Compassion – Killer of Society?
Rex Van Schalkwyk, Contributing Author
n politics, it is the idea that counts. So also in philosophy, pop music, pedantry and philanthropy. The idea is everything. And between the idea and the reality, there lies that vast uncharted terrain of promises unfulfilled, of lies and deceit and of naked hypocrisy, all of which account for the failure of the public discourse and of public life. In short, this self-inflicted deception accounts for the failure of society.
Bertrand Russell, who is said by some to have been the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, and a notable socialist, proposed that in the one-world society he envisaged, the supply of food should be used as a lever to ensure social compliance. This is what he wrote on the need to prevent the increase of the world's population: "If this is to be done otherwise than by wars, pestilence and famines, it will demand a powerful international authority. This authority should deal out the world's food to the various nations in proportion to their population at the time of the establishment of the authority. If any nation should subsequently increase its population, it should not on that account receive more food…"
In this way, the philosopher would have contrived a one-world totalitarian dictatorship in a perpetual state of starvation. Russell did not even consider where the world's food, without which people were to be starved into submission, would realistically be produced. The most extraordinary thing of all is that he could suggest such an idea in pursuit of his ideal of the utopian life. Were it not for the fact that his work, The Impact of Science on Society, is no laughing matter, it might have been read as a malicious satire.
There is a conundrum here: why is it that so many of those who enthusiastically embrace a benign cause conduct themselves with such malevolent intent? The answer in Russell's case and many others besides is that the real object of their concern is not the welfare of the individual, or of the collective, or the world, as the case may be. The real preoccupation is the idea, and close by the idea is the individual who will see self-interest as synonymous with the public good.
And so it is easy for Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, George Soros, and others who have made their billions to adopt neo-socialist causes and to plead the morality of higher taxation because, having made their pile, they can with impunity identify with the perceived interests of the disadvantaged. They can adopt the mantle of compassion because there is no real cost involved.
The worst crimes in human history were committed in the name of the communist ideology, whose central premise was the brotherhood of men. Everyone was a comrade, except when they were not, which was practically all the time. Never included in the common definition were the rulers, although they were routinely referred to by the same fraternal denomination.
George Bernard Shaw actually visited Russia in the company of a clutch of like-minded intellectuals after the commencement of Stalin's infamous purges. When he returned to the safety of London, he proclaimed to have been well-pleased by the progressive nature of Russian society.
How did this man of letters come to a conclusion so perverse? The answer is that he traded his integrity in exchange for the acknowledgement of the intellectual establishment of the time. It was believed then, particularly among the intellectual classes of Oxford and Cambridge, that communism was the way of the future. In Major Barbara, Shaw had excoriated the wealth derived from machines of death and destruction. What better trade for a playwright of his inclinations than to feign ignorance of the depravity of Stalin's Russia. In this way he would find favor with the masters of the intellectual universe.
In a letter written to The Manchester Guardian on March 2, 1933, Shaw and 20 other fellow travelers made this observation: "We desire to record that we saw nowhere evidence of such economic slavery, privation, unemployment and cynical despair of betterment as are accepted as inevitable and ignored by the [British] press… Everywhere we saw the hopeful and enthusiastic working-class, self-respecting and free up to the limits imposed on them by nature and a terrible inheritance from tyranny…"
If Shaw were to be believed, he was well aware of the tyranny of the tsar but blissfully ignorant of the savagery of Joseph Stalin, of the ubiquitous secret police, the extermination of the kulaks and the mass deportation and starvation of vast swaths of the Russian population. On his visit, he did not even notice the ever-present apparatus of Stalin's propaganda machine.
Joseph Schumpeter, who was both a sociologist and an economist, had the measure of human nature. In every democracy, votes are exchanged for favors. As the democracy matures and as the prize of political office becomes ever more seductive, the promises become ever more extravagant. By this process the democratic bribe must, according to Schumpeter, result in government that becomes increasingly socialist. If practical proof of Schumpeter's thesis is required, it is to be found in the inexorable rise of socialism in Europe, Canada, Australia and in the United States.
