Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

This is the most unusual election I can remember. It has been brought about by parliament’s inability to come to a decision on Brexit and most people think it will be an instrument to register their opinions of Brexit. The main parties have gone into official and unofficial pacts about Brexit. The Unite to Remain pact of the Liberals, Greens and Plaid Cymru is the most obvious pact, but other remain alliances are being forged in Ireland and Scotland. Although no clear pact has been formally announced, the Conservatives and The Brexit Party are making non-hostility arrangements to try and solidify the leave vote. So, in essence, the Parties are making sure that the only way we can vote is either with a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ candidate. It is very clearly an election caused by, and about, Brexit.

Unfortunately this poses a problem for the two major parties. The smaller parties are all in the clear as they all have a consistent and unambiguous Brexit policy : to remain in the EU from the Lib-dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens or to leave the EU from the Brexit Party and UKIP (remember them ?). But despite all the prevarication and word-play the two major parties remain split on the Brexit issue. Labour wants to appear a leaver party in its old northern heartlands but to appear to be a remain party in the metropolitan areas. The conservatives, similarly, want to appear to be leave party to appease its right wing members while, at the same time, wishing to try and peddle a partial remain treaty (BRINO – Brexit in name only) to placate its more centrist majority.

The end result of this is that both Labour and the Conservatives want to talk about anything other than Brexit in this very Brexit Election. This has had a predictable effect. Both parties now want to shower us with gifts. They seem to be saying “Forget all that about Brexit, we’ll deal with that, but look at this huge amount of money we have found to fix the real things that worry you“. Both parties are now promising huge spending increases for the NHS, Police Force, Infrastructure projects ; you name it they will put money towards it at the moment. The only difference between the two parties at the moment seems to be whether you measure their largesse in billions or trillions of pounds.

Now it is quite possible that this is the correct time for some spending on infrastructure to give a boost to the economy. After all lending rates are low at present and borrowing is cheap. Further, a long period of uncertainty has dampened activity and an improvement in infrastructure could help boost productivity which has remained stubbornly low in the U.K.. But we have to remain careful if we are to use this type of stimulus that it has the effect that we want and that any loosening of the pursestrings doesn’t lead to waste or increased inefficiency in public spending.

So while I’ll not lose much sleep over more money being spent on hospitals, transport, police or education I do have some concerns about some aspects. I am concerned about the policy to give free broadband to everyone in the U.K.. Why on earth would I want to look this gift horse in the mouth ? Free broadband – what’s not to like ? Surely this is a clear vote winner, nearly as good as a policy of “A free iPad if you vote for us!” which must surely be next.

My main concerns are that internet penetration in the UK is already 92% (Only Japan and the UAE are higher). At present at least 80% of households have personal internet and 90% of these have some form of fast broadband. The problem that exists is largely one of needing to deal with the urban-rural divide. There are still areas, in the countryside, which are badly served by current broadband providers and here is the rub – this provider is Openreach. Openreach has an essential monopoly on providing the infrastructure for broadband internet. It has never been properly separated from BT and has never been exposed to healthy competition. Our ongoing problems in the rural areas might have been dealt with some time ago were we able to call on more than one provider.

Labour’s plan for free broadband will require nationalisation of openreach and also of divisions of Virgin, EE, Sky and Vodaphone. This will reduce competition and slow development in this area. I am old enough to be able to remember the BT monopoly and the wait to get a phone line installed, or indeed to gat any type of service from them. People are obviously happy to pay for their broadband at the moment and this has helped develop services; it would be foolish to stop this. It also makes little sense to single out this communications tool – why not free mobile phones or free instant messaging ?

But while I fear nationalisation will slow the spread out of broadband internet to remote and rural areas (which is the main infrastructure problem) this is perhaps my smaller worry. Just imagine if the state did have a monopoly of internet provision. If the state ran all the DNS servers and knew every ISP address you visited, hosted all of your email communications, knew all your social messaging opinions and knew every online search you had made – would this make you feel happy ? Looking at the opinions, as far as they can be heard, in China it seems that this is a very bad move. This could be the first step to serious loss of liberties.

