Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Post-apocalyptic Lathe Shifting

Yesterday my neighbour had a large lathe, to turn and mill metal, delivered to his door. Four guys pulled the palette off the lorry and drove off leaving it in his drive. It was enormous and heavy, and he was unable to move it. Luckily, shortly after this, a van with some local youths, on their way back from shearing sheep, passed by. They noticed his dilemma, stopped and helped him lift the crate up to his workshop.

After unpacking the lathe and assembling its stand in the workshop another problem became apparent. The machine weighed 300kg it was going to be difficult to lift it up, through the door, and onto its stand. I was passing, walking the dogs, and started to help. We fashioned a moving shelf with a car jack and a metal plate but, even with crowbars, we couldn’t get the machine up onto the shelf.

Luckily another farmer was passing bringing hay back from a field recently cut. We flagged him down and asked if he would help us with the last leg of the lathe’s journey. This was no minor request. This weighed over quarter of a ton, was difficult to handle and could cause serious injury, or death, if it toppled and fell. But none the less we all set to and after an hour of panting, groaning and swearing the job was done. We gossiped for a while about politics and Brexit, then I completed my walk with the dog, the farmer finished his journey with the hay, and my neighbour settled down to read the lathe’s handbook.

What struck me, as I was walking the dog, was how ready people are to help each other. Happy to help for no reward other than to be helpful. It struck me how often I see this. Or local community hall is run and shared by volunteers who maintain the grounds at their own cost and who give hours of time to organize local events. I recalled spending an afternoon with a man I did not know as we cut and cleared a tree which had fallen and blocked the road, and a prior evening when a different stranger had helped me round up someone’s sheep that had got out through a broken fence and were wandering the lanes. I have an evening booked, later this week, to go to the pub with some people in the town who, like me are Community First Responders, and give up some of their free time to help should anyone be in need.

Life would scarcely be liveable were it not for these multiple acts of kindness from strangers. If I drop my wallet, or leave my phone on the table, as I leave a cafe someone will call to alert me or run after me to make sure I don’t lost my property. Anyone with the misfortune to be in an accident will recall the offers of help from bystanders. Anyone lost knows you can ask a passerby for directions. Every day our interactions with others is usually helpful. When we walk on a busy pavement in the city we do not jump and jostle for space but step aside and ensure we can all move as freely as possible. It’s the way we are made, it’s our nature, we are designed to be helpful.

It is for this reason that I get annoyed with post-apocalyptic films and novels which suggest that when the state is destroyed we will all descend into barbarism. The usual scenario is, that after a disaster, man-made or natural, all the authorities have gone and our heroes have to travel across a land populated by villains intent on rape and murder. These dystopias paint a bleak picture of life without the state. The message is clear, without the state to protect us we world all be at risk from the murderous impulses of our neighbours.

This runs counter to our general experience. We rarely call on the state to defend us and every day we experience pleasant or useful communal interactions with our fellows. Our instincts to be sociable and create society are so innate and quotidian that we fail to notice them. Rather, we only notice when people fail to be nice and are, on rare occasions, rude to us.

There is a misconception that the state creates society. It does not, individuals by their nature create society. The state, by contrast, creates power; rather than fostering cooperation it creates compulsion and obligation. Humans do not by instinct kill each other, if you want to see violent and cruel behaviour you need a ruling class to compel it. The mass killings our species has seen (wars, genocide or pogroms) have always been instigated by a state and a call to the authority of a God, King, Nation or ideology. We have to compel people to go to war and sometimes shoot them if they won’t go – to encourage the others. People spontaneously build communities and society not war and oppression, you need a state for that.

Even the benign aspects of the state carry their risks. If, ‘for or own good’, the state looks after our welfare it takes it out of our hands. It means we do not make the choices and priorities, and we do not make the social bonds and links to promote our welfare. Charity, locality planning and fraternal organizations all become weakened when the state steps in. As the sociologist Frank Furedi noted :-

“Indeed, it can be argued that state intervention in everyday life corrodes community life no less, and arguably even more, than market forces. In many societies, people who come to rely on the state depend far less on each other and on their community. When what matters is access to the state then many citizens can become distracted, and stop cooperating and working with fellow members of their community”

In a practical sense, here is some free advice. If you ever find yourself lost in the desert, or jungle, or crossing barren windswept plains after a nuclear holocaust, and you see other people don’t run away from them. They are your best hope, do what all your instincts tell you to do and run towards them shouting for help; they probably will.

If we ever do see the breakdown of the state then I will be even more reliant on my friend and neighbours. We would quickly reorganise our local community again and people might take the opportunity not to return to power structures that we had lost, with all the inequality that accompanied it. The world would go on but sone of those who leeched of our backs would now have to fund a way to be helpful and productive.

