Life under a destructive shadow

Both authoritarian communist and neoliberal capitalist systems have failed miserably to satisfy genuine human or planetary needs. If Jimmy Reid could say in 1972 “that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else”, what might be said of today’s corporate, banking and financial executives, conservative economists and politicians who still uphold the ‘unfettered’ free-market creed?

The ‘credit crunch’, climate change and famine in Africa are the ultimate wake up calls to Governments and public alike to take stock and address the crisis of human values at the heart of our economic and planetary dilemma and ask the question just what kind of world and society do we wish to recreate and leave to our children and grandchildren? Does this global financial crisis, if it is not to be repeated in its present anarchic form, demand challenging extreme forms of capitalist doctrine and its unfettered and nefarious global practices in order to remodel an economic system which is compatible with shared moral and ethical values that have human need, human dignity, altruism, benevolence and compassion at their heart?

“Our aim must be the establishment of the whole quality of life. It requires a social and cultural, or if you wish, a spiritual transformation of our country.”

Jimmy Reid, Glasgow University Rectorial Address, 1972

Are these not the values that inform our common humanity and provide a framework for ‘service’ to our fellow man which Jimmy Reid said was the only way to gain ‘real fulfilment’ as social beings? His clarion call, in the Rectorial Address of 1972, was toreplace ‘greed’ with ‘social need’ which he felt was possible given the ‘creative re-orientation of society’ in order to eradicate the scourges associated with putting excessive profit before people.

Jimmy Reid was a politician, idealist and visionary who understood that people had to challenge what William Blake referred to as “mind forged manacles” which kept men and women enslaved to outdated established ideas. There is a long tradition of men and women who have challenged such ideas and regimes that use every undemocratic and bureaucratic means to shore up their repressive authority. Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik and Vaclav Havel are but four pillars of moral leadership among many more unsung, selfless individuals whose pursuit of truth – whatever the personal cost – shattered the behemoths of reaction, privilege and power.

Although historical circumstances determined that Jimmy Reid never had to confront totalitarian governments his moral stature was tested in the UCS struggle in defence of working men’s livelihoods through which workers, for a brief interlude, were given the responsibility of power and ownership. Inthat process he demonstrated that he came from the same mould of moral leadership whose credo is ‘the power of living in the truth’. Commenting on the death of Vaclav Havel and the present circumstances we face, Jeffrey Sachs said this:

“…Today’s reality is a world in which wealth translates into power, and power is abused in order to augment personal wealth, at the expense of the poor and the natural environment. Moral leaders today should build on the foundation laid by Havel. Many people … now despair about the possibilities for constructive change. Yet the battles we face – against powerful corporate lobbies, relentless public relations spin, and our governments’ incessant lies – are a shadow of what Havel, Michnik, Sakharov, and others faced when taking on brutal Soviet-backed regimes.”

(The Power of Living in Truth : Social-Europe Journal )

With respect to moulding moral behaviour, Jimmy Reid passionately believed that education – no doubt infused with an assertive philosophic and ethical dimension – had to play a significant role in liberating minds and in this sense his Rectorial Address was not only a manifesto for action, it was a call for a ‘spiritual transformation’ -in the broadest sense of that term-intended to profoundly change our perception and consciousness of what it means to be truly human. Even Burns’ recognised that to achieve the ideal of the brotherhood of man, men and women had to be “in virtue trained, enlightened youth”.

Jimmy Reid reminded us, most of all, that we are human beings not ‘rats’ and that we ought to live up to that possibility and potential. He also reminded us that an economic ethos practised as if everyone and everything is a commodity to be bought and sold and pursued in isolation of political and social responsibility leads inevitably to a grotesque distortion ofhuman values and is essentially amoral.

Jimmy Reid was also aware that such a transformation of society could not be achieved overnight and in today’s conditions would be a protracted commitment and involve cooperation on a global scale, driven by the re-emergence of radical labour, social democratic and Green movements.He was keenly aware that under the influence of an impersonal economic system, men and women were ‘miniaturised’ and reduced to ‘units of production’, or as is the case in the 21st century, units of consumption. His principal life’s concern was to raise the status of men and women, all men and women and not just the privileged few, to the highest level that humanity – as the most gifted species on earth – could possibly aspire to given the appropriate political, economic, social and spiritual nourishment.

At the present time, dogmatic, neo-liberal assumptions promoted by a series ofWestminster, Thatcherite governments have contributed to the individualistic, self-serving values currently tearing our social, political and economic fabric apart and undermining our sense of community, cooperation and service. The distorted values emanating from these assumptions have infected the whole of Western culture to varying degrees, including Scotland. But moulded by the Scottish Enlightenment, Burns’ egalitarian sentiments and an increasing awareness of a distinctive Scottish identity, the Scottish ‘common weal’ consciousness is perhaps better placed to give men and women the incentive and impetus to create a society which embraces principles and values that view economic, political and cultural life as simply the means to building a more ethical, just, and compassionate society, which together, would go some way towards healing ourinsecure and divided world.

