Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Like a pig in a cage on antibiotics

Last night I dreamed that my mother had given me a pack of cigarettes; not much of a gift I'll grant you - and given the struggle I'm having to give up smoking it might not be the best-considered one of all time - but it's a pretty big deal since she had to reach across the Great Divide to manage it, and because since I lost my job and was forced to relocate to Sweden such acts of generosity have not been common in my life.

It occurred to me after I'd woken up with the smell of dream-smoke in my nostrils, that my parents are among the lucky few who have managed to live and die within the fulfilled promise of the post-war contract: they were productive and in return the State guaranteed them a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, free health care for life, and a happy and prosperous retirement. Fewer and fewer will be in a position to follow in their footsteps, and I certainly won't be among them given that I'm 55 years old, unemployed and - given my chronic health problems and the history of depressive illness which cost me my job - unemployable.

You may think you detect a certain bitterness in me - well, you're damn right, you do, but more of that later!

"Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.”
Thomas Paine, ‘Common Sense’ (1776) ch. 1

By instinct I'm an anarchist, by principle a libertarian (a left-wing one; yes, America, they do exist!). The difference between the instinctive position and the principled one is simply the recognition that anarchism requires selfless human beings for its achievement, and there aren't any of those (not even Jesus was one). Some kind of state structure is going to be necessary to ensure that a free association of individuals does not degenerate into any one of a number of kinds of tyranny, so we're doomed to have a state, and since we're going to have one then let's give it the power and means to ensure that those who stumble, those who make mistakes, or those who are simply bloody unlucky, do not perish but are given the means to try again - in other words, let's have a welfare state.

As for the bitterness, well, for a long time I allowed myself to be lulled by comfort; I didn't precisely forget my beliefs, I just consigned them to some category in the back of my mind labelled 'Hopeless'. I allowed myself to be brainwashed into believing that nothing would change, could change, and that the only sensible response to the state of the world was to make the best of it.

Well, I don't believe that now. It may well be that I can't make a difference but I'm fucked if I'm just going to let it all go by without protest; if I'm going down then I'm going down fighting! I've been re-radicalised.

And the cause of this? Well, try being dumped from your job of 24 years while you're on sick leave, suffering from clinical depression, and mere weeks after a failed suicide attempt. Try being reduced to poverty after years of sufficiency, try scrabbling in gutters for cigarette butts to smoke, try living on baked beans and rice. That should do it.

Oh, and maybe being old enough to look Death in the face is a factor too.

The truth is that we're all just one pay check away from living on the the streets. Our security is an illusion that evaporates as soon as you look hard enough at it; the comfort we enjoy is only ours for as long as we're capable of producing the wealth that lines the pockets of our 'leaders' - when we become too old or too ill to work our reward is the trash can.

"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.”
Kris Kristofferson, 'Me and Bobby McGee'

It hasn't all been bad, mind you. I was miserable in my chains, and - while I'm not exactly dancing for joy in the street right now - at least I'm free to express my opinions for the first time in decades. I was also drinking myself to death, and would probably have succeeded by now. And the poverty is only relative: my standard of living would boggle the mind of a peasant in Afghanistan. However, from this depth recovery is proving to be impossible - if the Swedish State here ever did provide the necessary support to keep the chronically ill unemployed alive and help them into some kind of dignified employment, it does so no longer.

"Money doesn't talk, it swears.”
Bob Dylan, 'It's Alright, Ma'.

Mammon is a cruel god. He consumes everything, both the world and his worshippers.

The culture of the Western world is one of unremitting greed and selfishness, in which we measure the worth of individuals not by the contribution they make to the common good, but by the amount of money they amass. We offer lip-service to a higher morality, to humanitarian concerns, but it's all about as significant and lasting as a blow-job from a passing whore: it makes us feel good while we pursue those things which are really important to us – property and power. If you doubt this just reflect for a moment on the likelihood of committed Christian George Dubbya following the instruction of his Saviour to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. You can really see it happening, can't you?

Capitalism is everywhere triumphant, but its triumph is achieved at the expense of the vision of a kinder and gentler way of life. There is no room in its creed for compassion, no place for the weak; every person who scrambles to the top of the heap does so only by trampling on the faces of those beneath them.

And what, ultimately, is it all for? A dead rich person is every bit as lifeless as a dead poor person. In the end all they leave behind them is a better-fed corpse for the worms, and a world which is that much more unequal, that much more polluted and diminished as a result of their lives.

"Meet the new boss - same as the old boss.”
Pete Townshend, 'Won't Get Fooled Again'

Governments are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. Tyrannies potentially have the longevity to address the issues but their leaderships are typically focussed on retaining their power to the exclusion of all else, while democratic governments lack the time to achieve much, and the will to put the noses of the rich out of joint. ALL politicians of all kinds everywhere are more concerned about making their own progress to the top of the heap than helping those below them.

So voting in a new boss is a waste of time – even the best of them will be corrupted in time and forget that they are supposed to be our servants and not our masters.

What do we do then? We don't look to our employers or to governments for help; they don't care much right now and will care even less in the future as the cost of maintaining their own standards of living rises to environmentally insupportable levels. Instead we must forge alliances between individuals; we must help each other because there is no help to be had elsewhere. We must ignore the claims of 'rulers' upon us, we must deny their power and seize it if possible, because it is rightfully ours.

I've been talking about this for a while now, about the need to create self-helping communities - extended families if you like - within which to live and work, but it may be an idea whose time has not yet come. If you like the idea, though, or think that it might be worth talking about, then let me know - we need to start it all somewhere!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Objectivism, Reason And A Pressing Need For Nicotine

Despite - or maybe because of - my own inability to be rational (or indeed to focus on anything) for more than about ten minutes at a time, I have a deep respect for reason: I've long nurtured the notion that if human beings were rational all the time they'd be good-humoured and constructive and really, really nice to each other, and the world's problems would be sorted faster than you can say 'Jack Robinson'. Regrettably this simple faith has taken a bit of a bashing in recent years and the latest in a long run of culprits for this sorry state of affairs is the philosophy known as Objectivism.

I really don't want to go into too much detail about what precisely Objectivism consists of (partly because I'm lazy, and partly because it'll take me beyond my ten minute 'focus window', and mostly because the more I delve into it the more confusing and contradictory it all seems to be) but I'll do a copy and paste at the end of this blog of the four essential principles, and you can Google for the rest. The point is that Objectivism is supposed to be the ultimate rationalistic endeavour, the cream of the cream of all philosophies, and the end result of this is a system of ideas whose lack of humanity and common decency appals me. It could very well be that I'm missing some fundamental quality in the writings of Ayn Rand or her successors that in some way mitigates the consequences of exalting selfishness as moral principle, but if so then I'm sure someone will point it out to me. In the meantime all I can say is that if this is the fruit of reason then I suspect I'm going to be happier in an irrational world.

To be fair to Objectivism and Objectivists it has to be said that there is much in the philosophy that is good, that celebrates human beings and human life as something wonderful, but it seems to me to denigrate and misunderstand much about human beings that is every bit as worthy as reason and personal ambition. Too, there was never any possibility that I would ultimately embrace a philosophy which - inexplicably to my mind - extols laissez-faire capitalism as the ideal socio-political system: if you're young, healthy and in a position to make some money then you can see why it appeals; if you're old, sick and unemployed then it doesn't seem very clever at all.

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:

  1. Reality exists as an objective absolutefacts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. Manevery manis an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man's rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church. {Ayn Rand}
I wish I hadn't given up smoking!