Magazine

A Point of View: The Trojan horse

  • 29 November 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Scene from 2004 film "Troy" showing Trojan horse

Will Self considers the story of the Trojan horse, and finds a parable for the political climate of our own times.

Those Trojans, eh? A gullible lot weren't they? I mean to say: You've been fighting those mythomaniacal Greeks for many years and many of your people have been hacked apart most horribly, then one day you arise from your perfumed cushions in the seraglio, head to the battlements for a morning constitutional, and discover they've all upped sticks and gone. Not only that, but they've left behind what appears to be a gift of some sort. True, the era of Scandinavian-designed wooden objects lies well in the future, but even to your Bronze Age eyes there appears nothing more pleasingly innocuous than this hand-crafted horse. A statue of one of their gods might be troubling, and an obviously bellicose object, such as a shield or helmet writ large, would cry out not to be touched - but a lovely horsey! Well, you just can't wait to get hold of it.

Yes, gullible lot those Trojans, but when I consider the strange ideological involutions that have characterised British politics throughout my adult life I wonder if we aren't quite as credulous as they. After all, in the final analysis, it all comes down to gifts - presents that we save up for through that countrywide Christmas club we call progressive taxation, and which are then handed out by the jolly, ho-hoing Government in the form of public services. The strange thing is that although these "gifts" are seldom anything like as nice as the packaging they come wrapped in, we seem to fall for the little joke every time it's played on us.

Image caption Margaret Thatcher introduced council house sales in 1979

Take state education for a start. Universal free and non-selective education was always presented by those on the left as simply a way of increasing social mobility. The old 11-plus-mediated separation of secondary modern goats from grammar school sheep was divisive and obviously unfair. But of course, inside the gift of the shiny new comprehensives crouched the vanguard of the proletariat. The same Labour government that pushed for them also seriously considered the abolition of all fee-paying schools, and their aim wasn't simply to level the playing field in terms of opportunity, but to turn the education system into the incubator of a future classless society.

Then on the other hand we have another gift - the huge give-away of public housing stock that began under the Thatcher government in the 1980s and which has continued to this day. What could be more generous than offering the less well-off an opportunity to become homeowners, especially at a 50% reduction on the market rate? Why, this doesn't just seem like a year-round Christmas - it's more like a permanent January sale. But of course, inside the pebble-dashed bellies of those properties there crouched a different detachment of warriors. These ones, quite as much as the revolutionary vanguard, were ideologically motivated. While they trumpeted domestic virtues, what they really championed was capital accumulation. Their fervid hope was that if some of those upwardly mobile council house purchasers were canny enough they might even factor their walk-up flats into a portfolio of shares in, say, the newly-privatised utilities.

Nowadays things aren't quite what they used to be, and gifts don't seem to be either. Instead of unwrapping a positive good the electorate are handed a negative capability. "Vote for us!" the main political parties cry, "and we'll return the favour by not taxing you punitively or alternatively by not still further eviscerating your already gutted public services." Still, while the gifts may have become intangible the packaging still has that familiar equine shape, the main purpose of which is to convince all us Trojans that we've been remembered on this special day. The ideological siege may have been lifted, but the key rhetorical terms remain portfolio ones - inclusiveness, fairness, equality. These are values that we all earnestly endorse, even as our society becomes relentlessly less inclusive, more unfair, and remains manifestly unequal.

And in the middle of all those ticklish horse feathers the same old warriors are hiding, while trying hard to stifle their giggles. The right, it is said, believe with utmost sincerity that their policies are best for the poor, because only a red-blooded capitalism can hope to deliver enough wealth for the overall standard of living to be raised. What they're less keen on admitting is that so long as there are "haves" there will obviously have to be "have-nots". But by the same measure, those on the left who believe it possible for everyone to have a bit, don't like to come clean that this means a few will definitely have to have a lot less.

Rather than do this, both sides indulge in a little dressage - grooming the horse, curry-combing its forelock and buffing up its hoofs - and come each budget announcement and election time the horse is rolled out in front of us. But I say "Ca suffit!" It's time that our political culture grew up enough not to depend on the subterfuge of such spurious gift-giving. After all, the suppressed premise on both sides of our increasingly prefabricated party wall is precisely the same. All our problems - as a society, a nation, a culture - can be easily circumvented so long as we feed the horsey the right fodder to ensure its growth. Ah! Growth! Everybody loves growth, don't they? Without growth we'd be back in the dark ages with oxen pulling the plough, wouldn't we? And - if you'll forgive the extended chimerical analogy - an economy is also like a shark, isn't it? Unless it keeps on consuming natural resources and transforming them into the flexible cartilage of technological innovation, it dies, and we die with it.

In the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-8 the most plangent buzzword in our political discourse was "sustainability", a term borrowed from the life sciences that denotes an ecosystem capable of maintaining itself without depleting its resource base. Sustainability is, of course, still in, but over the last five years it's become strangely entwined with the convolvulus of "growth". The notion of sustainable growth is verging on the oxymoronic - and yet no one but the most extreme Luddite would dream of speaking out against it. Why? Because the assumption is that to deny growth to any one part of the economy - no matter how bloated that may be - is by extension to deprive its most meagre portions of the nutrition they so desperately need. And yet what a curious notion this is really. Having laid to rest as grotesquely unfeasible - and worse, flying in the face of human nature - the socialistic conceptions of equality of income and collective ownership, we now discover that a system predicated on divisiveness nonetheless demands of us that we all be in it together.

In psychology, a situation in which a vulnerable person is stymied by mutually incompatible statements is called a double-bind. We've all experienced this - "I love you!" our loved ones have sometimes screamed at us in the most hate-filled of voices. It now seems to me that the double-bind has been extended from the private and intimate realm to the public and social one. Some radical thinkers in the 1950s hypothesised that repeated exposure to the double-bind might be a cause of schizophrenia, and while this theory is now just as out of fashion as socialism, I'm not so sure that constantly hearing those in authority say one thing while meaning quite another hasn't made of our entire society a rather craven and psychically split entity.

Image caption Classical frieze depicting the fall of Troy

So, those Trojans, eh, a gullible lot weren't they? Yet perhaps they weren't so much credulous as confounded. For years they'd been repelling Myrmidons while listening to their leaders tell them to just sit it out and eventually the Greeks would go away. From the battlements of Troy the wooden horse appeared altogether innocent, while Cassandra's prophecy was just yesterday's news - and we all know how much attention we pay to that. Besides, the Trojans were only presented with this pseudo-gift once, while we've opened the city gates and rolled the things inside time and time again, until being bamboozled is just another tradition - like the trooping of the colour, or the state opening of parliament, that, while vacuous in itself, nonetheless constitutes a vital part of our identity.

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