Consumerism: The real threat to our liberties
This is another article that appeared in the Guardian some time ago. I thought I’d posted it here too, but it seems I forgot to do it…
George Monbiot recently wrote on Cif that “the neoliberalism forced upon governments by corporate power and the Washington consensus; the terror of the tabloid press – all combine to create a political culture which cannot respond to altered realities without collapsing.”
Consider how such institutional inflexibility affects our response to climate change, the limited resources and the asymmetric lifestyles we now lead. Monbiot asserts that our civil liberties are being assaulted as a means of suppressing dissent, and that is most certainly one intention. However, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, here is an alternative analysis of what is happening to our civil liberties.
Let’s say you are a newly-minted Labour government and your best and brightest are holding quiet chats with scientists, who spell out the potential for massive global collapse. Clever chaps like Nicholas Stern do back-of-a-fag-packet calculations to show that the only way to address the coming problems will be to raise all kinds of new taxes, but you know this is political suicide, a view reinforced when riots break out over a minor increase in fuel duties alone. The wired world and the markets are now interlocked; you can no longer exert power nationally when jobs, money and security are inextricably entwined with those of other countries, many of them hostile over our colonial past while others are just hostile. And everybody, everywhere, is frightened by that which we don’t understand: a world of incessant, accelerating change.
So, according to the best national advice, mirrored consistently by international opinion and events, you realise that there is no chance of staving off the coming crises: climate change, a burgeoning world populationcreating demand for oil and gas that will certainly run out and an ecosystem about to experience changes that will cause unimaginable disruption to virtually everything we take for granted. On top of these anxieties, people are now so angry in other parts of the world that they keep turning up here and try to blow us up. Order in society is achieved by an electorate being more satisfied with their lot, rather than less. Despite our overt, tireless consumption, this balance is shifting.
So you come to a reasonable, if cynical conclusion. The primary aim of any government is to maintain law and order of sufficient reach and power that democracy can operate – or appear to – and to protect those who have gained from those who might otherwise take those gains away. You study the various storms on the horizon and realise that there is only one certain prediction you can make: a breakdown of the social order comparable only to that of a world war. It will be global, so security will become a nightmare as refugee populations bounce from border to camp to scavenging mob. Extremists will become a law unto themselves, as has the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Governments will make promises they cannot possibly keep (on growth, security, energy costs, jobs) and western democracies will become a merry-go-round as each helpless administration in turn gets booted out, replaced by an identikit helpless alternative that is really no alternative at all.
Given all of the above, a review of the encroachments on our civil liberties creates a picture of a government gearing up for a new civil war, whose opening skirmishes we may have already witnessed. The government cannot address climate change without losing office. It cannot find oil where there is none, prevent terrorism or protect our jobs, our money and our pensions. It can no longer effectively run this country because its operation is subject to controls and influences that originate half-way round the world. Our problems are interconnected as never before, but we have failed to effectively connect up our societies and align our aims, because you cannot connect to people in poverty, nor can you align with the aims of those you have disenfranchised. In this situation, everything that is taking place — the polarisation, the demonisation and the concomitant legislation to suppress dissent — are the logical steps of a government protecting itself, convinced that its actions are meritorious by dint of good intentions: in order to keep us safe, they must watch us like distrustful, paranoid parents and act swiftly when we appear to be getting out of control.
We in the industrial nations have been living beyond our means for some time. Did we really think this could continue indefinitely? That the “third world” of yesteryear would just put up with relentless exploitation, even when the inequality was made explicit night after night on the TVs we sold them? When climate change makes a nonsense of the promise that they could enjoy a similar quality of life if they just did what they were told and waited long enough?
We did this. We went along with it all. We took our civil liberties for granted. None of us are ignorant of our circumstances. No longer are we the children of an agrarian lifestyle, where our understanding stops at the edge of the field we till. Yet we still insist that everything is the fault of some paternalistic figure or body, and that we can do nothing to solve our own problems because we are powerless, held in thrall by our desire to consume. And yet, now the invoice has turned up, nobody wants to foot the bill.
Our elected representatives cannot pass laws that address matters for which we have not been prepared in advance through the simple but effective expedient of making us terrified of any number of boogie men – a strategy for dealing with unruly children. Because we vote like fickle teenagers, politicians know their tenure depends not on doing what is right, but what keeps us complaisant. They know we will not vote a second time for any government that methodically reduces our standard of living in the name of climate change or energy security, no matter that the reduction is entirely in our own best interests. Governments can do nothing significant now except prepare for a future in which this oil empire will implode in a violent catharsis, as did all previous empires. We are addicted to our consumptive habits and no government will risk trying to wean us off the teat by legislation. They will do it at the end of a riot-stick and what we see now is only the ground being laid for things to come. Unless we prevent it.