It has been a common theme in the world of high tech. People come and promise lots of nice things for free while at the same time taking away a lot of our data without us noticing. Google helps us know millions of facts but in return we supply Google with gigabytes of personal data about ourselves. Facebook help us keep in contact with friends but they cost is that they now know all our interests and social networks. Amazon makes shopping easier but in return they know our wants and desires as well as our finances. These sweeteners are nice but we need to look in the horse’s mouth and check what we are getting ‘for free’. Free broadband might be the most expensive gift, if we are silly enough to accept it, if it means the loss of our privacy, our rights to free expression and free association. This policy might just look like a bribe but it is much more dangerous than that.

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

White shift. Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities. Eric Kaufmann

This is a book about ‘whiteness’, what it is to be white in our curent society, what it may be like to be white in the future, but it is a book with a difference. The difference, which feels taboo breaking, is that he looks at the issue of the major ethnographic changes and includes the viewpoint of those that are white. It looks at the fears that they may have for their future and how these may be driving current populist politics.

White Shift by Eric Kaufmann

The book attempts, and largely succeeds, to look at this issue from a dispassionate viewpoint. It is not a book which looks at whiteness in order to clarify some other issue, and although issues such as empire, racism, slavery, and inequality rightly are addressed they are not the sole lens though which this analysis is made.

This attempt at objectivity, while it is the root of the book’s success is also its achilles heel and its ultimate failure. Many reviewers have commented on the magisterial and mammoth amount of data collection that the book contains. No statement is made without reams of data to support and buttress it. While this does make it possible to accept many of his observations and conclusions it also means that this is extremely heavy reading. This reads like a heavy reference tome not like a political book. So while I can say I found this book interesting I can not say I found an easy or pleasant read.

An important strand of the book is the current failure to look at these changes in an impartial way. The inability of most commentators to understand that people may be upset or anxious about the changes they see to their communities brought about by demographic change. The dismissal of these concerns, and the lazy assumption that these worries simple reflect racism, is shown to be a potent driver of support for populist political groups.

The book makes a good case that the future should not be bleak. All evidence suggests we accomodate to change and further manage to create better societies a consequence. But, if we ignore this change, or mishadle or responces to it, as we are currently doing, we may stoke the very problems we seek to avoid.

So in summary, a worthwhile and valuable read, if not a very enjoyable one. Perhaps one for the reference shelves.

Proroguing Parliament : The shame of the left.

Proroguing Parliament : The shame of the left.

Where have the left gone. At a time when we really need an effective radical left-wing movement to protect the interests of the working class they are nowhere to be seen. There are anti-democratic forces trying to frustrate the outcome of the recent referendum in which the people of Britain voted against increased globalization and increasing power to the corporations. This should have been a first step on a path to create a better Britain, one in which corporate needs would be forced to play second fiddle to the communities needs. It should have been the time when a radical revision of our society and economy started. But the radicals are nowhere to be seen.

The likes of Owen Jones and Paul Mason who, prior to the referendum, clearly knew the dangers that the EU posed to working class communities, and the poor, now happily toe the party line. Jeremy Corbyn has spent three years trying to hide his true opinions in the hope that it will buy him time and power. Like their wealthy friends, the TV executives, the bankers, the business men, the celebrities, the judges and the well-off metropolitan middle class, they sing from the same hymn sheet and tell the people to get back in their box. They tell the working class that they are uneducated and don’t know what is good for them, and they should be thankful for the guidance of their betters. They smear them as elderly racists; ignoring their concerns about youth unemployment, wage levels, and a failing welfare state, claiming they are only concerned about skin colour. An opportunity to create a better, fairer, more open society is being squandered and thwarted by media ‘liberals’ and ‘lefties’ who don’t want to risk turning off the state support that supports their ventures. As long as their lifestyles are safe then to hell with the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and the marginalized .

