It’s a Funny Old World

Five years ago I started this blog to record my thoughts on the general election.  It was, I suppose, a small act of hope.  The Coalition had felt like a gigantic confidence trick. Five years earlier I had assumed, as did many others, that whichever was the largest party after a general election would need to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats along ‘Confidence and Supply’ lines, which would essentially produce a government unable to do anything but keep the system ticking over.  But as we now know, the result was very different, a last, turbo powered gasp of the late 20th Century.

In 2015 I had hoped that Ed Miliband, an essentially decent and intelligent man trying to do politics in a vicious and grubby world, might start to restore Labour’s fortunes.  But that was not to be.  The 2014 Scottish independence referendum saw to that.  That first bid at partition mobilised latent English nationalism, which was then weaponised by the Tories as a way to wound Labour.  Ed Miliband was depicted as a puppet operated by Alex Salmond, a trick as cynical as the effective but untrue slogans five years earlier about Labour ‘crashing the economy’, or ‘maxing out the credit card’.  Once again it worked.  Too well.

Too well for its creators, certainly.  Cameron and Osborne won a great victory in 2015, and were out of office and out of power within a year.  English nationalism unleashed was a beast that turned on the overconfident men who opened the cage.  Thus, in the last five years we have had three Prime Ministers, and three Leaders of the Opposition, plague stalks the land, extreme weather threatens to fry us or drown us, and we are entering a Great Depression that could make the 1930s look like a cakewalk.

In this place and time it feels pointless to blog about the ins and outs of Westminster politics, even if it is as seen from outside the bubble.  I’m one of those lately labelled a ‘citizen of nowhere’ merely on the basis of a vote I cast four years ago, when in reality I’m a woman living in my unfashionable hometown observing the people around me; people who are as diverse in their attitudes, opinions, beliefs, hopes, fears and desires as any, anywhere.  Nowhere are there just two types of people, and government isn’t – or ought not to be – about serving only one type of person. The system we have does not fit the people we are, and it cannot make the future we need.

Because this is a revolutionary age.  The 21st Century began in January 2020.  It will sweep away all we have known.  And as in all periods of revolutionary change, we will have to decide which side we are on.

The trouble with revolutions is that whilst they are happening, who knows what the ‘sides’ are?  

The side we might call the ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are clearly visible.  The water-muddying tricksters, the sowers of seeds of doubt, the conspiracy theorists, the anti-vaxxers, the millenarian preachers (who accept PayPal), the Trumps, and Putins, Erdogans, Bolsonaros, Modis, Orbans, and yes, the Johnsons, and all their little counterparts, from Belarus to Zimbabwe.  These are people selling fear of the big wide world, whilst filling their own pockets, or those of their friends.  They are in power, or claim influence in many places, because they offer a vision that anxious people can grasp, a vague reflection of an idealised past when virgins with crocks of gold walked unmolested from John o’Groats to Lands End; when only temples stood in Ayodhya, only mosques in Istanbul; when men went out to work in mines and steel works, whilst women stirred pots on the range; a world of faith, and order, of people knowing their place; coal fires, and cups of tea, apple pie and home-made lemonade, Kinder, Küche, Kirche, harvests without fear of locusts or drought, you knew where you were when the rich man was in his castle, and the poor man at the gate.

Set out their prospectus like this, and it is absurd.  But it is powerful stuff because people know that things are changing in ways they cannot control, and can barely imagine.  What could be more appealing than the promise of a strong leader who takes back control, makes your country great again, restores national pride, keeps out foreigners, turns their backs on their neighbours?  When Trump promises to bring back the old jobs to the Rust Belt, or Johnson says he’ll reopen a few northern rail lines cut by Beeching, there is a poignant power to these pledges. But it’s a case of wielding nostalgia as a lethal weapon; the steel mills of old are gone forever, and those restored trains will fill with commuters from nearby cities attracted by lower house prices, fuelling more resentment from those ‘left behind’, in the condescending phrase used only by those who aren’t.

