There’s an interesting debate at A Political Refugee From the Global Village on the subject of Britain’s decline.
Decline is a tricky concept. A nation can be declining absolutely or relatively. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was extremely healthy in 1914 but it was perhaps declining relative to the other great powers.
Nations can be declining in certain areas and booming in other areas.
Australia today is unquestionably in material terms a lot more prosperous than it was when I was growing up. Just as unquestionably it is now a much less pleasant country in which to live. The cities are much more crowded and they are dirtier. There’s a subtle atmosphere of suspicion and hostility that wasn’t there in the past.
People are much less relaxed. People feel less secure.
Half a century ago we had little in the way of an actual Australian culture. Today we have even less. Culturally we are entirely an American colony. We even celebrate Halloween, a purely American festival that was unknown in Australia even a couple of decades ago. We copy every aspect of American pop culture. We have become a much more crass much more trashy society.
This is all subjective, but it’s the subjective things that matter to people.
Australia’s position in the world has not really changed. Half a century ago we were a U.S. vassal state. Militarily and politically that hasn’t changed. Psychologically that hasn’t changed. We think of ourselves as having no right to an independent foreign policy.
We might be doing well economically but psychologically and spiritually we’re in deep trouble. We’re not happy but we can’t figure out that we’re not happy because material wealth does not bring happiness.
It’s amazing how many of our society’s problems are the sorts of problems one normally associates with spoilt children. We have it too easy. We enjoy a very high degree of material prosperity. Even those in our society who consider themselves to be poor enjoy a level of prosperity that was unavailable even to the aristocracy a hundred years ago. We have lots and lots of shiny gadgets. We have gadgets to help us do things that we didn’t even know we needed to do.
We have all the things that money can buy. Unfortunately we don’t have any beliefs or values. We don’t have anything that is actually worth anything. We just have lots of shiny things that cost money. And we’re miserable. The way spoilt children are miserable.
We think that we’re unhappy because we don’t have enough money but really we’re unhappy because we have too much.
We invent imaginary problems because we don’t want to face the emptiness of the lives we lead. Feminism was a prime example of a political movement established to address an imaginary problem, the non-existent oppression of rich privileged middle-class university-educated women.
We also invent imaginary illnesses. We have perfectly normal children but we decide that they’re suffering from make-believe disorders like ADHD. Unhappy women convince themselves they’re suffering from all sorts of ailments when in fact their problem is that they need to have kids.
We do have real problems (like the lack of beliefs alluded to above) but we refuse to face those problems and make up imaginary problems instead.
One can’t help feeling that if we didn’t have so much material prosperity most of our imaginary problems would disappear.
In a discussion elsewhere I made the point that the weakness of the alt-right is that it doesn’t offer much in the way of a positive vision for the future. The alt-right is mostly negative and mostly focused on dislike of its political enemies. My view is that no political movement can succeed unless it does offer a positive vision of the future.
Someone else pointed out that this applies equally to the Left these days. Which I think is a valid point. There was a time when the Left articulated a very clear and reasonably coherent vision of the future. The Left had an actual program. That’s no longer the case. Social justice is a meaningless term that in practice means nothing more than handouts for victim groups and acting as a cover for vicious attacks on political enemies (especially Christians). Social justice, feminism and indeed liberalism in general are little more than rambling incoherent ideologies of hate. The Left no longer has a plan to reconstruct society. The Left has embraced capitalism. The ugliness and injustice and social unhealthiness of capitalism are now things for the Left to cover up. Social justice is a way of persuading us not to notice that the Left no longer has an actual coherent program.
The mainstream Right also offers no vision for the future, other than tax cuts for the rich.
So we’re left with nothing more than a struggle for power, and a recipe for societal disillusionment.
It’s generally taken for granted that economic prosperity is a good thing. Like most things that are taken for granted it’s something that seems much more dubious when you actually think about it.
A certain degree of prosperity is certainly desirable. That does not mean that ever-increasing prosperity is a good thing. Too much of anything can be dangerous, and that includes material prosperity.
Prosperity seems to lead to decadence. Maybe this is not inevitable but it’s difficult to think of a prosperous society that has not to some extent been afflicted by decadence. Once prosperity increases beyond a certain point what you have is excess prosperity. Excess prosperity leads to status-signalling and status-signalling in material terms seems to lead to ideological status-signalling.
Too much prosperity gives people the opportunity to indulge in unwise and unhealthy behaviours. A struggle for existence on the other hand doesn’t offer such opportunities. Being forced to focus on survival has the advantage of keeping us out of trouble.
Excessive material prosperity also undermines religion.
Too much prosperity seems to be a problem for both individuals and societies. The idea that wealth leads inevitably to happiness is central to both liberalism and capitalism but it is at best an unproven assumption.
What does seem certain is that consumerism leads inexorably to decadence. Consumerism is the ultimate drug. As long as people still have the mot precious human right of all, the right to shop, they will accept anything. Nothing else matters.
The ruling passion of the modern West is consumerism. You are what you consume. You exist insofar as you consume. Your worth as a person is measured by your ability to consume.
It’s not quite the same as worshipping wealth. It doesn’t matter if you have zero actual net wealth, if you have access to credit and you can demonstrate your ability to spend then you are one of the righteous ones.
This means of course that the one national goal that matters is to increase GDP. That is not the same as increasing the national wealth. GDP is an entirely artificial figure. It measures economic activity, no matter how worthless, unproductive or even harmful that economic activity might be. And a nation can have a most impressive GDP and be in debt up to its eyeballs. It doesn’t matter. It fuels consumption and consumption is good.
