To a very large extent the world is run by idiots and gangsters, writes Colin Tudge. In matters of politics and governance, we really do have to rethink from first principles.
The world is very badly run – apparently, so the facts suggest, by idiots and gangsters; or, which is in some ways worse, it is run by people who are not idiots or gangsters but have been sucked in nonetheless to an economy and a mode of governance that have abandoned common morality as a matter of strategy and seek, hubristically, to override common sense.
This is why the world is in such a mess – not because there is anything wrong with the world itself, or even because there’s a great deal wrong with the human species. This is why we are heading for the buffers when we could be looking forward to a million years and more in the sunlit uplands – well fed, well housed, well educated, personally fulfilled and at peace with ourselves and with our fellow creatures. In matters of politics (how individuals and groups contrive to influence others) and particularly of governance (how we order our affairs) we really do need a Renaissance: to start again from first principles; to create in situ the world we want to see. Again, too, “we” means all of us, people at large, Ordinary Joes. We have to make democracy work because, despite its many drawbacks, it’s probably our best hope. Right now, too, “they”, the people and institutions, governments and corporates and intellectuals to whom we have entrusted our lives, have seriously lost the plot.
As always, we need first of all to get our ideas straight. So:
The fundamental questions
First of all we need to ask: “What are we trying to achieve, and why?”
Modern governments and mainstream political parties rarely seem to ask this, or not in ways that really get to the bottom of things. Party manifestos are statements of intent but are light on what can properly be called principle. Ever since Mrs Thatcher and her coterie introduced the world to neoliberalism in the 1980s all the major political parties in the most powerful countries have focused above all on “economic growth”, measured by increase in “Gross Domestic Product”, or GDP. GDP is the total wealth generated by a country in a given year, as measured exclusively in money, as measured by highly contrived accountancy; and GDP must be increased above all by “competing” on the global market. Indeed, competitiveness leading to wealth has emerged as the prime virtue – irrespective, it seems, of how the wealth is produced, or the collateral damage, or who acquires the wealth once it’s created, or what they do with it. As for the biosphere – no major political party has ever taken our fellow creatures or the landscape seriously, although nowadays they do slip in the odd reference to “the environment”. (Even the Greens are far less gaiacentric than is required.) In the politics of British farming, pony paddocks are favoured above smallholdings because, as the economy is now set up, they offer more short-term profit, at least to those involved in buying and selling land. Any suggestion that it is not good or wise simply to scrabble for measurable wealth is portentously declared to be “unrealistic”.
The grand ambition of the Agrarian Renaissance is to create “convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere”. Ideally the necessary measures would not be imposed from above by some autocracy. The role of governments (insofar as we need governments) should be to create conditions that favour and nourish conviviality and which really are good for our fellow creatures and the Earth as a whole. The present emphasis on personal wealth and cut-throat competition, with the biosphere (“the environment”) treated at best as an add-on or as a commercial asset (“natural resources”) is, very obviously, again, the precise opposite of what’s needed.
To create this better world we need first to address three fundamental questions:
1: What is good – what is it right to do?
2: What is necessary – what do we need to do to achieve the ends that we perceive to be good?
3: What is possible?
Clearly, if what is necessary exceeds what is possible then we are in deep trouble. Right now, for the time being, that is not the case. Notably, as discussed in Part I, we already have the know-how to ensure that everyone who is ever likely to be born could eat well, by the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy, and this could be achieved without wrecking all the rest – and although good food for everyone isn’t all that’s needed it is the sine qua non and would be a very good start. But “the window of opportunity” is rapidly closing. If we continue with present policies it will soon be possible only to support a minority of humanity, and most of our fellow creatures will be left without a prayer. To continue with such policies when the alternatives are obvious and in many cases proven to work really does look very like idiocy – or is it simply wicked?
Let us address the three basic questions one by one.
1: What is it good to do?
This, of course, is a matter of morality (a better term than “ethics”) and so it is in the realms of moral philosophy and, many would say, of theology, and in either case it is rooted in metaphysics (Part VI.1.1). Britain’s Harold Wilson in the early 1960s declared that “the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”, and all political parties should be able to say the same. All politics and indeed all human action should be driven by moral principle. Many, known as “relativists”, suggest that morality is a poor guide to action because different people have different views on what is good, and standards change from generation to generation. Even those who look to God or to their gods for moral guidance often disagree, sometimes violently, on what their particular divinity is telling them. So, say the relativists and the sceptics, we can’t simply be guided by morality because the guidelines are not clearly marked and in any case keep shifting.
But as discussed in Part VI, through all the philosophical and theological wrangling over thousands of years, a few fundamental principles, shared by many different cultures and all the major religions, come shining through: compassion, humility, and a sense of reverence for Nature, or for the universe as a whole. Different religions emphasize these essentials to different degrees, and the vocabulary differs, so that the Eastern and traditional religions tend to be more gaiacentric than the Abrahamic religions, and Christians have often tended to talk of love rather than of compassion. But the sentiments are the same, or as nearly as makes no difference. These three moral precepts are a key component – perhaps the main component – of what is called The Perennial Wisdom.
So if we want our governance to be wise we surely should ask: Do any governments, or any formally convened political parties, embrace these fundamental moral principles? A few here and there have perhaps come close (it would be good to look at some of them in future essays) but none of the most powerful governments in the present world seem even to consider these questions. In Britain and the USA in particular, all the main parties have adopted neoliberalism. All apparently believe, in line with neoliberal thinking, that the world’s economies and hence the world’s affairs should be driven by the “free” market, where “free” means “de-regulated”: as far as possible operating without any rules imposed by governments or indeed by mere human beings. In the neoliberal world the market itself has become the moral arbiter. What people will pay for is considered ipso facto to be good, because this is thought to reflect their true desires; and to provide people with what they want, materially, is taken to be the greatest good (because material goods are supposed to make people happy and the point of morality according to utilitarian ethics is to increase happiness). Indeed, as economist Pritam Singh in particular has discussed, dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals, of whom there are many in high places, make a virtue of not spelling out any moral principles because, they say, moral principles are “subjective” while market forces are “objective” and therefore more trustworthy. But common sense and history – particularly the history of the 35 years since neoliberalism became the global norm, in which inequality has grown and the societies and the biosphere have nose-dived – show us how thin is the ice on which we tread when once we leave morality to chance, or fashion, or commerce. Moral philosophy with or without theology must be at the heart of all our actions and hence at the heart of all politics.
In 2015 Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne railed against benefit claimants in the House of Commons, inviting the rest of us to give them a bad time and giving the government an excuse to cut spending. Did this in Cameron seem compassion? Successive British and US governments have taken it to be obvious these past several centuries that they have a perfect right to take over other people’s countries, commonly praying for God’s approval along the way, and nowadays they impose technologies that suit their own economies and call it progress. In this, is there even a hint of humility? Cavalier application of modern technology in pursuit of wealth and power, as seen most obviously in industrial agriculture, has taken half our fellow species to the brink of extinction and destabilized the climate. Where in this is there any recognition at all that the biosphere really matters? Even the Green Party, although far ahead of the rest, places far less emphasis than it should on the need for morality and hence for governance to be gaiacentric. No party takes agriculture seriously. Even the Greens fail to see that unless we farm in enlightened ways, according to the principles of agroecology, we cannot hope to keep the biosphere in good heart, and the cause of wildlife conservation is dead in the water. It is impossible to believe, of course, that any such considerations impinge even dimly on the thinking of Donald Trump.
So to the next fundamental question:
2: What is necessary?
What we deem to be “necessary” of course depends on what we are trying to achieve. So for starters, what do we need to do to ensure that everyone is well fed, now and for ever more?
Well, according to Sir John Beddington in his report on The Future of Food and Farming in 2011, we need to produce 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with the rising population and rising aspirations, and especially with the “demand” for more meat; and although he concedes that we cannot simply continue with “business as usual”, business as usual is what his report seems above all to recommend. We need, he concedes, a range of technologies but his emphasis beyond doubt is on industrialization, propped up by high tech. We have to be modern. Politicians, even less well informed than the authors of Beddington’s report, and egged on by industrial lobbyists, have been similarly productionist – and at times have upped the ante. Some have said we need 100% more food by 2100. More and more is the order from on high, with more and more high tech. Since more and more leads, potentially, to more and more profit and rising GDP, this seems to those who are focused on economic growth to be win–win. What the world needs is what can also make us richer. Or some of us, at least. Apart from the ones that are put out of work of course. And provided we don’t include the collateral damage on the balance sheet.
