Voltaire’s Bastards Twenty Years On
The ability to embrace doubt in the middle of a crisis is a sign of strength. Voltaire’s Bastards ends with what might seem a surprising eulogy to doubt—our ability to live with uncertainty as a creative force. You could call this an expression of consciousness. If we can bring ourselves to live consciously then we will be able to embrace both stability and change, which means we may do better at dealing with crises.
That eulogy to doubt included descriptions of what I have seen over the years in both the Arctic and the Sahara. Existing in doubt is a strength of people who live in extreme conditions. They must be conscious or they will die.
We, flowers of the temperate zones, can float half awake through a padded world. We have our dramas and our suffering. But most of that we impose upon ourselves.
The greatest drama we have imposed on ourselves is our willful misinterpretation of consciousness. The Socratic conviction was that virtues were forms of knowledge and therefore no man willingly does wrong. What I said in Voltaire’s Bastards about our modern elites was that, by abandoning humanism in favour of an ideology of reason, they had inverted the equation. Now they justify doing wrong because they do know. This rational sophistication makes them passive, terrified of uncertainty, unable to change when faced by reality, ready to accept the worst.
You might call this profound cynicism: the mindset of the courtier or consultant or advisor. In any case, they believe themselves to be immobilized by what they know. This, they think, is professional behaviour. To be precise, they know so much that they believe it would be amateurish or emotive to do anything much about the environment, global warming, poverty, debt, to mention just a few problems.
This passive or fearful mind-set, tied to expertise and power, has steadily worsened over the last twenty years as the power of managerial leadership has grown. Theirs is a mind-set obsessed by systems and by control over systems as the essence of power. It is the opposite of leadership. It is all about form over content; a mind-set in which continuity and mediocrity are the same thing.
Today their power is such that they feel comfortable manacling the citizenry with debts transferred to them from corporate bodies. They take pleasure in weighing job creation against planetary warming, as if these were opposites. It is as if they, being experts, had cleverly negotiated a deal with the planet itself. A trade off. As simple as that.
Is this naivety? Ignorance? Even Odysseus knew you couldn’t do a deal with Zeus.
I mentioned in Voltaire’s Bastards that the late twentieth century resembled the mid-eighteenth, with a large, sophisticated, self-referential and pessimistic elite. This is what you might call the self-destructive nature of the overly sophisticated. Twenty years later this also is increasingly true: We have an elite pessimistic not only about its own ability to do things but, thanks to an astonishing transfer of responsibility, pessimistic about the citizenry.
In the early 1990s it seemed to me that we were trapped in a social crisis, only one part of which was an economic depression. But this was a rare sort of depression, broad and deep-seated; a tailspin downwards brought on by the worship of uninteresting methods. We seemed unable to ask ourselves serious questions about our civilizations and about where they were headed. Such a tailspin wasn’t so much about economics as about philosophy. It isn’t economics that leads to a class system or a rich-poor divide or, alternatively, to attempts at inclusion and egalitarianism.
All of this is dependent on how we imagine ourselves, as well as how we imagine all those other people we simply do not know. Can we imagine the other? Are we capable of empathy? For those who carried the most influence in the nineties, this was not a central question.
And for many, the idea that we were caught in a long-term tailspin was outrageous. They were immersed in their proofs of progress. And of course, looked at selectively, they were right. There had been continual breakthroughs—technological, digital, medical. Just as there are today. But then the second half of the eighteenth century was also one of continual breakthroughs in science, in technology, in agriculture, in philosophy, in understanding how the planet functions. These breakthroughs were perhaps more revolutionary than those of the late twentieth century. After all, they carried the West clearly out of the Middle Ages.
The elites of the eighteenth century did not understand or respond to the instability that all these changes brought on. They saw social and political methods and the structure that protected their role as inviolable. Doubt in any of this might bring it all tumbling down. Doubt was therefore banished. And then it did all come tumbling down. What followed was an era of revolution, violence and dictatorships. And there was a surprising focus on race; that is, a surprising focus on the scientific, free-market, nation-state application of racism. From there the triumph of reason moved on to produce a world dominated by a handful of empires. These in turn were characterized by those same elements of revolution wherever they set up shop: violence, dictatorship, institutionalized racism, all served by science and the free market to the benefit of that handful of nation-states.
What of today? Well, we see what passes for political, administrative and intellectual leadership still hanging on desperately to old-fashioned concepts of trade and growth, to name but a few of their favourite things. They seem to believe in the sanctity of the commercial contract, but see no equivalent sanctity attached to the well-being of the citizenry. They have a moral fervour when it comes to other people’s debts. In fact, they have become increasingly religious about their utilitarianism, turning poor Adam Smith into their saint without reading him or, worse still, after reading a few extracts. So it’s not surprising that their capacity to embrace uncertainty seems, if anything, to be shrinking. And their still-growing obsession with method rather than purpose strikes me as psychotic. You can see this in the energy with which much of our education is being pushed towards the utilitarian. Training, not education.
Twenty years ago, optimism was high that these old ways could become the new way. Few people were trying to identify the broader shape of the era. The West was driven by its desire for specifics and certainty. Now, in far more difficult times, we blunder on, still obsessed by certainty and our failed rational methodology and its curious reliance on simplistic economic theories. All of this must be true or disaster will fall upon us. But disaster has fallen upon us. So it seems they are not true.
The chapter in Voltaire’s Bastards on finance—Miracle of the Loaves—was focused on the destructive African debt crisis. I had thought about updating it to include today’s internal Western debt crisis. Unfortunately there is no need to change a word. With absolute certainty, we are simply applying to ourselves the debt theory we earlier used to destroy Africa. Any African could have explained that this theory would undermine the confidence of citizens in their own democratic system, destroy public programs aimed at broad inclusion, lead to the expulsion of homeowners and the further exaggeration of the rich-poor divide. Interestingly enough, the experts are applying their debt theories to Western democracies without a single reference—as far as I can see—to their African failure. Is this cynical? Worse. It has an Alzheimer’s quality to it. One of the characteristics of a civilization which promotes form over content is that memory evaporates.
Part of Voltaire’s Bastards is devoted to an attack on the rational, managerial methodology we have developed as a replacement for thought and doubt. This methodology is the source of the widespread feeling that we are suffering from a breakdown in leadership. You might also say that this methodology has been used as a replacement for humanism and citizen-based democracy. It has punished creativity at leadership levels.
Such a critique was thought to be fresh or scandalous at the time, although perhaps also a bit romantic. After all, don’t we need the certainty of dispassionate, expert, non-leaders who can be counted on to prevent exuberance or risk? As they have gained strength over the decades, these non-leaders have also tied our hands and made it increasingly difficult for us to change what we are doing. The intricate relationship between public, private and NGO structures has steadily grown over the last two decades, tying us up to the point that we are in a virtual stall. It is as if we have abandoned the possibility that healthy societies evolve through ideas. And therefore through doubt and the possibility of change. Instead we have a hypnotic obsession with efficiency and methodology.
Now a growing number of people actually do see the last half-century as one of steady decline for the West. It is as if they can now make out a pattern which links what we do as societies and individuals with real events. The result is clear. There has not been so little confidence in elected leaders and expert administration since the early 1930s and the rise of fascist regimes. At the same time there has not been such distrust of the business sector since the same early thirties. This in particular is fascinating because the great truth of the last half-century has been economic leadership. We have all worked very hard to see things their way. We have been surprisingly obedient to their most peculiar whims. So it isn’t surprising that our downward spiral is seen in economic terms.
Asia is gaining back the large percentage of global wealth and wealth creation it had less than three centuries ago. The West is shrinking from the global centre of wealth creation into a troubled regional phenomenon.
And those marvelous, modern and so-impressive truths we embraced over the last half-century have lost us much of our infrastructure for wealth creation, recreated the old destructive rich-poor divides in our societies and produced growing pessimism.
