Ship of Fools

ship-of-fools

 

It has been well said that the major disqualification for the exercise of power should be the wanting of it. Unfortunately, most ordinary people don’t even try to acquire power and so it’s left to those who crave it. Although power brings with it many obvious advantages – status, money and the best mates, we ordinary people realise we just aren’t cut out for it. We also see that it isn’t all a bed of roses. Only the most ruthless, devious, manipulative and self-confident are likely to get to the top; and the competition is cut-throat – sometimes literally. ‘Uneasy lies the head which wears a crown’, as Shakespeare observed.

No, most of us just want to be left in peace with as few restrictions as possible. Another word for what we want is freedom.

Fat chance; the power-hungry detest freedom – they want to control, they want to meddle; that’s the whole point, really. They don’t want ordinary people answering them back, they want – no, they need – to be obeyed. They will find ways to bend others to their will and to receive the respect they feel they deserve.

Just who are these people? To quote Shakespeare again: ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them’. But, as the speaker, Malvolio, discovers to his cost, having greatness thrust upon one is usually no more than an illusion or, in his case, a cruel joke. Incidentally, Shakespeare comes to mind again and again when you start to contemplate the acquisition and retention of power. Perhaps the majority of his plays have it as a central theme.

So, the people we find with real power have inevitably achieved it or inherited it. The former we might categorise as Alpha Males. Few females play this game, although a fair number come in on the coat-tails of the male – and often prove even more ruthless than their mates.

The Alpha male is the Head Honcho, the Big Swinging Dick, the one with bigger cojones than his contemporaries. Being intelligent or capable in some area can be helpful to an Alpha, but it’s not the primary factor in being successful. In fact, the only really essential talent is to excel in the game of defeating other Alphas. For a baboon, this comes down to being physically stronger and more aggressive, and that can be a definite advantage for all members of the troop. It means the most assertive genes predominate in the gene pool and, with a strong, aggressive male in charge, the troop gains an advantage in territorial disputes with neighbouring apes, against predators and (for those species which go in for it) in hunting.

This was certainly the case for our ancestors on the plains of Africa, and that’s where practically all our behaviour patterns originated. Most of those behaviours must have been well established before we became fully modern Homo Sapiens, but even if we consider only the roughly 200,000 year history of fully modern man, 95% of that time was spent in small groups of family-based hunter-gatherers.  Here the Alpha Male made sense. Human Alphas needed to be not only physically strong, self-confident and conspicuously brave, they also needed to be persuaders, communicators and inspirers. If politics isn’t the oldest profession in the world, it’s certainly one of them.

As I mentioned in The Minoans, women at this time were far from second class citizens. You can imagine the top female hitching up with the clan’s Alpha Male; but women would also have been a strong counterweight to an overly rampant Alpha. The respect between the Goddess and the Bull had to be mutual. As with any social system evolved over millennia, there may have been frictions but, in basis, it worked to everybody’s benefit.

Then times changed and we began to settle down to farming, in larger and larger communities.  The requirement now was for a new type of social order – one based less on hunting prowess and impressive masculinity, more on co-operation, mutual respect and compromise. Alas, it never happened, because the Alpha Male never went away – in fact he took the opportunity to gain massively more power than before, at the expense of non-Alphas and especially women. The results around the world have been catastrophically unfortunate.

Alpha Males are a bloody menace. It’s hard to think of any use for their aggression and political skills except to make other people’s lives a misery. Perhaps, sometimes, they can inspire a population into some necessary task, but far more often they inspire (or bully) people into toiling for the Alpha’s pointless self-aggrandisement, into bloodshed and failure or into slavery.

I sometimes think Alpha Males should be castrated or, at least, directed into an area such as team sport where their urges can be harmlessly expended. But there they are, still, in presidential palaces, boardrooms, command bunkers and anywhere else where they can puff up their chests and issue commands. Not all of them are in particularly important positions – there just isn’t room for them all – and so you bump into them lording it over a small business or just an office or social club; energetic, cock-sure and normally abrasively inefficient.

But the problem doesn’t end with having totally unsuitable individuals sitting in all the main positions of power. Since Alpha Males don’t necessarily have any useful talent, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to cope with controlling an organisation more complicated than a hunter-gatherer tribe. Thus, we find a convenient niche for another familiar figure – the toady. The toady is an advisor, a courtier and generally a flatterer to the Alpha Male. Perhaps the word ‘toady’ is a little unfair; if you want to get on with an Alpha Male, you have to suck up to him, stroke him and tell him what he wants to hear. And a lot of these courtiers have been very capable people.

The more sophisticated societies became, the more advisors were necessary to run things and, not surprisingly, these administrator toadies quickly tended to become the power behind the throne. Naturally, Alpha Males very often jostled their way to the very top toady positions, but there was more chance for someone with real talent to be recognised and to do well. Alphas feel uncomfortable with another Alpha as second in command; a capable toady is a far safer choice. Very often the administrators managed to survive the coming of a new Alpha Male – they had become indispensible, and thus secure.

But one thing applied to both the top Alphas and their toadies – both groups wanted to pass their privilege on to their children. Thus, an elite emerged in which the great majority of society were despised and kept down to support the luxurious lifestyle of the self-sustaining few.

To make matters worse, the successors of Alphas and toadies tended to lack even the dynamism and self-confidence of their forebears. The genetic element of their success wasn’t often passed on and a life in the lap of luxury is not conducive to effective leadership. Most kings and their courtiers have been very average ditherers, passing on the title until the next Alpha Male and his troop managed to elbow their way to power – and start a new dynasty.

Fending off the challenges of rival Alphas, internal and external, has always been the main concern of power elites; that was the clear focus of Machiavelli’s advice to his prince. But there is another perennial problem for Alphas; how do you keep the rest of society in line? How do you persuade those despised serfs who toil for your comfort that they should continue to do so? After all, the elite are few in number and obviously massively privileged, while the poverty of the majority is usually oppressive – how can the plebs possibly be made to accept such unfairness?

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It would be wrong to think that elites maintain themselves through some sort of calculated strategy; this is essentially the line of thinking that leads to conspiracy theories. Of course, an elite will consciously do things to defend itself in the face of an immediate threat – send in loyal troops to raze a rebellious city, for example, or close down a critical newspaper. But the day-to-day means of control are rather more subtle and it’s doubtful whether any committee ever sat down to work them out – they just emerged and evolved because they were effective. Rulers have merely taken them off the peg and adapted them to suit their particular needs.

Firstly and most obviously, there is the threat of physical force. That could be impressively armoured imperial troops in the streets, military parades and massive, intimidating fortresses. But it usually also includes a punitive legal system. In addition, it’s a good idea to create a special military force with the strongest, best-trained troops carrying the best weaponry; you can ensure their loyalty with special privileges. Anybody thinking of stepping out of line is left in no doubt of the consequences.

In the early days of city states and empires, actual violence was far more common – wholesale massacres of communities, or hideously gruesome executions. But little by little such things diminished. Perhaps rulers got less jittery as it became clear that just the threat of force was usually enough.

To back this up, rulers developed the concept of the secret service. Knowledge is power, as they say, and with enough informers and agents provocateur, popular mutterings, as well as plots within the elite, could normally be detected and silenced. Just the idea that the king had eyes everywhere was an effective means of control.

Keeping the populace in poverty and ignorance has always been a useful strategy. Hungry people are too busy surviving to think of rebellion and they don’t have effective weapons, anyway. Ignorant, illiterate people find it hard to organise, plan and plot. It really is a fairy-tale idea to think that rulers want their people to be wise, well-fed and content. At most they want to avoid outright starvation and the unrest true desperation can bring.

The ignorant can also be easily manipulated into believing in all sorts of distractions to take their minds off their real grievances. A fear of outsiders is the classic manifestation of this. Often the target is a neighbouring state, leading to regular (hopefully glorious and profitable) foreign adventures.  But even more useful is an internal threat – witches, gypsies or (that perennial favourite) the Jews. Whipping people up to a good pogrom is less risky and just as effective as a foreign war. Even when no actual action is taken, nurturing people’s xenophobia naturally binds them to their leaders and is there to be tapped when needed.

Connected to this is perhaps the most important strategy; the idea of legitimacy. Without legitimacy, all other methods of control are unlikely to be sufficient for long. How do you persuade people that your particular bunch of brigands has the right to lord it over them? The answer has nearly always been connected to religion. In ancient times the emperor was often literally named as a god, or at least directly descended from a god; the ruling elite also often set themselves up as priests. Things became a little more subtle as time went on – the king was now merely God’s anointed; he ruled by divine right. A powerful, incredibly wealthy elite structure, the Church, grew up; it’s Alpha Males on occasions challenged their secular counterparts, but generally they worked together. The whole thing was backed up with mystery and ritual and promises of an afterlife. To question the elite was nothing short of defying the will of God Almighty. Most of what people knew of the outside world also came from the pulpit (or the temple or mosque); naturally that was only what the ruling elite wanted people to hear.

And if a divinely ordained king was deposed by a vigorous new Alpha Male? What then? Well, God had obviously withdrawn his support. The new king was God’s chosen. Long Live the King!

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All of this worked just fine for some millennia. Popular rebellions did happen, but they were inevitably crushed in short measure, or used to usher in the next, equally repressive, dynasty. But then, in the West, things started to change and the old ways of control started to become insufficient. That’s right, it’s our old friend, the Bubble.

Things began to crumble first on the side of poverty and ignorance. As societies grew richer, it was impossible to keep all that wealth away from ordinary people. To be sure, there remained a massive underclass of dirt-poor people, but a growing number of subjects became comfortably off through trade and more efficient farming practices. With wealth came a restlessness and questioning of the established order. Feeding into the process was the invention of the printing press and rapid rise in literacy. Non-official sources of news and opinion sprung up everywhere and proved impossible to suppress. People outside the elite were – God help us – starting to think!

So a new, bourgeois elite began to challenge the existing royal and aristocratic one. The Catholic Church lost its monopoly to less monolithic protestant ones; kings lost their heads, first in England and then in France, and everywhere in the West, power, slowly but surely, passed from aristocrats to wealthy merchants and industrialists.

But the changes that had brought this new elite to power were an extremely hot potato. In effect, they meant that the age-old forms of control were less and less useful. The idea that God was underpinning the elite had been well and truly scuppered. If God existed at all, he was a personal God, on the side of the ordinary man.

Not only that, the use of force was becoming more problematic; ‘tyrannical’ government was beginning to cause outrage and snooping by informers and censorship of the press were less and less acceptable. Government was now expected to be accountable; advisors became civil servants, with the emphasis on the latter word. Corruption was something to be punished and leaders had to present themselves for inspection and re-election at regular intervals. Only with these concessions would governments retain the legitimacy they now needed more than ever. They stepped back and then they stepped back again. As prosperity increased, the working class also started to gain a voice; the ruling elite could no longer trample on people as and how it wished.

Of course, in reality the ordinary folk never won completely. The elites never really succumbed to ‘democracy’, even in the limited ‘representative’ form we accept as the best available. What they did was refine some of the old methods of power retention and re-introduce some lesser-known ones. They also stepped a little more into the shadows. Again, it would be wrong to think of this as some sort of grand plan – nobody really stopped to think about how to proceed –  most things came about more or less naturally with the development of modern society and just needed a little encouragement to ease them on their way.

So now, instead of being kept poor, we are kept occupied. This is the old ‘bread and circuses’ routine which the Romans discovered. Today, trivial distractions – from sport to video games to quiz shows to acquiring the latest gadget – form a wall of exciting noise all around us. Consumerism is a serious activity and an exhausting one; there’s hardly time to think and, we are assured, no real need. The ‘experts’ can do our thinking for us. Critical thinking can and should be outsourced.

We’re kept busy at work as well. No matter how trivial or inconsequential your job, there never seem to be enough hours in the day to complete it. Deadlines and meetings follow one another in quick succession. You have to multi-task; you have to be constantly in contact in case you’re needed; you should never completely relax. And, at the end of the month, after the expense of being distracted, there hardly seems enough to make ends meet, let alone save. But credit is easily available – just slip comfortably into debt slavery.

Of course some people will still be cussed enough to use their brains. A number of these can be co-opted into service as well-paid ‘experts’. The deal, of course, is that you then use your brain to support the acknowledged ‘truth’. Any expert not following this path is likely to be labelled, at best, an eccentric maverick.  At worst, he or she will be vilified as some politically-motivated extremist and/or fraud. Mavericks, extremists and frauds find it hard to find secure employment in their fields, especially when members of the elite are doing the hiring.

However, ‘ordinary’ people with unsound opinions can safely be just ignored. Just as when news was preached from the church pulpit, people hear about the world through the mass media, which may not express a view in favour of the current government administration, but are not in the job of questioning the elite in general. After all, the top folk in the media are part of the elite themselves. Alternative views seldom get much of a look in.

Xenophobia is far less acceptable nowadays, but we can still be made fearful. As the American commentator H.L Mencken observed in the 1950s: ‘The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary’. The parade of hobgoblins in recent times has ranged from nuclear holocaust to AIDS and from Y2K computer meltdown to global warming.

So far so good. But what can be done to bolster the legitimacy the ruling elite. As I said, this is the key element in maintaining power, but now the idea of some all-powerful god giving his support to our rulers seems farcical. So, the notion of divinely ordained rule has been replaced by the idea that the elite represent the nation – the ‘people’. Not only that, but they are the natural people to govern. They are the product of a meritocracy – the smartest, the most able, but also the most moral and civilised. They are in charge because they deserve to be.

So this is the situation we find ourselves in today. Anybody doubting that the West is still ruled by a power elite should consider the recent ‘wikiLeaks’ emails hacked from John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s  campaign chair. Revealed are a web of mutual favours, back- scratching and nepotism. Top people in politics, banking, entertainment and Silicon Valley all know each other personally and will bend over backwards to defend each others’ interests. The little people don’t get a look in.

Unsurprisingly, not much of this has been revealed in the mass media, but a good summary can be found here in The Guardian; one thing is for certain – we are not looking at a meritocracy. It would be naïve to think that other Western nations don’t have similar elites operating in similar ways and co-operating with each other internationally.

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Does any of this matter? After all, some sort of hierarchy is inevitable in a capitalist system, and a capitalist system is what underpins the Bubble we all benefit from. OK, our elites are nauseatingly smug, hypocritical and self-righteous but, let’s face it, they’re pussy-cats compared to what has gone before and still exists elsewhere in the world.

But I think we should be worried. To start with, this is not capitalism at all; the free market isn’t allowed to punish the elite for their failures, the game is fixed and they will nearly always be protected from the chill winds of the economy. The most blatant example of this is the 2007 banking crisis, in which bloatedly rich bankers were bailed out by tax-payers and small savers around the world, then hardly missed a beat in continuing to pay themselves obscenely high bonuses. Such a situation can only undermine the proper functioning of Western society.

There is also the problem I touched on in The Worm Within. The elite is attracted to every passing ‘progressive’ fad that hoves into view. This is partly in order to bolster its legitimacy by attaching itself to what it assumes are popular views, but it also serves to bolster the elite’s self-regard. Since it genuinely sees itself as socially responsible and morally correct, the elite needs to do ‘good deeds’ to prove to itself how much it deserves its position. This could be a good thing, but the problem is that most Utopian Romantic causes are simplistic and impractical in their approach; some are positively dangerous to the wellbeing of the West.

And now, it seems, the elite’s is more eager than ever to expand its reach and intrusion.  The instinct of every elite is to take ever increasing power to itself but, as we’ve seen, in the light of increasing prosperity and education the Western elites were for a long time on the back foot. Perhaps their nadir came in the 1970s when the Soviet Union seemed to represent a real rival for the hearts and minds of the ‘ordinary’ people of the West. In these post-war years freedom and prosperity were allowed to flourish without much central interference.