But of course as argued elsewhere on this website, we don’t need more food. We already produce twice as much as should be needed now, and according to the UN demographers 40% more than we should ever need. The “demand” for meat is measured retrospectively – not what people say they want but what they can be persuaded to buy. Indeed, as outlined in Part III, the alleged “demand” for meat is specious, a commercially convenient untruth. Scientists and modern governments claim to be “evidence-led” but the rattle of cash registers and the rhetoric of neoliberalism seems to rob them of their critical faculties. As also argued in Part III, agroecology and traditional cooking between them would ensure that everyone who is likely to be born on to this planet could enjoy the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy. It would be very helpful if governments used their weight, and our taxpayers’ money, to install the necessary economic structures and support the necessary enterprises. But instead, in this as in so much else, they do the precise opposite.
The world’s most powerful governments simply haven’t defined, properly, what really is necessary. Indeed they don’t seem to have asked the question at all, or not at least with due care. They have simply adopted a strategy (in practice, “more of the same”) that is politically and economically convenient to the existing power structure. Very obviously, that won’t do.
3: What is possible?
As will be discussed at length in Parts I and II it is eminently possible to do the things that really need doing. We really could create “convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere”. We should easily be able to provide ourselves with enough food, and to go on doing so – and we could do this without wiping out our fellow creatures. We could also rein in global warming, and perhaps even reverse it. There is absolutely no need to resign ourselves to our fate, and seek simply to “adapt” to it, as many people in high places are advocating.
What clearly is not possible is to continue in our present destructive vein, with “growth” as our mantra. Oil, gas, and coal really are running out: not perhaps for a few hundred years (though estimates differ) but a few hundred years should be regarded as the short term. We should be thinking in millions. Besides, if we go burning those fuels at the present rate then we will, beyond reasonable doubt, destabilize the world’s climates beyond redemption. If we mine and farm and build and even develop information technology as carelessly as has become the norm we will render all the fields infertile and pollute all other species, or most of them, out of existence – and, of course, destroy all traditional societies, cultures, languages, and ways of life. All that seems obvious. In truth, the idea that there are “limits to growth” came on board at least 50 years ago, and many philosophers well before that, including Plato, pointed out with varying degrees of urgency that humanity was doing too much damage. But the issues have never been taken seriously in high places.
Some economists and politicians have tried to solve the problem by decoupling increase of money – “economic growth” – from material reality. We can achieve economic growth, they say, first by focusing on “service industries” rather than on mining, farming, and manufacture; and secondly by developing ultra-conservative ways of producing things – renewable energy, recycling, the circular economy and so on. All this surely is worthwhile, and necessary. Agroecology is a way of producing life’s necessities (food) and hence potentially of achieving economic growth by totally “renewable” means (if only wealth was spread more equally so that everyone could afford good food and people including farmers were paid properly for doing useful things and not, simply, for shuffling other people’s money). So yes, to some extent, at least in theory, continuing economic growth is achievable without material damage.
But we are a very long way from achieving this. It would take decades to develop all the science and technologies that are needed to support the human race at a tolerable level without depleting the biosphere – and by the time we get to such a point, the biosphere and our fellow species could already be depleted beyond repair. After all, it isn’t just a matter of developing new technologies but of arranging a smooth transition from what we have to what we really need. In short, it would take far too long to bring about the necessary transition even if there was the political will to do so. At the moment, the will is lacking. There are climate change deniers in the highest offices who simply don’t acknowledge the problems; and even those who do think ahead tend to argue that it would be less disruptive to continue with the status quo than to try to bring about radical change. Without the necessary will, nothing can happen. All the big car manufacturers are working on “sustainable” transport, but as the truly radical engineer Hugo Spowers of Riversimple points out, their new cars at best are merely “less unsustainable”.
A second strategy is to develop the “no-growth” economy advocated not least by the former Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank, Herman Daly.
Put the two together – truly sustainable technologies including agroecology plus the no-growth economy – and we could solve our problems. At least we would have good grounds for hope. But is any government with any real influence in the world seriously thinking in such terms?
What’s gone wrong?
The first of our three fundamental questions – what is right? – is of course a matter of morality: a matter of gut feeling (see Part VI) abetted by moral philosophy, with or without a sense of transcendence (which takes us into metaphysics and religion). The second two questions are largely matters of material fact, and are best approached through science, and in particular through ecology, which though commonly underrated is in truth the most wide-ranging and subtle of all the sciences.
Good governance, then, must steer a course between the twin pillars of morality on the one hand, and ecology on the other. Many traditional societies, it seems, have tried to steer such a course, though without ever establishing the formal academic disciplines of philosophy and science. But what modern government has ever thought in such terms? How can the world hope to finish up in a good place if we have no stable or convincing guidelines?
On the practical front, why is there such a vast gap between what seems so obviously to be good and necessary, and is eminently possible, and the reality? Why are the world’s most powerful governments and international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO) so zealously pursuing strategies that are so obviously unsustainable? Why do we, people at large, allow ourselves to be governed so destructively? How come?
We could argue this forever, but here for starters are seven obvious sources of disaster:
1: The wrong focus
As a young man (I was 31) I attended the first ever World Food Conference, convened by Henry Kissinger in Rome in 1974. Then, if anything, the world’s food problems seemed worse than they are now. The world population, then at around 4 billion, was not much more than half what it is now, but there had been droughts and famines in Africa and Asia and world numbers in the 1960s had been rising by almost 2% a year – which, because of compound interest, means that the total would double every 40 years, and increase four times within a fairly average human lifetime. It seemed that the predictions of Thomas Robert Malthus in the early 19th century – that human numbers were bound to grow until they outstripped resources – were coming true.
Naively I expected to find the world’s best brains and keenest moralists gathered at Rome to focus on the world’s problems and produce sensible and humane answers. Instead I was shocked to find that very few governments seriously addressed the issues at all. The UK and the USA in particular seemed keen above all simply to assure the others and of course their own electorate that whatever was going wrong was not their fault; that their aid packages were among the most generous of all (albeit with plenty of strings); and that they saw no reason to change their ways. The general point, which for me has been reinforced many times since (now that I am alert to it) is that governments and individual politicians do not solve the world’s grandest problems, of food or climate or anything else, because that is not their focus. What matters to them most, in no particular order, is the status and wealth of their own country and the status of their own political party – above all, they make a virtue of their loyalty; and, of course, since they are driven by ambition, their own careers and their place in world history. If this were not so they would not rise to positions of influence because very few people get to positions of real influence at all unless that is what they are trying most to achieve.
Indeed, as far as I can see, governments and the expert advisers they gather around them rarely seek to analyse the world’s problems from first principles – moral and ecological – and never do so convincingly. Instead they apply their favoured political ideology and the economic dogma that is inevitably embedded within it and hope for the best. Clearly, that won’t do.
So it was that a contemporary of Shirley Williams in her early days at Oxford told me reliably that she was wont to say: “The point is not simply to find the best solution, but to find the best socialist solution.” The people with most influence today in governments and organizations like the National Farmers’ Union might say (if they were given to self-reflection): “We must seek the best market solution.” Thus does ideology trump good sense and moral principle. Principles of the kind we need to take seriously (those that help to define the perennial wisdom) are not easily contained within existing ideologies (see below).
2: The wrong people are in charge
All this leads us to the next obvious problem: the wrong people are in charge. Common sense and some experience suggests that if we need a government at all (which we probably cannot avoid, as discussed below) it should be composed of wise elders: people who really care about their own people and humanity as a whole, and – as we must add with increasing urgency – about the biosphere as a whole; and also are able to take control when called upon to do so. Plato in his usual paternalistic vein invoked the idea of the philosopher-king. Solomon is an Old Testament archetype. A few such people have emerged in recent memory – not always officially in government, but at least with strong influence. They include Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and, for example, Czechoslovakia’s former president, Vaclav Havel.
All of these, however, rose to positions of influence in peculiar circumstances: specifically, when their societies were threatened or indeed crushed by some outside oppressor, and when the people saw that their best hope was to combine against the oppressor. Such people are most likely to rise to power if and when the oppressors have problems of their own and relax their grip. Thus Tutu and Mandela rose to power under and in the wake of apartheid, meaning white supremacy; Gandhi led his country against imperial Britain; and Havel achieved prominence as Russia began to lose confidence. In the same way, 2000 years earlier, Jesus Christ came to the fore as Israel seethed under the authority of Rome. History shows, however, that once the extraneous oppressors are out of the way, normal service is resumed. The sages are soon replaced by leaders who may be just as self-interested as the occupying forces had been. Very few societies have managed to keep wise counsel intact for more than a few years. Why should that be so – especially in countries that claim to be democracies (as most countries do, even if they very obviously aren’t)?
