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Blogs - short snappy pieces, often topical, sometimes informal

Predictive text gives me ‘tropism’ when I type ‘Trumpism’. Maybe my computer is more intelligent than I know!

PHvirus2.jpgWhilst tropism is commonly used to refer to the movement of plants towards sources of light it also refers to the way in which viruses/pathogens evolve to target specific hosts. If the virus can gain entry to the susceptible cell then infection will follow. One of the commonest methods of gaining entry is called endocytosis where the virus tricks the cell into thinking that it is harmless or even nutritious. How well this seems to capture the relationship between the authoritarian populist and ‘the people’.

We have a viral infection spreading rapidly across western democracies right now. It’s carriers include Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Orban, Wilders and other authoritarian nationalists waiting to take the stage. We’ve been here before. In his book The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawn surveyed the collapse of one European democracy after another (17 altogether) between 1918 and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Over 60 years ago the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion noted that our closest human relationships can take this viral form, one he referred to as ‘parasitic’. He was thinking specifically of relations between people and/or people and ideas. Seductive ideas that end up sucking the liveliness out of us Bion terms ‘lies’. In contrast he sees ‘truths’ as giving nourishment to the mind (like light they are sources of life). When we are faced by difficult truths we are susceptible to lies (and liars). In the realm of climate change we’ve known of this problem in facing difficult or inconvenient truths for at least a couple of decades. We now have a gang of liars about to take over the White House.

There are at least three different kinds of lie and liar. The liar may not believe in the lie himself, he may wield it cynically in his exercise of power. This is typical of authoritarian leaders such as Putin and Trump who believe in little beyond the pleasure of the flex. Alternatively the liar may be self-deceiving; the lie is embraced because it serves to protect the liar’s sense of integrity. Then, having deceived himself he then sets out to deceive his audience. One thinks of Tony Blair. Finally the lie may be an idea adhered to rigidly for the salvation it brings, saving the bearer from meaninglessness and humiliation, and this takes us to the fundamentalist’s fervid embrace of a particular kind of lie, that is, the religious or other ideal.

Within what might be called the climate psychology community we were coming round to the idea that outright denial of the vast volume of scientific evidence was no longer the main problem we were up against. We’d begun to believe that the main problem was what we called ‘disavowal’. Here reality was accepted but in a way which was split off from the feelings that should accompany this acceptance. So the fact of human induced climate change was understood but there was a failure to be sufficiently moved or disturbed by it. This was something we all do to a greater or lesser extent, often as a way of avoiding anxiety or despair. But the new authoritarians, outright climate deniers to a man (and they are nearly all white men), force us to reconsider this increasing emphasis on disavowal.

We need to understand as clearly as we can what we are now up against. Consider Trump. What is striking is the way in which he has packed his senior team with executives from oil companies and banks like Goldman Sachs. These people are not ‘flat earthers’ from the Tea Party, they know exactly what they are doing. All the major oil companies have a developed capability for long term planning, looking decades into the future, a capability that involves both permanent staffers and invited experts. Their future scenarios take full account of the dystopian possibilities before us, possibilities that their actions are directly responsible for and which they seek to anticipate in terms of the risks posed to the continued viability of their business.

To say that these new authoritarians are self-interested understates their willingness to serve their own pleasure at the expense of the general good. To give an example, we know that the proposed new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson the former CEO of ExxonMobil, is a close friend of Putin’s right hand man, Igor Sechin the head of Rosneft the Russian state oil company. The joint venture of their companies in the Kara Sea, hit in 2014 by US sanctions over Russia’s invasion of the Crimea, will no doubt now get the green light and be the prelude to an attempted carve up of the Arctic as global warming makes its untapped fossil based resources accessible.

We have to understand the cynicism that characterizes this new generation of authoritarians. The cynic views all human virtues with suspicion, sees hypocrisy everywhere and has nothing but derision for liberal bleeding hearts. Because the person who tries to live their life according to moral precepts will inevitably fall short (i.e. moral failure is intrinsic to being human) the true cynic holds that anyone who is not amoral like himself is necessarily a hypocrite. The cynic takes his own state of de-moralization both as a human universal and as a strength. Ideals are for the weak minded, the strong don’t require such consoling illusions, not even the nationalist illusions that these authoritarians so freely peddle. The cynic has no faith, particularly no faith in human goodness. Is it better to be loved or feared? The cynic chooses fear every time and he says this is ‘realism’.

The new authoritarians stand the aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ on its head. In their hands ‘power defines truth’, might is right. This is the post-truth world in which all independent expertise risks becoming fixed by the prefix ‘so-called’. We know exactly what to expect. As Clive Hamilton noted in his contribution to Sally Weintrobe’s book Engaging with Climate Change, Einstein’s theory of relativity was attacked in an analogous way in Weimar Germany where it was seen as a threat to the conservative cultural order just as today, particularly in the USA, belief in climate change is seen as just one more facet of a liberal elitist political correctness. Climate science will no doubt be attacked because much of it is undertaken with the support of government research grants, support which will be cynically framed as undermining rather than guaranteeing its independence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be attacked as a stooge of the United Nations, which will itself be construed as a stalking horse for unnamed anti-American interests. Fair is foul, white is black, ignorance is strength…this is Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I hope I’m wrong but my hunch is that war has recently been declared on compassion and reason. If this indeed turns out to be the case then our response needs to be commensurate to the threat. The time to be reasonable in defence of reason and careful in defence of care may have passed.