But with the fall of the Soviet Union, the Western elites feel increasingly secure and unconstrained. The growth of centralised power in the European Union is particularly instructive, but bureaucracies everywhere are keen to regulate and control every aspect of their citizens’ lives. With CCTV cameras on every corner and the coming of the Internet, the opportunities for electronic surveillance have become enormous and an excuse for ‘increased security’ can always be found. The days of a judge having to sign a warrant before a phone could be tapped are long gone and it would be safest to assume that every email and every text message you have ever sent or received has been read.

An unconscious mistake we sometimes make is to believe that the people in charge of us are, for all their failings, stout defenders of democracy and freedom. Certainly they pretend that they are – maybe they even believe that they are – but if we look at the reality of how they behave, it’s pretty obvious that they’re not. Individual rights and freedoms are at best an inconvenience; the elite knows best – they are the brightest and best and it’s obvious the important decisions should be left to them. The elites are not the guardians of the Bubble, the Bubble happened despite their best efforts. The Bubble is not safe in their hands.

*                                          *                                          *

I am writing this at an interesting moment in history. It’s quite possible that in a few days an outsider will be elected President of the United States.  I don’t have much time for Donald Trump, who appears to be crude, misogynistic and unpleasant. However, you’d have to be blind not to recognise that he has tapped into something powerful. If a bullying billionaire with tawdry past and big mouth can get so close to the White House – and in the teeth of a virulent ‘Stop Trump’ campaign – then something must be going on. In fact, if you needed a textbook example of an Alpha Male trying to elbow an effete, complacent elite out of the way, Trump would fit the bill.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, there has been an equally dramatic event. Despite the full weight of the establishment standing against it, a majority of the electorate voted to leave the European Union.

These two occurrences have several things in common. For one thing, the ruling elite has been taken completely by surprise. Their attempts to stop things began with ridicule but then progressed through accusations of racism and ludicrously exaggerated predictions of disaster, to arrive, finally, at wide-eyed disbelief and panic. They really, really couldn’t believe it had happened.  Even now, over four months after the referendum, the British elite are still trying to nullify the result – in the name, absurdly, of ‘democracy’.

The reasons for the phenomena of ‘Trump’ and ‘Brexit’ are also similar. Trump is the only candidate who has caught the mood of outrage in the American electorate. What the Brexit vote showed was how angry people are with the arrogant and overbearing EU as well as their home-grown elite. There are undoubtedly immediate economic and social reasons for people’s discontent, as well as some real racism and xenophobia, but in basis both events are simply an almighty and well-aimed kick up the arse to the ruling elite – in the only way still left to the ‘little’ people, through the ballot box.

People are basically more than fed up with the elites. They are sick of seeing their standard of living going down while the economy grows, of working longer hours in less secure jobs. They can no longer abide the accusations of racism and political incorrectness from pontificating politicians. They resent being lectured to by hyper-rich, mediocre hypocrites like Beyonce, Madonna and Leonardo Di Caprio. They detest slick media folk trying to frighten them or make them feel guilty about things they aren’t responsible for. They see their freedoms being whittled away. They see their arrogant, insulated wealthy leaders taking no notice of what they need and want. People want to be listened to; they fear for the future of their children.

And during the Trump and Brexit events – as if to prove just how out of touch they really were – the elites did just exactly the wrong thing. They sneered at the people who were opposed to them, they demonised them and, first implicitly then more and more explicitly, they accused them of stupidity. With each nasty attack, the vote for Trump and Brexit increased, the elites were just fueling the fires of rage and resentment.

It’s interesting, also, to see the mask slipping a little. Some members of the British elite are now openly suggesting that the Brexit vote can be overturned because the populace are too stupid to decide complicated matters. This goes to the very core of what democracy is; it’s an argument you might expect from one of Oswald Mosley’s Brown Shirts in the 1930s, not a distinguished legal expert in the 21st century. It sends a small but distinct shiver down the spine.

