The self, complexity, and coming to terms with being a councillor

I am currently reading, and greatly enjoying, Will Storr’s Selfie, his account of our obsession with the self and self-interest. One of the key ideas to emerge from this very well written and engaging book is that many neuro-scientists are now dismissing the idea of a core self, some intrinsic principle which is the true and authentic us, and instead talking about the multiple self. This ‘I’ is not one, but many; a number of different versions of who we are collected and formed from different social environments. I say all this not to get into a discussion about the ‘self’, but simply to point out that when armed with a fresh ‘interpretive framework’ our personal experiences can be brought into a much sharper focus.

For example, one of the long running narratives of my life has been not just an interest in philosophy, but to ask quite fundamental questions about my experiences. This has led me to explore various philosophical approaches, and formulate a certain understanding of the ‘human condition’. This ‘personal project’ forms a key narrative of who I am, but it is by no means the only one. Another key narrative of my life, one that is new and quite dominant at the moment, is that of local politician. Being newly elected to Dorset Council I find myself engaged in the process of establishing a role within what at times feels like an environment that everyone seems to understand except me. Absorbing and internalising the subtleties of a new social environment can be exhausting at the best of times, but when political game playing is added to the mix it can be quite overwhelming.

However, whilst participating in a councillor event this week, one focussing on the development of a Dorset industrial strategy, my philosophical narrative, or at least an element of it, managed to overcome the defences of my political narrative and offer some much needed assistance. We were being asked to rank certain elements of a possible industrial strategy in priority order when, out of the blue, work I had done years ago related to systems theory and complexity science, came charging to my assistance.

Social systems, which includes economic systems, can be (in fact should be) understood through the science of complex systems. This approach sees all the elements that come together to form the socio-economic system as a highly connected network, a network in which no element can be understood in isolation of any other element, and a network in which the flows of energy or information are highly non-linear. This means that our basic understanding of cause and effect does not apply; that because of various features such as feedback loops, very small inputs can have massive and unpredictable outputs and effects on other parts of the system. The only way to manage such systems is to try and grasp their dynamic complexity.

Which leads me to wonder whether its possible to so grasp perhaps the most dynamic and complex system of all – the human mind? Yes, I agree with the emerging evidence cited by Storr that there is no authentic self, and that we have a multiplicity of selves, but I’m wondering whether it’s possible to view ourselves not as a single unit, but as a single dynamic system, albeit one that is connected to other such systems in highly complex ways? I suppose I’m simply suggesting that it would be beneficial for all of us to develop an understanding of complexity; that developing our ‘interpretive frameworks’ to incorporate complexity may help us come to terms with ourselves and our place in the world.

The sun is shining, but Brazil sends a dark cloud

This last week has been one of the busiest, yet most stimulating weeks I have had for some time. Yesterday was Demand Democracy Day, a national campaign day calling for proportion representation, organised by Make Votes Matter. And here in Bridport, in glorious June weather, on one of those market days when the town centre is bustling with residents and holiday makers, we had a stall – talking to people about our unfair voting system and urging them to sign the MVM petition. As one person pointed out to me, this is probably the only issue on which I would agree with the Brexit Party.

In this week’s YouGov opinion poll, the Green Party was shown as having about 9% support. However, if a General Election were to be called (and I would not rule one out at any time following the crowning of the new Conservative Party leader) we would probably return just one MP. This is grossly unfair to this 9% of the electorate. No matter how good Caroline Lucas is (and she is good), her solitary voice in Parliament cannot do justice, cannot give a voice, to that degree of support. Fifty eight MPs, however…now that’s a different matter entirely! We could have some real influence with that number.

This week also saw the first meetings of Dorset Council’s cross party Climate Emergency Advisory Panel, and a small group set up by Bridport Town Council to produce a Climate Emergency Action Plan for the town. I sit on both of these. And I have to admit that I left both feeling far more positive that I had expected to. Regarding our Town Council, I suppose this should not have been a surprise, after all we have an excellent team of officers who are truly committed to rising to the challenge of our climate and ecological breakdown, and Bridport, particularly through the local Transition Town group, has long been active in this area. But even so, the energy and the ideas being generated is impressive, and I feel confident that we will have a comprehensive Action Plan to present to Council in October.

