Tuesday, 2 March 2010

One Generation of Tlonists1: As the World Falls Down

(Hopefully part of a series on my generation trapped in a philosophical cul de sac)

I: We could be Heroes

Ours is a hero generation, at least according to Laurie Penny. We are similar to our grandparents apparently. OK, we haven’t had dogfights with Stuka divebombers or ME109s or gone mano a mano with the Waffen SS, but more of us are becoming young conservatives. Conservative Future, according to Penny 'appear to believe in equality'.

Whilst I cannot really share Laurie Penny’s ability to bask in the glory of the swelling membership of this group, I do share her view that ours is a generation that faces a lot of problems and is perhaps notable for lacking an intellectual mooring. Also quite liked the Bowiesque conclusion:
'My generation's ambitions, like our pop stars, are ambitious, bland and bourgeois. But with the world falling down around our ears, can anyone blame us?'

II: Plastic boots and Plastic Hats and you think you know where it’s at

Ms Penny’s pride in our generation for supporting the Tories is swelled even more because a friend gave up on being a priestess of the church of England and decided to become a climate change protestor. Presumably becoming one of those insufferable self-righteous spoilt brats who go around annoying people rather than engaging in intelligent debate about reducing carbon.

Speaking of environmentalism brings me onto a considerably more trenchant and intelligent thinker than Penny, Anatoly Karlin, who thinks that the way ahead should be even more radical.

III: The sleep of reason produces monsters (which many find more interesting)

Anatoly is an advocate of Green Communism, wants to create a collapse party, and thinks that we should adopt a combination of grass-roots activism and a system of government: 'in which promotion and honors are to be based on the judgments of peers on one's competence and commitment to the cause'.

Very commendable and best of luck. But whilst I support a lot of his ideas, I’m quite certain they will fail to gain support as long as we delude ourselves that 'rationality' itself is something that wins popularity. Please, read Anatoly's thoughts for yourselves but I will give reasons why I am sceptical of how successful such a movement would be.

We only need look at one of Anatoly’s central justifications for the system: Anthropogenic Global Warming. However, the Anthropogenic Global Warming view is collapsing in the population because (frankly) they don’t have the most interesting story. The counter-story: that there is an evil and patronising cabal of science-priests who are using ‘global warming’ to control the economy and possibly tax air is the more interesting story. It can even make some people feel good about being ignorant.

The pro-AGW groups will protest that 90% of peer reviewed research supports the view that AGW is real and it’s ridiculous to think that scientists would conspire against petroleum groups.

But that’s politically irrelevant frankly. If faced with the dilemma of the most rational or most interesting narrative, people will go for the second. Especially if it means that they get to play at being tough dissidents against the forces of conformity. And this especially if they personify the forces of conformity. Call it the SUV paradox: SUVs are astoundingly ugly and expensive vehicles that people only buy to keep up with the Joneses. But due to the AGW theory, many Americans and Brits like to think they are showing Promethean defiance and individuality by owning one.

IV: What is to be Done?

Depends on whom you ask. I suppose for Ms Penny it means being increasingly shrill and self-righteous. According to Anatoly we need to reclaim ‘old left’ traditions of strong rationality (albeit more culturally liberal and more economically conservative). As a long time supporter of lefty causes (though who generally hates British left wing culture and papers), I'm afraid I think that rationality is a cul de sac.

I suspect that the left has lost many democratic arguments because the right has been a lot more cunning about exploiting gullibility and idiocy. Just look at how the Christian coalition were faced with the choice of 1) Accepting that they were astoundingly stupid for putting their trust in Hal Lindsey (who ‘prophesised’ that the USSR would bring about Armageddon) or 2) Deciding they were wise for listening to Hal (despite his little booboo, as it were) and that Iraq was the new enemy mentioned in Bible prophecy.

Some Western leftists might whinge that were right all along about the Iraqis not especially wanting to be bombed and the potential of Bush/Cheney to act as nation builders. They are right, but they are missing the point that no-one listened to them the first time so why do they think anyone will in future?

Look at how they failed to mine the rich seam of stupidity and gullibility in the militia movements? Surely they could have asked if Abu Ghraib was a blueprint for Big Government plans in Wisconsin? Surely they could have used the 'thin edge of the wedge' argument so favoured by conservatives to block healthcare to say that Washington would start by bombing Baghdad and then Boulder and Baton Rouge?

