Shoppers competing to get discounted televisions on Black Friday. (London Evening Standard)
Seeing the gardarene swine like behaviour of the Black Friday shoppers, with customers fighting each other to get bargains, reminded me so much of the emptiness of contemporary Life. Thus behaviour longer attracts much criticism of these it is more likely the competitive zeal of these shoppers will earn them admiration. If this frenzied hyperactivity was restricted to shopping, it would be a problem but one with limits. However this frenzied hyperactivity is not limited to bargain hunters but is a behavioural practice characteristic of contemporary Britain. This practice is at is most dangerous when practised by our politicians who rush out a frenzy ill considered legislation to meet whatever crisis or problem occurs. Criminal law reform is one such example it seems that each successive government has to make major changes to criminal law to satisfy the apparent public demand for new laws to protect them from dangerous criminals. Reflection not something practised by contemporary politicians, no contemporary politician would copy would as did Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan read Trollope’s novels while in office, reading would either be some serious economic or political tome for fear of not being seen to be ‘on the job’ or a collection of DVD’s, acceptable frivolity. They are truly the ‘One Dimensional Men’ as described by Marcuse. Men with no depth or breadth of vision. One unfair but a comment with some truth in it is that legislation is rushed out to meet tomorrow’s media deadlines.
Politicians have a philosophy to justify their behaviour, it’s the market led theory of politics. They are as with businesses just there to respond to the demands of their customers. If their consumers suffer from a fear of crime, what is needed is more laws to reassure the voting political customer that their concerns are being met. Whether this crowd pleasing legislation has any impact on actual crime is debatable. What matters is reassuring the customer. Draconian anti drug legislation has had little impact on actual drug taking, but it’s there to reassure the public that the government takes drug abuse seriously. The unintended consequence of this legislation is to eliminate the small time (easily caught) drug dealer from the market, leaving the trade in the hands of major criminal cartels who are able to evade detection through either corrupting the law enforcement agencies or through using expensive sophisticated methods to avoid detection. The fact that current drug laws have inadvertently led to the creation of rich powerful criminal gangs is of no relevance to the government of the day. The fact that there are better alternatives is irrelevant as they lack the crowd pleasing factor.
One thought that occurs to me is that any drug baron would want the current laws to continue in operation as by eliminating many smaller rivals it enables them to remain a monopoly supplier.
A possible explanation
What I want is an explanation of why so many in society indulge in this frenzied purposeless activity. Kierkegaard (The Concept of Anxiety) does offer for me an explanation of this behaviour. His explanation was in part based on self analysis and in part in from observation of his contemporaries in 19th century Copenhagen. In his youth he could be described as a ‘party animal’ a person who was a popular guest at parties, because of his ready wit. However he was aware of an inner emptiness which frenzied social activities could not remove, a behaviour he observed in his friends. However he realised that this emptiness was not apparent to his friends and contemporaries who were content to live life on the ‘outside’. Yet even these apparently happy people would experience an anxiety of something missing, but suffer from not knowing the cause of their anxiety. The solution for them was to engage in more social activities to offset this feeling of anxiety.
This anxiety was consequent people’s failure to understand their true nature. *There is within the human psyche a longing for a different life, an aspiration for a more satisfying spiritual life. He identifies two forms of better life, the first a life lived in conformity to the norms of religion and the second superior a life lived in knowing God. This life may be achieved, through the individual opening themselves to God. They become as a mirror reflecting God in their lives. It is only this final group who are truly free from anxiety, they know happiness, all others know an inferior or counterfeit happiness.
It is not necessary to accept Kierkegaard’s Christianity to see the value of his analysis. Contemporary culture whether it be political or that of wider society fails to recognise the need for spirituality or any form of life that is not based on the consumption of goods or services. It is a barren and empty culture. A market society in which everything is up for exchange lacks any sense of higher value. There can be no universal value system such as Christianity which values compassion, agape (love of mankind) as they have no place in a society of aggressive self seeking traders. There is no market in agape, fairness or compassion, instead they are seen a barrier to wealth making as they demand restrictions be imposed on the businessman. Only recently the Chairman of the Confederation of British Industries spoke out against fairness and compassion. Imposing the living wage on employers or ending the cruel zero hours contracts he said would make the British economy uncompetitive in world markets. The economy demands the immiseration of the majority, if it is to prosper. It is the worship of a strange inhuman God, that is not too different in nature from the Aztec Gods that demanded human sacrifice.
