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A small and deceptive word

In a previous post I referred to two “highly seductive and misunderstood words.”  I dealt with one of these several years ago when considering the growing number of things that humans can do in theory but can no longer do in practice.  This applied to highly expensive projects like sending humans to the moon or operating commercial supersonic air travel.  But it also applies to more mundane activities like the once ubiquitous automated car washes.  The point being that whenever an activist, politician or journalist uses words like “ought,” “could,” “should,” and “can,” what they most often mean is “can’t.”

This, in turn, implies an unacknowledged powerlessness.  Because these antonyms are almost always preceded by another deceptive word… “we.”  People on what is broadly considered the political right, for example, will explain that “we ought/could/should…” start fracking the Bowland shale deposits in northern England and/or start drilling the oil deposits west of Shetland and/or hurry the development of new nuclear power stations.  Against this, those who identify as being on the left will claim that this is unnecessary because “we can/ought/should…” accelerate the deployment of wind turbines and solar panels, electric vehicles and charging infrastructure.  I have covered the impossibility of both proposals – broadly, that they are too energy and resource expensive compared to the energy they return to be viable in the real economy – in several previous posts.  But what I want to explore here is just how deceptive the word “we” is, since it should be patently obvious that used in these kinds of context, the word “we” actually means “they” – or more correctly, since nobody knows who “they” are – “someone else.”

The problem goes far beyond inadequate attempts to solve the big crises of the day…  We should/ought/could… invest in job creation, build more houses, bring the banks to heel, tax the rich, halt illegal migration, stop Israeli bloodshed in Gaza, bomb the Houthis into submission, etc., etc.  But “we,” of course, have little if any agency to do any of this.  And so, these expressions are no more than the hope that clever people somewhere else will figure out what to do… something that bitter experience surely says will not happen.

This doesn’t simply apply to us as individuals, but in the neoliberal era also applies to many collectives.  It is laughable, for example, how many people rally around online petitions, presumably in the belief that they do something more than provide personal data to the corporations behind them.  But even when you secure more signatories than voted for the incumbent government, petitions change nothing.  Changing nothing is also the reason why I have given up on the local activist groups where I live, because their attempts to affect change by standing out in the cold and rain holding placards and shouting at anyone with the time to listen, is no more effective than staying at home and reading a good book… or at least an internet blog post.  Nor does corporate “power” hold much sway unless it is kicking at open doors.  I can only imagine that (sarcasm alert) Netanyahu was quaking in his boots when ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s called for a permanent and immediate ceasefire in Gaza.  This is rightly derided as corporate “virtue signalling,” since it has no impact and – when one reads the small print – little cost to the corporation either.  Even national political parties turn out to have little agency – mostly reneging on their manifesto commitments soon after getting elected, and almost always sticking to the neoliberal course set out by the previous administration… which is why a growing number of voters in the western states regard the establishment parties as merely wings of a uniparty which is viscerally hostile to them.

Notice that “we” in these instances is a moving feast.  At a small scale, “we” might be a family unit, a group of friends, or near neighbours.  On a larger scale, “we” might be a work group, the branch of a trade union, or members of an NGO campaigning on a particular issue.  Bigger again, is the “we” who are members of a political tribe or the “we” who identify as a nation.  Observe though, that the more people this “we” has to encompass, the greater the scope for disagreement, and thus the need for simplistic and often weak definitions – one reason why political debate has abandoned rationality in favour of emotions. 

It is, for example, extremely difficult to deny family ties – particularly where these involve a web of ongoing mutual supports and obligations.  In earlier ages, the same went for neighbourhoods and villages where people shared work rest and play, and where similar bonds of obligation cemented the collective.  Denying something as big and modern as nationality, on the other hand, is simple – one can claim membership of a smaller unrecognised nationality (e.g., Bretton, Catalan, Cornish, Welsh, etc.,) in opposition to the legal nation state, one might opt for ex-pat status – adopting one’s nationality at birth or even a family tie to an alternative nation, or one can trade upward, for example, claiming to be “a European” rather than a national of one of Europe’s nation states.

One reason that this is a problem today is that the neoliberal project set out to undermine nation states politically, socially, and economically.  This is most obvious economically, where a succession of neoliberal governments and leaders assured voters that offshoring central economic activities and flogging off critical infrastructure to anyone with sufficient foreign currency to make it worthwhile would have no negative impact on those – the majority – of citizens who couldn’t afford to move.  But, of course, the impact has been devastating as what was once widespread prosperity has retreated to ever smaller enclaves adjacent to seats of government, big tech headquarters, and to a handful of top-tier universities.  This, in turn, fractured social cohesion as a small managerial/professional salaried class which could take advantage of “free movement” were able to enjoy careers within the multinational corporations or the supranational governmental structures which oversee them.  For the majority though, it has meant decades of relative decline and the descent into a growing precariat with no control over much of their lives, and doomed to low-pay, punctuated by prolonged periods at the mercy of increasingly punitive welfare systems.  This, in turn, is feeding the growing political chasm opening up across the western states as the precariat turns to anyone and everyone not associated with the establishment who promises to end the misery… there’s a reason why Brexit happened, why Trump is ahead in the polls, and why the German establishment is toying with following Ukraine’s lead and banning opposition parties, and why populist parties are leading in the polls across Europe.

Insofar as there is a common theme to these anti-establishment movements, it is an appeal to an earlier Victorian nationalism as distinct from neoliberal globalism.  This is in line with Robert Pirsig’s belief that when social structures – in this case the neoliberal system of supranational governance – fail to deliver, they fall back upon the last set of structures which worked – in this case the nation state structures which emerged in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Except, of course, as Joseph Tainter notes, social crises tend to be the consequence of previous “solutions.”  That is, neoliberalism emerged out of the energy crises of the 1970s which had undermined the nation state structures to begin with.  And so, there can be no going back.

In any case, evidence that the clock cannot be turned back was found in General Sir Patrick Sanders’ bizarre call for “a citizen’s army” to fight Russia last week.  Set aside the fact that Britain’s economic base is no longer capable of supporting its existing military, still less expanding it, that all of the old barracks have been sold off to housing developers, or that we would rely on China to make the additional uniforms.  Of more interest here is that there is no longer a “we” that is worth fighting for.  According to YouGov polling, even if a new war broke out just seven percent of Britons aged 18 to 40 would volunteer for such an army.  A further 21 percent would not volunteer but would fight if conscripted.  But 38 percent said they would refuse to fight (and this only fell slightly to 30 percent in the event that the UK was invaded).  As to the likely effectiveness of a tiny British army should it be foolish enough to attempt an invasion of Russia, China, or even Iran, I am reminded of Bismarck’s reply to the Kaiser when asked what he would do if the British army invaded Germany.  “Oh,” he replied, “I’d send the police to arrest them!”

War, of course, is but one of the many bottleneck crises washing over us.  The declining energy and resources which are the cause of war is a more existential matter.  As are climate change, freshwater shortages, environmental decline, depleted soils, etc.  And in each case, the use of “we” is more often deployed as a psychological device to mask individual powerlessness.  Because if the supranational technocratic kleptocracy have failed to resolve them, while the nation state is no longer fit for the task, what collective is left to us to resolve crises that are global in scale?

The sad reality is that in the face of all but the smallest of crises, it turns out that there is no collective “we,” and that we are each on our own.

As you made it to the end…

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