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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-01-2020 10:32

The joys of pessimism

Would a socialist world order make things any better? To judge from the experience which was so generously provided by the Soviet Union before its demise, it would be sure to make them a great deal worse.

What a century ago the habitually dyspeptic Ezra Pound called an “old bitch gone in the teeth,” a “botched civilisation,” may have grown more powerful and become far richer than it was when he wrote those memorable lines, but that does not mean that there is any shortage of people who think the time has come to put her out of her misery. Some insist they are convinced this is about to happen; according to the owners of the “doomsday clock,” midnight is just 100 seconds away. They are among those who say they expect the world to go up in flames at any moment, an outcome many would find most satisfactory because it would put those who accuse them of overdoing things well and truly in their place. Heartened by the Australian bushfires, they warn us that unless we mend our ways very soon much of the planet will suffer a similar fate.

Others prefer to give the poor old bitch kicks in her mangy head by going on about the racism, sexism and other nasty things they insist are our civilisation’s principle characteristics. Like the Californian students who back in the 1980s gleefully chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has to go,” they keep demanding, with considerable success, that all those dead white males, such as Plato, Shakespeare and the rest of them, get replaced in university curricula by women and representatives of deserving ethnic minorities.

Individuals who think this way have had a considerable influence on the entertainment industry; even the producers of period dramas feel obliged to go out of their way to make the cast more “diverse” than would have their counterparts of previous generations. As for the distinction between what used to be called “high culture” and the commercial stuff churned out for immediate consumption, it has long been consigned to pre-history.

And then there is “capitalism.” We are told it is evil and must be done away with because some people get to be far richer than most others and that, by pumping out noxious substances, the factories and farms that take care of the productive side are behind climate change. Given that the only available alternatives to the economic order thus designated are the ones being practised in North Korea and, in a less relentless way, Cuba, Venezuela and a handful of equally wretched backwaters, blaming “capitalism” for mankind’s (sorry, humankind’s) woes does not take us very far.

Would a socialist world order, with politicians and bureaucrats schooled by high-minded academics running the show, make things any better? To judge from the experience which was so generously provided by the Soviet Union before its demise, it would be sure to make them a great deal worse, but such considerations do not worry the many young middle-class people who in the US, the UK and other countries find socialism appealing.

The feeling that apocalypse is fast approaching and must be stopped in its tracks, or else, is evidently shared by the kind of people who gather in Davos each year. Strange as it may seem, the richest of the lot, the men who made the “tech giants” the colossal money-spinning businesses they are, tend to be every bit as leftist as the social justice warriors who regularly fight “capitalism” by trashing businesses in major cities throughout the world. Cynics assume they pretend to be progressive in order to shield themselves from the insults that tend to be heaped on billionaires, but it may be only because many are still very young and have yet to slough off the beliefs they adopted in their student days.

So, if everybody with the exception of Donald Trump really does think that unless “we” do whatever “the science” deems necessary to ensure that our planet does not get burnt to a cinder before many people who are more than half-way through their careers retire from work, some drastic measures would have to be taken very soon. This seems unlikely, not just because all politicians and business leaders worth their salt know that hot air can be better than action, but also because they appreciate that curing industry of its dirty habits, among them its dependence on fossil fuels, by having wind farms and solar panels take over from coal mines and oil wells, would have dire economic effects. And while nuclear energy is relatively clean and would therefore do the job nicely, it is frowned upon by the progressives CEOs listen to.

Sceptics, let alone outright “deniers” who think the entire warming business is a left-wing hoax, can point out that dismantling much of industry and culling all those flatulent cows would have a cruel impact on the livelihoods of many millions of men and women. As France’s President Emmanuel Macron discovered when he slapped a “green tax” on diesel fuels, the rural poor have no desire to sacrifice themselves for what allegedly is the common good; donning yellow vests, large numbers of them rose in rebellion against what they saw as yet another attempt by the left-leaning Parisian elite to teach them a lesson.

The Australian bushfires have certainly been devastating and there can be no doubt that the planet is hotting up, but this does not mean that politicians, advised by influential scientists, could bring the process to a halt even if they greatly wanted to. Nonetheless, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, is under heavy fire for being something of a climate sceptic, the insinuation being that had he been a more enlightened man, millions of koalas and kangaroos would still be alive.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Would the fires have been less destructive if, for the last fifty years or so, Australia had been governed by politicians willing to close down the hugely profitable coal industry, make owning cars prohibitively expensive, clamp down on air travel and do all the other things recommended by people like Greta Thunberg and her disciples? There is no reason to think it would have made the slightest difference.

And while it can be argued that it is thanks largely to the Chinese regime’s decision to abandon Communism in favour of a variant of capitalism that temperatures are rising, try telling the hundreds of millions of people who have seen their lives transformed as a result that, had they done the decent thing and refused to abandon the poverty that until then had been their ancestral lot, planet Earth would be in a far better shape than it is now.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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