There was a time when neighbourly consideration for your fellow man, let alone woman, was a downright impediment to the advance of the species. Primitive man was like the big vats—a lone hunter that followed where the prey went. Then came a succession of ice ages that necessitated co-operation to bring down the big beasts like mastodons that could survive the cold and individual ego had to be suppressed as hunting techniques shifted more to the pack method used by wolves to hunt large prey..
This required a leader. By being bigger, faster, more cunning or a combination of all three they could achieve more than scattered individuals, It was to hold this position against usurpers that the concept of ego was born. As mankind became more ambitious and sophisticated, packs became tribes, which evolved the concept of territories, which evolved into kingdoms and—eventually—into empires. At each stage, the economies of scale and of specialisation offered an edge to dominate and subsume the less advanced.
To hold increasingly sprawling territories together, a single leader was not enough. A hierarchy of leadership evolved. But the bulk of people were subservient to an elite who perforce had to use a combination of force, awe and showmanship to hold things together. But, without ego, without unshakeable belief in themselves, the kings, dukes, earls, barons and sundry gentry—the de facto owners of land and wealth and, therefore, power— could not keep their subservient masses in check.
This hierarchical ego system found its apogee (with notable exceptions in France and the USA) in the nation states and empires of the 19th century. kings and emperors were lionised; the aristocracy cocooned themselves in the wealth pouring from mines and factories and colonies. Their cult of ego was codified by the class system through distinctive education, accent, social circles and (especially) wealth, to which the masses could not aspire. As long as all classes benefited, no matter how unevenly, from the burgeoning wealth, the gross inequalities, such as:
- crass exploitation of slaves in the 18th ©
- crass indifference to the Irish potato famine of 1845/9
- crass military incompetence in the Crimean War 1853/6)
most were happy, if not proud of their ‘station’, no matter how humble. Ego and affluence might be restricted to the upper class.. Dissenters were pressured by their peers, punished by a complicit judiciary or escaped to the colonies. Even today, many people wax lyrical about the lost style and opulence of those fin de siecle days when everyone knew their station—and were content with it.
Into this glittering world, the Great War burst like shrapnel. Whole empires were swept away and those ‘Great Powers” remaining found the effortless affluence for the rich a thing of the past as exports dwindled, industries grew antiquated, miners struck, the House of Lords had its feathers clipped and the grand “Downton Abbey” lifestyle of grand houses became impossible to maintain.
In the 20th ©, democracy and a bigger scare of wealth came to the people and the concentration of ego leaked away from the upper class. Universal health care, home ownership, private cars and real, non-forelock-tugging democracy came to the people. Regional accents mixed not just in the media but the Inns of Court, Oxbridge and among officers. Grants opened university education to all classes. Bowler-hatted ‘Something in the City” pinstripes gave way to loud braces Loadsamoney” when the Big Bang hit the City in 1986.
The Scots had always valued an occasional, free-thinking “Lad o’ Pairts” but this now broadened with each succeeding generation. Deference declined as a sense of entitlement—and, with it, the ego of ambition—rose. Politics, which has once been a matter of voting Liberal or Conservative as the estate or factory owner voted, fragmented. Politicians stopped being indistinguishable, remote toffs in top hats and wing collars. Flat accents beneath flat caps were elected. Women appeared. And, as forelock-tugging loyalty gave way to ego-driven “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” voters, the new science of Political Marketing was born.
The Blair administration 1997-2010 applied this with notable success. But they were riding the tiger. As presentation became more slick, media deference was discarded in trying to uncover the ‘real’ story. As voters became more fickle and demanding, presentation trumped substance in winning them over. Even feminism played a role, with social progammes, care for the vulnerable and public services that for ‘loved ones’ usurped foreign relations and fiscal policies as political battlegrounds.
The broad electorate’s sense of entitlement meshed with the politician’s sense of needing to (or, at least appearing to) satisfy that has resulted in a 21st © spiral of disillusionment. Politicians avoid answering questions that might undermine their appearance of competence; media probes relentlessly for flaws at the expense of substance to justify their job and voter trust in the veracity and/or relevance of either declines. Because the paternalistic deference that held society together for centuries, despite glaring inequality has now shattered, broad self-made material wealth has provided most with an ego and a sense of rights and entitlement that go with it. Not only is this light years from destitute miners loving their filthy rich employers for distributing leftovers from the great house’s banquets but it is almost as far from the ‘Dunkirk Spirit of WW2, when people lived in ait raid shelters and eked out rations of snoek and whale meat, proud to show that they could ‘take it’.
Because the ego, once reserved for the few privileged leaders, who often abused the power it conferred, has spread to the majority, if not all, people. And that dynamic sea-swell of new egos is eroding any former sense of unity of purpose. As long as the great majority feel adequate benefit from society, the dynamism can act positively—as it was in the USA through the 20th ©.
Modern life is highly complex. Material wealth is sustained by multiple family incomes and extensive debt. Good jobs are competitive, involve moving to find them and seldom last a lifetime. Commuting great distances is commonplace. Relatives no longer live in the same town. Vacations are taken on other continents. Despite instantaneous global communication, such lifestyle is fragile. The delicate interdependent balance of commercial interests, government guidance and ambitious egos would not need anything as drastic as a nuclear war or an asteroid strike to upset, and even destroy it.
What if the self-interest of 8 billion egos were to insist, through their presentation-obsessed governments, that they must all be guaranteed protection against some much more minor threat that required clamping down on travel so that airlines and tour companies, restaurants and hotels went out of business, stock markets plummeted, distribution broke down and people became more concerned with starving than staunching loss of their wealth?
Say, something as innocuously small as a virus?