Capitalism, the apparent victor of history, has done what all dogmatic ideologies and cultural systems tend to do, in the end. It has promoted and, indeed, cemented the dissolution of generally intellectual thought in certain areas. Whilst technology has grown, and we are all moving towards the gentle, comfortable state of the post-human (whether we like it or not), the minds to whom that technology is made available have become stunted and segmented.
I do not believe, for a moment, that I am outside the bounds of this generalisation; I firmly believe that I am just as stunted as everyone else. Similarly, I don’t call myself necessarily an anti-capitalist, though I firmly believe that an argument could be made that our society currently exists more in line with a perversion of capitalism, than that which necessarily developed over the last few hundred years.
Anyway, before I begin, I feel as though it might be beneficial for us all, myself included, to outline what capitalism is, to my perception.
The goal of capitalism is, in optimistic terms, the general circulation of wealth to improve comfort and self-awareness within the confines of the society itself. Within capitalism, we work and we are rewarded for that work fairly and honestly and we live to a certain degree of comfort based on our talents, the amount of work that we do and the opportunities we make the most of. Capitalism is based on ourselves, and wealth is self-worth and we worship it in practical terms, with a fierce kind of dedication, along with whatever spirits we might desire.
The only real opposition to capitalism, or the ideals of capitalism, is the same as the only thing blocking the ideal of Marxism from becoming a reality. We are people, driven by emotions and logic powered by the self. We are evolved primates, still longing to bare our teeth and take more than our share. Totalitarianism isn’t just an ideology, it’s a logical step from capitalism. Neoliberalism is totalitarianism, and it is how our society operates, with the exception that there is, truly, no law. The strong are not those in charge. Most of the time, it isn’t even the most intelligent, bravest, most daring or most unique. It isn’t those with a clear direction forward; it’s those with the ability to pretend to a personality that does not exist – thanks to the kinds of politics that developed in the 1960s and 70s, particularly in America, power is now dictated by the carefully choreographed personality that sways people from one candidate to another. Democracy has become its own worst enemy and I can only really blame one thing for that sad fact – culture.
Our culture is the main reason for the continuous failure of our society, particularly here in Britain. Our love of the underdog has, in a sense, been one of the primary features of our own undoing. We don’t want clever people in any kind of power, we don’t even really want intelligence because we are afraid of it. Instead, we have this strange desire to keep everyone at the same level. We don’t even want our leaders to be intelligent; how else could we explain the presence of our members of Parliament, our Lords and our council authorities? Intelligence is said to be prized by our school system but it is slowly and surely beaten out of us by our peers, our culture and, above all, our free time.
My argument here (or at least this subsection of my argument) is based upon those three aspects – our peers, our culture, our freedom. The three weights that hold those of us down who aspire to be more than what we are. It is entirely likely that, having grown up in dismal town filled with repugnant people, my birthplace and my formative years have affected me far more than they should have done on subjects like this. Still, these are the opinions that I have formed in this place, with the shadow of the internet and all of man’s knowledge, with a few short years of library access before it was closed down and used as a squat; with access to an education system that didn’t push and didn’t pull and, in the end, was most useful when it left me alone and provided nothing more than an excuse to learn for myself.
Perhaps the largest chain around our collective ankles is ourselves. My complaints against the weight of our peers on the fragile resistance of our intellectual potential is threefold: one; the judgement of other members of society is one of the strongest corrosive elements available, so much so that our entire way of life is built upon it; two; there is a long-standing reticence against the admission or the development of any kind of intellectual advancement for favour as being seen as big-headed, arrogant or any other synonym you might care to name; finally, three; the threat of pretension remains a deadly weapon in the hands of the weak-minded and it’s use, in and of itself, should perhaps be more of a compliment than an offence.
One of the major opponents to intellectual development remains our culture. Over time, as we in the West have grown increasingly comfortable with ourselves, our culture has grown to be less of a benefit to our society as a whole and, instead, works to degrade and weaken our resolve. Our culture has become an enemy of the ideals of, not only capitalism, but also democracy and human development and evolution as a whole. Our modern culture is dedicated to a maintenance of the status quo, and promotion of apathy and an ardent supporter of the unfair distribution of wealth, power, health and resources that we currently have available.
