Saturday 26 July 2014

Did Britain (and the West, generally?) miss a Schumacher moment in the mid-1970s?


This is a totally subjective feeling; but I believe that there was a 'moment' in between the publication of EF Schumacher's Small is Beautiful in 1973, and his Guide for the Perplexed in 1977 - when Britain, and maybe the West, had a sort of 'last chance' to get serious about Life - and sort-out the proper priorities; but chose instead not to get serious - to take the path of distraction and hedonism and shallow, expedient, careerist stupidity.

My recollection is that Small is Beautiful made it very clear that economics specifically, but politics and social aims in general - had to be conducted inside an overarching spiritual and religious framework about what is really important in life - or else, there really was no hope.

Of course not many people read Schumacher's book; but this feeling was in the air at the time - and emerged all over the place in popular culture: comedy, drama, documentaries, non-fiction, music, fashions, and in what people actually did  - I feel that there was a real and general appreciation that we were at a decision point.

But at the same time, there were the usual forces and concerns up-front - all sorts of materialism, careerism, manipulation, seedy dishonesty, snide satire and cynicism - and perhaps most of all there was the sexual revolution; getting more and more confident, more and more self-satisfied; offering more and more gratification (sensual, motivational and especially moral) for less and less work, sacrifice - and all of this on-offer without the need for hard thinking or hard choices.

Why did it go so wrong? People en masse (and without much in the way of serious dissent) chose (and it was their free choice, their responsibility) the short-termist, the easy, the selfish, the trivial; and most of all they rejected the spiritual, the religious and in the end the Christian - so by the time that Schumacher published his final (Christian, Roman Catholic) statement in Guide for the Perplexed, it already seemed to have missed the boat, to be too late - and to be a quixotic, futile gesture.

Britain had decided; and apparently the rest of the rest made exactly the same decision; and after that point it got harder and harder to make the right decision - but, to be candid, by that time there were not many people who were really bothered anyway.


Note added: 

The final words of Small is Beautiful read: "Everywhere people ask: 'What can I actually do'? The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind."

His biography makes it clear that Schumacher failed to practice what he preached - and did not set his own house in order - in fact did not really even try to do this with any seriousness and got caught up in media, celebrity and (of course...) the sexual revolution; and this failure was no doubt crucial in the scheme of things.

Schumacher's daughter Barbara summarized her Father's work: "At the centre of his message was the point that unless it is recognized that there exists something higher than man which gives a point to man's actions, then there can be not future worth contemplating."

What was this 'something higher"? It was generally known as Buddhist Economics, but Schumacher stated that it could 'equally' be known as Christian economics - but he quipped that if he had called it that, then 'nobody would have read it'. 

I find this a telling comment. He is almost certainly correct - Westerners could enjoy the notion of Buddhist economics, because it was unreal to them and seemed to make no demands. So probably it was already too late even by the mid-seventies. And, by waiting for six years before revealing that it was really, so far as Schumacher personally was concerned, Christian economics - perhaps he missed the moment and left it too late?

But either way, I still believe that there was a 'moment of clarity' - when there was a balanced choice between repentance (on relatively 'easy terms'!) and continuing the path to cultural alienation, despair, dishonesty and suicide. 

For each individual, it was perhaps a matter of hoping that 'somebody else' would take the lead on this; would set their own house in order, and behave accordingly... but 'somebody else' never did - or at least not enough 'somebody else's'.



Bruce Charlton said...

@NF comments: "Ang Lee's film "The Ice Storm" explores this theme..."

Bill said...

Very perceptive remarks. Do you read John Michael Greer?