In Politics, Who Gets to Define Progress?

Thus Spake Zarathustra
Thus Spake Zarathustra

It had been some months since the prophet Zarathustra had last visited the village. When he arrived in the central square he was surprised to find it deserted. Hailing a small boy who was passing by, he asked where the occupants were. “Don’t you know it is election time?” was the reply. The prophet was puzzled.

“What interest do the people of this village have in an election?”

“Well, the campaigners have arrived from down south and have promised many things to address the difficulties we face here.”

The prophet’s face darkened when he heard this. “And are these campaigners advocating progressive policies?”

“Well, they don’t call themselves progressive but they are offering to bring progress.”

“What kind of progress would that be then?” His tone was increasingly suspicious.

“Well more shops, for example, and a bus service from here into the next town, so we will be able to visit the cinema and the supermarket there.”

The prophet’s reply was somewhat indistinct, but his displeasure was clear as he appeared to mumble something about “fake news” and “consumerism” before continuing his interrogation.

“So where is everyone then?”

“Oh, they have mostly gone into the next town to campaign.” And then by way of clarification: “Now we have the new bus service running.” This last did little to lighten the cloud which had begun to darken his interlocutor’s countenance. In an attempt at mitigation, the boy further volunteered. “The others are in The Cloud.” This did not quite achieve the desired effect but did elicit a raised eyebrow. Again by way of clarification: “I mean: at the new tea shop.”

“So the good people of the village now have the time not only to go out campaigning for a non-progressive party, but also to sit around idly in tea shops, do they?”

The question was rhetorical, but the youngster did not have the keen sense of irony required to deconstruct the sentiment the prophet was evincing, so continued enthusiastically: “Ah, but you misunderstand. The Cloud is not the tea shop. It is the new free internet service they are able to use there.”

At this point the prophet was all set to launch into his well-rehearsed spiel about how the progressive party policy was to provide a free internet service to all by the end of the decade, but he thought better of it. “You’d better take me to this Cloud then,” he sighed.


Well, as you might have imagined, things did not go much better when he arrived at The Tea Shop, as it helpfully described itself on a gaudy red, white and blue sign outside. Not only did he not receive the usual warm welcome he had come to expect, his arrival was barely noticed. Not managing even to catch the eye of one of those present, all of whom were intently focussed on their phones and tablets, he turned again to the young lad who had become his oracle.

“There is something just not right here,” he intoned.

“Actually, I was thinking the same,” came back the reply. “There is a distinct lack of diversity in this story. Not a single person of female gender has appeared in the narrative thus far.”

“I’m glad you mentioned that and saved me from having to do so but, I was thinking of something else: as I recall, not one of these people was computer literate last time I visited. How come they are all up to their necks in social media now?”

“Well, that is a good question. You see, it is a kind of pyramid scheme.”

“Aha! I thought I smelt a rat.”

“What happened was the political campaigners offered to teach computer skills in exchange for a small fee which would be waived if they offered the same deal to friends or neighbours. Within a couple of days, people had to travel to the next village to find new students.”

“Harrumph!” was all the prophet could manage.

“Oh but that wasn’t a problem because the new bus service I mentioned was running by then.”

“How very convenient for everyone. Did these political campaigners by any chance have names?”

“I can’t remember all of them, but the leaders I believe were a Mr Comings and a Mr. Givings.” (ed. can we change that to Ms. Givings in the final copy to help address the diversity issue? Or, on second thoughts, maybe not.) “Comings talked about the imminent arrival of a tipping point, but we explained we already had a big quarry behind the village where we dump our non-recyclables. We eventually understood what he really wanted to say was that we needed to get our message out on social media that change is on the way and we are taking back control. So that is what folks are now doing.”

By this time the exasperated prophet had heard just about all he could stand. “Ppht” he expostulated. Then clarified with “Aargh!” before concluding with another loud “Harrumph!”

“Would you like some tea?” offered the boy helpfully, but he knew the likely response before he spoke.

“After all I have done for these people, helping them to recognise their false consciousness, their lack of diversity and the privileged status they enjoy by virtue of their identity as indigenous inhabitants and then they get fooled by these purveyors of false promises and fake news.” So he resolved not to return until after the election, by which time, with all the votes counted, the people would surely have learned what dupes they had been believing at the behest of these Pied Pipers that they could become agents of change in their own future. And having so resolved, he punched in the co-ordinates for his Islington address and started up his Porsche.

Disclaimer: references to Zarathustra in the above are an allusion to the eponymous protagonist of Friedrich Nietzche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and not to the Iranian religious reformer and prophet, traditionally regarded as the founder of Zoroastrianism.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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