issue 213 - November 1990
Ideas, ideology and the future
One day in the mind of Fred Z, NI subscriber and
optimist. A profile of Fred by David Ransom
(Cartoons by Korky Paul.)
Our ideas and hopes for the future are the stuff of life. We can't seem to do without them.
But 'endism' is in vogue. According to this fashionable theory the end of the Cold War is also the 'end of history'. The idea is that because capitalism has defeated its only serious rival, socialism, ideology is redundant, dead, even a dirty word. So President Bush now says that what was wrong with the Soviet Union was not the nature of its ideology, but the fact that it had one at all.
This is a load of bunk. Capitalism is just as much an ideology as socialism. And as for 'history' coming to an end, even Frances Fukuyama, the US State Department official who dreamed up 'endism', has his doubts. He believes that 'the prospect of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started again'.1
The opinions of technocrats and world leaders get plenty of attention. NI prefers to spend the day with Fred Z - an unremarkable person living through a not particularly eventful day. We see how he's shaping up to the 'new age' ahead, and offer some thoughts of our own.
That's him, there in the centre of our artist's impression of his household. Right now, if you asked him 'what next?' he'd probably say 'the hoovering'.
He lives in a large provincial town with his second partner Beth, their small son Henry, and Alice, his teenage daughter by a previous marriage.
Fred craves meat, smokes but doesn't drink alcohol. Beth works part-time as a physiotherapist at the local hospital and is extremely fit, She is often on a diet and, like young Henry, has a passion for McDonalds hamburgers. Alice is an anti-smoking vegetarian who is already too fond of red wine.
By and large they all get on very well together. It's the kind of household people like to visit and often do. But Fred finds it hard to take a 'line' on anything, from pets to ethical shopping and which TV programme to watch. So he's in a bit of ideological bother even before he steps out of his front door.
He may look a bit feeble to you, but underneath he's a man of principle. He doesn't just mess with ideas. He puts them into practice too. That makes him a busy and slightly battered person. He was once a Hunt Saboteur and still has a dent in his buttocks to prove it.
He's an active trade unionist and a good neighbour. 'Socialistic' rather than socialist, he tells himself he would belong to a political party if he could just find the right one to join.
He doesn't get much time for reflection, and when he does he tends to get depressed. He's an enthusiast. He doesn't just hope for the best in other people - he genuinely believes in it. But he's not above making furtive preparations for the worst.
A faintly comical figure, he fears ridicule above all else. He has the ability to infuriate other people for (to him) no apparent reason at all.
For Fred, solidarity between people is a matter of plain common sense rather than ideological preference. If he has 'style' he doesn't know where it came from or what it is. Only in retrospect does he think he might qualify as a 'new man', a supporter of causes from which he is excluded by his situation - feminism, the Third World, anti-racism, gay rights. So he lives with a lurking fear of exposure as a fraud. He thinks this keeps him on his mettle, but it often leaves him at a loss for the right word.
Amiable and well-liked, he is basically a happy man who gets intense pleasure from his senses every day - from sunlight on his back, the scent of fresh coffee and the company of others. You must not think him ridden with angst just because, for once, he's agreed to discuss with us the things he normally ignores.
But he doesn't even try to ignore a deep, child-like, abiding rage. Poverty, cruelty and injustice literally make him feel sick. He finds himself at odds with a 'world 'order' he thinks of as noisy, dirty, ruthless, cruel, narrow-minded, increasingly uniform and joyless.
He reckons it's only because he loves the world and the people he knows that he hates the prevailing 'world order'. He sees his life as some kind of a preparation for the day when the George Bushes and Margaret Thatchers of this world are dispatched to refine their political beliefs on welfare benefits in an urban slum,
He teaches history at the local state school, He has a passion for the subject and its relevance to contemporary events. His pet topics are the Byzantine Empire and the Crusades, He feels personally vindicated by the demise of all imperial adventures, the defeat of fascism and the disproof of the fundamental tenets of apartheid.
He always thought of the Cold War as a deal between cynical power brokers and military-industrial magnates with money to make from mega-deaths. You can decree an end to the Cold War, but not to the arms manufacturers like Lockhead. How will they live without it'? Where will they turn for new markets? Fred, a child of the Cold War, is uneasy about the future, particularly for his children.
He thinks that great opportunities lie ahead, but vested interests, built on the status quo, are trying to keep them out of reach. He sees the East European revolutions of 1989 as disproving the need for revolutionary violence. They could happen anywhere and very well might. He thinks there's more to 'democracy' than voting for someone else.
He reckons that the politics of mutual extermination could indeed have run their course, and the opportunity to tackle the most pressing issues of the I 990s - poverty and the destruction of the environment - is finally within reach.
