Certainly, this is the kind of event I'd want to come to a 'festival of ideas' for. Four major public intellectuals (an even gender split, gratifyingly), with ground-breaking books behind them, tasked to consider where our vision of the 'good society' is in 2005. I found the discussion so useful in itself that I'll reproduce it in the extended post below. My comments on the discussion are at the end.
Julia Neuberger, author of The Moral State We're In:
"You know the joke about how many care workers it takes to change a light bulb? It's true. I found a story where there was indeed four people needed to change it, as demanded by health and safety and risk assessment: one to fit the bulb, one to hold the ladder, one spare for emergencies, and one to hold the hand of the lady who was being discomfited by this display.
I'm appalled by things we don't allow to happen because of our attitude to risk. Council ban hanging baskets because they might fall on people. Women's Institutes are banned from making cakes to take to hospital wards: Health and Safety says, "you can't be sure of hygiene". Because teachers aren't allowed to touch children, kids have to apply sunscreen to themselves on sunny days in the schoolyard... So they end up partially unprotected...
This is an climate that makes professionalism more important than care for people. We're so 'risk-averse' our care depletes.
Kids in care involving social workers are often the worse cases of this. We have a towering outrage about the Victoria Climbie case - rightly so - yet we don't seem to worry about the ordinary misery of kids in homes, those that leave at 18 head for high drug use and low attainment.
Another instance: the amount of older people abused by nurses - not just physical abuse, but emotional, financial (stealing their money) - is as high as 50%
I want a welfare state that is only interested in kindness or happiness. Our risk-averse culture tolerates a greater degree of misery than it needs to."
Joanna Bourke, author of Fear: a Cultural History
"The anxiety and fear in our lives is free-floating - 75% of people have some mild anxiety in their lives. This mentality gives us no realistic way of calculating threats. Trauma frames our responses - indeed, our culture is saturated with fantasies of trauma. We don't look to our communal ties to reassure us in eventful times - we must inflict our own psychic wound as a response.
We've experienced as collective sense of alarm before. During the second world war there were two hundred bombers in the sky every night in London. Collective trauma there could lead to panic - eg, the disaster in Bethal Green tube, where hundreds were crushed. Who was blamed for it? The local Jewish community became the scapegoats. An example of hatred dispelling terror.
If our public life is defined by fear, governments will take advantage - changing all manner of laws to justify torture, assassination.
Our collective response to fear should start with the equitable distribution of resources. We need neither to withdraw from the public sphere, or surrender to the compensations of hedonism or scapegoating. Groups slay the spectre of fear by acting positively and creatively - our future depends on that."
Colin Tudge, author of So Shall We Reap
[Colin began with a blizzard of statistics about the failing state of the world, including: our urban population raising to 6 billion in 50 years]
"Is our global elite - politicians, corporations, experts (including lawyers and scientists) - bad? I think people who like power are suspect, yes. They share a deep misconception that there is a single solution to everything.
In relation to agriculture, our economic systems are incredibly crude - they treat it as a business like any other: aiming to get the maximum profit in the shortest possible time. This is a disaster for agriculture, making it thoroughly unsustainable. The entire thrust of world agriculture is against how we should actually be feeding people - which should also involve giving them a decent job.
BSE also shows the limitations of this approach - it was entirely traceable to the commercial pressure to cut corners and costs. Agriculture was being run on a wing and prayer.
Commercial agriculture also attempts to reduce labour, which is also disastrous. 20% of people worked on the land after WW2, now only 1% does (we run our own agriculture with Poles, Romanians and Chinese). There are more people in prison than working on the land. You can't apply good husbandry with so little agricultural labour available. If you applied these principles of industrialised agriculture to India, half a billion people would be out of work! Global trade, as currently structured, hardly helps. Third world farmers can't get stuff into Sainsbury's or Tesco's.
We also think wrongly about our measurements for development. GDP doesn't measure our aspirations for autonomy and wellbeing - it's such a crude model for progress. Science could be used to make our lives better - but it's being used by corporations for profit.
