In theory – and without too much difficulty – everyone who is liable to be born on to this Earth could be well fed, humanity could at peace, the natural world could be flourishing, and at least a fair proportion of our fellow creatures could and should be looking forward to a long and glorious future — the next million years for starters. In practice, as all the world knows, although some choose to deny it (fake news!), we and the natural world are staring Armageddon in the face.
I suggest that one prime and universal cause of all the world’s ills which doesn’t get properly aired is the sheer awfulness of governments worldwide and especially of the world’s leaders – including many whom we, people at large, have more or less freely elected. Truly dreadful governance – incompetent, morally bereft, corrupt, and often just plain wicked – should be added to the list of ills that now are so obvious to all but the wilfully blind – global warming, mass extinction, malnutrition, injustice, including or especially the vast and growing gap between rich and poor, and of course perpetual strife (racism, sexism, the injustices of social class, war). Indeed it’s a double-whammy. Bad and vicious governance is a menace in its own right and also makes it difficult or impossible to solve any of our real problems, of global warming and mass extinction and inequality and all the rest. The wrong people are thinking about the wrong things and despite lip service to democracy and some attempts to achieve it, most of us don’t get a look in.
All this raises more questions. Why do whole societies of people, millions of them, so often allow one extremely unpleasant and obviously deranged individual and his cronies to rule over them, often driving them in directions that most of them in quiet moments must find repellent? Why, even when we do have a vote, do we elect so many ghastly people? And why do billions and billions of us put up with such bad governments, whether elected or not? Why does the vast majority allow itself to be dominated by individuals who are rarely up to the task, are not always well-intentioned and sometimes by all reasonable standards are positively evil? Of course, all regimes rely in the end on their police and military, and the nastiest regimes tend to have the nastiest cops and soldiers. But cops and soldiers for the most part are ordinary people — mostly men but sometimes women or even children too — and why do ordinary people take arms against people who really are just like themselves in defence of thugs or otherwise elevated people who wouldn’t normally give them the time of day?
The UK’s present government, taken over its whole 13-year span, is surely the worst in our history – which is saying quite a lot. Brexit, of which our leaders still claim to be inordinately proud, is very obviously an open-and-shut disaster. Quite a few of the leading figures since the Tories came to power have been incompetent beyond satire, as many a satirist has lamented. Some – many? – have to various degrees been corrupt – sometimes so much so that even the Tory party has noticed and sometimes has even taken action.
And although the UK is the fifth richest country in the world (behind the US, China. Japan, and Germany, but one ahead of France), with an ever-expanding shortlist of resident or non-dom billionaires, most Brits grow steadily poorer with worse to come. All the occupations and services that make life agreeable or indeed possible are in crisis. The natural world matters too of course, and the state of our wildlife is widely agreed to be a “catastrophe”.
But the Tories put the blame for all this on (a) Jeremy Corbyn and left-wing detractors and action groups in general; (b), covid; (c) Putin; and (d) the failure of the world’s economies as a whole to “grow” at the required pace. Oh – and we mustn’t forget global warming, although we have been told many a time and oft, with breathtaking mendacity, that we, Britain, are leading the “war” against it. The response from our governments over the past 12 years including or especially Rishi Sunak’s has been to sub-contract: to refer our difficulties to ad hoc think-tanks – ostensibly “independent” although appointed and presumably briefed by government; and/or to offload our problems on to private companies (“Leave it to the corporates!” is how Prof Tim Lang summarised Britain’s food strategy). Accordingly, at least up to the time of writing (early January 2023), the government has refused to discuss the serious issues at all with any degree of seriousness (including, say, nurses’ pay). Yet the government members still draw their salaries and expenses (or at least I have heard nothing to the contrary).
Perhaps we Brits should be grateful, though, for in much of the world the leadership is even worse. Putin by any reasonable standards is insane. Xi Zinping persecutes his own people and although China already seems too big to manage he clearly has ambitions well beyond his own borders. Kim Jong-Un lives in his own world. Bolsonaro lost the latest election in Brazil but still lurks like a spider in Florida, alongside his pal Trump. Netanyahu has returned to rule Israel and plague Palestine. Assad never went away. Modi is a right-wing Hindu chauvinist in a country that has more than 200 million Muslims – only Indonesia and Pakistan has more. Iran hangs whoever dares to question the wisdom of its rulers. Myanmar under Min Aung Hlaing is too sad and desperate for words. Of the 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than 10 are considered to be “free”. And so on.
So what’s gone wrong?
The reasons we allow such vile and/or inadequate people to dominate our lives are surely infinitely complex, but here is a shortlist of what seem to me to be contributory factors:
1: Leaders seem to be necessary but leadership is very difficult and very few people have what it takes.
To be fair to all those well-meaning leaders who fall short of what’s needed but aren’t actually wicked, we should acknowledge that good leadership is innately, immensely difficult. It requires intelligence (though not necessarily a dazzlingly high IQ), conscientiousness, stamina, an eye for detail, and the reconciliation of apparent opposites. In particular, the ideal leader should be humble and compassionate and yet ambitious and sometimes ruthless enough to attain power. Personal charisma helps too. Charm is an immense asset. Mussolini was a very affable host and Stalin was positively avuncular.
Perhaps what matters most of all, though, is management of people. All leaders need competent and simpatico supporters who they can trust and to whom they can delegate – but it’s hard to find the right ones. Those with true ability and creativity are always liable to question the leader and make life difficult, and are wont to gang up and stage a coup (a prime theme of Shakespeare’s history plays). Hitler solved that particular problem by assembling a gang of seriously unpleasant and ruthless but nonetheless talented allies who hated each other, and he nurtured their mutual loathing so they wouldn’t gang up against him. Weak and lazy leaders choose mediocre supporters who know they owe their position in life to the leader’s beneficence and are content to be nodding dogs. Not a ministry of all the talents as envisaged by Prime Minister William Grenville in the early 19th century but an assemblage of mediocrities. Not really what’s needed at all.
Abraham Lincoln is or was one of the few who seemed to have all the necessary qualities. He certainly had charisma. He had a face like a pagan god and was immensely tall – a whisker short of 6’4” at a time when the average Englishman was around 5’ 5”. In his stove-pipe hat he was a veritable giant. He was also a sharp lawyer with a fine line in rhetoric though he pretended for PR purposes to be a backwoodsman. Back in England his near contemporary William Gladstone also had enormous presence. He had the looks of the archetypal Victorian patriarch, radiated moral probity, and outclassed nearly everybody else in intellect and scholarship. Such presence is not vital, however – or wasn’t, before the age of television. Clement Attlee was a weed, yet kept control of a cabinet that included talents and egos as diverse and clamorous as Bevin and Morrison, Bevan, and, later, Gaitskell. All memorable. All immensely able. In truth there are still many excellent people in parliament, men and women, although those that seem most admirable rarely seem to make it right to the top.
Yet there are traps all around. As the statesman and historian Lord Acton observed at the end of the 19th century, “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. And as they say in backwoods America, “Ain’t that a fact?”
2: The people who want to be leaders are often just after the power and the kudos.
The greatest problem, though, is logistic. Most people, including most of the most talented and conscientious people, just don’t want to be leaders – except perhaps of something that really matters to them and they know they can manage. Many head teachers are brilliant. So is many a ward sister. But leadership in general is a specialist pursuit and most of us have other things we’d rather do.
Ours, though, is the age of the professional politician. Some, perhaps most, choose politics as a career because they really do want to make the world a better place. Others, though, are simply attracted to power and the possibility of great wealth: the general deference; the receptions and the ceremonies; the subsidised restaurants and the ministerial car; with the ever-welcoming revolving door into the corporate and financial worlds, a haven in retirement and an escape hatch along the way. In some societies politics is seen, quite openly, as a way to fill the boots. Ideology is an add-on. But those who crave power for its own sake are the most likely to become powerful, simply because they try harder than most of us to achieve it. Yet the people who seek primarily to be powerful and to look down on the rest of us from a commanding height are not the kind of people who ought to be in charge – not, that is, if we truly wish to create a convivial and thriving world. As Jesus said, according to St Mark (10:42-44), “ … whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all”. Most people in the top jobs worldwide don’t seem to think like that.
Finally, some over-ambitious politicians like the Thatcher-wannabe Liz Truss and the University Challenge star Kwasi Kwarteng find when they do get to power that there is more to the job than they expected and that some of the people who thrust them into the hot seats were chancers with their own agendas who didn’t necessarily expect them to succeed but saw an opportunity anyway. As Machiavelli pointed out in the early 16th century, cynicism has no depths.
Again, though, we do sometimes find great leaders who are tough enough to take charge yet and retain their humanity and humility. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu (known to his friends and followers as “Arch”) and the present Dalai Lama come to mind. But they are rare indeed.
3: We are primates. We like strong leaders.
Emphatically I do not believe (and I don’t know any modern biologist who does) that everything we do is “determined” by our genes. I do think it’s obvious that our genes – our evolution – has a strong influence on our behaviour. Thus, most of us don’t sniff lampposts when we go for a walk not because our mums told us not to, or we can’t be bothered to bend down, but because we aren’t dogs, and we don’t have doggy genes, and it never occurs to us to track our fellow humans by sniffing their spoor, and if it did we probably wouldn’t get much out of it.
