“System change not climate change”.

I heard this phrase shouted with real passion over and over again on the recent Youth Climate Strike March in Bristol. And of course the young people shouting it are absolutely right, we do need radical system change – a genuine and far-reaching programme of psycho-social and political change. But I wonder how many of the young people shouting it understand just how deep that change needs to be or, indeed, how many of their parents and other adults, come to that? 

My family situation means that I am constantly reminded just how toxic our current system is and the extent to which that toxicity extends into every aspect of our lives. It is very difficult, even when confronted by it on a daily basis, to acknowledge that our world is pathologically toxic, where toxic needs to be understood literally. That is now an accurate description of the dominant characteristics of the psycho-social presuppositions of the Global North, grounded as it is in a culture of ever more extreme variants of possessive individualism.

However, in addition to the regular flow of deeply disturbing information that comes back to us through my daughter’s network of friends fighting for their health, dignity and, all-to-often, physical survival at the sharp end of a failing social welfare system, my wife Natalie has been working for some time now on a Wellcome Trust funded project that, indirectly, has illuminated for us the extent to which universities and government departments are complicit in their suffering. (I’ve written about this in earlier blogs).

Her project, undertaken in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Cure-ME research team, is called Dialogues for a Neglected Illness, and comes out of her earlier work on the award-winning film Voices from the Shadows. What has changed for me is that I am currently reading Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons by Mary Watkins (2019, Yale University Press). This is both a history of, and advocacy for, the psycho-social practice of mutual accompaniment as an extension of ‘liberation psychology’. As such, it’s a text any artist calling themselves ‘socially engaged’ should make a point of reading.

Although only half way through the book, it has sharpened my understanding of Dialogues for a Neglected Illness – which i now view on two distinct, if closely related, levels. On one level these short films address a serious social problem regarding both the treatment of ME patients and the conduct of research into this chronic illness by medical and psychiatric researchers and the bodies that oversee and fund them. This is urgent and would be quite sufficient a topic in itself. But, while going through the material being produced to provide feedback, I am also constantly struck by how symptomatic the problems she and her collaborators are trying to identify and get addressed are with regard to the toxicity of the system as a whole. A system that has blithely rewarded, rather than identified and disciplined, now highly influential individuals who have build entire careers on a combination of pseudoscience and abject compliance with official policies and actions that are profoundly detrimental to the common good. If I was to choose a single historical public incident that typifies this I would point to those involved in the cover-up that has become known as the Camelford water pollution scandal. Today the ongoing scandal of the five million pound government PACE trial is set to match, if not exceed, this. (With at least one very senior figure indirectly implicated in both).

Listening “between the lines” to the medical experts and researchers in the two short films already on-line – Understanding Graded Exercise Therapy for ME/CFS. Parts 1 and 2. – with Mary Watkins writing in mind, I quickly picked up on their tacit, but no less damning, indication of wider systematic failures of the type indicated above. Of all their comments, perhaps the most direct and disquieting observations come from Dr Brian Hughes, Professor of Psychology at NUI, Galway, and author of Psychology in Crisis (2018) and Rethinking Psychology: Good, Science, Bad Science, Pseudoscience (2016). His observations on the influence of psychology on our daily lives and on its increasing failure as a discipline to meet proper scientific standards are particularly chilling. One has only to think of the current President of the USA’s election strategy or those of the present leader of the Conservative party’s blatant attempts to conduct a form of (clearly well strategised) psychological warfare against democracy and the House of Commons. Both ultimately serve to fulfil an elitist agenda that has little to do with the rhetoric of Brexit and sovereignty and a great deal to do with the thinking of men like Jacob Rees-Mogg.

In the light of a Climate Emergency recognised by science and those prepared to attend to it, it is instructive to observe the behaviour of the multi-millionaire Jacob Rees-Mogg MP – founder of the hedge fund management business Somerset Capital Management LLP. Rees-Mogg, an architect of the current Tory Party’s disregard for the real issues of our day, has written that he is for the individual against the collective, and that “the choice” that faces us is between “the collective”, with its “constant mediocrity” – which he believes mitigates against “freedom and great peaks of human endeavour” – and achieving a world that is arranged for the personal benefit of members of the elite such as himself. That such attitudes can only result in global psycho-social and environmental catastrophe appears to count for nothing. Yet this is a man who, in the face of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, claims to be a Catholic and a Christian.

The thinking that Rees-Mogg typifies needs to be set against the point made by the anthropologist Dr James Leach, who writes, in Creativity, Subjectivity and the Dynamic of Possessive Individualism:

“If you are made up of – and manifest physically – other people’s work, input, substance and knowledge, then you do not in fact own yourself or anything you produce as an individual. There is not project that is not already the project of other people as well, because they are part of you as a person”.

Despite the fact that he inherited both his money and his elitism from his father, Rees-Mogg seems quite incapable of thinking through the fact that his much vaunted ‘individualism’ is unreal, a cultural construct that has now led to what Amitav Ghosh refers to as The Great Derangement (of which he and his colleagues in the current government are prime exemplars). I have been working for some time on the question of how we disentangle the general perception of art and the role of the artist from their co-option by a toxic culture of possessive individualism. That culture is now threatening to bring about a psychic, social and environmental Armageddon. And it’s one that, to some extent, we have all inevitably internalised. The clearest approach to further ‘de-colonising’ our own selves in this context is, in my view, that offered by Mary Watkins in Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons