The Best of Times?

Spanish Civil War PosterThis has been a tense weekend in a number of ways; if the news is to be believed, the folks down at the U.S. Treasury Department have been burning the midnight oil, trying to ensure the biggest dominos of the American financial system – Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – don’t fall over. If they did collapse, the government would be obliged to prop them up, and the amount of debt the American government sustains would rise to a level that would justify further devaluation of the dollar. This, in turn, would lead to higher oil prices, as the value of the commodity in relation to the value of the currency in which it is priced, would have dramatically changed.

To use a British phrase, it’s a “right old mess”. Prospects for the world economy apart from China and India, are looking bleak: the Economist warned against the sound of consumers’ purses snapping shut. Even Jeremy Clarkson, the Mad King of the Petrolheads, is apparently now dispensing tips on how to conserve fuel.

There are other items which should worry us; a little noticed problem with bees could have a catastrophic effect on world food supply. The mysterious “Colony Collapse Disorder”, by which bee communities simply disintegrate and die, means there are less of the vital insects to help in agriculture. The Guardian newspaper estimates that without bees, mankind would have four years before starving to death; this item was mentioned en passant on a few websites on Saturday.

Knife crime has also been in the press recently; if the weekend news was to be believed, teenagers are stabbing each other with abandon, and without remorse. A young man interviewed on BBC News this morning was asked if seeing victims of knife crime would influence people to stop using them. His reply was “no”.

In short, we have all the ingredients here for believing that things are as bad as they could ever get. There’s war, famine, economic ruin, and societal breakdown hovering like ghostly spectres across Western civilisation, threatening its demise.

It’s at times like these that it’s important to get some perspective, lest we slide down the precipice to nihilism. Believing that everything is wrong and nothing can improve is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if futility marks every action, then there is no incentive to endure.

On Saturday, BBC Radio 4 had a veteran of the Spanish Civil War as its featured guest. Since he was aged 92, it is highly likely he was one of the last. He spoke very simply and clearly, and unlike most presenters on radio, the one on this programme kept mostly silent, so he could elucidate his tale without hindrance.

The Spanish Civil War was one of the low points of the 1930’s, a decade marked by genuine economic collapse, hunger and violence. The democratically elected Republican government was under siege by a cadre of military officers, who called themselves the Nationalists. The Soviet Union allied itself, albeit tacitly, with the Republican side, and the Nazis and Fascist Italy lined up with the Nationalists. The struggle is considered by some historians to be the opening round of the Second World War.

The elderly veteran on Radio 4 was one of the British volunteers who went to fight for the Republic. He described London of the period: there were pitched street battles in the East End between Communists and Fascists. Going to Spain was part of continuing the fight; to get there, he had to endure a long journey, much of it by bus. Some of what he had to do to get to Spain was absurd: he was told, if questioned at the border, that he was a Spanish worker returning home after a fishing trip. Of course, he spoke no Spanish.

The Republican forces were underequipped compared to their Nationalist rivals; the veteran suggested that his gun was part of the refuse from an earlier, probably nineteenth century struggle. Firing it safely was out of the question. Yet, he was sent into battle, and was ultimately wounded. After recovering, he continued to work as a journalist and activist, until the Republican regime eventually fell.

His story turned out well; he ended up as a journalist with the Daily Herald, and had a successful career. He met his wife in Spain. In 1996, he was invited back to Spain by the government to be honoured for his service. However, one cannot escape the sense that as a young man he was operating in a time when the lights were truly going out. Orwell’s idea of a “boot stamping on a human face forever” was very real. Books like Huxley’s “Brave New World” gave us cause to fear mass production. Unemployment, due to the Great Depression, was extremely grim; bursts of optimism, as provided by Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were few and far between.

Yes, things are bad now. However, there is no totalitarian enemy waiting to pounce upon our shores. The skies are not black with bombers. Unemployment is nowhere near what it was; albeit there are pockets like East Glasgow where hopelessness reigns. We have challenges, but we can survive them and overcome them: after all, our predecessors survived much worse. Cutting back on driving and consumption is far less demanding than facing the prospect of being shot or blown to pieces, or even the kind of rationing that was prevalent in previous eras.

It would be wrong to suggest that people didn’t complain back then, however; the presence of a black market during the Second World War was an obvious indication of a lack of acceptance of living conditions. Contrary to what John McCain’s advisors would say, “whining” is part of the natural human condition. Even Karl Marx said that humanity couldn’t progress without the dynamic of criticism; most invention proceeds from the fact that something is inconvenient or uncomfortable. We should complain now about how things are run, but only as a pre-condition for making them better. But at the same time, perhaps we need to maintain a backwards glance, and a little perspective: yes, things are bad, but in contrast to previous eras, perhaps some would say, even our troubled period constitutes the best of times.

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