Let's get critical

Julian Baggini on why the art of having a moan is essential to public life

The political animal doesn't need telling that complaint is a good thing. To complain is to stand up and say that things are not as they ought to be: global trade rules, the under-taxation of aviation, or whatever. It is unfortunate that complaint is more usually associated with moans that there's nothing on the telly or the weather is crap.

However, political complaint can be as futile as railing against the rain. If a complaint is to have constructive purpose, it has to be about things that can or should be changed. That might seem obvious, but some of the gravest political errors have been made by people who have, usually unwittingly, ignored these rules. For example, many are concerned by the competitive, egotistical and materialistic nature of contemporary culture. It seems to me to be a legitimate complaint, that we should not just let this go without challenge and should think of ways that public policy might do something to counter the trend.

Yet complaints are rarely constructive when they are too general. We need some specificity, and this is where we can either hit the nail on the head or go horribly awry. For instance, many have said that the corrupting nature of advanced capitalist society is wholly to blame for the status-driven selfishness of our age. If that is our complaint, then we are wrong, dangerously wrong. One of the gravest errors of the socialist revolutions of the 20th century was that they often assumed that people would be good and kind once liberated from the malign influence of capitalism. In fact, competition and greed simply re-emerged in different forms, and the common good was not enough to motivate most people to do their best. While it is absurd to say that human nature is completely fixed and immutable, it is equally ridiculous to suppose that it is infinitely malleable. Equal and opposite mistakes are made by those who say that human beings are essentially wicked or fundamentally good.

Right complaint, in contrast, takes a realistic view of what can be changed and has more chance of leading to positive developments. It is neither fatalistic nor utopian, but says that things needn't go this far, and that we can set up social structures that nurture our better selves.

This is just one example of how important it is to be precise about what you're complaining about and to check whether your vision of how things ought to be is achievable. There are many more such wrong complaints: those that assume the state has more power than it does or should have, those that seek to deny cultural difference while apparently celebrating it, those that ignore the trauma of major social upheavals.

We are too often told to stop moaning and get on with things. Such advice is wrong. Without complaint, no positive change would ever arise. We need to complain not less, but better.

Julian Baggini's "Complaint" is published by Profile Books (£10.99)

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’