Grandpa: Penny, why don’t you write a play about ism-mania?
Grandpa: Yeah, sure. You know – communism, fascism, voodooism. Everybody’s got an “ism” these days.
Penny: I thought it was an itch or something.
Grandpa: Well, it’s just as catching. When things go a little bad nowadays, you go out and get yourself an “ism,” and you’re in business.
Penny: I’ve got it. It might help Cynthia to have an “ism” in the monastery.
Grandpa: Yes, it might that. Only give her “Americanism.” Let her known something about Americans. John Paul Jones, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Lee, Edison, Mark Twain… when things got tough with those boys, they didn’t run around looking for “isms.” Lincoln said “With malice toward none, with charity to all.” Nowadays they say “Think the way I do, or I’ll bomb the daylights out of you.”
(Frank Capra: You Can't Take It With You)
Frank Capra was an enlightened man. He is typically remembered for his misty-eyed nostalgia and his unshakable belief that people are essentially good at heart, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. I realise that I've fallen victim to the kind of ism-mania of which he speaks, namely in depicting Blair/Brown's form of government as 'socialism'. Many if not most socialists would see NuLab's goals as incompatible with socialism in that it embraces neoconservitivism (ism no.1), laissez faire capitalism rather than that which they're supposed to uphold: ordoliberalism (isms no.2 and 3), progressivism (ism no.4), revisionism (ism no.5) and neoliberalism (ism no.6) all of which are confusingly brought together under a banner of centrist social democracy rather than democratic socialism. (Social democracy is supposed to be a form of libertarian reform from below which shakes off authoritarian shackles; democratic socialism involves minimalist to severe measures of authoritarian state socialism, which could encompass the domestic policies of just about everyone from Harold Wilson to Stalin.) Confused? We should be: we're engulfed by a flood of such 'isms' on a daily basis, all of which seem to differ so infinitesimally as not to be worthy of remark or so radically that we can only assess them from a black/white stance. Our responses become diluted: we either protest against one element of what we see as authoritarian control, or anti-civil liberties, or gross exploitation, but leave the societal definitions and constructs up to the so-called 'experts'. Then, twenty years later, someone writes a book about what we've lived through. 'Ah, yes!' we say, shaking our heads in disbelief. 'That's exactly what it was like...'
All of which feeds rather nicely into the political blueprint first devised by our old friend Edward Bernays, who stated calmly in Propaganda that there was only so much that any man needed to know or to be told: you couldn't overload the poor creature, so it was in his best interest to filter his news and opinions for him and to gather them together under particular headings, so as to give him a nice sense of structure in his life. This 'run along now, the grown ups are talking' approach pervades politics and, by extension, all of society today. And it's impossible to talk about society and politics as separate entities: since politics has turned into a personality cult we're unable to have an abstract discussion about education, say, without mentioning what Labour's done to it; rather than coming up with what we think would be a better way in which to educate our children, we can only complain about what has gone wrong or suggest ways in which to fix the rot.
This leaves us no leverage. If you consider yourself a liberal but disagree with all of the Liberal Democrats' policies, there's nowhere for you to go. Ditto Conservatism and definitely ditto Labour. Even if you agree with three quarters of their policies but vehemently disagree with the other quarter, you're still expected to support the party. You're still expected to vote for them. Your feelings on the other issues don't matter: in agreeing to disagree (though your consent hasn't been sought) you're being 'democratic'. Gone are the days where you can heckle those fighting for political office and make them substantiate what they have to say. Today's politics are based upon presumption. Which is why I made the error, for example, of calling NuLab socialist. They're not. The countries of the Southern Cone before the Chicago Boys moved in were socialist; they had the greatest explosion in education, industrialisation, shared wealth and social mobility in human history. NuLab, in stating that everyone has been 'empowered' whilst simultaneously disempowering them by pulling the lynchpins out of all existing social institutions, dumbing down education and making the intelligentsia a laughing-stock, are working from a very different agenda: one that could almost be seen as akin to that of the great robber barons of the C13th, or indeed the East India Company in the C19th. Wage war on those who may oppose you, disenfranchise the unarmed, create great hubs of power, and convince people that there is no other way to exist so that they do not even dream of seeking a new political philosophy; they can only militate against elements of the existent system whilst the great machine rumbles on, unhindered.
To create the kind of world we can really bear to live in - not a Utopia, because that is one person dreaming on behalf of the many: a nightmare - we have to overcome all these new assumptions which are being cloaked as ancient wisdom and start from scratch. From the beginning. To ask all those big ethical questions which our populist politicians answer for us on the basis of presumed consent. Whether we agree with any of the tenets of the three major political parties, for example: and if we do not, why do we not? How do we put new tenets in their place without destroying people's lives in the process? I still have enough faith, like Capra, in the goodness of people that we can achieve some kind of decency in living, in a life where people choose what level of individuality they want to assume rather than being robbed of it altogether.