Brexit shows the need for myths

A problem that engineers and scientists have is the belief that everything is material, empirical, verifiable.

But superstitions – and you can include in fiction, fantasies, dreams, and religion – however unreal in their essences, can be very real in their effects. That is why you cannot ignore superstitions. Real effects are, after all, physical and measurable. Through some kind of alchemy the immaterial becomes reality. Satisfaction can be measured physiologically, after all.

The most influential “fantasy” of all is of course religion. But religion can make people feel good even if religion turned out not to be true. This ought to interest engineers. They build and construct things to satisfy the needs of people. That is why the immaterial connotations that surround a product, instrument or technical object are as important as the instrumental problem solved.

That is what my Dad said anyway: he worked in advertising. You don’t buy a car, he always used to say. You buy the idea of a car.

For a long time I thought this was shallow advertising thinking, a consumer fetishism. If you get a real sense of happiness by the belief that you are driving a better car based on the believing the dreams of the car advert used to sell it – does it really matter if it is really only a sentiment based on fantasy and not a boost of the practical technical capabilities? Illusions can be important and positive. Here one can sense engineers clenching their teeth. They have done all the hard work and the analytical thinking. And then some advertising hack comes along with beautiful words – not to mention the duped public that falls for it. It is not the copywriter who transports you from A to B, for God’s sake.

Once upon a time I would have agreed, mumbled something about the “Happy Slave” syndrome and overpaid and verbal admen who just polish what is already good or sometimes turn muck to brass. But maybe the means justify the ends If people feel better by believing in the bluff that is advertising, so what? Maybe, in a world of finite resources, we need more dreams that don’t cost anything. It is wellbeing that is the goal, not the technology itself.

Advertising is just a manifestation of the importance of the non-real. It us about the positive effects of illusions that Rollo May talks about in his book about myths. Rollo May is one of the world’s most celebrated psychotherapists who came to prominence in Sweden 30 years ago. Sweden was the perfect, rational welfare state in the 1980s. None of the Soviet Union’s human rights problems and none of the USA’s poverty and inequality. And as rich and free as the USA. Even so, people were unhappy. The politicians were baffled. And they did what Swedish politicians usually do, call on an expert.

This expert was Rollo May. He visited, was filmed and interviewed, and did not mince his words. Swedish society had, in its utilitarian way, taken care of all practical needs, even of the old and handicapped

The level of practical welfare was enormous. Everyone had a car, a fridge and a phone. But something had been taken away too, from this peasant society turned technocratic utopia, argued May: dreams, myths, hopes. Gone was the sanctity of the family – the welfare state had taken over the father’s role as provider. The royal family had had all power and mystique taken away from it. He was merely the highest official in the kingdom. “The cycling monarchy” sneered the English tabloids. Sweden had become, and still is, the country most hostile to God in the world. Many Swedes probably missed their elves and trolls. The nation state was strong, but the idea of the Swedish nation as a concept and source of pride, forget it. Swedish culture had no value, we were taught in school even then. Everyone in the world was equal. The Swedes were taught that they were the exploiters of Africans even though Sweden had never had any colonies.

May argued that we need something to believe in to tie us together as a community. Religion, for instance, is a very social thing. So is patriotism, a belief in the nation. We need stories, we need heroes, to define ourselves and our ambitions. Slightly childish things maybe. But there was no place for metaphysical “nonsense” in the Sweden of the Social Democrats. A British journalist who wrote an insightful book about Sweden from around this time,argued that that the rationalist prime minister Olof Palme removed all poverty, misery and injustice – but also community and the sense of the mystery of life

What has this got to do with the present day? Well, I just reread the Rollo May – written around this time, in English of course – and it is still current. Why? Because I believe that the culture of technocracy that removed the metaphysical and the unreal in Swedes’ everyday lives has transmitted itself across Europe.

Perhaps the English too have lost faith in themselves and their history, their culture and myths. I think Rollo May would have understood the psychological need for Brexit. Maybe what is more important than material welfare is the recreation of myths and identities. Globalisation, European bureaucracy, neo-liberalism, consumerism – all this was a weakening of the conservative and familiar notions that people are now seeking a way back to, symbolised by the vote for Brexit.

People are prepared to pay a price – a weak pound and a hobbled City of London – to recreate a Britishness, a smaller world perhaps, to make life more meaningful. All this is maybe hard for rationalists – elite people, pronounced individualists, in the midst of international careers, our secularised, post-national ruling class – to understand. But maybe myths are still more important than rational thinking in some way, a rationalism that weakens the meaning of life, and where the EU has played a role.


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