The state might tell us whether we can buy a lathe or not, or might put taxes on its purchase to fund its own agenda, and it may punish someone if they steal it from us, but it doesn’t do much else. It didn’t design it, make it, or transport it, individuals working cooperatively did that. The state didn’t help us move the lathe in the past and we will still be able to move it, despite its weight, once the state has gone.

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Deaths due to drug abuse in Scotland have hit an all-time high. In 2018 1,187 people died in Scotland as a consequence of drug abuse a rise of 27% on the already frightening figures of 2017. This places Scotland in a class of its own in Europe with a level of drug-related deaths twice that of the next nearest country (Estonia). It would be difficult to underplay the size of the problem. The drug-related death rate in Scotland is now three times the size of that in the U.K. as a whole and last year more people died in Scotland from drug misuse than from the direct effects of alcohol!

BBC News, Graph of drug deaths by EU country

The figures did unnerve me but unfortunately they did not come as a surprise. In the decade before I moved to Wales, I worked as a consultant psychiatrist in a deprived area of Scotland and had witnessed first hand the growing problem. More importantly, I had also seen the developing drug strategy which was being pursued. This policy seemed doomed to failure and almost guaranteed to increase the amount of death and injury due to recreational drug use.

The main reason for this was that the strategy in Scotland had only one string to its bow and that string was Harm Reduction. This took a number of forms including needle exchanges, methadone prescribing, safe spaces and the like. While harm reduction can be valuable it is not enough on its own unless you can reduce the harm to negligible levels (which is not going to be the case with something like drug use). The simple logic is that if you reduce the rate of harm to half of what is was before then this will look impressive, but if at the same time you triple the number of people taking the risk then you will have increased, not reduced, the total amount of harm done. The evidence is that Scotland has many, many more people abusing drugs than previously and thus as a consequence many more deaths. It is important to note that about half of these deaths involve methadone which is the prescribed opiate which was intended to reduce the harm.

More people taking these drugs leads to more deaths and a false sense of security by harm reduction strategies may compound the problem. The need is to reduce the harm, but more importantly, to reduce the usage of drugs. It is unlikely that laws against usage will make any great headway, there is little evidence that laws deter people from drug use. Indeed, there is a little evidence that illegality enhances the cachet of drugs in some groups and promotes their use. This cachet is further enhanced by our culture’s tendency to glamourize drug use; watch any late evening chat show or read any interview with a modern media star and see the use of drugs being used as a badge to garner respect. In the recent race to become the Tory party leader, and hence Prime Minister of the UK, had the unedifying spectacle of all the candidates competitively ‘confessing‘ their drug misuse in an attempt to win the youth vote.

In addition to this cultural acceptance of drug use there is the further problem that, now, drug misuse is an access route into welfare benefits. In a country, such as Scotland, with high levels of unemployment and poverty there will be some pressures to look at the problem of addictions differently – when being on the sick role as an addict could mean being prescribed opiates (methadone) by the state and receiving money in the form of Personal Independence Payments. (Addictions UK for example have a service to help secure payments when you have an addiction). The biggest problem facing those with addiction problems is securing autonomy and independence again, compounding a drug dependency with a welfare dependency will simply amplify the problem.

In an ideal society people would be free to decide on their use of drugs but also responsible for the consequences of taking them. There is little to suggest that the state will be able to make this aspect of our behaviour disappear but there is good reason to think that it has the capacity to make problems worse. Prescribed opiates are now killing as many people as illicit ones, and we have developed a large industry which lives on the backs of those trapped in cycles of dependency. The last decades have seen Scotland move to a much more authoritarian and controlling nation state. This change has important social and cultural effects and these figures showing a dreadful loss of life, and hinting at even worse disability and hurt, should act as a wake up call to the risks involved.

Resource

Closeup of young girl in heroine overdose holding syringe and lying on pavement. Copy space

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

Let’s say a big thank you to all the w@nkers !

I know that my blog title appears possibly crude, especially the inclusion of an ampersand in the text. However, I have no wish to offend and do indeed want to offer my thanks to people who have been horribly maligned over many years. I had been thinking recently about the importance of attitudes to sexual behaviour in our modern society. We have known for many years how potent the sexual drive is in guiding human behaviour. This potency has lead been used to sell everything from apples to zinc baths, advertisers know that the our sexual urge is one of the strongest tools in their armoury. Generations of young men and women have striven and improved themselves in the hope of attracting mates and society has had untold benefits from this as they sublimated their sexual urges into self improvement, artistic endeavours, sporting success or charity. Unfortunately it has also been used to drive men to war and nations into conflict. It is indeed our primal and basic drive.