The Dorset Council panel however, being Tory dominated, was a bit more of a surprise, and for two reasons. First, because a list of thirty three actions that a council like Dorset can take to address this emergency, compiled by Friends of the Earth, is being taken seriously and was totally incorporated into our initial presentation. And second, because Extinction Rebellion, whose campaign has really impressed me, are also being taken seriously – so seriously that I think they are being invited to give a presentation to our next meeting in September. This, I really hope, bodes well, even though I was a little frustrated that, despite this being an emergency, we have to wait two months for our next meeting.

A day devoted to planning issues supplied some balance to my rising optimism. This was partly because I’m such a novice to this area of local government, and am therefore going through a very steep learning curve. But also because of the need to be far more prescriptive with regards to planning issues and our climate and ecological emergency than we are currently being. As a planning authority we need to work to a local development plan that has been approved by government and reflects their policies. Dorset, following the merger of several small planning authorities, is just starting the process of developing its own joint development plan. Until then we have to work with, and interpret, the old local plans the best we can

The production of this new development plan is a golden opportunity to ensure that all planning decisions reflect this emergency, but one that may also require a change of government policy. For example, the development of any greenfield site should be the exception, and should only be permitted when there is clear evidence that no brownfield site is available – even if this means relaxing certain areas of building control in towns. And, being a little more radical, permission to make extensions to already excessively large single-family domestic houses, or build such property in the first place, should be refused as a matter of principle. Not only are such projects a complete waste of valuable resources, resources with a carbon footprint, but are unethical when so many families are desperate for a home of their own.

But the story that really sobered me up was that reported by the BBC over several nights regarding the Brazilian rain-forest. This forest is being destroyed for purely commercial reasons, to create grazing space for cattle to produce beef. This action is simply beyond belief. These rain-forests are the lungs of the Earth. They supply 20% of our oxygen, and are the single biggest absorbers of carbon. And humans are destroying them…on purpose…for profit. And what is the UN doing? What is our government doing? National governments need to organise and say no to Brazil. They need to ban all imports of Brazilian goods until this practice is not only stopped, but reversed by a programme of re-forestation.

Thank you Philosophy.

One of my monthly highlights is the meeting of Bridport’s Philosophy in Pubs group. We met last Wednesday to discuss the notion of identity – our personal identity and its relationship to our sense of self. I shall say nothing further about this particular discussion now (though, if interested, please feel free to track down the August of edition of Bridport Times and read my regular column), but instead comment on why I find these meetings so stimulating. Bertrand Russell expressed my love of philosophy well when he said that “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves” (The Problems of Philosophy, ch. 14). Philosophy for me is about asking good questions, questions that open up problems and disturb certainty, questions that unsettle received opinion. It’s a creative and invigorating process.

But in many ways this challenging of certainty and the ‘common sense’ view sits on the opposite side of the table to the political aspect of my weekly activities. Whilst political theory can quite easily be studied and debated at an abstract level, without ever having to get your hands dirty, in reality politics is about finding solutions to problems that affect the lives of actual people, people who are not particularly interested in abstract arguments, people who just want to get on with their lives. And in many ways they are right. Decisions need to be taken, plans need to made and implemented, actions need to be taken. The problem is, however, that people crave certainty. Uncertainty unsettles us, and is usually portrayed as a sign of weakness. And this dilemma is perfectly illustrated by the issue that is dominating my political life at the moment – how should both Dorset Council and Bridport Town Council respond to their recently declared Climate Emergencies?

Life is inherently uncertain. Science, and particularly any science involving complex and dynamic systems like climate science, is inherently uncertain. This is just a fact. But as soon as you stand up and say this it’s immediately used as evidence that the science is therefore wrong and should be ignored, that the changes you are arguing for are unnecessary, and that we should take a far more relaxed approach to the impending crisis. The problem is, I think, that we are just not very good at making sense of probability. This is perfectly illustrated by the number of people who take part in lotteries and buy scratch cards. In terms of climate breakdown, a 90% certainty (for example) of something bad happening is serious – very serious. A politician who fails to respond to a 90% chance of something bad happening is guilty of gross negligence.

I have two important meetings this coming week concerning the Councils responses to the Climate Emergency. In one in particular I am anticipating a large degree of resistance to the action I consider necessary. And this is when I’m helped by philosophy. My approach has to be to start unravelling certain common sense, taken for granted perspectives – attitudes, for example, that prioritise the need continuous economic growth over all other factors. Following Russell, I will need to focus on raising good, well thought through questions, and point out that there are no definitive answers to either these questions or the emergency we face. Thank you philosophy. In a strange way it’s you that keeps me grounded in the political arena, not the other way round.

