The Statesman’s Yearbook Online

edited by Dr Barry Turner

ESSAY Archive

THE FUTURE BALANCE OF ECONOMIC POWER

The economic confidence of the West has taken a battering in recent years while the East has flourished. Is this how it will be for the long term?

Do we progress? The conviction that mankind is moving towards some sort of promised land gains popular currency when times are good. Some years ago a sample of college leavers was asked to grade the events in their lives to date and then to say how they saw the future. When their answers were transposed on to a graph, the early part showed a roller coaster of ups and downs while expectations were represented by a smooth rising curve. Needless to add, this was in the days of economic boom when higher education was a passport to a safe and well-paid career. If the experiment was repeated today, the prospects would not look so rosy.

Future? What future?

The dark mood that weighs on much of the western hemisphere appears to float away over that part of the developing world embraced by the example of India and China. After generations of underachievement or no achievement at all, these countries are finding hidden strengths that have raised the competitive stakes in the global economy and are causing unease or downright fear among those who have had it so good for so long. When jobs are lost and incomes remain static or decline, there is always someone to blame.

But the highs and lows can both be overdone. If it is too soon to write off the West, by the same token the emerging superpowers may soon be in for a few knocks to their self-confidence. This is not to suggest a catastrophic reversal of their economic fortunes though clearly that is always a possibility. Rather, the headlong rush towards prosperity will engender social and political pressures that will upset the timetable.

The history of the industrial powers that had their start in the steam age provide a salutary warning. As the ruling oligarchies of Europe and America gave way to the class of wealthy entrepreneurs they had helped to create, so it will be in China. Can popular democracy be far behind? And what will that do for tightly managed economies?

As a functioning democracy, albeit with oligarchic tendencies, India might be said to enjoy a head start in accommodating rapid growth. But with millions still in abject poverty, one does not have to be a Marxist to anticipate disruptive, possibly violent, demands for a more equitable distribution of national wealth.

Then again, everywhere there are powerful underlying movements which weigh against unbridled expansionism. This certainly happened in the second half of the nineteenth century when Britain was at the peak of its commercial and imperialistic power. The industrial revolution, parallel in many ways to what is happening today in the once quiescent nations of the East, spurred a fierce reaction from the opponents of materialism, those who believed that the 'dark Satanic mills' brought nothing but misery and degradation. Incredible as it must now seem, the favoured antidote to change was a cult of medievalism, the conviction popularized by some of the outstanding intellectuals and commentators of their day (including, incidentally, Thomas Carlyle, the originator of The Statesman's Yearbook ) that everything was so much better in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The image was of a social idyll, with benevolent rulers watching over the lower orders, who, snug and secure, were content to live their simple lives. The reality, of course, was hunger, violence, dirt and disease when, as Thomas Hobbes observed, lives were brutish and short.

Rival powers to Britain created their own legends to offset the pain of industrial expansion—for example, hundreds of Western movies have fixed the image of the sturdy independence of the New World settlers, beholden to no man and ready to overcome all obstacles in the pursuit of the American dream. The money men had no part to play in this drama, except as villains. We might expect the developed countries to have dispelled their fantasies about the 'good old days'. Yet in times of crisis there are many who gaze longingly in the rearview mirror. In the States, support for the Tea Party comes largely from disaffected voters who somehow imagine that the country can run itself perfectly well without the attention of politicians and bureaucrats. Similarly, in Europe, the far-right parties and the far right of the main parties trade on a populist agenda that would have them backtrack on a European union that has delivered peace and prosperity unprecedented in any single member country.

Fortunately, on both sides of the Atlantic the democracies are sufficiently resilient to combat narrow nationalism and bigotry. When voters are focused on choices that really matter, as in national elections, they can usually be relied upon to reject rule by the rednecks. Countries in transition have a long way to go before they reach this level of maturity. Which is why we should not visualize their progress as an uninterrupted upward curve. Who can doubt that there are countercultures, looking back to a supposed golden age, at work today in India and China? In Russia, there are even those who reflect fondly on the days of Stalin.

There are many other imponderables, more or less significant depending on how events unfold. One is the knowledge explosion which is louder in the US than anywhere else on earth. Whatever the next big breakthrough—something, say, on the scale of the internet—the balance of probability is that it will have its start in Silicon Valley. The point here is simply that economic advance is not a precise science. The rise of the East, if it continues, need not be accompanied by a decline of the West, even if the present omens suggest otherwise.