Yet we press on as if our serious doubts cannot be linked to serious change. This is a sign of just how managerial and technocratic we have become; so much so that mediocre utilitarianism confuses itself with professionalism. And all of this is in place of what could be called humanism.
The curious thing is that the true believers in a borderless world are now, as quietly as possible, attempting to re-create as many of the old national tools of control as they can. Why? Because the borderless world is not working out to the West’s advantage. These anti-globalist efforts are all carried on without admission of error or appearance of doubt or debate of ideas. Every new anti-terror strategy at a border point, every new visa program and reform of immigration and migration rules, every clever new tariff wall, regulation, financial control or ownership criteria is dressed up in the familiar sort of dispassionate, obscure, administrative language, as if it were a simple continuation of their modern ways. In fact it is a chaotic and panicked reaction to failure.
Perhaps most importantly, this failure and the confused response to it by those in charge is a reminder that the glory of the West does not lie in economic ideologies or utilitarian inevitabilities or linear process. What is admirable about Western civilizations is the minority school of humanism. Humanism is always the minority school. Socrates not Plato. Erasmus not Descartes. Periodically this more difficult way of living breaks through to the front line and re-energizes us with purpose, enough to carry us through the next ideological era with whatever destructive forces it will unleash.
Those humanist victories remind us that we do have the capacity to create through doubt. That consciousness is a continual test. Our strengths are revealed in such moments. How to embrace them has always been our challenge.
What can be felt today is that populations throughout the West no longer believe in the certainty of their elites. They do not have confidence in the dominant utilitarianism. Elsewhere in the world there is growing contempt for what might be called the Western school, with all its assertions of what and how lives must be lived, societies organized, economies run. As Western humanist ideas of responsible individualism and engaged citizenry have declined, leaving us with the individual as consumer, selfish, cut off from shared responsibilities with the other, so people elsewhere have turned away from the West, partly in embarrassment. They don’t wish to be associated with our naivety.
What is interesting is that the humanist possibility once again is rising to near the surface. People are open to profound change, but still cannot find the way. Instead, all of us are witnessing and taking part in seemingly unrelated explosions. Populism of every sort, from the best to the worst, has re-emerged. Citizens have abruptly gone into the streets, angry in an eighteenth, nineteenth century way; not organized according to interests. They are simply in the streets, deeply disturbed by the situation. And large numbers of people who won’t take that physical step are nevertheless speaking up to express support. Again, this is very much what happened at key moments in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Beside this populism and these inchoate expressions in the streets, we are seeing new waves of nationalism emerge, both positive and negative. Some of it gives form to a humanist sense of belonging. Some of it is tied to a frightening re-emergence of racism as a respectable position.
In other parts of our populations there is an aggressive refusal to engage. These are people whose anger or disgust might lead them to engage with any of the above. But for the moment it expresses itself as a refusal to express anything.
All of this is present. It is a broad phenomenon. But we are not yet using our consciousness to focus on what is happening. And there is not yet enough of a positive and open debate for people to feel they can find their way through the conundrum of today’s troubles.
In my view, this is because the way through is really a question not an answer. How did we get where we are? Where, how, did we mistake the path? Not the path to some alternate truth, but the way to a more complex approach. Understanding the mistakes made and the possibility of a more humanist approach lie in choices made and beliefs adopted over a long period of time.
The virtue of doubt I write about in Voltaire’s Bastards lies in picking that long period apart. It involves questioning what we believe a Hero to be, and a citizen, a celebrity, a capitalist, a general, a writer, a politician, a saint. And this requires looking at our assumptions about war, economics, leadership and democracy.
Given our obsession with efficiency and most of our leaders with professional methodology, many will say we haven’t got time for such time-consuming reflections. As for those who got us into this mess, they are busy raising fear, erasing all memory of their failures while they maintain a steady pace in the same old direction.
Of course, it is entirely our right to continue on our downward spiral. We don’t have to embrace doubt or learn how to live consciously. We can continue to abandon empathy as an expensive, inefficient pastime.
Cultural suicide is a tradition well-established in history.