‘A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right.’ Tom Paine
Something is happening that does not yet have a name. In Europe and North America the citizens of democracies have taken to the streets and disrupted the orderly circulation of ideas, images and goods. They have seized public spaces and re-imagined them as sites of liberation and free speech between equals. Either these occupations and assemblies will come to be seen as pale imitations of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, imitations that never seriously threatened the powers of the world. Or we are between the breaking waves of a revolutionary tide. The first description is of a piece with a future of depression and war. If the second is true, then many of us are about to secure a more complete freedom. This much is clear: what we decide to do this year will determine how the occupations and assemblies of last year are remembered.
A governing order can only survive if its needs and demands pass as the conclusions of an uncontroversial common sense. For a generation expertise and authoritative speech assured us that everything was under control. We could leave the management of the economy to others. Change was the outcome of forces far beyond our comprehension. Humans were powerless before the majesty of markets and the march of technology. There was no need to worry about the vast wealth and luxury enjoyed by a few. Progress was being made. We could devote ourselves to our private competitions and concerns, surrounded on all sides by the mystery of finance.
These claims no longer convince. The common sense that set the horizon of the practical, that ordered and constrained our lives, now stands revealed as a tangle of fantasies. The established order in the West no longer appears as an historical necessity or fact of nature. It has habit to defend it and some well-practised techniques for manipulating sentiment. But the governing order’s most powerful protection is our reluctance to explore what underpins the day-to-day of what we think and do.
Many of us have experienced life as a series of defeats. These defeats were supposed to be just, a fair reflection of our industry and character. An incessant commercial noise told us that we got what we wanted and deserved. Yet now the distribution of rewards and honours seems like the outcome of a wildly successful fraud. The wealth of a few was secured at the expense of the many. After long years of being daunted we are starting to think that things do not have to be as they are. We made our lives inside a necessity that was artificial. But still we hesitate. So much has been lost and can never be recovered. We shrink from admitting how wrong we were, how thoroughly deceived, the titanic waste of time it all was. Part of us still wants to settle back into the old, dispiriting certainties.
In the confusion those who benefited from the old dispensation are busy grabbing what they can. They control the state still, and much of the speech that is effectually public. They tell us they are fit to decide, even as they pick through the ruins of their previous decisions. They tell us that they know what they are doing, even as they stumble from mishap to self-serving mishap. They talk of morality while they blame the poor and the dejected for a crisis caused by their colleagues and friends. There is something desperate about the performance. Some of the audience are drifting away. Others are even starting to heckle. What was once persuasive starts to seem too obviously improvised, a series of contrivances and menacing non sequiturs.
But our politicians and their partners in the systems of credit, communication and production seem to think they can now rule without reason, and make the world pliant through the repetition of obvious untruths. It is possible they are right. They have remained faithful to the doctrines that brought disaster in 2007-8. Their policies are as witless now as they were then. Yet they remain in place. When circumstances demand it, they rail against popular enemies. They impersonate our fury at outrages they do nothing to prevent. They may yet get away with this latest production.
And here is something strange. The vast scale of the mismanagement protects its authors from blame. By the time the crisis broke, almost everyone who spoke with any expectation of being heard was mouthing the common nonsense. The figures recognised and magnified by the media were committed to broadly the same policies. The dealers in opinion busied themselves with permissible controversies elsewhere. The argument over the economy was, they agreed, over. Those installed in consequential positions owe their current eminence to their former willingness to believe, or at least to say, things that now sound demented. They have every reason to avoid discussing the substance of what has happened, of what they allowed to happen.
It is not surprising that we are tempted to go along with all this. The truth is unfamiliar and unsettling after all this time. To the extent that the architects of the current shambles can continue to secure general acceptance of the descriptions that suit them, we pay a price for an improved understanding. We can reject these descriptions only if we are willing to turn away from the performances of public life, to do without their reflected prestige, to suffer distress.
Nonconformity in thought, a billion adverts tell us, is dynamic and fun. A billion adverts lie. The pursuit of truth in defiance of widely accepted errors is a kind of self-harm. If those whose opinion must be taken into account say one thing, it is painful for us to believe another. And there is more to it, even than this. We have made ourselves out of claims that are unsafe. To call things by their proper names makes a revolution in us, before it changes anything else. If we are to be free, we must change, and to change is to kill some part of ourselves. It is no wonder that we hesitate.
In what follows I describe the common sense that kept most of us from the guts of administration. I show a little of what these commonsensical claims did to us. And I set out what we can learn from the last year, how what we did then can be adapted to make a new common sense in the years ahead. For it is common sense that determines the limits of political action and its proper objectives. If we do not devise a common sense of our own then others will concoct one for us. We have the means to hand. They are not complicated, though you will not hear them much discussed in the ordinary channels of communication.
The language used here is as clear as its author can make it. Cleverer writers could have offered something plainer and more pleasant. Much cleverer writers are currently busy defending what exists, for money. They can craft appeals to what we are, to what three decades have made us. They can offer all the sickly pleasures of conformity, the thrill of being inside. Most temptingly, they have in their gift the swindling realism that tells us that we don’t matter.
What I write is bound to strike many readers as unrealistic. For it is written in the belief that we each have some useful fraction of a world-changing power within us, whether we make use of it or not. But before you stop reading, consider how strange so much recently respectable speech now sounds, and grant the argument here a little of the time you lavished on your deceivers. If we act together what we suffer will be the brief pain of transition. If we remain wedded to the old words and phrases and the inactivity they justify, our discontent can only deepen into distress.
Do we describe the world or change it? The question is a mistake. A true description widely shared is itself a change in the world. But can we bear to hear the world described, when true description forces us to change? That is a question each of us must answer for ourselves. Perhaps we will hold on to what is familiar, even if it is a kind of self-willed slavery. But perhaps we will be equal to our age, able to see what is in front of our eyes, to describe what we see, and to act in the light of a free understanding.
‘It doesn’t matter what I think, or what I do. The powers will do what they please regardless.’ There, right there, is the governing mistake of the common sense we have outgrown.
What we choose now matters.