In countering the doom merchants we need to remind ourselves that while the Western model of mixed economy capitalism has its fault lines, notably the widening gap between the affluent and an underclass frustrated by its inability to realise its potential, there is no reason why, given time, imaginative politics cannot meet the challenges.

Do we progress? Yes, but only in fits and starts.

Barry Turner



SPREAD A LITTLE HAPPINESS

What makes people happy? For many, the question is rhetorical. Happiness is an abstract concept shaped into something tangible by individual choice. What delights one person can drive another to distraction. That said, on the biggest concerns of life there must be some common ground. Most of us accept that a comfortable income brings greater happiness than poverty. Maybe there are other, less obvious, areas of consensus. Could it be that what divides us in terms of personal choice has been allowed to obfuscate the essentials of a happy state?

There are politicians who believe so. Some time before he became Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron was arguing that simple economic indicators tell only half the story. His call for the ‘big society’, which he carried over into government, remains short on detail. But in so far as he is promoting a more active community spirit he is signalling a retraction of the rampant individualism that favours material prosperity over all other forms of human endeavour. In this Cameron is echoing the views of many other European leaders, notably President Sarkozy of France, who espouse ‘quality of life’—how people relate to each other and to their surroundings—as the only valid means of assessing human happiness.

Devotees of unbridled capitalism are not impressed. They dismiss the quality of life argument as a defensive cover for the failure of Europe to match the energy, innovation and economic growth of the United States. There is some truth in this. Envy of American achievement is a powerful engine for anti-American sentiment. Yet beyond political point-scoring, inquisitive psychologists and economists who ask questions before propounding grand theories are finding evidence to suggest that while minimum standards are a prerequisite, happiness cannot simply be counted in possessions or judged by the size of a bank balance. Surveys conducted over half a century show that while, unsurprisingly, the rich are happier than the poor, affluent societies as a whole have not added much, if anything, to their happiness quota.

Part of the explanation is that happiness is relative. Many of the luxuries of yesteryear such as electronically equipped kitchens and cars that rarely break down are now taken for granted. But it may also be true that in becoming more individualistic and in giving way to rampant consumerism we have lost touch with values that tend towards a general happiness. Family relationships have declined (the unmarried account for over half the households in the US) despite evidence to suggest that married people are happier. Broken families put children at risk, leaving them emotionally isolated at a time when they most need support.

Widespread unemployment persists with little in the way of social programmes to combat the accompanying malaise and sense of failure. Mutual trust is at a premium and while mental illnesses are increasing at an alarming rate, their treatment is judged secondary to finding cures for physical ailments. Depression is now the most common cause of long-term sickness in the UK. Then again, though we are all richer than our forerunners of fifty or a hundred years ago, the gap between the haves and the have-nots remains as great as ever while media preoccupation with the affairs of the wealthy prompts envy and resentment. And not just the media. Cheap and easy travel is a constant reminder of how other lives are apparently better or worse than our own. The poor are easily forgotten, it is the rich who leave the enduring impression. We aspire to the bigger home, car or television screen and we are unhappy when they remain out of reach. Add to all this a work pattern which makes a virtue of stress and we are left with the paradox that, for many, the pursuit of material comforts actually militates against quality of life.

As nobody in their right mind wants to do away with the fruits of prosperity, the solution must be to achieve a social balance, wealth creation without accompanying pain. In pursuit of this objective there is much to learn from the Nordic countries which are consistently among the highest scorers in the international happiness stakes. Not all the conditions that are said to favour general contentment can be easily replicated. Denmark, for example, is a small, homogenous society with a strong sense of national identity. Problems of conflicting cultures which beset other western countries are rare though the resistance of recent immigrants to doing things ‘the Danish way’ may portend a shock to the system. For now, however, the Danish social contract which puts a high value on mutual trust and consensus in politics and business has produced enormous benefits, not least an enviable living standard extending to decent housing for all, a generously funded health service and cheap, efficient public transport. Most critically, education is driven by a spirit of egalitarianism. Knowledge and qualifications are sought as much for advancing the public interest as for individual aggrandisement.

Critics hasten to point out that the Danes, as all Scandinavians, pay highly for their privileges with tax rates that are way above the international average. But the general feeling is that the money collected by the state is well spent. If other governments demand less, more goes in waste and incompetence. Even so, while the evidence points to a correlation between income equality favoured in Scandinavia and a culture of trust and respect as the basis for a healthier lifestyle, it is improbable, to put it mildly, that a political programme founded on these principles would find favour in countries that have, for generations, promoted individualism. At best, a broader view of national well-being will support more family friendly practices at work such as flexible hours and parental leave and encourage activities that promote community life.

