A great piece from George Monbiot. Good to see him tackling the paradoxes of freedom. It’s worth quoting him at length, though note that I have appended an important point of criticism.
We appear to possess an almost limitless ability to sit back and watch as political life is seized by plutocrats; as the biosphere is trashed; as public services are killed or given to corporations; as workers are dragooned into zero-hours contracts. Though there are a few wonderful exceptions, on the whole protest is muted and alternatives are shrugged away without examination. How did we acquire this superhuman passivity?…
Had our ancestors been asked to predict what would happen in an age of widespread prosperity in which most religious and cultural proscriptions had lost their power, how many would have guessed that our favourite activities would not be fiery political meetings, masked orgies, philosophical debates, hunting wild boar or surfing monstrous waves, but shopping and watching other people pretending to enjoy themselves? How many would have foreseen a national conversation – in public and in private – that revolves around the three Rs: renovation, recipes and resorts?… Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chainstores. [Nice line, George] …
Does extreme comfort deaden the will to be free?
If so, it is a habit learned early and learned hard. When children are housebound, we cannot expect them to develop an instinct for freedom that is intimately associated with being outdoors. We cannot expect them to reach for more challenging freedoms if they have no experience of fear and cold and hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps freedom from want has paradoxically deprived us of other freedoms. The freedom which makes so many new pleasures available vitiates the desire to enjoy them….
It is not hard to see how our elective impotence leads before long to tyranny. Without coherent popular movements, which are required to prevent opposition parties from falling into the clutches of millionaires and corporate lobbyists, almost any government would be tempted to engineer a nominally democratic police state. Freedom of all kinds is something we must use or lose.
Now for my point of disagreement. Monbiot implies in that last paragraph that the tyranny of the plutocrats is simply opportunist. I very much doubt that. I think at the very least they worked hard to reinforce our passivity. And they did it by cultivating our consumerist, selfish tendencies, both through a dramatic increase in the availability of goods (so-called wealth creation, aka as destruction of the planet) and through a process of insidious brainwashing that “greed is good” and a general promotion of the cult of the individual. None of that was simply accidental.
For those of us old enough to remember, one needs only to think back to the “social and economic revolution” of Thatcher and Reagan through the 1980s: what was, in fact, the final assault on working-class communities and the communal solidarity that distinguished them.
The Sirens of the revolution were the corporate media, from Hollywood to the newspapers. That is why I keep banging on about them, because we cannot hope to make sense of where we went so desperately wrong until we factor them in.
The problem is that they are still the main prism through which we gather information about ourselves and our societies. So when Monbiot writes a great piece like this one, he still cannot quite make sense of the subject – precisely because he is writing through that corporate media. Sure, he can criticise the red-tops, the yellow press, and the media barons. He can even identify the odd cock-up by the “quality” press. But these are all easy targets.
What he cannot do is identify the structural role of all proft-driven media – his own newspaper, the Guardian, included – in the promotion of the values of consumerism and individualism. And because he cannot tell us about the Guardian’s role, he cannot identify the BBC’s or the New York Times’, or any of the rest of the “quality” corporate media. He cannot put in place the last piece of the jigsaw – or at least not if he wants to keep his prestige platform.
So how we do we deal with that paradox?