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We need the occasional war or economic collapse

Tom Stacey says that there is a part of man’s collective soul that yearns for tribulations like the financial crisis and the philosophical and spiritual questions they force us to confront

15 December 2008

12:00 AM

15 December 2008

12:00 AM

Tom Stacey says that there is a part of man’s collective soul that yearns for tribulations like the financial crisis and the philosophical and spiritual questions they force us to confront

Amid all the doom and gloom, do you ever get the feeling we had it coming? I do. During all those balmy years of ever-rising property values, non-stop invitations to borrow more, to get-now-and-pay-tomorrow, wasn’t there a little bird telling us it can’t go on like this?

And now that it’s all come to a stop, does anyone else get a whiff of relief, almost gratitude, that the bubble’s burst, we’ve all come back to earth, terra jolly firma, albeit with quite a jolt? I regret to say I do get just such a whiff; and I write ‘regret’ because, personally, I’m not having my house repossessed by the mortgage company and I’m not in danger of losing my job through the collapse of my employers or the downsizing of my company, which is the lot of many a fellow citizen. I don’t want any ancillary whiff of ‘I’m all right, Jack.’

However, if I’m to admit to a yet-further layer to my thinking here, I must do so with a whole lot more caution. For I perceive something in the collective soul of man which from time to time secretly needs the catharsis of economic collapse or war, or even both of those grievous things. And I also perceive that, as that secret need grows in the soul, so is it ineluctably met.

One way or another we get the cathartic catastrophe, the ruthless purge of the shallow motives and inducements we had grown habituated to responding to, and their replacement by certain profounder, more basic incentives: staying alive, fending for those we love, and maybe fighting and even dying for a cause or a country and the half-forgotten principles that define it.

Indeed, any such catharsis involves sacrifice, and often that sacrifice is widespread and devastating. Yet its recurrence seems to me to be a reality of the experience of man. What we get is a kind of one-off, all-in mid-life crisis. Ahead of us looms the awful question we’ve dodged for too long: What’s it all for? The collective response is an instinctive ‘Stop the world. We want to get off.’


I’m not quite saying that these recurring devastations are divine punishment, or that individual men and women are obliged to suffer or be mortally afraid in order to delve the truth of their existence. What I am saying, however, is that when nothing occurs to engender collective cleansing, collective man will induce it. A kind of perverse grace? There is that in us which would see us nullified — stripped, dismantled, laid bare. All at once the human community finds what has long looked like ever-burgeoning prosperity turning into its opposite — recession, depression, meltdown, wipe-out: our manic consumerist expectations, the very engine of our vaunted economy, turned into manifest futility.

Suddenly we’ve invoked deprivation. That credit crunch impending a year ago was involuntarily scanning for its trigger or pretext. This time it was subprime mortgages, 79 years ago it was a hyped-up bull market on Wall Street and vortexing inflation in Germany — and, lo, we’re into slump, into the trough of the Kondratieff cycle.

Nikolai Kondratieff, you may have forgotten, was the precocious young Russian economist who detected peaks and troughs in the functioning of the world’s free market over spans of time of not less than half a century which follow one another willy-nilly. Stalin espoused him up to the 1928 abandonment of the New Economic Policy which Kondratieff had helped to devise, but then had him gulag’d and — in 1938 — shot, not on any specified charge but because he didn’t like anyone thinking for themselves who had any kind of a following.

Poor Nikolai (he was only 46 when he got the bullet) did have a following for the cycle theory, and maybe always has had. First there was the economist Joseph Schumpeter, pre-war, and then Ernest Mandel in the 1960s and 1970s. All such economists postulated social factors at work, complacencies and even arrogance at the peaks and plateaux, alongside the strictly economic. I am tempted to call those factors not so much social as spiritual.

For the current runs really deep here. When the suspicion grows that we’ve been too long living shallow, in just the kind of shallowness induced by the common briberies of democratic politics characteristic of this past decade or so, something happens to make the people live deep: a lot less to spend, no job, a trillion pounds or so of unfunded national debt. In short, a looming, booming abyss. That’s depth.

Just now is a biblical season; and those who are scripturally alert will read into this response of relief something of the third beatitude, by which Jesus named the meek as blessed since they would inherit the earth: those who have learned to expect nothing and are merely glad to live and to love (I para-phrase), contented in the soul and joyful at the sheer gift of creation.

Man has to remind himself, I suggest, that the deeper truth lies outside the negligibility of our ‘little lives rounded with a sleep’, and the attendant scrambling. Hence it seems to me, the broader ‘we’ will be prone to being drawn back periodically not only into slump but sometimes also war, notwithstanding the ever more elaborate destructiveness of it. We have what we like to call our ‘human right’ to life (hence all this health and safety palaver). Yet we must also claim our ‘human right’ to put our life at risk.

On my chosen spiritual plane, I note the founder of Christianity saying (according to Luke) that recognition of his own ‘truth’ would be accompanied by ‘lightning flashes lighting up the sky from one side to another’, two in a bed, with one taken and the other left, and two women grinding meal together, one taken, the other left. And he went on to remind his listeners of the earlier cyclic meltdowns of Hebraic history and mythology, Noah’s flood and the end of Sodom.

There’s this in man, or man’s righteousness, that chooses to blow the whistle on his own vanity. The most ancient of philosophers, Heraclitus, wrote of the ‘cleansing’ effect of periodic warfare. Even St Augustine wrote of the occasional requirement of the ‘just war’ — that risk, that sacrifice, that catharsis, and beyond catharsis, kenosis, emptying.

It’s the way it goes. There comes the call to battle. The suicide rate plummets. Hearts aglow, men clamour to enlist, and many do not return.

When Louis XV of France, nearly three quarters of the way through the 18th century, remarked, ‘Après moi, le déluge’, I guess he was half invoking what was to happen. Heaven knows he was right. His own son and heir, and all the self-serving panoply of the court and its rituals, were soon to be swept away in the frenzied, cathartic revolution. Louis père was hearkening to his inner ear.

Of course we hope it’s not to be déluge. Yet whether this is to be recession or slump, I’m bound to say my heart already hears a voice it needs to hear at least this once — that of the royal teacher, ‘son of David’, who opened his pivotal book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity. What profit hath Man of all his labour?’


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