More hopefully, the findings of positive psychology suggest that individualism might be made to serve the happiness of the greatest number with the simple realization that taking the initiative in caring for others by engaging in voluntary services brings its own reward in an enhanced sense of purpose and personal fulfilment.

‘Produce any happy person,’ writes Richard Layard, ‘and you will find a project’. He added, ‘Happiness comes from outside and within. The two are not in contradiction. The true pilgrim fights the evils of the world out there and cultivates the spirit within.’

Barry Turner

More reading:

Daniel Dorling, Injustice. Why Social Inequality Persists
The Policy Press, 2011

Pascal Bruckner, Perpetual Euphoria. On the Duty to be Happy
Princeton University Press, 2011

Michael Foley, The Age of Absurdity. Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy
Simon & Schuster, 2010

Richard Layard, Happiness: Lessons From a New Science
Penguin, 2011 (2nd revised ed)

Martin Seligman, A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being and How to Achieve Them
Nicholas Brealey, 2011

Ivan Robertson and Cary Cooper, Well-Being, Productivity and Happiness at Work
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011



OPENNESS. NOT ALWAYS THE BEST POLICY

How far can we trust politicians? The Wikileaks controversy shows that much of what we think of as democracy is conducted behind closed doors. But perhaps that is as it should be. Total freedom of information, argues Barry Turner, would make effective government impossible.

You don’t have to be crooked to go into politics, but it helps. That is the typical voter talking. It is a view strengthened with every well publicized instance of chicanery in high places. But the real causes of cynicism go much deeper and have more to do with the way we manage our democracy than with individual transgressions.

As with so much else that is changing in the social fabric, the starting point for discussion is the power of modern communications. Instant news has revolutionized our perception of democracy. For public consumption, political issues are reduced to the lowest common denominator of understanding—or supposed understanding. Politicians are bombarded with deceptively simple questions which demand equally simple answers. But since every contention is multi-layered with subtleties, clear and straightforward responses are rare. Instead, politicians resort to prevarication or, when pressed, to meaningless waffle which in turn leads to the charge of duplicity. And duplicity is the close cousin of downright dishonesty.

The problem is aggravated by the constraints of party discipline which minimize the opportunities for politicians to speak freely. Even at local level, party loyalists are liable to react aggressively if the person they have elected to speak for them shows much independence of spirit. It was a tendency Edmund Burke warned against over two hundred years ago when he told the electors of Bristol: ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only but his judgement, and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion’. He was right. Democracy can only function effectively if politicians are allowed to do their job without for ever looking over their shoulder. Much of what happens in government simply does not lend itself to free and open discussion.

Every emergency throws up examples. In the latest recession when some countries faced a run on the banks, it would have taken recklessness bordering on insanity for politicians in power to express openly their nightmare fears. A bad situation could only have been made worse. Instead, all the talk was of recovery round the corner, even if fingers were crossed while the words were uttered. Dishonest?  Up to a point. But to quote again the great Edmund Burke, if ‘falsehood and delusion are allowed in no case whatsoever … as an exercise of all the virtues, there is an economy of truth’ which can be justified on practical grounds.

The failure to recognize this fundamental fact (the very phrase ‘economy of truth’ when used some time ago by a senior British civil servant was judged to be a clear indication that the administration he represented could not be trusted in anything) inhibits political initiative and puts politicians in the way of slavishly following public opinion instead of leading it. So it is that the failure to abide by the letter to election pledges, even when unpredictable events demand a change of emphasis or direction, is judged to be dishonest whereas it could just as logically be evidence of responsible government.

Politicians make it worse for themselves by adopting a defensive strategy of obsessive secrecy on the principle of what the voters don’t know, they won’t question. The overlay is a bureaucratic failure to recognize any distinction between what is really important and the mere trivialities of routine administration. It would be healthier for democracy if more transparency was accompanied by a willingness among politicians to confess not to knowing all the answers and to accept, occasionally, that they could be wrong. They might also resolve to give short shrift to interviewers pressing for worthless sound bites on complex issues.