Maybe they could have pointed out that the Cheney/Bush junta bore an uncanny resemblance to the Corporate Fascism in Total Recall? But no, the new ethical issues only gave mainstream liberal-leftists new excuses for stabbing each other in the back ('I don't support Bush, but my friend X should not imply moral equivalence...') and pointing quaking J’accuse fingers at leftists with guts like Gore Vidal, George Galloway, Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky.

In truth, if people have rational plans they will have to dress them up in interesting clothes. Politics is a blend of the rational and romantic. This may not be a pleasant truism to all. But it is one we have to acknowledge if we are to achieve anything.

However, I think that concepts of left and right/ environmentalist and AGW-sceptic are like most 20th Century ideas, just like an ourboros biting its tail. The problem with most ideals of the modern era is that they are reactions to specific problems and when a counter-theory is proposed then they stagnate intellectually whilst getting increasingly savage. We only need look at what left and right have become in Britain: how savage the Tories and New Labour are towards each other, when their differences are so insignificant.

V: I Got Another Idea

I named this series ‘Generation of Tlonists’ as a quote from Jorge Louis Borges. This story is about a plan to reform the world drastically by firstly inventing a more beautiful world and then gently incorporating this world into our own. All the sciences and humanities are re-invented. My own view is that only a change of this magnitude can stop our society from stagnating and collapsing. Only this could really bring about a system ruled by any kind of rationality.

In the epilogue Borges mentions Nazism and Bolshevism to demonstrate how people have a craving for a system that has order and symmetry, though implies that these have both been overtaken by Tlonism.

This only seems natural: Fascism and Communism were both reactions to industrialisation and the erosion of feudalism. That they both claimed millions of lives is not to deny that philosophically they were fairly minor variations on Western industrial societies. This in itself may be why they are monstrous.

It seems to me that Liberal Democracy has been eating itself both intellectually and spiritually. Whilst we do not have a totalitarian system banning/ burning books, it seems that our heritage could be lost through ignorance rather than through totalitarianism.

Unfortunately the drivel produced by the 19th Century, about the awful and shallow rich, continues to be published and read, whilst the real intellectual golden age of Ancient Athens has been forgotten. The ethical and aesthetic standard of the Ancient Greeks reflects our age of spin-doctors and X-factor very badly. Which is especially bad news for a nation sustained on the myth of progress.

Ancient Greece would be a good model for a Tlonist takeover of the modern age. But this will have to be the end of my first post.

Everything I've written was bullshit by the way. But my very point is that we need to speak bullshit to redefine rationality. We must free ourselves from the delusion that rationality will win without the crutch of dreams.



  1. hmm, interesting.

    There is a lot of information to digest here.
    I certainly beleive in AGW. Do you? I have jsut read James's Lvoelock's book, The Revenge of Gaia, and the evidence is indisptuible. Quite rightly he advocates nuclear, yet there are multitudes of environmental organisations opposing nuclear. Which is a contradiction in terms as nuclear is the best chance we've got.

    This young penny girl comes off as a typical Guardian shouty 'militant' type
    There was another howler in today's Guardian. A 19 self righteous type harping on in praise of apathy and yoof culture.

    I wrote a response to it and put it on my blog. I nearly got cif to commission it, but because the commenters were do incensed by it, someone else had already been commissioned to respond. basically I argued that people like her who are too prevalent in my generation are causing this country to slip into a Huxleyan dystopia

  2. Good response on CIF, NK. Had a few quibbles which I might put on your blog if have time.

    My view about AGW is I'm too thick to really know what to believe (I always thought both the 'flu pandemics' were nonsense, though the consensus was in their favour), but I think that it would be wise to have an intelligent discussion about limiting carbon emissions because I cannot think it's a good idea to upset the balance of the earth's chemicals and I ee no reason why so many scientists would conspire AGAINST the petroleum industry. Also I have a low carbon footprint, rarely eat meat, don't drive, don't use many appliances. I'm all for a movement towards solar power. Not so keen on nuclear. If there WAS a pandemic (which I think IS likely) and no-one knew how to operate nuclear power plants they would all explode creating far more polution than a nuclear war would.

    However, I do think that the AGW debate is interesting precisely because it is so stagnant: those who support AGW just assume that the democratic majority of people SHOULD listen to them and are like people pressing the button of a machine that they know doesn't work because they feel it should work.

