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What Is a Good Society? Part I. Mass Democracy on Trial

Longing for Problems

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The contrast between technical progress and our current discontents could scarcely be greater. On the one hand, we seem to have defeated, at least in Western Europe, the traditional enemies of mankind such as hunger and pestilence (indeed, the opposite problems, of an oversupply of food and a population that lives too long for the comfort of the young, are beginning to preoccupy us). On the other hand, ever-increasing technical mastery has not resulted in the social harmony or personal fulfillment that was once, for understandable though mistaken reasons, expected of it.

by Theodore Dalrymple

The promise of the Enlightenment has not been entirely fulfilled, because it could not be entirely fulfilled. There is an obvious reason for this, expressed with characteristic pithy irony by the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who was himself simultaneously of the Enlightenment and aware of its limitations. ‘Reason,’ wrote Hume, ‘is… the slave of the passions.’ And contrary to the extreme optimists of the Eighteenth Century, who thought that a perfect society of completely rational men could be created if only our knowledge, including of ourselves, were extended far enough, Hume saw no way of seamlessly uniting the kingdom of means with the kingdom of ends. Statements of value could never be satisfactorily derived from statements of empirical fact: and though many attempts to do so have since been made, none has really succeeded. The question of how to live – the most important that a man can ask himself – remains unanswered by all the wonders of science and technology that have freed us from our more obvious enemies.

Hume, of course, was a famously equable man. He died with a smile, perfectly content with his own ontological insignificance. Did he not write that the life of a man is of no more importance to the universe than the life of an oyster? But what was satisfactory for him is not satisfactory for the great majority of mankind, who cannot reach his olympian level of philosophical detachment. A society of David Humes could not exist. Most of us want some kind of assurance that there is more to life than our day to day pleasures, frustrations and anxieties.

But what, exactly? It is a question that I have long thought about in connection with my work. For much of my professional life as a doctor I have treated patients at the lower end of the social scale of an advanced industrial, or post-industrial, society – namely, Britain. Although my patients were poor, they were poor only in the relative sense, that is to say, relative to others in their society. They had enough to eat – more than enough – and were adequately housed and clothed. They had attended school for eleven years, though I would not make any strong claims for their level of education at the completion of this experience. And though their health was measurably, indeed markedly, less good than that of their richer fellow citizens, they nevertheless enjoyed (if that is quite the word for it) a life expectancy of more than half as much again as members of the British Royal Family at the apogee of British power in the mid-nineteenth century. Furthermore, they had access to several luxuries that would have astonished and made envious the Sun King: who, incidentally, would have suffered much more physical discomfort in his lifetime than any of them, despite having been the most powerful monarch of his age.

And yet the spiritual wretchedness of their existence can scarcely be exaggerated. It is unlikely that there has ever existed a population in which self-destructiveness (often simultaneously anti-social) has been quite so prevalent. It takes protean forms: from self-mutilation to drug addiction and excessive drinking, from profligacy to a refusal to comply with necessary and life-saving medical treatment. Nor should we console ourselves that this self-destructiveness is confined to a small or unimportant section of the population: self-destructiveness is fast-ascending the social scale as a mass-phenomenon.

Of course, when it comes to human conduct, there is nothing new under the sun. Infinitely inventive as people are when it comes to preventing their well-being and destroying their own lives, the annals of human history will always supply precedents. No murder is so horrible or brutal that a murder equally horrible and brutal cannot be found in the police records of a century ago. It is impossible in Britain, for example, to discuss the mass public drunkenness that is to be seen now in the centre of every British town and city on Friday and Saturday nights without someone (usually very pleased with his historical knowledge) piping up about Gin Lane, a reference to Hogarth’s famous print of that name, that drew attention to the vast increase of drunkenness that followed the introduction of cheap spirits into England. On this view mass public drunkenness is a genetic atavism, a reversion to type; and a social comparison with two and a half centuries ago is more relevant than such a comparison with two and a half decades ago. By means of finding historical precedents, of course, one can avoid having to think about an unpleasant aspect of contemporary life. There is not much one can do about a reversion to type, so there is nothing to worry about; our moral responsibility ends once we have established what we always knew in any case, that everything has always been the same.

The difference between the current wave of self-destructiveness and self-destructiveness in the past does not consist of a difference in the quality of the individual acts involved; it is a difference first in prevalence, and second of the circumstances in which it takes place.