The new media is often credited with narrowing the gap between politicians and their electors. This is true to the extent that those in public service are besieged by appeals for support, help, justice, compensation or any of the other remedies for real or supposed grievances. A British politician, a senior minister in the present government, tells me that when he was first elected forty years ago, he received at most a dozen letters a week. Now, he needs a full-time assistant just to keep track of his post.

Maybe that is as it should be. Electors have a right of access to their representatives. And they are entitled to a hearing. What they should not have is the prerogative to dictate which invariably gives power to unelected lobbyists for single-issue pressure groups.

What of politicians who really are dishonest? Voters should certainly be able to hold to account representatives who betray their trust. But longer term, the only sure way of reducing the number of dodgy characters in public life is to pay our politicians salaries that are sufficient to lift them above temptation. The recent scandal of British politicians abusing their expenses revealed a culture in which extravagant or, in some cases, outrageously venal claims were accepted on the nod as the only way of compensating for inadequate pay. As Burke might have said, it is another fundamental truth that if political standards fall short, it is the voters who must ultimately accept the blame.

Barry Turner




WHERE DO WE GET THE ENERGY? THE NUCLEAR DEBATE

The nuclear debate is at risk of overheating. It needs to cool off, argues Barry Turner.

‘Nuclear’ and ‘crisis’ go together. Any environmental setback catches the headlines but with the nuclear label attached it takes on mammoth proportions. It happened twenty-five years ago when the pride of Soviet nuclear technology at Chernobyl (now part of Ukraine) was ripped apart. It happened again when the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out the nuclear plant at Fukushima. Led by vocal public opinion, which instinctively associates anything nuclear with wipe-out weaponry, governments across the globe have hastened to reassure voters that their policy is safety first. Of the 400 new stations planned worldwide, many are now on hold with cancellations a real possibility. Among the leading economies, Germany has announced a nuclear phase-out.

An overreaction? Energy experts who take global warming seriously certainly think so. Nuclear is free of carbon emissions while producing vastly more energy per unit than fossil fuel, a multiple of up to two million according to one assessment.1 As clean options, solar and wind power have their cheerleaders but the wind comes and goes and the sun does not always shine.

Anyway, who is to say that nuclear power is inherently unsafe? In the first of the nuclear scares, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, no lives were lost. There were 57 fatalities at Chernobyl and while the risk of cancer was increased for those closest to the radiation fallout, estimates for the number affected have fallen over the years from the high hundreds of thousands to the low tens. As for Fukushima, it is too early to be certain but so far there are no deaths or even serious health hazards directly attributable to the accident.

Contrast this with the human cost of exploiting fossil fuels, starting with the thousands who have died digging for coal or drilling for oil. The pollution caused by coal burning is a killer on a massive scale, not to mention the environmental problems it is building up for future generations. In 2009 alone, the world’s electricity generators spewed out nine billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Yet public concern at these hazards is muted or, at least, not evidenced in the marches, demonstrations and intense political lobbying associated with the nuclear industry.

Familiarisation is the key. We have grown up with coal and oil, forgetting, for example, that worldwide, there are over a million road deaths a year. But nuclear energy is new and, by definition, unpredictable. And while no energy fix is entirely without risks, one of those attached to nuclear is really scary.

The overlap with military technology was demonstrated as early as the mid-seventies when India tested a nuclear weapon design using plutonium separated out of its breeder reactor programme. The current worry is that the uranium enrichment plants in Iran will be used to produce nuclear weapon materials. Diplomatic nerves were stretched early in the year when it was reported that the Iranians were having problems in getting their first nuclear reactor to work. A shortage of home-produced expertise in operating a nuclear plant safely suggests that Iran may have a disaster in the making.

But a nuclear ban across Europe and America, even if it were feasible, will not call a halt to weapons proliferation or, for that matter, to the development of nuclear energy for entirely legitimate purposes. While the Fukushima accident created a backlash in some countries, notably Germany and in Japan itself, there was no move in China to hold back on the 77 reactors it has at various stages of construction or in Russia which has ten reactors in the making.

As might be expected from a country nuclear-dependent for 80 per cent of its electricity, the reaction from France was measured, with commentators pointing out that the Japanese reactors survived the sixth most powerful earthquake ever recorded and that the crisis was caused by the loss of electric power from the grid and the failure of the backup diesel generators. No one doubts there are lessons to be learned. Strengthening the lines of defence will be a priority for the industry, which can expect to be more heavily regulated. Though this will add cost it will be a long way short of making nuclear energy prohibitively expensive.

