Like speaks unto Like, but says nothing new, as it never hears it
This is another guest article by Graeme No3, one of our regular contributing writers. In it, he draws some political and cultural parallels between ancient China and the situation prevailing today in the democratic parts of the world.
The similarities identified are worryingly familiar and one can only hope the results might not be as severe. Time will tell but unless some fundamental changes are made in our current situation, those changes will inevitably force themselves on us of their own accord, and will consequently be needlessly traumatic.
China is an ancient country, at times divorced from the rest of the World. Its history is littered with periods of calm and prosperity, followed by times of troubles, chaos and warfare, to be succeeded by a change of dynasty, and another settled period.
The first western visitors were fascinated by several aspects of life there; the filling of the public service ranks by competitive examinations, the elaborate layers of ritual surrounding the Emperor and his court, and their habit of frightening off malign spirits with loud noises from fire crackers and the beating of brass gongs. The elaborate written language with it shades of meaning, if not downright ambiguity, fascinated others.
All was not quite what it seemed. The examinations required immense hours of study, so that pathway was reserved for those with sufficient wealth family to undertake such. The elaborate ritual could become of more importance than life outside, as officials spent more time and effort on trivia such as the type of hat they were permitted. The courtiers became more and more isolated and those external to the perfumed circles found it harder and harder to be heard.
Immense care was taken on the writing of official memoranda, with calligraphy and literary allusions judged more important than news from the provinces. With government so neglected, officials in distant provinces waxed in self-importance and dreamt of independence.
Indeed, bad news was unwelcome and might even be deemed offensive in official eyes. Consider the likely fate of a complaining military man from a section of the Great Wall. He feels his area is beset with problems, unpaid troops, poor rations, low morale, increasingly belligerent barbarians and a demoralized peasantry declining in numbers as the far-sighted removed themselves from the coming troubles.
Should he be so unwise as to try and bring this to the notice of the Royal Household, it would never pass through official circles. A wall of silence would surround any written approaches and their very existence denied. Should he persist he might well be downgraded and/or sent to the most distant and least civilized portion of the empire. An unofficial approach would be fatal, as it would suggest that certain powerful courtiers were incompetent or corrupt.
The chief Mandarin would summon the paymaster, who would insist that all wages have either been paid or at worst, that there had been a trifling delay of barely noticeable proportions. The mandarin in charge of rations would report that all supplies have been duly dispatched. Another mandarin would depose that a friendly message has recently been received from the barbarian chief. It remained only to wonder in the right ears why a disaffected military man suddenly needed more men when he was based so close to the Capital? He, and his complaints, would be disposed of in a manner likely to deter other attempts to introduce reality.
As the situation outside the Court deteriorated, the officials redoubled their efforts to suppress bad news. All thought alike on this, as a change of regime could be disastrous for their careers, even their existence. Hangers-on were incited, paid or otherwise rewarded, to spread approved reports to disarm the public. These were then circulated within the perfumed walls as proof that all was well. Public appearances by senior figures were accompanied by a wall of noise from fire crackers and clanging brasses to prevent any intrusion of doubt or dissent from the disaffected. Life inside the wall continued serene and undisturbed by internal dissent or external threats.
When reality finally intruded, it usually caused the collapse of the dynasty.
If the change of dynasty occurred in a short enough time, then many of the old court would gather round the new emperor. Uncouth and illiterate they may have found him, but as soon as possible the old rituals would be in place in the name of prestige. Often it was considered politic to reassure the populace by stressing that little change had occurred.
As dynasty succeeded dynasty, the emphasis was more and more on the past. The ancient writings were consulted for solutions to problems. This affected the advance of technology, as interest in change declined. Such advances that were made were by the despised artisan class, who often kept them as commercial secrets. Official writings fell into the hands of various charlatans who confused matters with tales of malignant demons to prevent the exposure of their ignorance. On this front China entered into a thousand-year decline, and was still using gunpowder for firecrackers when the west was using it to batter down castles and end feudalism.
Contrast this with the situation in England. The Magna Carta was drawn up as a treaty between King John and his fractious barons. John faced not only the rebellious barons but also a rebellion in northern Wales, invasion from Scotland, and an impending invasion by the French, so he probably saw it as a short-term expedient. It was John who didn’t last.
Archbishop Stephen Langton’s efforts at mediation created a charter which formed a wider proposal for political reform, focusing on the rights of free men, but not serfs, and promised the protection of church rights, protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, new taxation only with baronial consent and limitations on feudal payments, and so it was re-released in the new reign. With it the idea of a chamber of “non-courtiers” advising the king, in particular with regard to taxation, was installed.
Initially intended by the Barons as a baronial matter only, the sources of advice expanded with time, as various contributors of taxes decided that it was also their privilege to offer advice. The idea was not always that popular with the royal receiver of advice, and indeed Charles the First vigorously challenged the arrangement but lost his head in the argument. When his younger son also proved unsuitable in his assigned role, he was deposed and the ascendancy of parliament was secure.
Thereafter it became an institution and focus for the “knights of the shires”. The members of parliament were a diverse group, mixing aristocratic younger sons, some with military or naval experience, returned nabobs and West Indian planters, successful merchants and businessmen on the make. Some were lacking knowledge of the Classics, indeed barely literate in many cases, and often with prejudices against foreigners and Catholics truly representative of their local rustic neighbours. Others were not only ‘educated’, but spoke several languages and were accustomed and at ease with life in various european states.
All were tolerant of corruption, indeed the aristocracy were always on the lookout for more money, and used their influence to ensure their “little jobs” got approved. Walpole summed it up “all those men have their price”, and it was public money that paid them. Unruly behaviour was rife, and few hesitated to upset the Royal Personage with different ideas. With the Parliament and the Court based in London but part of the city, the flow of ideas from outside into the Court and Parliament was easy, and even encouraged at times.
