Try this simple thought experiment:
A sane and normal-looking person stands up on a street corner and starts berating the leaders of his country. He angrily accuses them of incompetence and corruption and demands they be brought to justice for their activities.
How long would this person be able to continue speaking and what would subsequently happen to him?
Let’s call this individual ‘the Ranter’, and let’s put him in different places in time and space.
Stalinist Russia: 15 seconds; sent to the Siberian gulag
Nazi Germany: 15 seconds; sent to a concentration camp
ISIS controlled Syria: 15 seconds; beheaded
Medieval Europe: 1 minute; severely flogged and put in the pillory
Ancient Babylon: 1 minute; tongue cut out and inserted where the sun never shines
17th century Britain: 15 minutes; heavily fined
Present day China: 15 minutes; 5 years in prison
It’s just a guess, but I’ve a feeling that in most of these cases I’m erring on the side of leniency. However, I think I can be more certain of this:
Present day Bromley High Street: 30 minutes; policeman saunters up and says “Come on sir, you’ve made your point – move along or I’ll have to arrest you for obstructing the pavement”.
What’s not to like about a place where you are free to say what you like – and, what’s more, do it on a full stomach and have a comfortable, safe home to go back to? Good question.
* * *
First of all, it’s fairly obvious why a large number of people outside the Bubble wish the Western world ill. As I noted previously, the very success of the West leads to resentment and, like any dominant culture, the West often provides valid reasons for anger and dislike. The West finds it difficult not to meddle in other people’s business. Add to the mix jealousy and feelings of wounded pride, and hatred can start to simmer. That dislike, however, is often tempered with the desire to emulate and become part of the Bubble. What is less clear is why some cosseted inhabitants of the Bubble, who benefit every day from its opportunities and security, should dislike it quite so much – dislike it to the extent of wanting to destroy it.
Why? Who could possibly want to plunge us all back into the sort of poverty that exists everywhere outside the Western world? As always with human beings, a rationale can be constructed for even the most irrational of thoughts and actions. In this case the rationale is that:
- The West is uniquely corrupt, nasty and beyond repair and it should be demolished forthwith
- A far better alternative is just waiting to be put in place
In other words, most people who want to wreck the Bubble they live in do so because they believe in a Utopian idea.
There are many Utopias on offer, but they are all either very vaguely defined and/or clearly impractical and/or distinctly unpleasant sounding. Thomas More, who coined the term ‘Utopia’ in the 16th century, defined his imaginary land quite carefully. It sounds like the worst sort of fascist dictatorship, where you are told what to do at every step of your life and can be enslaved for travelling around the country without permission.
OK, More was writing right at the start of the modern age, when civil rights were ill-defined to say the least, but I think his ‘Utopia’ set the tone for later models. The problem seems to be that anyone thinking up a perfect society wants everything to work tidily. They tend to get frustrated with people who might not agree with their dream, so either they imagine such troublesome elements being thoroughly suppressed (or maybe ‘re-educated’) or they write them out of the picture entirely. The Ranter wouldn’t last very long in most Utopias, though ironically, Utopian thinkers often consider themselves to be heroic, Ranter type figures in their own society.
Utopians fully believe that if only we could pull down the society we live in, with its unheard of freedom and prosperity, a far better world would arise from the ashes. When I come across such people, I generally make a point of asking about the details of their Utopia – who would get up at 6am on a winter’s morning to clean the hospital toilets? Why would anyone study for years to become an engineer if they could make the same money weaving baskets? What about someone who refused to work at all or skived off at any opportunity? Someone who took too much from the communal store? Perhaps most pertinently – what would become of the Ranter?
The answers to these questions can be either silly or chilling, but more usually, there is no coherent answer at all; they are just waved away.
Why would someone who has invested all of his or her moral and emotional capital in striving for a better future, fail to think through even the most obvious practical details of that future? Of course, there’s no one simple answer, but if I had to put it in a single word, that word would be ‘Romanticism’.
* * *
The Romantic Movement, which grew up at the end of the 18th century, is a fascinating phenomenon, the fruits of which are so familiar to us that we don’t usually stop to think about them. In basis, it was an artistic reaction to the rationalism that arose from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution; a rejection of classicism – of intellectual, logical thought. It had an affinity with the natural world and a suspicion of the works of man. It often dwelt in the mythical past and idolised heroic figures. Above all it meant embracing the emotions as the source of truth – if indeed any objective truth existed.
