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Can culture predict future events?


Can culture predict future events?

We can control the direction of planes in the sky but we can’t control our own vanity, ego, envy or greed, says Peter Kelly


The movie Saltburn is the probably the most talked-about British movie of recent years. But Saltburn is not a great movie. It’s a fun movie but not a great one.

The writing lets it down a little bit. The main character does not seem believable. However, the movie completely lampoons the upper classes of British society and I think this is why it has created such a stir.

This fits a similar trend to what we are seeing in America, with Succession and The White Lotus proving extremely popular with audiences. It is no secret we are living in a time of increasing inequality and many people now feel the economic systems on both sides of the Atlantic have been rigged to skim money off the masses and deliver a disproportionate spoil of riches to the already very wealthy.

The system is still a capitalist one but it is firmly tilted in favour of rentiers and to the detriment of renters. Can culture ever predict the future? As Steve Jobs said in his famous join-the-dots speech, we can only join the dots looking back, never forward. Trying to predict the future is a fool’s game and people will often point to events after an event to say it was obvious to predict. Hindsight is a great thing.

One of the most famous cases of this effect is the French play The Marriage of Figaro written by Pierre Beaumarchais in 1778. The play premiered in 1784. Mozart turned it into an opera in 1786. It is a comedy that lampoons the upper classes and the aristocracy are portrayed as degenerate, lustful and depraved.

The servants take over their master’s house and make a fool of them. If you have seen Saltburn, the parallels are unmissable. The play destroyed the illusion of the infallibility of the noble’s power and is now seen as foreshadowing the French Revolution in 1789. According to Wikipedia, the revolutionary leader Georges Danton said the play “killed off the nobility.” In exile, Napoleon Bonaparte called it “the Revolution already put into action.”

Which brings me to Napoleon. Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest movie directors of all time, spent half his life trying unsuccessfully to get a movie of Napoleon’s life made and failed. His financial backers did not see a demand for such a movie and this year, we not only had a movie of Napoleon by Ridley Scott, but we have a Steven Spielberg production of Napoleon coming down the line for HBO. Spielberg will be using Kubrick’s notes. Why are audiences so eager for such productions now?

The idea that a modern, sophisticated society could be so foolish as to create an economic model that creates such distasteful and unpalatable inequality that a French-style revolution could occur beggars belief. Could we really be this stupid? When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we were told it was the end of history.

There was optimism leading into the turn of the millennium and a sense that we were smarter than ever, that we would not repeat the mistakes of the past. I don’t think anyone feels like that now.

I remember studying microbiology during my pharmacy degree and an older lecturer telling us that we were overdue a pandemic. I actually thought he was a bit bonkers saying that. Did he not know about the end of history? We have now had a pandemic.

So, for us to continue to believe we won’t have a revolution or world war is just wishful, generational exceptionalism. Why do we believe we can re-enact the mistakes of the past without suffering the consequences of the past? It is quite astonishing that we keep repeating the same mistakes throughout history. Why is that?

As much as the aesthetics of the world change, we don’t change. Our emotions don’t change. We can control the direction of planes in the sky but we can’t control our own vanity, ego, envy or greed. We constantly fall for the illusion that what is good for us is good for all, when often it is not.

Sir Tony O’Reilly, the first Irish-born billionaire, was one of the first CEOs to start paying himself many multiples more than his employees. He did this when he was CEO of Heinz in America. He injected cash into his own companies in Ireland to keep them afloat.

Little did he know this would start a trend where all CEOs would pay themselves substantially more than their employees.


Peter Kelly is a pharmacist based in London and a stand-up comedian.



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