George Walford: Editorial Notes (39)

OLD CAUSES and old slogans are losing their appeal; the bright young people no longer see themselves leading the masses into violent revolution. Gender and race resonate more loudly than class. Peterloo may still rank above Waterloo, but the emancipation of the slaves shines brighter than either, while the formerly exploited workers of western Europe are now likely to find themselves ranked with the capitalists as oppressors of the Third World and destroyers of the environment.

Yet beneath the shifting surface regularities persist. The outgroups are no longer what they were, but the reformers and revolutionaries still value the excluded above the established while the traditionalists rank it lower, deserving consideration no doubt, but not to be met on equal terms. The trads still outnumber and outweigh the rads, and there is no sign that this is likely to alter.

The occupants of the niches change, but the pattern persists, and it is a pattern of thought, an ideological structure.

BUREAUCRATS have their privileges, and those of the European Commission have more than most. Their normal pensions are generous enough, but if they retire early because of ill health the payment goes up to 75% of salary, and the number claiming to suffer conditions obliging them to do this goes beyond all credibility. In one staff grade every pensioner has retired early on health grounds; in another, 330 have done so against 35 taking the lower normal pensions. Overall, nearly half of the commission’s employees retire early on health grounds. Questioned by auditors the commission claims, in defence of its ex-employees (and its own acceptance of their practices), that the poor health record has been due to the physical activity their work entails; in fact they are entitled to call in outside contractors if a pile of documents to be shifted weighs over 5 kilos (about 11 lb.). (SUNDAY TIMES 12 Feb 89)

Those of us who feel exploited may be more inclined to cheer than to become censorious, but the report does call in question the orthodox belief that work (in the sense of participation in the social enterprise) forms part of the good life for almost everybody. It rather supports the tentative conclusion drawn from systematic ideology, that the largest ideological group has no inclination in this direction, confining its interest to personal and family affairs and working only to the extent that payment for doing so, or penalties for not doing so, make this expedient.

INTELLECTUALS have long declared an unqualified obligation to discover truth and make it known, but many now support censorship when it comes to the knowledge of making atomic bombs, and some genetic resarch is also coming under a ban. In West Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Spain and Victoria (Australia), restrictions have been imposed, the Warnock report which proposes restrictions for Britain is receiving powerful support, and the Council of Europe, representing 22 nations, is calling for all its mem bers to limit embryological research. All this although the results of such research have so far been overwhelmingly beneficial. There are absolutely no absolute commitments – not even to truth.

MUSLIMS in the USSR number nearly 50 million (Angus Roxburgh in SUNDAY TIMES 12 Feb 89)

THE USSR has more Christians than CP members. (World Christian Encyclopedia)

CENTRAL and Southern Africa were at one time occupied by peo- ple allied to the pygmies now surviving only in the Ituri Forest and the Kalahari Desert; they were displaced by the Bantu (a generic term for the “full-size” blacks) moving down from the north. This may not mean that the whites ought not hand South Africa back to the Bantu, but it does raise a question whether these ought then to keep it or hand it on, in their turn, to the previous occupants. Perhaps America ought to be han- ded back, not to the Indians but to the buffalo, Europe to the aurochs and England to the oak-trees.

UNCERTAINTY, or at least the recognition of its presence, is spreading from the micro- to the macroscopic world. In A Passion for Science (OUP 1988) Wolpert and Richards report an interview with the theoretical physicist Michael Berry in which he speaks of grow- ing realisation that the outcome of many life-size physical events can be altered by disturbances so small as to be imperceptible. A game of billiards played on an ideally flat table would be affected by gravitational changes resulting from movement in the vicinity, and long-term weather forecasting offers another example of large-scale movements rendered unpredictable by minute changes producing chain-effects. Two other instances mentioned are the economy and human behaviour.

It is many years now since Heisenberg first propounded his Uncertainty Principle, and these extensions of the concept raise the question whether exact and certain prediction of anything ever is possible. To take the classic example: Assuming that the sun will rise tomorrow, is it possible to predict the time exactly? Such a prediction would require a sun with sharp edges, while the surface of the real one is in constant motion, with the solar prominences␣ fountaining into surrounding space; there can be no simple, unarguable answer to the question whether the boundary of “the sun” extends to the outermost limit of the biggest of these. Similar considerations apply to all material bodies; it is only the gros- sness of our senses that makes them appear to possess the sharp distinction needed for exact prediction. Examined under great enough magnification their edges reveal fuzziness, making it impossible to foretell, with complete exactitude, when one of them will cross a given line (or even to determine, exactly, when it did so).

But note: the problem arises only when we seek exact and certain prediction; the prophecy that the sun will rise between, say, seven and seven-thirty does not encounter the same difficulty, and neither does the prediction that at some exact time the sun will probably have risen. By surrendering exactitude we gain certainty, and by surrendering certainty we gain exactitude.

