Friday, August 03, 2007

The Shape of Things To Come

This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website today.

I'm really pleased I've already visited Prague. I wouldn't advise any sane person to go now. To savour its "atmosphere", you can save money on your flight ticket and just wander down any British high street on a Friday or Saturday night. But one good thing may come of the influx of British lager louts to the Czech capital: at least the Czechs will know what sort of charming, intelligent and well-mannered people dumbed-down turbo-capitalism produces, and, hopefully, change their present economic course.

As the social pyschologist Erich Fromm observed, every society produces the social character it needs.
Early, Calvinistic capitalism produced the "hoarding character", who hoards possessions and feelings - the classic Victorian man of property.
The priority of the eastern European countries, under socialism, was different. "There can be no socialism without culture - without the culture of the masses," proclaimed the Hungarian Communist party's chief intellectual and ideologist, Gyorgy Aczel, in 1973. It was a philosophy that underpinned the policies of the other countries in the eastern bloc, too.

The higher general level of education and the consequential higher standards of behaviour in public places in Hungary became immediately apparent to me when I went to live there in the mid-1990s. I regularly travelled home on the late-night buses in Budapest, which operated after the tram system shut down at around midnight. The buses were packed full of young people going home after a night out, yet in five years I never once witnessed any rowdiness or aggression. Instead, some people slept, but many also read.
Hungary was a nation of voracious readers. Every flat or house I was ever invited to had an extensive library. It wasn't hard to be a bibliophile as, under communism, book publishing was heavily subsidised. I forget the number of times I was asked my opinion on the works of Huxley, Maugham or Graham Greene during my time in Hungary. It was often the very first question people asked me after hearing I was British.
Yet, while education was communism's greatest achievement, it was also, as Mikhail Gorbachev conceded, its achilles heel. The high general level of education throughout the socialist bloc meant people were able to develop a critical faculty, which was then used to question the system. It is a great irony that intellectuals led the challenge to communism: the very fact that there were so many intellectuals, and such an air of intellectualism in society at large, was a direct consequence of the fact that the society set such a high store on education.

There's little chance of today's turbo-capitalism making the same "mistake".

What turbo-capitalism wants is not a cultured, well-educated working class whose members read Huxley, play chess and debate political issues, but materialistic, under-educated consumers: people who will unleash their frustrations at living such unfulfilled, alienated lives not through anti-capitalist agitation and questioning the structure of society but by getting "smashed" each and every weekend.
As long as the new working class can adequately carry out their jobs, and buy the consumer goods that Nazi-style marketing techniques brainwash them into believing they must possess, turbo-capitalism is content. Concepts such as culture, education, and behaving well in public places do not come into it.

The generation of eastern Europeans now in their late 20s and early 30s will be the last to ask, when visiting a new city for the first time, for directions to the museum or art gallery. The next generation, brought up under turbo-capitalism, will simply ask: "Where's the shopping mall?"

The Czechs - and, indeed, all the countries of eastern Europe that play host to British stag - and hen parties - are having a glimpse into the future, seeing what sort of people their societies will be mass producing in a few years' time, if they follow the same economic path. It's not an edifying sight.

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