On a week that saw my optimism rise & fall

Please don’t be alarmed, but I’m starting to feel optimistic. I’m starting to believe that it may actually be possible to change things for the better and, in the face of an imminent climate and ecological breakdown, to turn things around and secure the wellbeing of future generations. And if I’m correct, this will be largely down Extinction Rebellion – the global grass roots movement and their programme of non-violent direct action. I say this after reading on the BBC News site that climate protesters have stormed a coal mine in Germany, breaking through police lines during a weekend of protests against fossil fuel use. Whether this was organised by XR or not I don’t know. But if not it was surely inspired by their strategy, as was Greenpeace’s protest at the Chancellor’s Mansion House speech. These protests are both inspiring and effective.

This dawning optimism was given a boost earlier in the week when I attended a ‘Climate Change Adaptation Framework for Dorset’ event, jointly organised by Dorset Local Nature Partnership and the Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership. I have to admit that I was initially sceptical regarding the LEP’s involvement. I say this because I assume that their economic approach is mainstream and conservative. For example, whilst their Dorset Horizon 2038 talks of their ambition “to build a more productive, innovative, inclusive and sustainable economy” (at face value, no problem with that), it’s subtitle is ‘A Vision for Growth’. If we are serious about responding to climate breakdown we need to end our obsession with the pursuit of economic growth. Rather than this being the over-arching measure of economic success we need to adopt that of human and ecological wellbeing; we need, in the words of economist Kate Raworth, to become agnostic towards economic growth.

But whilst the LEP’s current economic model may well place economic growth centre stage, presentations at this event did not. In fact, I don’t recall ‘economic growth’ being mentioned at all. Moreover, one of the main presenters talked about the need to transform our economic system, of moving towards a circular economy. This is most encouraging. Clive Lewis MP, in XR’s recent publication This is not a Drill, argues that a shift to a circular economy will involve cuts in consumption, increased recycling, drastic improvements to our re-use efficiency, and (most importantly) the abandonment of our fetish for growth. Instead, our goals must be a decarbonised economy of full employment built upon renewables, recycling technologies, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. To slightly amend a comment made by Clive Lewis: There will be no jobs or wealth on a dead planet.

So you can see how my optimism was soaring. It was soaring even as I started writing this. But then I heard the ex-Labour MP David Miliband on the Andrew Marr show talk about a possible armed conflict between the USA and Iran. And as they described how quickly such a conflict could escalate I could feel my optimism draining away. Very quickly my imagination was constructing all kinds of disastrous scenarios, many involving nuclear weapons. And that, despite the efforts of CND, is an issue that we haven’t resolved, despite years of campaigning. So, if we really are serious about avoiding the extinction of humanity perhaps we need to bring the issue of nuclear weapons back to the centre of grass roots campaigning as well.

My imagination has calmed down now, and my optimism is returning. But it would be a far more resilient optimism if could get rid of nuclear weapons!

A change of direction

Six weeks ago I was elected onto the new Dorset Council. One of the few downsides to this is that since then, in fact since the start of the election campaign several weeks prior to this, I’ve been struggling to find the time for many of my other projects – projects that are important to me personally, projects that keep my philosophical flame burning. This is requiring me to rethink how I handle these projects. The Philosophy in Pubs group I run is fairly straight forward, does not require a significant amount of time, so is at no risk whatsoever. The research that I have been doing into a narrative approach to ethics is important to me, not least because I think it important politically, but the book that was planned as an outcome will need to be put on hold. But on a positive note, I’m pleased to say that last Friday was a landmark day, in as much as I actually found the time to pick up the reading I was doing before local politics drowned all other activity.

Which brings me to this blog. My plan so far has been to write and post an essay of between 800 and a 1000 words every two weeks, an essay offering a philosophical reflection on some event or news item. But the reflection requires time, or at least some mental space where connections between disparate ideas can can tried, re-worked and finally sculptured into a coherent argument. Once this has happened, for me at least, the writing is fairly straight-forward. No, this approach requires some uncluttered thinking time – time I just haven’t got at the moment. However, I really do not want to stop writing. I enjoy writing. So I’m going to try a different approach. Instead of a reasonably substantial piece on a single subject every two weeks, I going to try a short piece (500 words at the most) every week simply reflecting on the week that has just past. A philosophical diary if you like. Hopefully I can do this by simply sitting down for a couple of hours at the weekend and writing what comes into my head. We’ll see.

