When the world turns dark
The world turns on its dark side......it is winter
A Child of Our Time, Michael Tippett
"Man has measured the heavens with a telescope, driven the gods from their thrones," proclaims the contralto at the start of Michael Tippett's wartime oratorio A Child Of Our Time. Like our counterparts before the dark time of which Tippett writes, we too believe that science leaves no place for religion. But religion endures, and when the world turns, it comes back in its most violent form, tearing part communities and entrenching sectarian division and even outright racism.
Our world is turning. As the memory of the financial crisis fades, the financial world moves "from war to peace", gradually restoring interest rates, somewhat relaxing tight constraints on banks, wondering how financial institutions should be regulated to prevent crises in future. But outside the rarefied world of finance, movement is in the opposite direction. It is only a small distance from an uneasy peace, to the semblance of war. The world turns on its dark side. Winter is coming.
The first signs of a chill in the air became apparent not long after the financial crisis, as people who previously rejoiced in the ability of governments to rescue broken banks and restore damaged economies suddenly became fearful of the consequences. Country after country turned away from generosity towards harshness, imposing austerity measures that hurt the poor, the sick, the disabled and - extraordinarily - the young, justifying those measures on grounds that had increasingly little to do with economics and more and more to do with the resurgence of a twisted morality last seen in the nineteenth century. Cries the Child Of Our Time,
I have no money for my bread, I have no gift for my love....How can I grow to a man's stature?
The Poor Law reformers of the 1830s believed that hard work is a virtue in and of itself, regardless of usefulness to society or financial benefit to those doing it: the workless are "moral defectives" who must be forced to work in order to correct the defects in their personalities. Thomas Malthus believed that public spending that supports the poor encourages them to breed: the poor must be condemned to a life of poverty and deprivation to discourage them from choosing to have children at state expense. The children of workless parents must be protected from their malign influence. The Mother's lament resonates with all too many of today's mothers:
Tippett's contralto continues:
How shall I feed my children on so small a wage? How can I comfort them when I am dead?This is the creed of meanness and selfishness, lampooned by Dickens in "A Christmas Carol". It is the creed of the false gods of Hard Work and Saving. But we, cocooned by the belief that we are better than our ancestors, invoke these false gods and publish the creed anew. The morality of the workhouse has become the morality of the Daily Mail.
Tippett's contralto continues:
But the soul, watching the chaotic mirror, knows that the gods return.....
In bringing back the "old religion", we have set the poor and vulnerable against each other. Solidarity disintegrates; the poor fight each other for a share of a pot of money that is deliberately kept too small to meet all needs, and demand that others who might need a share too are kept out. "Close the borders". "Stop immigration NOW". "We can't afford refugees". These are the cries of those who fear that the arrival of others will mean that they lose even more.
In Europe, the same harshness is evident, but on an even larger scale. Here, it is not just the poor within countries who are fighting over scraps: the countries themselves are at each other's throats, as harshness is imposed by stronger countries on weaker in support of the same twisted morality. Countries that struggle to compete for export markets are morally defective: they must be forced to compete through harsh treatment. Countries that attempt to give citizens a decent life instead of paying creditors must be forced into poverty and deprivation to discourage others from the same path. Governments must be supervised by technocrats to make sure they obey fiscal rules even at the cost of recession and high unemployment. The Oppressed cry out:
When shall the usurer's city cease? And famine depart from the fruitful land?
Worshipping the false gods of hard work and saving comes at a terrible price. The sacrifices those gods demand are the lives of those who do not - or cannot - live as they dictate. But as yet, there is no widespread challenge to their authority. People still believe the lie they tell: "There is no more money".
People used to believe the promise of the gods of borrowing and spending, "The money will never run out". But their belief was shattered in the crash of 2008, when the debt edifice abruptly collapsed, causing widespread financial destruction. People not only stopped believing that promise, they also stopped believing in themselves. The terrible recession and ensuing long slump created an enormous confidence gap. Into this gaping hole stepped the old gods and their new lie.