    I read in the Scientist magazine that the overwhelming majority of American scientists were Democrat voters. It seems to me very naive of scientists to think that in a consumer society, people will listen to them if they say something people don't want to hear.

    As I see it, the mainstream has an ideology of progress that weds democracy to enlightenment ideas of science. It seems to me this is very naive. Just look at London where they decisively relected Boris Johnson because he's an amusing cheeky chappie. I entirely support Ken Livingstone's tax on SUVs, but no-one minded much that Boris overturned that... after all, it's so amusing the way he says 'cripes' and has such mad hair. WHo cares about smog.

    Yet if scientists truly believe that people are going to essentially destroy the world through carbon emissions, surely they have to start rethinking their attitudes towards democracy?

  3. I would advcate nuclear. It is the best chance we have got. I read a book recently by James Lovelock 'The revenge of Gaia, and now I am in no doubt of the existence of global warming, man made almost certainly. ALthough I think I remember him saying a vast amount of our Co2 emissions were from forest fires and volcanoes- which we can't really change.

    Good that you don't drive. Me neither. Where I live though the drivers are real rednecks, young people are Jeremy Clarkson fanatics etc. I agree that democracy and climate action are incompatible- unfortunately but that is human nature.
    As an aside Gregor, you hear the news about the jamie Bulger killer being returned to prison, and the whole outrage in society.

    How do you as an Orthodox christian feel about the concept of redemption and repentance of the soul.
    And also if you read works by Dostoevsky as your profile says, did you get the sense that he too felt strongly about man's conscience and his soul. I really get that reading his words.

    Why? I have a hypothesis. I find that Orthodoxy and Catholicism tend to be more focuses on man's conscience and his capacity for redemption than the fire and brimstone protestants who are so intent on revenge. Britain may be overtly a secular culture, but these protestant traditions live on. As we see by the rabid articles in the gutter press.

    I am thinking of writing a piece on it. This was the cif page that inspired me- by big long hypothesis is in the comments (although I saved it just in case the mods get any ideas-- I was deleted yesterday for saying Turkey's rejection of the Armenian genocide was like modern Germany denying the holocaust)

  4. Also again.

    I believe there is a theatre company touring down from Glasgow. They are or were showing Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector. They were in Ullapool yesterday. I was thinking about going to see it but didn't have the spare time or money. I am sure it has stopped at Inverness. Have you heard of this?

  5. @NK
    Horrific as the bulgar crime was, I do think given his age Venables should be given a second chance. Dostoyevsky certainly understood that ethics were more complex than the legal system can recognise. One of the most interesting novels about the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox view of sin is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

    I'd agree that whilst Britain is secular, we seem to have inherited some of the most distasteful aspects of religion: fervent belief in our morality, a strange puritanism, lack of sympathy, a sense of being 'an elect', irrationality, anthropocentric solipsism. Yet we have lost those features that I so admire about Apostolic Christianity: interest in free will and capacity for redemption, love of others, the understanding that a selfish life is a miserable life.

    I actually wrote a short piece for a local magazine on the Gogol production. It was Gogol who initially got me onto Russian culture. It really says a lot to me that our 'conservatives' are so Russophobic; I doubt if any of them have read any Dostoyevsky or Gogol. The only RUssians they care for are the equally vulgar oligarchs.

  6. yes. I didn't link the cif piece though. This- http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/06/jon-venables-james-bulger-editorial?showallcomments=true#comment-51

    Mine is the big long comment in the middle that has basically been ignored by everyone, fair enough. My arguement would be the best situation would be where Venables and the other one can walk down any street, under their own names,with no fear of revenge. They have a conscience of the terrible crime they have committed and their souls have been redeemed.

    Interestingly enough I too mentioned a clockwork orange in that article, but forgot to mention it here. It is a good book, and very philosophical, as to whether Alex reforms himself through his conscious redemption over time or takes the Ludovico technique which is an instant 'cure'.

    I too definatly associate myself with the Catholic/Orthodox attitude to the self, to others, the soul and concept of redemption. As I said in the cif piece rags like the Sun wouldn't be out of place in Oliver Cromwell's day.
    I think I will write an article on this issue, should be finished tonight.