Jimmy Reid’s ultimate membership of the Scottish National Party along with his radical roots in the Scottish working class acknowledges that he felt there were more possibilities for encouraging fundamental social change in anIndependent Scotland.In this respect, if Scotland has, as we are told, the visionary potential to lead the world in climate change targets and technology could it not also follow the moral precedent ofitsinfluential Enlightenment philosophersand become again, a ‘beacon of progressive opinion’, moral leadership and a catalyst for radical action? Indeed, the massive support for the Scottish National Party in the 2011 Scottish elections clearly indicates that the people of Scotland want change that will sustain better governance of their country and, with that, the real possibility that a Scottish Government in an Independent Scotland – given the optimum conditions for change – will endeavour to institute a ‘creative re-orientation of society’.

Being a life-long socialist and internationalist Jimmy Reid was also aware, like Burns, that seeking the freedom and brotherhood of all men and women went beyond national hopes and desires to the wider global community. These two aspirations are not only compatible butinterdependent and necessary in this war-torn, unstable world. Would Jimmy Reid – given the financial crash of2008 with its devastating political, social and economic consequences – be the first to acknowledge that his vision for ‘a creative re-orientation of society’ had to be widened to embrace the concept of a new global economic order; indeed a radical re-arrangement of capital and markets, far distant from the morally and economically bankrupt ideologies ofSoviet style communism and neo-liberal capitalism with its attendant and corrupting,materialist dominated culture?

Capitalism – in all its unbridled forms – has been exposed as an endemic canker in the body politic whose financial and economic tendrils penetrate and corrupt every facet of political and social life – both national and international – to the ultimate detriment of upholding ethical and moral values, the public good and democracy itself. Essentially based on a Thatcherite, self-serving individualism, unfettered capitalism and its ubiquitous mindset cares little for the common good and acknowledges institutionalised greed as its principal motivation and outcome, under the pretence that its practitioners deserve and receive the market value for their ‘performance’ and ‘expertise’, those very same skills that triggered the global financial crash.

The crucial question confronting governments and people in the Western world – given the fact that these same governments have generally capitulated to the seductive allures of capitalism’s persuasive lobbyists – is how to politically manage, control and fundamentally change an increasingly arrogant and corrupt corporate, financial and banking sector to benefit the public good as opposed to the personal enrichment and concentration of wealth, power and privilege in fewer hands, all at the expense of sacrificing dignified human values, codes of moral behaviour and the democracy that is necessary to defend them.

The notion of public good, moral responsibility, human social values and democracy itself have been so thoroughly undermined by a thirty year onslaught of deeply unethical capitalist practices andconcomitant political compliance that any form of radical, social democratic opposition may require a wholesale, institutional reformation of representative government, the renewal of a democratically regulated market economy and a renaissance of the human spirit whose prime awareness is that we are, truly, ‘all in this together.’ Perhaps nothing less than a paradigm shift in collective consciousness will be required to sustain and harmonise the needs of Gaia – James Lovelock’s living description of planet earth – with the material, ethical and spiritual aspirations of homo sapiens.

Witnessing the awakening of protest movements across the Western world would suggest that progress towards an institutional rebirth has already started. Combined with the imperative resurgence of labour, social democratic and green movements, the ultimate goal ought to focus onbreaking up these oligarchic institutions of wealth and power and making them subject to the principle of fulfilling their prime role as ‘servants of society’ and not ‘masters of the universe’. Failure to achieve this is not now an option.

This crisis has placed capitalismat the crossroads of global opinion. Elliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’, is perhaps more relevant than ever, so apt are his words – ‘what are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish’ – as a description of the present crisis of values and moral leadership at the heart of Western Civilisation itself. However, despite the many and varied arguments presented against neoliberal capitalism, probably its most damning indictment is its abysmal failure to sustain and deliver what Jimmy Reid referred to as a “whole quality of life” for the majority of people. For all its productive and technological capacity to supply an excessive consumption of material goods and their enticing, commercial trivia there is increasing evidence that it leaves a spiritual and psychological emptiness at the heart of people’s lives, including its most rewarded beneficiaries; so much so that even conservative governments are now seeking ways to measure and heal the ‘happiness’ deficit at its core.

This, it would appear, is the absurdity and futility at the root of the ‘capitalist ethos’, an ethos that promoted a moral lifestyle of thrift and simplicity in its original historical context but which now ultimately contradicts humanity’s deepest, innermost need for an authentic connection to the reality and meaning of human existence. It is, perhaps, this gradual shift inhumanity’s collective awareness that will spread and eventually fulfil Jimmy Reid’s vision of a ‘spiritual transformation’ to illuminate the way towards ‘a creative re-orientation of society’ while eventuallysounding the death knell of one of the most creative and destructive era’s in human history. There is no question that capitalism contains the creative energy and capacity to renew itself andsurvive changing global economic circumstances. The more important and urgent question to ask is, can the earth and humanity survive in its destructive shadow?