Friday 15 June 2012

Political policy and the human farmyard


It is striking that we live in a world where political policy is discussed in terms of a human farmyard - with the inbuilt assumption that the aim of policy is to produce comfortable and contented animals.

The assumption is that discussion is between kind farmers, whose aim in life is to give the animals what they want: clean dry sheds, plenty to eat, stuff to keep them amused while they are waiting to die...


And then I read something like Piers Plowman by William Langland written during the time of the Black Death plague and amongst extreme poverty - and he was primarily concerned with spiritual matters.

Few writers ever had more genuine concern to alleviate poverty than Langland, but there was never any hint that he would have thought this was enough or even the main thing.

So here we are in the society of greatest material abundance in history, a society that several generations ago abolished poverty as Langand conceived it; and yet we are focused entirely on material matters and exclude wholly from consideration spiritual and transcendental matters.

Freedom from poverty merely enslaved us to materialism.


I keep returning to the theme of the fundamental irrationality of mainstream intellectual life, its psychotic quality of being cut-off from reality.

Our attitudes to 'politics', to public policy, are those of the addict; who wants something simply because he wants it more than anything else and is miserable without it, and cannot countenance going through a withdrawal process to reach a better state.

We are farm animals who need to be distracted from our universal fate by pampering and distraction; and whose only concern is for ever more pampering and distraction.

By contrast, Langland's society was significantly focused on ultimate fate, and regarded pampering and distractions as - beyond a certain necessary minimum - a snare.


Fourteenth century Medieval England had every excuse to be focused only on getting warm and dry, finding the next meal, and avoiding a horrible death from disease - yet that was not their only focus nor their main focus.

From a public discourse which regards human society as a farmyard, nothing but more of the same can be expected.

Nothing of value can come without first an awakening to the reality of our situation, and an acknowledgement of our deliberate evasion of this reality, and a commitment to stop the evasions.




Anonymous said...

Communism and capitalism are much closer than either would like to admit. In each man is an economic animal and the goal is to produce widespread material well-being. A professional class of managers is entrusted with making this happen. Putting some other concern ahead of economic efficiency is regarded as dangerous or crazy.

Bruce Charlton said...

@T - I'd certainly agree that C and C are different means to the same end - but as communism evolved to political correctness it dropped the economic efficiency ideal. I have worked as a manager in the National Health Service - and economic efficiency serves merely as a top dressing on policy which is Leftist psychosticism.

Nergol said...

There is, if I remember it right, a passage in the Republic where Socrates notes that it's a bad thing for a society to be either too rich or too poor. It seems he was right. As a society, we're too rich, and it has affected us very badly.

What, then, was the point at which we were at just about the right balance - neither too rich, nor too poor? I'd argue (in the west, at least) for approximately the first decade of the 20th century. True poverty - Biblical poverty, 14th century poverty - was by that time extremely rare. Most people had, through the economic tribulations of the 19th century, managed to find their way into the middle class. They had enough money for decent housing, food that wouldn't make them sick, routine medical care, a wife that stayed at home, schooling for their children, a good book to read, a set of Sunday best clothes for everyone, and a pint after work. That's a sufficiency of things, and (after you throw in a modern convenience or two) probably where the norm should be in a society.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nergol - unfortunately it was merely the transitional state and not a stable equilibrium.

Because that was also the era of the Russian Revolution, the exponential and international growth of atheist Leftism, and thus the beginning of the end (as it turned out).

Kristor said...

It seems to me that this is more about the regnant mythos than about our condition of economic prosperity. Under atheism, there is just nothing else to consider or worry about, or to want, than food, entertainment, shelter, etc. A population of atheists demands no spiritual goods. It cannot even apprehend them as goods in the first place.

I was born into what we would nowadays call genteel poverty, but was in historical terms fantastic security and prosperity. And I am wealthier than my parents were. But because I am not atheist, material goods are not so very important to me - I would consider entering the eremitical life as an improvement in my overall condition, of my true prosperity and well-being.

So I conclude that the same sort of thing is possible for a society. Indeed, I much doubt that truly healthy material prosperity, as of food, shelter, and so forth, can be long maintained in the absence of spiritual sanity - in the absence, that is to say, of theism. Material success strikes me as a by-product of spiritual fitness to reality.

We needn't worry so much, then, about the fact that we are too prosperous, as that we are too obtuse. It's not a Great Impoverishment we need, but a Great Awakening. Absent the latter, we will certainly get the former; but not vice versa, necessarily.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Kristor - all valid points.

I would add that the sheer diversity and frequency of modern distraction is qualitatively greater than anything available before; and probably serves as a considerable barrier to a spiritual awakening.

On the other hand, this may also mean that if/ when the 24/7 interconnectivity is lost for even a brief time - spiritual awareness may 'rush in'.

Also that the Old Testament describes a few instances of corrupt and decadent societies which were sometimes brought back to God (for a while...) by their material collapse. On the lines of "OK if that is what you want: you can have it".

JP said...

"Fourteenth century Medieval England had every excuse to be focused only on getting warm and dry, finding the next meal, and avoiding a horrible death from disease - yet that was not their only focus nor their main focus."

The main focus that is recorded is "spiritual matters" because that was the main focus of the class that recorded things. I dare say that the average person of the time would have regarded William Langland as irrationally cut off from reality, and that the most important things were sufficient food and freedom from disease.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JP - What would, what did, the equivalents of Langland record for the twentieth century?

What was the focus of concern for the major writers?

To ask is to answer.