Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Making sense of senseless

If there is one word that should be removed from the dictionary, especially the dictionary used by news organisation headline writers, it is "senseless". I seem to have heard this word constantly throughout this summer, often prefixing "violence", but also attached to decisions made by referendum voters in the United Kingdom: the "senseless violence" of terrorist attacks in France, of the murder of white police officers in the United States, the "senseless decision" to leave the European Union.

My problem with the word is that there is a sense to everything. Nothing in a system involving the behaviour of human beings happens spontaneously; all you have to do is to look for the reason. Now that is, of course, something which certain sectors of the media do not want to do. It may be that the reasons are too opaque or complex for their readership or viewers, or may be these reasons do not suit the political perspective that the particular news organ is trying to push.

Stafford Beer once wrote that the purpose of a system is what it does. We all operate in systems, so one way to make sense of behaviour is to think about the system within which people operate. Now, there are many different systems that we could discuss, but one that concerns me is the global economic system which has prevailed for the last 30 years: neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has been sold by its supporters as the most effective way to generate economic growth and wealth. And arguably it has succeeded in some respects, but there is also the argument that it has contributed to rising levels of inequality within countries around the world and between countries.  In addition, technologies which make other people's lifestyles more visible may be helping to create a perfect storm where people are increasingly becoming less well off than others and being much more aware of this. A situation which has the potential to explode.

And maybe this summer we are starting to see this explosion. For several years the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has spawned terrorist attacks around the world. While western headline writers like to describe these as "senseless", within the mind of the Salafist-Jihadi there is an innate logic and purpose to it: neoliberalism has contributed to the oppression of the Islamic world. The Black Lives Matter campaign has drawn attention to racial tensions in the United States, and individuals taking the law into their own hands by shooting white police officers see an intrinsic logic in this: neoliberalism has seen my people increasingly pushed to the bottom of the pile and excluded from the freedom and liberties which my country tells me I should have. Demographic analyses of the United Kingdom's electorate's decision to leave the European Union show that those areas of the country which have suffered the most economically in the last 30 years were the most likely to vote "Leave": neoliberalism has benefited a small sector of the British population, particularly those in the affluent south while the post-industrial north has been left to stagnate.

Perhaps the dynamics of the neoliberal system are now starting to generate the backlash, and people who have not benefited from the system are rising up to show that they are not prepared to take any more. So, going back to Stafford Beer's observation, what is the purpose of the neoliberal system? If it is to extract wealth from the majority for the benefit of a small minority it has succeeded extremely well. But maybe its time is up.

Let us put the word "senseless" in the bin, and start to take a more systemic look at what is going on around us in the world.

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