I have been concerned, however, on a rather different method of influencing us by our sexual desires. For millennia the state, usually through religious bodies, has used sexual desire to control us. It has stated that some very basic impulses are to be shunned, to be avoided and to be shameful. By telling us that those who fornicate wrongly, and don’t limit their desires to the prescribed form and frequency, are damned and the lowest of the low they created shame and fearfulness. Every young boy or girl whose hand slid to their waist knew they faced hellfire and eternal suffering. Or, if they escaped the horrors of hell then they would succumb to the secular terrors of insanity or blindness. Indeed after the priests had lost their hold over the public the medical experts were there ready to step into the breach and warn us of the terrible fates that would befall us if we were one of these morally weak degenerates.

The intention of these concerns about sexual behaviour was never the well being of the individual, despite the medicalization of the ‘problem’. The intention was always precisely to cause anxiety and doubt. To take something everyone did (to lust after a beauty, to fantasize over others) and to make it shameful turned us all into sinners whose only escape was to ask forgiveness from our betters. So shameful were our thoughts that we could not discuss them with our family or friends we had to admit them in the privacy of the confessional or the discuss them behind the doctor’s closed doors. It meant we all knew we were failures, we all carried a secret shame which could be revealed to our harm at any point, we all had the anxiety of being found out as morally imperfect.

This strategy is still being used today though the vendors of our shame and anxiety have changed. It is no longer the church that inculcates our doubts and shame. Now the elite in our media ensure that we know the mantras that we should repeat and the sins that we might harbour. We know, that now, it is a sin to say “A lesbian doesn’t have a penis” and hateful to exert that “Woman: noun, adult human female” might be a statement of fact. Apart from some specially chosen ‘facts’ it is now impossible to consider that there may be some innate differences between men and women. Anyone doubting this had best keep their tongue still if they wish to keep their friends and job. There is a veritable minefield of ideas about what is, and what is not, normal sexual behaviour, so difficult is this area, that it is best avoided all together.

All these statements do the same old thing. They keep the public anxious and ill-at-ease, fearful of saying the wrong thing. It makes us watchful of our superiors so we might be given the cues of what is permissible to think and to say. This keep our superiors in a position of strength over us. They hold the keys to the ideas that imprison us and can unleash the hounds when they decide we have transgressed. It can be terrifying to watch social media these days when people are pilloried for statements that would have been commonplace a decade ago. It is alarming when we see someone cast as a heretic for ideas that are similar to our own.

As in prior times, the easiest thing to do in these situations is to say nothing and keep your head down and bowed. It is even safer to agree with the inquisitors and to call out the heretics. After all while they are persecuting them they will be too busy to get round to you. This silence is now palpable. In politics across the globe the common people are afraid to voice their true opinions. They know they are viewed as the uncultured, immoral mob and worry, if they say what they think, they will be dammed. This means no one takes their opinions seriously and nobody discusses their concerns. It is adequate just to say that these are just deplorable, uneducated and unrefined folk who haven’t recognised the error of their ways. So when pollsters call, or interviews are held, we all toe the line and confirm what we know is safe to say. Many elections recently have stunned the pollsters when the results have been very different to predictions. Just as in years gone by nobody ever admitted to masturbating or lustful thoughts nowadays nobody doubts it is better today to use the term “pregnant people” rather than “pregnant women”, and that sometimes it is best to place a rapist, with a penis, in a female prison, when they are asked by someone holding a microphone or notepad.

As these inanities multiply I often become depressed and worry people are loosing their rational facilities: How can people not see the contradictions in these statements ? Why do people not speak up ? Do people believe this guff ? Then I remember the wankers; the millions of young men and women who over the years heard the dire warnings to their bodies an souls (Even today I had some trepidation using the word in the title such is the fear that has been instilled in us). downloadI remember them facing with the eternal torment of the demons and fires of hell as their parents and elders had warned them. I remember them thinking of a life of blindness or of dribbling insanity that the medical profession had clearly warned them lay ahead. I remember that despite this, these wankers slid their hands below the bedcovers and ignored them all. They knew, not with 100% certainty, that it was guff that they were being told. They doubted what the authorities told them and then went and did what came naturally.

So I am optimistic that as we move forward people will still think that their desires are normal, their common sense is indeed sensible and common to most of us, that though our superiors may demand lip-service to current sexual shibboleths we know they are wrong and maybe in the future we might be able to talk honestly about our opinions. We will look back, have a laugh, and feel sheepish about what we said. Perhaps one day the time will come when we can recognise that we don’t need this guidance and we can talk and interact as free individuals, unashamed to express our opinions. Then, if our opinions are wrong, we have a fighting chance of learning this and correcting them, rather than spouting the incorrect opinions of others.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I have, over a period of nearly half a century, read this book three times. Interestingly it has made a very different impression on me on each occasion.