There can be no doubt that the legacy of Romanticism is a rich and wonderful one – think of the music of Beethoven, the literature of the Brontës, the poetry of Schiller and the art of Turner The world would surely be an immensely poorer place without these things – and they are, of course, only the tiniest sample. Romanticism is the thing that stirs the heart and brings us to the heights of joy or the depths of anguish. Anyone without something of the romantic in them must be a cold fish indeed.
The Romantic period in art is said to have ended in the mid-nineteenth century, but I don’t believe its legacy has ever really waned. Art may have gone on to other things, but you could say that Romanticism has become the cultural sea we swim in – and just like fish in the sea we don’t even notice the element around us. The problem is not with Romanticism in itself, but with the fact that it’s crept into places where it surely doesn’t belong; that it’s taken too seriously. Are real-world activities such as government and science best founded on emotional responses? I rather think not.
Yet appeals to the emotions sometimes feel like the predominant driving force in what should be cool, logical decision-making. A harrowing photo on the internet can change government policy; meanwhile, academics deal in dramatic, frightening language to gain attention and funding. Everything in the world becomes black and white; right or wrong; good or evil. Speed of action is more important than whether the action will be correct or effective.
It all sounds a bit childish, and I touched on the streak of childishness in Western societies in my post on Haiku. But perhaps it’s best to see Romanticism more as a nostalgic throw-back – a rejection of everything that inflated the Western Bubble and a hankering after the pure, uncomplicated, imaginary days before industrialisation. This goes some way to explaining the hatred of the West that goes hand in hand with much Romantic thinking.
As we saw, the twin threats to the Bubble in the 20th century were the ideologies commonly known as fascism and communism. Both of these were almost archetypically Romantic movements, complete with a sweeping, simplistic view of past and future, semi-divine heroic leaders and the outpouring of mass emotions.
To be sure, both fascism and communism embraced the labels of ’rational’ and ‘scientific’, but this was little more than a semi-conscious attempt to put their threadbare ideas safely beyond dispute. They recognised that scientific thought had gained a unique respect and so claimed that ‘science’ had ‘proved’ that they were right – and if you continued to argue, you were a dangerous enemy of the truth. It’s certainly an irony that science – the product of rational thought, should be turned against the West by these irrational leftovers of the pre-industrial world of empire.
Fascism, having lost a war and had its hideous nature fully exposed, is now deeply unfashionable. Not so its twin brother. You might have thought the crimes of Stalin, certainly comparable to those of Hitler; a succession of other nightmarish monsters: Mao, Hoxha and Pol Pot, to name but three; the fall of the Iron Curtain and the obvious joy of those released from behind it – you might have thought that these things would have consigned anything based on the ideas of Karl Marx to the ‘dustbin of history’. But if you thought that, you thought wrong. The ringing ideals of Marxism are, you see, still Romantic.
But if Marxism doesn’t do it for you, something else can be found that does – environmentalism, anti-racism; feminism; anarchism; animal rights; pacifism – the more extreme the better, are all of them handy sticks that can be used to beat the West. And they certainly aren’t mutually exclusive; you could – almost certainly, you should – support them all.
* * *
So who are these people? What makes them tick?
To start with, although adherents often think of themselves as intellectual giants, it should be reiterated that Utopian Romanticism is a purely emotional response to the world. The Romantics proudly refer to themselves as ‘progressives’, but where their ‘progress’ is taking us is very suspect. There are generous measures of self-righteousness and arrogance here; the Utopian Romantic sees himself as morally as well as intellectually superior. Also featuring strongly are jealousy and perhaps the sheer exhilaration of collective action; but the most prevalent emotion on display is a raging anger.
Why this rage? If you ask a Utopian Romantic the reason, the answer will be loud and clear – anybody with eyes to see must be enraged by the terrible injustices all around him –injustices perpetrated by the ‘capitalist system’, the ‘ruling class’ or more generally by ‘the West’ and white people – particularly white men.
Fair enough, the nations of the West have, and still do, engage in some pretty questionable acts. Any Utopian Romantic worth his salt will be able to quote you a long list of despicable actions, from the slave trade and, British concentration camps during the Boer War to water-boarding in Iraq and the propping up of corrupt, brutal regimes. Every evil around the world can inevitably be traced back somehow to ‘colonialism’.
But, before we hang our heads in too much shame, let’s look a little more closely. There are several points that should be made. Firstly, the worst and most savage examples of Western wrong-doing are almost all from the fairly distant past. The slave trade is perhaps the best example.
Slavery has existed throughout the world since at least the Neolithic. It existed in ancient Greece and Rome and in practically any ancient society, Eastern or Western you care to mention. It was the obvious way of getting the hard work done without dirtying your own hands. It was seen as the natural order of things.