What can we do?
1) We'll have to go back to first principles on notions of progress and development
2) We also need more resistance, of a Gandhian, anarchist nature. If you have to defy the power that be, go to prison, then do so.
3) Ethical consumerism - you can be a good shopper: buy the products that cause the least damage and help sustainability and equity
4) Learn about traditional cooking - making food at the right pace, with the right ingredients, according to time-honoured traditions.
John Gray, author of Straw Dogs and Heresies
"Progress is the Prozac of the thinking classes.
Let me start by telling you about a satirical article I wrote in early 2003, before the Gulf War and Abu Ghraib, in the manner of Jonathan Swift: a defence of torture. (I was done up in the picture to wear a wig, just to make it clear). In the past, torture had been indefensible. But in the future, torture could be used as a tool for human rights and democratic advance. We needed a new breed of torturers, whose sense of low self-esteem should be turned around. These were skilled professionals, in need of proper legal representation in case of disputes or differences.
So the second Gulf War occurred, and as we all know, torture happened. Indeed, it has become normalised: in the UK, we can now accept evidence obtained under torture from other countries. My point is that these reversals can become routinised - huge changes can happen with almost no-one noticing that they've happened. All our vaunted moral, political and ethical achievements are reversible. Scientific and technical advance isn't reversible - but so-called civilized values are.
Gulf War II was a bitter war, we could expect torture would come in. Yet as a consequence of WWII, which defeated a clear threat to humanity in Hitler's fascism, we emerged with strengthened laws against torture.
Terrorism is a clear threat - not just 9/11, but also Bali and Madrid make that clear. Yet terrorism can easily be used for political control, to create hysteria. The BBC2 documentary series by Adam Curtis, the Power of Nightmares, won't be shown in the US (it will be receiving an award at Cannes this year). One reason why might be the interview with a CIA veteran, in which the question was asked: why did you believe the general claim that Soviet weaponry was a permanent and urgent threat to American security? The CIA vet answered, "because I was on the committee that invented this threat in the first place". I'm no apologist for Soviet Communism, a regime which killed 10 million - but it never thought it was invulnerable.
In the next fifty years, there are four large and unavoidable processes that we will have to deal with:
i) Global industrialisation, represented by China primarily. Huge threats of desertification.
ii) Global oil reserves are peaking, and the end of cheap oil is coming. Combine that with rapidly rising demands of industrialisation. Shell's recent revelation that they have reduced reserves is evidence of the coming crisis. Major conflicts will be triggered by this. Remember that the first Gulf War was explicitly about oil, not the imposition of eternal peace. At least they were honest.
iii) Climate change is moving faster than we thought - and it very closely tracks global industrialisation. It's too late to stop it, say the consensus of the best opinion - we have to live with these changes now. Not about how we feel about it, but about how we deal with it. And when oil depletes, we'll turn to coal: they'll start demothballing old mines soon. And that simply puts a match to global warming.
iv) Population growth. We currently have 6 billion, in 50 years it will be 8 billion. I'm not as optimistic as Colin that this is sustainable, even under Gandhian conditions. And at our energy intensive lifestyle levels, absolutely not. Remember that the West is the most overpopulated area on the planet.
Am I pessimistic about the future? I think that fear can be energising - it alerts you to the powerful sources of danger. I remember running a seminar with dissidents in Poland about the Cold War, and coming to the conclusion that the situation was completely insoluble. Communism collapsed two years later."
Comments and questions
Q: Don't we at least now have a language in which we can object to torture? That surely wasn't the case in earlier eras. That is surely an advance we can measure, in the 20th century?
Gray: True. But I would suggest that there were far more numbers tortured in the prisons of Nazism and Communism in the 20th century, than in previous centuries. And our position now in the West is that we can improve on torture - or at least improve our justifications for it.
Q: The root of many of the problems described by speakers is that of personal autonomy. This self is an illusion, a product of our imaginations. If we saw our lives as part of one movement, rather than as something centered on our selves, many of our pathologies would be resolved. Krishnamurti talks of how bogus our notion of the separate individual is.