For example, the topic that has dominated my thinking this last couple of weeks has been the drafting of a climate emergency motion for submission to the full Dorset Council. At the first meeting of this Council last month, due to pressure from members of Extinction Rebellion in the public area, a climate emergency was declared – but the motion passed was so bland that it makes no commitment to action at all. This needs to change. The Council at least needs to commit to developing certain strategies and policies. But in doing so many elected members will be fearful of either the consequences of certain lines of action, or will be hesitant because of having no idea how certain strategies will, or could be implemented. This must not stop us stating clearly what needs to happen. If we wait until we know the how of our response to the climate and ecological breakdown we face we will never act. We must let the necessity to act become the mother of invention. And if certain actions have outcomes we would prefer not to happen, then so be it. That is often the consequence of an emergency.

The asymmetry of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’

There’s one perspective to the ongoing and intractable Brexit debate that doesn’t seem to have been discussed. When ‘remainers’ like myself point out that those who voted to leave did not know what they were voting for, we are usually met with a wall of hostility. ‘Of course we did’ is the choral and angry response. This response is angry because it is generally taken to be insinuating that either those who voted for Brexit were too stupid to know or understand the issues, or that they were gullible and misinformed by devious politicians. But this misses the point. Whilst individual voters may well have had an idea of what they were voting for, this idea could not have been as concrete or as clear as that for which ‘remainers’ had voted. This has nothing to do with the capabilities of individual voters. It results from a fundamental asymmetry between the two concepts.

Whenever we refer to anything in language, the word we use has a referent. So, to use the standard example used by philosophers down the centuries, when I talk about a cup I will have a very clear idea of what a cup is. Whilst I may have the image of an actual cup in my mind when I speak or write, like the one on my desk now, those listening or reading do not need to have exactly the same image to understand what I mean. Cups are very common items. Whilst they all vary to some degree in size, shape and design, they all have sufficient in common that they can be identified by anyone. Such is the case for most, if not all, actual physically existing things.

But what about more abstract concepts, like say marriage or being the member of a social club? ‘Marriage’ and ‘social club’ are both nouns like ‘cup’, and work in the same way in language. They too have a referent, but this time what they refer to is far more abstract. Yes, a social club may be located in an actual building such that people passing could point and refer to it as a social club, but that club is far, far more than the building. It is a complex set of relationships between those people who are members of the club. Some of these relationships may be formalised in a written constitution that can be referred to in a similar way to a cup, but understanding and applying that constitution will involve many abstract concepts that defy being written down. Marriage is also essentially a relationship, primarily between two people, but also, in actuality, often between two families.

The key term here is ‘relationship’. Relationships are very complex sets of behaviours, only some of which are written down in constitutions, marriage agreements, and the associated state laws. They essentially describe how individual human actors behave, respond and associate with other human actors in a variety of different situations – some formal, some informal, with many grades between. We may not be able to formally describe all the relationships that exist for us in any particular situation, but we ‘know’ them intimately. To varying degrees, they form part of who we are.

But what happens if we want to leave one of these relationships? If we are a member of a social club but fall out with the committee we are at liberty to leave the club and have nothing further to do with it. We may continue to meet and have some relationship with members of the club, but we can, if we want, completely disassociate ourselves from the club. Marriages can be somewhat more difficult. If there are no children, no joint assets, and no wider family involved, it is possible, following the formal divorce, to walk away without any agreement on a future relationship. However, when children in particular are involved, some type of ongoing relationship cannot be avoided. Some type of ‘deal’ is essential.

And so to the UK’s relationship with the EU. This relationship takes complexity to a new level. In addition to the formal treaties and agreements there are a host of informal relationships that have not only developed during the course of the life of the EU, but through the course of European history. So my point regarding the asymmetry between ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ is simply this. Whilst none of us is able to describe the full complexity of the UK’s relationship with the EU, for each of us this relationship, however strong or weak, however positive or negative, is real. When we say ‘remain’ we are referring to an actually existing set of relationships. However, when we say ‘leave’ we not only find it impossible to do the same, but we find it impossible to imagine what set of relationships could exist. We could only do so if a ‘clean break’ divorce was possible, and it isn’t. The term ‘leave’ does not, and cannot, refer to an actually existing referent. It is therefore impossible to know what ‘leave’ actually means.