I first read the book in my late teens. This book was one of the important texts of the day and every young man and woman had read it. One would have risked being seen as uncultured if one hadn’t read this book. I knew that it was an acclaimed dystopian vision of the future and an important warning of the dangers of totalitarianism by one of the century’s greatest thinkers. However, I have to be honest and say that much of this was lost upon me. At the time I was in the revolutionary socialist phase of my development and thus found the warnings about the dangers from an over powerful state rather fanciful. Though I did see the risks associated with increasing consumerism I couldn’t really see the risks of increasing technological advancement. As a child of the 60s the Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech was still ringing in my ears. But essentially the major problem was that I was an adolescent male. The idea that a future could be full of easy sex and free recreational drugs didn’t really scare me. At some level I think I might have thought it a utopia rather than a dystopia.

A few decades passed until I read the book again. Now I was a middle-aged man with a mortgage, children and many responsibilities. I re-read this book and discovered what all the fuss was about. This was a book that really frightened me. As a parent of children, I could see the dangers that he foresaw. The risks of the loss of liberty, the debasement of relationships and art, the dangers in shallow and glib answers to deep and difficult problems were all things I now knew first hand. He was warning us of an exploitative, consumerist society where little matters other than consumption and the fulfilment of appetites. As a ‘baby boomer’ I had witnessed these changes first hand and worried, if the changes continued unabated, what the future my children might inherit.

Recently, again after an internal of some decades, I read the book again (It had been chosen by my book club).If my first reading had led to disbelief, and the second to anxiety, the third reading led to depression. Now with enough years under my belt I was able to see that the book was not just a dystopian novel but Huxley has been shown to be eerily prescient and the book is, with hindsight, rather prophetic. The decoupling of sex from reproduction and relationships now seems almost complete in our days of contraception and tinder. The predicted use of psychotropics to cure us of our angst and unhappiness is now well established. His warning that there would an assault on the idea of the family (as it suits neither capitalism nor communism) seems to be starting in earnest. Many aspects of family life (the education of children, the care of the elderly, for example) and now the responsibility of the state and when the family is discussed it is often seen as a problem – the place where unspeakable evils happen to children or where parents fill their childrens’ heads with antiquated cultural views. Huxley feared that we would not be able to play without the use of gadgets we have to buy and anyone who has watched the changes to play in children and adults can see that this is a growing problem. He feared art would become debased, and films (or rather the “feelies”) would descend to simple tales of excitement, ” .. plays, where there’s nothing but helicopters flying about, and you feel the people kissing’; anyone who has seen Die Hard 5 or The Fast and The Furious 9 know that this has already happened. Some of his wildest predictions have some echoes to recent changes:-

‘Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies round them?’ enquired Lenina. ‘Phosphorus recovery,’ exclaimed Henry telegraphically. ‘On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated someone. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.’ Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing wholeheartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. ‘Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.‘ Brave New World (p. 31). Random House. Kindle Edition.

We now presume consent for organ donation, our dead bodies are not a gift to others but presumed property of the state – just as the motto of the Brave New World proclaims – “Everybody belongs to everyone else“.

If there is a problem with the novel it is that it tries to cover too much ground and there are many, many themes. There are trenchant discussions on the role of suffering in life, the place of religion in society and whether truth and happiness can ever be compatible. It does rather lead the penultimate chapter to be less part of the novel and more a philosophical essay. However, these are minor flaws in what is an excellent novel. If you have not read it you really should. If you have already read it then it may be worthwhile reading it again if, like me, you were a callow youth first time around.

Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.

Worldwide Confusion

Worldwide Confusion

Humpty Dumpty, in ‘Through the Looking Glass” said, in a rather scornful voice “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less‘. I fear that many of us follow his advice and use words in ways that can be rather idiosyncratic. As individuals this may be only a minor problem and our friends and acquaintances  get to know our foibles and may even adopt them. However, sometimes this use of language can be quite deliberate and designed to confuse or obfuscate. I think this latter misuse of the language is occurring with the words ‘globalism‘ and ‘internationalism‘.

Internationalism has a long history and it is a word close to the hearts of those who are on the left of the political spectrum. Indeed “L’Internationale‘, written by the anarchist Eugene Pottier,  is the anthem or hymn of the communist, socialist and anarchist movements. This song took its name from the first congress of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 called the First International. In this sense internationalism meant cooperative actions between national groups; a recognition that there could be common aims and mutual advantage when groups worked across national boundaries. In essence, it is a recognition that there are many things which we hold in common because we are human which cross national boundaries (in this case the class struggle). To be an internationalist was to promote working across these boundaries for the common good.

Globalisation, on the other hand, is a word with a shorter history, possibly dating back to 1991, and is a word more closely related to those on the right of the political spectrum. This word relates to the application of power, influence or money on a world-wide basis, operating above and outwith national boundaries. This is the world of corporations which have a global presence but no national home. Globalisation started with the deregulation of banks and financial institutions. This freed them from National regulations which allowed them to amass great wealth and power unfettered by Governments’ wishes. These global corporations have been able to develop impact all over the globe but now have nowhere that they can be held accountable.

It is the misuse of the two terms that causes so many problems. The left and progressive wings of politics have fallen for the idea that globalisation is akin to internationalism and has taken this view to its heart. This is attested to in slogans such as “no borders” and “no human is illegal”. These are on the surface benign and welcome statements. But if we look deeper, it is clear that these are slogans which support globalisation which requires  free-movement of capital and labour and finds borders irksome at best. Karl Marx, himself, was well aware that free movement of labour was a useful way in which workers’ power and workers’ wages could be kept in check and wrote about this in relation to the migration of workers between Ireland and mainland Britain.

There is another aspect in which globalisation can pose a threat which internationalism avoids and this is in the area of welfare provision. Most developed countries have some form of welfare state. This can vary widely in the extent and depth of its provision but all of them rest on a similar principle. This principle is of a community grouping together to look after one and other;  to ensure in times of illness, or hardship, we are able to care for our fellow citizens. These are like clubs, we all pay in so that should misfortune arise we may benefit. But like clubs there needs to be a definition of membership, we need to feel that we are contributing to support our fellows. This is where nations prove useful. In a nation we all pay in our dues (personal taxes or corporate taxes) and can use the services when needed.  At a national level, even if there is no kinship, we can feel some relationship to our fellow citizens and feel a link between our inputs into the system and those who are benefitting from it.

Steffan Mau of the University of Bremen, in 2007,  suggested :-

“the nation state became one of the most important organizational entities for social solidarity…because it provided the fundamentals of a political identity and social morals, which legitimately guaranteed the establishment of social security and transfer systems”

This is a major problem for those on the left of the political spectrum. If we want welfare states then we need to promote the nation as a unit of manageable size to allow people to care for each other. Nationalism, in this sense, has little to do with any perceived superiority of one nation over another. It is simple a way to break the economy down into manageable chunks. This ensures that there is a link between the payers and the benefactors of welfare provision. Without this link it is unlikely that welfare systems can flourish. This is an areas where, as E.F. Schmacher might have said “Small is Beautiful

Finally, if those on the left, wish to control the influence of global corporations, then they need nation states. Global corporations have capital and investments across the globe which move, as required, to maximise their returns and to minimise their exposure to risk. This means they can avoid, to a large extent, paying taxes and contributing to welfare schemes. They can also avoid listening to national governments’ concerns and decline to follow any legislation their citizenry might enact. International companies will operate in a number of countries but have a base where they hold their assets and investments. They have a national base where they can be taxed and regulated and thus they can, in part, be held to account and obliged to pay their dues.

If we want to limit the increasing centralisation of power and the wealth then we need to oppose globalisation and promote internationalism. The borders of the nation will provide the shelter so that  we can work cooperatively for own commonweal, and, across these borders, we will work cooperatively  for the commonwealth of nations to tackle problems that face us all. In the future our nation states may be found to be too large and we may feel that we need smaller, more human sized, communities (like the canton, the commune or kibbutz) but, for now, they will act as our starting point to wrestle back power from a global elite.

Dangerous Nonsense

It was Benjamin Franklin’s opinion that “Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtueand I would hazard that very few people would disagree with him. Assisting our people to grow and develop is a key function of every society and it is the reason that education and academia are held in high regard. For over a decade I worked in a University Department of Medicine as a lower level academic and teacher and found this, initially, the most rewarding aspect of my career. Working with students to develop their understanding of medicine, to enlarge their store of knowledge, and to help them develop skills in critical thinking was the most satisfying post I ever held. Possibly even more satisfying than my time in clinical work. I was aware that was I helping train some doctors who, being much more able than I, would go on to help many more patients than I ever would myself.

Towards the end of my spell in the academic world I had started to become a little disillusioned. Fads and popular theories came and went without adequate critical appraisal and I feared the traditions of intellectual independence and rigour in analysis were starting to weaken under pressure from political and financial interference.  I stepped sideways back into the NHS for last working years but continued to watch what was happening to my Alma Mater and education in general. It has not been  pleasant or reassuring to observe what has followed.

The first onslaught appeared to be on academic freedom and on the idea of free speech. Lecturers were boycotted or banned if they held contentious opinions. A movement to de-platform speakers caught many off-guard and seemed to reach a pinnacle when Germaine Greer was banned by feminists from speaking on campus as her views on transgender issues are not currently mainstream. I’d recalled my university days, as both staff and student, as days of debate and discussion, often heated, often noisy, but always free and ultimately enlightening. I felt, increasingly, that we were failing our students with the growth of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and the avoidance of discussion.

This coddling was worrisome but much worse was to follow. As I had said, I had seen fads come and go. Usually when critical analysis was brought bear on the current pet theory it started to wither and retreat. However, now that debate is curtailed many theories last longer without proper scrutiny and start to establish themselves as the orthodox view without being having been based on good scientific enquiry. There are now many statements made that are accepted as fact and are now sheltered from questioning. These statements, have just be believed, it is increasingly heretical to question them.

For example take the problem of rape. Here is a terrible crime that concerns us all. We need to find every means at our disposal make this less frequent. Any initial reading on the subject will lead one to encounter the statement that “Rape is about control and power” not sex. In scientific terms this is quite an easy theory to test as it is falsifiable and testable. Unfortunately, on the times when good studies are undertaken about rape they tend to repeatedly reveal that, in a sizable proportion of cases, the driving factor in the crime was the sexual urge. None the less, you will find it very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t repeat the mantra “it’s not about sex, it’s about power” when discussing how we might deal with the problem with rape. This is to our shame as it is a missed opportunity; the task force set up by Obama found (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) found that using this understanding (that rape is sometimes driven by sexual drives) there are means to reduce its frequency. This is surely what we all want and it is a grave error if we uncritically continue with a theory that reduces our ability to understand this issue and tackle it.

In many other areas statements are made with religious authority : concerning obesity – one can be fit at any weight;  concerning racism – once can not be racist towards white people; concerning transgender – every child with gender dysphoria is starting on a permanent path of transition; concerning intelligence – genetic factors are of little importance. These statements fly in the face of prior, tested and scrutinised, claims but flourish while they are guarded from criticism. Like the religious authorities of old, our current academic priesthood brook no questions and cloud their statements in jargon and obfuscation. Alan Sokal the physicist recognised this a generation ago when he hoaxed the editors of “Social Text” with his nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text“.  Unfortunately, this broadside failed to slow down these changes which continued to expand and affect more academic departments.

Thankfully the struggle continues. Three academics have taken the hoax and multiplied it. They submitted a number of clearly broken papers with clearly implausible, indeed frankly unbelievable, findings to  a number of journals. As long as they wrote  including the current shibboleths and mantras they could get almost anything accepted for publication: Pages from Mein Kampf (replacing references to jews to white men) was accepted by a gender journal, an article watching dogs in a dog park was accepted as confirmation of rape culture in America, and an article suggesting men should masturbate with sex toys anally to reduce their transphobia and homohysteria was felt to be a valuable advance in our understanding of society. Their article in Areo magazine is a long read but well worth it. It is scarcely believable what they managed to have published, although perhaps it is telling that the paper published  in Gender, Place and Culture on “The feminist post-humanist politics of what squirrels eat” was not a hoax (with academic work of this quality it is hard to tell).

These issues are depressing but I am glad to say that at least some humour can be had at their expense. As you would expect, when the Emperor wears his new clothes he manages to garner a laugh from those who are still able to think independently.

 

I still have hope that it is in nature of youth to rebel and to question authority. I hope that these attacks are the beginnings of a revolt against this new clerisy that has taken charge of our institutions. It is very dangerous to allow those in power to away our ability to question and reason independently. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this as he watched, and lost his life fighting against, the rise of fascism when he wrote in his article “On Stupidity” :-

“On closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.

The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.

He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”

 

There should be a law against it.

There should be a law against it.

My social life has changed. When I was young and energetic it often involved travel, excitement and fun. I recall evenings of humour, laughter, risks and the promise of passion. Now that I am old this has largely gone. My social events are now much more stolid and staid events. They increasingly consist of groups of people bemoaning the state of the world and the behaviour of those in it. Now I enjoy a moan and groan as much as the next carnaptious codger, and am no stranger to “in my day” or “when I was a lad” rants, but I have been rather concerned by a trend to accompany all these observations of current annoyances or inadequacies with a call to legislate against them. All problems, it seems, could be solved by a piece of legislation ; puppy farming to pollution, racist language to rioting, surly service staff to sexual impropriety, all we need to do is to draft the appropriate legislation and hey presto, problem solved. Really, there just should be a law against it!

Now I find this zeal for legislation rather strange. The people calling for these laws are clearly so upset by the behaviour that they witness that it has made them blind to the obvious. They bemoan the behaviour of others that they find shameful or abhorrent and stress that, during their lives, they have never done such a thing. That, during all the great many years they have lived, they have ensured that they never fell into such antics and there needs exist a law to protect people from making such errors. But during their illustrious lives there was no law against it. They managed to behave well without the cordon of law to protect them from error. They managed to get to late life avoiding killing, assaulting, cheating or conning their friends and family.

If they did not and had indeed lived a life of irresponsible abuse and debauchery, leaving a wake of victims and damage behind them, then perhaps we could respect their calls for new laws. If it were murderers and rapists calling for tougher legislation them perhaps their experience should guide us. If criminals start to say that an inadequacy of laws is the problem we should prick up our ears. But it is not, it is well meaning and well behaved people who are living proof that one does not need law to live well who make these statements. They managed to see actions were wrong and avoided them but feel others will not be as morally capable, as they are, and need laws to guide them. No law constrained their behaviour but others need laws to hold their desires and impulses in check.