    The Oligarchs are scum, I can agree with you there. The Tories, as I said before, they are not proper conservatives. Proper conservatives would be interested in equal distribution of the wealth and equality of opportunities, they are conservative on social issues. Proper conservatives are also interested in improving the lot of all aspects of society, not their cronies. The Tories 'conservatism' is financial conservatism, ie getting rich off of other people's labour, covering your rich mates and paying as less tax as possible.

  7. I've posted my blog on my opinions of what I discussed above.


    It's not as good as I wanted it to be and goes off a bit, but I managed to convey my hypothesis reasonable well.

  8. The problem with transitioning to solar is that 1) we are even today starting from an extremely low base and 2) it cannot provide reliable base load power.

    The consensus amongst people concerned with energy transition seems to be that nuclear is an inescapable bridge if we intend to seriously reduce coal consumption while not suffering a collapse in overall energy production.

  9. I think it is supremely ironic that more people today do not "believe" in AGW than some twenty years ago, despite that the evidence for it has increased by literally orders of magnitude in the past two decades.

    This indicates this is a profoundly psychological issue. There is an increasing acknowledgement that limiting CO2 emissions will be extremely costly and life-style changing, and it is a direct challenge to the dominant "myth of progress" that permeates modern societies (especially Anglo-Saxon ones). I am repeatedly amazed at how utterly politicized AGW has become, how it is now treated as a matter of "faith", "belief" and "heresy", rather than the observable, inherently values-neutral phenomenon it really is.

    I guess it's better to close the curtains on the window to the outside world, no matter that the cliff is already discernible on the horizon.

  10. Hi Anatoly

    Good to hear from you. It is ostensibly strange that belief in AGW has declined whilst scientific support has gone up. But it is not as counter-intuitive as it may first appear.

    I suppose that the decade or so I’ve spend loosely affiliated with the left has given me a view of human nature which is that people always go for the most flattering and convenient narrative. There is a tendency to take the view ‘we should be right, we have asked the most rational questions’. But things don’t work like that. It’s embodied in the famous Reagan/ Carter debate ‘there you go again’. That’s how arguments are won. People want to think they’re with the cool, laid back guy, not the talkative nerd. I suppose that I’m a platonic libertarian social democrat, but my view of human nature makes me see that this will probably not work.

    As for thinking of AGW in terms of ‘belief’, I suppose that for those of us who are largely ignorant of the science, it is a matter of trust, because a lot people with qualifications in physics and chemistry disagree with the AGW theory. To me it seems like the AGW deniers do have a few arguments that are compelling to the layman. I can’t really say ‘I believe in AGW’, or ‘I don’t believe in AGW’, but see it as more of a Pascal’s wager. I support reducing carbon emissions because 1) I can’t buy the idea it is all a conspiracy 2) What will we lose if the AGW theory is wrong? What will we lose if they are right? And 3) Even if carbons aren’t heating up the planet, what are they doing to the planet?

    Admittedly, there is a puritanical, pastoral-romantic aspect of my nature that approves of cutting carbons: the way that so many people live in overheated houses, drive from one end of a street to another, eat lots of meat, throw out a lot of food etc. I think that people should try to live simpler lives.

    However, if anything, there has been a corresponding rise of SUVs to pro-AGW research, which raises the question ‘what is to be done’? (I’m no fan whatsoever of Lenin, but that has to be the coolest title ever).

    It seems to me that the biggest defenders of science focus on old battles. Whilst I actually sympathise with some of his arguments against ID/theocratic government/intellectual ghettoisation, it seems to me that Richard Dawkins is flogging a dead horse by attacking religion in Britain and (perhaps subconsciously) is making arguments that he knows will be popular in Britain’s secular but populist intelligentsia.

    Britain is one of the least religious countries in the West, yet it is hardly an outpost of progress. As I said, Boris Johnson who scrapped Livingstone’s inching plans to cutting carbon emissions, was elected basically because he comes across as likable on television. And the TV set does indeed seem a greater threat to progress than our empty churches.

    Personally, I think The Collapse Party doesn't go far enough because it is based (as far as I can see) on the idea that people don't know what's good for them because they have been hoodwinked. In truth I think people are profoundly irrational and selfish and attitudes to carbon emissions wouldn't change at all even if the AGW denier lobby vanished; if we really want to live in a more rational world, we'll have to rewrite history and reform society!