The freedom that we have is, actually, the freedom to be unequal. William F Buckley, one of the arbiters of the current political system of personality, once said something to a similar effect, and it should be worth noting that our freedom is actually a more debilitating aspect of the innate human resolve and resilience, not to mention to ingrained stubbornness of the British and other nationalities. I propose the idea that, with the ostensibly fair society that we currently have in place, when placed alongside the general freedom to travel, live, work, play and love as we will, our freedom and democracy actually becomes nothing more than another blockade to our realisation of ourselves. This could also be extended to include the idea that the national peace that we currently enjoy, with the exception of misguided spiritualists, is another blockade to the development of humanity and true personality, if not the realisation of a potential intellect.
Peers; Companions; Friends; Lovers; Family; Enemies; Equals; Superiors; Inferiors; Neighbours; The Ultimate Enemies in The Face of True Intellectual Pursuit
As Sartre once wrote, and has been hideously misquoted time and time again, ‘Hell is other people’. I would propose the slight amendment to the quotation to suggest, in fact, the idea that ‘damnation is other people’ ignoring the religious imagery involved in that adjustment, or in the original quotation itself.
Damnation, in this instance, I would describe as the direction in which the world, certainly the Western World, is heading at a rate that has been hitherto unseen. Damnation, in the absence of any physical or spiritual Hell, must instead be considered the state of affairs in which the intellectual ability, the capacity for rational thought, is widely being bred and trained out of the general populace (of which I am one), if they could be said to possess it in the first place. Damnation under the guise of Ginsberg’s representation of Moloch as the bull-headed representation of capitalism.
To be damned, or to suffer damnation, is to undergo judgement and as we now worship society and wealth and popularity as the Holy Trinity, or at least an argument could be made for such, it could easily be said that other people are the main source of our damnation. Without a moral compass of our own, a morality which is typically provided by values imparted to us as we grow and weighed against personal desire and necessity and logical thinking, we rely entirely on others to judge us.
To be judged in a positive light by our peers, our society at large, remains one of the most rewarding and sought after events in modern life. Whether for our work, our attitudes or anything else, we desire to be applauded and accepted into the great ravenous pack that we know as society. In contrast, the daggers of negative judgement are sharpened on a daily basis, and embarrassment, shame and guilt all remain three of the worst possible feelings to undergo – although most of us will have some semblance of a moral compass as we go about our daily lives, it would be difficult to think that we would feel guilty or ashamed in the event of negative action that directly benefits us.
Personally, having suffered from anxiety as a child, I can attest to the fact that shame and guilt are two of the most devastating constructions of society – both of which originate from other people and awareness of their expectations of you which, over time, become little more than expectations of yourself. The fact remains that people, other people, create guilt and shame; they breed it into you and we are taught that they are aspects of humanity which need to be avoided.
We love the underdog, we love the idea of someone who isn’t as powerful, wealthy, popular, handsome, famous or intelligent overcoming their opponent through characteristics like passion and cunning. It enables us to believe that we have the potential to overcome those issues which we believe to be much bigger than ourselves; it suggests that there is hope against the world and all that is wrong with it. It is, essentially, a lie that we like to be told to help us sleep and to drag us on. In that regard, at the least, we are like children still looking for guidance; still hoping for someone to believe in us. Of course, it is understandable that this affection for the smaller weaker member of the tribe appeals to us – as we spend so long inside our own heads, it isn’t really all that shocking to suggest the idea that most of us, the common man and woman, are hyper-aware of our own weaknesses, perhaps more than anyone else. We know where we fail as the ideal human beings we would like to present ourselves as and it is important that we hear these underdog stories to learn that, even the weak and the flawed can achieve victory from the strong. It helps us to know that we are not the only damaged creatures in play.
This leads me on to my next point – the fear to present ourselves as something too much more than we are. The argument could easily be made, and is made with startling regularity, that we all like to pretend that we are better people than we are, that our lives are infinitely more interesting than they are – this is a myth that is not only perpetrated by ourselves, but also the perceptions of ourselves that we are able to cultivate online and across social media websites. There are many people who have been able to push this fear aside, or were lucky enough to never succumb to it in the first place, and have managed to make a great success of forcing their lives to be interesting by cultivating not only the perception of their personality, but their personality in and of itself. Bloggers, vloggers and social celebrities start to believe their own lies, much like politicians, rock stars and other people in the public eye, until they become the person they have pretended to be for so long.
