July 2nd, 2010



One reason why I deeply distrust "lifestyle medicine" is because its targets are invariably luxuries of one sort or other.

Smoking is a luxury. Alcohol is a luxury. Chocolate is a luxury. Sugar is a luxury. Meat is a luxury. Sex is a luxury. Drugs like opium and cocaine are luxuries.

By "luxury" I simply mean that they're unnecessary for survival. Unlike what I call "useful tools", which are things which are necessary for survival - like hammers and saws and clothes and houses and trains.

There are never any health scares about screwdrivers, or scissors, or roads.

But almost all luxuries are, or once were, necessities. Smoking improves concentration, and that's useful. Alcohol was, for a long time, a way of ensuring that drinking water was palatable, because bugs don't survive in alcohol. Chocolate and sugar and meat are all foods, and food is a necessity. And heterosexual sex is also an occasional necessity, simply to produce the next generation of humans. Opium is a very useful painkiller. Cocaine lends people endurance, and that's useful too.

These necessities only turned into luxuries when they stopped being used in their proper, useful roles. While people only smoked while they were concentrating, it was fine. But when they smoked all day every day, because they enjoyed it, it became a luxury. While they drank weak beer or cider or wine to kill off bugs in water, alcohol was useful. Once people started drinking these things because they enjoyed them, or in order to get drunk, they became luxuries.

In Idle Theory I make the distinction between necessities and luxuries as being between things which increase idleness and things that decrease it. If it takes you an hour to make a stone axe, and that stone axe saves you 10 hours of work cutting down trees to build a house or to burn in a fire, a stone axe is something that provides you with 9 extra hours of idle time. If you spend an hour making a ball, and spend 10 hours kicking the ball around playing football with it, that's 11 hours squandered, never to be recovered.

And if you live a very busy life, working most of the day just to survive, you simply can't afford luxuries. Faced with the choice between making a stone axe or a football, you really must make the stone axe, and not the football. Yes, you'd really like to spend all day playing football. But you can't. And so you mustn't. If you give in to the temptation to play football, next thing you'll find is that you can't survive at all, because you haven't got a stone axe or a house or the wood to light a fire.

In busy, hard-working societies, the appearance of luxuries can often signal the destruction of those societies, as people go off getting drunk and playing football instead of doing the work that's necessary for their survival. And so in busy, hard-working societies, luxuries are quite likely to be forbidden, because they pose an awful threat. An existential threat.

I think that this is the fundamental reason why luxuries always attract moral condemnation. There's always the danger with them that people will spend their time making and trading luxuries, and neglect to make stone axes and chop wood and build houses.

I was set thinking about this today by something I read in the margin of Greenie Watch:

There is an "ascetic instinct" (or perhaps a "survivalist instinct") in many people that causes them to delight in going without material comforts. Monasteries and nunneries were once full of such people -- with the Byzantine stylites perhaps the most striking example. Many Greenies (other than Al Gore and his Hollywood pals) have that instinct too but in the absence of strong orthodox religious committments they have to convince themselves that the world NEEDS them to live in an ascetic way. So their personal emotional needs lead them to press on us all a delusional belief that the planet needs "saving".

I don't think it's that people delight in going without material comforts (or luxuries). They like them as much as anyone else does. No, it's that they feel they must go without them, for the reasons I've just given.

For much of our morality has come from busy, hard-working societies. They were societies which couldn't afford to make much in the way of luxuries. They were societies for whom such luxuries posed a tremendous threat.

The monasteries all started appearing around about the time of the fall of the Roman Empire. And because the Roman Empire was primarily a trading empire, and trading useful tools increases social idleness, then the disintegration of the empire resulted in life getting harder for everyone, and for luxuries to gradually get squeezed out. No more bread and circuses. No more marble temples. No more art and music and literature and romance. The monastic lifestyle wasn't a "lifestyle choice". It was the product of necessity. It was a life that was stripped bare of every luxury. And it was a working life, from dawn to dusk. And it required tremendous self-discipline.

It's been more or less the same ever since the fall of the Roman Empire, until a couple of centuries ago we started building steam engines and railways, and suddenly we had the idle time in which to make and trade all sorts of luxuries. Books, art, poetry, music, architecture, wine, opium, cannabis, porcelain (I was learning about porcelain on the radio today. Marco Polo was trying to describe what porcelain was like, and compared it to cowry shells, the name for which was porcelini - little pigs), etc, etc.

And the result has been a series of waves of moral panic in the face of this tidal wave of luxuries. They threaten (or appear to threaten) our continuing survival. After all, they always have in the past. And so we have a war on drugs. And a war on smoking. And a war on alcohol. And on chocolate and meat and sex. When are they going to start on football? And art? And literature? And everything else.

For the idea that luxuries pose a mortal threat to society is very deeply engrained in our culture. And we're awash with luxuries these days. New luxuries appear every day. The internet is a new luxury. Or at least it was when it started 15 or 20 years ago. Now it's become a necessity, as more and more business is transacted through it.

The political Left might be best described as the party of busy, hard-working society. And that's why it's the left which is in the forefront in declaring war on drugs, and tobacco, and alcohol. Busy, hard-working societies can't afford those luxuries. It's why Gordon Brown used to talk about "hard-working families". The society of the left is above all the society of busy, hard-working people. It's the society of The Workers.

By contrast, the political Right might best be described as the party of idle, indolent society. They are the party of the idle rich. And with idleness, there also comes freedom. The freedom to do what you want to, rather than what you have to. And freedom is a number one value for right-wingers. Freedom has no value on the Left, because there is no freedom at all in busy, hard-working societies.

In the eyes of the political Left, human society is always a busy, toiling society which is only just managing to survive. And because it's only just managing to survive, it can't tolerate luxuries. Nor can it tolerate inequality.

And if life is pretty good right now, then there are any number of threats on the horizon. 50 years ago, the threat was of nuclear war. When that faded, the threat became that of a population explosion. And when that faded, it became the threat of global warming. There are always threats on the horizon..

But in the eyes of the political Right, human society is always idle, playful society. So, there are winners and losers? What else do you expect in the game of life? Life is a game we play. Somebody or other is going to have to win the World Football Cup, FFS. And Wimbledon.

I submit that the Leftist notion that we live in a completely busy, hard-working society is a mistaken idea. Life isn't that bad. I also submit that that the Rightist notion that we live in an almost perfectly idle society, in which everything we do is part of some sort of game we play, is also a mistaken idea. Life isn't quite that good.

The real world is somewhere in between those two extremes.