Then and Now: There and Here
June 14, 2020
In the history of societies much has always been made of a prospect of advancement. In some societies less so than in others; in the same societies at different times, different appreciations of making advancement.
In times before trade became the hub of human business; when wars and conquest were uppermost in human minds; when societies were feudal or else tribalised; advancement was not sought after as the proper lot of a common soldier or warrior; or as an appropriate role for an agricultural subsistence-economy family group or its individual members.
For the most part in those times and in those places advancement was the desire and prerogative almost exclusively of the highest layer of society; usually the stratum named as The Courtly Circle.
Even earlier days of organised religious observance might be seen to reflect a desire and prerogative for advancement open only to the topmost stratum of leadership.
Whether secular or sacred politics were in question the general status quo outlook remained uniform in this regard.
Only just now and then a person of exceptional ability, cunning, ambition, charisma, arose from ranks of life quite remotely inaccessible to advancement, and was able by luck or by courage or by some smart maneuvering to position him or herself on a rung of a ladder up which to climb to favour with the secular highest.
On the whole such societies were less mobile, more static and structural change came to them slowly, unless a natural or military catastrophe brought sudden dislocations. Whether accurately or not writers of the nineteenth century on The Middle East and North Africa as a commonplace iterate repeatedly the observation of a kind that says: theirs [a native people’s] is a way of life more or less unchanged since Biblical times”.
Regardless of the point of accuracy of this observation, its frequency of occurrence does indicate that for Victorian travellers in such parts of the world the ways of life they saw and witnessed to in their travelogue books were such that resonated with them as being an alien sedate and slow routine of immensely stable consistency.
Going on at home in Britain and left behind by them had been the mighty engine of industrialisation and capital at work, as one book title has it, in a ‘World Turned Upside Down”. Railways factories mills mercantile life; canals, iron, steel, coal, gas, and rapid wild aglal-like growth of cities compacted densely with dispossessed former farm-labouring people, refugees from famine and unemployment; all this turmoil and havoc was another planet to the world in which the nomads of the deserts and the Bedouins of the tents, and to the lives of agrarian peoples on the floodplains of a Nile or a Euphrates.
And this stark contrast between London or Manchester in the 1850s and The Nile or The Sahara in travellers tales of the period brings me to my theme. The alterations to prospects of advancement made and seen and lived out by societies and by individuals of Victorian days and which have spread almost uniformly across much the earth since those days; these have been so radical and so rapid in their progression as to have changed for a majority of the people in the world their levels of expectation, of sense of right and prerogative, of acceptable attainable ambition generally considered reasonable.
Industrialisation and all the upheavals, social, political, economic which accompanied its growth effected a formidable acceleration of change; in its earliest days right into its days of meridian and thereafter its early shadow. This growth ubiquitously has been understood in its times as being, and as modelling, a tangible historic human ‘progress’ .
The writers of books in those days generally subscribed to this view that now humanity was going somewhere; was onboard a train going to a ShangriLa, of whatever kind suited one’s science or one’s world-view. This era began and begat that train of thought in human affairs which has culminated in our present times, and may yet not have peaked, whereby a broad and commonplace outlook for lives, and by persons and their societies, is that the future should continue bringing, consistently and assuredly what I like to call, a little euphemistically, always ‘more and better’.
Those older type societies based on The Clan or The Tribe, or else on the feudal arrangements of rights and duties apportioned to society’s members, a format set somewhat fixedly so; these were being displaced, too many erroneously would have claimed superseded, by a supposed better dispensation of an industrial and nowadays a post industrial way of life.
Were you to think of the living of a life as a sort of sea journey, The Clan society takes a rowboat; low tech, self-propelled, at risk to heavy seas, cramped and without much in the way of facilities, smaller numbers of occupants, and made of timber cut down and hand crafted.
The Feudal way of life takes a longboat; somewhat bigger, some few more people, slightly more stores and facilities; less prone to buffeting by seas; less cramped and a little higher tech. Wind propelled.
Industrial and post industrial life takes a ship proper; probably of metal; having taken much expense, variety of resource and labour to have been built, thus high tech. Facilities beyond the daydreams of any forebears; cabin space for individuals; entertainments; shops; a known and secure destination; thus recreation. Crew ranked by office and function. A well-oiled routine of hierarchical discipline, headed by a Captain, uniforms, wages, leave, employment rights – the list extends greatly
Some major moving part in this ‘progress’, and to be found in the enlarged expectations and sense of right and entitlement of such a society’s citizens, and which arose as an accompaniment to the growth of industrial society, is a phenomenon whereby peoples’ aspirations are being conditioned greatly by a desire and ambition in persons of a lower stratum of society to seek and to emulate and reach towards the enjoyments and privileges of persons of a higher stratum.