For most of us, however, this fear to present yourself as better than you are is not solely manifested through honest living, but in the rejection of bettering oneself. For example, there is only one bookshop reasonably close to me, in my hometown, and that is a Waterstones. There is a category there, where much of the non-fiction tends to reside, and it is labelled as “smart-thinking”. It took me years to build up the courage to even approach that single cabinet, and I would never be able to do so in the presence of people I know. If I, hypothetically, were to spend any amount of time in front of that category, it would be as though I were placing myself above those who cluster around the romance or the cookery categories. It is impossible to overcome this perception of oneself as “better than oneself” in such a situation, and it always looks as though I am standing in front of that category in an attempt to be seen to be standing in front of the category, rather than any interest in the books that stand there.
Almost ironically, this same fear is what, for a long time, stopped me from applying myself in my education, stopped me from writing what I wanted to write, saying what I wanted to say, to the point that I still find myself checking anything I say before I say it for fear that it might come out sounding like I consider myself an intellectual. It is an ever-present fear of judgement or, rather, judgement of the me behind what they might believe I am creating for their judgement.
I am afraid of being considered arrogant, big-headed and, above all, pretentious. I am not afraid of having ideas above my station, but I am terrified of somebody else thinking that I might have ideas above my station in life.
Pretension, that old dog with bloody claws, brings me onto my third point. Pretension – “the use of affectation to impress”, or “a claim or aspiration to a particular quality”. As someone who is terrified of damnation, the term pretentious is one of the worst possible insults. It symbolises that I, or anyone else, is prescribing meaning to something that does not have meaning; it supposes that things like literature and art are weapons designed to elevate some over the positions of others. It proposes that anything we ascribe our meaning to is, ultimately, meaningless and that we are attempting to emulate what we might consider an artist, a writer, a musician or any person with any form of creative or analytical talent, to be.
It is a term that is used incredibly often, particularly around me; I’ve found. Particularly when I started writing things that I actually wanted to write, things that I gave meaning to, things that were wholly personal, but which is submitted for public view anyway. I will not argue and say that they are not pretentious; that I am not necessarily pretentious; but that there is every possibility that pretension should be, if not celebrated, then at least not condemned by its very nature.
Aspiring to be some other, something better, than what we are has to be one of the greatest possible goals in human existence, surely? Ascribing meaning, even if that meaning is only personal, to any kind of creative work is at least evidence of a semblance of coherent thought that recognises there is more to life than that which we currently are, surely? pretension could very easily be considered the driving force behind self-betterment, and we should not allow our love of the underdog to detract from that.
This attitude towards pretension is not something that we will be able to throw away anytime soon, unfortunately. For many years to come, everyone from students to artists, writers to musicians and even more common occupations will have to deal with the ever-hanging Damoclean threat of pretension hanging over them. This particular sword, cutting the air with sneers and condescension, is deeply ingrained into our culture and will be practically impossible to extricate without executing ourselves in the process.
Culture; Society; Entertainment; Discourse; Debate; Theatre; Perception; Emotion; Interactivity; The Pretence of Emotion; The Enemy of Intellectual Opportunity and Development
A much larger argument than I have the time, inclination or intellectual ability to actually address with any sort of conclusive effort, but our very culture itself seems opposed to the proliferation of intelligence throughout the country. It seems too obvious to point out, but the issue is so deep-seated that it is worth at least mentioning. The major opposition that society seems to present is not necessarily a loathing of intellect, but a love of fakery, personality and two-dimensions well-suited to the flat screens that we surround ourselves with. There are exceedingly intelligent celebrities, that’s true, but very few of them are necessarily loved for their intelligence. Instead, their intelligence takes on their entire personality, and they become a caricature of the concept of intelligence. It is alright to love noted theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking because, in a way, he has become the mascot for the intellectual underdog. Held down by his crippling illness, he has still managed to make wide and varied contributions to the scientific community, and his entire personality is treated, by television, as a brand.
