simply feed us a diet of “stuff”, and weave around it a fantasy of desire, and we become docile, endlessly chasing the myth of the ideal reality, instead of focussing on reality itself.

The history of the western world up to the middle of the twentieth century is one of upheaval and public revolt. But if we look at those same democracies in the early part of the twenty first century, democracies now steeped in a tradition of consumerism, our history is one of apathy. The mob no longer cares what’s going on in halls of power, so long as the postman turns up on time with our stuff from Amazon. Short of a postal strike, I can’t imagine us getting really upset about anything.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to see another pan-European war, but neither am I happy with the thought of a population so lost to the myth of stuff they’ve  no longer the will to change society if they feel it needs changing, nor even the vision to see what needs changing in the first place.

So next time you’re in town, and you see some “thing” and you think to yourself if only I had that thing I’d feel a lot better about myself, remind yourself it won’t make more than five minutes difference to the way you feel at all. Feeling better about yourself comes from somewhere else, and there, I’m afraid, we’re on our own. So try to cut back a little more to the centre of yourself, try to clear the line between necessity and desire, and ask yourself: apart from all this stuff that I apparently want, who the hell am I, and what do I really, really need most in my life right now?

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