A Point of View: The Trojan horse

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.

Margaret Thatcher in 1979 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.

The Trojan war

Greek helmet
  • Most famous story in Greek mythology about 10-year-long war between Greeks and Trojans
  • Prompted after Paris, Prince of Troy, stole Helen, wife of Greek king Menelaus
  • Siege ended after many years when Greeks hid themselves inside wooden horse, then crept out and opened city gates to their troops
  • Myth inspired countless works of art and literature, from Homer's epic Iliad to James Joyce's novel Ulysses

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.

Statue of Achilles

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.

Will's (Greek) words of the week

  • Myrmidons: Elite warriors, famed for their bravery, commanded in the Trojan war by Achilles
  • Cassandra: Daughter of Trojan king Priam, given gift of prophecy by the god Apollo, but denied power to make anyone believe her

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.

Frieze portraying fall of Troy 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.

Here is a selection of your comments.

The mention of council houses for sale, at a discount of 50%, should be qualified with the fact that many of them (built for a few hundred pounds) had been paid for several times over, by 20 or 30 years of rent. Also, once working people had these properties, many used the new-found collateral to borrow & start businesses. By this means, Thatcher achieved what Labour had promised for years - 'a fundamental shift of wealth and power, in favour of the working classes'.

C. Matthews, Birmingham, UK

This is an extremely accurate description of what has been happening over the last thirty or more years. No matter how you try and show people the truth, the gullible remain the gullible and the greedy only get the bug for more. As power corrupts, others only see one way forward and that is to follow the leaders of power and greed. This in turn allows the con artists to lead the followers into the debt crisis and leads them to disaster. Education or lack of it is at the root of the problem. As long as the elite can control the education level of the masses the problem will remain. Without education we can only rely on our values. Inherited values are no longer. Everyone now wants instant success and religion has been trashed. What is left - the country and its young must learn to say no and mean it. Politicians and bankers must be brought under the control of the law of the jungle if we are not to follow the cycle of success to failure and become a third world country for someone else to help. Growth in itself only survives with controlled periods of failure that demands re invention. We have caused the inventors to flee leaving only an empty horse to the lions.

John S, Christchurch

As in all things in life there is right and wrong on both sides and it is the lack of imagination that prevents us from reaching a compromise. One way of squaring this circle is voluntary taxation but with ring fenced spending. You, as an individual, will decide how much tax you pay and where it is spent (this will never happen as it will deprive the political class of their power). That way if society wants more, or less, resources spent on x people will contribute, or withhold, these resources willingly. Tax avoidance abolished at a stroke and wanted spending prioritised.

Martyn, Perth

"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..." You, a minority of others and I may have realised socialistic concepts like equality of income and collective ownership are infeasible and contrary to human nature, but the vast majority of people haven't. This is evidenced by the fact that we still have a socialised healthcare system, a social security system, a socialised education system, socialised public transport and utilities (a system of government-granted franchises/monopolies is not a truly 'privatised' free-market solution), and a socialised infrastructure. Further evidence is that whenever those in authority propose to merely reduce the size and scope of any of these, which isn't often, it is met with angry resistance and moral outrage by the public. Anyone who goes further and proposes the dismantling of such systems so that free market, non-coercive solutions may replace them is intellectually burned at the stake and not even allowed to sit at the mainstream debating table. It's clear that every member of every mainstream political party, from left to right, still believes in the feasibility and virtue of a degree of socialism because decade after decade the party in power has enacted interventionist policies, and every time their opponents have 'opposed' them with somewhat different interventionist policy proposals. This pattern shows no sign of stopping. Socialism and interventionism are closely related as political/economic theories because they are both founded on the same false premise that capitalism is fundamentally flawed; in other words that individuals interacting freely with each other and disposing of their property as they wish is ultimately deleterious to producing the greatest good for the greatest number. The two theories only differ in their view as to what degree capitalism is flawed. Socialists believe capitalism and private property to be entirely flawed and immoral, and therefore that both must be prevented by force, whereas interventionists believe that capitalism is not entirely flawed and can go some way to achieving the greatest good for the greatest number but only in the presence of a coercive authority, which is required to control it in order to overcome its perceived flaws and excesses. Interventionism, an offshoot of socialism and perhaps the result of an emotional unwillingness or inability of some to abandon the dream of the socialist utopia, has been rampant since the second world war and the man on the street has no idea. The vast majority of people are entirely ignorant of the fact that they live in a society heavily sculpted by generations of subscribers to interventionism. Even Thatcher, who was perceived as the very embodiment of capitalism, privatisation and small government was an interventionist. People today believe they live in a 'capitalist' society, one quite distant from socialism, but they are mistaken. Our society is much further along the spectrum towards socialism than they realise, and it's only likely to get closer as people continue to demand that the government be given more power to take from the rich in the wholly mistaken belief that this will arrest the downward spiral of their standard of living.

Gary, London

I'm particularly struck by the analysis of oxymoron of "sustainable growth". I think a true blue capitalist would claim that there's always potential for growth in an almost infinite universe, which (whilst needing to be looked after carefully and not wastefully). Unlike the "Trojan Horse", politician's "gifts" often lack the elegance of the Greeks in terms of enabling "sustainable growth". In selling off Council houses at cut price, Thatcher depleted the stock of homes for the most vulnerable and needy people to live in. Worse still, Councils were less likely to build houses because they'd just be snapped-up and not provide the long-term stability required to compete with the market. I think, as usual, Will Self is altogether too pessimistic in his analysis. If, as I believe, God has created a wonderful world for us to enjoy, explore and develop (in accordance with His plans, which makes everything turn out much better) then he obviously misses the crux of the matter.

Stephen Duff, Elgin, Scotland

Was there so much sense in the legislation of Labour or the actions of Thatcher? Hope in non-selective schooling was feeble, in fairer distribution of opportunity unfairly to be top-dog rich. If that hope was mouthed as of 'classlessness', it was no more than half-echo of half-baked reaction to hierarchy, transfer to 'public ownership'. As if no lessons learned from a century dictators, from harm to all in conflict between unions and management, from consumption of our own future as Trojan election gift, we seem content - whether in private or public sector educated - that periodic political choice should rest between the competing nobilities, fairness in 'more equality' or fairness in 'more inequality'. If we accept as gift the supposed necessity of unity in division, we surrender power to those stronger in finance (whether by inheritance, luck or skill, criminal or legitimated) above all to decide our collective direction, to dictate the meaning of growth, and to change in their favour the share-out of any real output. Still in our mock-debate, in the clash of straw-men and lying facts, in the cheering of sophisticated ambiguity and falsehood as disarming truth, the properties of equal partnership are excluded from consideration. Today's Trojan's are trapped in conflict of interest, confined to despair, in a City that prefers democracy to remain outside. Will Self does well to mention "equality of income" at all, suitably tagged - even if ironically - as "grotesquely unfeasible", expecting Midas to count "a lot less".

Robert Reynolds, Barnstaple England

The people fall for sweet words, small gifts and promises as we are so desperate to believe that politicians may actually care about equality, liberty and justice. The brainwashing of the proletariat is all but complete and honest people, speaking from the heart are given no oxygen.

Sue Johnson, Weston-super-Mare, England

I think that one reason why we let a lowering of our standard of living just pass, is because fundamentally we don't believe we deserve any more. Since industry has largely disappeared and the service sector is pretty much all that's left, we compare our non-productive lives with those of doctors and businessmen and celebrities and we question the value of our input. Fundamentally I believe we think 'they are worth more'. Where a miner, or a factory worker could point to their production at the end of the week and weigh it with their pay packet and always say that they earned their wages...and more, in the service society we can't point to the papers we shuffled and call that productive. This is the invisible mind trick that has been pulled on us. And those who are unemployed have even less to point to and so have even the paper-shufflers looking down on them. And even they start to believe that it's their fault. Generally though, it's not.

Angie Scarr, Huelva, Spain

Sustainable what? Impermanence is an absolute truth. As the Buddha said "all composite things decay". We love to draw a ring around something and say "that was sustainable" but of course that statement is always in the past tense. Something "outside" our fantasy system has stopped it being sustainable by the time we point at it and that is because there is nothing outside any system. Everything is interconnected without exception. Even if we had a harmonious human system covering the entire planet an asteroid would soon come along and ruin the party. What people crave is certainty and, because there is none, they give us Trojan horses instead. At least a wooden horse is solid and can be kicked. In reality nobody knows what any of these political horses really contain.

Roger Hyam, Edinburgh

At first we may read these comments as though spoken by a man stood upon his soapbox, but no, they are actually an honest assessment of British politicians. Words that in another land would surely result in the death penalty! My own assessment is as follows: This is supposed to be a democracy, as in rule by the people for the people. But what actually happens is that we are bombarded by so many promises made by the politicians, both the real and the hopeful, and then when they actually do get into office they suddenly change into autocratic bureaucrats, people who by some sudden change in the wind direction forget those who trusted in them. So why is it that a politician is so reluctant to listen to the wishes of the electorate? "They are not capable of deciding for themselves what is in their best interests, so they have appointed me to make those vital decisions on their behalf ... " But, wait, is it not those same poor dumb, stupid, disadvantaged people who were trusted to vote in the first place? If they are so senseless as to need a politician (just another human, after all, like one of the voters really) to make their decisions for them, then why are they trusted to vote in the first place? So you see, for all that it is acclaimed as the 'only way' to rule, the only working, practical political concept, it is broken. The democratic political system is fundamentally flawed. If anyone should doubt this, let him listen to broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings. And what does he hear? Does he hear well-reasoned debate, engaged in by polite altruistic individuals. Does he hear several possible solutions to a problem analysed so carefully, and weighed in the balances? I do know what I have heard, and it is not in any way comforting or reassuring. I will not try to put my reaction into words, as I wish to use respectful language, albeit frank. Do I vote? Why would I? If I did would my vote really make any difference? You do already know the answer to that, but if you have just spent the last few days carefully fashioning a horse, then I would not trust your opinion anyway.

David Thurgood, Bridlington, East Riding of Yorkshire

I fail to see the point here. The battle between socialism and liberalism continues as before, and both arguably have the same old down sides. The trouble is that politicians always present rosy pictures when asking for our votes, but they are never accountable for breaking any actual or presumed promises.

Daniel von Asmuth, Utrecht, Netherlands

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