Even then, Hawking and other scientific minds, are not listened to – most viewers switch their brains off when they appear on screen, and are content to be seen to watch these celebrities. Even fairly intelligent programmes, such as Stephen Fry’s QI, still offer little in terms of education as the focus of the entire programme remains on the entertainment factor. The intelligence is, in a way, treated as just another joke as questions that are so obscure or deliberately misleading are asked of celebrities who, for the most part, don’t understand them in the slightest.
Intelligence, just like any other aspect of personality, is marketable – we have a supremely heightened form of cerebral capitalism to thank for that. It is simply another great facet of the ultimate commodity that our freedom provides us with – entertainment. Therein lies the potential source of many modern ills and ailments, particularly the devolution of critical thinking, analysis and personal opinion. Entertainment and culture work to bring society together over shared narratives, shared opinions and feelings and experiences. It could be said to homogenise and gentrify what it means to be an individual, by promoting the ethics of the crowd over the development of one’s own. A bad piece of entertainment is not only like a poor commodity, therein lies the truth behind modern society; leaving us, the viewer, with nothing more than a bad taste in the mouth and revulsion at our wasted time. Entertainment is a commodity, a product, wherein we work to be able to have our free time sucked up by the experience of emotion – it is a strange quandary, when we work to consume, but we do not consume to nourish or better ourselves, but simply because we have no other alternative than to consume. Even the more interactive forms of entertainment which have superseded television and radio as the gods of modern life, such as video games, offer us little besides the shared experience. It is for this reason that buyer’s remorse is like having acid poured down into the back of your throat – you don’t just feel cheated of the money, but of everything that the potential for entertainment represented.
There is a current belief that intelligence is a marked quality that can be, essentially, bought and sold within the public gaze. By choosing to stand in front of the literary fiction, or the “smart-thinking” categories, you are staking your claim to purchase the potential of intelligence. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of intelligence as a commodity is the ability that it can often give us to lie to ourselves; to convince ourselves that we are actually intelligent despite what our breast happens to tell us. Literature and intelligence were, for a long time, intertwined. Looking at the most popular books of the time, it is difficult not to look back with nostalgia upon the days before I was born, when men like Orwell, Vidal and Bellows all wrote in fairly simple, attractive ways which encouraged a mass readership without forcing themselves to dumb down, or hide, the purpose of their writing. Above all else, what we are lacking is a literary, narrative, entertaining voice to take a stand for something, in favour of something. The established system of beliefs that we have, that purely dominate the literary scene of the time, is that of the upmost liberalism. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but when all modern fiction offers us the same advice in terms of morals, then it is not difficult to see why culture and society tend to push people in certain directions, instil us with certain morals and neglect to propose the development of our own. It is all too easy to accept something as good, or bad, when considering the comprehensive benefits and negatives to each point is taxing on the brand. Writing, modern writing, is not so much opinionated as safe; thanks to the political and cultural ideology of tolerance, at least, incredible tolerance in many areas and absolute zero in others, it is impossible to create something that might actually offer even the potential of an impact on a large scale.
By being so irrepressibly middle-ground, by offering relatively unconstrained freedom, our culture has managed to turn our innate apathy and fear and rage into a weapon that effectively allows us to police ourselves. Minor crimes are fine, because our educational system has taught us that we are all special, that there is no one like us in the world, and as long as we believe that we’re doing the right thing, rules are essentially made to be broken. Theft is permitted so long as there isn’t a direct victim. Murder is fine in the name of fear, as we allow immigrants to starve, drown and be murdered in the streets of their hometowns by terrorists that we armed, directly or indirectly. Crime is, essentially, a joke when compared to the crimes of conscience that our society has committed in our name and in the name of all that is good and sane and democratic about the Western World. If our foreign policies, economic choices and general attitude had a name, it would be murder by committee and delegation.
That is the background for the culture that promotes idiocy and joy over intelligence and anger. That is the backdrop against which we applaud half-wit comedians who swear and appear in sold-out arenas on Segways and chequered shirts and cries of ‘you beautiful motherfuckers’.
One current trend with actually promotes the commodity of intelligence has to be the encouragement of the mentally subnormal on our television screens, across the internet as well as in our seats of power. People who replace depth with an embrace of their shallowness. Actors by any other name who turn their stupidity into a brand which they can market, like cultural critics would marketing their intelligence. The promotion of the shallow over the deep signifies the love of entertainment, the love of our free time being soaked up until we sleep and start again. However, these brands play on a much more cunning level than we might expect. When the intellectually shallow, who rejoice in their idiocy, appear before us we are able to rejoice and realise that we are, actually, intelligent compared to other people in our society. Incredibly, rather than making us furious at the failures of an educational system and horrifying parenting which allowed the development of these brands, it amuses us.
Laughter, and the judgement, of these people in society hugely amuses us and could, eventually, play a major role in the continuing function of society. One argument that could be considered is that it creates an “us versus them” mentality, similar to “the self versus the other” idea. By giving us a shared laughter point, a shared target to mock, we are able to make the most of a more liberal and easily justifiable “minute of hatred” such as Orwell wrote about in 1984. By bringing a community together against this one person, or this small group of people, society is able to create communities within itself that can easily work together to keep themselves sane in an insane world. Culture, in this instance, presents us with an opponent, satisfies us that we are more intelligent than they, and gives us a community within which we can rejoice that satisfaction and share it with others. If intelligence is a commodity, as I have begun to believe, then surely the inverse is equally true and stupidity – sheer, bloody-minded, ignorant, innocent, cruel, hollow, plotted and circumstantial idiocy is like ambrosia when it comes to sustaining society. Capitalism has performed incredibly well at keeping us in place by the development of these communities, and the promotion of a morality which encourages us to support and adhere to the beliefs laid down by these communities.
Communal ignorance is a well-documented factor of humanity, and it comes down to a certain meekness; a certain desire to be included and not stand out. Community is another of the major threats to intelligence, particularly as an influx of diverse opinions, delivered in such quick succession that they are impossible to truly intake and reflect upon, is nothing more than white noise – a smokescreen used to blind and befuddle for long enough that the next topic, the next opinion, the next horror occupies our minds instead.
Interactivity, with each other and with our culture as a whole, is a powerful blockade to personal intellectual development.
Freedom; Liberty; Joy; Desire; Design; Inequality;
The greatest blockade of all, to our intellectual development, to the absolute advancement of ourselves, is our freedom. I am not speaking in favour of totalitarianism, control or dominance, but of our willing ability to deny ourselves development. We are free to do as we choose, within reason. We are free to avoid our own intelligence, to spend time in front of entertainment without intellectual stimulation.
We are not forced to learn different ways of thinking with the cane across the knuckles or the spine; we are not forced to perform well or pay attention in class as children; we are not forced to go to university. Over time, the gentle build of ‘human rights’ and our free, classless society with weakened expectations and the willing desire to oppose expectation, has given us comfort.
Because we are comfortable, entertained, fed; we don’t need to be intelligent.
Because we are free, or free to an extent, we don’t need to develop intellectual thoughts to obtain that freedom.
We are driven by the basic desires; hunger; thirst; acceptance; comfort; warmth; safety. We are not driven by a desire to build a better world, to create things that leave our mark on the future. We are free to forget, free to ignore, free to be unequal. We are free to better ourselves, and that freedom makes us less than we could ever be.
Saying that, I am a major proponent of freedom. I think it would be the greatest thing to obtain, even if it destroyed our culture and our society. Freedom, ultimate freedom, is such an alien concept to most of us that it is a wonder we could conceive it at all.
Capitalism is the enemy of total freedom, but provides us just enough freedom to make us believe that we are free. Just enough freedom that the avoidance of our intellectual development is a choice of our own.
Through this half-freedom, we work to damn ourselves to ignorance. We are free to be stupid, ill-informed, ill-educated, incapable of thought beyond decision.
Through this freedom, we have emptied the breast of human intelligence and ingenuity and, instead, drank ourselves to death on the milk of ignorance.
As well as half-though out political essays, I also write poetry and prose. If you are interested in reading anything else I’ve written, you can click on any of the images to your left which are all free eBooks, available to download from Smashwords. Alternatively, you can read some poetry right here on this blog, such as Coal Carthage, A Red Dress or On Passion.
As always, if you disagree with any of the above comments, feel free to let me know!