Have you heard the parable about the man who was offered a chance to see what it is like in Hell and then in Heaven so that he can understand why he ought to live a good life?
He is taken first to Hell, wherein he sees all of the denizens of the pit seated about tables in an apparently endless banquet hall. The tables are piled high with food and drink, but all of the cups are over three feet in length and all of the spoons, the only cutlery available, are equally as long, if not a little longer. Everyone is miserable as they are unable to eat or drink, the tableware being too large to allow them to convey anything into their mouths.
After taking in the scene, he is taken to Heaven, where the arrangements are the same, but everyone is happy being well watered and fed. The man turns to his guide and points out that there is no basic difference between the two places, and how is it that everyone in Heaven is so happy? The man's guide gently points out that in Heaven everyone feeds and waters their neighbour and so through caring for one another they are cared for in return, whereas in Hell no one even thinks to help their fellow being.
It is a pleasant fable in many ways, even if you take the God out of it, as I would tend to do being an Atheist myself. Of course, the pedants amongst you might contend that all the denizens of Hell would need to do is use their hands and drink directly from the ewers and flagons upon the tables and they would be able to satisfy their selfish needs. Still, if you suspend your disbelief enough for that to fade into insignificance then there is a simple, and I would offer positive, message; in helping others we help ourselves.
It is my strong conviction that this holds true regardless of whether or not there is a supernatural being imposing your morality upon you or simply your own conscience and inner ethical compass plotting your course for you; it is actually a simple equation. In a World where everyone has a reasonable expectation of support and compassion from their fellow being, we all benefit.
I don't consider this to be the wooly optimism of the happy wanderer, but in fact to be rooted in basic survival arithmetic that can be seen in the behaviour not only of the last few remaining primitive cultures in the World (and I hasten to add I use the word primitive here only to reflect their level of technological advancement and education, rather than make any value judgement about their subjective worth), but also in the behaviour of other higher primate species, other mamalian species and even amongst species we might mistakenly feel we are so much further above than we truly are.
Of course there are examples of societies in what we might call the Developed World that prize social co-operation and mutual support, and in fact they are societies often found to offer the greatest overall sense of well being and happiness for their inhabitants. Specfically in 2013 Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand were the top 5, and even the briefest investigation will show them to be advanced, in many ways post-capitalist, societies that acknowledge and prize the value in the provision of a basic quality of life for all, and as close to equal opportunities for all as well. They all spend more money on Health, Education and Social Welfare, per capita, than the countries that they beat out of the top 5 and they all, to some degree or another, have cultures that are fundamentally tied to the idea that looking out for one's neighbours and caring about one's local community are default behaviours, rather than onerous duties to be shouldered.
Ok, so where am I going with this, apart from suggesting that we all emigrate immediately?
It has been my personal experience of my country, the UK, that as I have grown older, and perhaps coincidentally moved further South, and into areas of the country that are demonstrably more affluent, that I have noticed a year on year erosion of not only that microcosmic sense of immediate community, but also a hardening of the hearts of my neighbours to the plight of those less fortunate than themselves.
What is it about London and the South East that feels so hard and self-interested? Clearly not all the people that live down here are despicable Scrooges. Far from it I have known some delightful people filled with charity and care for their fellows and clear decency, but it does not stop the general feeling being one of social isolationism and an undercurrent of looking out for number one.
Is there just a creeping tide of mistrust and misanthropy amongst the well-to-do; the idea that the more you have the more you have to lose? I am unsure, but I do know that there is a palpable sense of that "not my problem" approach to society's inequities amongst the people that inhabit the quiet little commuter town where I used to live. Not only that, but there is a very narrow band of what the people that I am referring to consider "acceptable".
I'll give you an example... Those that know me, will be well aware that my work attire is casual - I wear clean clothes, but I do look the very epitome of dressed down most of the time, tending to sport jeans, t-shirt and hoody and either Chucks or Marker boots. I had written off the reaction I received from my fellow commuters on the platform at the station in the morning as my own self-consciousness, right up until my wife told me how much it upset her that people were obviously judging me because of the way that I dress. We used to commute together until our daughter was born and one day she was so angry when we got off the train together that I had to ask her what was wrong, and it all came pouring out about how infuriated she was that people thought they were better than me because of the way I dressed. It is a simple thing, and honestly one that does not bother me, but I was pleased that I was not imagining it. Also I can honestly say I had not experienced the same where I had lived previously, either in Berkshire or up North, and for want of over-simplifying things I cannot help but think that it is pretty likely to correlate with the number of accountants, stock brokers and lawyers that I was traveling with each morning.