We seem to be on the cusp of a constitutional crisis : one group want to thwart the will of the majority, in response, another group want to undermine our parliamentary democracy. There can be no happy outcome to this crisis. The flames of a populist revolt are being fanned by both sides but the right is in the position to seize the fire and use it. The previous ‘firebrands’ of the left are now acting as puppets trying to placate the mob and maintain the status quo, any authority they once had will soon evaporate leaving the right with less opposition. It is no wonder that we have witnessed the death of the major socialist parties across Europe, their unwillingness to defend labour against capital means they are largely an irrelevance. This may have been their time to rekindle their relevance but it seems that they have missed their opportunity.

In their place will be the right-wing and the nationalists. The blame for their success can squarely be placed at the door of the current left, they left the majority of us who voted for Brexit with only Boris Johnson to protect our interests – shame on you.

A simple test for nationalists.

A simple test for nationalists.

Brexit has changed everything. This seemingly simple referendum on our membership of a trading club has had effects much larger than many had anticipated. These are not just simple economic effects, the strength of the Pound or the change in our GDP, but major political and social changes as well. Our ‘two party’, ‘First Past the Post” parliamentary system has creaked and groaned with the strain of trying to contain the effects. The two major parties have lost their support bases and also their raison d’etre and at the same time the public has witnessed just how tawdry and self-serving the whole mess has become.

However, perhaps the biggest change is that the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom itself no longer appears improbable. It looks increasingly likely that Scotland will vote to secede from the Union, Northern Ireland may consider that a way to remain in the E.U. is to reunite, and following shocks such as these the increasingly ‘indy-curious’ Wales may follow suite. As an opponent of Big Government I will be happy to see all, or any, of these changes. However, while I share the joy of the nationalists in recent events, I am still rather reluctant to consider myself a signed up nationalist.

Nations have been created over the great span of history. While it is true that they represent some common interests such as language, culture or even kinship the main motive force in their generation has been power and authority. Wars and revolts have been fought to draw lines on maps which define nations and state who controls what happens in certain patches of land. This was obvious when it was King against King but it is no less true when it is State against State. Nations are there to define the edges of power; to say who controls what happens where.

However, any boundaries which we create should not be based on power and authority they should be based on assistance and support. Our instincts are to live in communities not political structures or economies. People naturally find ways to band together to their mutual benefit and to share common interests and goals. Such groupings are natural and should be supported. If people of a certain language, or religion, or cultural practice want to voluntarily band together then, as long as they don’t infringe on others, they should be encouraged in their mutual venture. The smaller these communities are, the more democratic they are; as each individuals voice carries a greater weight. Further, as they are voluntary people can vote with their feet if they see changes in their chosen community which they can’t tolerate. Nations tend not to be voluntary. Entry to and exit from the nation tends to be controlled and nation states tend to enforce their view of the national culture on any dissenting members.

Whenever nationhood affords a smaller block for democratic organization this is usually a good thing. If nations seek to expand their areas of control this is universally bad. This is the question for nationalists. Does your vision of nationhood bring democracy closer to people, make the demos a smaller group, and reduce the power and authority that others have over people ? If it does, then your nationalism may be beneficial. Are you also happy that, once nationhood is established, the people may decide that an even smaller unit for self governance makes more sense (e.g. “North Wales”, “Y Fro Gymraeg”, “The Shetlands”, “Yorkshire”, “Gaeltacht”) ? If your answer is not ‘yes’ to this then you are missing the point; you are just redrawing lines on maps rather than expanding peoples’ freedom.

If your view of your nation is monolithic and you see it as something good in itself you are following a dangerous path. There will be the risks that you will enforce your views on the national culture, or tongue, or religion on all those who live in your newly defined patch. There is the danger that you will see yourself as better than others who have the misfortune not to live in your nation and, finally, there is the danger that you might think you have the right or duty to export your nation’s benefits to your neighbours whether they want them or not.

So the question for nationalists is easy. Do you want to take a big power structure and break it down into smaller pieces, or, do you want to take your small nation and make if bigger and stronger ?