The vast majority of us live our lives trying to live well. We try and pick a way through life which benefits us and our fellows. We have a moral code within us, of which we are to greater or lesser extent aware, which guides our actions and informs us of what we believe to be right or wrong. This internal code is in play for the vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of the time we only require the law for the very small number of times that this fails. Our internal code is much more important to us and ultimately takes priority over any law in any event. We know this code and it is always available to us, so it is this that we use as our guide. We do not use a lawbook to guide us, except when we are entering very strange and uncharted territories. We can enter into nearly all situations and deal with them if we have a clear internal moral view of the world.

Rather than making more and more calls for legislation we should look at this another way. If we feel people are prone to behaving badly we must presume that they don’t share the same code as ourselves. If they have a moral code but it differs from ours we should listen and find out why. Perhaps they are right, and it is we who need to change. (When the abolitionists or pacifists broke the laws and transgressed what was the common moral code they were not in fact wrong. The majority was in the wrong as time came to show). If it is not that they have a different code, but rather that they have no, or an inadequate code, then law is still not the answer. The answer is surely to try and rectify this deficit. But here we are in very dark and treacherous waters as we are in the area of moral instruction – teaching people, especially the young, how to be good and moral people.

In a secular society we are rather afraid of ideas like this as it carries ideas of religious authority. It is perhaps why we shy away from the idea of helping children, and others, learn what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to say that “it all depends” and there “is no absolute right or wrong” and hope that everything will work out for the best for everybody. But one could argue that a secular society need to consider moral instruction even more carefully as does not have any Divine guidance to call upon. But perhaps this is precisely why there are increasing numbers of grumpy old people collecting in groups, looking at society and lamenting the changes they see and clamouring for “a law against it”. Perhaps I must blame this change for my poorer social life.

It we want a better world we need better people. If we act by making more and more of our moral code external to us (by defining it in law) our own moral faculties will atrophy and weaken through disuse. We should aim to make ourselves better as individuals so there is less need for law rather than allow our baser natures to be our guide and relying on other to keep us in check by regulation as this is the way to totalitarianism and there can be no law against that!

Thoughts while shearing

Thoughts while shearing

I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.

He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.

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I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them,  the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.

So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.

This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century  that it has been capitalism, not socialism,  which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.

It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do.  However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).

Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more.  In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.

It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”.  Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity  or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.

This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires.  Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion  plumbs its nadir.

Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoy said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

The State : Its historical role. (Piotr Kropotkin)

One of the great advantages of the e-book and e-readers is the ability to gain access to a huge library of published work for free. Most of the classics from the ancient world are available and a large library of modern and, not so modern, work is available for the easy job of a little bit of browsing. It is hard to believe but most of us now have access to a library that would have made Croesus jealous. Emperors and kings a hundred years ago would not have believed, and would have envied, the texts which I have available today. It is almost impossible to think of a philosopher, political theorist, or other man or woman of letters that is not easily available either for free or for a very modest price. I find this wealth of literature captivating. I browse the 56,00 books available at the Gutenburg Project, or the 15,000,000 texts and books (including 550,000 modern ebooks) of the Internet Archive and wonder at the riches available. But this surfeit of choice does bring problems – ironically, “What to read next ?

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There are problems when choosing books from this library. Some have become very dated and are only really interesting as historical artefacts. Others were a fad of their day and really didn’t need to weather the years. Many other are well written and important but with the passage of time modern readers have changed. Modern readers can find the dense, heavy prose difficult to read and, at times, the vocabulary can be archaic and thus not understood. A further difficulty in understanding can arise from a prior presumption that readers would be familiar with the classics and the bible which is no longer a safe generalization. This having been said, I have been pleasantly surprised how many do stand the passage of time. H.G. Wells still reads as if he were writing yesterday and his science fiction is still enjoyable despite the appearance of the horse and cart along side the rocket ship.

I have tried to cope with this problem by the simple strategy of trying to read the classics of which I have heard. This includes reading books which I thought I had already read, as sometimes I found that I had never actually done so. My knowledge of the book was apparently achieved through cultural osmosis rather than actual reading. Sometimes this has been startling when I discover what was the actual content of the book.  Sometimes I have reread classics simple because I was too young first time around. Some books were wasted on me as a callow youth and it is only reading them now, with the hindsight and hopefully wisdom of age, that they truly make sense. This was my strategy which lead me to Kropotkin’s “The State : Its Historic Role

With regards to readability this is not a problem, it is clearly written and its still is easy on the modern reader. There are references to important political events which would have been known to any informed reader in 1897 but which might be more hazily recalled for the reader over a century later. Occasionally he makes assumptions that authors discussing the Paris Commune, or describing the Lombardy League, will be known to us. However, this is not sufficient a problem to impair the enjoyment from the text.