The European-run slave trade between Africa and America was certainly brutal and on a larger scale than anything before and the calculated, business-like way it operated is certainly quite repulsive. But trading slaves from Africa was nothing new. The Arabs had been taking Africans as slaves for centuries before the Europeans got in on the act and African chieftains were often eager to make a profit at a neighbouring tribe’s expense.
The real difference between slavery conducted by the West and slavery everywhere else is that the West, uniquely in history, abolished it.
Think about it. Never in human history or pre-history had any society expressed so much as a vague doubt about slavery. It’s hard to think of a single prominent figure from before the 18th century, certainly any non-western one, who raised their voice against enslaving other human beings. We were the only ones who gave a damn. The concept of slavery is now totally abhorrent to practically everyone in the West. Thanks to that, and that alone, it can be hoped that it will gradually disappear from the entire world.
The same can be said of torture. Yes, European countries indulged in torture until a couple of centuries ago, just as every other culture in history has. But now, even a hint of torture being used to extract information and people throw up their hands in horror. A few years ago we had a scandal about ‘rendition’, the policy of exporting detainees to ‘friendly’ states who would then torture them to extract information. Nasty and cynical, yes, but it happened because the CIA wouldn’t or couldn’t do the deed itself, even in secret.
Empire and colonialism, ditto. Few people in the West today consider it acceptable for a foreign power to lord it over ‘natives’ in their own country. But the ability to do just that has been a powerful source of national pride for peoples throughout history. Not only that, cultures have been openly and proudly racist since time immemorial; only now – and only in the West – is that seen as unacceptable.
The West is painted by the Utopian Romantics as horribly aggressive and unscrupulous; just itching to start wars to bully poor nations into line. As I said before, the West does have a prediliction for meddling, but it really is hard to find an example of the West starting a war for purely selfish motives. Even Korea and Vietnam were fought as a reaction to a conflict triggered by anti-Western forces.
The normal pattern is that some nasty conflict breaks out and, more or less reluctantly, after a period of hand-wringing, the West reacts to try to protect the people under threat. Defending economic interests certainly spurs the West into action in many cases, but almost always there is some humanitarian crisis that is the primary mover.
There are two main problems; firstly, that modern weapons are so appallingly destructive that even a minor mistake can lead to carnage – images of which will flash round the world. Secondly, there is usually a total lack of preparation to follow up on military victory and ‘win the peace’. So we could certainly describe the West as meddling, naive and ham-fisted, but it nearly always acts with the best intentions, often with one hand, militarily, tied behind the back. Ruthlessness and blood-lust are noticeable absent.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should forget the misdeeds of our ancestors, but it does mean we should feel proud that we have finally outgrown them – and by doing so, dragged much of the rest of humanity with us. As the Western Bubble inflated, our modern day morality grew with it. That morality is relatively new, and it is unique to the West. Criticism of the West is only meaningful if it’s comes from the standpoint of Western values, because under any other value system there is nothing to criticise.
None of this stops the Utopian Romantic from breathlessly condemning Western acts both from the past and the present, but the problem for the Romantics is that Western misdeeds usually look like a Sunday picnic when compared to those of non-western cultures. I would prefer to be questioned, even ‘water-boarded’, by the CIA, than fall into the hands of the Iranian security services; I would rather be a Palestinian militant captured by the Israelis than an Israeli soldier falling into the hands of the Palestinians; I would choose to be held in Guatanamo Bay in preference to a Nigerian prison, and I would venture to suggest that anyone choosing differently in any of these examples is an idiot.
People, generally speaking, are not idiots. They don’t accept that there is a ‘moral equivalence’ between a bomb going astray and hitting a hospital and a captured pilot being burnt alive in a cage.
* * *
However, it isn’t just Western governments that meddle all over the world, with short sharp wars followed by ‘peace-keepers’. Perhaps more blatant are Western companies, who use their muscle to extort the best possible deal, exploit workers and pollute the environment in a way they couldn’t possibly get away with at home. A Utopian Romantic would say that this is just another face of the brutal capitalist system that is intent on grinding us all down.
Capitalism has had a pretty bad press and it’s not hard to see why. It operates effectively because people are self-serving – greedy, if you like. People will work hard and find new ideas and solutions because they and their family will benefit handsomely if they are successful. It’s that obvious. In fact, it’s part of human nature.