3: Rule by oligarchs, and the positive feedback loop
Regrettably, game theory and common observation tell us that the most common form of government – the strongest and most stable, so long as the society lasts – seems bound to be the oligarchy: rule by a few, an elite, an “Establishment”, united not by amity or necessarily by common philosophy and certainly not by conscious conspiracy but by their common taste for power and their need to collaborate with others with complementary abilities.
In truth, all successful autocracies – dictatorships – have in practice been oligarchies. Hitler could not have risen to power without the help of big commercial companies – Krupp, Bayer, Volkswagen and the rest – abetted by intellectuals including scientists and the propagandist par excellence, Joseph Goebbels. The general pattern today is just the same. Britain for example is ruled by an oligarchy of government, the corporates and the banks, with their chosen expert and intellectual advisers – mostly scientists and engineers; backed (they are at pains to make sure) by media moguls (notably, of late, The Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch).
This is an ill-assorted group – personally and even ideologically the various members may despise each other – but together they form a positive feedback loop, each in practice helping the others and between them strengthening their grip. Thus in their eagerness to reduce “public spending” successive British governments to a large and critical extent have passed responsibility for scientific research on to corporates (whom they help with suitable tax breaks). The corporates employ some scientists on salaries and also give grants to a favoured few in universities, and although those academics invariably claim to be “independent”, in practice they do not find it easy or even possible to get worthwhile grants for any research that does not make the grant-givers richer, if not immediately then in the foreseeable future. The government also uses taxpayers’ money to support scientists in their own dedicated research units – but generally, these days, on the understanding that their findings should be handed to commercial companies for “development”. Those commercial companies often start small and lean but if they do well then sooner or later they tend to be taken over by corporates – or else grow to become mega themselves, as has become common in IT. In practice, too, corporates who take over small companies are inclined not simply to build on the technologies they have bought into, but also to suppress them, if the new methods threaten their own established agenda. But that is another story.
The net result is that those scientists and technologists, intellectuals and experts who become part of the oligarchy are kept employed and able to pay their mortgages and school-fees; the corporate share-holders grow richer and richer – and so are able to support more research and high tech; and the government primes the pumps with our money, and tots up all the circulating wealth and calls it GDP, and takes the credit for “economic growth”. The mainstream media, meanwhile, though sometimes critical, chime in obligingly with hype, as one magic bullet follows another. Over time, with steadily increasing wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands (particularly corporate hands) the oligarchy grows stronger and stronger.
What’s wrong with that? One thing that’s wrong is that the philosophy that drives the feedback loop is neoliberal – and the objection here is not a matter of ideology but of reality. Whatever its apologists may say, the only “value” recognized by neoliberals is that of money, measured in profit. The real wants and needs of individual people, or societies, or the biosphere, are ignored. We see the results of this in all fields. Modern medicine is wonderful but far more is spent on research and development to manage the chronic ailments of the rich than on curing and preventing the acute and often lethal though sometimes eminently curable diseases of the poor. Much modern medicine would not be necessary if we attended to the food supply, but there is far more money to be made by raising oil palms and rapeseed and maize and soya and sugar cane in ever-bigger monocultures as raw materials for industrial foods than there is in developing the science and practice of agroecology. GMOs are being hyped to the skies, not least by professors of science who really should know better, although in truth (Part V) GMOs are the modern equivalent of snake-oil. So it is that science, which should be among the greatest assets of humankind, and indeed of the biosphere, in reality is among our greatest threats.
But this is what happens when power is handed over to corporates, which recognize no moral obligation except to maximize wealth, which in practice remains in the hands of the oligarchy and its immediate supporters. So it is too that power drifts inexorably not to those whom we might consider to be wise but to those who are prepared to play the game. Most pernicious of all is that the players in the oligarchic feedback loop are not in general evil. Some seem to be, by any reasonable standards, but the great majority are not. They are simply following the path laid out for them; supporting elected government, pursuing a career in academe, and/or trying to earn a living by working for big commercial companies that have the wherewithal to pay a decent salary. How can anyone be blamed for that? The outcome is very obviously bad – so bad, that all the world is now in danger. But it isn’t people who are to blame – or at least, no identifiable individual. It’s logistics. In a nutshell, once the feedback loop is in place, money goes inexorably to money, and power goes inexorably to power.
Somehow or other, sooner or later, if we want to reintroduce the vital elements of common sense and common morality, we have to break the feedback loop. But we are up against game theory. Game theory is a logistic law. It doesn’t quite have the power of physical law, like the law of gravity. It can in theory be overcome, but only if we promote dovishness with the energy of hawks – or, like Gandhi, are very clever indeed.
4: The particular problem of neoliberalism
Rule by oligarchy is innately undesirable, but the meme of neoliberalism, which has swept the world, makes it more dangerous than ever. For as already intimated (and as further discussed in IV.2) neoliberals make a virtue of not espousing any particular moral principles. Arch-neolib Gordon Gecko in Wall Street did not in fact say that compassion is for wimps (or humility, or concern for the biosphere) but that is his gist.
As argued above, we cannot hope to create a world that is good for everyone unless that is our express intent; and concern for humanity and for other species is a matter of morality (though also of enlightened self-interest). We cannot seriously hope to create a tolerable world, still less a convivial one, if we write morality out of the act before we even begin. (More of this in VI.2.) Neoliberalism may be seen as an attempt to replace human judgement with an algorithm, a sure-fire all-purpose formula. The algorithm in turn is rooted in the neoclassical economic dogma which says that happiness is our aim and money makes us happy and more money makes us happier. This, as common sense and common observation and many a formal study have shown, just isn’t so. But the dogma is convenient to those who have power, and those who have the most power promote the ideas that may seem to justify their status.
The neoliberal agenda is foul and destructive and is failing, and the more we persist with it the more we will delay any hope of recovery; and the more we delay, the worse our position will become. Despite what Mrs Thatcher told the world 35 years ago, there is an alternative – in fact there are several. What’s vital is to restore the moral core – which neoliberalism, as a matter of strategy and of dogma, has extirpated. Morality must lead, and especially compassion. The prime task for humanity is to devise an economy that accords with the principle of compassion, and governance that will support that economy. It is unfortunately the case that the urge for compassion and the urge for power do not sit well together. Indeed, to a large extent they are opposed. So, on the whole, while bullies lead, the prophets stay on the sidelines.
5: The pseudo-science of meta-darwinism
For some years I was an outlier at the London School of Economics, in a group devoted to the ideas of Charles Darwin and all that has followed from them. It was a privileged position and I met many excellent people, some of whom have become lifelong friends. I also, though, encountered some dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals, who explained at length that neoliberalism is rooted in Darwinism and therefore is rooted in the science of evolution and therefore has a kind of rock-solid validity that cannot be denied. Neoliberalism in essence is “natural”, they argued, and therefore is OK. These “Darwinian” economists gave lectures to businesspeople, who paid large fees. But their thesis is the most terrible nonsense. As science it is bad (and an insult to Darwin) and as moral philosophy even worse.
Darwin, in The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection of 1859, first established more firmly than ever before the idea that evolution is a fact – that the creatures we see around us did not simply arise in their present form at God’s command, and neither did they put themselves together spontaneously, but descended instead from earlier creatures, all the way back to the very first creature on Earth. Over time the descendants of the primordial ancestors changed somewhat (“descent with modification”, said Darwin). Overall they became more various, and each separate lineage became better and better adapted to the conditions. The mechanism that led to better and better adaptation was what Darwin called “natural selection”, and it had a wonderful inevitability about it. Crucially, the offspring of any one set of parents are varied (no two kittens in a litter are quite the same) and some inevitably will be more suited to the prevailing conditions than others. The ones that are best adapted will be more likely to survive and they give rise to more offspring that resemble themselves (for “like begets like”). But those offspring too will vary somewhat and so they too are weeded – and so, as the generations pass, the descendants on the whole become more and more well suited to their conditions. This process, said Darwin, is very like what’s practised by breeders of crops and livestock: from each generation they select the most likely individuals as breeding stock. This is “artificial selection”. So what happens in nature is “natural selection”. In the 1860s the philosopher Herbert Spencer summarized natural selection as “survival of the fittest”, where “fittest” means “most suited”, as in “fit for purpose”; and Darwin later adopted the expression. This has proved a little unfortunate though because the word “fit” these days is equated with “muscular” and “tough”, which gives the impression that the most successful creatures will be the most athletic, especially if they are also aggressive and highly competitive. This clearly is not true, and surely is not what Darwin (or Spencer) intended. Darwin’s own description of the whole process, “descent with modification”, soon became better known as “evolution”.
There were a few flaws in the grand theory, however – of which two in particular are pertinent here. As Darwin himself was at pains to point out, natural selection is surely not the only mechanism that shapes the course of evolution. Darwin himself in the 1970s described the mechanism of “sexual selection” to explain for example the peacock’s tail – which seems to make its possessor less fit; less able to avoid the attentions of passing tigers, say, who may prowl the same woods. Others have stressed the often overwhelming role of time and chance. Entire populations are wiped out by volcanoes, for example, no matter how well adapted they may have been to the status quo ante.
Much more important here is Darwin’s attitude to competition. He read Malthus – what intellectual did not in those days? – and he had seen for himself at home and abroad the misery of much of humankind of the kind that Malthus had predicted. He saw too that Malthus’s core idea – that we humans will inevitably out-breed our resources – must apply to all living creatures. Unless restrained, lineages of creatures would increase exponentially and must soon outstrip the capacity of their all-too finite surroundings. Inevitably then, the creatures in any one habitat at any one time must compete for resources – and the fight will be won by the “fittest”, the best adapted. In truth this seems to be a tautology, since “fitness” in practice must be judged retrospectively – what survives is assumed to be the fittest, virtually by definition. So “survival of the fittest” really means, “survival of those who are best at surviving”. This gives the idea a kind of Eastern quality (it sounds quite Zen), though it certainly does not, as some have suggested, make Darwin’s insight any less profound.
So far so good, but his debt to Malthus led Darwin to place far too much emphasis on competition. He argued in effect that without competition there would be no natural selection and creatures would not evolve at all. So (although this is not his example) there would be nothing in the world but primordial bacteria.
Here there are two more glitches. First, competition in the sense that is normally understood – a punch-up between two or more creatures of the same or different species – is not needed to drive evolutionary change. Many biologists have shown in different ways that lineages of creatures can change over time, and become better adapted as the generations pass, without any confrontation between them. After all, even without punch-ups, some individuals will always be better able to cope with the conditions than others, and on the whole the better adapted will leave more offspring, and this is all that is really needed.
Secondly, as Darwin himself was at pains to point out (though it puzzled him), creatures of all kinds tend to cooperate. They also, human and otherwise, often act in ways that may inconvenience or endanger themselves but are of benefit to others in their group. This, in practice if not necessarily in intent, is properly called altruism – and in nature it is common. Most obviously, mothers of many different species may put themselves at risk or even sacrifice their lives to save their children (and so too may fathers).
Nowadays biologists explain cooperation in nature, and natural altruism, in various ways, which commonly do not involve any reference to any woolly concepts like compassion. Whatever the details, the overwhelming fact emerges that in practice, the most universally useful survival tactic in nature is not directly to “compete”, or not at least in the crude sense of bashing rivals, but to cooperate.
In short, Darwin’s ideas properly construed would not lead us to conclude that nature is “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson had suggested in the 1830s, but the complete opposite: that nature as a whole is a giant exercise in collaboration. If it were not so, after all, then the natural world as a whole would fall apart. There would be no body cells, like ours, which arose as coalitions of ancient micro-organisms; and no multicellular bodies, like ours, which are collectives of cells operating in harmony. In fact there would be no ecosystems, certainly no Gaia, and indeed no universe. In short: competition is an undeniable fact of life. But cooperation is, and must be, the norm.
Here we fall foul of game theory, and more particularly of the “hawks and doves” idea. This tells us that although most people are likely to be peace-loving “doves”, preferring to cooperate and treat each other with respect, there will always be some ultra-aggressive “hawks” who take what they want and bash anyone who gets in the way. The theory tells us that an all-hawk society is bound to collapse because its members spend too much time fighting, so it is ultimately self-destructive. An all-dove society could in theory last forever, with everyone doing well – but in practice all-dove societies are not stable because they are always likely to be invaded by hawks. In the end societies always wind up with a somewhat uneasy balance. Doves are in the majority – meaning that most people are nice – but there is always a minority of hawks, happy to prey on the rest. In the long term, cooperation is undoubtedly best but in the short term it can pay to be competitive, and indeed to put the boot in. So although most people know that dovishness is best, and although most people prefer to be dovish, all societies tend to be dominated by hawks. In short, though most people are nice, nasty people get to be in charge. Neither is it necessary, for those who want to get to the top – or near to the top – to be intelligent or well-informed. Indeed such qualities can get in the way. The main requirement is to be ambitious and “loyal” – to be willing to do the bidding of the number one honcho, without thinking too much. So the world is all too likely to be ruled by the unscrupulous and the unquestioning. Gangsters and idiots in fact. This isn’t universally true, thank goodness, but no-one who has lived through the past half century can doubt that it is true most of the time. The world is dominated by the more aggressive wing of the American military – a tiny minority, constantly lampooned, but ultimately all-powerful, spending trillions of dollars of other people’s money and, in the name of peace and democracy, keeping the world constantly on edge.
The neoliberal economy that now dominates the world is very obviously the economy of the hawks. It is rooted in the crudest possible interpretation of Darwin’s (and Spencer’s) ideas – the one which says that the toughest and most self-interested must triumph, and that this is good, partly because it is nature’s way and so can’t be bad, and partly because, over time, it leads to better and better adaptation, which may be construed as “progress”. Neoliberalism is also inveterately materialist – rooted in the Enlightenment, “neoclassical” economic idea which says that human beings invariably seek happiness (because that is “rational”) and that we are made happy by acquisition. The richer we are, apparently, the happier we are. So the neoliberals perceive the economy – and indeed all life – as an all-against-all competition to achieve personal wealth and status. The medium for this competition, the universal bear-pit, is “the market”. Producers and traders with things to sell compete in the market for the attention of “consumers” who want to buy. Of course, since the consumers are “rational”, they will (the theory has it) buy only what they really want so the traders and producers can survive only by supplying what people want. This, surely, is democracy – because the people as a whole are the consumers, so the people as a whole decide what producers actually produce. The people decide, the story goes, what factories are built, and what houses, and how we farm, and all the rest. What could be more democratic than that? Furthermore, since in the Enlightenment view “man is the measure of all things” what people want can be equated with what is good. What other criteria can there be? Hence, in the minds of the neoliberals, morality itself can safely be left to the market. What is good is what people will pay for (barring a few taboos, like child pornography). The spending habits of people at large are a far more reliable guide, so the true neoliberal believes, than any moral edict issued from outsiders, whether by governments or clerics (although this does not stop neoliberals claiming to be Christians, and some may certainly be ardent churchgoers). Indeed, neoliberals make a virtue of not imposing any extraneous moral principles (see IV.2). The market itself, they feel, is the only truly reliable moral arbiter. What is good is what people will pay for.
Finally, those neoliberals who care to consider such matters at all argue that because neoliberalism is rooted in “Darwinian” premises, and because Darwin described nature so well, and because the market is geared to our inbuilt human psychology – our desire for happiness, achieved through acquisition – therefore the neoliberal economy is “natural”, and therefore is OK. The neolibs of religious persuasion can argue after all that God made nature and God can’t be wrong. Under such a tight argument as this we might legitimately write, like an ancient geometer, QED. This is what the world’s most powerful governments seem to have done.
All this to be fair is just a precis of the neoliberal apologia but it conveys the gist nonetheless – and it is the most ghastly nonsense. Societies cannot operate convivially unless they are rooted in moral principle (compassion), and moral principles need to be developed with hearts and minds (see Part VI) and made clear. Most societies left to themselves do evolve a functional morality over time but history shows that many do not, or are thrown off-course, and come to grief, and we cannot leave this to chance – or to the market. The moral principles have to be spelled out. A proper analysis of Darwin reveals that nature is not predominantly competitive. Competition in the form of punch-ups is more conspicuous, the stuff of headlines, but cooperation at all levels is what holds the whole thing together. The Darwinian prediction is not that we would “naturally” be at each other’s throats but we would seek, above all, to collaborate. Besides, even if it were true that we and other creatures are “naturally” competitive, this would not make it good. As David Hume pointed out (and others too) natural and good are not logically related.
Neoliberalism, then, is not so much “Darwinian” as meta-darwinian, where “meta” means “beyond”: Darwin’s ideas stretched well beyond what he intended and into the realms of nonsense. But meta-darwinism seems to provide a “scientific” excuse for neoliberalism and neoliberalism makes rich and powerful people even richer and stronger, and powerful people use their power (with the help of compliant intellectuals) to influence the way the world thinks. In truth, the meme of meta-darwinian neoliberalism is the most deadly infection of our age. It has killed far more people than ebola or even malaria, and surely will kill far more of us, and our fellow creatures, unless we wake soon from the madness.