If it is the former then go ahead and get on with it but remember once you have created a smaller national group there may be scope for further reductions (counties, cantons, districts) which you should also embrace.

If it is the latter, an urge for a stronger bigger nation, then stop ! Remember it was precisely this drive for power and expanded authority which lead you to want to fight for your nation in the first place. You needed to throw off the yoke of another’s power, don’t start fashioning another yoke for others.

It has been said that “Small is beautiful” and there is truth in this statement. In the age of globalization nations can be the smaller building blocks which allow us to build a better future, but sometimes nations themselves can be too large and need to be broken down into smaller, more beautiful communities. I remain a nationalist but only in as far as I am an anti-imperialist, anything more starts to become rather risky.

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

If you enjoy Rod Liddle’s pieces in the Spectator and the Times it is likely that you will enjoy this book. It is a short book and reads very much like an extended rant about the failure of our political system to successfully organize Brexit. It has all of the author’s hallmarks; biting acerbic wit and vicious but accurate satire. If you are looking for a balanced review of the difficulties following the referendum then this book is not for you, but if you want to understand the groundswell of anger that underpins the populist revolt we are witnessing in Britain then this book may well help you.

Although I enjoyed this book primarily because of the quality of the writing and the humour (It is laugh-out-loud funny at times) I would not want to give the impression that it is a comic piece. There is a serious thread running though the book which is treated appropriately and his arguments are well researched and supported with evidence. He describes a country riven in two with the metropolitan middle class operating the levers of power and the rest of the population feeling ignored and increasingly angry. This is a concern that many authors have recently witnessed, commenting on a growing gulf between the rulers and those being ruled.

This can be difficult in a democracy, because it can lead to the situation we are in now, where those in power do not wish to enact the clear result of a democratic process. Three years after the referendum we are no further forward and can only look back on a period of obfuscation, vacillation, and deception. Our rulers, the ones with the power (kratos), can not bring themselves to acceed to the voice of the masses (demos), and as a consequence democracy has been stalled.

This risk has been known for a long time. The reason requests for a referendum on capital punishment have come to naught is that our ruling class has always known that is was likely that the people would vote for its reintroduction. It was known that this would cause a democratic crisis, which could undermine the stability of our state, and thus it has always been held better not to allow a public vote on the issue. I am sure there are many in our ruling classes who now wish the public were never given a vote on the issue (even if they do call for a further Peoples Vote where they hope the mass gets back into its place and votes as they are told).

However, every crisis is also, in a way, an opportunity. The crisis we are in does give us the chance to look at our failing parliamentary system and its parties. The failures of democratic representation should prompt us to consider ditching our unfair “first past the post” system and jettisoning our archaic ‘House of Lords’. Hopefully, we will also see new parties (Perhaps the SDP)created to replace our moribund Labour and Conservative parties which no longer function, having abandoned their traditional support. Ironically, if we do manage to extricate ourselves from the EU we can also look at re-balancing our economy, reconsidering whats is the role of the state or of the private sector, and aim for an economy which benefits our citizens rather than being perpetually governed with the aims of big corporations in mind. We could look at issues such as immigration, not from the viewpoint of capital but from the viewpoint of the immigrant and the communities they live within. There are many, many opportunities.

These are the opportunities of ‘Lexit‘, a left-leaning case for leaving the EU. Those unfamiliar with this argument might find this book useful as it is a major theme in the book and the Lexit case is well expounded. You could discover the arguments, find a lot of information about the EU of which you may have been unaware, and have a good laugh at the same time. As with all good satirists, sometimes the most serious of ideas are conveyed best by the most humorous of lines.

4 out of 5 stars

Forget Minority Rights

Forget Minority Rights

It will probably appear counter-intuitive but I feel that we are making a serious error with the idea of minority rights. I know it sounds as if these could only be for the good, something to be protected and promoted, but I fear that we have got wrong of the wrong end of the stick.