On a small scale, this is fine and dandy, but like many human enterprises once it reaches a certain scale, it tends to detach from humanity. Since labour is just another cost, cutting that cost to the bone would seem to make good business sense. In law, a company is in some ways treated like a living person, but very often it’s not a person you would particularly like to meet. Companies are often like psychopaths, coldly seeking their own ends without pity or conscience.
In the service of these psychopathic organisations, people often do things they would never do in other contexts. Companies will sell unsafe products and they will lie and conceal facts to do so. They will operate unsafe factories and pay starvation wages. They will pollute and degrade the environment around them. I’ve heard it said, half-jokingly perhaps, that most multinationals would boil their employees bones down for glue if they thought it would turn a profit.
So I have some reservations about capitalism. But, let’s face it, most of the malpractises listed above happen only rarely – and people don’t get boiled down for glue, even in the developing world.
Why not? Because it’s bad publicity, that’s why not. Also, it’s illegal and executives don’t want to risk time in clink, even to increase their bonuses. In other words, capitalism is nowadays kept on a fairly short leash. Capitalism is one of the West’s secrets of success. It harnesses a massive amount of energy and directs it efficiently into producing things that people need and want. But like the ox pulling the plough, if it gets loose it can run amok and smash people’s lives. Here in the bubble and to some extent outside it, companies are heavily constrained in what they can get away with. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they don’t try it on and that they don’t sometime succeed.
The urge to make a profit has existed ever since the first piece of flint was exchanged for a fleece, so it would be wrong to consider capitalism as a purely Western phenomenon. The West has merely put it to work more effectively, then refined it and, to some extent, civilised it. If you want to see ‘unbridled capitalism’, look at the mining industry of the Roman Empire – or anywhere else before the late 19th century, for that matter.
But to a Utopian Romantic, far from being a basic human impulse, the equation is: capitalism = evil = the West. The massive benefits capitalism has unarguably brought to every single one of us are simply ignored. They just don’t fit into the simplistic, emotive narrative.
* * *
So, fair or not, righteous anger is a powerful thread in Romantic thinking – and I don’t doubt that most of it is the genuine anger of sensitive people looking at an unfair world. But why is all this rage targeted at the home team, as it were? Are these people really fooling themselves that we’re the worst offenders in the nastiness league?
I think the answer lies in two other emotions; firstly guilt. To anyone detesting the Bubble, there must surely be an uneasiness at benefiting from its bounty, while others are excluded. Of course, to the smug and narcissistic, self-criticism and self-doubt are intolerable. So, far from encouraging introspection, feelings of guilt well up into ever greater anger, projected not inwards but outwards. And now the truly ingenious bit; because of his noble sentiments, the enraged Romantic is exonerated from the guilt – in fact, he becomes as one with the victim. Coddled, secure and wealthy though he certainly is, he has become the victim.
Even more darkly, there is a strong strand of despair in Romanticism. Romantic art had a strange fascination with tragedy and death (romanticised death, of course). Think of the gothic tales of Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, or paintings such as Henry Wallis’ The Death of Chatterton or Goya’s The Third of May 1808. Beethoven famously prayed for ‘One day of real joy’, but one suspects that many other Romantics secretly revelled in their gloom. How many Romantic artists ended their lives in suicide? Far more than your average group of privileged young adults, I would suppose.
Such nihilism is plain to see today. Any reasonably upbeat story about mankind featured on the internet is likely to attract readers’ comments that are extraordinarily negative. If you take a look at what other subjects these readers have commented on and the views they’ve expressed, they are almost inevitably Utopian Romantics. Normally, the comments take the tack that humanity is a dismal bane on the Earth and things would be far better if we ceased to exist; basically we’re some sort of cancer or virus.
There is a deep-seated antipathy here, not just to the West, but to the whole of humankind. A sort of Swiftian self-disgust. Perhaps the anger and guilt of the Utopian Romantic can’t be wholly deflected onto others. Perhaps, in the end, it inevitably boomerangs back.
* * *
In any case, irrational and Utopian ideas are, rightly, tolerated in the Bubble. It may be annoying to see people making full use of the unique freedoms granted them in the West in order to sanctimoniously urge its destruction – but so be it. A few angry hypocrites aren’t going to threaten our Bubble’s existence – and that the Utopians are a tiny minority can be seen in the number of people who actually vote for Utopian parties in elections.
But not all Utopian Romantics are of this ‘hard’ variety, consciously setting about to destroy the West. Most think their Utopia will just somehow emerge in a natural, inevitable way. Perhaps the majority don’t really think about it at all; they call for revolutionary change, but deep down don’t expect their comfortable lives to be affected.