It’s too early to say how either of these two events will turn out, but I don’t think they are isolated phenomena. Not for the first time, the Anglo-Saxon world seems ahead of the pack, but there would appear to be a sea change occurring in the Western world and I think similar things are on the way.

And why should it happen now? I believe one answer is clear – the Internet; an innovation as significant, perhaps, as the printing press. The main-stream media (or MSM) have been short-circuited; they are suffering a slow, lingering death as fewer and fewer people trust them. It’s been noticed that the whole story is not given and it’s easy to find other sources. If you can’t trust the MSM, then you certainly can’t trust the elites they so clearly go out of their way to protect.

And it was the coming of the Internet, more than anything else, that allowed the real hammer-blow which is in the process of flooring our elites. The notion that our leaders are remote, privileged and probably out for themselves is hardly a new one, but this was more or less accepted because there was a feeling that they were, generally speaking, competent. Sure, they made mistakes, but it was an enormously complicated and difficult job they were doing. They were at the top because they had the ability, training and experience to get the job done better than anyone else. Members of the elite still believe this of themselves – after all, supreme self-confidence is one necessity in getting to the top. As for the rest of us, the scales have dropped from our eyes.

Perhaps the defining moment in this shocking revelation came with the financial crisis of 2008. Top bankers, businessmen, financial advisors, economists, politicians, civil servants, media ‘experts’… and any other elite voice your care to mention, failed to realise the blindingly obvious fact that you can’t go on inflating a speculative bubble indefinitely – indeed they scoffed at anyone who suggested otherwise. Most ordinary people believed them – they were the experts, after all – and many lost their shirts. Oh, but not the people who were responsible. Dear me no! They were ‘too big to fail’ and were bailed out at the expense of the tax-payer.

The breathtaking brazen unfairness of it all still sticks in the gullet, but I believe the most important consequence was that our eyes focused and we clearly saw them for what they were – total, blundering, blithering idiots. Incompetents. Anyone could have done a better job than these ‘experts’.

And when we realised that, we began to realise that a great deal else that they did was equally moronic.  Who would get involved in a dangerous foreign adventure because of some dodgy intelligence reports? Who would try to solve a financial crisis by printing money until the presses glowed red-hot? Who would open the flood-gates to totally unwesternised immigrants, among whom were likely to be highly dangerous terrorists? Who would close down coal-powered power plants so people would die of exposure if there was no wind on a freezing day? Our leaders would, God help us.

We’re on a ship of fools. It’s a frightening thought, but not a new one. Plato came up with the idea and it’s resurfaced regularly ever since. Nobody in charge knows what the hell they are doing – it’s all puff and posing. The uniforms are smart and well starched, but the orders coming from the bridge are nonsensical; if we’re lucky, they make no difference.

The most generous view of the elite is that the ship is just too big and complicated for anyone to steer it properly, but they are the ones who jostled their way to the bridge and assured the stupid plebs that they knew exactly what they were about – it’s even more terrifying that they still seem to think they do. I’m pretty sure that, after a period of study, an ‘ordinary’ person of reasonable intelligence would do better than the clowns in officers’ uniforms we have in charge now. At least that person would be likely to bring some humility, common sense and caution to the job.

In any case, the ruling elites have lost the confidence of the people, big time. In fact, they have lost their legitimacy. That doesn’t happen so often, but when it does it inevitably leads to significant change. The elite haven’t worked this out yet; they think we still believe what they tell us and they think we still trust their ability. The problem is, they don’t really interract with people outside their golden circle; they don’t want to hear what ordinary people think, they prefer to dismiss them as stupid. The truth will certainly come as a shock; perhaps it’s just beginning to dawn on some of them now.

I talked before of the juggernaut of popular power that brought in the liberties associated with life in the Bubble and how it crushed any ruling elite stupid enough to stand in its way. I have a feeling that the juggernaut is starting to roll again.

Prospero, 2016

 

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