Another Brick in the Wall

A Brick WallFor those who have been spending their Easter holiday away from the news or are living abroad: one of the chief aides to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Damian McBride, resigned yesterday. The reason for his departure was the revelation of certain emails which he sent from his 10 Downing Street address. In these missives, he described a series of smears he wanted to use against the leadership of the British Conservative Party.

His ideas range from the plausible, such as the suggestion that a gay Tory MP was using his office to promote his boyfriend’s company, to the preposterous, including speculation about the mental health of the Shadow Chancellor’s wife. Overall, the emails are a mental wastebin of dirty tricks: there is nothing in them about attacking the Tories on the issues, rather, it’s mostly gossip, intended to inflict damage even if the claims can’t be substantiated. There is a most unpleasant smell of mischief about the entire enterprise.

The television news is full of stock footage of Mr. McBride which indicates his former proximity to the Prime Minister: he has been shown by the Prime Minister’s side, or just behind him, or talking with him. Both looked dour and grim: they appeared to be two of a kind. As I watched, I couldn’t get a line from Pink Floyd out of my head:

All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall.

In this case, the wall is a barrier between Gordon Brown and re-election. I can’t say I’m sorry: I know that the Conservatives won’t be any better, however the McBride scandal is yet another indication that the Labour Government has run its course. Having clung to power for so long, some fear losing it so much that they will resort to desperate means to hang on.

That said, perhaps the most feeble operation that Labour has attempted is their efforts to disassociate themselves from the present recession. Gordon Brown has been saying, unconvincingly, that the crisis was manufactured in America: this must have made for an interesting topic of conversation when President Obama came to Downing Street for tea. Interestingly, however, the McBride incident can be viewed as “another brick in the wall” which boxes Labour in to its responsibility for the economic crisis as well.

If there is one ethos that has united both the government and the bankers, it is the idea that the end justifies the means: it didn’t matter to the bankers that they had to cut corners in order to achieve gigantic bonuses, it also didn’t matter that they had to put together investment vehicles which no one understood, the profit, the win was what was all important. What does it matter if you stand upon a house of cards, if you can touch the sun?

Labour did not defy nor challenge this culture, rather, the entire New Labour experiment indicates how the party had become part of it. Pitch all previous commitments over the side, pitch the awkward party members out of the convention hall, pitch clear policies into the rubbish bin and replace them with a glossy brochure: it didn’t matter in 1997 if this left the party with an agenda that was bereft of solid ideas. They then proceeded to manipulate what is best in human beings: the tendency to hope, that burning idea that the present state is not optimal, nor is it pre-ordained that things have to remain as they are. In other words, their house of cards rested on a cynical promise of a new dawn. It worked for a time: Labour reached the summit of power and has remained there since.

We have had over ten years of this grasping and grabbing without regard for what lies beneath. Each time someone cheated, someone lied, or someone manipulated a situation without regard to ethics, they put another brick in the wall of the prison in which we now reside. We are now wandering in the proverbial grey mist that follows a disaster, disoriented, vaguely seeing, barely comprehending. We still have not had a reckoning. At best, we get committees on standards in public life or another committee about banking regulation; what we don’t get is a cultural discussion, and it is rare to hear the question asked: how did we destroy ourselves?

From my vantage point in academia, I can get a view of society’s priorities: my observations may provide a clue. If you are a scientist, and you have an idea for a product on the basis of your research, it is relatively simple to get funding: if companies aren’t beating down your door, certainly the state funded research councils will do so. Both Brown and Obama have stated that they want science to remain a education priority.

Neither has talked about education in terms of providing “morals” and “ethics”. This is a thorny area, because whenever these are mentioned, the association tends to be with religion, and fanatical preachers persecuting individuals on the basis of lustful malfeasance. Perhaps the greatest damage the Religious Right has inflicted on society is to create a situation in which ethics has become a taboo subject, lest one be accused of intolerance or homophobia. However, ethics should belong to everyone, not necessarily in terms of describing one’s responsibility to God, but certainly in describing our responsibility to each other. To this end, philosophy should be there to to provide guidance as part of a balanced curriculum.

However, in contrast to science, philosophy is in dire straights. The University of Liverpool, one of the more well-established institutions in the United Kingdom, is likely to close its philosophy faculty. So: we are presented with a situation in which our knowledge what we can do is relentlessly on the rise, but it is not being accompanied by a subsequent increase in our knowledge of what we should do.

Every indication I see suggest that policy makers don’t want to think about this; the bailouts and stimulus packages look to me like an attempt to reconstruct the old order rather than an endeavour to put a new framework in place. The G20 summit was not a redux of Bretton Woods; while leaders say that things are changing, the relationship between governments and giant corporations has become one of mutual dependence, rather than disassociation and dissolution. The deck of cards is merely being reshuffled, a prelude to another attempt to reach the sun. Considering the misery that is presently afflicting the unemployed, the repossessed, and the poor, this is more than a shame, it is a crime. One wonders how many bricks in the wall we require, how high do the prison walls need to be, before a genuine rethink occurs. I just don’t know; but hope remains, so long as the aforementioned human instinct to progress refuses to lay down and die.

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