THEOLOGIANS, Freudians and other suspicious hermeneuts, all of whom say: ‘The text is wilfully secret and obscure, and by definition cannot say what I know it really means'” (Wendy Doniger in TLS 23 Dec 89)

CIVILISATION grows, and books on the centenary of the Armada have used up more trees than it took to build the ships.

BETWEEN 1960 and 1987 the birth-rate fell in Singapore from 6.3 to 1.6 children, in Cuba from 4.7 to 1.8, in India from 6.2 to 4.3. Lester R. Brown et al State of the World, 1988: a Worldwatch Institute report on progress towards a sustainable society. London: Norton. The book also includes the more familiar indications of coming disaster.

I AM their leader, I must follow them.” Quoted by Charles Townshend in TLS 21 Oct 88. He ascribes it to “a 19C French socialist.”

IN A recent American poll 45% of those questioned believed that “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was an article of the US Constitution. (Reported by Charles Townshend in TLS 21 Oct 88)

MEMBERSHIP of the British Communist Party rose from 2,500 in 1930 to 57,000 in 1941. (Sally Alexander in TLS 9 Sept 88)

GREENPEACE tells us, in its leaflet Against All Odds, that if the earth be likened to a person 46 years of age, homo sapiens sapiens appeared four hours ago and discovered agriculture during the last hour; the industrial revolution began one minute ago. The leaflet continues:

During those sixty seconds of biological time, Modern Man has made a rubbish tip of Paradise. He has multiplied his numbers to plague proportions, caused the extinction of 500 species of animals, ransacked the planet for fuels and now stands like a brutish infant, gloating over this meteoric rise to ascendancy, on the brink of a war to end all wars and of effectively destroying this oasis of life in the solar system.

Like so much effective journalism the paragraph is misleading because one-sided. Modern Man has also produced Greenpeace and its associated movements. On the scale which puts the age of the earth at 46 years the interval since these appeared is so small as to be hardly measurable, yet already they are winning concessions from governments.

They have done this, and seem set to do much more, not by reversing the course of history but by driving ahead along the line of development which has led to our present position. Since humanity first appeared it has been extending its control over nature; even before agriculture appeared human beings were using fire and making tools in a way the animals do not. Agriculture added impetus, and since then the pace has been accelerating, until now we control our environment to the extent that we can destroy it and ourselves with it. Greenpeace would have us go farther yet, extending our control to an area hardly touched.

In this leaflet it declares its objectives: “… to stop… to stop… to close down… to stop… to reduce… stricter control.” That which is to be stopped, closed down, reduced, and brought under stricter control, is society’s destruction of its environment. Having learnt how to control our environment we are now to take our own society under management, making sure it does not harm us by destroying the environment. Human beings have never been good at holding back or withdrawing, their impulse, from the beginning, has been towards extending control into ever wider fields. In urging that society, too, be brought under human control, Greenpeace works with that impulse, and this explains its success.

The TIMES of 22 Mar 89 discusses employment prospects and concludes that there will be no shortage of labour in the near future. The bulge is to be followed by a demographic trough, but the number of young people coming out of the schools to 1995 will still be enough to fill the jobs available. Industry now needs less labour to produce the same goods; between 1961 and 1981 2.5 million jobs disappeared in this way.

The workers discarded were taken up by the service sector, but the demand for human labour is diminishing here, too. Check-out counters, banks, libraries, insurance offices, doctors, stockbrokers and professional kitchens are all coming to use clever machines in place of people. Amin Rajan, of the Institute of Manpower Studies, forecasts “jobless growth” and Charles Handy, author of The Future of Work, says that increases in industrial productivity mean that more wealth will bring more jobs only if output increases faster stilL And output does not increase without consumption increasing.

We used to work in order to eat; now we must eat in order to work. We must eat more, drink more, travel more, wear more clothes, use more fuel, cut down more trees, burn more coal, produce more radioactive waste, dump more rubbish and pollute more air. We must destroy the planet faster, faster and faster still. Why? So we can go on working.

If everybody was consumed with a furious passion for work this might make some sort of sense, but the whole of history goes to show that although some people do enjoy work, great numbers do not. Many of the people now without work are suffering, but not from lack of useful occupation; we get closer to reality if we call them not the unemployed but the undersupplied. Only accept this and we can all relax, give the planet a chance to recover and begin to enjoy ourselves.

HOWARD HUMPRIES tried to sell cheap petrol at his filling-station, but two of the big companies refused to supply him. (SUNDAY TIMES 2 April 89)

If the market is free, with all competitors at liberty to do as they choose, then wholesalers are free to refuse supplies to retailers who do not do as they wish. They are also free to enter into combinations for the purpose. The retailers also have this freedom, but since there are necessarily many times more retailers than wholesalers, which are going to combine more effectively?

A free-market society is not a free society. To ensure freedom for the members of society the market has to be controlled.

AMONG the April Fool tricks played this year, one firm was offering lead-free pencils.

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from Ideological Commentary 39, May 1989.