I’m trying CPT. Cognitive Political Therapy.
That’s what this blog is. I started it in the run up to the 2015 general election as a means of trying to work out what the hell was going on. With Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, the theory is that you try to work out, and put into perspective, what frightens you by thinking about the worst that could possibly happen, and how you might deal with it. The trouble with the political version is that every time I think that the worst couldn’t possibly happen, it does.
And then something even worse, unimaginably worse, happens. A majority Tory government? It’ll never happen. Brexit? Nah. President Trump? No way, Jose.
So why have people like me got so little understanding? It’s not just the ‘metropolitan elite’ – it’d be some comfort if I was one of them. At least I’d get paid for writing this stuff. Basically, you are stuffed if you have a belief that democracy functions best with essentially altruistic politicians, inspired by their own ideological versions of the public good, competing for the trust of the electorate, who then go on to enact rational policies underpinned by evidence that they might work.
So what’s gone wrong?
Ed Miliband, speaking on Robert Peston’s show this morning, claimed that he’d had the right analysis of the scale and depth of the problem before the last election, but that the solutions they offered were “too small”.
I buy some of that. The analysis of this stage of capitalism was plausible, and the idea of finding some politically acceptable form of redistribution of wealth sensible. But both still run up against the buffers of tone, and mood.
Or take Nick Cohen, writing in The Observer today. He offered a leftish-liberal version of Roger Scruton’s prescription on Radio Four this morning – we need to heed the pain, suffering, and ‘identity politics’ of straight white guys. Professor Scruton, tweed-clad, fox hunter that he is, does not want us to sneer at the ‘white working class’, whereas Cohen, at least, recognises that the key concept here is class. White, or otherwise. I’ll even buy some of that.
But none of it is enough. Why are we in this crisis, this train wreck of crises, carriage upon carriage of them?
It’s no accident that one of the most oft-repeated metaphors of late evokes the cartoon character who runs at full speed off the edge of a cliff, and keeps on running until the realisation hits that there’s no ground beneath the feet. Cue the plummet.
The image works for our times, because there is sort of a consensus, across left and right, if such labels mean much any more, that the illusions that have kept our civilisations stable are crumbling into dust, and nothing is replacing them.
Certainly the 2008 banking crisis brought this long brewing problem out into the open. I thought I understood as much as any thoughtful member of the public about how capitalism worked. However much I railed against gross inequality, or corporate greed, I assumed that the system was essentially rational. So to discover that behind the Portland stone, or steel and glass towers, that shade the inner workings of the financial system from view, there was little more than a gaudy Las Vegas casino of winking slot machines into which our savings were poured, yielding a trickle of coins for us, and a great stack of loot for the 1% – that was scary.
And everyone knows about this stuff, even if they haven’t thought it through, or made the connections.
Insurance? Think it is priced according to actuarial calculations about the level of risk incurred by both parties? Of course not. It’s about extracting as much cash from the customer as possible.
Energy prices? Competition has worked well there. Not.
We know things are wrong. That most of us, working class, middle class, it doesn’t matter, most of us are less secure than we used to be. We have to be ever vigilant that we aren’t being fleeced for things we have no option to buy – shelter, food, heat, water. It is exhausting.
So what happens when the ground we thought was solid disappears from under us?
History suggests that there are simple solutions, but that they don’t work, and there are complex, difficult solutions, and they may well work.
At the moment, the purveyors of the simple solutions are in the ascendency. It’s a form of modern Luddism. Smash stuff up. It feels good, doesn’t it? But look where the Luddites got. Nowhere. Smashing stuff because you want things to go back to how they used to be is a tantrum, not a strategy.
The Luddites didn’t see how the economy was changing; how capital accumulation was powering technological change, which in turn was leading to massive, fundamental social change. How could they? They were handloom weavers, and the new world of power looms and spinning machines was beyond their comprehension.
But there were people around, not just thinkers, but doers, not just in ivory towers, but on factory floors, who pieced together an analysis and a practical prescription, which was in tune with changing times. Collective action, mass membership political parties, the extension of the franchise until it was universal. It involved not just thinking about one’s own village, or one’s own valley. It involved thinking bigger than ‘ordinary people’ had ever thought before.
Today we are in need of thinking, and action, on a similar scale. Big, open, not sentimental about the way things were, but humble enough to hang on to the bits of the past that are still fit for purpose, and unafraid of being radical.
Civilisation is a confidence trick. Thats not to disparage it. It works when we believe in it, when we buy into it, when it gives us security and opportunity. Right now we’ve lost confidence, and for good reason. The trick isn’t working.
And for our next trick?