6: A false idea of Progress
There have been many societies in the history of the world who felt that the world they had been born into, and inherited, was as it should be and was destined to be. Many took it more or less to be self-evident that the world had been made by some higher power (notably, in the Abrahamic religions, by God) and that to change the world more than minimally, was an offence against the Creator: a blasphemy. It was OK to put up buildings – but not for self-aggrandisement. I was told in New Zealand that the Maoris did not intend their magnificent timber community buildings to last forever. They expected them, sooner or later, to return to the ground. Partly, presumably, this was pragmatic. It is hard keep the termites and fungi at bay forever in a wet, warm climate. But this was also, I was given to understand, a matter of policy. Human beings were not meant to alter, forever, what the gods had bequeathed. It was our task in life to keep the world intact, as it had always been. In reality, of course, the Maoris were immensely destructive, for instance wiping out the entire suite of moas (about 15 species) and the mighty Haast’s eagle which preyed upon them, in the 700 years or so before the Europeans arrived and stepped up the destruction. Nonetheless, the Maoris aimed to be conservative; and many other groups, some still extant, have shown that it is possible to live for thousands or even tens of thousands of years on the same island or continent while still keeping the biosphere at least in reasonably good heart, provided that is the intention.
But although societies including Britain have never been keener on conservation and “heritage”, that is not, today, the prevailing mood. Humanity these days is expected to make its mark upon the world; in effect to treat the pristine Earth and its non-human (or even its human) inhabitants as raw material and wild nature as a whole as “natural resources”, to be turned into some artefact or – ideally – into some commodity. A strong line of thought, particularly in Christianity, sees this as “finishing God’s works”. To be sure, buildings these days are commonly meant to have only a limited life – but this is purely for commercial reasons. It is often more profitable to knock down the old and start afresh than it is to make do and mend. No-one in authority feels that it is in any sense blasphemous to make permanent alteration. Rather the opposite. Taking the world by the scruff of the neck and moulding it to our own will is commonly presented to us as “Man’s destiny”. (The word “Man” is always invoked for portentous purposes.)
Of course, at this late hour, and even on theological grounds, it would be absurd to suggest that we really ought to do as many of the ancients did, and try simply to keep the world pristine. For one thing this isn’t an option; and for another, some of the changes we have made to the world have been good for humanity, taken all in all, both individually and collectively; and it is even possible, up to a point, to increase the diversity of species, at least here and there. In short, what is commonly called “civilization” could and should be more good than bad, in many obvious ways, and it should at least be possible to develop very fine civilizations without wrecking the rest, if that is what we set out to do. If we succeeded, then this really could be called “progress”. Human beings would have more options than in the wild and a greater chance of personal fulfilment; the world could be made more comfortable for many more people – perhaps 100 or 1000 times more than could reasonably subsist in a state of nature; and our fellow species might if anything be more secure.
In the modern world, though, “progress” is equated simply with change. If forests are destroyed or societies shattered or languages lost we tend to say – or many people do – “Ah well. That’s progress.”
But it is worth asking (and never to stop asking) that progress really is and what it is not. Human fulfilment is progress. Gregor Mendel would have died a serf if local benefactors hadn’t seen his talents and sent him to school and hence to university, and if he hadn’t then gone on to St Thomas’s Monastery in Brno where he did the experiments that founded modern genetics. That is progress of various kinds. Safe obstetrics is progress. Painless dentistry is progress. The telephone is progress and IT in general ought to be progress. The liberation of women is progress. The criminalization of slavery is progress. Laws to prevent cruelty to animals are progress.
To a very large extent these advances are the fruits of civilization, and might lead us therefore to conclude that civilization per se is a good thing, and that traditional ways of life, based on the tribe and the village and largely sustained by hunting and gathering, is “primitive”, a term used pejoratively to mean both inferior and bad.
But we should not forget that the things that really matter in life, including modern morality and its metaphysical underpinning – the ideas of compassion and humility and the sanctity of nature, reinforced by a sense of transcendence – all derive from our “primitive” tribal ancestors. So too does our basic knowledge of natural history. So too the roots of all the crafts – spinning and weaving, masonry, metallurgy, carpentry and all the rest – in which all modern technologies are rooted. Above all, though modern agricultural scientists are wont to congratulate themselves on their brilliance, it is worth reflecting that all the really big problems of agriculture were largely solved thousands of years before “science” ever came on the scene. It really was both difficult and dangerous to turn wild plants and animals into manageable crops and livestock, and to develop the arts of cultivation and husbandry. But our “primitive” ancestors managed it. Modern agricultural science, including GM and all the rest, is the gilt on the gingerbread.
We should also ask more carefully than we tend to do what civilization and “progress” in practice amount to. To a large extent they simply mean organization – an exercise in bureaucratization. Bureaucracies tend to operate from the top down – which means that in general we are all more controlled, notably by governments (including those that claim to be hands-off) and corporates. Of course, especially in the world of neoliberalism, increase in material wealth and in particular of measurable money is taken to be progress even if the means of producing the wealth are terminally destructive, and the wealth once produced stays in the hands of a minority and most people are no better or even worse off. Meanwhile, the collateral damage is enormous: to cultural variety; commonly to personal security and peace of mind; and to the biosphere and the fabric of the Earth.
Overall, alas, in reality, “civilization” has largely become an exercise in dehumanization. Machines which were meant to make our lives easier (were they not?) have become bigger and bigger and smarter to the point where humanity itself now seems redundant. Jean-Jacques Rousseau drew attention to this problem in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. So too did the much-misunderstood Luddites. John Ruskin, William Morris, Tolstoy, all chimed in. All of them greatly influenced Gandhi; and in more recent decades, Ivan Illich and E F Schumacher have taken up the cause. Nowadays even those professions that seem obviously to demand human input, like medicine and teaching, are computerized and formularized – and, perhaps, in both cases, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The time may come – is coming – when “teachers” will be required simply to point their pupils at the appropriate computer programmes. This has advantages (everyone makes huge use of the web these days) but has obvious drawbacks too. Most perniciously, human judgement is being replaced by algorithms – once-for-all formulae that solve all problems without further thought. Neoliberalism itself is an algorithm. Once an algorithm is locked into the psyche and in to the bureaucracy it tends to become fixed for all time – just as the idea that we must all be ruled by “the market” seems to have become fixed in governments’ minds. Ideas thus “set in stone” are the opposite of progress; worse than the religious dogmas which modern “progressives” are at pains to disdain.
But governments like the ones that now dominate seem to take it to be self-evident that the changes in the modern world, both good and obviously disastrous, all represent “progress”; and in particular take it to be self-evident that increase in wealth, as measured by appropriately creative accountancy, should be the principal criterion of progress, and the goal of all our endeavours.
Progress must, however, be judged by the criteria of ecology and morality, incorporating ideas of social justice and personal fulfilment. The present idea of progress just won’t do.
7: Politicians, scientists, and intellectuals in general are badly educated
There are gaps in the education of almost all of us, which don’t matter much most of the time but can be very important in people in positions of power. Notably, modern neoliberals seem to know remarkably little history. They do not seem to know that “free market” economies have been essayed here and there for hundreds of years at least, and been found wanting. The Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s exposed as starkly and horribly as may be imagined the shortcomings of the “free market”. There were barns stuffed with oats as the people starved – but the oats were destined for English horses, and nothing was allowed to interfere with trade. But 170 years or so later, Sir John Beddington’s 2011 government report on The Future of Food and Farming told us that “Food security is best served by fair and fully functioning markets” and “it is important to avoid the introduction of export bans at time of food stress” and, for good measure, in case anyone should step out of line, “Greater powers need to be given to international institutions to prevent trade restrictions at times of crisis.” Those who don’t go along with the neoliberal dogma should, apparently, be beaten into shape, just as the Inquisition dealt with religious heretics. Plus ca change.
The lack of scientific nous in high places is even more damaging. Thus the deniers of climate change seem to suffer above all from incredulity. They simply cannot believe that the climate of their particular corner of Hampstead could ever be other than mild, with the occasional cold snap and heatwave. One former newspaper editor with significant influence in government circles is wont to tell us that he welcomes global warming so he’ll be able to grow juicier grapes on his balcony. Even a brief exposure to the earth sciences would surely dent such complacency. Not long ago by geological standards most of Britain was under ice, often up to half a mile thick; and not long before that there were crocodiles in Trafalgar Square (and probably in Hampstead too if the truth were known). Even within the span of fully modern Homo sapiens almost everywhere on Earth has at times been frozen solid and at other times been tropical swamp. It really doesn’t take much to flip from one to the other. Present climate predictions could conceivably be wrong (though only just conceivably) but for anyone with any inkling of the deep past they are all too believable; and grapes on North London balconies are not really the point.
