Once upon a time, "the establishment" had control of the means of communication, which mattered a lot more than the means of production. Institutions were remote, and the only voices we heard were establishment voices. We respected them, or behaved as though we did, because there was no apparent alternative. The establishment made the rules, made sure those rules were all we knew, and supported itself with every trick that appeals to human nature, including quasi-religious ritual. The judiciary dressed up in wigs and gowns, for example, and the judge would put on a black cap to pronounce a death sentence. The history of power is (okay, not quite) all about dressing to impress.
Today, we face an old problem and a new problem. The old problem is that sooner or later, any establishment starts to believe its own mythology. Roman emperors came to believe that they were divine, for example (The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius, ages ago, or John Hurt as Caligula in the 1976 TV adaptation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius, 1934). Keeping it short; we could cite the fuhrerprinzip, which in its best-known application, stipulated that whatever Hitler said, went. Or, more recently, the UK's parliamentary expenses scandal.
My understanding is: the view was widely shared among MPs that they weren't paid enough. The view was equally widely shared that giving themselves the pay rise that they "deserved" would be politically impossible. So a system evolved whereby expenses could be "nodded through" (my term), so that MPs could use their own judgement to reward themselves appropriately. It's not that any of them ever believed that [insert ridiculous claim here] was necessary to their parliamentary work, nor that they could get away with an inflated claim because the system was lax.
It's not believing in the myth, exactly; it's believing in one's own myth-given authority. Effectively, believing that because you are an MP (or other authority figure) you have a right to interpret/apply/adjust the law in the given situation - and believing that this is compliant with the spirit of the law. So MPs believed that their expenses were a quiet but justifiable way of getting paid according to their worth.
But they failed to take into account the new problem. In a system where we all get to see everything eventually, where control of the means of communication has distributed out of anybody's control, and we're all judgemental, that kind of "nodding through" - of being the authority figure who exercises rights over the law - is no longer sustainable. We all have a view, and often a harsh judgement, and we all have an equal right to be heard. Technology delivers that equal right to be heard far more effectively than any dogma. Technology is an unquestioned happy ending for its promoters, as though a householder having a conversation with a robot that he (yes, he) might have had with his servant a century or two back - delivers Utopia. Can it be that simple? Thought not.
So my question to myself is: to what extent does the - what? The civilisation we want to believe we live in? Yes, that. To what extent does that depend on a myth that just can't be achieved if we're all sniping away at each other via our media and our smartphones? Whatever you think about the expenses scandal, we need to trust and to be trustworthy without being held to a standard by, say, CCTV. Civilisation has to allow for "I'll just park here for five minutes, nobody will mind", just as it has to allow for the kind of social, cultural, political compromise that would be exceeded by, for example, "If I claim for a hedgehog shelter, I'll cover the real cost of today's work."
We need to find a way to blur the edges, loosen the constraints, be flexible with each other, despite the constant presence of a stranger's high-definition smartphone camera.
I wonder if, in their private lives, government ministers call up their friends and say: "Let's not go to the fancy new restaurant that's just opened in the middle of town. Let's have our celebration at the cheap fast-food drive-through on the ring road." I don't really wonder that.
Maybe the big secret is that we can't afford the way we like to live. We can't afford any of it. Nothing at all. It doesn't work. The state is bankrupt and collapsed and we need to start again as a small insignificant foggy country full of warring tribes out on the edge of Europe.
And the guilt of not addressing that is beginning to eat through the fabric of society. Because at some level we all know it. But some of us are insisting on denying it.
I feel better now, thank you.