The basics of the text are his views on the historic development of the state and the crushing of  societal developments which existed before this. He describes the development of the Communes and the Guilds across Europe and how this allowed the mutual aid which provides support for the members of societies. His concern is that society is in our nature, as it was in the animals from whom we evolved,  and mankind will always find way to create supportive societies and does not require the state to do this.

“Man did not create society; society existed before Man.”

“Far from being the bloodthirsty beast he was made out to be in order to justify the need to dominate him , Man has always preferred peace and quiet .”

“Henceforth , the village community consisting entirely or partly of individual families – all united , however , by the possession in common of the land – became the essential link for centuries to come .”

Unfortunately my knowledge of medieval history is rather poor and I find it difficult to assess the accuracy of his descriptions of medieval city life. He is clearly very impressed with the early municipalism and syndicalism that he describes :-

“Was it not in fact the rule of the guild that two brothers should sit at the bedside of each sick brother – a custom which certainly required devotion in those times of contagious diseases and the plague – and to follow him as far as the grave , and then look after his widow and children ? Abject poverty , misery , uncertainty of the morrow for the majority , and the isolation of poverty , which are the characteristics of our modern cities , were quite unknown in those ‘ free oases , which emerged in the twelfth century amidst the feudal jungle ’ .”

But he pays rather scant regard to the problems of the serf in feudal society  and to the other well documented problems for the poor of this time. However, he does detail the developing strategies that were made to provide support and succour which operated at a more local and personal level prior to the development of the state. Though I fear that sometimes he was donning spectacles with a strong rosy hue when reading his source texts.

He sees the state developing through the cooperation of chiefs and Kings, the Church and the priesthood as well as the judiciary :-

“And who are these barbarians ? It is the State : the Triple Alliance , finally constituted , of the military chief , the Roman judge and the priest – the three constituting a mutual assurance for domination – the three , united in one power which will command in the name of the interests of society – and will crush that same society .”

He describes the operation of these agencies to impose their power, in the form of the state, over prior voluntary organizations. He pays particular attention to the role of religious belief in the development of anarchist ideas and thinking. He is very aware that the Protestant revolutions did much to free the minds of men at the same time as the established church tried to limit thought and opinion. He ultimately reports that in this ideological battle for the soul of man the established church won.

“Lutherian Reform which had sprung from popular Anabaptism , was supported by the State , massacred the people and crushed the movement from which it had drawn its strength in the beginning .”

He is scathing of Martin Luther who he views as a turncoat who, by the end,  encouraged “the massacre of the peasants with more virulence than the pope“. In general Piotr Kropotkin deals well with these issues. There was much greater understanding by these seminal authors, compared to contemporary anarchist writers, that to build an anarchist society depended on a change in the hearts and minds of men and women. These early writers saw the importance of personal responsibility and morality and dealt with the need for a root and branch reform of societal relationships in a much more thorough manner. These were not simple economic or political arguments but moral and spiritual also.

Once the state has started on its development he was aware that it would brook no opposition. He describes the hostility the state has to any autonomous societies or support organizations  as it views these are threats. It sees them as “a state within the state” which can not be tolerated. Any alternative forms of mutual aid are opposed and although our instincts are to band together and help each other this is discouraged if it is not done by the agencies, and under the control,  of the state.

“Peasants in a village have a large number of interests in common : household interests , neighborhood , and constant relationships . They are inevitably led to come together for a thousand different things . But the State does not want this , nor can it allow them to join together ! After all the State gives them the school and the priest , the gendarme and the judge – this should be sufficient .”

In our present days where the state has a large welfare component these factors are still important. Self help and mutual assistance is lost while centralised state provision takes it place.

“ The neighbor , the comrade , the companion – forget them . You will henceforth only know them through the intermediary of some organ or other of your State . And every one of you will make a virtue out of being equally subjected to it . ”

“ No direct moral obligations towards your neighbor , nor even any feeling of solidarity ; all your obligations are to the State ”

In many areas of the western world social care, health care, and education are removed from the individual. While basic safety and care may be provided the ability of the individual to participate in these matters is severely curtailed and their personal responsibility reduced. Further, it is the cooperative arrangement of these types of aid and support which creates our societies. It is possible, as we are discovering, that it is possible to have a large state providing many aspects of welfare but at the same time to have small or absent communities , an alienated and atomised population and very little society.

In the future, our ability to create societies which support our diverse peoples is going to be the biggest challenge in the face of the spreading state and globalisation. Anarchists and libertarians will need to take their part in this challenge and some of the history in the book may usefully guide them. His call to action is still valid as it is not simply and economic change we require but widespread social change.

Throughout the history of our civilization , two traditions , two opposing tendencies have confronted each other : the Roman and the Popular ; the imperial and the federalist ; the authoritarian and the libertarian . And this is so , once more , on the eve of the social revolution .