But the new lie is dangerous beyond measure. Societies under such strain are fragile. Social bonds are stretched to breaking point: people are fearful of loss, scared of the future, and angry at those they think are getting "something for nothing". They lash out at those who deny their own right to dwindling state support. And as the screws slowly tighten, they lash out at others, too - especially strangers, those who are "not one of us", and those towards whom they feel historic animosity.
Nassim Taleb, in "Antifragile", speaks of a sudden change in Lebanon, when people who had been friends and neighbours all their lives suddenly turned on each other. In a flash, peace became war, tolerance evaporated, old wounds reopened and tribal hostilities reasserted themselves; violence erupted and the weaker fled from the stronger for fear of their lives.
We have seen this happen many times, not just in Lebanon. Something pushes society beyond a tipping point, social bonds shatter like glass, and the flying shards cause deep and lasting wounds. War erupts, atrocities are committed by everyone, towns and historic sites are bombed to rubble, whole communities - sometimes even entire ethnic or religious groups - are murdered.
Away with them! Curse them, kill them! They infect the State.
When the violence eventually dies down, the mass graves are found and mourned, perpetrators captured and brought to justice (or, more likely, murdered in their turn), and the work of rebuilding starts, we look back on the conflagration and wonder, "How on earth did that happen?" Hindsight is a wonderful thing: studying the sequence of events, we see the strains appearing, the apparently random incidents that together make a pattern leading inexorably to the disaster, the policy decisions that seemed sensible at the time but actually made society even more unstable.
Truly, truly the living God consumes within, and turns the flesh to cancer....
The growing instability in Europe is apparent in the rise of nationalism, driven by an unpleasant xenophobia and a widespread belief that we "can't afford" to support people from other nations. This is, of course, the old gods at work, convincing people that "there is no money" and they must tighten their belts. Fearful that local services will be unable to cope - even though the fragility of these services is entirely due to government cost-cutting - countries refuse to accept immigrants, even genuine refugees; while there is growing support for fringe political parties proposing exit from supranational institutions and the end of foreign aid.
Creeping instability is also evident from increasing intolerance of minority views, both political and religious. It is becoming unacceptable to express contrarian views: you are likely to be silenced, pilloried, denounced and abused. When I recently refused to support a campaign by a group of aggrieved women, they responded with a stream of personal attacks over the course of three days, across several different media: while my refusal to join in the vilification of Muslims in the wake of the Paris attacks resulted in a storm of insults. Others have even been refused the right to speak at all. The "safe spaces" campaign in universities is nothing but outright denial of free speech.
There is no justification whatsoever for this. Contrarian views are not necessarily intolerant ones: Katie Hopkins, aggressively anti-immigration to the point of racism, is more "mainstream" than the pro-immigration liberal Jonathan Portes. But people have the right to express even very intolerant views, provided that by doing so they break no laws.
So people with contrarian but lawful views are silenced. Conversely, some people with far more extreme views are not silenced. I am concerned about the amount of racial and religious hate speech I see in social and conventional media. This is not a sign of a healthy society. When people seriously discuss banning certain religions, preventing adherents of those religions from entering the country and interning those already there; when people hijack statistics about emotive subjects such as rape to spread hatred of particular racial or religious groups; when people blame particular racial or religious groups for atrocities without any real evidence of their involvement, and abuse those who try to set the record straight; then we are already on the slippery slope towards sectarian division and conflict. Fomenting religious hatred does not prevent terrorism. On the contrary, it increases it.
We do not know exactly what pushes societies over the edge into conflict, atrocity and genocide: often there seems to be some kind of shock applied to a society already made fragile by bad policy decisions and growing social divisions. In the case of the Lebanon, Taleb describes how the Ba'ath party's policies set up the inevitable civil war:
But while Lebanon had all the right qualities, the state was too loose, and by allowing the various Palestinian factions and the Christian militias to own weapons, it caused an arms race between the communities while placidly watching the entire buildup. There was also an imbalance between communities, with the Christians trying to impose their identity on the place.Disorganized is invigorating: but the Lebanese state was one step too disorganized. It would be like allowing each of the New York State mafia bosses to have a larger army than the Joint Chiefs of Staff (just imagine John Gotti with missiles). So in 1975 a raging civil war started in Lebanon.