The concerns about the rights of minorities started around the Congress of Vienna in 1814 in response to concerns about the situation of Jewish and Polish minorities following partition. Over the subsequent years further declarations have been made to protect minorities and the most recently the United Nations and the European Union have codified some minority rights and brought them into international law.

What could be wrong with minority rights, surely we all want to protect endangered minority groups ? Yes, of course we do but minority rights are not what do this. The rights which protect minorities are the same universal rights that every individual has. If you are a Christian in an Islamic State, or vice versa a Muslim in a Christian State (or any other permutation of religions) it is not your right as a Christian or Muslim which protects you but your individual right to freedom of thought, freedom of religion and freedom of association which protect you.

Universal human rights protect individuals and this is the smallest minority – the minority of one. All societies have a mix of peoples and some groups will be in the majority and others the minority and over time these groups will change in nature and composition. We can never predict who the next minority will be (I’d wager 100 years ago that no-one anticipated needing rights for people who changed their gender from male to female or vice versa) therefore it is important that we have rights that are so basic and clear that they protect all of us no matter what sized minority we inhabit.

In essence universal human rights are minority rights. If we give special rights then they are not universal and it is doubtful if we could consider these rights. If these minority rights compel others to act in a special way these are not so much rights as legal duties on others. If these are legal constructs rather than rights then they are much more fragile. If we select one minority for special legal treatment we can later change and select some other group. These ‘rights’ are not unalienable because they are given and consequently can be taken away.

The risk to all minorities is the Tyranny of the Majority. The safeguard against this is that every individual has the same rights and freedoms; the smallest minority is the minority of one. We are all in this minority, and it is because we are protected as an individual that we are protected as a member of a minority group no matter how many, or few, individuals are in that particular group.

I am not advocating that we do not consider special treatment for groups we might consider vulnerable. We may as a society feel we need to create legislation to protect them. However, we should be aware that these are special laws with special legal benefits or responsibilities. Creating law this way means that issues be properly discussed and designed and adapted over time. Laws operate under the framework of rights and play second-fiddle to them. Laws must conform to our rights, our rights can never be made to conform with our laws.

The safeguard for everyone in a democracy is the liberty of the individual, and no minority right can usurp the right of any other individual who may be in the majority or in some other minority. So lets forget about minority rights and instead respect, promote and safeguard the rights of the individual : they are the rights we all share.

McMindfulness by Ronald E. Purser

I was introduced to the raisin in the last few years of my work. Eating a raisin is often used as an exercise to explain the mechanics and theory of mindfulness. I, along with a group of mental health service providers, were invited to look at the raisin, smell it, examine its contour and texture, hold it in our mouth and examine it with our tongue and taste buds and through this, and some other strategies, learn how to be “in the moment“. We were being introduced to Mindfulness which we were assured was a new revolutionary change in psychotherapeutics; one that was scientifically based, efficacious, and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. It seemed that it would not have been wrong to say we had in our hands a not a raisin but a veritable panacea; a remedy for all ills.

This was not the first time I’d been introduced to the next great revolutionary step forward in psychotherapy. When I started working the physical therapies had just started to lose their lustre and the Freudian classical analysts had fallen rather out of favour. The Kleinians introduced Object Relations Theory which was going to revolutionize analysis and we all studiously learnt this. Around the same time behaviour therapy jostled it as the ‘true way’ before, via a detour through Transactional Analysis, it was relaunched as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). CBT was then touted as scientifically based, efficacious and applicable to almost all forms of distress and disorder. Transcendental Meditation (TM) came and went, somewhere in between, but throughout my working life it seemed that twice a decade a new bright and shiny panacea would surface to replace the older shabby panacea which had become boring.

Mindfulness is this decade’s new, shiny panacea. It is widely promoted and now is applied in many diverse situations, not simply as therapy for mental disorder but also in schools, workplaces, prisons, boardrooms and even for the existential angsts of growing old or facing death. It has spawned a $1.1 billion wellness industry. There are many books promoting mindfulness and inviting readers to follow them on a route to personal salvation through MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction). This book, however, is not one of them.

