Why Are Things the Way They Are?

graphicI’d like to borrow your brain for a bit. Some of you are going to experience a desperate yearning to search out some porn, or read an article on the latest gaming console, or burn some time on twitter or facebook socializing instead. I know I’m going to lose some of you. That is the nature of our society. I’m just hoping I can retain even a few of you long enough to convince you to question what you think you know about how the world works. The good news is that all the complex stuff is in the embedded video, and there are nice graphics.

In the past few years, I have had something of a slow but destabilizing epiphany. It doesn’t make for a neat narrative, or a very satisfying one. I can’t put my finger on the day my understanding of the world started to change. It was a slow thing, not a bolt out of the blue. But it’s not an overstatement to say that I’ve had my fundamental understanding of the way the world works challenged.

Some context: I was born into an upper-middle class family. Though in later life both my parents became more conservative in their political leanings, I was brought up with a fairly liberal view of the world: perhaps best described as humanist. My parents were both staunch atheists, but nonetheless, there were values that were essentially unquestionable: honesty, compassion, egalitarianism, etc. Along with this came a stress on education. And, perhaps, this very secular upbringing also imbued me with a propensity to challenge authority when I could see that power was not being applied fairly or humanely.  Yet, ironically, I was brought up believing certain things were sins: the chief among them was greed.

I recount this because, although I was always predisposed to a certain amount of questioning about the way the world worked, I can’t say I was a born radical. In fact, until recently, I held certain very strong opinions: that people should work, not to serve some shadowy other or simply for financial security, but as a way to give their lives purpose and dignity. Similarly, I had a very rigid understanding of what did and did not belong to me – what I earned through labour or creativity – and that debt was something to be avoided. If it was incurred, it must be paid back as quickly and fully as humanly possible.

At the time I didn’t notice it, but looking back now, there were ways in which the framework of reality changed around me. The political and ethical landscape changed fundamentally during the Reagan/Thatcher years. It was not that people weren’t greedy before the 1980s, but it was not publicly acceptable to admit it. At some point in that decade, greed became an explicitly legitimate motivation. Slowly, it became sanctioned, celebrated, valorized, fetishized and finally mainstreamed. At the same time, credit became a tool everyone was encouraged to use to take advantage of economic opportunities.

Similarly, the concept of ownership became more complex. I think it was my own practice as a creative, witnessing the lack of access to global culture in developing nations, and the internet that forced me to rethink how I understood and what I felt about things like copyright and intellectual property.

Although I did work for a while around stock traders and financial services in the mid ’90s, it was only after the 2008 financial crash that I forced myself – very much against my natural inclinations – to sit down and truly understand how the banking system worked, what credit default swaps were, how assets and debts were generated, quantified, insured, etc.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I’m guessing that, if you can’t recognize yourself in my particular upbringing, you may at least recognize at least a little of yourself in me in regard to the values we were brought up with – our ethical compasses.

What I have come to understand only recently is that these values have predisposed us to take certain aspects of our political and financial system as givens. That banks need to be bailed out, that these massive national debts need to be repaid, that participants in democracies have an effect on policy, that our surveillance society was for our safety and benefit, that the law did not actively seek to prosecute people who were hell bent on trying to make the world a fairer, better place.

Perhaps it is because I have spent the last decade outside the West that I started to question these givens. Perhaps it was reading more philosophy. Perhaps it was the election of Barack Obama, and the great hope I had that finally there was going to be a reasonable, ethical thinker in the White House who would put a halt to some of the awful, corrupt crap that had crept into the system. Perhaps it was just age – maybe the scales of innocence came off my eyes later than for many. Perhaps it was my privilege – financially moderately stable, unencumbered by debt, well-educated, white.

All I know is that I have reached middle age, and there are far too many things wrong with the world and they are getting worse by the day. The country that, for all its flaws, no longer practices the democracy it was established to practice. The British and US legal systems increasingly benefit only those who can afford the best paid legal services. Banks – once a service industry that made its money keeping our money safe, and from the gap between the interest they charged on loans and mortgages and the interest they paid on savings deposits – have now become monstrous machines that manufacture the growing disparity between the very rich and the poor. And most importantly, the ghastly and obscene entitlement felt by the very few 1% who have the means by which to inure themselves in every way from the increasingly miserable existence they are actively and intentionally making.

What is this post all about? I’m not going to ask you to read something as complex and extensive as Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. I would just ask you to set about 1.5 hours of your time aside to watch this documentary. It is not unbiased and is not without its flaws. But it does underscore the vital need we all have to recognize that the values of our upbringing makes us vulnerable to accepting obvious misrepresentations about how the world works.

And after you have finished watching it, I want you to consider whether you have changed your mind a little about certain things: for instance, what should Greece do about its debt and its economy? Are you allowing the things you own, or want to own define you? Is that desire forcing you to make compromises that are at odds with who you are inside? Is the constant media paradigm of binaries – us against them, rich against poor, left against right, the West against Islam – offering you any real, tangible answers? Is it even informing you in a way that empowers you?