More broadly, too, those with no inkling of earth sciences have no proper sense of time. For the all-powerful people “trained” in economics, five years is the absolute limit of predictability (fingers crossed) and 30 years at most is the long term. But to geologists and indeed to biologists a thousand years may be a twinkling. The human species could and should still be here in a million years’ time, and then some, and although we must of course address the here and now we must think also of what the long term really means. If we don’t get the here and now right, then there will be no long term. Everything we do now will resonate for the rest of time. Extinction is forever, as the slogan has it. Similarly, politicians and others in authority are now wont to speak of “diversity”, but those with no background in biology have no idea what it really means – three great “domains” with a dozen or so “kingdoms” that between them may well include 8 million or so species, most of them still unknown, all interacting in many thousands of ecosystems (see I.4). To wipe all that out as we are doing now is hubris indeed, not to say sin, and of course is highly dangerous – but who in positions of power gives it serious thought? Extraordinarily, too, no-one in high places in the British government knows anything worthwhile about agriculture. Even more extraordinarily, no-one in positions of influence in Britain seems to think that matters.
Yet there’s worse. Very few people in government circles – even that minority who have science degrees – have any grasp of the philosophy of science. Indeed, “practical” scientists commonly have little or no regard for philosophy of any kind. But it’s the philosophy of science that tells us what science really is, and what it is not, and what it can do, and what it cannot. In high places there seems to be little or no grasp of this. So science in governments like ours is seen as a commodity, like everything else. Universities have become supermarkets, selling packages of approved ideas. Science is taken to mean high tech, and the job of high tech is to churn out gizmos to be sold on the world market to the highest bidders. Grandiosely but vacuously, governments these days are wont to boast of their “science-led policies” – which means, in reality, policies led by technology that is led by the market. Yet there lurks within those governments the belief that high tech can solve all our problems – dig us out of any hole we dig ourselves into; and behind that belief is a faith in the power of science that is as profound as any isolated islanders’ faith in their idols. Science, the feeling is, will lead us to omniscience, and the high technologies that emanate from it will lead to omnipotence. This is what some people began to believe in the 18th century and it just isn’t so. More of all this in Part V.
Yet at the same time, for all their ostensible dedication to “evidence”, governments like Britain’s habitually fail to make good use of science even when it could be truly helpful. Thus as Secretary of State for Education and Science between 1970 and 1974, Mrs Thatcher approved more comprehensive schools than anyone before or since, but despite her much-vaunted science degree she apparently failed to do so in ways that would enable anyone to monitor the outcomes. Notably, there seem to have been no controls. We can at best compare before and after in any particular area, with all the confounding variables, mostly unquantified. Comprehensives are one of the greatest social experiments of all times but after 60 years or so it’s still hard or impossible to tell whether and to what extent they work, and in what circumstances. (Most thinking people seem to think that they are socially good, but need a lot more investment and intention to detail. This is common sense. In truth it is hard to improve on common sense but a little hard data would be useful nonetheless.)
Politicians with no scientific background who develop an interest in science late in life are often the most gung-ho of all, as is the way with late converts. Thus barrister Dick (Lord) Taverne (Balliol) founded “Sense about Science” in 2002 and is a vocal (and entirely uncritical) advocate of GMOs. So too was lawyer Tony Blair (St John’s). In high circles it seems to be taken for granted that neonicotinoid pesticides and glyphosate herbicide are essential to ensure our food supply and are perfectly safe. The evidence looked at coolly of course shows no such thing but these technologies are profitable, and this trumps all caveats. Because they are high-tech, too, they represent “progress”, and “modern” governments do like to seem progressive. Wide-eyed faith in the power of science to tell us all there is to know, and of high tech to solve all our problems, has been called “scientism”.
Overall, modern education, particularly perhaps in Britain, is too specialized. Like sheep and goats, children in their early teens are typically ushered either towards science or towards “the humanities”. Most British schools teach “religious studies” or some such but very few recognize the discipline of metaphysics, or even the word, although in practice the ideas that emerge from it are at the core of all religions and indeed underpin all thought. The word “vocation” has been hijacked. Even up to the 1960s when I was at university it still meant “calling” – towards some noble pursuit such as medicine, or teaching, or the Church. As townies we were not introduced to farming but that should have been included too. Now “vocational training” means learning the “skill sets” needed to get a job with Monsanto or HSBC, whence to progress to “the top”. Most dangerously of all, perhaps, politicians seem to be “trained” more or less specifically to be career politicians. They learn the machinations of government and how in general to “play the game” and become a “safe pair of hands” in the eyes of their chosen political party, but they do not seem ever to ask the fundamental questions (what is right, what is necessary, and what is possible) and are not equipped to think seriously about them even if they did. These days at least there is very little wisdom in high places.
In truth, we need a new kind of education: one that might properly be called “holistic”. “Holistic” does not mean merely that we should look at all aspects of life from every point of view, which would merely be kaleidoscopic; but that we should look at every point of view from every other point of view. Thus politics must be seen in the light of science, morality, and metaphysics and not be seen simply as a matter of expediency – of power and money.
This of course is what we are trying to do in this College: specifically to look at food and farming from every point of view; but more broadly, to look at each point of view in the light of all the others.
What kind of government do we really need?
First we should ask – do we need government at all? Nothing should be taken for granted if we truly intend to get to the bottom of things and build the Renaissance on a sound footing. One answer is that all bona fide societies including those of ants require some form of governance – some kind of structure imposing some kind of coherence – but that does not necessarily imply that they need a discrete body of individuals, elected or otherwise, to form a formal “government”. The human body itself, for example, can be seen as a vast society of collaborating cells, some at least of which could, in the right circumstances, live independent lives. Biologists and philosophers at one time took it to be obvious that the body must be ruled by some central mastermind – the brain; the pituitary gland; take your pick – in an orderly and fairly simple hierarchy. Now this just doesn’t seem to be so. There are various hierarchies, but there is no single master. The brain itself is only part of the whole nervous system, and the nervous system is constantly assailed by, and must respond to, instant calls from the whole of the rest of the body. Within the nervous system, there is no simple hierarchy with some master decision-maker at the top, like the Wizard of Oz. Instead, groups of neurones combine ad hoc to deal with particular problems and then disassemble and recombine to focus on other problems – the system known as “the neural net”. Groups of horses and probably many other animals adopt the same kind of model: one particular mare will lead when they need to find food, and another will take over when the priority is to escape from wolves. Literally, it’s horses for courses. Many a human committee operates the same kind of system. Some academics in some departments take it in turns to be professor. African buffalo decide where to go next in their search for grazing by a form of democracy. They take it in turns to stand up and point which way they think the herd ought to go and the direction favoured by the largest number is the one they all follow. And so on. The standard political model – a group of privileged individuals in a portentous building telling the rest of us what to do – is taken so much for granted that we are lured into thinking it is “natural”. But there don’t seem to be many precedents in nature. Some variation on a theme of neural net seems to be much more common and clearly works very well.
In practice, though, for all kinds of reasons, at least until we or our descendants think of something better, all countries seem to find themselves stuck with some kind of formal government which, if not exactly permanent, occupies the top table at least for several years at a stretch – so we ought to lay down a few ground rules: ask what we want our governing body to do, and how we want it to behave, and how much power it should have. To kick things off, here is a suggested shortlist of basic principles:
1: The government should be on our side
This seems obvious – but is it always so, even in a country like Britain which claims so vehemently to be democratic, and sends young men and women to war in the name of democracy? It doesn’t always seem so. Britain’s history at least since the Norman Conquest has been one of staggering inequality, largely masterminded by governments, including parliamentary governments. The burden of austerity that of late has afflicted Britain has fallen far more heavily on some than on others. Indeed, to misquote St Mark (4:25): “To those that had, has been given; and from those that had not has been taken away, even that which they had.”
Over the past 40 years, since neoliberalism has held sway, successive British governments drawn from all the mainstream have singularly failed to deliver justice, and as St Augustine observed 1600 years or so ago: “Without justice, what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms?”
Some may feel that it was merely childish to suggest at the outset that the world is ruled by gangsters. But St Augustine seems to agree.
All in all, the last few British governments, like most governments in the past and in the world at large, have tended to behave as if they were our bosses. Yet as many a sage has observed these past few thousand years (and as would-be politicians tend to assure us at election time) the job at least of elected governments is to serve us. Jesus put the matter very strongly (again according to St Mark, 10:42–44): “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”
Specifically, over the past 40 years of neoliberalism, successive British governments seem primarily to have been on the side of their fellow oligarchs, the corporates and banks, and what is good for corporates and banks is not necessarily good for the rest of us, and certainly not for the biosphere. It isn’t enough simply to maximize and concentrate wealth and hope for the best. In fact the present corporate-oriented modus operandi is leading us to perdition. So it is that British governments of recent times of all parties (and most governments for most of the time before that) have not met even the first, most obvious requirement. They have not, convincingly, been on our side.