But Chinese philosophy (well, the odd book about it, anyway) tells him that great opportunity and great danger are two sides of the same coin. He fears we may fall to disenchantment, bad old habits, national chauvinism, racist frenzy - or 'endism'.
He can sense the options as they come and go, day by day. As he sees it, the Gulf crisis of August 1990 united the United Nations on a major world issue for the first time in its history. But the US (with the UK in tow) shaped up for war with Iraq and steamed off to the Gulf to protect their own interests, saying that they were doing so on behalf of the whole world,
An aid worker in Jordanian refugee camps couldn't get a TV crew from the West interested in tens of thousands of people from the 'Third World' who are about to die from starvation - all the crews were off watching Richard Branson pick up a couple of hundred westerners in one of his Virgin Jumbo Jets. Hundreds of thousands of people from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh. Egypt, right across the 'south' kept Kuwait (and much of the rest of the Gulf) thriving. Few people in the West knew or cared very much if they did. As always, it is the poor who pay the price of conflict - and there can be no end to conflict in a world where the 'have-nots outnumber the 'haves' by four to one,
Fred reckons there's never been a clearer example of what he means. Without a genuine and effective United Nations and a new vision to go with it there is no prospect of a better world order or of identifying and tackling the major world issues. With the United Nations there is at least the opportunity to start, to work together in new ways on issues that really matter,
Such as global warming - and the West using less of the oil that the Gulf crisis is actually all about. Perhaps, he thinks, this has finally brought us to our senses. The prospect of environmental catastrophe has shown us how fragile life is, how interdependent we all are, how difficult it is going to be to find our way out - and how important ideas are going to be in the task of finding it.
Yet he is required to hand over his children's future to the 'non-ideological' market forces he thinks are largely responsible for getting us all into this mess in the first place.
Given this choice, he reckons there's a balance to be tipped, in favour of the opportunities and against the dangers. His ideas are all he has to do it with. And the only way these can make a difference is if he shares them, tests them out, listens to other ideas and looks for ways to put them into practice.
As luck would have it we've chosen a bad day to join him. He's had one of his rare vivid nightmares; the sort that has him lying rigid in bed, blind eyes wide open, yelling 'No! No! No!' at the ceiling, Beth trying grumpily to reassure him and shut him up. It lingers on into the first moments of his wakefulness, leaving him unsure what world he's really in.
Fred has two kinds of nightmare. In one he's in a lift that doesn't stop at the top but keeps going into a world of claustrophobia and vertigo.
In the other, the sort he's just woken from, he becomes an eyewitness to terrible events he's seen on TV. In this way he has lived in Nazi Germany or sat beside a small girl in Vietnam who gazes into the distance with a fixed stare and cries into the silence with a monotonous, elemental shriek. (He has also lived through a revolution and it was hell, but he keeps quiet about that). The nightmare feels quite different from what he's seen on TV - but he thinks it is closer to the truth.
This time he's been wearing protective clothing. Whether it's against poison gas or pollution or radiation he can't say. All he hears is his own breathing and the rustle of the shrouds around him, like flapping bats. He can't touch or smell. He tries to shout but makes no noise. Another shrouded figure comes up to him and rips the clothing off. He's in a white-tiled room.
But prosaic language can't capture or convey the experience. He has to turn to poetry. Waiting for the kettle to boil he grabs a pencil and begins to scribble on the back of an old envelope...
... Then I was taken from that room
I didn't recognize.
They marched me through
the gates to my grandmother's old school
and I found myself in a bare street.
Dust lay on the lintels
and dust filled
bird's prints, typed in the concrete.
There was a sound from inside the houses
of wings dragging in the dust.
I tried walking but was held
by a terror of turning the corner.
There was a shop sign
that said 'Irkalla'.
This somehow held the terror.
The corner turned itself
And I faced three women
in a queue.
I thought I knew them,
gasmasks bubbled on their heads
like mice without ears,
and they were draped
and gloved in black
blown with grey dust.
That dream's own terror
came on me there:
I clapped my ribs
and their deaf heads
were turning from my nakedness.
A cup of coffee in bed for Beth - he always brings her one and fears it would all be over with her if he ever stopped. Bath, shave, teeth, relief, groans, another coffee, Henry's dinner money, where's Alice (was she home when he went to sleep last night?), mail, radio news, feed the cats, wash, dress, briefcase, wake up! Wake up! .
1 This is the concluding sentence of the article 'The End of History' by Francis Fukuyama, which first appeared in The National Interest. Summer 1989.
2 Poem by WN Herbert.
This special report appeared in the what next? utopia or the end of ideology issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.