To take the second point first: the child mortality rate in the London of Gin Lane was so high that the city could maintain its population or grow in size only by immigration from the countryside: otherwise its population would have declined. A half of all children born in London at that time died before the age of five; and it requires a special lack of imagination not to understand what this figure implies as far as the living conditions of Eighteenth Century London were concerned. The comparison with the drunkenness of Gin Lane with that of present-day Britain is thus anachronistic, crude and complacent; its effect is the evasion of thought about what present-day mass public drunkenness in Britain might mean. For while it might once plausibly, if not necessarily truly, have been maintained that the drunkenness of Gin Lane was the natural response of people to the physical poverty and precarity of their existence, this could hardly be said to be the case now. It takes great firmness of disposition to starve to death or suffer dangerous disease medically unattended in our societies nowadays: the state simply won’t allow it, however you conduct yourself.

As to the prevalence of self-destructive behaviour, one has only to consider the rise of self-mutilation in Britain in the last thirty or forty years. I remember as a student my astonishment when a fellow-student told me that she cut herself regularly on the thighs; not only had I not heard of such a thing, but it had not even occurred to me that such behaviour was part of the human repertoire. Recently, however, The Guardian newspaper reported a survey that found that a fifth of British girls resorted to the blade to relieve their tensions, whatever they were. And since 1960, when suicide ceased to be a crime, the number of suicidal gestures has risen astronomically. Britain is now the overdose capital of the world: at least 150,000 per year come to medical attention in England and Wales alone.

In the late 1960s, heroin addicts were still registered by the British Home Office and numbered only a few hundred (in the 1950s, there were years in which there were fewer than 100). The numbers are likely to be an underestimate, but not by an enormous proportion: for doctors were then obliged by law to register such addicts as soon as they came to their notice.

By the early 1990s there were so many addicts that the law was abrogated. It was no longer practical to register addicts, who now numbered between 100,000 and 300,000. Again, this increase can hardly be mentioned in public without someone pointing out the prevalence of the use of laudanum (tincture of opium in alcohol), in the Nineteenth Century, particularly its first half. But not only were the conditions completely different – not even the most ferocious critic of our current social conditions would claim that they resemble those of the industrial working class in mill towns in the 1820s – but there were no analgesics available at the time other than opium, for a population that must have been prey to a huge number of painful illnesses and injuries. Mass opiate addiction may at one time have been just as prevalent as now, or even more so, but its meaning would have been very different.

At one time, it seemed as if social pathology would cede to improvement in physical and social conditions. I will give but one example of this expectation, from a book published in 1905 by the social critic and reformer, Edward Carpenter (I take it at random, because it is the first that came to hand, but the sentiment is a commonplace of most social thought of the time and for many years both before and after). The book is called Prisons, Police and Punishment, and the author was appalled at the harshness of the law at the time he wrote.

It is easy to see, for any one who looks into the heart

   of the people to-day in our islands, that deliberate

   criminality and perversely anti-social instinct, though

   of course present, are not so very widespread. The

   immense majoity of cases that pass through our

   courts are cases arising out of sheer need, or wretched

   education and surrpoundings, and would disappear

   with the establishment of decent social conditions.

Had the housing, medical and nutritional conditions that exist today been described to Edward Carpenter in 1905, he would have considered them ideal. In other words, they should have put paid to crime as a social phenomenon, except possibly among the very few congenitally disturbed or psychopathic.

And what, actually, do we find? Is Edward Carpenter’s expectation borne out? The rate of crime has risen by about 50 times since he wrote. (The number of robberies in London alone rose from 22,000 in 1991 – 10 time more than in the whole of Great Britain in 1920 – to 44,600 in 2002.) Of course, direct statistical comparison between then, 1905, and now, 2005,  might not be possible, because of differences in the methods of recording crimes and so forth. Indeed, a collossal amount of intellectual effort has gone into denying that there has been an increase in criminality at all; for if there has not been such an increase, not only is there nothing to worry about, but there is nothing to explain. On the other hand, if there has been such an increase, an explanation is required: an explanation that would take us far beyond the comforting illusion that if only social conditions were good enough, Man himself would be good.

The effort that went into denying the increase in crime was in fact highly condescending towards those who experienced the increasing levels of crime in their daily lives – overwhelmingly the same (relatively) poor from whom the criminals were recruited. And, indeed, a few moments of reflection would have demonstrated that the increase was real enough.

The most notorious crimes in Britain in the 1880s, perhaps in the whole world, were the murders committed by Jack the Ripper. They took place in what was probably the worst area of London at the time, Whitechapel, whose  poverty, dirt and squalor was incomparably worse than anything to be found today. Not only were several of the victims found within minutes of having been murdered, but policemen arrived on the scene, by foot, almost immediately and were able to summon assistance from other policemen on foot in the area merely by blowing their whistles.