I like to call this ‘the California effect’ because when I was a boy the people around me, common people, when they looked at the lives of people living in California, they were at once a little shocked and delighted, but also desirous for themselves of what seemed to them such outlandish privilege and wanton pursuit of excess.
In those days, were there such a place as a secular heaven, many ordinary people would have wished that when they died they would go to California.
In present times such secular bliss is now attached not to California but to sports personalities, the Beckhams, the Cantonas, the Messis; and to popular singers, the Adeles, the Beyonces, the GaGas, and to movie stars and celebrities, these kinds of well-known high livers.
Perhaps the popular epitome of desire for such a lifestyle is embedded most deeply and apparently in the phenomenon and in its success of the UK National Lottery and its sister raffle, The Euromillions Draw.
To win such is seens and admired as being an ‘entry ticket’ into such company and such a lifestyle. In addition there is in these raffles that strong element of ‘I want it all; I want it now’ - the apotheosis of the desire for social advancement – which reflects several curious aspects of our expectations and hopes as a people.
The arts of consumerism and its accompanying facilitator, easily obtainable extended credit being accessible to nearly all people, have together conditioned us with an encouragement towards satisfying our desires and hankerings almost instantly; and the Lotteries are a natural eventuality of such a conditioning, such consumerism, such raised expectations and senses of entitlement. To win is considered the straight route to instant ‘California heaven’.
To this popularisation of, and legitimisation of, desire and outreach to grasp instant translation to California heaven, may be due in part our general dislike and aversion to occupations and pursuits which absorb attention for long durations; that attention-span shrinkage which prefers episodic almost comic strip movie narrative – a series of short apocalypses – and is repulsed by any piece of reading above the length of a few sentences?
Politics also is now more than ever ‘just in time’ responses/reactions, and the shifts of ‘whatever gets you through the night’ with a string of pragmatic short term temporary patches and band aids.
Our sports coverage and our Big Events coverage on media are often happily condensed for us into ‘highlights’ so that we are not constrained to sit through what is considered less stirring stuff.
The facts of ubiquitous news, comment and broadcasting in general; be it natural history, science documentaries, or fictitious dramas, whether docudrama or movie makes little difference here, there are swathes of us whose daily recreation consists mainly of listening and watching.
And so we are passive and perhaps somewhat absorbent creatures even - being fed sounds and sights, shows led by presenters, whom we are encouraged to look up to, and often whom we see mistakenly as authorities and of opinions which matter.
From such ‘authorities’ we obtain many of our attitudes, aspirations, expectations and senses of entitlement. We are a captive and sedentary and willing audience. As such we do little in the way of deeds, and much in the way in considering we have ‘done our bit’ by having merely sympathised.
Since I was young the shift in these levels of expectation and entitlement has not only been from their objects – from California to emulation of celebrity etc – their sheer magnitude and unanimity have burgeoned so that much of their subject matter and content are no longer questioned nor thought of as at all undesirable to assent to, to acquiesce in.
Thus we come to another malaise of our present times – the fact that an unquestioning, contented but blinkered lethargy is far more prevalent with us than ever before – our minds are tracked, embedded in, a rut of blind contentment with the status quo of expectation and aspiration – it seems to too many of us unthinkable and weird for a person to express that s/he doesn’t want to win The Lottery or doesn’t want to be like Beckham or Beyonce, nor watch or listen to 99% of TV and radio.
I am here next below offering a few lines of verse from The Rock, a play by TS Eliot and written in the 1930s almost a century ago. God forbid, say many of us – what has a thing 100 years old got to do with us? For have we not by those means of quick easy short term patching and by the other baseless idylls whose ignominies I have laid out hereabove, have we not in that past100 years thrown away our heritage of not just 100 years but of millenia? Even in this present and much exaggerated response to the virus crisis in which we have placed ourselves, our Church has been sidelined deliberately so and has been contented to be sidelined by the common media; and for it being considered being irrelevant and moribund - outdated.
Instead we get milk and water commercial advertising from Lloyds Bank and Virgin and Vodafone and all those corporations which have not a thought for our welfare but only for the money we can pay to them; their advertising lulling us with disingenuous and sometimes pernicious profferings of crocodile sympathy and supposed assistance. We get soppy weak lukewarm dilute, and without Christ as the Standard, reams of puerile messages set up on billboards and lamp posts about ‘all pulling together’ and ‘all in one boat’; and ‘ be nice to one another’. These have zero anchor to secure them in the heart as do the eternal truths of our loving Lord. They are expedient to the times and situation; as such they are likely to vanish as fast as they arrived once the current mess is forgotten.
But here is an excerpt from The Rock, it is a vision which was prescient and which sees the situation back then in the 19030s which has since that time extended itself across all ranks of society in our days. Eliot was a phenomenon arisen out of the upper classes– his concern in this excerpt fromThe Rock was in the main with the higher classes – the foibles are confined for the most part to the more affluent, the better educated; but this state of affairs I argue has unhappily been seen to have ‘trickled down’ since then into most ranks of society today.