McMindfulness
McMindfulness Book Cover

This book looks at the promotion of mindfulness in our capitalist society. It shows how ‘mindfulness’ has been severed and removed of its religious Buddhist origins to make it both saleable and useful in a market economy. The author clearly shows that there was a deliberate intention to “secularize” mindfulness to remove it of any taint of association with Buddhist practice and ethics to create something “spiritual but not religious” which would be much more acceptable to a western audience. This acceptability was further promoted by giving the endeavour a scientific sheen with a liberal application of neurobabble. There is a good review of the neuroscience behind mindfulness in the book which reveals how little actual empirical evidence there is – there is little more than there was for TM which was quietly dropped after large amounts of public money financed research into the mental health benefits which confirmed relatively minor and questionable benefits.

The book does not question whether the practices of mindfulness or meditation are effective. It agrees that these can have major effects but questions whether in their current form this is a wise way to approach them. Indeed, as an example it recounts how Anders Breivik, the right wing terrorist, used such strategies to assist his focus during his bomb and gun attack when he murdered 77 men, women and children.

Much of the success of mindfulness is touted as its ability to make us cope with our difficult lives. To help us deal with stress, to avoid the distress of disappointment, to feel calm in the stormy waters of uncertainty and threat. This is its major selling point to large organizations like Google, Facebook or the American Military. It can help create a calm unruffled workforce which will perform better. The military hope that mindfulness will improve efficiency with an M16 – ‘on the trigger pull – breathe out!’ This is a major aspect of the problem. It promotes the idea that the stress is all of our making, in our minds, a failure of our ability to cope. But there are many times when the stress is due to uncertainty, injustice or inequity and the emotions that these problems cause is the motive power for people to demand and create change. It is wrong, through mindfulness, to encourage people to tolerate or cope with these situations. Just as Marx warned that religion was an opiate for the masses to soothe their pain and subdue their needs for change, the author issues the warning that mindfulness is the new religion for capitalism with exactly the same problems.

As our society becomes increasingly secular there are still those who yearn for the benefits of religion. Mindfulness seems to promise this. However, shorn from all its Buddhist teachings it will never be able to fill this promise. Religions gave us ethical codes, personal responsibilities, moral duties and a call to action to create a better society. This strategy is to steal the clothes of Buddhism but to ignore its body and soul. You can put the clothes on but you will not suddenly become a Buddhist. Similarly, if one copied the communal singing, weekly meetings, and candle burning of the Christians you won’t suddenly develop a sense of personal duty and awareness of right and wrong. The rituals are the least thing of a religion it is the teachings and ideas which are at its core. These require to be learnt and understood there is no shortcut to them; certainly not through sucking a raisin.


Excerpt

When the book has been considering Congressman Tim Ryan’s conversion to mindfulness after his “mindful moment with a raisin” it continues

“Never mind how the raisin looks, feels, smells and tastes to a privileged congressman, what if Ryan had contemplated the farm where the raisin was grown by Hispanic migrants doing back-breaking work in the San Joaquin valley earning a cent for every two hundred grapes harvested, Reflection on the raisin could call to mind units from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement rounding up workers like cattle and deporting them. Might Ryan be cognizant of the smog where the raisin was grown? What about the water shortages, or the fossil fuels burnt to transport raisins from Central California to his Catskills retreat ? What about the grocery staff that unloaded, unpacked and stocked raisins on the shelf ? Would Ryan be mindful of the fact that the CEOs who run large agribusiness and grocery chains earn hundreds of times as much as grocery clerks ?

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

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

How Much Is Enough? By Robert and Edward Skidelsky

“How much is enough?”  is a deceptively simple question and one which appears easy to answer. It is also a perennial and vital question as many of our actions, as individuals or as societies, have as their intention either the reduction of want (when there is not enough) or the control of waste and excess (when there is more than enough). However, as this book reveals, it is quite clear that currently we really have little idea of “How much is enough?”