Meanwhile, fears of contamination from nuclear waste (a big issue in the US where a US$20 billion-investment in storing spent nuclear fuel in the Nevada mountains recently succumbed to political pressure for alternatives to be explored) will fade in the wake of new technology. Already, most of the nuclear waste in France is processed for reuse.

But whatever reassurances the industry can provide it is likely that expansion will be slower than predicted before the Japanese earthquake. Many governments will pause before they agree to commission new reactors. Sensitivity to voters’ wishes – or prejudices – will be one factor. Of greater moment is the dawning realisation that alternative sources of energy are more readily accessible than was previously supposed. Far from running out, oil will soon be flowing more freely with vast reserves discovered off the coasts of Africa and Brazil. The latest oil sand projects in Canada now supply more oil to the United States than Saudi Arabia. Natural gas, cleaner and cheaper, looks set to take over from coal as a primary energy source. Supplies in the US are so plentiful as to hold out the prospect of a thriving export market. Other regions, including Europe, Asia and North Africa, are similarly favoured. Most significantly, the price of gas has fallen by half in the last five years, making the initial heavy investment in nuclear energy less appealing.

Nuclear energy will have its day but not yet. It could well turn out that Fukushima is less the reason than an excuse for applying the brakes.

Barry Turner

1 John Hofmeister, Why We Hate the Oil Companies. Palgrave, 2010




AT THE OUTER LIMITS OF KNOWLEDGE

We are defined by science. No matter if we are mystified by equations or never get to shake a test tube, we all function in a scientific framework that determines the way we think and act.

This is a recent phenomenon. For most of history the boundaries of Western inquiry and creativity have been set by religion. Without subscribing to the fable that science and religion are necessarily in conflict (many, if not most, of the great scientific discoveries have been set firmly in the Christian or, at least, the deistic tradition), it is nonetheless true that in matters of dispute, the clerics commanded the high ground.

The kick-start to a long process of change came with the Enlightenment when the brotherhood of sceptics—Voltaire, Hume, Kant among them—questioned the need for divine intercession of any kind, at any time. It was not long before the challenge was put to the test. The evolutionary theories that took hold of the nineteenth century imagination were deployed by Darwin’s acolytes, though interestingly not by Darwin himself, as weapons against religious orthodoxy.

The contest was between two types of fundamentalism. On the religious side were those who refused to give up on the literal reading of the Bible. Opposite them, at the other extreme, were the disciples of reason and progress who proclaimed science as the new religion, the only source of knowledge and the deliverer of truth.

The middle ground was held by scientists who recognized the limits of their discipline and by believers who saw that scientific laws along with the dramatic advances in industry, technology and medicine did not preclude a Creator or militate against the value of Christianity as a cultural heritage and a way of life. But, as ever, common-sense argument was all but drowned out by the sound of dogmatic fury.

By the turn of the last century, the mechanical view of nature as promoted by T. H. Huxley, otherwise known as Darwin’s bulldog, had extended beyond the basic tenets of evolution to encompass much that was distinctly unscientific. Tying their creed to ‘the survival of the fittest’, a sharper version of Darwin’s ‘competitive struggle for existence’, Herbert Spencer and Ernst Haeckel gave the lead to a form of social Darwinism that was racist and militarist. It was but a short step from claiming that some humans are less fit than others to a conviction that inferior types are expendable and that only an elite deserve to live.

Marx brought his version of rational analysis to bear on politics and economics while Freud, on even shakier empirical evidence, claimed to have plumbed the deepest recesses of human consciousness. Both turned out to be horribly wrong on most of the essentials but such was the fervour, one is tempted to say the religious fervour, they engendered, their cause was taken up in other guises. New academic disciplines struggling for recognition adopted the scientific label as a sign of legitimacy.

So it was that the insights of the early psychologists and sociologists were sidelined by a passion for measurement which, trading on the obvious, had the supposed virtue of scientific validity. In economics, mathematics assumed the dominant role with policy based on increasingly elaborate macro models, noted for their predictive value of telling us what we ought to have done last week.