In the best interests of who?

First of all, an apology. I’ve been rather busy in the last few weeks, with the consequence that I’ve had to place certain projects and activities on hold – including this blog. But now that the local elections are over, and the initial turmoil of my election onto the Dorset Council starting to calm down, it’s time to start writing again. My aim during my time on this council will be to use this blog as a place for philosophical reflection on Dorset politics.

There’s been a great deal of criticism at the national level of ‘tribal politics’, of politicians voting for party political reasons rather what’s in ‘the national interest’. In a similar vein, during various training and introductory events for the new Dorset Council there have been many comments from councillors calling for cross-party co-operation, for councillors to talk and listen to their fellow councillors, of all political colours, and make decisions in the best interests of the residents of Dorset. This all sounds very reasonable, but not as straight-forward as many of the advocates would wish.

However much we would prefer it to be otherwise, notions like ‘the national interest’ and the ‘best interests of residents’ are far from clear cut. And they are certainly not objective states against which all decisions can be referred. They may sound like reasonable reference points against which political decisions can be made, but they are even more ephemeral than political theory and party political statements of policy. At least the latter of these have the advantage of being written down and argued in a rational manner, and therefore subject to criticism and debate. The ‘national interest’ and the ‘interest of residents’ are more often than not just disguised notions of subjective political opinion.

For example, I strongly suspect that my understanding of ‘the national interest’ would be somewhat at odds with that of a strong adherent of free market economics, someone who genuinely believed that if left to itself, and free from state restrictions, the market will come up with solutions to the fast approaching climate breakdown. How then do we agree on what this national interest is? In compromise, I hear people shouting! In the rational centre ground of politics. But I seriously doubt whether we can save ourselves from climate catastrophe through compromise. And likewise with the ‘best interests of residents’. I strongly believe that it is in the best interests of the residents to do all we can to provide locally sourced renewable energy, through both solar panels and wind turbines (on land and off shore) – but many people would argue that their ‘best interests’ are harmed by those ‘unsightly’ turbines ruining their view and devaluing the value of their property. I would argue that preventing a one metre rise in sea level trumps such aesthetics and personal wealth.

The problem is, however, that no single statement, whether written or spoken, whether from an individual person or agreed by a collective, can be definitive. And that includes anything I write and say. Including this. Basically, the world is just too complex. There are too many variables, there is too much inherent uncertainty, for such positions to exist. However much we may crave such simplicity, and we do crave it, often intensely, it doesn’t exist. There is no intrinsic meaning to the world and life, there is no objective purpose. We create all meaning and purpose.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the need to accept that whatever we believe cannot be the whole truth, and it leaves us with the need to listen and talk to people, and particularly to those people who we disagree with, in as open a minded way as we can. We need to learn to debate. We need to participate in political discussion. And on the political stage, councillors and MPs of all parties need to engage in genuine dialogue – but please, let’s drop any notion of ‘national interest’ or the ‘best interests of residents’. Whilst I certainly do not wish either the nation or the residents of Dorset any harm, such phrases are too contested to be used as the rationale for any decision.

An appeal to the good citizens of Bridport

On May 2nd we go the the polls to elect three councillors who will represent Bridport on the new Dorset Council for the next five years – five crucial years in which a lot of vitally important decisions will need to be made. Now, I know that most of you are totally fed up with politics and politicians, but could I please ask you to not dismiss these elections out of hand – they are important! Our First Past the Post voting system means that if people use all three votes for the same party then, with the opposition vote divided, Conservatives will quite likely win all 3 seats with about 40% of the vote.

Bridport members of the Green Party have decided to purposely stand only one candidate in this election. We have done so in the hope that supporters of all the progressive parties that take issues like the fast approaching climate emergency, the need to fight Conservative austerity and their creeping privatisation of public services and the NHS, and the need be proactive in addressing our housing crisis seriously. We have done so with the hope that if our supporters decide to co-operate and make a collective response we can prevent Dorset Council becoming a one-party council.

A Conservative dominated Council will not be good for democracy, it will not be good for the people of Dorset, and it will certainly not be good for our planet. But that is the likely outcome of elections not run on some form of proportional representation. I accept that I represent a minority party – but that does not mean that supporters of this party should not have their views represented on the council that will be responsible for so many of their local services. Even if only 10% of voters agree in principle with Green Party policies they deserve, and have a right, to be heard. In actuality it is difficult to be sure of just how many voters support the Green Party because so many vote ‘tactically’ for parties that they think have a better chance of winning. This is just not democratic!

When we learnt that the Bridport ward for Dorset Council was to be a three-member ward our initial reaction was one of hope. Just do the maths. In both the 2017 Dorset County Council elections, and last year’s by-election, the Conservatives in Bridport received 40% of the vote. Collectively, the Green Party, Lib Dems and Labour received 60%. So, if these three parties agreed to co-operate, agreed to stand just one candidate each, and urged their supporters to use all three of their votes for these three candidates, the chances are that all three would get elected. And each party would have a far greater chance of having a candidate elected than if they stood a full slate.

However, it soon became clear that this would not happen. For too many reasons such rationality is too easily defeated by tribal politics. And even my Green Party is not completely free from guilt.

So, we are where we are. We have gone alone, and taken a chance. We have decided to stand just a single candidate – myself. I know from talking to many people in Bridport, ordinary voters, not members of particular political parties, that their loyalties are split. By asking you to cast just one Green vote I am suggesting that you can also cast your other two votes for other progressive candidates in a concerted attempt to prevent Dorset becoming a one-party ‘state’.

Nietzsche, ressentiment, and public anger

Nietzsche is an enigma. He’s dangerous to read and quote, yet intoxicating and thought provoking. In places he writes poetically, in others he writes like the mad philosopher he became. There are passages that are just plain wrong, yet there are others that are incredibly insightful. Recently I have been drawn, via Pankaj Mishra’s book Age of Anger, to his concept of ressentiment and his analysis of the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ in an attempt to understand our current situation – a situation dominated by very deep feelings of frustration and anger.

According to Nietzsche’s analysis, the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ can be traced back to a feeling of “complete and fundamental superiority” by “a higher ruling kind in relation to a lower kind”, most notably to the aristocracy of the ancient Greek city state. Then, aristocracy meant rule by the best, by those of good character, by “the noble, the mighty, the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their actions as good…in contrast to everything lowly, low-minded, common and plebeian.” Put very simply, the good was what ever the aristocrats of the time said it was, albeit a good influenced by the practical necessity of maintaining a flourishing city state with them in charge.

In time, the baton of defining ‘good and bad’ was taken by the priests, beings who claimed to be the mouthpiece for the expression of God’s own word on the subject, a situation that created a great deal of tension between the political / military leaders and the priestly class. However, this led, according to Nietzsche, to a slave revolt in morality, a revolt (according to my understanding) which coincided with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. Under this revolt “only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people”, whereas the “rich, the noble and powerful” are now eternally wicked. This brought about what Nietzsche describes as the ‘herd mentality’, a situation that encapsulated everything he hated about Christianity, a situation in which people stop thinking for themselves, stop striving for power, all because they are led to believe that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.”

Whilst reluctant to completely dismiss this as a description of the origins of morality, I have two serious problems with it as an analysis of our current situation. The first concerns ressentiment. For Nietzsche, “The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment”, a deep-seated existential feeling of resentment towards those with power, “turns creative and gives birth to values.” In historic terms I just do not think such a creative turn occurred. The values adopted by ‘the masses’ were not of their origin but of a new, emergent class of pious philosopher that appeared originally as a social response to the English Civil War, then as part of the Scottish Enlightenment, and subsequently as a reaction to the French Revolution. I think that rather than turning creative, this ressentiment has grown, turned socially cancerous, and is currently revealing itself through the symptoms of public anger for anything and everything.

The second problem, a corollary to this, is that our sense of good and bad is still being defined by a small group of powerful people. These are no longer the Greek city aristocrats, nor the medieval priests, nor the Victorian public school nobility (though there are still echoes of the latter), but the leaders of business, those who control our economic model, those who, because they have wealth, influence what’s left of our government, together with the celebrities who endorse their brands and the marketing executives who create our wants and desires. They are the ones who now define our sense of good and bad. They are the source of our hopes and desires, they create what we aspire to, our goals and aims in life. But they have created aspirations and goals that can only be achieved by the very few. They have created dreams that will never be fulfilled. The result is that people feel frustrated and angry. There exists, to quote Mishra, “An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness”. People, quite understandably, don’t understand the source of this feeling, but instead direct it at any wandering scapegoat that happens to appear.

