Letter from the Editor-in-chief

(The Global Crisis in Confidence, 26 Jul 2012)

Sarang Shah ·

Telling the story of who we are and where we are going is daunting. “Current affairs”, with its ever-expanding cast and byzantine networks of relationships, is the longest-running, most difficult soap opera to describe.

Why are we interested in telling a story anyway? Stories capture the factual and emotional core of an issue in a way that a mere description or scholarly treatise often cannot. Since a story is told by a speaker to a listener, a story must hold the listener’s attention and provoke the listener’s imagination. Stories condense vast realms of knowledge and understanding into a comprehensive fragment of the human experience.

However, telling a story requires a panoramic vista. It requires several long uncomfortable struggles: first with oneself, then with friends and enemies, finally with critics and admirers. Most importantly, telling a story requires a probing exploration of our collective underlying assumptions — the pursuit of which can lead to prolonged isolated retreats into the intellectual wilderness.

We start our story, as many Millennials would, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the USSR. The fall of communism’s greatest remaining beachhead seemed to lead many to declare liberal capitalist democracy as the victor in the great 20th century materialist war. We felt secure in shared victory.

This sense of triumph persisted through the early 2000s, significantly affecting the West’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. While these attacks paled in comparison to other horrors in the global historical scope of miseries, they were a blow to a sense of pervasive physical security in the West. The West responded with fear and largely retaliated by force.

Although our sense of physical security was shaken, we still enjoyed a feeling of economic security until the housing bubble burst in 2007. The bubble had long obscured a system of financial tools, subversive social practices, and systemic deception, greed, and ignorance that threatened to damage society far more than any speculative bubble. Poor public policy from 2008 to the present day has exacerbated unemployment and limited recovery and debt repayment in the UK, the US, and Europe. Governments have adopted austerity measures that deterioriate the ties between the state and the individual.

The general decline in opportunity and the sudden transparency of once-submerged inequalities has spawned several emotional protest movements, from the Indignados in Spain to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in America. Meanwhile, the social consequence of a state in which opportunities for political expression are both explicitly and implicitly limited are readily seen in Egypt and other states of the Arab uprisings.

We have lost our sense of physical and economic security. We have lost our sense of security of identity and value as economically motivated immigration and emigration have dispersed us around the world. We have even lost our sense of political security, a belief that we have an influence over the functioning of our democracies.

So, what are some of the common trends among these and other world events over the past few decades?

The trust and cooperation that were once the gravitational bonds that attracted people into stable capitalist systems are eroding away. Rather than re-evaluate these bonds and the system they create, the narrative of capitalistic victory has stubbornly committed to re-deriving morality from markets rather than basing markets on shared non-material values.

Instead of speaking directly of political and ethical values, we are now occupied by the cold, technical, scientific language of modern economics — of a dehumanising Hobbesian view of humankind that defrauds it of its heritage and its instinctual capacity for empathy. Many who do deploy a values-based language, such as the religious right-wing, often do so superficially. They are more interested in imposing their values on others and using professions of these values as commoditised signifiers than in a public values-based debate. In nearly any case, an economic quantitative view is the ultimate arbiter.

We are fearful not of the truth, but of developing and defending an idea. The alternative is not obstinacy when confronted with reasoned arguments; any stance that compels social action should be vigorously criticised and defended and not weakly equivocated.

We lack a public discourse on what values are worth defending in society and how we ought to act on those values without yielding to fear and panic. Vaclav Havel, recently deceased Czech dissident and former President of the Czech Republic, pursued in his later years the goal of a common cross-religious ethical framework that would underpin the future of Western liberal civilisation. While much derided at the time for this pursuit, his diagnosis of our problem remains correct: we have lost a coherent, compelling narrative that explains how we got here and where we are going.

We can no longer defend liberal institutions without resorting to hollow value-deprived language and reasoning based on a stale capitalistic narrative. Unfortunately, as the once vibrant post-war liberal narrative deteriorates in the face of mathematical models and bureaucratisation, we are left with a far more brutal narrative of material self-interest, or worse, no narrative at all.

Without a new modern narrative, we will reap ever-increasing yields of cynicism and  disillusion.

Distilled, a student magazine based out of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, aims to create and develop stories — stories that both describe society and assert how society ought to be. Through the instructive lens of specific events and issues, we seek to discuss and critically evaluate the larger global expectations and assumptions which drive world events. Our goal is to not only describe these trends, developments, and problems, but also to evaluate possible solutions on a pragmatic, political, and ethical basis.

These stories are myriad and may at-first be complex and even impenetrable, but they are necessary first steps to some intellectually nurturing and fecund grand narrative. These stories reflect the power of human creation and the constant enlargement of the human faculty to understand and cope with the human condition. While a story can be used to fan bigotry, violence, ignorance, and other vices of human character, it can also furnish hope and optimism. In any case, it is far better to have some narrative to accept, reject, or shape rather than wander with no narrative at all.

Distilled remains deeply indebted to the grand old tradition of the study of political economy and cultural criticism — a tradition that has relented to the pressures of academic specialisation. Hence, I would like to end with an excerpt from the final chapter of “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” (written by the great political economist John Maynard Keynes shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919) that concisely encapsulates the motivations of Distilled Magazine:

The events of the coming year will not be shaped by the deliberate acts of statesmen, but by the hidden currents, flowing continually beneath the surface of political history, of which no one can predict the outcome. In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,—by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men’s hearts and minds, must be the means.