The age we are now leaving forever is one in which we saw our planet as a store of things we could use in whatever ways we wished, or could get away with.  We have as much right as any creature to shape our immediate environment to offer us food, shelter, and happiness. The radical alteration of the natural world through human civilisation has brought us great benefits, material and emotional.  But the age of nations, and of industrial capitalism had within it the seeds of its own destruction, a dialectic that is not about economic and social relations, but about economic and natural relations.

Our cupboard is starting to look bare, the next village is on fire, down the road the crops are under water, the castle has pulled up the drawbridge in a vain attempt at keeping out the pox, and the lake is awash with dead fish.  We can’t make society work for humans any more until we start to repair the damage we have done, and that means everywhere.  When Bolsonaro wishes rainforests would burn down, that’s the lungs of my city and yours, and of every square centimetre of the earth, river deep, mountain high.  The rare earths and minerals involved in making the device upon which I write this are finite resources.  We are going to have to decide who gets to use them, for what purpose, and how they might be reused.  We have to decide where people live, as coastal areas, even whole countries, sink into rising oceans.  Everything we have known materially and, indeed, economically and politically, needs to change. Because change is going to happen anyway.

So how do we get from where we are, to where we need to be?  It’s politics at its most essential – the distribution of resources.

For what it’s worth, I’m going to try to imagine what the next steps could be. That’s where this blog is going now. If you’ve done me the courtesy of reading this, I’d be very grateful for suggestions.

4 thoughts on “It’s a Funny Old World

  1. Hi Yasmin and thanks for this – stimulating as ever!
    Taking up your invitation to join in the debate: I take as a given that we are stuck with capitalism at least for the time being and in default of a viable alternative. It is a creative, innovative, productive system which needs to be calmed down before it destroys both itself and us along with it. Fundamentally, capitalism is very good at producing the goods and services but very poor at distribution of the fruits of all that effort. I doubt that capitalism will reform itself before it comes to see the possibility of profit being generated by saving the planet rather than destroying it – and there are a few straws in the wind.
    So I’d start there – how do we persuade capital that it is in its own interest to conserve rather than destroy?
    All the best.
    Roy

  2. Hi Roy,

    I was trying to think within a big frame for this post, drawing upon a range of disciplines. So, with regard to the question of capitalism, I had in the back of my head work done by, for example, David Graeber on money, for a long and social anthropological view about how societies organise the production and exchange of goods. Money and markets existed long before capitalist economies. Even looking at this point in time, capitalism properly regulated, the ruled, not the ruler, can be dynamic and socially useful. It’s not the model, led by discredited business school notions of the primacy of shareholder value, that we have in the UK, but simply being a bit more German, or South Korean, might not be a bad thing.

    I’m actually quite optimistic that a transitional route though a Green capitalism is not only possible, but likely. But we also need bolder changes, too. A return to a mid 20th Century welfare state doesn’t fit the ways we live now, and will live in the future. It’s why I do think there’s a lot to be said for a basic income to replace much of the complex benefits system. The welfare state could be quite paternalistic. Something that provides a floor to income without question (such as the expectation that the recipient look for paid work) has social and probably economic benefits. The British music industry in the late 20th Century was underwritten by a relatively lax attitude to ‘the dole’ which enabled bands to home their craft before success rewarded both them and the tax authorities. I suspect a UBI might be a spur to creativity, too.

    None of these kinds of thinking are sufficiently part of the political conversation yet. I hope they will be.

  3. I am interested in your thoughts for a way forward. I tend to read people like George Monbiot, Rebecca Solnit and a magazine, Emergence. No original or even suggestions from me I’m afraid. Keep thinking and writing!

    1. The starting point, implicit in tho things you are reading, is a need to grasp the big picture, the full, planet-wide scale of what is urgent. Some, many, people are talking about these things, and some are doing serious work on how to advance our understanding, and how to come up with practical policy prescriptions for what can be done now. Ideas like the Green New Deal, think tanks (the real ones, that actually think) like the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, councils, like Preston, with its ‘Preston Model’ which keeps money spent by councils and big employers circulating in the local and regional economy, and many other such things are evidence of movement in the right direction. Relevant to people like you, Marg, and me, is the role culture can and must play in enabling people to imagine other ways of living, to give shape to our dreams.

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