Similarly, I reckon, one powerful reason why we elect or put up with strong men and sometimes women in charge, even when they are obviously inept or even evil, is because we are primates and most though not quite all primates in the wild go around in groups and those groups rely for their survival on strong leaders. In truth, primate societies are immensely various – from monogamous pairs as in gibbons, to menages a trois as in some marmosets, to vast gangs as in some macaques and baboons. In most but not all groupings including gorillas and chimps, our fellow great apes, an alpha male is in charge. Clearly there’s survival value in these arrangements or they wouldn’t happen — but as Jane Goodall has pointed out, in chimp societies at least there are good leaders (caring and generous) and bad leaders (short-tempered and vicious).
I suggest that human beings have inherited the primate predilection for strong leadership, as ‘twere come what may. It is built into our biology. Thus I have heard Americans say, in the time of George W Bush, “My president right or wrong!” Such an attitude surely would go a long way to explaining why so many good Germans followed Hitler and so many good Russians seem to put up with Putin and so on and so on. Loyalty is a virtue only up to a point.
Yet all is not simple in primate societies. For as my primatological friend Jennifer Scott discovered when she studied gorillas for her PhD, if an alpha male oversteps the mark – loses his temper or punishes one of the group unfairly – then, huge and all-powerful though he is, the alpha females will send him to Coventry until he mends his ways. Similarly, Rachel Hevesi, director of Wild Futures, reports that when she ran the Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall the woolly monkeys chose a handsome and energetic young male to be their leader – but when he abused his position by bullying a baby he immediately lost all authority. He was replaced by a less charismatic but far nicer young male who was altogether more level-headed. All this is in line with the American Declaration of Independence, published in 1776, which tells us that governments are supposed to look after the people and —
“ … whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”.
We might learn a lot from gorillas and woolly monkeys.
4: Democracy is better – but democracy is v hard
Democracy is surely better than autocracy. It seems fairer – we surely should have more control of our own affairs — and, one feels, the collective wisdom of humanity ought to outweigh the cogitations and whims of individuals. But democracy is difficult. It has taken many forms, and few societies bigger than a gardening club have ever managed to be truly democratic. It doesn’t work as it should if the mechanisms are not appropriate (first past the post, PR, or something different from either?). Whatever the system, we typically find when we come to vote that it’s Hobson’s choice – “stale trifle or sweaty cheddar” as the cartoonist Wally Fawkes aka Trog once put the matter. The main contenders in the 2019 UK election were Boris and Jeremy Corbyn.
Democracy cannot work either if people do not understand what’s going on. The Brexit referendum of 2016 illustrates this perfectly. But you can’t understand if you don’t take an interest, and that takes time and effort, and as Oscar Wilde commented, “democracy takes up too many evenings”. We tend too to rely on our favoured texts to tell us what’s what – the Telegraph, Sun, Express or Mail versus the Guardian, Observer, and Mirror. These days, though, I am reliably informed, most people get most of their knowledge either from each other or from the social media. Formal education doesn’t help as much as it should. Economics courses in the world’s most prestigious centres of learning tend to nudge students towards neoliberalism. And biology seems increasingly to mean biotech.
5: We don’t believe in ourselves
For democracy to work, too, we need to believe in ourselves — to be confident that we could indeed cope if we had more power and responsibility. We also need to believe in our own and other people’s good will. We have to trust each other. But philosophers ever since Plato have been queuing up to tell us that we human beings are a feckless lot, incorrigibly self-centred, and ever-ready (as Machiavelli argued) to put the boot in if it brings advantage. The extremely influential philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously observed in the 17th century that unless we had strong and moralistic people in charge – Plato thought they should be philosophers – then we would all be at each other’s throats and that life for most us would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
I suggest that at least as much evidence suggests the complete opposite. At least when disaster strikes people rally to the cause. While Putin attacks Ukraine in what seems like a gratuitous act of braggadocio and viciousness, dragging his bewildered troops in his wake, the Ukrainian people themselves are showing enormous courage of course but also compassion, as people risk their own lives to help others. When the chips are down what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature” come to the surface – which shows that the better angels are very definitely present, waiting to be called upon. I reckon that all political and religious leaders should strive above all to enable and encourage the better angels of nature to come to the fore as a matter of course, and not just when the bombs are falling. But it suits governments and some kinds of religious leaders to tell us we’re a bad lot. It gives them an excuse to take charge and pretend that this is in our interest.
6: Morality is what matters most
In truth, although it’s essential to install an appropriate economy and sound governance, that is not the end of the story. What really counts is the underlying morality, centred above all on compassion, humility, and a sense of oneness with the natural world. If the moral base is strong then almost any economic or political system could operate in the world’s best interests. It is easy to make a strong moral case for Toryism or for Communism as has often been done. But neither can work if the underlying morality is not one of compassion, and lacks humility.