2: Governments must balance the “rights” of individuals and society
Not everyone agrees with this. Some extreme totalitarian governments both of the Left and Right have seen societies as anthills, and sought to ensure that everyone (apart from those of the government elite) devotes their whole lives to the wellbeing of the whole society. The individual in the most extreme cases has counted for nothing. Left-wing society-oriented or state-oriented governments like those of Stalin or Mao have often called themselves “socialist” or indeed “Marxist” and thus got both a bad name (which prompted “New Labour” under Tony Blair to consign the word “socialist” to its Index Expurgatorius). Marx himself was an ardent democrat – and said towards the end of his life, as his ideas were already being perverted, that he didn’t know what he should call himself politically but he certainly wasn’t a “Marxist”.
Be that as it may, one of the better legacies of the European Enlightenment has been properly to acknowledge the wellbeing and rights of individuals (although “rights” is a tricky concept, which we will come back to in IV.3). The grand goal is to create convivial societies, and we surely cannot consider any society to be convivial unless its individual members feel personally fulfilled. Ideally, individuals would achieve fulfilment largely by contributing to society, like members of a family, and serve their fellow citizens willingly. Then the needs and aspirations of individuals and those of their societies would be in harmony.
Clearly, though, there can be conflicts of interest. Thus there can be no sustained programme of public works without taxation and some, for all kinds of reasons, resent paying taxes even when they can easily afford to do so. The neoliberal economy encourages this. Mrs Thatcher seemed to hate spending money, although it was our money, for the general good, or to help individual citizens. She spoke of “the nanny state”. But when the publicly funded safety nets are removed, individuals are obliged simply to “look after number one”. This is not the stuff of conviviality.
In short: over-emphasis on the rights of society at the expense of individuals is counter-productive – for what is society for, if the people who belong to it are of no account? But over-emphasis on the “rights” of individuals to do their own thing and to hell with the rest is again the philosophy of the gangster. If conviviality is our aim, it will not do; and if conviviality is not our aim, then there is not much hope for the world.
3: Top down or bottom up, and the absolute importance of democracy
Clearly, societies can be led by an elite, which is the “top-down” approach; or, in various kinds of ways, by the people as a whole or by combinations of such, which is the “bottom-up” approach. The top-down approach is favoured by the “right wing”, while those who favour bottom-up are called “left-wing”. Which is more likely to provide conviviality?
All is not simple. Some elites, ruling from above, have been truly vile. The names of Franco, Batista, and Pinochet are among the many who come to mind. But other top-downers have been benign: true moralists. Some British Tories, though right wing more or less by definition, care or cared about their people, including the well-intentioned though ultimately unfortunate Neville Chamberlain, the equally unfortunate Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and Edward Heath. In the 1950s Prime Minister Macmillan built 300,000 council houses per year. Macmillan and Heath were among Thatcher’s fiercest critics when she first introduced neoliberalism, rightly foreseeing that it would damage society as a whole.
On the other hand, some regimes that have called themselves “socialist” have in practice been elites and some have been anything but benign. In the end, indeed, what matters most is not the stated ideology but the underlying morality. De facto benefactors come in many political hues and foul bullies have between them embraced almost the whole political spectrum.
Yet here there is a further, obvious caveat. Morality is necessary (the sine qua non) but not sufficient. Competence matters too. It seems sensible to entrust government to the most competent people who thus are singled out as special – and it is all too easy for the special ones to see themselves as an elite, and begin to feel that they have a right to be in charge (in the spirit of “meritocracy”) and to forget that whatever their outstanding qualities they should still see themselves as servants. A great many people in high places in all walks of life and from all the major political parties have indeed been true public servants. But many have not. Again, the prevailing neoliberal economy is particularly pernicious. It encourages us all to be competitive and to use our special skills whatever they may be simply to “get ahead”. Some professions, like teaching and medicine, still maintain an overall ethos of public service. So too do many farmers. But in the present economy where everyone is encouraged and indeed obliged to maximize wealth, this becomes harder and harder.
In all politics the economy is key. Some economic systems and devices are designed specifically to promote conviviality, including those of social enterprise, community ownership, and ethical investment – all under the heading of “economic democracy” (see IV.2). But neoliberalism, ultra-competitive and geared to material gain, seems bound to lead us in the opposite direction. But then, Mrs Thatcher infamously declared that “there is no such thing as society” and Milton Friedman, one of the fathers of neoliberalism, acknowledged that the free market cannot deliver social justice.
However we look at things, common sense and common experience lead us to favour democracy. As a passing stranger comments in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, if you are going to make mistakes, it is better to make your own mistakes. In a more positive vein: democracies ought to make as much use as possible of the opinions and expertise of as many people as possible, and since people on the whole are both intelligent and benign, common sense suggests that decisions reached democratically are at least as likely to be as sensible and good as those delivered from above. There isn’t room here to argue the point (it would make a good debate, to run and run) but history suggests that this is so.
Clearly, though, in any group larger than a netball team – and even in a netball team – it is hard to ensure that everyone has an equal say. Many people, too, don’t really want to have a say. They are content to follow the trend – which, after all, tends to be far less trouble. So all societies that claim to be democratic are obliged in practice to make some kind of compromise – and by doing so they often cease to be democracies in any convincing sense. Britain’s democratic status seems highly dubious. At the time of writing, the Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has enormous power, yet she was never elected, and her government has a parliamentary majority even though, at the last general election in 2015, her party won only 21% of the available vote. Many would argue despite this that Britain is a democracy simply because its governments are elected, albeit often in highly unsatisfactory ways (but then, no electoral system is perfect). However, it has often been suggested, not least by Sir Karl Popper, that the true test of democracy is not whether the government is elected but whether it can be got rid of if it fails to deliver. In truth this principle can be dated at least from the 17th century and is invoked in the third paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, when the thirteen colonies dispensed with the services of George III: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
Britain’s present government, we are told, is ensconced until 2020, come what may.
Societies that are simply too big to run along convincingly democratic lines can be split into smaller units that can be run democratically, and one approach to this was suggested by the Roman Catholic Church in the 19th century – the principle of subsidiarity. This says that all affairs of the church should be handled by the smallest and lowest competent authority, and that the central church authorities should have a “subsidiary” role – handling only those matters that the lower ranks could not. The EU has similarly adopted this principle.
Or then again, the powers of government may be divided among smaller, expert units who really care about the matter in hand, answerable to government (and by implication to society at large) but otherwise with a free hand to do what’s best. Such units have been called quangos – “quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations”. In Britain, the NHS, education – and certainly food and agriculture! – would surely be better run and more secure in the hands of well set-up quangos than they are now, subject to political ideologies and, to a large extent, to the ideologies and whims of ministers who often (particularly in the case of agriculture) know and care next to nothing about the subject in hand. However, many a quango has been set up in Britain over the past few decades and few have proved satisfactory. In large part, this surely was because the governments retained the right to appoint the quangos’ senior players, which immediately compromised their status. In practice, too, quangos tended to be populated by the great and the good or – worse – by the spouses of the great and the good, in search of a little kudos and pin-money. The kind of quangos we really need would be run by people who really understand the subject in hand, and care about it, and are unimpeachably honest, and are representative of the people as a whole. Thus an agricultural quango, with real powers to direct farming policy, would of course include farmers – and especially small farmers of the kind who understand the principles of agroecology and food sovereignty; and scientists of the kind who are not promoting the cause of corporates; and cooks; and moralists. In this spirit, when he was with the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Michel Pimbert insisted that agricultural research in Third World countries must be planned in close collaboration with the local farmers and the local people. The IIED was not a quango, but Professor Pimbert’s initiative illustrates the necessary principle.
Recent British governments have indeed handed over much of their power and control – but not to quangos. Instead they have been more and more eager to “contract out” what ought to be their areas of responsibility to corporates. True, governmental bodies at all levels are commonly obliged to “consult” local people before pressing ahead with their various schemes, but this in practice is commonly done post hoc, after the deal is virtually done. In Third World countries innovations that transform everybody’s lives and obliterate entire cultures and landscapes are introduced without a by-your-leave: traditional farming that could feed the people is replaced by plantations of GM soya and maize to feed European livestock or even simply to burn, as “biofuel”. This is what “science-led” policy commonly means. Often it is accompanied by land-grabbing. But still it’s called “progress”.
Still, defenders of the corporate-led world like when pressed to pretend that they are behaving “democratically”. After all, corporate profits depend on the market which in turn relies on the choices of consumers – and that surely is democratic? Corporates are also beholden to their shareholders who to some extent can influence policy – and that too is democracy, is it not?
Overall, democracy is difficult, but it has to be persisted with. As Winston Churchill remarked: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
4: Governments must be green
We need to acknowledge that creating convivial societies, although that would be a huge advance on what we have now, is only half the task. We need too to ensure that the biosphere at large is flourishing. The biosphere cannot simply be dismissed as “the environment” and treated as an add-on. True concern for our fellow creatures (a matter of morality and of metaphysics) and the principles of ecology (a matter of science) must be at the heart of all government policy.
But although it is fashionable to claim to be “green”, just as it is customary to claim to be “democratic”, no modern government that I know of has ever taken the biosphere at large as seriously as is morally desirable and is so obviously necessary.
5: Governments must govern !!
The founding fathers of the US tell us in the second paragraph of the American Declaration of Independence that all men and women have been “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
They also took it to be self-evident that free enterprise was an essential component of the essential Liberty. Nonetheless, in the early days of the US, some years after the Declaration, they were at pains to limit the powers of the corporates. No commercial company, or group of companies, they felt, should be too powerful. For they acknowledged that the job of government – and the only way government could justify its position of privilege – was to ensure the wellbeing of the people, and they knew that unfettered commerce in general, and powerful commercial companies in particular, could in various ways threaten that wellbeing. Thus they sought to control the economy so as to liberate the people.
Nowadays it’s the other way round. British governments of the past 40 years, of all the major parties, have given as much freedom as they dare to corporates, who seem more and more to be a law unto themselves and are now (although of course the expression is more often applied to banks) deemed too big to fail. At the same time people at large have been obliged to adjust their lives to the corporate-run market economy. Thus modern governments interfere with our lives at every turn but they do not, in the most important matter, actually govern.
Certainly the power of central government needs to be more widely spread. But in the end the buck stops with government and unless government is prepared to take control when it really matters – and in particular to ensure that the overall economy operates for the general good – then it should not be in charge. Recent governments have continued to occupy some of the most prestigious real estate in Britain but in effect they have abdicated.
So what’s the answer to our opening question? What kind of government do we want?
Well, common sense, common morality, and history combine to tell us that government must be motivated by morality, and in particular by compassion, and a system that rejects all talk of morality as a matter of strategy, as neoliberalism does, is ruled out from the word go. Compassion must apply at all levels – to the individual; to all society; to humanity as a whole; and beyond humanity to the biosphere. Concern for society as a whole by definition implies some measure of socialism – that is what the word means. Concern for the biosphere means “green”. Democracy, however difficult, is vital.
So we finish up with a plea for some form of green, democratic socialism (or, as some would prefer to say, green social democracy).
That doesn’t seem too much to ask. At least for aspects of what is required there are many precedents. Yet we must ask: Do any existing political parties offer what is really needed?
Some come closer than others but the straight answer is “no”.
A fundamental flaw, it seems to me, is that no political party begins with the most basic questions: what is good, what is necessary, and what is possible. They all to some extent take the answers for granted and so, although they might well operate on the right lines, at least at times, their reasons for doing so are not sufficiently robust.
All politics must in the end be motivated by moral intent. All parties should see themselves, as Harold Wilson claimed to do, on a moral crusade. All should spell out what they mean by terms such as “fairness” and “social justice” that are apt to appear in their manifestos. Erstwhile right-wing Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne clearly felt that rich people must be rich because they had special merit, and that poor people were poor because they were lazy, and so they seemed to feel that the enormous economic inequality over which they presided was just. Towards the end of his incumbency David Cameron did use the word “compassion”, but in reality he showed very little of it; or not, at least, to those who had most need of it.
Yet morality does not translate straightforwardly into ideology. Left-wing ideology implies care for everyone and this seems innately compassionate, but some ostensibly left-wing regimes have been downright cruel. Those of the Right are not necessarily brute Darwinian. Some acknowledge the feudal, chivalric, essentially compassionate principle of noblesse oblige – that those in positions of privilege should use their power for the benefit of others.
No political party that I know of, of whatever hue – even the Greens – give as much attention to the biosphere as is clearly warranted on all grounds: moral, metaphysical, ecological. In particular, none puts enough emphasis on agriculture, which is central to all our concerns, the thing we absolutely have to get right. Secretaries of State these past 40 years have rarely had any knowledge of it, or appreciated its significance. Governments of all the main parties have been content to treat agriculture as “a business like any other”, fodder for the global market, and subject to the whims of bankers, landowners, and oil sheikhs.
In short, there is no political model out there that we can simply take from the shelf. Some (those that have embraced neoliberalism) need kicking into touch asap. All at least need shaking up.
How can we get from where we are to where we need to be?
The principle, as always, is that of Renaissance. Reform is necessary but not enough. Revolution is best avoided if possible because it is too damaging and no-one can tell where it will finish up (revolutions never end as intended). We have to rescue what we can of the status quo, adopt and adapt where possible – and analyse properly, from first principles. At the same time, and quickly, we need to put our best ideas into action. Gandhi put the matter beautifully, as ever: “Be the world you want to see.”
Grassroots movements of all kinds are key. In the vital, central fields of food and agriculture they include community buy-outs of land; and farms and markets set up and owned by communities. A huge amount is happening already, worldwide (as will be outlined in Part VII).
In this, it is important not to be modest. Many people who start new and agreeable enterprises are happy simply to find a niche within the market as it is. No-one can be blamed for this. We all have to make a living and not everyone has time or energy or inclination to try to change the whole world. Ideally though – and it’s possible – the small markets and farms and other such enterprises that are springing up would communicate more and more with one another, and cooperate, and form a network – able sooner rather than later to compete with and to replace the top-down corporates, first locally and then over the whole country. Thus they would use the mechanism of the marketplace to good advantage.
Land purchase has particular promise. Several or many community groups of many kinds in Britain and other countries are now combining to buy farmland (Part VII). Even at today’s ludicrous prices (around £25K per hectare), inflated by speculation in a free-for-all fill-your-boots market, the British people as a whole could buy all of Britain’s farmland for £8K per head; and since we wouldn’t need to buy it all (some is well managed already) £4–5K could be enough. That, spread over a lifetime, is trivial: the price of a five-year-old Skoda or a term at Oxford. Community ownership of all farmland would work wonders: remove the stranglehold of the world’s Mr Bigs; ensure that land could be used both for the good of humanity and for our fellow creatures, and not just for ponies and helicopters and the shooting of pheasants and grouse or endless arable monoculture or mega-dairies; and stabilize and soon reduce the cost of food (insofar as this is necessary when there is greater equality of income (see IV.2.2).
Then, to bring about some measure of coherence between the many and various grassroots movements, we need, first, to thrash out the underlying and unifying philosophy – which in the end must be the Perennial Philosophy; and, even more broadly, we really do need a new kind of education – not simply broad and “kaleidoscopic”, but truly holistic, as defined above. This College is intended to help on both fronts.
Specifically, we need to rescue agriculture (and other fields too) from the dead hand of inadequate government and the dogma of the “free” global market. We really do need a quasi-independent, democratically conceived but expert body in charge of it, shielded from the ideological swings of political parties and the quirks of the market. Exactly how we can achieve this is not at all obvious. Here, perhaps, is a role for conventional politics. One or other of the existing political parties might include this notion in its manifesto.
Finally, a nice twist. Through most of the 20th century it was intellectually fashionable to declare that religion is dead, well and truly debunked and replaced by science. But a lot happened too to dent this “scientistic” zeal (as will be discussed in Part V and is outlined in VI.1.1). Now, more and more people acknowledge that for all our science the world is ultimately mysterious, and this, plus an aversion to the all-prevailing materialism, has reawakened interest in metaphysics, which might be seen as the formal study of mystery and of non-material values. This implies a growing interest in religion, which includes the growing interest in “Interfaith” – an unpleasing name for a very significant movement that seeks to find the common ground that unites all religions: common ground that is in part moral and in part metaphysical. Science in its present guise, seen by some scientists and politicians as the only true source of knowledge and the saviour of the world, is becoming a threat to life on Earth. Science contained within a broad metaphysical context, not providing final answers but providing some insights into the world’s mystery, and helping to make life more agreeable and secure, might finally emerge as the blessing it is meant to be.
In short, holistic education must be hands-on and politically aware – and rooted in metaphysics.
Colin Tudge, Wolvercote, December 7 2016