The New Barbarism and How to Defeat It by David Morgan
David has been a professional editor and journalist for over thirty years beginning his career on the subs desk of the Morning Star newspaper. He is editor of numerous historical publications under the Socialist History Society imprint. David’s interests and research include Turkey and the Kurds, literary figures like George Orwell, Edward Upward and William Morris, British anarchism, the 17th century English revolutionary era and the history of psychoanalysis. He has contributed towards many different publications and writes review articles, commentaries, opinion pieces, polemics and poetry.
It is now more than twenty years since historian Eric Hobsbawm delivered his lecture to Amnesty International in Oxford warning against what he diagnosed as the “barbarisation” of contemporary society. Titled “Barbarism: A User’s Guide”, the talk defined modern barbarism as the “adaptation of people to living in a society without the rules of civilisation”.
In a further elaboration of the theme, Hobsbawm described barbarism as “the disruption and breakdown of the systems of rules and moral behaviour by which all societies regulate the relations among their members”. This also encompasses the attitude taken towards other nations, to a state’s foreign policy and the conduct of war. In this respect, evidence of the descent into barbarism can be found in the erosion of any distinction between combatants and non-combatants by both the military and terrorists. “We have got used to killing”, Hobsbawm blandly observes.
Society has travelled a very long way since Hobsbawm issued his grim warning but his analysis still seems fresh and timely: the various related problems that he highlighted have simply accumulated and worsened. The alarm bells are still ringing but far more loudly; so loud it is almost deafening.
As one example, take the situation in London, incontestably one of the world’s great cities, which has of late been in the grip of an epidemic of street killings. Carnage on our streets, gutters running with blood, are features all too common in modern life. Almost everyday we read or hear a new report of a stabbing or a shooting, and they seem to be becoming more outrageously violent, brazen attacks often carried out in broad day light or on a busy high street at rush hour in full view of the public gaze; the assailants seem not to care about onlookers or bystanders who may get hit in the crossfire. The attackers, largely youth, and mostly part of criminal gangs, have started to use different methods of attack such as spraying acid from a moving car or bicycle. In one incident outside Manchester, a hand grenade was hurled at a house on a Salford street.
Some of the weapons used are clearly part of a pattern of behaviour imported from outside, such as the widespread use of machetes.
When citizens elect to carry offensive weapons either for their own protection or to enforce their will on others, it is a sign that society is breaking down. The state demands a monopoly of law enforcement and the means of violence. When citizens are doing it for themselves it bodes ill for the rest of the community. It suggests that the once widely accepted values and common customs have started to be eroded. The cycle of violence that ensues risks getting out of control as has frequently occurred in times of conflict in far away countries which are dismissively defined as “failed states”. The very idea that “it could never happen here” now sounds increasingly hollow; it is complacency or wilful blindness. So incongruous it is to think that “advanced” liberal democracies could be on the verge of joining that derogatory category.
But at present we seem to be in the grip of a collective madness and have lost all sense of perspective. Society tends to focus on what divides us and this only further divides us by building up resentment when some are favoured above others. The remedies for addressing widespread social inequalities, the gender pay gap and ethnic discrimination, such as introducing quotas and selective short lists for employment actually only substitute one privilege for another.
In the 1980s British politics became a little obsessed with prioritising sectional interests above the common interest. Distinct communities and their particular heritage were always to be respected and their foibles treated with kid gloves or ignored.
This approach, well meaning if flawed, led to the turning of a blind eye to abuses rife within communities as politicians sought the votes and this enabled the development of a fertile breeding ground where toxic attitudes and ideologies could thrive. We are reaping the whirlwind today. Society has become a powder keg just waiting for the next spark to ignite it. And we have been here before; witness the outbreak riots by alienated youths across the UK during August 2011.
These riots, mainly but not confined to the inner cities, prompted much soul searching among political leaders, media pundits and faith leaders in a bid to find out what, apart from sport and the royal family, still binds people together as a nation. Finding a common enemy often does the trick, but that is a remedy chosen by the Machiavellian machinations of unscrupulous politicians.
Once again, Hobsbawm seems to have got it dead right when he observes that “democracies need demonised enemies”, which explains the reason for the state-sponsored anti-Russian hysteria so dominant in the politics of the West today; it has become a big feature of British politics now that we are confronted with the dilemma of Brexit.
Domestic dilemmas were created decades ago by neglect of certain communities deemed post-industrial and by conscious policy towards education and consumer freedom. Politicians have allowed the free access to pornography and drugs virtually available on demand with no age restrictions on users.
Drugs go on sale in school playgrounds or outside the school gates. Porn is freely available on everyone’s smart phone at the press of a button. While travelling on public transport commuters are frequently shocked by the conduct of young people, sharing porn on their phones.
It’s a monstrous situation and highly unhealthy giving rise to bad manners and offensive behaviour. Drugs and sex are notoriously addictive in adults. This free access is corrosive and led to a coarser sensibility. It is surely grossly irresponsible to enable these same addictions to thrive among youth and children. Any obsessive behaviour needs a cure, but the way society now operates facilitates these addictions. The political elite must long have calculated that this is the necessary social policy in order to keep people quiet and content; porn and drugs are modern society’s equivalent of the “bread and circuses” of ancient Rome.
The root of all the problem is that commercial interests are dominant above all else.
Despite official celebrations of cultural diversity, modern society finds itself growing further apart than ever. The postwar social democratic consensus was running out of steam as the boom petered out and global economic crisis gathered pace.
The impetus was the oil crisis of the 1970s, well before the banking crisis early in the current century which only compounded the sense of decay and fragmentation.
Rather than teach, academics and theoreticians liked to play word games with their students in the seminar room. Malcolm Bradbury’s novel, “The History Man”, captured this social type in a savage satire which hit home because it encompassed some unsettling truths.
The “advanced capitalist world” had embraced the culture of narcissism where the individual ego is free to rove without any restraints. Individuals are seen as just consumers and consumption is always good.
In all the recent celebrations of the legacy of 1968, the darker side of unrestrained liberation has been forgotten. Sex as recreation must inevitably mean more failed relationships and a decline of the family unit which is one of the bedrocks of social stability and any functioning society.
We may have got smarter but we have also got much coarser. The dark side of humanity comes more and more to the fore with the ending of repression and restraint. The dangers and negative consequences are taken less and less seriously as the most bizarre peccadilloes are transformed into forms of entertainment in film and pulp fiction and transformed into products within the broader consumer economy.
Women are rightly rising up against the worst excesses of male power, but the new feminists who campaign so hard against male abuses are often ready to condone different abuses, for instance, in the advocacy of abortion on demand, free access to pornography and legalisation of prostitution (under the seemingly innocuous rebrand of “escorts”).
Just as within the universities the concept of “disinterestedness” in the study of great literature has been dismantled by the radical theorists, the idea of “public service” in the field of public sector employment has been belittled by the politicians. Thus, the values of social responsibility, discernment and integrity have been undermined; to be replaced with a free for all and the ego unleashed. Greed and self interest are not only encouraged; they are constantly celebrated and held up as ideals. An orgy of excess and self indulgence inevitably follows. It all amounts to a progressive decline in individual and public sensibility.
Liberalism in abstract seems so fine but the liberal outlook is never able to join up the dots or make the necessary connections. Modern communications technology has provided us with endless possibilities putting the world of knowledge at everyone’s finger tips; there are virtually no limits to what can be found on the Internet which is without borders apart from those imposed by the pay wall. The possibilities are only really limited by the profundity or shallowness of our individual imaginations.
That imagination however needs to be carefully nurtured, fed and watered like a delicate plant. The essential requirements for the growth of our thought and sensibility can only be found in good education and a caring upbringing by loved ones.
The old comprehensive school system was beginning to work but was under resourced. It has long been derided and substituted by a utilitarian approach that has come to dominate. In Britain, this assault on state education was a deliberate political project that started with the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 and was ruthlessly carried out by her Education Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph.
This was part of a wider plan to restructure both the economy and society in the belief that there was too much state control. They openly aimed to create a less equal society. In terms of education policy this political project was characterised by an attack on comprehensive schools and the values perceived as socialist such as equal opportunities. Protecting pupils from alleged “Marxist indoctrination” and getting tough on “lefty lecturers” became regular pastimes in the popular press. Ministers denounced topics such as sociology, media studies and the humanities are irrelevant to “the world of work”. The true reason for picking on these subjects was to make it easier for them to impose severe budget cuts on state education. They lauded the old grammar schools and private education was encouraged as was private healthcare.
There was little interest in supporting children or addressing their real needs. It was a new dogma whose advocates simply assumed that their remedies for the prevailing social ills were the right ones. Not for nothing did Thatcher gain the sobriquet, “She Who Must be Obeyed”.
The New Right were however an uneasy alliance of authoritarian and libertarian thinkers.
Getting the state off people’s backs was a popular slogan. This could be inferred to mean cutting red tape for business, “setting the market free” or it could mean giving consumers the right to choose. This doctrine translated into the privatisation of state industries, including education, and the “right to buy” council houses; the latter was great news for sitting council tenants, but presaged a long term disaster for future generations seeking decent, affordable homes as the available housing stock dwindled.
Some members of the New Right advocated liberalisation of the laws relating to sex and drugs, such as lowering the age of consent and legalising “soft drugs” for recreational purposes as well as the supposed medical use.
Along with the free market came this new radical liberalism. The notion that people should be left as far as possible to fend for themselves, to make their own choices, to make a mess of their own lives, or to spend their own money as they like, are all connected ideas that are associated with this political revolution led by the Thatcherites.
One hears the sentimental language all the time of “people in a community coming together to support each other”. It is meaningless and vacuous if it is detached from coordinated action led by the authorities who are entrusted with the powers to create the social conditions for fairness and justice to flourish.
The example of those at the top and the language that they habitually employ sets the tone and guides the behaviour of the rest of society.
All modern heroes have become tarnished and not worthy of the adulation bestowed on them. The celebrities, pop stars, fashion models, sports people, are brands in the market place. As brands they need to stay fresh and new which obliges them to innovate constantly; hence the changing of hair styles, from brunette to blonde and back again. The extreme variant would be the transsexual phenomenon which is driven by commercialised medical technology offering damaged individuals the false hope of changing from male to female or vice versa; it is as if you can cast off your gender like a snake casts off its old skin.
These modern celebrity heroes are thus compelled to behave like chameleons. Their behaviour isn’t a matter of choice but is dictated by a market that demands they stay ahead of the game.
Many of the problems that are now convulsing contemporary society have their origins in this New Right ideology and the ways of thinking that it fostered among the wider population. Of course, it was Thatcher who coined the notorious phrase, “there is no such thing as society”.
In hindsight, she and her followers can be seen to be irresponsible and short sighted but they surely could not have foreseen some of the consequences of their revolution. If they did indeed do so, then that would make them utter villains. Whether they intended it or not, the cumulative effect of their reforms amounted to the systematic dismantling of the basic rules of our civilisation. “Greed is good for you” is not only fatuous; it is downright dangerous.
Eric Hobsbawm summed up our dilemmas far better than many others ever could. Although Hobsbawm was writing more than twenty years ago, the social trends that he identified as “barbarism” continue apace: the dilemmas we face have simply become far worse over the intervening two decades.
The origins of our present crisis rest in the attempts by the ruling elite to hold on to their power and privileges at any cost. Better to descend into anarchy and fascism than risk socialism or communism: at least fascism and anarchy will leave the privileges untouched.
© David Morgan