But I stress almost any economic or political system. Fascism for example is rooted in the idea that some individuals or groups are innately superior to others and that the favoured ones have a right and even a duty to dominate the rest, or indeed to sweep them aside if they get in the way. Those in the ascendant may feel a tremendous sense of triumph and camaraderie, at least with each other. But their philosophy nonetheless seems innately vile.
Neoliberals subvert this whole line of argument by insisting that economics should have no preconceived morality at all. Let the market be the moral arbiter, they say. What people will buy is deemed to be good, and what they choose to leave on the metaphorical shelves is ipso facto bad. The market succeeds only by satisfying people’s desires, as reflected in what they choose to buy – and so, the neolibs maintain, the market is the ultimate mechanism of democracy. But, they say, the market cannot work as it should unless it is free to do so. Outside interference from some outside moral body, government or otherwise, is anti-democratic and an assault on freedom itself. It turns out, though, after 40 years or so of neoliberal dominance, that the unfettered, “free” market, dominated as is inevitable by whoever is richest and most ruthless, is in reality at least as destructive as any invading army and probably far more so. For the value of everything including human wellbeing and the natural world is ranked according to price. What are commonly called “human values” including the bedrock principles of morality are deemed to be obsolete, defunct, and are off the table.
Indeed the neoliberal mindset is probably the main obstacle to our efforts, or the efforts at least of some people, to create a kinder and safer world. But it does make rich people richer and very rich people are powerful enough to sway governments and shape elections and even to lever their own supporters into government. Thus many of the people who now have most power in the world do not have our own interests at heart, and are content to regard the natural world as a “resource” and as real estate, lumped together as “natural capital”, to be manipulated according to the dictats of the neoliberal “free” market. These stooges “govern” only in the sense that they have power over our lives. They are beholden to their sponsors, their patrons, and have not real concern for people at large and still less for the natural world.
7: Agriculture has been sidelined
If we really wanted to create a world that was agreeable and secure we would, I suggest, focus all our efforts on agriculture. Agriculture sits right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and non-human. If we did it well we could all be well fed and our fellow creatures could sleep easy in their respective dens. If we farm inappropriately then we’ve all had our chips. If we don’t produce enough good food sustainably or distribute it fairly then people are malnourished and many starve, as is the case already, and if farming is not wildlife friendly then the cause of wildlife conservation is at least seriously compromised if not dead in the water, as again is already evident.
So governments that acknowledged the real problems of the world and seriously wanted to solve them would take agriculture very seriously, with the focus on agroecology. But governments like ours in industrial countries don’t take it seriously. However it may dress up its present policies, deep our down our government sees farming simply as “a business like any other”, and in neoliberal vein sees business simply as a way of making money, and is content to follow the guidelines of US agriculture supremo Earl Butz from the 1950s to the late ‘60s, who told farmers to “Get big or get out”. Agriculture in Britain is governed by Defra – the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. Thus biosphere becomes “environment” and agriculture is just another “rural affair” along with golf, tourism, and the traditional huntin’, shootin’, and fishin’. Agricultural research has become a subset of corporate-sponsored biotech, within the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. For the most part, these past 40 years, Secretaries of State for Defra have either been old lags put out to grass, like Margaret Beckett or Owen Patterson, or young bloods supposedly on their way to supposedly better things, like David Miliband (who in truth was one of the best) or Liz Truss (who told Britain’s farmers to raise more pigs to sell to the Chinese). Now we have Thérèse Coffey who knows nothing of agriculture and, I’m told, cares less.
So it is that agricultural strategy in Britain these past N years has not been designed primarily to produce good food for everyone and to keep the natural world in good shape. Instead it has been led by the economy – which for the past 40 years has been shaped by the doctrine of neoliberalism. The kind of agriculture that results – high-input monocultures on the biggest possible scale – in structure and in much of its practice is precisely opposite to the requirements of agroecology and food sovereignty. In other words, governments are as bad as they are partly or largely because key administrative posts are allocated not in accord with what’s really needed but with what seems politically expedient at the time.
What’s to be done?
It seems to me that all attempts to analyse the world’s ills and suggest ways forward lead us back to the central point of this website: that we need nothing less than a Renaissance – to re-think everything from first principles and re-structure accordingly. Difficult though democracy undoubtedly is, the Renaissance has to be led and driven by us, people at large. And in practice we need to build the Renaissance around food and farming, beginning with small, agroecological enterprises wherever it is possible to set them up and increasing their numbers till they become the norm.
Help from government via the law and the money we pay in taxes would of course be helpful, but if governments don’t play ball, as they seem disinclined to do, we just have to go ahead anyway, roughly in the style advocated by Mahatma Gandhi as he sought to extirpate the British. Even so, life would be a great deal easier if we could install a government that really was on side. So far, however, very few if any of the 193 countries in the United Nations have managed to do this.
Perhaps if we can truly understand why good governance is so rare and why at the moment it is particularly awful that might help us to do better.