Add to this the requirement of the bankers and of the lesser financial institutions to secure political advantage, and it becomes easy to follow the money. This also explains the paradox of capital making common cause with socialism. If there is hypocrisy in those who choose to ignore the contradictions of their actions, this hypocrisy is multiplied in those who regard such conduct as a promotion of the public good.
When, as Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson went down on his knees in his abject supplication before Nancy Pelosi, the high priestess of Congress, was it for the survival of the economy or his share-option scheme that he most fervently prayed? Whose interests was he guarding when he provided his banker friends and colleagues with insider information about the imminent collapse of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – a possibility that only weeks before he had publicly and emphatically dismissed?
The "liberated" South Africa is governed by the African National Congress (ANC), which comprises an assortment of socialists, communists, trades unionists and a sprinkling of pragmatists. The one thing that this unruly crowd has in common is its conspicuous consumption. In the process, billions of rand are misspent, unaccounted for or simply stolen. The chief in the office of former president Thabo Mbeki, Smuts Ngonyama, once proclaimed that he had not engaged in the liberation struggle to be poor. Candor of this kind is, however, rare; far more likely, a critic of government corruption will be met with the accusation of racialism.
The poor and the dispossessed are routinely exploited for the social and political ambitions of their rulers. Winnie Mandela, the former wife of the idealized former president, was convicted of the common-law crimes of kidnapping and assault. Were it not for an opportunistic appeal-court judgment, she might have spent many years in jail. Although she no longer goes by the moniker "Mother of the Nation," she still cuts a prominent and elegant figure on the many occasions she appears in public. Her kidnap victim was found dead, but her compassion is always on display: she never misses a photo shoot opportunity in the immediate presence of misery.
If the politicians and intellectuals are masters at the art of hypocrisy, Hollywood actors and pop stars have a sublime skill in the promotion of humbug. One such practitioner is Paul David Hewson, also known simply as Bono, the lead singer and lyricist of the accomplished Irish rock group U2.
Bono has turned his talents and his genius for publicity to the international populist causes of the day. He has organized many benefit concerts, eagerly supported by the "me-too brigade" who make up much of the entertainment industry. The most woebegone victims invariably attract the greatest artistic support, which is always provided for free.
For his efforts, Bono has consorted with presidents and kings and accumulated an assortment of titles and awards. Formally granted an honorary knighthood in March 2007 and thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the former Time Person of the Year has been described by Paul Theroux as a "mythomaniac"; a person who wishes "…to convince the world of (his) worth." The sociologist and political commentator Muhammad Idrees Ahmad has condemned Bono's conduct as "…a grand orgy of narcissistic philanthropy." So we have it on good authority: narcissism and philanthropy can coexist.
If the hypocrisy of the pop stars is nauseating, the grandiloquent but meaningless oratory of the aspirant political "leaders," of which much will be seen and heard in the coming months, is almost certain to produce results, the very opposite of what is pledged.
Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and others besides have fallen into the trap of bribing their electorates with promises that become ever more unsustainable. In each of these states, expectations have been created that cannot be met and that cannot now be undone. This is surely a recipe for social unrest.
These will not be the only countries to succumb to failure. The national debt, the unaffordable long-term cost of social security, health care and a myriad other entitlements and the mounting evidence of the insolvent state point to the same outcome for the UK and the US. Failure is ensured; the more pressing question is, what happens next?
Rex van Schalkwyk is a former judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa and has written three books, the most recent of which, published in 2009, is titled Panic for Democracy. Thought-provoking commentary like this from guest contributors helps make The Casey Report a must-read newsletter. Focused on big-picture trends worldwide and filled with specific, actionable investment advice, it can help you grow your portfolio during these uncertain economic times.