Julia: We don't live out an illusion of autonomy - we have the choices not to do terrible things. To say to the powers that be, "get stuffed!"
Colin: I don't think we can get away from personal autonomy. Evolution says that being an organism is something you're stuck with. To play your part in creation, you have to literally look after your "self". My other anxiety is with the wider group that you would wish to subsume your selfhood to. Bush would certainly love you to surrender your individuality to his neo-conservative vision.
Q: Are there no positive connotations to progress? Surely we must credit science with something?
Gray: I'd say that anaesthetic dentistry is without a doubt a positive step forward!
Julia: Palliative care is another - it has reduced a huge swathe of suffering.
Tudge: Sure, you can use science to add another 20 years to someone's life - but why would you wish to do that?
Gray: I am more optimistic about technological fixes than I am about anything else. If you're looking for some vast moral and psychological regeneration, I think you're deluded.
* * *
Pat Kane writes: My own question, at the end of this session, was intended to pull the participants back towards a consideration of progress. I held up the white MakePovertyHistory.org wristband that my daughter had bought for me the other day. Is that whole campaign, I asked, a sign of progress as possibility, or progress as delusion?
The responses were interestingly split. Colin Tudge called it a mistake and a diversion - the model of development it implied was so globally destructive as to be hardly worth discussing. John Gray lauded the sentiment, but agreed that its economics were generally destructive. Joanna Bourke understood the previous two speakers' positions, but said that a childhood in Haiti, seeing the effects of grinding material poverty on the community around her, made her wish that the campaign would have some lasting effect on policies and structures. And Julia Neuberger absolutely claimed it as a sign of progress realised - and evidence that caring urges could be liberated in a seemingly affluent and complacent population, with the right branding and organisation.
I was fascinated by the reach of this discussion. Yet I think it shows how British intellectuals can't easily make the connection between the subjective and objective aspects of major societal change. Neuberger has an inspiring vision of social altruism waiting to be unleashed, once we can maturely abandon our crutches of bureaucracy and legalese, which turn natural expressions of empathy and solidarity into risk-aversion. Yet I recognise a very Judaic principle of elemental reciprocity between humans in Neuberger's position - Emmanuel Levinas and Zygmunt Bauman (and latterly Douglas Rushkoff) its prime articulators. Can those without such a powerful spiritual and religious tradition behind them support such a faith in human nature?
In Straw Dogs, Gray's civilisational pessimism looks towards the value of play as some way to cope with the mismatch between our ethical fragility, and our technological advance. In this book, he clearly sympathises with the Bristol questioner's scepticism about the power of individuality: "Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on". Yet our powerlessness in the face of evolutionary process he also extends to technology: "the new technologies that are springing up around us seem to be inventions that serve our ends, when they and we are moves in a game that has no end… Technology obeys noone's will. Can we play along with it without labouring to master it?" This begs so many questions about Gray's conception of information technology - faulty and submissive, at best - that it casts a psychological light on his general position in this seminar. Is he just so saturnine that he can't see the data that would make progress possible?
Joanna Bourke and Colin Tudge are both familiar types - rational, science-based socialists, who believe that ideas-based activism (in the manner of Gramsci's 'organic intellectuals') is enough to either ward against the exploitation of our collective fears in times of crisis (Bourke), or to speak environmental truth to power (Tudge). I support this kind of resolve, but I think their disagreement about Make Poverty History - Tudge implacably negative, Bourke genuinely ambivalent - at least points to a need for some discussion about the promotional tactics of counter- or anti-capitalist positions. I'm more sympathetic to the 'critical friend' stance of Bourke, in the face of possibly incorporating initiatives like MPH (or Live Aid, or Commission on Africa), than I am to the Gandhian-anarchist oppositionalism of Tudge.
However, this festival demonstrates yet again the very necessity of staging these positions dramatically, in front of an open audience, in a vibrant city.