Anything further from the scholarly, and refined urbane uniformity of the mandarins of the Chinese court would be hard to imagine, yet it worked. It looked settled that England would never fall into the errors of the Chinese court and the denial of reality.
Yet look what has happened.
A few years after the Second World War, the practices of a university changed as they ceased to be places of quiet learning. The best of the older generation of the teaching staff, who had served their country so well in the War, were a temporary block to declining standards, but those most able were absorbed into industry or the higher reaches of administration. Those who can, do; the remainder cling to tenure, and indulge in academic politics.
Increased prosperity expanded the number of universities and it meant a vast increase in the number of Professors and Lecturers, but unfortunately this coincided with a bout of doubt and insecurity among the young, so the lecturers were overwhelmingly from the radical sixties and the disenchanted seventies. Many left school to go on to spend their life at a university, and lacked experience of life outside a library. There they joined the survivors of the Morbid Age, and a doctrine of doom became the fashion.
Without experience of life elsewhere, attitudes rapidly gelled around academic theories; Malthus was resurrected because “the Earth couldn’t sustain a population of two and a half billion” and is still believed in forty years later despite carrying three times as many. Pollution would poison the World, and when that didn’t happen it was necessary to invent new forms of ‘pollution’ to keep things looking hopeless. Oil was going to run out shortly, as it had been slated to do since 1860.
A sort of nostalgia developed for a return to the life of a medieval peasant or even earlier. People with no idea of the life and no intention of leaving their comfortable academic life, waxed lyrical on its virtues, forgetting its earlier description as nasty, brutish and short.
Advancement came to depend on adherence to the right group, not on thinking new ideas. Any claim that the vast number of university lecturers and professors owe their comfortable lives to the vast increase in wealth generated by cheap power would cause outrage and instant rejection. Past errors were resurrected as eternal truths, such as the poisonous snobbery of the nineteenth century against technology.
It became easier to be a student as the new Universities filled up. Into this hot-house of collective thought, and never debated assumptions that the world is polluted and economic and social collapse is inevitable, is plunged the young would be mandarin or courtier. There they are cosseted and indoctrinated, and bad ideas drove out the good. Intellectual development often halted, particularly amongst those with a political bent, who provided the cannon fodder for Arts and Economics faculties.
One has only to look at the mess made of electricity supply in the UK. The decision to replace cheap, reliable and predictable sources of electricity with unpredictable, variable, unreliable and expensive sources seemingly avoided all contact with common sense. It is so stupid that it could only have originated in academic circles, as no-one with any experience of electricity supply to the grid would have endorsed it for one moment, indeed would have predicted disastrous results. No knowledge and a lack of common sense shown at the start, but no discussion is allowed, no warning is heeded as the plunge into blackness comes ever closer.
Warnings have been issuing for years, but somehow they never penetrate into the inner chambers. It is not enough, however tempting, to ascribe the result to collective insanity on the part of those responsible. Somehow the bad news is not rejected, it is not even recognized as existing.
We are back in a Chinese court situation!
How could that be? Where is the robust presentation of views? Gone, replaced by those induced at University. Those with Firsts joined the Public Service, those with Seconds started ascending the greasy pole of politics, as advisors or managers, until they were imposed on some unlucky, and un-consulted, constituency. Lately the composition has changed and the selection base narrowed further so that only the well off are considered. Cameron, Clegg or Millibrand? Osborne, Johnson, Tweedledum or Tweedledee?
The public servants are all believers in the “new paradigm”. Their advice won’t change anything, because as C. Northcote Parkinson (Parkinson’s Law etc.) pointed out definitive advice will never be written in case it proves wrong. He who never makes a decision, can’t be blamed for making a wrong one.
There is a further barrier to action. Consider those most indoctrinated in “the inevitable end of life as we know it” and who have set out to “save the world”. Most face life from the comfort of well-funded ‘green’ NGO’s, although the prevalence of the rich in ‘green circles’ is a cliché. Any suggestion of sensible action will generate a storm of noise. Multiple groups, all claiming to “love the Earth”, start repeating the ‘green’ mantras to each other; “renewables are cheap, the temperature is rising, the ice is melting, the oceans are becoming acid, back to the Stone Age (for all except themselves)”.
No discovered lie, no mistake, no debunking is ever allowed to raise doubt, and the same nonsense has circulated for decades. Noise and confusion abounds, this is how the “greens” win. Any dissent is drowned out and no-one in the Government could hear it, even if they wanted to. After all, many ‘greens’ belong to the same social groups as they or their wives, went to the same schools and universities etc. Very few MPs have the ability to see through the cloud of ‘green’ propaganda, and are ignored if they do.
Millions in public money is poured into untaxed ‘green‘ NGO’s to keep the noise level overwhelming. Where ignorance is well paid bliss, few believe otherwise. Divorced from technical knowledge, the new mandarins accept the ridiculous claim that “the science is settled”. The result is layers of like-minded, unquestioning drones all thinking and talking alike. Like speaks unto Like, but says nothing new, as it never hears it.
The confusion, the stupidity of the UK “energy policy” is only explainable in terms of the Chinese court syndrome. Those at the centre comfort themselves that all is well, to a background of reassuring murmurs from the courtiers inside the perfumed walls. Outside, a wall of noise like the old clanging of brass, works at keeping out any advice, any whiff of reality from those suffering from their incompetence.
Smug and complacent, they spend their days in the court, surrounded by those who know nothing, by those who want to know nothing and with a shell of those determined that they hear nothing. Complacent little emperors, ensconced in a bubble of unreality and surrounded by a wall of clanging brass preventing any intrusion of the cold and dark facts of reality.