Slouching To Despotism

by Fergus Downie (May 2013)

Part 2

They have their little pleasures for the day, and their little pleasures for the night, but they have a regard for health."We have discovered happiness,"--say the last men, and blink

What is the price for this carnival of amusements – the descent of man. When there are no values worth standing on – happiness becomes the ultimate democratic virtue and as a consequence contemporary politics is little more than a footnote to Bentham’s hedonistic calculus with all the authority of 21st century neuroscience thrown in. This is the politics of nudge, with all the diminished expectations of citizenship one might expect when one starts coining desperate oxymorons like liberal paternalism to cover the void. In Britain we once had enough reserves of irony to draw the line at such clunkingly Orwellian phrases, but now the dissonance barely registers; all shades of the political spectrum beat a path to charlatans like Thaler whose low-brow transatlantic pseudo-science has been reproduced with even less literary elegance by our own Happiness Czar. Lord Layard’s execrable book, Happiness, Lessons from a New Science, is peppered with the kind of infantile colloquialisms that make you think a LOL is beating its wings on every page. It  is difficult to imagine he meant it to be taken seriously but the low brow demeanor is perhaps as it should be; if you are going to construct a political philosophy on the unrefined tastes of a fourteen year old you may as well adopt the syntax.

Once upon a time there used to be a thinking man’s antidote to this kind of thing and it stemmed from a deep seated and eminently healthy instinct that men are more than laboratory animals, and that it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. Bentham, the ultimate progenitor of the politics of Happiness, and the object of Mill’s famous remark was unable to concede this point and of the two he looks the more modern. The unwillingness to judge, after all is a credo for 21st century progressives and Bentham’s refusal to acknowledge any qualitative distinctions between pleasurable experiences chimes well with this sensibility, whilst the modern world in any case has more mind atrophying diversions to offer than Pushpin, with precious few Pushkins. The effects in a society with a dwindling stock of moral capital were to be infinitely worse, and Bentham’s philosophy anticipated the powerful modern obsessions. If the ability to experience pleasure and pain were the weightiest moral considerations no further leap of the imagination were necessary to grant animals rights. 

The other equally sound inference to draw was that humans should be governed as if they were cleverly designed automata. Bentham’s ideas, the green shoots of behaviouralist psychology were particularly influential amongst penal reformers and in the Indian civil service; utilitarianism is the characteristic false consciousness of planners but it has always been a minority taste in healthy societies. 

The hard edges to this choice were dramatized by the philosopher Robert Nozick when he invited his readers to choose between an unending stream of pleasurable sensations guaranteed by the Pleasure Machine and the hard grind of an authentic existence. For Nozick the question had only to be posed to be answered – most of us would choose our better selves, and avoid the sedated euphoria of an empty life, but it would not have been a dilemma if it did not hold some human attraction. Making the right choice has always required what Orwell termed ‘moral effort’, and the dilemma explored in Nozick’s thought experiment has been a staple of reflective thoughts since the Sophists at the very least. An escape into sensory oblivion is a perennial temptation for the world weary, and advances in nanotechnology and neuroscience are coming ever closer to conjuring up the dream filled half-lifes depicted in the cult sci-fi film the Matrix where individuals can opt to roam cyber space for eternity.

The catch with this Faustian bargain has always been clear – even the basest elemental appetite does not arise ex-nihilo – slaves for example eventually lose the desire to be free, all of which highlights Lenin’s cardinal Who-Whom question. Just who creates the ersatz synthetic pleasures bestowed on whom, and what is the effect?

Here, Orwell’s  humorous parody of the mass culture he saw enveloping his treasured England are more instructive than his cruder metaphor of a boot stamping on a man’s face. In 1984 Winston Smith’s lover worked in Prolesec, a subdivision of the Ministry of Truth dedicated to churning out ‘an unending stream of rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs’ all designed to keep the proles in a state of contented ignorance, and this enterprise was prescient enough to also indulge the adolescent urge to shatter flimsy taboos. Pornosec, for example produces booklets in sealed packets with titles such as ‘Spanking Stories’ or ‘One Night in a Girls' School', ‘to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal."

A class conspiracy? Perhaps. In the 21st century prolefeed is big bucks but it is not made by proles and Orwell would no doubt have pondered the irony of Big Brother – the hideous brainchild of Bazalgette an exemplar of the kind of mental slumming so de rigeour amongst the New Elites. A descendant of the architect of London’s sewage system he has used his Eton education to undo his ancestors great service to society and pump shit back into people’s houses (for the uninitiated Big brother is a reality TV show marketed in the main at people who will have little grasp of the Orwellian sleight of hand, where suitably half witted contestants and sadistic viewers. The vote off is the chard – but needless to say there are no Aristides in the house).

As in 1984 this traffic is overwhelmingly one way1; the offspring of the liberal middle classes are exposed to the products of mass culture but this is simply a case of practical anthropology; as in the days of empire one does well to learn the language of the conquered.

[1] One of the most interesting observations from Charles Murray’s Coming Apart is the revelation of how little TV the upper classes actually watch especially when compared with their social inferiors. Huxley’s goggle box is the opium of the poor.

The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.

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