Policemen would not walk around the worst areas of our cities today on their own, nor would they be able to summon assistance so quickly from other such policemen. Indeed, to walk around the worst areas on their own, unarmed, would be considered tantamount to suicide, far too dangerous to be contemplated. In other words, Whitechapel in the 1880s, for all its appalling poverty, was less dangerous, at least from the point of view of violence, than an equivalent area would be today.

So we are left with what seems to be a paradox, at least for those who see the origin of social pathology in physical conditions and economic circumstances: improvement leads (at least in some, though of course not in all, respects) to deterioration.

Let me now jump to the existential conditions that I have observed among my patients. What deeper meaning can they give to their lives than the day to day flux of ordinary life.

In the first place, the struggle for survival (as I have already intimated) is more or less over. My patients could not fall ill without receiving medical treatment. They could not easily deprive themselves of a roof over their head or a sufficiency of food and clothing, and in some cases, the worse they behaved, the more subsidies they received. This is because subsidies in the welfare state are distributed according to need rather than according to desert: and one sovereign way to increase your need is to behave even worse.

Thus, fear – that indiscipline would lead to hunger, for example – is no longer a reality that affects behaviour. On the other hand, hope is in no better shape. The difference in the standard of living of those who work in unskilled capacities and those who are unemployed is very small. (Incidentally, official claims that in Britain the unemployment rate is low, having fallen dramatically in twenty years, are quite false. What has happened is that unemployment has been re-designated as invalidity, as sickness. If you add the sick to the unemployed, the number remains more or less constant, though the ratio between the two categories has changed dramatically. Britain thus presents a most curious spectacle, that of a country whose population is growing ever healthier, as measured by life expectancy, but where there are vastly more invalids than there were only a few years ago.)

A considerable percentage of the population lives, therefore, in conditions in which the hope of material improvement, at least than brought about by personal effort, scarcely exists, and the fear of material deprivation is similarly weak. And life without hope or fear is a state of limbo, deprived of meaning.

Of course, there are non-material rewards for labour, and it is possible to do even a menial job well or badly. But  the days when a man might take a pride in performing a humble duty well are, if not over in Britain, receding. The inexorable ascendency of celebrity culture, in which people of minor talent are shown to lead fairy-tale lives of ease, glamour and abundance, has destroyed, or is destroying, the kind of humility necessary to the  proud performance of menial tasks that are valuable to others.  The contrast between the lives of the famous and those of the anonymous is felt as a wound, an injustice, a challenge, in short a cause for resentment. Realisable ambition is replaced by daydream; and it is not coincidental that an absorption in celebrity culture has been shown (insofar as such things are capable of proof) to be associated with depression of mood, formerly known as unhappiness.

Work and the struggle for existence having been excluded as a source of pride and meaning, what is left? Religion is more or less dead: the Enlightenment, the application of whose philosophical attitude brought about so striking an increase in Man’s ability to control the world about him, undermined Man’s faith in his transcendent, sacred place in that world. The vastness of the universe, the impersonality of its forces, and Man’s descent from other species, served to reduce his place in the greater scheme of things. To be a human being was no longer something special, though of course the deprivation of Man’s providential status by no means prevented the development of personal egotism: rather, it promoted it. Save for a few who now come to religion in the attempt to find meaning in otherwise intolerable personal trauma, religion is no longer a source of transcendent consolation.

What of patriotism? At one time, a humble person in a European country might have taken pride in the might of his country and its dominant position in the world (I am not saying that this was necessarily a good thing, only that it was a consolatory one.) He might have thought that he was at least making a contribution, however small, to an endeavour of world-historical importance. But the Twentieth Century was the long century of European decline, relative to the rest of the world. A history that might one have been a source of pride became, by virtue of a gestalt switch, a source of shame: which in this case, was merely disappointed pride. The indubitable achievements of European civilisation, in all fields of human endeavour, were besmirched by this decline in power; and pride in nation, which has always been ambiguously meritorious, has not survived, beyond the antics of the crowds that attend international sporting competitions, particularly football.

Political causes might supply a transcendent meaning, but they have never really been the province of more than a minority, except perhaps in paroxysms of popular enthusiasm that rarely bode well. The most obvious political religion was Marxism: a man might acknowledge that he was nothing but a biological organism, a material object, such as the modern scientific outlook required him to believe, and yet be linked to a transcendental historical movement ending, inevitably, in the simultaneous satisfaction of all human desires and the reconciliation of all contradictions.