Giving up on the big questions, philosophy became entangled in the roots of human language where the minutiae of human intercourse could be dissected and analyzed to the point of impenetrable tedium. The extension of linguistic analysis to literature reduced criticism to a study of the particular use of words. Judgements as to what was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ were said to be irrelevant to ‘structuralism’ which ‘like any science, made a virtue of impartiality … and would as happily treat a children’s nursery rhyme as Paradise Lost’. For visual art, the scientific trend was towards hard definition of what constituted works of art, with phrases like ‘significant form’ and the ‘common core of emotional expression’ attempting a precision that proved to be more controversial than any value judgement. Even in architecture, the subjective idea of beauty lost out to functionalism, a laudable concept of producing ‘more beautiful things for everyday use’ which deteriorated into a formulaic aim of achieving maximum efficiency at the lowest cost. Hence the concrete and metal configurations designed from the inside out. They were not much to look at but they did the job.

Inevitably, the scientific mindset carried over to general education where tests of mental agility, a key factor in scientific reasoning, were assumed to give an accurate reading on all facets of intelligence, including creativity. A parallel movement worked against those studies – art, music, the classics – that were not strictly practical. That an increasing share of the standard school curriculum was directly vocational was a response to those who asked, what point can there be to education if it cannot be measured in material benefits?

Recent years have brought a healthy reaction against some of the more dubious exercises in scientism. Linguistic analysis and structuralism have just about had their day. Economic models are no longer held to be inviolate (how could it be otherwise after the recent banking implosion?). Intelligence tests have proved, at best, to be an unreliable guide to ability or performance. Arguments on relative values in art, architecture and literature are back in fashion.

Yet no sooner is the stage cleared of the debris left by shoddy scientism than a new set is constructed for a reprise. This time it is the turn of the militant atheists who tie themselves to evolution as the incontrovertible truth. While this is not the place for theological debate, it is surely relevant to point out that the harsh, supercilious tone adopted by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al, recalls an earlier generation of intellectual dogmatists: God is dead; science reigns; end of message.

‘What is most repellent about the new atheism,’ writes James Wood, ‘is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkins’ world, and the sun of science and liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadow.’

To which Marilynne Robinson has this to add:

The degree to which debunking is pursued as if it were an urgent crusade, at whatever cost to the wealth of insight into human nature that might come from attending to the record humankind has left, and without regard for the probative standard scholarship as well as science should answer to, may well be the most remarkable feature of the modern period in intellectual history.

A justifiable response to Dawkins peevish complaint that society has been brainwashed to excuse the failings of Christianity is that we have been brainwashed into expecting science to provide all the answers, that a scientific overlay is all that is needed to give veracity to dubious propositions. This is not to deny the huge advances made by science or the benefits mankind has accrued by way of painstaking research and brilliant insight by some of the finest minds of any generation. But that is a long way from claiming science to be all embracing.

The track record of the various branches of science is by no means uniform. As David Papineau points out, while post-1800 chemistry can claim a succession of triumphs, cosmology has done less well. Overall, ‘if you look at post scientific theories, they all turn out to be wrong, so our present theories are probably wrong too’.

In the early part of the last century, Bertrand Russell dismissed the need for a Creator with the supposedly inarguable assertion that the world did not have a beginning in any ordinary sense of the word. ‘The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination.’ Then, a few years later, after Edwin Hubble found that the universe is expanding, the steady state theory gave way to the Big Bang, an explanation for the origin of the universe that, as Marilynne Robinson reminds us, is closer to Genesis than Russell’s extrapolation.

It was not long before we were introduced to quantum mechanics and geometrodynamics where the excitement of breaking new ground tended to obscure the fact that in this strange realm nothing is as it seems, where the very process of observation disrupts calculations. As noted by Brian Ellis:

Many space-time quantum physicists would be quite puzzled by the suggestion that the theories they accept and work with might literally be true, since they have no clear conception at all of the reality with which these theories might correspond.

If quantum theory leaves many unanswered, maybe unanswerable, questions, so too does evolution, at least in the blanket form touted by popular science. The imponderables start with the most fundamental of all questions, the origins of life. Images of creatures emerging from the primeval slime are the stuff of science fiction but remain unsupported by the fossil record. Claiming too much for evolution takes us into perilous territory.

Writing at around the time when Spencer was adding an extra dimension to evolution, William James was engaged on his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. In his summing up he had this to say:

I believe that the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature. The universe … [is] … a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for. What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas … that our minds have framed. But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true?

He concluded, ‘The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas.’

Or as André Gide put it: ‘Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who find it.’