Inequality, knife crime, and ressentiment

Much has been said in the last week about knife crime. But little has been said about the strong correlation between rising income inequality and violence. This correlation has been documented by many scientists, most notably by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their two best selling books, The Spirit Level and The Inner Level. However, as Peter Wilby correctly points out in the current edition of New Statesman: “cause and effect cannot be derived from a statistical correlation”. Such a correlation can, though, strongly suggest a relationship that should be explored further. It’s disappointing that this exploration has had such little press coverage. So what could explain this correlation?

In Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra uses the word ressentiment to describe an “existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness.” This isn’t jealously or envy of any particular person or situation, but a deep feeling that flows from the very core of our being, a feeling that leaves people feeling, well…angry. Angry at everything and everyone. We suffer, he concludes, “from an extraordinary if largely imperceptible destruction of faith in the future – the fundamental optimism that makes reality seem purposeful and goal-oriented.” And, like Wilkinson and Pickett, he points the finger of blame at the rocketing increase in inequality: “The world has never seen a greater accumulation of wealth, or a more extensive escape from material deprivation…But such broad and conventional norms of progress cloak how unequally its opportunities are distributed.”

Our current economic model has produced a very large increase in wealth, power and influence for those at the top of the income ladder, whilst leaving those at the bottom barely better off, in real terms, than they were several decades ago. Social mobility, the opportunity to climb the social ladder and live at a level above that of your parents, has ground to a halt. The unequal growth produced by this economic model is largely fuelled by consumerism – the promotion and enticement to purchase lifestyles and social status that, cruelly, will always be beyond reach. Consumerism, as someone once said (sorry, I can’t remember who) is the purchasing of goods we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t know. This is criminally wasteful of resources, it pushes people into debt, and it fails to achieve the social respect we so desire.

For the vast majority (about 95%) of the last 200,000 to 250,000 of human history we have lived in egalitarian groups, groups in which co-operation and equality were essential to survival, and in which competition and status seeking were shunned. It is only since we left this hunter-gatherer life style and settled down in farming communities that humans have felt the need to revert to pre-human dominance hierarchies, a social format in which it was essential to know and adhere to your position in the hierarchy, to avoid eye contact with your superiors and to demand respect from your inferiors. Think of the famous Monty Python sketch at this point. This means, as Wilkinson and Pickett point out in The Inner Level, that there are two potentially opposed systems within our social brain, two rival sources of social anxiety – one acutely aware of our place in the hierarchy, and one that is assertively egalitarian.

As humans, rather than higher primates, we feel at our best, our happiest, when we feel connected, when we feel part of a community. This is the socially evolved result of our hunter gatherer lifestyle, a lifestyle that actively resisted any member of the community getting too dominant or too powerful, a lifestyle that respected everyone simply because it was acknowledged that every one was important and of value. However, during the course of the evolution of capitalism, and particularly during its most recent incarnation, neo-liberalism, we have been indoctrinated to believe that the purpose of our life is to create wealth for ourselves and compete with our neighbour in an attempt to ‘get on in life’, to accumulate wealth and status, to believe that we are all individuals who should pursue our own self-interest.

At best, this competition for status is a zero-sum gain. If you increase your status, power or wealth by moving up the hierarchy someone else must slip down. At worst (at the present moment) the problem is that the status, power or wealth of the vast majority of people rarely, if ever, changes. The lifestyles we aspire to, those that are sold to us by celebrities or marketing companies, are constantly out or reach. The result? Deep feelings of envy, humiliation and powerlessness, together with the need to make the pain go away. We feel anger. And if we don’t take drugs to take the pain away, we find groups of people to blame – so called elites, foreign immigrants or rival gangs. And we find ways to try and acquire the money we are told we need to gain the status we believe we deserve. And we find ways to gain respect within our own communities. Or if we feel ignored by our wider community we find respect within a gang. Knife crime, I can’t help thinking, is just one manifestation of an ever steepening social hierarchy, of ever growing inequality.