Observer Review: Up The Down Escalator By Charles Leadbetter Essay, Research Paper
An old case for a new orderUp the Down Escalator – Why the Global Pessimists are Wrongby Charles LeadbeaterViking ?17.99, pp384A book which proclaims that its purpose is the defeat of chronic pessimism needs to begin with a convincing demonstration that the enemy exists. The failure of Up the Down Escalator to perform that essential task is largely attributable to Charles Leadbeater’s apparent confusion about what pessimism is.Pessimists assume the worst – very often without much justification. Robert Kaplan’s judgment that ‘the benefits of global capitalism are not distributed equally’ is not an example of the gloom that Up the Down Escalator aims to disperse. It is a statement of indisputable fact.It must be admitted that what Up the Down Escalator lacks in analysis and evidence, it more than makes up for in unsubstantiated assertion. The opening sentence – ‘Pessimism is in power’ – is typical, in its meaningless rhetoric, of what follows.’Reactionary pessimists… bemoan technology and globalisation because they threaten to wreck tradition, dissolve ancient institutions and rob us of our identities.’ There is no attempt to describe who these people are or where they can be found. It is hard to believe that they justify a 300-page refutation.The problem with Up the Down Escalator is not that its conclusions are wrong but that they are self-evidently right. If there is such a thing as a golden age, it is in the future, not the past. Society has improved in almost every way for 2,000 years and it is reasonable to expect the improvement to continue.The evidence of progress is, indeed, all around us. ‘In most large cities, food from all over the world can be delivered to your door or taken out of a freezer to be microwaved in a few minutes.’ I suspect that most potential readers of Up the Down Escalator know that already.Like most books which spread a minimal idea over the maximum possible number of pages, Up the Down Escalator occupies much space by quoting ‘authorities’. Many of the quotations read like a Private Eye satire on bogus scholarship. ‘As Ernst Bloch, the German theorist of utopia, maintained in his three-volume, 1,200 page work, The Principle of Hope…’ is not an irresistible invitation to pursue the theory of millenarianism. That is a pity, for it is certainly the most amusing part of the book.Leadbeater seems to assume that utopians actually believe that the idealised communities about which they write can be created and ought to be imposed on initially reluctant, but eventually grateful, citizens. The pursuit of utopias of the future has often been unforgiving and calamitous for three main reasons. First, utopias have been oppressive because they are so planned. Second, utopias require a degree of transparency that destroys the line between the public and private, the affairs of the state and the life of the family. Third, utopias have been static and conservative because they are opposed to innovation.Until I read Leadbeater’s attack on ‘militant optimism’, it never struck me that Samuel Butler really wanted crime to be treated as a disease and sickness to be regarded as sin. I thought that Erewhon was an allegory which aimed to challenge conventional morality. Nor did I imagine that Utopia, a particular object of Leadbeater scorn, argued for religious freedom because Thomas More wanted to impose uniform theological beliefs on Tudor England. And I imagined that utopian philosophers – by drawing attention to the shortcomings of the societies in which they lived – were themselves advocates of political innovation.I wonder if Leadbeater knows that utopia means ‘No place’. He is, in his way, a utopian himself. Although he has sensibly criticised the vacuity of the ‘Third Way’, he is an advocate of what he calls the ‘personalised society’ – ‘diverse market-based communities, in which people who prize choice and individuality can cohere around a sense of civic purpose and obligations to one and another.’ It is a noble aspiration, but one which, since the twin elements of which it is composed are in conflict with each other, is unlikely fully to be achieved.Leadbeater’s previous work suggests that the reconciliation will come about by a combination of the global market and a number of related activities which all began with a hyphenated E We shall see.Up the Down Escalator offers a perfectly sensible vision of the future even if (pace the good news that we can all buy food from all over the world) it ignores the essential fact that the prized choices can only be made by those families which possess the ‘agency’ of substantial purchasing power. There is, however, no excuse for promoting the ‘personalised society’ in a book which can only illustrate its formula for future happiness by attacking an imaginary disease of chronic pessimism with risible criticism of a more integrated form of society and a fine disregard for common logic.Leadbeater is the master of the false analogy: ‘Our attitude towards acquiring knowledge and learning is like the early Victorians’ attitudes towards cleanliness before the advent of soap.’ He emphasises the horrors of a rigid education system with a number of rhetorical questions. The importance of learning through ‘experimentation and innovation’ – the sovereign cure for all social and economic ills – is driven home with the invitation to ‘imagine being told by a public official which shampoo to use and when’. Even old-fashioned socialists like me are opposed to regulated bathing.The same scepticism makes us doubt if there is any philosophical relationship between the demise of public bath houses and the creation of a society in which everybody is ‘able to play a role in making and enacting new recipes for the way they work, learn, shop, design, trade, save and entertain’.Up the Down Escalator is a book without an index. It is hard to work through its windy generalities without wondering if that omission results from the difficulty of making something tangible out of an idea that has no substance. But at least Leadbeater powerfully illustrates the general theory which he seeks to promote. Future books on changes in society are certain to be an improvement on this one.