The downfall of the Soviet Union, and the forced abandonment of its salvationist pretensions, had a devastating effect upon the attractions of Marxism as an all-encompassing, all-answering doctrine and philosophy of life, notwithstanding that, until the downfall, Marxists had strenuously denied that their Marxism had anything to do, or in common, with the official doctrine of the Soviet Union. The fact is that the Soviet Union, so long as it bestrode the world like a colossus, reassured intellectual and academic Marxists, and their smattering of followers from the ordinary walks of life, that their doctrine was capable of being something other than the opium of the intellectuals.

The downfall of the Soviet Union did not herald the end of political religion, however, but rather its fragmentation. Marxism being, like God, dead, those seeking an answer to their existential anxieties in political religion had now to find a transcendent cause so radical that there was no possibility of final victory within the span of merely a single human lifetime: environmentalism, animal rights, feminism, homosexual rights and so forth. Of course, with the arrival of large Moslem populations into western societies, another and more dangerous political religion, Islamic fundamentalism, came to hand, and has even attracted a few natives (the first female Belgian suicide bomber was reported, before her conversion to Islam, to have been both a heavy drinker and sexually promiscuous, death for the sake of a holy cause being the perfect solution to her personal existential problems).

While there exist a number of activist extremisms in our society – more than ever before, perhaps – the proportion of the population engaged upon them is minuscule and in any case not concentrated in the section of the population from which my patients were drawn.

Work, religion, patriotism and social or political causes are therefore closed for large numbers of people as sources of meaning and transcendence. What remains?

There is the family, of course. But the family is as dead as God and Marxism, at least in a large part of society. I very rarely met a patient in my hospital under the age of twenty-five who was not plentifully supplied with step-parents, half-brothers and sisters and step-siblings. It was a world in which uncles and aunts could not be presumed to be older than their nieces and nephews, and in which the concept of succeeding generations was all but extinct. In the hospital in which I worked, legitimacy was a thing of the past, except among the children of Indian immigrants (and even there it was on the decline): very few fathers believed they had a duty towards their children irrespective of the state of their relations with their mother, or more usually mothers, and what is more, the mothers were of the very same opinion. It goes without saying that family cannot five meaning to life when all conception of duty has evaporated, as being inconvenient and antithetical to the enjoyment of the present moment.

Finally, there is culture, including intellectual interests. Unfortunately, the word culture, under the influence of anthropologists, has come to mean all human activity whatsoever. Intellectuals of a certain strain have also sought to destroy the notion of higher and lower in its regard, so that culture is now indistinguishable from mere distraction. The ‘culture’ of  my patients consisted of the passive absorption of the industrialised products of large and cynical corporations, including governmental ones, to which they contributed nothing actively except purchase. They had no notion of having inherited anything from the past, or of handing anything down to the future. Their culture was strictly the culture of now, this very moment, and was therefore unable to offer them any transcendence.

The result of this deprivation of life of any meaning beyond the day-to-day flux of existence was a deep and abiding boredom – a transcendent boredom, if you like – made all the worse by the constant exposure images of an exciting, constantly-moving glamorous life.

The avoidance of boredom is of prime psychological importance. Even our closest biological relatives, the apes, will engage in pointless pursuits, without obvious reward, only to keep themselves busy. I was very struck when I worked on some very remote Pacific islands, where life seemed relatively easy and stress-free, by the answer young people gave when asked why they sniffed the fumes of petrol, which had several unpleasant effects such as nausea and headache. ‘We want,’ they said, ‘to feel different.’ They did not say they wanted to feel better; change was good enough for them, in an environment where dusk fell at the same time all year round and the seasons varied very little.

In the absence of deeper interests, self-destructive behaviour is inclined to lend an interest to life, even if it is not always an agreeable interest. Moreover, ever since the Romantic movement, self-destructiveness has been invested with an aura of significance. If the talented are so often self-destructive (itself a matter of contention), then surely it must follow, by a common error of logic, that the self-destructive must often be talented?

The model for self-destructiveness, that exists in dialectical relationship with social reality, is the soap opera. Not an episode is broadcast without the depiction of one of the many forms of social pathology to which bored flesh is heir: suicide, murder, blackmail, drunkenness, violence, sexual intrigue, theft, drug-addiction and all the rest.

When all possible sources of transcendent meaning have been closed off, I do not find it altogether surprising that material progress – which I do not wish to denigrate – is not accompanied by the social benefits that were once expected of it. Man is not only a problem-solving animal, but a problem-creating one. He creates problems in order to avoid, or evade, meaninglessness.

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