Those who think "this could never happen here" should study their own history. Western nations are by no means immune from conflict. The EU itself has not experienced a major conflict since its formation after World War II, but Europe is more than the EU, and many countries along the EU's Eastern border have suffered wars, economic collapses and in some cases partition, ever since the fall of the USSR. The US is perhaps less likely to suffer a domestic conflict, but that is because it has historically defused tension at home by starting a war somewhere else in the world, often in the Middle East. It is by no means the only country to do this. Among others, Russia and China both have form for exporting domestic unrest to favourite trouble spots.
"The cold deepens.....the world descends into the icy waters"
A tide of desperate humanity is washing up on the shores of Europe. The majority of those attempting this hazardous journey are genuine refugees seeking to escape from war, persecution and torture in the war-torn places of the Middle East. Many are hoping for a better life for their families. But a tiny minority perhaps have other motives.
One of the Paris bombers had arrived in Europe via one of the main refugee routes. He used a false passport. Serbian police, who identified the fake, said that Bosnian Muslims were involved in producing false passports for refugees. Whether this is true or not, we may never know. But Bosnian Muslims were the victims of some of the worst violence in the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, suffering mass rapes (20,000-50,000 women are estimated to have been raped), massacres and genocide, mostly at the hands of Serbs. Given this, how reliable is the testimony of Serbian police about the origin of false passports? Do we really want the Bosnian conflict to come to life again on the excuse of complicity in refugee smuggling?
The Paris "refugee bomber" is thought by authorities to be an EU national who used a false passport because he was already on an international terrorism watchlist. This does not, however, wholly explain why he used a hazardous refugee route. Perhaps he used the refugee route in order to convince the world that refugees were involved in the bombing. ISIS is desperate to stop refugees leaving the areas it controls, since this casts ISIS in a really bad light. Nothing would please ISIS better than Western nations slamming the borders shut, resulting in refugees freezing or starving to death. After all, it has already produced large amounts of propaganda aimed at convincing would-be refugees that they will be badly treated by the West.
If forcing the West to close the borders was the reason for the Paris bomber's route, it succeeded all too well. Now, the world is terrified of "Syrians" and "Muslims". Not all refugees are Syrians, and not all refugees are Muslims. But no-one cares. They just want the borders shut. Just as in the 1930s, Jewish refugees were denied asylum by country after country, so now Middle Eastern refugees are denied asylum. Many are still drowning in the Aegean. Many more will die from hunger and cold as winter comes. "We have no refuge," cry the Persecuted in Tippett's oratorio.
The EU has handled the situation appallingly; but for me even worse is the behaviour of US presidential candidates who refuse to acknowledge the origin of the refugee crisis in the US's inept and meretricious foreign policy, deny that the US has any responsibility for ensuring the safety and wellbeing of people displaced by its wars, and demand the complete banning of Middle Eastern refugees from America.
We cannot have them in our Empire. They shall not work, nor draw a dole. Let them starve in No Man's Land!
As the world turns on its dark side, we still await the shock that will push the fragile countries of Europe over the edge. But a shock does not have to be large. In Tippett's oratorio, it was the shooting of a German official by a Jewish boy desperate to save his dying mother. "They took a terrible vengeance...."
Burn down their houses. Beat in their heads. Break them in pieces on the wheel!Muslims are not strangers. They are our neighbours and our friends. And refugees are not terrorists. They are fleeing from terror. We can, and must, do better than we have done in the past. Offering asylum to the persecuted, and guaranteeing the freedom to practise any religion or none without persecution, are marks of a civilised society. If we abandon these, we give in to the darkness.
Our world turns, to darkness and danger. But by far the biggest danger is our own unreasonable fear. Let us not forget Lebanon and Bosnia. And the oddly prophetic Child Of Our Time.
Who pulled the switch?
Recording of Michael Tippett's A Child Of Our Time can be found here (Youtube link)