We cannot succumb to the false prophets of the marketplace

Tim Stanley takes a conservative look back at 2013 in The Telegraph: “Isn’t the job of conservatives to bring the bad news? Not so says Fraser Nelson, who writes in The Spectator that 2013 was the best year on record. War is less common, death by Malaria less likely, fewer people are being killed by typhoons. And the big one is that globalisation, far from merely enriching the Illuminati, is spreading the wealth around: “What is going wrong with the world is vastly outweighed by what is going right. And the run of depressing news stories can actually blind us to the greatest story of our age: we really are on our way to making poverty history.”

Fraser’s conservatism is the kind that uplifts. Bruce Anderson’s, by contrast, is a real downer. Writing for the Telegraph, he warns that we are on the brink of nuclear catastrophe. With the end of the Cold War there is suddenly nothing to hold radical Islam back; madmen define the course of events. Palestine and Pakistan are ready to blow.

Without Pakistan, without a chronic and insoluble Palestinian crisis … this century would look promising. As it is, we have the two Ps, and mutually assured destruction is breaking down. It worked during the Cold War, and it has worked between India and Pakistan. Could it work between Israel and Iran? Could the Iranians be trusted not to hand some stuff out at the back door? For that matter, is it inconceivable that there could be a seepage from Pakistan? What about miniaturisation? A couple of hundred quid in a high street computer store will now buy you something more powerful than the Pentagon’s computer resources 40 years ago. All other forms of technology are becoming smaller, cheaper and more accessible. Is nuclear weaponry really immune from that?

Probably not, Bruce. Cue a blog post somewhere on “The 11 Best Ways to Smuggle an A-Bomb Through Customs”.The disagreement between these two conservative Scots is a reminder than conservatism isn’t one ideology but an umbrella for many different cultural reactions to the modern world. Between the two, I instinctively prefer Bruce Anderson’s take on 2013. Although I disagree with him in the scope of the problem, for Palestine and Pakistan are not the only two bits of the world we have to worry about.

Last year was a year of near-misses. The West nearly went to war in Syria, which would have put us on the side of an alliance that includes the kind of Islamists we’ve been fighting in Afghanistan. Although the humanitarian situation was undeniably horrific, we had no strategic interest for getting involved and no plan for getting out. Russia, by contrast, had good (if morally bankrupt) reasons for standing by its man, Bashar al-Assad. And so, had the West sent its warplanes, we could easily have been drawn into the kind of confrontation “over there” that leads to a nuclear war “over here”.

Meanwhile, Asia threatened to go fruitloop. North Korea declared hypothetical war on the United States, or at least to obliterate its capitalist lackeys that run South Korea. All of this was presumably for domestic consumption: Kim Jong-un was still working on building his brand in Pyongyang and clearly thought that “bomb-throwing psycho-loon” would win him more sympathy with the army and party. China on that occasion did the right thing and urged caution. But over the Senkakus islands it went a little postal itself, threatening to spark World War III for the sake of some fishing huts.

The point is that life may be getting better, but the good life is perpetually under threat of extinction. For Christians, that’s a familiar concept. We believe in Apocalypses both personal and Biblical. Every individual has to face death and ponder what might follow it; the whole of humanity will eventually face The End – the final battle between Good and Evil – in the faith that what comes after is the victory of Good. This isn’t to suggest that believers are all depressives, hanging around in expectation of mortality. On the contrary, knowing you’re going to die, or that there’s time limit on this social order, means that we have to try to live as brightly and rightly as possible. Death isn’t a threat. It’s a challenge.

Nevertheless, you don’t have to be religious to see the historical evidence that man has a natural bent towards self-destruction. A friend recently pointed me towards George Orwell’s 1940 review of Mein Kampf in which the great man wonders why, after the nightmare of World War I and the comparative luxury of the 1920s, would the Germans turn towards the Nazis? “Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain.” But, says Orwell, “Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades … ‘Greatest happiness of the greatest number’ is a good slogan, but at this moment ‘Better an end with horror than a horror without end’ is a winner.” In other words, under the right circumstances man will choose death.

Alas, across the world people are still making that call. Here in the West we think we’ve got all the answers: make money, make peace, leave people alone. But we’re arrogantly deluded if we assume that everyone else buys into liberal capitalism. Russia is moving towards becoming a state that is part Russian Orthodox, part Soviet, part Godfather. African countries are passing laws that persecute homosexuals; in Kenya they burn witches. Latin America has its socialist despots. China is building golden statues to Mao. Truly frightening are the Jihadists. They are not, as the ignorant claim, something integral to Islamic identity and history but a recent and highly political innovation that proves that some of our contemporaries will choose to return to the 12th century rather than inhabit the 21st. Theirs is a cult of death very similar to Hitler’s – offering that “end with horror [rather] than a horror without end.”

Here’s the rub: the peace and democracy that the West has enjoyed since 1945 is not the End of History but an exceptional moment that proves the rule that, for most people throughout most of history, life has been nasty, brutish and short. And our party in Europe may well end soon, too. The self-destructors of the Middle East may wage war on us. China might decide to call in its debts. Russia might try to prove its might with a confrontation. And the end needn’t come from without if the ongoing economic crisis erodes the material comfort that has kept us living in a consumer dream for so long. According to opinion polls, the Front National is likely to sweep the French elections in 2014 thanks to joblessness and immigration. We could be on the verge of witnessing a second Hitler.

The cultural critic Camille Paglia recently told an interviewer that liberal societies put themselves at risk when they fail to teach the young about evil. A nation composed of innocents is more likely to be exploited by the guilty. She’s absolutely right, and the job of conservatives is to remind society that it is in the nature of man to do evil and that we have to constantly guard ourselves against it. We cannot succumb to the false prophets of the marketplace and presume that because interest rates are low and the highstreet is booming everyone will be satisfied with that and everything will be okay. Beware also those socialist would-be-Christs who say that we can build Heaven on Earth with a little tax and spend. No, conservatives should be articulating loudly Bruce Anderson’s pessimism – followed by Paglia’s prescription for accepting the sad truth about the nature of man.

In Britain, we certainly need to talk more about what is right and wrong and tolerate the intolerable a little less. We need to steel ourselves against threats from abroad and complacency at home. What we have in the West right now is warm comfort, but it might not last if we fail to develop a sense of what we really, spiritually stand for. Or why it’s worth defending.” (http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/timstanley/100252151/2013-the-year-we-stepped-a-little-closer-to-the-apocalypse/)

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