Monthly Archives: April 2024

The drift into a totalitarian culture

It’s not by chance that the opening line of Lyndsey Stonebridge’s We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience reads: ‘In the months following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism crashed into the Amazon US bestseller lists’.  

One reason I’ve added so little to this blog for quite a while now is that the dire state of the global political situation has made me heartsick. I had no wish to add to the sense of misery and hopelessness I feared that situation had already created. But two events have made me realise that my silence might be irresponsible, even if nobody much cared one way or the other what I wrote. The first was reading Lyndsey Stonebridge’s excellent account of Arendt’s life and work. The second was an hour-long conversation yesterday with my Irish friend Pauline.

Both reminded me that I need to speak (or write) what’s on my mind in order to hear what I think more clearly and, I suspect, this is true for many of us.

Elites in the UK, as in the US, Israel, and many other nations, are increasingly either actively driving their nations into totalitarian stances or simply allowing them to drift that way because it increases their own power and wealth or, in some cases, keeps their figureheads out of jail. The current Tory Government in the UK has continued the Thatcherite programme of dismantling all aspects of civil society that might restrain a rampant capitalism. Whether that’s undermining a tertiary education able to enact what Gregory Bateson identifies as its proper role: the ability ‘to disassemble and rearrange the prevailing cognitive frame or to dispose of it completely’ or dismantling one of a Socialist Britain’s proudest legacies, a National Health Service available to all, regardless of income.

That Government has recently ramped up its programme of dehumanising the mentally troubled or ill, the sick and disabled people – aided and abetted by its supporters in the right-wing press – rather than face the real causes of our long-term sickness problem. Tory ministers would rather announce cuts to disability benefits than face the fact that what their policies have done – including the inevitable economic consequences of Brexit – are reducing an increasing proportion of the British population to a state somewhere between abject despair and a seething, helpless, anger.

How else to respond to a situation in which, for example, probably thousands of people who claim a Personal Independence Payment (Pip) would lose that benefit – at present worth between £29 and £184 a week – under a prospective policy intended to “tighten eligibility” (effectively to save money by attacking those various groups of people least able to protest such changes) and, where possible, to replace their current monthly cash payments with either one off vouchers or access to specialist support. A voucher system that will be utterly demeaning and will almost certainly prove totally unworkable, along with a “promise” of specialist support where the means required to deliver it simply do not exist. So, basically an exercise in a cynical dehumanisation of the most vulnerable. And we wonder why so many Governments will not take firm action to prevent further genocide in Gaza.  

And yes, I do also have a vested interest in all this.

My wife and I currently spend increasingly sleepless nights worrying about how our chronically sick daughter will survive when the two of us – well into the pensionable age – are no longer alive to look after her. A situation compounded by knowing that the same right-wing media that support the present Government are happy to publish articles suggesting that, in future, the mentally troubled or ill, the sick, the disabled, those on pensions – in short all the “economically unproductive” – should be encouraged to opt for voluntary euthanasia or otherwise “remove” themselves from what’s left of British society.

That, for me, is a sign of a creeping capitalist totalitarianism. One that is working hard to reduce every human value until measurable by the single yardstick of “economic profitability”. I only hope that enough people wake up to this fact before that creeping tendency becomes an irreversible gallop into a naked and absolute totalitarianism.  

In dark times …

I notice that I’ve added nothing to this blog since 2023. It’s hard to put writing out into the world in the face of all the deepening horror that surrounds us. Not just the war in eastern Europe and the genocide in Gaza, but the steady erosion of fellow-feeling and human dignity in England. A policy conducted by a political party and their media supporters for which the only real definition of human value is successful engagement in productive “economic activity” and the consumption it enables. A party whose leading ideologues have been asset-stripping the country for their own and their friends’ benefit while the poor, the sick, the disabled and the young are driven to the wall.

Some people pray as a way to address their own and the world’s distress. I’ve not done so since my early teens but, since the beginning of the covid lock-down, I’ve increasingly turned to the work of poets – in particular Paula Meehan and Denise Levertov.

The best poetry seems to me to be a bulwark against the tide of self-interested dehumanisation that is threatening to swamp the country. A quiet gathering-up and platting-together of strands of past and present human experience into a whole that touches and sustains. Of course there are all those who, following Auden, insist that poetry – indeed art more generally – “makes nothing happen”. But as Paula Meehan writes, it’s possible to read that: “nothing” as something positive. She writes: