Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 16

Chapter 5 of John Gray’s book Straw Dogs is entitled Non-Progress.  Once again, he divides his chapter, this time into 20 subsections.

Section 1:  De Quincey’s Toothache

Another unusual subtitle that refers to De Quincey’s contention that a quarter of human misery is toothache.  Be that as it may, pain does make up a large enough proportion of life.  Then he repeats once again like a chorus his sincere belief that, although progress is a fact of life, faith in that same progress is a superstition.  I am also inclined to believe him when he says that while there is progress in knowledge, there is none in ethics. (See op.cit., 155)

The sad fact of history is that many civilisations have perished and all the artifacts that sprang from them.  On the other hand the knowledge is ever growing and expanding, and so it gives the impression of indefinite progress.  Let me quote Gray’s words once again:

History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss.  The advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, but our history shows us that we are not.  (Ibid., 155)

Section 2:  The Wheel:

This section is a straightforward potted history of early man from the hunter-gatherer to the early farmer.  And then a few sentences from where Gray gets his title for this section:

History is a treadmill turned by rising human numbers.  Today GM crops are being marketed as the only means of avoiding mass starvation… Genetic crop modification is another turn in a wheel that has been in motion since the passing of hunter-gathering.  (Ibid., 159)

Section 3:  An Irony of History:

Here Gray reminds us of a well-aired fact that new technologies are rapidly displacing human labour.  Interestingly enough he reminds us that the Industrial Revolution not alone forced a shift in population from rural areas into cities, but it also enabled a massive growth in population, especially with the growth of an underclass of workers.  And now irony of ironies:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new phase of the Industrial Revolution is under way that promises to make much of that population superfluous.  (Ibid.,159)

In the developed world, with the decline in home-based manufacturing, where old industries have been transported to the developing world, human beings are working to amuse other human beings.  Also we consequently get the growth of such phenomena as: psychotherapy and counselling, designer religions, a vast and various entertainment industry, and then, the old reliables, sex, drugs and rock and roll!

Section 4:  The Discreet Poverty of the Former Middle Classes:

I find it hard to comprehend this section, and fully realise that the fault is my own, as I simply do not understand either economics or politics.  I cannot see at all how the following can be true:

Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career – a lifelong pathway through working life.  Today professions and occupations are disappearing.  Soon they will be bas remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times…  The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.  (Ibid., 161)

Section 5:  The End of Equality:

Equality became fashionable after the Second World War:

The welfare state was a by-product  of the Second World War.  The National Health Service began in the Blitz, full employment in conscription.  Post-war egalitarianism was an after-effect of mass mobilisation in war.  (ibid.,  161)

Gray argues that in very affluent societies as we have today that the masses of people are superfluous – even as cannon fodder.  “Wars are no longer fought by conscript armies but by computers… With this mutation of war, the pressure to maintain social cohesion is relaxed.  The wealthy can pass their lives without any contact with the rest of society.  So long as the do not pose a threat to the rich, the poor can be left to their own devices.” (Ibid., 162)  Equality has given way to an oligarchy of the rich.

Above a picture of cloud formation over Donabate Strand which I took in March 2008.

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