The danger lies in the influence Utopian Romantics can have in broader society. It can be almost guaranteed that any popular movement seeking genuine and necessary change will be taken over by the ‘hard’ Utopians – they are organised, committed and looking for something to use as a lever. They crave mass support as a vampire craves blood.
Because most of us are Romantics at heart, we’re suckers for a simplistic, emotional solution to life’s complexities. So, many people who have no interest in tearing down the Western world are still attracted to the ‘noble ideals’ of the Utopians – and indulging in self-righteous emotion really makes you feel good about yourself. It’s so much more enticing than trying to find messy compromises and workable solutions.
So it can also be guaranteed that Utopian Romantic posturing will attract the trendy and the vain – those who want, no need, to prominently display their ‘compassion’, without actually doing very much that might inconvenience them. Film stars and other ‘celebs’ figure prominently in this category. Those of an artistic temperament in general are often the biggest suckers – the sweeping emotional answer to complicated questions is just too tempting; Romanticism is basically an artistic movement, after all.
Most of the causes that Utopian Romantics gravitate to are not inherently wrong at all – who doesn’t want a fairer society without sexual or racial discrimination? Who could question the need to protect the natural environment for future generations? Who would argue that a world without war isn’t a grand idea? But what identifies the Utopian Romantic is that the solution to these issues is inevitably impractical, extreme and often damaging to the very thing that is supposedly being supported. You sometimes get the distinct impression that the cause itself is of little interest – it’s just a convenient means to an end. For the hard Utopian Romantic, that end, whether or not it is explicitly stated, is the destruction of the very society they live in.
So, genuinely important social causes quickly become swamped with the Romantics and their trendy ‘fellow travellers’. The moral high ground is loudly claimed and more realistic people discover they have to go along with this or find themselves excluded from a movement they may have helped start. Anyone dissenting from the ‘correct’ position is shouted down, sidelined or given some derogatory label.
This process can be seen over and over again in everything from political reform to feminism to environmentalism. Amnesty International is a classic example; a highly moral and politically neutral organisation set up to tackle political imprisonment and torture has been, little by little, subverted into an all-purpose, anti-western campaign vehicle.
There are two dangers in all of this. First, there is a risk that people will become suspicious of dealing with real and important issues due to the absurd rhetoric and obviously destructive aims of the Utopian Romantic activists. But worse even than that is the possibility that the loud assertions of the Utopian Romantics become more or less accepted among the population at large – the default position in more and more areas, and that people feel too awkward and intimidated to challenge it, even tentatively. People’s thoughts can thus be effectively policed – the whole business of ideas being labelled ‘politically incorrect’ is an indication of this.
When people stop to think, they usually realise how potentially dangerous this tendency is. But the whole point is to encourage people NOT to think rationally, just to go with their emotions – and, as any demagogue can tell you, emotions are easily manipulated. As we have much reason to know, the sleep of reason gives birth to monsters.
Little surprise, then, that Romantic solutions appeal so much to those who set themselves up to be our rulers. It is assumed that there are votes in emotion and, even if there aren’t, an extravagant Romantic gesture is far easier and safer than making a difficult decision. Difficult decisions are risky and often unpopular – you’re bound to upset someone with a loud voice; in fact, you’re just setting yourself up for an emotional mugging. Much better to be a mugger than a muggee.
It’s certain that sometimes politicians do actually believe in the short-sighted, ineffectual, or even downright harmful policies Romanticism is prone to – after all, they come from the same cultural roots as the rest of us. But above all, rulers are drawn to the Romantic mindset because it’s useful. Pandering to Romanticism is not just stupidity or laziness, it is a way of keeping control.
The picture at the top of this post is of Grima Wormtongue, the man whispering deceit and defeatism in the ear of the debilitated King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings. Wormtongue is an uncannily familiar figure to us today; spiteful, angry and negative. I guess that Tolkein created the character from material he saw around him in the 1950’s. The same material is certainly around us today.
Wormtongue’s poison was administered to a purely venal end – he wanted power and didn’t care that his homeland would be invaded and damned by his actions. Perhaps all Romantic Utopians here in our real world genuinely want the best for their fellow human beings, but if they get close to real power and influence, their work is as potentially destructive as that of the loathsome Wormtongue.
Because, as they say, a fish rots from its head down. Perhaps the real danger of Utopian Romanticism comes not from the careless destruction it urges, but from the opportunity it gives more subtle souls to dismantle the Bubble, piece by piece. If there is one single greatest danger to our Bubble, it is likely to come from the people in charge. It’s those people I’m going to think about next.