Bleak Britain: The hour of the Apocalypse is come

The mood of the country is bleak. We all seem to have fallen into a collective funk. Britain is dissatisfied with itself – it has become anxious and self-critical. Suddenly the wider world seems uncongenial, almost dystopic. The levers of global finance have frozen; oil prices have risen as high as the planes that no one can afford to fly on; and commodity prices have become so inflated that the middle-classes have to think twice about buying fancy bread, the Russian émigrés about buying diamonds and the third world about eating anything at all. Worse still: this gathering darkness, this shadow that threatens to block out the sun, has started to creep over the foundation of our sense of peace and security: the home. Our homes – money transfigured into shelter, mythologised by sentiment – are cankering underneath us. Sanctuaries and sovereign spaces, wombs and familial redoubts, as if in some grotesque fairytale are turning into prisons and thieves, places of beleaguerment and neurosis.

Our once great companies too have been poisoned by this waxing malaise, our national virtues undermined. British Airways fell from grace at Terminal Five; Northern Rock made a travesty of its name; Britain’s youth evacuated its foaming rage in a frenzy of bloodthirsty knife attacks. Each one of these things could stand as a parable for a country facing a terrible and nebulous threat from without, which looks within for strength only to find that its virtues have been dissipated in years of decadence and that it is incapable of restraining its own raging id.

And we look up fearfully from our position of quivering self-doubt, reinforced daily by a giddy, horror-struck media, and where we hope to find the strength and sense of purpose, the power and self-mastery required to resist – we see nothing, only a more caricatured version of ourselves. Britain has lost faith in its political classes and particularly in its first man – Gordon Brown. Brown has become the personification of this new world of deterioration and incapacity. He represents Britain’s complete impotence before the inevitabilities of global economic pathology and our culpable tiredness, weakness and irrelevance. At this moment Brown is us – Brown is the British – and looking up to him we feel only embittered hope, resentful disappointment and alienated self-hatred. Brown is doomed and so are we.

I think I’ve held the quasi-apocalyptic tone for long enough. Apparently the credit crunch was partly the result of a world property bubble, but it seems to me that no sooner has one bubble burst than we have been enveloped by another: the media jeremiah bubble. A sort of collective frenzy of self-abasement and self-recrimination has burst forth that would be completely inexplicable as the sum of individual phenomena: it can only be understood as a shared phenomenon, as a sort of deindividuating, self-replenishing fire that has spread through our media coverage. Suddenly the Today programme has become a very dark radio show, misanthropic, almost Nostradaman.

A lot of this is the consequence of our imprisonment within a very destructive worldview. We are the children of the growth paradigm. Humankind’s manipulations of matter have become ever-more ingenious and ever more ingeniously marketed; our embellishment of superfluity has become the locus of human achievement. We have become unprecedentedly rich and unprecedentedly skilful in making ourselves rich. Our resourcefulness in enriching ourselves has only been outstripped by one thing: our perverse ability to invent new wants and to mistake them for needs. But for a long time now it hasn’t really seemed like a problem. Because Gordon Brown or neoliberalism or globalisation – something anyway – fixed British capitalism. Growth was uninterrupted (uninterruptable); inflation was as anachronistic as unions; and (economic) history had ended – it would just continue like this ad infinitum; this was the order of things.

And so we came not just to expect it, but to feel entitled to it. Our happiness became bound up with it – a parasite on GDP, the faithful acolyte of “things” which had somehow reached an unstoppable critical mass. Britain became a country that was hedonistic, epicurean, antinomian. We denied ourselves nothing and didn’t believe in denying ourselves. We were principled believers in our consumption. Austerity and asceticism were the virtues of a stagnant society of constraint and taboos and privileges – a sclerotic, anti-modern society: 1950’s Britain or the Eastern bloc. Liberal capitalist societies with their dynamism and their heterogeneity and their celebration of the individual triumphed over all of that. The great sub-Smithian myth was enshrined: the good society was by definition one in which whatever I wanted could be reconciled with what everyone else wanted.

Views like that left us completely exposed to the inevitable reassertion of the market cycle. In believing so credulously in uninterrupted growth, in our almost nineteenth century belief in progress (at least in the economy), we prepared ourselves for the terrible sense of deprivation that we currently feel. Marx was wrong: capitalism’s periodic crises don’t seem to threaten its very existence, but they do seem to be an unavoidable feature of the system. Capitalism doesn’t seem so much to be superintended by an invisible hand, as hooked up to an invisible wave machine, the influence of which we can attenuate, but not eliminate.