Clearly there are people from all walks of life where we were living, in Sevenoaks, but it is also true that the place has a disproportionate number of people who are among "the 1%", or close to clawing their way up there. It is evident in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There are, for example, more private roads in and around Sevenoaks than anywhere else in the UK. Also despite being a relatively small town there is a town centre Tesco and Waitrose, and branches of Strada, Côte, Zizzi, Prezzo, Wagamamma and Café Rouge, not to mention a host of private eateries and high(er) end retail such as Jojo Bébé Maman, Monsoon, Fat Face... I could go on.
I had thought that there was no real qualitative difference between living amongst the middle class, of which I am an unashamed member, whether in Lancashire or Kent, but the sense I had living there was that there might be in certain places, and I appeared to be living in one of them. I mean people were genuinely surprised by kindness or even thoughtfulness around there, and that started to bother me.
"Oh no, are your diamond shoes too tight, Tory boy? Are your fifties too big for you wallet?"
Ok, ok I realise that this could easily be seen as the archetypal First World Problem, and there is an understanding of that in the title (see above), but the more I see in the media about the UK, the more propoganda I am forced to chow down on by a government that I see as morally corrupt at the very least - yes I may be middle-class but I am NOT a Tory - the more I had to put up with thoughtlessness and meanness from my fellow Britons as they nod along to the UKIP anthem of "Island fastness, send them home!", or congratulate themselves on the idea that austerity has been "good for Britain" when we have failed and are provably continuing to fail the most vulnerable in society... The more I saw the exaggarated, fish-eye lens view of British Society that I saw back there in Sevenoaks and now still see looking in from the other side of the World seems to me to be the creeping, hidden reality of the tide that is washing over the entire country and indeed the Western World.
This is why I am so excited by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US. I had honestly started to believe that the days of egalitarian and truly progressive politics were dead. The British Labour Party under Ed Milliband had moved firmly to the middle of the road, which in British Politics means being on the Right, which seems odd for a party that is supposed to represent the Workers. For all of my admiration of Barack Obama, the hostile Congress he faced and the general mood of the American electorate seemed to be posing a greater and greater risk of a populist swing back to the Right in the US as well.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere or so it seemed to me, the British Labour Party had voted in a true Socialist firebrand as its leader, whilst also seeing the greatest expansion in its membership in recent memory, and Senator Bernie Sanders was building momentum in the Democratic Nomination race, openly running as a Socialist.
Clearly I am still waiting for disappointment to strike. In the UK part of me is still expecting Labour to be crushed in 2020, under the weight of fear-based politics that says investing in our Society will sink the economy and blow up the debt. In the US I expect the fears of the electorate to either give the Democratic Nomination to Hillary Clinton, believing Bernie to be unable to deliver a win in the General, or for undecided and Middle-America to blink at the last moment and ensconce President Cruz or worse still President Trump for four years of unfettered corporate theft and greater deprivation for ordinary Americans, rather than believe that Sanders can deliver change on even a tenth of the scale he wants to.
But what if...
Just imagine what could happen if two of the greatest democracies on Earth were to actually take their own power fully into their hands and choose a politics that puts The People in the center of the debate and at the top of every priority and leaves the poor old Billionaire Class fending for themselves for a change.
All that needs to happen is for the electorate to embrace on single, simple idea - that everyone matters no matter how much money and stuff that they have.
Do you like the sound of it? Do you want to see less people sleeping rough? Do you want to be able to look your less lucky friends in the eye and know that that you voted for a reality where their bad luck has not consigned them to the trash heap of society? Do you want to live in a future where your vote and your taxes go towards making sure that no one is denied healthcare, that no one has to decide to feed their children instead of themselves - or worse still has to go hungry watching their children go hungry as well?
Tell everyone that you meet. Challenge the idea that only Conservatism can provide fairness. Don't let anyone tell you that they resent paying taxes, remind them that having enough money to become liable for tax is a nice problem to have compared to the alternative.
Some people, possibly a lot of people, will write you off as a nut, or be offended, or even angered by your thinking, but in the end they are just angry with themselves for being unable to think more generously about their fellow man and being unable to see the greater good to be reaped in making sure that everyone has a chance at a life of dignity, no matter the slings and arrows of misfortune.
The others, the ones that want to believe but are not there yet will absolutely take comfort in hearing someone articulate a doctrine of mutual support; they will realise that it is not just them, it is not unrealistic.
Of course those that can will need to pay more tax, and having solid and high quality pubic services means the government spending more and being in charge of more things, but the people of Norway and Denmark seem to be pretty happy with the services they get for their higher taxes.
Done right there is no reason to think that Britain and America would be any different, well except for the super wealthy who will see a small dip in their net worth in return for services that they could already afford without thinking twice about the cost.
All we need to do is embrace the idea that we are all connected, that by looking out for one another and making sure that no one is abandoned to their fate, we can have a greater society, a greater society that still allows for the wealthy to exist and wealth creation to be a good thing. The difference is that the wealthy would get a decent night's sleep.