The book is written by father and son academics how-much-is-enough-skidelsky(in Economics and Philosophy respectively) and, in part takes as its starting point the 1930 essay by John Maynard Keynes “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. In this essay Keynes believed that by 2030 capitalism would be hugely successful at generating wealth (which has been the case) and much more productive, requiring less labour, so we would all have much more leisure (which has not been the case). Indeed, as our wealth has increased so has our workload; it appears now that as we have more we also want more. We seem to have become an insatiable society and our wants no longer have limits.

“The question is: why do people who ‘have everything’ always seem to want more?”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 34). Penguin Books Ltd.

Some of this is due to the modern functioning of capitalism which valorises growth over all things. Growth and increasing consumption are the motors which drive our development. We assess our needs and wants ‘relatively’, that is, we determine our needs and desires on the basis of comparison with others. Our happiness and status arise from our position in relation to others, meaning that we will never feel we have enough and also meaning we will never feel truly happy.

 

“It is not just that we want more but that we want more than others, who at the same time want more than us; this fuels an endless race.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. viii). Penguin Books Ltd.

“The American combination of social equality and income inequality has since become the capitalist norm, leading to a situation in which every member of society is in a sense competing against every other.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd.

In an interesting chapter they discuss the types of good which will often keep this spiral of increasing consumption moving. They discuss “bandwagon goods“, these are goods that people want as everybody has them (e.g. Mobile phones, microwaves). Envy and social conformity drive the desire for them. Then there are “snob goods“, these are goods that most people do not have (e.g. exotic holidays, cult films). Here the desire is to stand out from the crowd. Often successful snob goods will change to become bandwagon goods. Then there are “Velben goods“, these are goods which are expensive and known to be expensive (e.g. Rolex watches, Apple watches). These goods act as advertisements of the owner’s wealth.

These trends to the constant amassing of wealth might not be a concern if we knew what to do with our wealth. If our wealth allowed us to live a “good life“, then it would clearly be a boon. If we knew what was a “good life”, then we would know when we had what we required to live it. In essence, we would know “how much is enough ?” We seem unable to agree on what constitutes “the good life” therefore we continue to want and seek more wealth without thinking ‘what is this for?” It leads into the danger of loving money and wealth rather than what they provide.

All the ancient civilizations and all the main religions warned against the “love of money”. It was felt to corrupt the individual and also all of their actions; from Aristotle to Adam Smith greed and the love of money were major problems which endangered society. In prior times, until our present increasingly secular society, religion could act as a counterbalance to capitalism’s drives – the fears of being thought a sinner through avarice or gluttony, coupled with the need to display charity, may have tempered some of the excess.

 

“Money is the one thing of which there is never enough, for the simple reason that the concept ‘enough’ has no logical application to it. There is perfect health and happiness, but there is no perfect wealth.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 75). Penguin Books Ltd.

The old civilizations of Europe, India and China all shared a basically Aristotelian outlook, even if it was not drawn from Aristotle. All viewed commerce as properly subordinate to politics and contemplation, while at the same time recognizing and fearing its capacity to subdue these other activities to its own end. All regarded the love of money for its own sake as an aberration. Such agreement between three great and largely independent cultures ought to give us pause.”

Skidelsky, Edward. How Much is Enough? (p. 86). Penguin Books Ltd.

Unfortunately the brakes, that these older views may have given, are now off. Our consumption and growth continue ever upward. There is no doubt that this has pulled millions out of poverty and destitution and that there are areas of the world that still need development. However, developed countries are witnessing increased personal harm from this continued greed – alcohol deaths, drug death, obesity deaths all have increased as have prescriptions for antidepressants and anxiolytics – our affluence is not continuing to buy happiness. Further, our continued consumption and production of waste now threatens the very existence of our habitat and our species. If this book prompts more people to consider “How much is enough?” it will have served a very valuable purpose.

4-out-of-5-stars


“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith”
Proverbs 15:17

 

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.