A possible solution
While it is tempting to say that a happiness is dependent on a redistribution of material wealth; this fails to recognise why one of the richest world economies has descended to a level where an increasing number live impoverished lives. Why does the miserablist philosophy of Neo-Liberal dominant the political discourse? Quite simply because the majority of politicians exist at the lowest level of life as identified by Kierkegaard. Their realist philosophies have taught them that there can be no higher values as all that matters are the practical and graspable truths, so we have an opposition campaigning to reduce energy prices and ignoring the problems of a dysfunctional economy that created the misery associated with low incomes. Focus groups are set up to find what are the simple wants of the the electorate. The questions are designed to elicit simple responses that can be transferred into easily marketable policies. Never do politicians offer more than a few simple and banal phrases in place of a political philosophy, a something that is easily sellable.
Kierkegaard for me offers an answer to this malaise, that is how do you stop politicians behaving like moths flitting from one policy light to another. He writes of two religious types, religious A and B. The first practise religion without real understanding they know that they must conform to certain religious practices otherwise they will suffer the wrath of God. If fear of God made politicians believe that they should conform with the rules of Christian practice then the mindless inhumanity of Neo-Liberalism will be dropped. A minority would achieve the understanding necessary achieve to become religious B. They have the understanding necessary to develop policy in conformity with the highest moral and spiritual standards. They would be the leaders or natural aristocrats who would lead society in towards a change that would benefit all.
However Kierkegaard admits that his truly spiritual man would be more likely to be an outsider. His criticisms of society would make him an uncomfortable companion to the rich and powerful. Thus man would have to be prepared to suffer in return for a life lived in imitation of Christ. Father Gleb Yakunin a Russian orthodox priest was one such man. He was a fierce critic of the old soviet regime for its persecution of christians, for which he suffered imprisonment and exile. Yet his actions led to a change in government policy, first the destruction of churches ceased and a policy of toleration adopted towards the Orthodox Church. The role of such critics in society needs to be tolerated, beneficial change only follows from listening to them. In Old Testament Israel these men were the prophets. The Jewish people had a schizophrenic attitude towards their prophets they both accepted and rejected them. They recognised the need for such men as only they kept them true to their faith, yet they also hated them for their criticisms. One of the Isaiah’s was sawn in half by angry Israelites and another John the Baptist was beheaded.
In Britain there is a need for such critics, yet their their voice is silenced. The judiciary is going through one of its most repressive phrases, critics of powerful businesses can be silenced by super injunctions or through expensive libel actions. Police spies are used to infiltrate and disrupt opposition groups. The same police through the misuse of bail conditions can effectively silence activists through making avoidance of political protest a condition of bail. Any organised opposition is emasculated and marginalised through repressive laws. Recently legislation makes it impossible for charities and other groups to campaign on policy issues during an election campaign. While the voice of opposition is so effectively silenced there will be no change in society.
It is too easy to criticise Kierkegaard by claiming that he had an unrealistic view of mankind’s potential. Even when he was alive it was said of Kierkegaard that his definition of a Christian as a life lived in imitation of Christ was practically impossible to achieve. Rather than hoping for an unrealistic change, there is an alternative. I want a return to the age of ideology, an ideology such as socialism that celebrates the potential of man, one that should replace the inhumane Neo-liberal ideology that celebrates the brutal nature of man. There can be no more depressing philosophy than that of Neo-Liberalism that sees man as a grasping egotistic animal seeking only to advance their own interests. An ideology that encompassed hope, compassion would constrain the behaviour of politicians. They could no no longer claim indifference to to what can only be described as the evils in British society. They could no longer ignore the plight of the low paid, the least cost philosophy would be replaced by the criteria of fairness. It could easily be achieved by insisting that all businesses that are in receipt of government contracts or funding pay the living wage to their staff.
The emptiness at the centre in to the political debate would be replaced by an ideology that celebrated humanity. There have been plenty such ideologies in the past such as evangelical Christianity, socialism, the ‘One Nation Toryism’ of Benjamin Disraeli and the compassionate social liberalism of Herbert Asquith and Lloyd George. Such ideologies would constrain the behaviour of politicians, their behaviours and policies would be judged against a set of higher standards. Who would not judge the parliaments of the reforming 19th century and early 20th century superior to those of today. Contemporary parliaments are where self interest in the guise of Neo-Liberalism is the only moral standard. These are the no hope parliaments of today, inhabited by politicians whose attitude is ‘that I would like to help but …’ the but being the cruel moral imperative of Neo-Liberalism.
*i have edited and simplified Kierkegaard’s psychological analysis of human spirituality