Barry Turner

Dennis Sewell, The Political Gene, p.32

Rónán McDonald, The Death of the Critic, p.117

James Wood, The New Yorker, 31.8.09

Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind, p.29

David Papineau in Philosophy Bites ed. by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton, p.109

Brian Ellis in The Philosophy of Science ed. by David Papineau, p.168

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p.89




WHAT HOPE FOR THE JOBLESS?

Is there any return to full employment? Or will mass unemployment be ever with us? Barry Turner weighs up the options.

There are 15 million unemployed in America. And another 15 million without jobs in Europe. That’s a lot of people. The raw figures are somehow more revealing and more terrifying than percentages which delude by their simplicity. A point up here, a point down there, what’s the difference? Which is perhaps why unemployment is not yet the hot political issue it should be. Optimism, some might say, unnatural optimism, is the other reason. The assumption is of a rising demand for labour carried along in the wake of economic recovery.

It could happen but the evidence for national growth creating a healthy demand for labour is hard to find. Some job opportunities will appear but others are likely to be lost as technology takes up the slack. Plans for government-sponsored job creation in labour-intensive services such as education and care of the elderly conflict with the need to reduce national deficits. There are no prizes for guessing what will take priority.

One does not have to be a doomsday prophet to recognize that we may never return to the near full employment enjoyed by previous generations. This suggests we should start now to adapt to a culture which no longer has the day at the workplace as the very focus of being.

This is hardly a revolutionary thought. But ideas on advancing what in the 1930s was called the Leisure Society have rarely moved beyond think tank publications. Could it be that the work ethic is so fundamental that we can’t bear to contemplate the alternative? To hear politicians talk, you would certainly believe so. Jobs for all is a slogan shared by all parties.

The complaint is not simply that the objective is almost certainly unachievable but that it is also unimaginative, a step back into the future.

There is something inherently ridiculous in the concept of work for work’s sake. As Ralf Dahrendorf was fond of pointing out, we act as if our lives depend on work while at the same time doing all we can to reduce its burden. It would be a simple matter, for example, to multiply the jobs in road building by replacing mechanical diggers with picks and shovels. But who in their right mind would really want this to happen? There is no going back on the technological society, nor should we want to. The only alternative is to begin a serious reassessment of what life is, or should be, all about.

Theoretically, we all enjoy leisure. Those in work say they can’t get enough of it. But when it does come in abundance, the hours prove hard to fill. Depression follows. This is why so many of those among the long-term unemployed, who have all the time in the world, find it impossible to organize their lives constructively. Or why some retired people who have hitherto led frenetic lives, fall into apathy and die early.

It would help to encourage a more positive attitude to leisure. This has to start with education which, in recent years, has become vocationally orientated, on the bullish assumption that qualifications make for job creation. Even if this is true, the emphasis on training for work, and work only, sharpens the distinction between those who have it and those who can’t get it. For the latter, there is a consequent loss of identity, social status and self esteem.

A stronger cultural element in education would bring out talents that make for life satisfaction beyond the wage cheque—learning to play a musical instrument, say, or to paint or to climb a mountain. It is no coincidence that those blessed with a good rounded education seldom have any difficulty in filling every waking hour which is why schemes for voluntary redundancy often find the brightest and the best first in line.

If changes in education depend on a political initiative, so too do changes in work practices which must come if the gap between the have and have nots is to be narrowed. Increases in productivity should not simply be translated into wage increases for those who have work. Instead, the trend should be towards shorter working weeks, shorter working years and a shift in social values that allows for work sharing. To some extent this is already happening. Longer paid holidays and maternity leave, the introduction of paternity leave and sabbaticals are common to advanced companies. Time off for community service has great potential for stimulating  voluntary activities that overlap work and leisure. Old-fashioned employers fear that work sharing is synonymous with idle hands. But there are many case histories where flexibility in the traditional work pattern has resulted in greater all-round satisfaction and higher output.

The tragedy of the current recession is that fear of unemployment and its consequences, at best a fall in living standards, at worst requisitioned homes, has made enlightened work practices harder to implement. When France introduced the thirty-five-hour week, the net result was for those in work to claim more overtime, the reverse of what was intended. Fear of unemployment was greater than the desire for leisure. That fear has intensified so that, for example, older people are hanging on to jobs that might otherwise go to their children, a tendency increased by a general lifting of the retirement age. We have entered what Tony Judt has called the ‘age of insecurity’ and it will take great political skill and imagination to get us out of it. Failure will be a society at war with itself, the ultimate paradox of the liberating power of technology.

Barry Turner

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