Wednesday, 9 November 2016

In the event of a scary future, run to the past


So I had intended that this missive would be a light-hearted piece on the Athenian's fondness for shoes – but then I woke up and remembered it’s 2016, so Donald Trump has been elected President of the USA.

Somehow this doesn’t feel as shocking as the Brexit result; but that’s probably because I’m still numb from June.

Either that or I actually believe my own analysis, which is that very large numbers of ordinary people across the western world are angry and confused at how things are panning out for them and they will vote for anyone – literally, anyone – who appears to recognise their pain.  Millions and millions of ordinary people in the US and the UK do not pay attention to current affairs, do not involve themselves in the complexities of globalisation, do not think too often about climate change, do not wonder too much about the relationships between economic growth, debt, tax avoidance, productivity, automation, media ownership, employment, finite natural resources and so forth.  They just want a steady job, a decent house, healthy kids and something to look forward to.

But what is there to look forward to?  More jobs going to other countries?  More people coming here to compete for the remaining jobs?  More expensive housing? Fewer holidays?

Once upon a time I wrote a piece (god knows which hard drive it’s on) suggesting that one of the side-effects of the Cold War was that it provided an underpinning purpose to headline economic activity – by which I meant, the reason to keep on spending and growing and running around as fast as possible was to be as strong as possible in order to counter the obvious threat.  It was a ‘deep frame’, a pervasive myth, a macro-political narrative that justified a whole host of economic policies and actions.  It was tantamount to a duty to be a good consumer, because that was how to maintain the economic strength upon which you and your country’s safety depended.

With the end of the Cold War, that narrative has progressively ebbed away – and behind, there is nothing.  A great existential hole.  What is the point of all this?  Where are we going?  Why?

No one will or can say.

Add in twenty or so years of 'post-person' globalisation, then the crash of 2008 (and its still unfolding aftermath) and – hey presto - we start to go backwards: in the UK, through Brexit, to a time of Empire and ‘sovereignty’, to those re-imagined sepia-tinted ‘good old days’; in the US, through Trump, to a time when America was ‘great’, when all right thinking white folk had good jobs working for great companies, when women and blacks knew their place.  We go backwards to those re-imagined certainties because the future is so frightening: the Chinese in charge? Climate change flooding us out?  Robots doing all the work?

Perhaps the greatest failure of the liberals, the political establishment, the experts, the ‘Front Row Kids’ et al has not been so much in not hearing, or listening to, or comprehending or even empathising with all that bewilderment, but in not developing and then proposing a Good Future.

***

Deep down, I am optimistic that such a project is possible; and it is, self-evidently, more urgent now that it has ever been.

But now is not the time to begin to sketch what I think might be involved in such a project; nor is it a time for optimism.  (I note my own optimism, and store it in the cellar.)  Now is a time for pain and disbelief, for tears and grieving, for that sensation of shock whereby all the news, all the work, all the ordinary everyday stuff suddenly seems pointless.  Now is a time to allow the numbness to approach and to take hold, knowing that it will pass.  Then, and only then, will it be feasible to act.


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