There is an alternative paradigm – one which will leave us less exposed and more fulfilled. That paradigm is one that devalues the material, and its necessary corollary work, and revalues the creative, the social and the human. Sounds like hippy talk, eh? Sixties nonsense? Utopian humbug? My heart’s obviously not in the critique, but I see no reason why it should succeed. Squandering the 2% annual growth dividend (trend growth) on our material fixation, on stuffing the belly of our insatiable appetite for more things, strikes me as quintessentially futile. Imagine instead that we started to trade in the increased resources that capitalism provides us with, not for more money, but for more time. Just think about the 35-hour week; the 30-hour week; the 25-hour week – there is no logical stopping point. And then imagine a society in which much of the energy and strength of will and directed thinking currently absorbed by Sisyphean work has to find a new outlet. In that sort of society, with the right encouragement from government, a civil society of free association – modelled on the sort of thing that we see in our universities – would develop. Theatre groups, sport teams, charitable action groups would be the beneficiaries of all those liberated powers. People would increasingly find the value that they are currently forced to find in work in their lives outside of work. The same need for purposive activity, personal networks, social cooperation and status would be satisfied without the compulsion and hierarchy of the workplace.

That’s what I think we can gain if we relinquish our self-defeating fealty to accumulation and the painful devotion to work that it necessitates. But I want to say something more about the current national mood of self-pity and distress. That loss of sureness, the vaporisation of our decade-long complacency, is real enough; we’re frightened and hesitant, needled by doubt, but however unpleasant I think on some level we want this. Looked at from a certain perspective it is psychologically functional: as a nation we are revelling in the sense of our own turpitude. The crisis in national confidence that mirrors the crisis in confidence of the City financiers is a collective masochism, a self-thwarting response to our decadent living. We are yet to escape the influence of the asceticism that Nietzsche thought the West was built on: Christian self-abnegation and republican austerity still latently condition our reactions even long after we’ve abandoned the substantive content of these systems of thought. To become pure again, we have to suffer. We need to beat our chests and howl with dismay, and hurt very deeply.

Another perhaps not incompatible analysis would hold that (mostly unconsciously) we do feel guilty, but we can’t bear the burden of that guilt, we can’t stand the thought of accepting responsibility for so much suffering. And so we discern in it all a natural phenomenon – something meaningless and amoral, the work of no one; an unanticipatable and unpreventable cataclysm. No one was to blame. Like a volcanic eruption or an earthquake which we only dimly understand (in the popular mind) and cannot possibly control, the economy hurt us just like a natural disaster. Or, with a neat nod to popular culture, we call it ‘the perfect storm’ and talk about that alien, unfathomable, ineffable first cause of it all: the Credit Crunch. Scarcely even a terrestrial notion anymore, definitely much more than a slangy catchphrase for the economically illiterate, this description of what has happened has become an explanation beyond which we cannot expect to penetrate. Even to the high priests of global finance the Credit Crunch is a sublime mystery: something terrifying, awing, beautiful, but above all – beyond the wit of man.

And if that doesn’t work from you, in case you realise that the economy isn’t a meteorological system or a tectonic one, then there is always the human scapegoat (used frequently without any pretence of consistency). In this case it is Brown, ironically seeing as he is one of the most inappropriate imaginable scapegoats for this particular offence. Brown is being protractedly condemned and slowly sacrificed for our thriftlessness and prodigality. If one’s humour is black enough, it really is quite funny. This grimly calvinistic man – boring, choked with austerity and completely unengaged by material wealth – is going to be the one driven out into the desert. He may not be a playboy premier, a villa-hopping scapegrace – some sort of turbo-Sarkozy or pimped-Blair, but he squats uncomfortably atop the government, and so he’ll do. At the very least, Brown personifies the economy after his decade at the Treasury and, in any case, we have decided that we don’t like him – he isn’t enough like us; he is an out-group member. And so we will offer him up as an atoning sacrifice to divine wrath (the newspapers perhaps?) and as an alibi for the previous ten years when we seemed to like him well enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: