The General Election in May will be the last “feel good” election in the UK for a considerable time. This year the politicians are fighting to reassure people that their delusions of sustainability are in fact possible, and that they each have the most assured path to that illusion.
Who will soothe us to sleep with the sweetest lullaby?
We are living unsustainably. That means it cannot be sustained, it will not carry on, that there is an end to much of what we take for granted today. This is not just an ecological-environmental fact, this is a financial-economic and a human-social fact. To believe otherwise requires an almost super-human capacity for self deception.
After the next financial crisis, and the break down of “middle class” expectations, it will seem incredible that we did not see it coming. Unprecedented levels of financial debt, never balanced budgets, massively unbalanced trade, and millions of humans consigned to the margins of society: these are well known and completely visible facts about our society. We are living in a house of cards, and this house will fall before the following general election.
The UK’s general election could be tame compared to what happens in Europe in the coming half-decade, where populist movements from the left and right will dis-integrate what we currently call the EU into a shadow of its current state. (Of course there’s also the very real possibility that the UK will break up or leave the EU after this election.) A combination of pressures related to energy, trade, immigration, solvency, and demographics will transform the cozy into the crazy.
Shifting trade and monetary winds around the world will make much of the current debt loads obviously unsustainable in the coming five years. Economic growth will not regain it’s pre-Crisis levels, and combined with generalised deflation, the debts of all but the most secure will crumble into default. There is not enough safety on earth to provide havens for the all the liquid cash in the world, and it is too late to regulate the flow of capital or shore up the weak.
By the next time the UK goes to a general election we will have double or treble the unemployment, a hole in the budget the size of the NHS that we cannot fund through more borrowing, and the reality, that is already obvious now, will have become inescapable.
So enjoy this little charade through May. Worry about the little things, and agree not to discuss the bigger things. Latch on to the good news, and ignore the facts. This will be your last chance to do so, and seeing as pretty much everyone is on board with the story, you may as well enjoy the ride.
- When the world’s best science tells us that we have to reach peak global green house gas emissions between now and the next general election, why should we even discuss the big changes that that will require us to make?
- When we have doubled our national debt in the last five years, and are now approaching 80% of GDP in public debt (never mind the private debt or banking liabilities), why should we debate anything more than how much to cut? We don’t need an new ideas, do we?
- Heaven forbid that we talk about our society, about what we need to do to ensure solidarity and safety through the coming storms. No, the only thing on the agenda should be how to protect our right to imagine ourselves as separate, little individuals, dignified by money and legitimised by morality.
- The very notion that there is another way to tackle our problems can be dismissed: we have evaluated all the options and found that late 20th century industrial capitalism, as both economic and social system, is the only way to live and thrive. Of course it is sustainable, it has lasted our lifetimes hasn’t it? No one else is taking about it, so it can’t be a real problem, can it? Surely, if there really were big problems, our political leadership would be talking to us about it, wouldn’t they?
And so it is our default, the natural captivity of our personal experience, that we wonder aimlessly into tragedy. Human society only works well when every specialist performs their natural role, using their natural talents to contribute to the whole. And it only works when each of us rises to our responsibility to remain aware, awake and alert to the opportunity to make our contribution when we can, to be the best that we can be.
When we our specialists fail, and we fail to notice, the whole system fails.
We will make no progress on any of the many aspects of safety that are truly at the centre of our predicament: social safety, economic safety, geopolitical safety, or environmental safety. Instead we will wade through debates about morality, righteousness and sanctity – a shoulda-coulda-woulda netherworld of sanctimonious claptrap designed to appease, obscure and delude. Who is deserving? Who are we dependent on? Who will best take responsibility for us? Who will soothe us to sleep with the sweetest lullaby?
You could argue that it is the proper role of politicians to shed light, to inform, and to gain a mandate for a vision, but you’d be sadly mistaken. Democracy in the lazy First World democracies has become a circus of “bread and games”: find out what people want, tell them you’ll give it to them, and do whatever is necessary to maintain that illusion until the next election.
You could argue that it is the people that are at fault for not demanding, and rewarding, leadership. It would seem that politicians feel this way, represented by a cynical aside from Jean-Claude Juncker when we says: “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
So is it the fault of the politicians, or the people? It depends on which side of the line you are standing on as to what side you consider to be the “other” side, but the line still stands. If you understand human evolution, then you know that we are a group species, dependent on our individual specialists for the success of our group – and that tells you who is responsible for our lazy democracy. If a new bridge design falls down, we don’t immediately think that it was the labourers who are collectively responsible, we know that it was the engineer that designed it badly, and the project managers who did not notice the flaws in the design. We all know that, and we all understand the very real risks associated with trusting our specialists, and so we do not want to build a new bridge until this side of the river is uninhabitable.
For a majority of our society it is not in their interests to recognise our real situation. This applies especially to politicians, but also to the many who have built their lives on the unsustainable illusion on which we live, including many of the intellectuals in the press and finance. Indeed it has become so unfashionable to recognise debt as a problem, that now even much of the left dismisses any such talk as another bandwagon for neo-liberalism. “Of course debt is a problem.” people say, “But that is bogey man. We can and will manage our debts by muddling through, just as we always have. Debt is a moral stick used to dissuade us from getting what we deserve.”
Money tends us toward survival of the ape in us, but not the survival of the human that we have since become.
Money generally does funny things to our brains. It activates primordial elements of our behaviour controls, in ways that deny us full access to our cognitive faculties and engender rationalisations geared to individual survival, not communal safety. Money tends us toward survival of the ape in us, but not the survival of the human that we have since become.
Debt is not a law of Nature, it is a human contract, as we are going to become much more fully aware of in the coming 5 years. However consequence is a law of Nature. Human contracts are social constructs, built on a pyramid of complex social mechanisms that we call “confidence”. Debts can be written off or ignored, but the resulting effect on confidence cannot.
After 2015 everyone will know that the future will not be better, and elections will be fought over who has the best plans for adjustment.