Isambard Kingdom Brunel

Brunel, Bhagwan, The Beatles and the collapse of Western Civilization

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

“I endeavour to understand the current state of railway matters when everyone around seems mad. Stark staring mad. The only sane course is to get out and keep quiet.”

Isambard Kingdom Brunel


It’s tragic that the man  who created so much of Britain’s railway infrastructure was driven to a point where he had to get out. But I know how he feels. Replace ‘railway matters’ with ‘television’,  ‘journalism’, ‘education’, ‘science’ or even ‘society’ and I’ve come to exactly the same conclusion myself.

Some might say that’s the cynicism that comes with advancing years. But I don’t think so. There are still lots of things I’m enthusiastic about.  I’d say it had less to do with my own cynicism and more to do with the cynics who now run everything. People who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde said.

But it’s only natural. All institutions end up that way.

I remember visiting Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh‘s ashram in Pune (or Poona as it was called then) just before Christmas 1979. Not that I was ever a Bhagwan follower, Rajneeshee or Orange Person as they used to be called. I was backpacking around India at the BBC‘s expense looking for a story for a documentary film that would  eventually become the opening programme in a major new television series, Great Railway Journeys of the World.

Back in those days, Indian gurus were pretty fashionable, largely because of The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi I suppose.


By the end of the 70s The Beatles were long gone and the Maharishi was on his way out, but the fashions were going from strength to strength.

Where once only a small number of “far-out” hippies wore long hair and loon pants, now anyone who didn’t have hair over their ears and collars and flares in their business suits looked out of touch. Where once there had been the Maharishi, now there was Rajneesh,  MaharajiHare Krishna and half a dozen other sects. But Rajneesh, or Osho as he later became known,  was more fashionable than most. So, as I was travelling through Poona looking for a story for the  BBC, I thought I ought to check them out.

I arrived at the Poona ashram just after dawn, with my rucksack on my back, tired and dishevelled having spent the night on the floor of a 3rd class compartment on a slow steam train from Solapur, along with what seemed like the entire contents of an Indian village, including grandparents, grandchildren, household furniture, cooking utensils, farm implements and associated chickens and goats.

I expected the ashram might be a large house or even a small hotel. What I did not expect was what looked like a sizeable country estate surrounded by a 12 foot wall with a couple of tall blond young athletic Californians immaculately dressed in orange T shirts and loon pants guarding the gates. I made my introductions, but they were not impressed. They took one look at me, turned up their noses and told me they didn’t care who I was or where I’d come from, if I didn’t get a shower and a change of clothes I wasn’t getting in.

An hour later, having showered in a local hotel and changed into the least dirty clothes I could find in my rucksack, they still didn’t think I was up to scratch. It was only after I’d explained I could get them publicity, good or bad, that they reluctantly agreed to escort me to the ashram administrator and let her decide.

The administrator was pleasant enough, but clearly on the defensive. The locals were getting increasingly restless about hordes of young westerners staggering around town stoned, cashing their American Express cheques in the ashram and doing nothing for the local economy. They didn’t need any more publicity of any kind. But, seeing as I was already there, she supposed it would be OK if I met the Bhagwan after he’d given his morning talk.

So I took my place amongst the throng of orange people seated on the ground around an octagonal marble (or was it concrete?) pavilion and waited to hear what he had to say.

I’d never heard him speak before (there was no internet in those days remember, and they rarely cover those sort of things on mainstream TV ) so I didn’t know what to expect. As it turned out, I thought he was brilliant. Relaxed, informal and genuinely funny in a way comedians aren’t these days. Instead of just sniggering, I found myself having real belly laughs. Nothing like a vicar pontificating from the pulpit, he reminded me more of the very small handful of teachers and lecturers you come across who are genuinely  interesting and entrancing. Which wouldn’t have been such a surprise if I’d known that before he became the Bhagwan, he was a professor of philosophy at an Indian University.

His subject that morning was the evolution of institutions. He defined three phases. I can’t remember exactly what he called each phase, but I thought what he said was so insightful I can still remember it 35 years later.

In the first phase, a fan base gathers naturally or organically around a charismatic leader. Like Jesus gathering disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, The Beatles gathering fans in the Cavern, Rajneesh gathering Orange People in Poona, or Bin Laden gathering terrorists in a cave in Afghanistan.

In the second phase the organism has grown too big for the leader to communicate with the fans without more formal organization. So some kind of Fan Club, Church, Political Party or Institution is established to carry on the good work.

In the third phase, the organization has grown so big it becomes an end in itself. The leaders of the organisation become more important than the founder, who is now a threat to the organization. If the founders aren’t already dead, the organization has to kill them off.

For any sociologist who has read Max Weber, this is not a revelation. As a professor of philosophy, no doubt Bhagwan had. But I was trained as a physicist, so it was all news to me.

Whether we’re talking about the organizations and institutions that grew up around Bhagwan, Max Weber, The Beatles, Jesus Christ or the Founding Fathers of the USA, it doesn’t matter. The underlying principles are the same.

Which brings us back to Brunel’s disillusionment at the current state of railway matters, or my disillusionment at the current state of everything else.

Once we had charismatic engineers, scientists, teachers, broadcasters, journalists, politicians, economists, film and TV directors and pop stars. Now we have The X Factor. Imagine how well someone like John LennonBob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix would get on with Simon Cowell. He’d take one look at them and have them thrown out on the street.

I’ve watched this process happen in every walk of life, from physics to education to journalism to television. We’ve now reached the point where there’s not just no one left who knows what they’re doing, there’s no one left who ever met anyone who knew what they were doing.

Some might say I’m over-egging the pudding. Others might say it’s the politics of envy, or the bitterness of old age. But I don’t think so. Just look around you. The bloke in the boiler suit at your local back-street garage might know what he’s doing, but how many members of parliament do?

Why else does the Home Secretary say his department is not fit for purpose? Why else has the cost of of the new NHS computer system snowballed from £6.2 billion to over £20 billion and rising? Why else do they keep telling us that things that people like Brunel and Aneurin Bevan created out of nowhere on a shoestring in an incredibly short time will take so many more years and so many more billions to fix?

Even In a truly fair, open, free-market capitalism meritocracy based on sound evolutionary principles of survival of the fittest to do the job, people will inevitably rise to the level of their own incompetence. That’s why, when they fail, they need to do the decent thing and throw in the towel. After all, that’s why we pay them such enormous salaries. Because of their exceptional talents  in doing the job, and because of the exceptional risks and responsibilities that go with it.

But that’s the opposite of what we’ve been doing for at least the last 40 years. These days, leaders no longer accept responsibility. Instead they shift the blame somewhere else. If they can’t find a suitable fall guy, they say hindsight is easy, no one could have predicted what happened and earnestly promise to learn from their mistakes and do better next time.


But, hang on a minute. Aren’t people who learn on the job usually called apprentices or interns? Aren’t they paid a pittance on account of their lack of experience? And aren’t leaders paid a fortune because they are supposed to know how to do the job? When it’s proved they don’t, aren’t they supposed to step aside to make way for those that might? And what’s all this about hindsight? Aren’t leaders supposed to have FORESIGHT for chrissakes?

If Darwin was right, and survival of the fittest is the name of the game, then a civilization that prefers shameless incompetence to charisma, is a civilization destined to fail.

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