I aim to discuss briefly this passage after its placing here: the words in it in bold ruddy red are my emphases. They are lines I believe are particularly relevant to our lives today.
From: The Rock
_“The Word of the Lord came unto me, saying:
О miserable cities of designing men,
O wretched generation of enlightened men,
Betrayed in the mazes of your ingenuities.
Sold by the proceeds of your proper inventions:
I have given you hands which you turn from worship,
I have given you speech, for endless palaver,
I have given you my Law, and you set up commissions,
I have given you lips, to express friendly sentiments,
I have given you hearts, for reciprocal distrust.
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action.
Many are engaged in writing books and printing them.
Many desire to see their names in print.
Many read nothing but the race reports.
Much is your reading, but not the Word of God,
Much is your building, but not the House of God.
Will you build me a house of plaster, with corrugated roofing,
To be filled with a litter of Sunday newspapers?”_
‘Designing, enlightened, men in cities, sold on our inventions, in the mazes of their ingenuities’
Take a look at our new city architecture. There’s no single school or style to it – instead a rash of competing and often abrasive ‘look at me’ style excrescences stamped on a landscape by a bunch of individualist egos. Designing on glory and celebrity not on fitness and aesthetic to the eye. Enlightened by their presumption that they understand and reason and know truth because their ego tells them so
Take a look at our advertising and marketing and how blatantly tendentious it is – how it uses subterfuge to persuade and close to lies to sell to us.
Take a look at our technology industries – a week ago it was iphone 5 and now it’s iphone 9. Last afternoon it was Vista today its Windows 10. We’re into 5G networking from that of 3G networking before tea. With super super HD, whizzo broadband in every room instead of fibre optic.
Of course its a racket. One which persuades too many to go out and upgrade and then throw the phone or OS bought yesterday into the Corporation tip today. Forcing the pace of production so as to maximise wealth – but not as the line of the economists reads, not for all, mostly – and this is proven by the figures – but for the insatiable graspers of growing wealth who head-up – sadly – our system of exchange and trade
Their inventions being that iphone 653; and their ingenuities being that forcing of a pace of change so as in the final instance to break the bank.
‘Speech to make palaver, law for commissions, hearts for mutual distrust, speculation for dancing on pinheads and power of choice for procrastination’
This is our current malaise in politics closely described. Parliament and our media are paralysed much of the time from coming to truth or to resolution – of a problem nor else of their minds. There is too much talk, too much discussion, too much discursion, and too much deflection, too much obfuscation, too many axes grinding, and too many grievances being paid off. The shorthand phrase ‘post-truth’ is a blanket description which includes in its scope all these angles which upon us all mess with us being able to use proper discernment.
The results are infrastructure projects and their discussions and go-ahead dates being constantly reopened, rescheduled, and postponed, and then maybe cancelled altogether. We are a nation which has fallen behind because we have failed to invest adequately in infrastructure for around 30 years now. The results are the adulteration of education for nearly all our people, and especially for the young who have known no other way of life than this present utter mess. Education policy has been in constant flux back and forth – ideologically, politically and theory-wise – for the past 40 years. Nothing stable has been on offer. The inroads of commercialism into education has messed with its aim to be unbiased and objective, so that young people very often can have no grasp on what these concepts might look like in practice. Nor do they think they matter.
What academic study there is is messed utterly by tortuous discussions of psuedo philosophy about this or that bias or prejudice. Written in what might as well be Gothic hieroglyphs – in regard to their aesthetic and literary values – they analyse like a lawnmower a host of traditional positions and prejudices and try to displace them for the repositioning of their own tangled and at bottom unfounded and impossible prejudices. Much demolition goes on, little building.
All the while we hear bleats on TV and Radio about ‘this is the worst ever’ and ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ when the fact is more like yes, people have suffered and some have lost someone,it has been upsetting and dislocative.
It remains indubitably the case however that life for up to half the world, maybe more, is harder and more sad and insufferable as their common daily lots than we have seen since WWII and even now in this present debacle we are living better off the vast majority of us than are those peoples bombed out in Syria cast our in Myanmar, without resource in Libya and sub-Sahara, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, China, South America, South East Asia, even in the USA
In our ‘worst ever’ crisis, worse than Bubonic Plague and Smallpox and Diphtheria and Typhoid? - we are still as a nation better fed and with better welfare health and social care conditions than has been the common lot of nations upon nations for all our lifetimes and times beyond. This is still the case right now, and is likely to continue so, since we continue to make so much kerfuffle about our own woes whilst our neighbours starve and die of horrible sicknesses which we have stamped out in our own nation generations back.
So much for ‘we are all in this together’ and ‘be kind to one another’ - to many of us ‘don’t know we’re born’.