Simon Jenkins: In Post-Brexit Britain Optimism Should Become A Strategy

  • Date: 01/09/16
  • Simon Jenkins, The Guardian

Optimism’s trump card is the past and present. It is facts. These too can lie, but those who say so must prove it.

Eva Bee illustration on optimism

If I had my way, the new year would start tomorrow. After the purgatory of August as the nation’s holiday, autumnal September is when we return to work, supposedly regenerated. Plans, budgets, accounts and the statistical year should begin then. September, not cheerless January, should be the month of new resolutions.

September is my month for optimism. Last summer I enjoyed reading Yuval Noah Harari’s rollercoaster panoptic on the rise of the planet’s superheroes, Sapiens. This summer I did not enjoy his gloomy follow-up, Homo Deus. It is a classic of worst-case futurology. The digital revolution is so sexy and potent, Harari predicts, that we simply cannot resist its downside. Gene science and robotics will lead to subservience to the “techno-religions” of Silicon Valley, with different classes of humans and the brain of most ordinary humans reduced to obsolescence. To Harari we are doomed – pending more research.

Any fool can extrapolate the present. As the headline writer knows, anything “could” happen. But I doubt this one. The school subject that should be compulsory is not maths but history. During the 1840s railway boom, alarmists said 600 projected railways would invade every village in the land in a mania of steam. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through Arnold Toynbee, HG Wells and Aldous Huxley, each human advance is accompanied by forecasts of disaster. In the 1960s, Paul Ehrlich shatteringly declared “the population bomb” would lead to mass starvation by the end of the 1970s. He was supported by Barry Commoner and his thesis of an imminent “closing circle” of ecological suicide.

As recently as 10 years ago, James Lovelock, scientism’s revivalist preacher, warned of “the revenge of Gaia” against our worship of combustion. “It could now be our auto da fé, and the cause of our extinction,” he declared. All these books make much use of the word “could”. They also add that it is “not too late” – usually pending their next bestseller.

More appealing was my other summer reading, Johan Norberg’s Progress. It looks not at what “could” happen but at what “has” happened. Norberg is a prophet of anti-pessimism. He is shocked by a 2015 YouGov poll that found 71% of Britons convinced “the world is getting worse”, against just 5% who said it was getting better. More than half thought world poverty was rising, against 10% who thought it falling. It was the same in the US.

Norberg points out that every index of global improvement – measuring starvation, poverty, child mortality, literacy, women’s education, democracy, violence, death in war – shows a steady upward graph. It is easy to retort, “But what about Syria and the Congo?” When an argument is general, the objection must be general.

What exercises Norberg is that progress deniers risk generating what he calls “nativist backlash”. To him, “When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain.” Misinformed about the improving state of the world, people wander about under a cloud of superstition and fear. They soon accept the authoritarian “curtailment of the freedom and openness that progress depends on”. They vote for Ukip and Trump.

The politics of fear has become the default mode of democratic politics. The desensitising word crisis is applied to any and every problem. The chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff can “personally attest … that the world is more dangerous than it has ever been”. He had no evidence, just a budget to defend. Most of us belong to a tribe, with tribal interests at stake. The left seizes on evidence of inequality, ignoring absolute prosperity. The right seizes on moral degeneracy, with the philosopher John Gray warning of “the approaching end of civilisation”.

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