Saturday 29 August 2015

Dwelling in the land of Nod

There’s a small section in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden where he discusses how people in Salinas, California used to think about the future. He writes “The whole valley, the whole West was that way. It was a time when the past had lost its sweetness and sap” (Ch. 15.i). When the 19th century turned into the 20th, these people in the West started to look forward, anticipating the inevitable progress towards which the American dream was leading. They might not know quite when this heaven on earth would arrive but they had hope and faith that it would. It didn’t matter that the dream had not yet been fulfilled, it mattered only that they were tending towards it. Maybe it would even be fulfilled in their own lifetime. “And people found happiness in the future according to their present lack” (Ch. 15.i).

I found this passage by chance in a novel I was reading by chance. I’d just watched again the James Dean film for the first time in years and wanted to see what the book was like. Something struck me when I read these sentences and I spent a few days thinking about why they had caught my attention.

I remember reading about how the SNP organised the independence campaign. They were taught by some American political guru that they must banish all negativity. Alex, Nicola and co. played some sort of game where they had a collection of balls and had to give away one each time they said anything that was not positive. They learned their lesson. I may have mangled the story, but the essence of it is true.

There’s something about these political gurus that I despise. They’ve turned politics into a game which attempts to manipulate the result using human psychology. It turns politics into a sport where what matters is my team winning. But politics must have a purpose beyond mere winning. Otherwise, it becomes a game not worth playing. What matters in the end is not whether Republicans or Democrats win, but how the country is run. The political guru is paid to make his party win even if that were bad for the country, just as a lawyer frequently is paid to get his client off even if he is guilty. This has nothing to do with justice and nothing at all to do with truth.

In Scotland we were faced with a debate about the future of our country. No more important decision can be made than breaking up a nation state that has withstood so much throughout the course of its history. The result should not be influenced by political trickery. Let us banish all gurus, especially those who couldn’t care less about Scotland so long as they are paid. The future of Scotland should not be determined by balls as if it were some sort of lottery. It’s not about creating a populist mood. It’s not about manipulating psychology. Rather, it’s about decisions that will affect all of our lives in ways we can hardly guess at. Let us at least be a little serious about how we decide such questions. Let us focus on issues of substance. If what I say is true, it ought to matter not one little bit if some people find it negative. Truth sometimes is negative and it is simply childish to try to avoid it as if reality dare not impede the dreams of nationalists.

But this is not where we are in Scotland. Nothing must interfere with our dreams. What Steinbeck showed in his novel is the power of hope, the power of the idea that life will get better, maybe not for me, but for those who come after me. This is compelling particularly for those who lack something now. Most importantly, the mere idea that the future will be better makes these people happier now, just because they hope that in time their dream will come to pass. The anticipation can sometimes even be better than the thing anticipated. Who has not looked forward to a trip, only to be disappointed with the reality? As long as the goal is in the future, reality need not impede the dream. This was the power of the SNP campaign. All they had to do was present people with hope and this hope made those, especially with a present lack, happier. The problem with this method of campaigning, however, is that it doesn’t depend on truth and is immune to counter argument.  

People in California over a hundred years ago dreamt of how untold riches would come to the valley of Salinas. They thought of how progress would end all the hardships they had to endure at present. Anyone pointing out difficulties was just being negative. Such comments were wholly unwelcome, even un-American as they went counter to the American dream.

This is our problem in countering the dreams put forward by the SNP. For those caught up in the dream, any counter argument is just being negative. Moreover, the dream simply depends on faith in the future. It cannot be disproved, because the proof that would counter it does not exist, or exists only in a future that may or may not unfold. We therefore have faith based politics. Nothing I can say can disprove a claim about the future. After all, the future is not and can be anything I dream it to be.

The problem however, with the politics of hope is that it does eventually collide with reality. The SNP have put forward a vision of an independent Scotland. They have turned a proportion of the Scottish electorate into those who look forward to this with hope. They see every counter argument as just talking down Scotland. Wha’s like us, we can make the future of Scotland anything we choose it to be. They think anyone who doesn’t share their dream is ultimately un-Scottish. But if Scotland did become independent, the dream would in the end face a reality. At this point the counter arguments would be proved true or not as the case may be. But by that point it would, of course, be too late. This is the power of the SNP’s argument. It doesn’t matter if the dream they put forward does not turn out as they describe. There may be disappointments, but independence is a one way street and there would be no going back. Their hope does not need to have any relationship to truth, for their dream is only independence. It matters not one little bit to them what an independent Scotland would be like just so long as it was independent.

There is something seductive about the idea of inevitable progress. Steinbeck’s Salinas valley did get richer and the standard of living did rise. But then anywhere that has free markets and doesn’t do something politically or economically stupid will see a gradual rise in the standard of living. Anyone who can remember the 1960s and 1970s realises that we are incomparably better off now than we were then. But clearly this is not the hope that Scottish nationalists seek. If they were only interested in the gradual rising of living standards, they would be content to stay in the UK. Here is where they begin to side with people like Mr Corbyn in presenting a vision of the future that is rather more Utopian.

The Scottish nationalist vision just like the vision of the Corbynites is of a society that is fair, without inequality that never goes to war and where socialism brings something close to heaven on earth. People find happiness in this idea according to their present lack. This is why it is so difficult to counter. It’s an ideal. Even Tony Blair did not join the Labour Party to become a Blairite. He joined because he hoped one day to bring about the socialist paradise that he dreamed of when he was a youth. Why is it that people who disagreed with Corbyn let him into the contest in the first place? The reason is that although they disagree with him, they wish that what he says was true. The problem with the pragmatists who oppose Corbyn is that they can all remember when they agreed with him and would like to agree with him now.

But neither Scotland, nor England is going to become a socialist paradise even if some people try the experiment. The reason is quite simple. Although it would be nice if we were all content to live in a socialist paradise, we never will because it would be necessary to change human nature to do so. Free markets bring prosperity, precisely because of all the nasty things that socialism strives to remove. It is inequality that drives progress. The future does not always see hopes fulfilled. Progress is not always inevitable. Many parts of the world were far worse by the mid part of the 20th century than they had been at the beginning.    

The hope that is put forward by both Nicola Sturgeon and Jeremy Corbyn is quite seductive and it is very difficult to counter, but it is worth remembering that more unhappiness has been caused by Utopian dreams than almost anything else in history. These dreams will eventually come up against reality. It may be impossible for us who do not dwell in the land of Nod East of Eden to counter those who do, but their dream world is liable to turn into a nightmare. But for the present, there is no waking them up, because hope is a greater soporific even than morphia.