The relationship of the individual and government in the West is as we speak suspended in a quagmire of conflicting opinions: the staunch defence of tradition by those in power and whispers of revolution by some of those who have over long, arduous years and decades grown to feel divorced from and disaffected by the current political system. The free citizens in the United States of America and – it pains me to say this – to a lesser extent in the UK, are gradually coming to the realisation of the patent flaws in so many strata of modern government: the infinite profit paradigm of the international banking system which has crippled economies and livelihoods, the continuing iniquity of the hard-line foreign policies of many western nations, the unimaginable wealth divide which now exists between the world’s richest and poorest citizens, the baseness of the ever-expansive capitalist consumer culture that pervades our lives, the darker side of the technological revolution which has revealed itself in recent years, the incessant gluttony of industry leaders and politicians alike for the earth’s dwindling natural resources, and the manifest criminality of the very governments elected to perpetuate the ideals of democracy. I’m far from the first to say it, but if Russell Brand and Matt Damon can have their say, I thought I might add my own vaguely historical, pseudo-intellectual perspective to the fray.
Between 1917 and 1991, the world bore witness to the first real social experiment with the socialist ideas of Marx and Engels. Under this model of Soviet communism, Russian citizens were indiscriminately relegated to the status of ‘worker’, consigning them to decades as little more than ideologues of the proletariat. Witness the existential crises, political abuses and social upheaval in Russia then and now and it is precisely evident that this approach had fatally serious shortfalls. This is not to say, however, that socialism is futile; rather, it only proves that the Russian model of socialism failed.
Capitalist models of government too are flush with their own potentially fatal shortcomings. Aside from the evident flaws in the economic theories underlying capitalism, there are several foundational flaws in its ideology. Capitalist governments presume to define freedom, categorising each person under its administration as a consumer, measuring their utility in terms of their fiscal contribution to the sustenance of the present system. Its concerns are entirely economic, as is its perspective. Citizens under a capitalist system are simply workers with things; some with more things than others, but all essentially nicely adorned slaves to a brute economic system.
The Cold War was an ideological stand-off between two superpowers who were both reliant on extremely efficient propaganda systems. The failure of the communist experiment ensured that American economic ideas, politics and propaganda remained on their global pedestal. Whilst the Soviet Union had marshalled their domains with military force, the United States of America much preferred control of their domestic population through ideas. Aside from occasional blips on the democratic radar, such as the Kent State shootings or the inexorable brutality dealt out in the riots coinciding with the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the dubious role of the FBI throughout the postwar era, the US government tended to avoid brute force as a means of ensuring the correct democratic behaviour of the civilian population.
Abroad, the story was different. Beginning in Korea in the 1950s, escalating to the unbridled carnage and human misery of the Vietnam war in the following decade, followed by a series of proxy wars in north Africa and central America in the 1970s and 1980s and an unprecedented network of clandestine overseas operations by the CIA, then again exploding into high-scale military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American government were and continue to be very active on the international stage in ensuring foreign commitment to their eschewed global ideals of liberty and freedom.
Indeed, the conflict in Syria is the first time which the USA has not been able to intervene in order to influence the course of events more directly. The inertia over the Syria question may have more to do the resurgence of Russia – the Great Bear – in global politics rather than an American volte-face in an interventionist foreign policy. Negotiations at the UN Security Council since the beginning of the conflict have been plagued by the hard-line, stubborn diplomatic stance of premier Vladimir Putin and foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. No doubt the exploration of Syrian waters in the Levant basin by Russian energy companies fell somewhere between the carrot and the stick in motivating this policy decision. This bullish Russian attitude, more reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev and the incident with the shoe at the UN, extends beyond the confines of the Middle East. Vladimir Putin has highlighted the resource-rich Arctic as an area of strategic importance to the Russian Federation and has apparently given the green light for an intensification of the Russian military’s presence in the region. With the Russian Defence department making clear its concern of potential threats from the USA, it appears that the Cold War has recommenced, only this time slightly colder.
The international media rarely present things as they are. The USA is more often cast in the role of civiliser or liberator than the neo-imperialist empire-building – now faltering – which a close examination of their foreign policy reveals them to be. In the West, people are blissfully ignorant of the illegal and illicit activities of the world’s great superpower. Whilst the countries affected rally against American imperialism, an unacceptable number of those living in western nations continue to overlook the fact that US billionaires’ clubs, banking systems and oil conglomerates have contributed to the endemic poverty and disparity of wealth, the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilian populations, and the rape and plunder of natural resources and indigenous culture which define the world in which we live. All in all, until recently, a succession of United States governments have managed, by having at their disposal one of the most prolific propaganda machines in human history to affect a complete coup de grace in winning silent support across the globe for their ideas. The problem in the West is that people do not seem to care, nor really to think of the world’s problems as part of their individual responsibility, so wrapped up are they in their pursuit of the unattainable, unfulfilling consumer ideal. The role of Apple, or Hollywood, or Jay-Z, in this overwhelming attitude of apathy toward the world’s problems is manifest.
It is of little significance that there are significant fulminations from the periphery and from within against the system currently in place. Any significant civic opposition to the latent problems of capitalist government is prevented by the media. The propagandistic mechanisms of international media outlets ensure that events are refracted through a tacitly unrepresentative media lens which doctors the transmission of accurate information. Moreover, the digital revolution and the complicity of trusted media outlets ensures that the majority are continually spoon-fed this limited form of democracy.
Whilst democracy permits certain freedoms, it can be an enemy to liberty. Like an ecosystem in the natural world, once a system of government is created, its central thrust is for self-preservation, not for constant or endemic change. Whilst evolution is possible and, at times, a necessity, change is gradual and piecemeal. Entropy is perceived to be the enemy of stable democracy for those steering the ship of state away from the dangers of perceived rocky shores. Freedoms can and have been sacrificed in view of stability and national security. The true exercise of freedom is not, however, contingent upon the credos of statutory reform. The true exercise of freedom lies with the attitudes, and, ultimately, the actions of individuals.
We today find ourselves living in a finely crafted doll’s house filled with vacant ideals and a surfeit of false information, where we are brainwashed into thinking that the price of non-conformity is the loss of our comforts and our security and that the accumulation of wealth and the latest products churned out by a colossal and unjust corporate machinery equates to a real sense of happiness and fulfilment. During the course of the half century or so since the resolution of the Second World War and the victory of the allied powers – many seem to have forgotten how contingent this outcome was on American financial and military intervention – this military- industrial complex has laid deep ideological foundations at all levels of daily life in the West. As consumers, we live economically, though many of us without economy. Our abode is a progressive society which confers little value on the progress of the human spirit. To borrow Oscar Wilde’s reduction of capitalism, still as relevant today as when it was written over a century ago: “It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain, not growth, its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be”.
Increasingly, we are seeing that the ideals of freedom and liberty are not the cornerstone of democratic governance in the West, but that financial realities are more often than not the driving factors behind legislation and limited reform. Our governments are motivated primarily by self-interest. Though the membership of the House of Commons or the Senate Floor is changed on a regular basis by process of free election, the actual impact of electoral change upon national policy reform is minimal, particularly when one takes a long view of proceedings. Behind the politicians exists an atavistic system of more powerful decision-makers. Behind the Whitehouse lurks Wall Street. Those who make the real decisions behind the theatrical displays of politics are the main players in the military-industrial complex, which Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of in 1961.
Though we are cajoled into not thinking too deeply about such issues by our shallow consumption-driven lifestyles, we each have the potential to be decisive forces in our contribution to society at large, both as economic and political agents. The power of the military-industrial complex, of the far-reaching system of corporate consumerism dreamt up in military complexes and sterile boardrooms, is contingent upon profit which, in turn, is contingent upon our contribution to the system as consumers. The complexity of our current financial, legal and political systems is deliberate: it ensures that there may never be a paucity of loopholes to excuse the actions of those who seek to profiteer and deal in injustice. If that fails, there’s always judicial reform.
Successive governments in the USA and the UK have adopted a conservative approach to political reform which prioritises big business and the stock exchange, despite the prevalence of corruption and illegality, and have made clear their intention to safeguard the interests of multinational corporations above the daily struggles of individuals. Instead, thanks to the valiant revelation of whistleblower Edward Snowden, citizens of western nations now know that they are the objects of an unprecedented surveillance campaign, coordinated by the NSA and GCHQ. This surveillance campaign against the spectral threat of terrorism which has diminished national sovereignty and redefined the meaning of privacy and security in our century. As we are increasingly seeing, in the terrorist-as-enemy paradigm everyone is a potential enemy to the nations of the most powerful western governments; it has converted ordinary citizens into everyday enemies of the state.
Nowadays, what does this anachronistic notion of “the West” even mean? It refers to western nations, who have for centuries elucidated their role as fastidious talismen of democracy, the magnanimous defenders of freedom and justice: the United Kingdom, whose moral expediency cast the dye for centuries of institutionalised imperialism; European nations, such as France, Germany, Spain and Italy, who in mad scrambles for empire attempted to follow suit and introduced a new type barbarism and savagery which had never before been encountered by the “savages”; and the United States of America, the inheritor of the imperial mantle, the new Rome, who embarked on a civilizing mission which it consistently rebranded as a struggle for “the free world”.
Now we see the ascent of the People’s Republic of China, whose imperial character has not yet fully revealed itself, but which seems to have assumed the role of financier to a struggling global economy. It signifies a clear recalibration of global political influence to the East and, it seems, the withdrawal of the USA from the key spheres of influence such as the Middle East. It does not portend a change in the purely profit-driven mindset which is largely responsible for the poverty, however, nor in the injustice and environmental damage which afflicts societies indiscriminately across the globe.
We are living through a time of unprecedented change, an age of awakening and enlightenment, with huge potential for transition. The world as it was ten years ago will be very different from the world of tomorrow. There is, as we speak, an unprecedented opportunity to change people’s attitudes globally towards a system which is in dire need of reform. But what will the message be which is carried henceforth on the winds of change? The current system does not rest on the shoulders of giants, but on feeble foundations. If the people decide en masse to assert a right to self-determination through non-participation in a system whose course is managed by an unreachable international cabal of businessmen, industrialists, politicians and property owners, they may yet eliminate the commonplace notion of political decisions being taken in view of ‘special interests’ and in its place create a political system which values people as much as it does profit.