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The Touchy-Feely Inferno

This essay was originally the final, epilogue, chapter of an unpublished book I wrote in 2009. On re-reading it today I was struck that 9 years haven't changed much….

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“My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.” [Anton Chekhov]


The incontinent expression of emotion has become a new orthodoxy, not only in popular culture but even in politics. We’re regularly treated nowadays to advertisements that exploit neuroscientific jargon where once they stuck to plain chemistry – they now seek to boost our serotonin levels rather than merely applying lipid microcapsules to our hair. The staple diet of celebrity magazines and soap operas is the ostentatious display of “emotional honesty” and “vulnerability”, people are always now “there for each other”. Hugging is as revealing of the temper of our time as the distancing handshake was of a previous era.

This touchy-feely inferno spreads even into the realm of politics. Reports sponsored by the government tell of new “evidence-based” measures to improve our mental health (or “well being” as we now prefer to call it). Aspects of what used to be called character that we feel are not quite up to scratch are nowadays granted the status of full-blown syndromes – borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, attention deficit syndrome – and the government now feels responsible for treating them. More and more of what used merely to be vices have been promoted into addictions. The treatment most often prescribed is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a respectable enough discipline when practiced by the qualified, but which sounds more like a stew of folk wisdom and new-age quackery at the seedier end of the spectrum, a work-out program for fragile egos.

Even the UK Labour Party, its dour Methodist origins thoroughly obliterated at last, has appointed a “happiness tsar” (a delightful oxymoron, smiley face meets the knout) who is to find out why we’re all so miserable despite the excellent governance we have been receiving. This tsar acknowledged that we’re all “consumed with status, with envy” and proposed to fix it by providing free CBT for all schoolchildren on the NHS. It’s too easy to mock such well-intentioned efforts, and also counter-productive for my main argument that a new and better founded materialism (an “evidence-based” one if you must) is urgently needed to discover and then restore the proper balance between the emotional and the rational in public policy.

One thing the happiness tsar certainly got right is that “there has been a catastrophic failure to develop a secular morality”. During a 20th century in which the role of churches (and mosques and synagogues etc) in public life steadily diminished, efforts to replace religious dogma with a rational prescription for good living mostly foundered on a central contradiction, that those who claim to know the best way to live suffer an almost irresistible urge to enforce it on others, while those who claim the freedom to live as they wish will eventually permit everything up to rape and cannibalism. This catastrophic weakness of secular moralities is precisely what Nietzsche predicted, that the collapse of mass religious faith would lead not to rational freedom but the void of nihilism. However his own prescription for handling the problem, the “superman”, so lacked practicality that it was fatally misinterpreted by 20th century racist ideologues.

Communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and China invented versions of secular morality so austere and rigorously rationalist that they inspired sadistic zealotry in the ruling cadre and sullenly passive resistance in the ruled, destroying civil society and more or less forcing authentic human life underground. Communism derived its original moral authority from Marx’s theories about social and economic injustice but the Russian Bolshevik party’s lethal decision to employ violence not in self-defence but to suppress political opponents completely forfeited this authority, eventually turning a majority of the population against it and guaranteeing the need to perpetuate a tyranny.
Italian Fascism and German Nazism on the contrary frankly exploited the popular emotions of love of country and hatred of strangers from the start and were secular only in name, in truth more like mystical cults of violence and strong leadership. Moral authority was not a necessary part of their appeal, and it’s in this sense only that they can be said to have been influenced by Nietzsche (who they were able to distort so badly only because he left so many crevices into which their ideological crowbars could be inserted).

The social democracies that flourished in Britain and Roosevelt’s USA during and after World War 2 performed far better and produced perhaps the most successful attempt at secular morality so far, a form of liberal utilitarianism in which the power of the state was employed to stabilise the economy, redistribute wealth in a modest way and regulate the more predatory aspects of market capitalism. That this morality was accepted by a majority of the population was largely due to the traumatic experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s and the shared experience of danger and hardship in World War II. De Waal’s model of spreading altruism might suggest that such hardship would actually diminish cooperation and altruism, but here’s a salutary reminder that in sophisticated modern societies the biological is more and more subordinated to the political. People on the allied side in WW2 pulled together despite the hardship because they detested the tyrannical behaviour of the enemy and could clearly imagine it applied to themselves and their loved ones in the case of defeat. In short, politics can and will defeat biology but only where the political classes are of sufficient ability, integrity and courage, and therein lies our modern problem.

The touchy-feely character type I alluded to above is the natural product of advanced consumer societies in which people are encouraged to look after themselves first and believe their own desires trump everything else (“because you’re worth it”). This retreat into egoism and narcissism represents a real regression from the wider social responsibility of the WW2 generation, and according to de Waal’s model such a retreat should happen in the face of scarcity, not overabundance. But what if there really is a scarcity in modern consumer societies that’s not material in the old sense but rather mental – which I’ve spent the whole of this book proving to be equally material. That scarcity is a dearth of economic and emotional security. Many of our traditional institutions – family, nation, church, work – have been so eroded over the last half century by rapid economic change that people can no longer expect to gain their sense of identity from a lifelong occupation. The period from 1945 to 1965 when I was growing up looks more and more like a Golden Age of full employment and economic security, at least for the working classes of the Western world.

However the social conformism and civility that it demanded provoked resistance from a younger generation who had no direct experience of wartime deprivation, and this social democratic morality crumbled under assault from a libertarian “countercultural revolt” of the late 1960s (in which I played my part), followed quickly by a resurgent neoliberal political economy spearheaded by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the early 1970s. Once in power in the UK and the USA, neoliberal activists deliberately set about reversing the distribution of wealth and explicitly promoting the greed, selfishness and egoism they knew lay reliably dormant within my post-war generation. Altruism versus hedonism proved to be no contest. The political Left has signally failed to prevent this erosion because it’s always been sceptical of the value of traditional institutions like the family and religion itself. Karl Marx saw them as incorrigibly on the side of reaction, as devices for maintaining economic inequality, which is certainly true but is not the only reason that such institutions persist.

The power of the institutions is more emotional than economic, it’s the glue that keeps both individual psyches and whole societies from falling apart. By providing such cohesion it’s true enough that they also preserve existing property relations, but in the 20th century it was advanced capitalism itself that became the foremost destroyer of traditional institutions, through its blind imperative to spread market values into every niche of life. Though the overall wealth of society has increased dramatically, and average living standards too in the developed countries, most people outside of a tiny plutocracy now live with greater levels of anxiety and insecurity than they did during those post-war years, thanks to the increased “mobility of labour” (read sackings and redundancies) and the predatory pricing of privatised services. We find ourselves in an impasse where both extremes of the political spectrum are intent on dissolving the social glue, without much idea about what to replace it with. It would appear that the wrecking ball is the only tool left in our social engineering toolkit: a politics that exploits emotion (fascism) and a politics shorn of emotion (communism) both proved to be equally dreadful in their consequences, and we’re still floundering to find the middle ground.

Parties ostensibly of the Left like New Labour barely dare even pay lip-service to social democracy nowadays, so deeply have they had to compromise with neoliberalism to get elected, and they no longer possess anything approaching a coherent secular public morality. A growing anarchy among the young and the poor is what panicked New Labour into appointing its happiness tsar, along with terrorism directly connected to the revival of religious fundamentalism that spreads like a fungus to fill the moral void. The culture of gang membership and revenge killings reminds us that Santayana’s barbarian tribes never went all that far away... While neurohistorical explanations are true at a certain level, it’s crucially important to clearly understand what that level is and to confine them to it as otherwise their effect is to depoliticise everything. The best-intentioned efforts of social engineers who want to improve our mental well being (or nurture the nation’s “mental capital” in the most telling phrase I’ve seen) can all too easily slip by imperceptible degrees into coercion. In the worst case social engineering serves to silence critics by invalidating their discourse as symptoms of mental unwellness, shades of Orwell’s Big Brother. The Soviet abuse of mental hospitals should teach us just as stark a lesson as the Gulag.

Although you might expect me to welcome the recent popularity of neurologically-aware self help books like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, I’m afraid the news that prominent British politicians have been caught reading them makes me feel slightly queasy (which is of course nothing to do with raging jealousy over their huge sales...) I want to see a new more vigorous and humane materialism that can be objective about the subjective - even if we can’t ever completely separate reason from emotion, we need to learn how to identify emotional biases and handle them gracefully without just giving in to them. Exactly where to draw the line between persuasion and coercion, between social engineering and politics, is going to become a very urgent question in the near future in view of the highly unstable conditions that currently prevail in the world. Though it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to dispense with the need to use violence in self-defence, we could at least refrain from inflicting fear on our own side as an instrument of policy.

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