Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who took the rather wistful view that somewhere in the past, the world took a wrong turn and that most if not all of our troubles would have been avoided if we'd been more in tune with our natural world, and less concerned with material things.
It's a popular viewpoint amongst people who are vaguely communitarian, sort of left-wing, pro-environment, and who freely admit that they don't understand the facts or get too involved in the detail. They are into harmony, peace, the planet, sharing, and are frequently fairly laid-back about things, having adopted a low-impact life-style for themselves.
And whilst all those attitudes are well-meaning and laudable, they rest on an individualist attitude and an opt-out intellectual position, based on a mistaken view of the effectiveness of individual action. In the assumption that the simple collection of individual attitudes and intentional actions represents what actually happens, when something bad happens, it's seen as a failure of that collection of individual actions. It's not so very far from the spin from the Labour Party about everyone wanting and needing choice so they can exercise their democratic rights - a sort of one pound one vote principle.
It leads to notions that consumer pressure can stop multinationals, that petitions can stop supermarkets, that buying ethically can make capitalism more humanitarian. It's childish nonsense.
Let's think a little about saying that the world took a wrong turn some time in the past. Of course, there's nothing specific implied in this since it's absurd to suggest that the world had a collective view or even that if such existed, there was any way of acting it out. Instead what is implied is a nostalgic regret that we didn't know then what we know now.
But in fact, the direction the world took was determined by its history. Individuals made decisions that were within the scope of their own capabilities, so entrepreneurs took decisions to exploit natural resources, new technologies, new techniques, and the industrial revolution resulted. That's not to say there was any conscious choice except to develop industry and the reasons for doing so were mixed. It supplied industrial power for manufacturing which enabled the supply of better materials, better products, and in doing so it provided incomes for those moving from agriculture which was also affected by higher productivity and hence higher unemployment. This combined and uneven development, with economic, political and social consequences, was not the decision of any single group. As Marx showed in considerable testable detail, it was the result of the conflict of interest between classes.
Owners of small companies, then as now, had no choice but to expand. Small companies that don't expand either fold or are taken over - an effect known as the concentration of capital. To expand, they must either find bigger or new markets, or cut costs, or both. For a small business, adopting new technology and increasing productivity is mandatory and is not a choice for the owner. That it results in the mad consequences of capitalism is regarded by business as out of their hands - the iron logic of the market.
Some politicians think these iron laws are unchangeable and we should all bow down before them - Tories for example. Others think we should accept the iron logic of mad competition but try to manage it to get a few crumbs along the way - Labour used to be in this camp, now they've joined the former. But lets get back to this idea of choice.
Did the world take a wrong turn? Is that even possible? We can endlessly entertain ourselves with the idea of alternative histories for the world but given the fact of evolution, life evolved as it needed to. Mutations led to variation which enabled some individuals to get a survival advantage leading them to replicate their genes. Species with the accumulated survival advantages survived and that's what led to the varieties of life we see today. To suggest an alternative development implies a different biology without evolution. Human society developed as a result of evolution - it wasn't a choice for cave men.
So suppose the crucial decisions were down to individuals - did any individual decide to start the information revolution, or more perjoratively global warming? Whilst some individuals certainly have more impact on the world through their decisions than others, they are almost never free to make an unconstrained choice given the roles they perform and the interests they serve. They choose from a narrow range of options.
It's easy to place the blame for major negative world events on individuals alone and to leave out of the picture the intense coercion in place from the economic and political system. Economic and political interests fight very hard to expand their influence and defend themselves against anything that threatens them, regardless of larger issues such as social well-being. That's why thinking about the political and economic detail matters. That's why it's not just simply blaming individuals for their personal failings. Getting someone to be ethical might make a small change - but it leaves the compulsion of the economic system unchanged. That's why we can have the Anita Roddicks of this world, turning ethics into a commodity.
It used to be said in anarchist circles that if everyone stopped believing in governments, they'd all disappear. It's rather like the childish belief that when we shut our eyes no-one can see us. States represent the force required to defend ruling interests and nowadays that includes maintaining institutions that keep opposition down. And it doesn't just go away as the Tibetan monks will attest.
It takes more than everyone thinking pro-environment thoughts to bring about a fundamental change in the way capitalism works so it's not just about persuading people. The ruling interests are not simply going to give up their privilege. As Paul Foot memorably said, it's a bit like asking the ruling class to open their wallets and tell us all "help yourselves"! It just doesn't happen that way.
So did the world go wrong? No. We live in a social system that defends privileged interests against those who produce. There's an economic compulsion to expand production and squeeze the producers and that's what is wrong. For hippies, it's all about peace and love and as long as we keep our eyes shut, the state can't see us. For anyone thinking rationally about this stuff, the detail matters.
We live in an age when preserving the system is the prime political aim of social-democrat politicians, regardless of how much it hurts the producers. They long ago gave up any intention of fundamentally changing how the system works - they are all pro-capitalist and they apologise and disguise what they are doing by nowadays talking about the inevitability of globalisation. They look at famine in Africa, regret the inevitability and turn the page. The hippies just wistfully regret that everyone isn't nicer. Both as bad as each other!