We can look at our GDP and celebrate our good fortune to have so much material prosperity. But even if we assume that material prosperity is the key to happiness and virtue we have to ask ourselves just how real our material prosperity is. Is prosperity based on credit real prosperity? And what does our material prosperity actually represent? We have lots and lots of cheap low-quality consumer electronics. They might only last six months but they’re new and shiny and in six months’ time we’ll buy new ones which will be better because they’ll be even newer and shinier. We have lots of appliances. Of course they only last a few years whereas the ones manufactured half a century ago would last ten to twenty years. But our appliances are new and shiny.
Of course half a century ago ordinary working people could own their own homes. That’s becoming less and less possible. A cynic might say that our boasted material prosperity is complete nonsense if people can’t even afford housing. But who needs to worry about housing when there are shiny new digital gadgets to buy with borrowed money? There used to be a crazy idea that if young people could afford to buy a house they could afford to get married and have kids and that was considered to be a good thing. Nowadays we know it doesn’t matter. You can just live in Mom’s basement for your whole life, and anyway marriage is just a temporary sexual arrangement and who wants to have kids? Having kids means taking responsibility.
No-one seems willing to make a serious challenge to the cult of consumerism. The corporate types care only about profit. It doesn’t matter if society collapses into misery and chaos as long as it doesn’t affect the bottom line. Economists won’t challenge the idea because they’re incapable of understanding anything that can’t be measured in monetary terms. Politicians won’t challenge consumerism because they’re corrupt. Journalists won’t challenge the idea because they’re whores. The churches are too busy erecting Refugees Welcome signs to bother themselves with trivial stuff like the future of family life or the basic human need to find some purpose in life.
I’m not suggesting that material prosperity isn’t a very nice thing. It is. It just isn’t everything. It can be an ingredient in the good life, but it isn’t the whole of it. Which means that economic growth should not be the central pillar of national policy.
Consumerism and the cult of economic growth has distorted our thinking. There are things that we used to value that we’re apparently not allowed to value any more. Things like job security, the mere mention of which brings sneers from modern politicians and economists and the media. Things like quality of life. Remember quality of life? Things like living in pleasant neighbourhoods and not having to battle with traffic congestion.
Consumerism and economic growth have become our masters.
We’re thinking vaguely about moving house. Where we live now used to be on the extreme semi-rural fringe of Sydney. Now it’s just another commuter suburb. The problem is that the infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the population growth and the traffic is now nightmarish. It’s no longer a quiet peaceful sleepy place. Now it’s noise, bustle, chaos.
All this is ultimately fuelled by the Australian government’s insane immigration policies. Incredibly high population growth is pushing city people further and further out.
The problem is, if we do move where do we go? If we go a bit further out then within five years or so the endless suburban sprawl will have caught up with us again. Moving right out into the actual countryside, the real rural Australia, isn’t really an option. Rural communities are mostly dead or dying, sunk in an endless cycle of despair. Which again is largely the result of misguided and vicious government policies.
Of course many right-wingers see the incredibly high rate of population growth as a wonderful thing. Population growth must be a good thing because it propels economic growth, and everyone knows that economic growth is always a good thing. I’m afraid I don’t share these views. I don’t think economic growth is particularly wonderful. Mostly it’s illusory anyway. It might be terrific for the corporate sector but I can’t see that it makes life any better for most ordinary people. In any case in Australia our economic growth is based to a large extent on an insane real estate bubble which has brought no actual benefits to ordinary people. In fact it’s made housing completely unaffordable unless you’re a wealthy overseas investor.
There are also the environmental arguments. Now don’t panic, I haven’t become a convert to the global warming cult. Global warming is a scam. But there are other environmental concerns that do have some validity. What mostly concerns me is the human environment. I’m worried by the social and moral unhealthiness of urban life and the psychological deadening of living entirely in artificial overcrowded overstressed urban environments.
Fetishising economic growth is popular among self-described conservatives but endless economic growth is not really a conservative value. It’s certainly not my idea of a conservative value.
When it comes to politics labels are crucially important. They’re important because they’re nearly always false or misleading, often deliberately so.
Let’s take the conservative label. There are lots of people who attach this label to themselves. In fact practically all of those who do so are in fact liberals. There are very easy ways to tell if a person is conservative or not. If he says he believes in the individual and in individual rights then he’s a liberal. If he says he believes in freedom he’s a liberal. Those are the defining characteristics of liberalism.
There are lots of people who will describe themselves as being fiscally conservative and socially liberal. Such people are liberals. The economic policies that these people describe as being conservative are in fact pure liberalism. These people are right-wing liberals, the very worst kind of liberal.
Those who would describe themselves as being liberal rather than conservative on economic policy are usually socialists. If you combine those economic views with socially liberal views then you’re a left-wing liberal. There’s only one problem with being a left-wing liberal – liberal social policies will eventually destroy any society and create chaos and socialism requires social order.
Being a social conservative is a radically different thing from being a political conservative. For some strange reason it seems to be assumed these days that social conservatives will be right-wing and will therefore support conservative economic policies (which are in reality as we have seen liberal economic policies). There’s no reason why this connection should exist. It used to be quite common to be an economic leftist (which is a very different thing to being an economic liberal). There used to be no problem with being a socialist and being a social conservative. In fact it made a lot of sense. If you were a socialist and you cared about the working class and you had a brain you’d pretty quickly work out that social liberalism is a catastrophe for working-class people.
The reason there are very few socially conservative socialists today is that there are virtually no socialists. Those who pretend to be socialists these days usually turn out to be liberals who pursue economic policies that favour the rich.
But there’s no particular reason why a person today can’t be a socially conservative socialist. Since I’m opposed to immigration and I’m socially ultra-conservative most people today would label me as being far right. Which makes no sense at all to me since I see my opposition to open borders and my social conservatism as being solid left-wing virtues.