When I was very young there was an old lady who lived down the road in a house without electricity. All her life she used oil lamps and a range in the kitchen. There were others like her. An old man sold fruit and vegetables from a horse and cart. House removals could be done by vans or by carrier’s cart. This was into the Sixties, and I don’t mean the Eighteen Sixties. Not everyone had television, not because they were poor but because it had never entered their lives. And when people went abroad they generally took ships, even to New York.
Of course I’ve lived all my life with electricity. I have flown many times. I am writing on a computer. But I am aware that there was a time not so far away when all the things we live by were not there. To many that time seems like a distant, half-mythical and certainly unimaginable age. The problem is that technology develops at the speed of light, whereas our thoughts and feelings are shaped gradually. We experience, we consider, then we assess what is possible, what is probable, what is necessary and what is desirable.
It would be possible to travel vast distances by train were the transnational infrastructures there.
Cairo to Capetown by rail? Not now, but eventually. The probability is that climate change will ground all but essential aircraft. We need to develop an international polity that acknowledges the need for co-operation. It is desirable that our political discourse throughout the world is a continuing debate on the varying ways we can respond positively, balancing personal freedoms with social responsibility. It is not settled. We have not reached a conclusion. The future is not yet determined.
What we do not need is the delusion that free market will find all the answers. We cannot believe that competing individuals, unfettered by conscience, will produce prosperity and harmony for all. We have come to recognize that authoritarian bureaucracy stifles creative and imaginative discourse. We have yet to recognize that the utopian dream of the American Enlightenment does not make every citizen a Benjamin Franklin or an Anne Bradstreet.
We have nothing positive to learn from either Henry Ford or Stalin. Their systems are morally discredited beyond recall. There is much we can learn from Jefferson, and also from Lenin. Noble ideals tempered by common sense restraint are as necessary now as they always have been and will be. The world is burning because unthinking excess has characterized the world born of the industrial, political and scientific revolutions.
That is not an argument against progress and the human need for change. The revolution of the future will learn from the past and take a respectful look at the past. The mistakes and crimes of a mechanised society must be considered in the light of the natural harmonies that were lost. The poor were fed by industrial society, yes.
They were enslaved also, not least by ignorance and material values.
The promise was freedom. ‘We live in a free society that is part of the free world.’ That was the narrative emerging from the global conflicts of the Twentieth Century. The only alternative to the Atlantic Alliance was deemed to be dictatorship. The truth is there were many dictatorships in league with the Alliance, and there many experiments in social construction which were neither dictatorships nor Western liberal states. The narrative, however, was of freedom this side of the wall, and Communism the other side. Communism meant conformity to a grey and dull monolith. The West was free to pursue an ideal of demotic glamour, the world as Hollywood.
The horrors of the Viet-Nam War and the evident failings within Western society led many to question the validity of this simplistic picture of a complex political world. The notion of a counter-culture and an alternative society found fecund soil in the thinking minds of the West. Ecology, feminism, gay pride and the peace movement all found a voice that might have brought down the citadel of power. Then came the triumph of the West. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the symbolic moment when the simple picture became the accepted reality.
Climate change has initiated a questioning of material growth and the values that justify the relentless squandering of precious resources. Nature has intervened to call capitalism to account. The crisis for humanity overshadows all else, although domestic considerations, trivial by comparison, dominate public discourse.
The retreat into nationalism and nativism that has swept the world is a closing of the ears to the message that our assumptions about our lives require urgent and uncomfortable attention. The public mood is to seek ‘the way things were’. The day before yesterday the narrative was simple. For Great Britain it is a vision of empire spreading civilisation and good governance into the darkest corners of the world. Of course it is a delusion, but that is what is sought again, not by conquest but by trade and cultural exchange. Our language is the language of the world. Surely our way of life can dominate the world? In partnership with the USA we can be a great power once more. Advance, Britannia! Never mind, the fire that rages and the flood that engulfs. Our island race is safe.
Such a vision is not welcoming to the world when it seeks habitation in this country. For many years the popular mood has been poisoned by a politically manipulated fear of strange customs and alien tongues. Take the Don Valley, for example. It is the setting for Scott’s Ivanhoe. In the mainstream of gentile literature a Jew in all her beauty enters to change perceptions. Not too far from the Don Valley may be found the Muslims of Bradford, the Jews of Leeds, and the Irish Catholics of Selby, communities that found refuge in Yorkshire, and who have made such a contribution. Migration has developed and enriched the identity of a region and of the whole island. The process is not new. Nor shall it end.
The dream should be to build on that heritage. But, no. A generation after the defeat and rout of the coalminers in the heart of their territory comes the irrational and inarticulate allegiance to a withdrawal from Europe that is actually a withdrawal from the world. That is neither possible nor desirable. The earth faces problems of climatic disaster and war and the serious fear of annihilation. We are all wandering the earth seeking ‘the heart of a heartless world.’ [The phrase is Marx’s]. The inadequacies of our current political structure and our means of public discourse, are pitifully evident.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall