In this weekend’s Financial Times there was a short article covering the late stage negotiations of David Bowie’s estate to sell his song catalogue for a rumoured $200m. This astronomical price for the Starman’s corpus is just the latest in a long line of acquisitions by investment groups in A-List musicians’ work. Hipgnosis, part owned by Nile Rodgers, is perhaps the most high profile, but the list also includes listed funds like Round Hill’s as well as funds backed by major private equity groups. This increasing interest in music as an investment class also drove the successful spinning off this year of Universal Music Group by Vivendi, as well as the rocketing price of Nasdaq-listed Warner Music Group.
Bowie of course has ‘previous’ in this department with his ‘Bowie Bonds’ who partnered with Prudential to raise $55M of artist-backed debt in order to buy back recording masters from his ex-manager. The bonds tanked with the rise of Napster and the early days of piratical streaming, though despite a turbulent decade, the ten-year notes reached maturity and were redeemed in 2007. However, it’s the success of Napster’s streaming descendents such as Spotify and Tidal that have led to the renewed interest in song rights amongst the finance community, with heavyweight Blackstone and KKR stepping into the ring this year to take a piece of the steady returns that blue-chip music assets promise. As an investment idea it makes perfect sense; the dematerialised, post-industrial capitalist equivalent of pension funds buying blocks of rental properties for steady yields. New generations are increasingly less doctrinaire in their music tastes and their eclecticism as well as older cohort’s own nostalgia means legendary artists such as Bowie or Blondie hold an enduring appeal – and value. Once the IP is owned, there’s no incremental costs and a steady recurring revenue stream, as well as, for a small investment, a myriad of opportunities for further monetisation, through TV, advertising and media. And it’s not just the dead and retired that are cashing in, with recent heavyweights such as The Kaiser Chiefs and The Chainsmokers both having sold up to Hipgnosis.
Though there is something to be said (at least from their perspective) for musicians getting the chance to bring forward future – and posthumous – earnings into the here-and-now, as well as the chance to cash in when they believe their creative stock might be at its highest, this is a potentially dangerous deal that popular culture is cutting with high finance. Groups such as Blackstone are not getting into this business for their passion for the music and will be looking for the maximum return for their investment; though the passive income from streaming is the foundation, there are entire teams looking to sweat these assets as hard as they can. Adverts, movie soundtracks, streaming series themes… wherever they can place these top-tier artists, they will, generating what amounts to ‘money for nothing’ from recycling their greatest hits. And wherever they do, that’s money being taken out of the artistic economy to generate shareholder wealth, at the expense of the up-and-coming rapper that was being considered for that film or the new singer-songwriter who might have got to appear on that series. Why would you take a chance on that new soul-funk trio for your Vodafone advert when the nice people at KKR music are offering you a great deal on ‘Let’s Dance’ by David Bowie, along with a kickback from all attributable incremental streams whilst your ad is live?
These back-catalogue sales are great for the funds and those that invest in them and great for established (or faded) stars. But for the music business and creativity, they are bad news, sucking much needed dollars out of the ecosystem. So what’s to be done?
Fight Finance with Finance. The same way that challengers have disrupted entrenched incumbents before – by taking big bets on future successes. I believe that – Hamfatter aside – we need Angel Investors for the Arts, a sort of 21st century version of the renaissance patron, investing in up and coming bands that want (and not all perhaps do) to ‘crack’ the business. Most will fail – the same as many ‘normal’ seed investments, but that’s fine. And some will not. And the ones that do pay off, will pay for future investment in other bands, supporting the grass roots that would be otherwise mown down by these juggernaut investment vehicles.
In March 2020 I returned to the UK after a year and half in China and a little over six in total in East Asia. As well as returning with stories, scars and a new respect for the Singapore legal system, I also swept back to Europe alongside Covid-19. It was quite a way to be upstaged. My intention had been to spend my first 6 months or so picking up freelance work whilst looking for my next ‘3-5 year thing’, but in April of last year, that initial plan of an early summer of relaxed coffees with old connections looked increasingly impossible. In that environment, I jumped on the first ‘safe bet’ that was hiring and was a ‘good-enough’ match for my skills; a fast-growing market research ‘tech disruptor’. Though the role was fully remote, the company was (is) full of brilliant, smart people and at its heart, a central premise that I believed in. But fast forward and my experience of remote work was a year of relentless hours, cramped kitchen table video calls and, eventually, burnout, that has left me reflecting on what is a job really for and what we all lost when we all left the office.
Summer 2020 was a glorious one and as we lived our lives outdoors in sun-dappled parks, commentators were quick to celebrate the end of the office; no more cubicle, commute or gossipy chat. But newspaper columnists are more often than not solitary scribes liable to their own egocentric bias. I would also note that as we ploughed on into the depths of lockdown, the quality of their work began to erode with the sharpest minds resorting to observational commentary on park dog walkers or YouTube workout gurus. Even culture’s silent voyeurs need something to ‘voy’. Meanwhile their analysis of the shifts in work that the pandemic forced upon us all were limited to office-based professionals and focused only – at least at first – on the perceived gains, rather than the very real losses. People were able to perform their tasks just as adequately at home. They would save money and time on the commute, as well as by forgoing the flat white or the deli salad box. At the same time employers were looking at resilient short-term production and the opportunity to shed expensive city-centre property portfolios, along with their accompanying facilities bills. And as our days began to start earlier and our lunch breaks compressed, they were extracting more from us for the same pay.
From the employee’s perspective, this purely economic analysis of the socio-cultural institution of ‘work’ is myopic. Just as we don’t eat at a restaurant because we are simply hungry, or wear the clothes we choose just to stay warm, we don’t work just to make money. Work – and I would include child-rearing in the category here – provides purpose, structure, belonging, friendships; it generates social capital and plays a key role in our mental health. Historically we have seen this most clearly in industrial communities in the 19th and early 20th century, where mines and factories gave rise to football clubs and bands, unions and clubs, hobbies and associations.
Many of the 21st Centuries own White Collar Proletariat – the Powerpoint wranglers and Excel tweakers of the modern knowledge economy see themselves as somehow above this; that all they need is a oat latte and a good broadband connection to thrive, but after the last year and a half how many deep down truly believe this is the case?
I would argue that any company thinking about a fully remote world is entering into a short-termist lose-lose for both employer and employee where ‘jobs’ are turned into ‘tasks’ and any immediate gains in efficiency are outweighed by long-term mortgaging of true productivity and innovation. Below I’ve outlined a few of the reasons why…
Erosion of social capital and company culture
It’s really really difficult to set norms when you can’t see how other people behave and what is expected. Yes, this can be done remotely, but it’s hard work over video calls and for my own team, it was when I started during the depths of the pandemic bringing them into a WeWork for an ‘essential’ office day at least once a week that we really began to gel. At the same time, successful collaboration needs trust. For many more senior members of staff, they may already have built this but it is depleted during time apart and as new people join, that existing capital is also diluted. In this case, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.
Higher Barriers to collaboration
If you ask a quick question you need to book a 15 minute call, the barrier to doing so increases. People are more likely to struggle through than trouble someone when there is a level of formality to doing so. For my own team, we combated this with an ‘open link’, a bookmarked Google Meet that was always available to jump into, even just for 2 mins. Anything that took more than two replies on Slack would be dealt with instead verbally in a minute or two. And Slack is awful, with it’s constant pings, it is more often abused than well used.
Death of innovation
Yes, you can probably get people to produce more Powerpoint slides without the distraction of a 15 minute chat by the coffee machine; but will they decide to replace the deck with an employee podcast whilst sitting at home ploughing through charts? The sparks that come from those serendipitous connections are real and while not every office is designed to do this well, this is an argument for better spaces not an atomised workforce
A lost generation
All of the above has the biggest, most disproportionate impact on those at the start or early stages of their career. Informal learning, mirroring of professional norms, demonstration of company culture and behaviour are all vital to those starting out, and comes from being around others, especially those with more experience. For senior folk who are excited about 30 mins longer in bed or extra time with their kids, they are pulling the ladder up behind them. We learnt from being in that environment themselves, and I’d argue it’s our responsibility to show up and pass forward this knowledge.
What this is not is an impassioned plea for a return to the bad old days. I have been lucky enough to have mostly worked for agencies or in tech businesses where the office environment was very intentionally vibrant, with spaces for collaboration and inspiration. I believe everyone deserves better offices and no-one deserves to be forced into even the nicest corporate HQ 5 days a week. But even before the pandemic, people were already flexing. We need to move beyond the atomised task rabbit, performing the rote-learnt elements of their role home alone and the cubicle farm. We need flexible working, better offices and face to face collaboration both for the health of our colleagues and the wealth of our businesses.
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks
Everything is Noise
Goaded into action by the Fast Food President – a man as full of empty calories as empty rhetoric, hundreds of disparate factions of his supporters breached the defences of the very heart of American Democracy. As rioters erected a mock-gallows to ‘hang Mike Pence’ for daring to suggest that President-Elect Joe Biden’s legitimate election victory was in fact legitimate, hundreds of others stormed the building whilst lawmakers from both sides of the aisle cowered under desks and hid in offices in scenes that most citizens of America and other ‘functioning’ democracies would associate with ‘somewhere else’; somewhere hot, despotic and lawless. Both Press Corps and protesters beamed us live images of bearded Incels waving Confederate flags inside the heart of the Union while a horn-helmeted self-professed Shaman tried to remove the Speaker’s lectern, we were watching something unfold that was almost impossible to understand.
The question it made me ask was ‘How will historians judge this time?’
Not the 2020 US Elections or even the reign of Trump, but the last decade and a half.
News cycles are fast, but time moves slowly. And it’s almost impossible to understand an era until it has almost passed. As Elon Musk moves markets and Swedish teens move hearts and minds and the status quo convulses as it fails to hold back the inevitability of demography, I can’t help wondering, what the hell was that?
We are witnessing the final act of a period play defined by its volatile lack of plot.
Whilst Britain veered from the coalition’s romance in the rose garden and the era of the centrist Dad to Remoaners and Brexit; From ‘Ooooohhhh! Jeremy Corbyn’ to Oh…..Dominic Cummings, the US managed to elect a mixed-race man twice and a sex offender once, whilst we saw the stellar rise of AOC, BLM and GME. One could talk about Macron and Gillet Jaunes, or jump to the Middle East and the two faces of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Saud; the moderniser who let women in the Kingdom drive and who is planning a utopian eco-city in the desert and the butcher who sent assassins on to foreign soil to murder and dismember one dissenting voice. Meanwhile in China, the optimism of the PRCs coming out party, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has given way to a technological panopticon, powered by an integrated surveillance apparatus, which unlike Covid-19 (See; SARS, MERS, Ebola) is truly unprecedented, a comprehensive monitoring system first piloted as a tool for Genocide-Lite in Xinjiang, and now being primed to bring Hong Kong to heel.
At the centre of this, the pivot around which all these disjointed arms seem to whirl is the Great Financial Crash, the moment when the late 20th century, like Wile E. Coyote finally looking down and seeing that bridge has gone, fell to earth with a puff of dirt.
What was the future?
This was not what we were promised.
When the West ‘won’ the Cold War, the implicit economic consensus brought us the promise of prosperity and democracy for all. Former darling of the Neoconservative right, Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history’ in 1992, but by 2004, whilst Dick Cheyney was declaring a ‘American Unipolar Moment’ at a speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Fukuyama had already decided that “All of my friends had taken leave of reality.”
But perhaps reality had taken leave of them. The bipolarity of the cold war hadn’t given way to uni-polarity, but to schizophrenia. Washington hawks had taken a Cold War mindset into fighting postmodern non-state actors and wading into the middle of fractionalized tribal grudges masquerading as international conflicts. The War on Terror would reveal the naivety of their confidence.
At the same time, during the early Noughties, we confidently looked East assuming that prosperity meant democracy. The ‘Chinese Spring’ of that era would prove to be an Indian Summer of opening up.
By universalising a very particular and very peculiar Western World view, we were able to paint a picture of a future that never came to be.
The Vodka-Handbag Curve
At home, this created a confidence that was converted into consumer credit.
On both sides of the Atlantic, we were all living ‘on tick’.
Masstige brands multiplied, creating an increasingly infinite asymptote of new shit to buy – the ‘vodka-handbag curve’ that stretched from Absolute and Coach to Birkin Bags and Diva Vodka, starting at $450k for a bottle of clear, flavourless alcohol dosed with diamonds. Vodka was the ultimate empty cipher; A drink whose quality is assessed by it’s purity and lack of taste. Distilled to 96% alcohol, the ethanol mix is then diluted down to 40-50% and bottled without any ageing. A placeless, tasteless, ahistorical creation that’s cheap to make, easy to drink and a tabula rasa for marketing myths. And from Smirnoff up there was fantasy for every budget.
But like Vodka, this economy was built on nothing.
Artists rarely create culture, but they do condense the miasma of the present into a tangible action and form. The night Lehman Brothers went down, Damien Hirst was holding an unprecedented auction of new works, including a platinum cast of an 18th century skull encrusted in nearly nine thousand flawless diamonds. Alongside that work, titled ‘For the Love of God’, Hirst held a fire sale of countless Spot paintings and vitrines, commenting that “you start thinking you’re going to need something else. Something more personal and quieter and darker.”
The bridge had disappeared, but we still didn’t look down.
Stranger, Unhappier, Less Productive
Despite ‘Build Back Better’ becoming the ruling elite’s platitude of choice on both sides of the Atlantic, the real chance to do so was in the immediate aftermath of the GFC. With the global economy of the 90s and 00s in pieces, there was a window of opportunity to reshape a capitalism that was about creating value and not just wealth. The cataclysmic derailment, as the runaway train of the financial sector collided with the buffer of reality was the moment to reassess; a chance to return to an economy that was at the service of politics, rather than a politics of serving the economy. But instead of foreclosing the banks and bailing out the citizens we chose the opposite, mounting the engine back on the tracks, reversing it out of it’s subprime siding and sending it on it’s way back down the main line, allowing the winners the past decades to still win, even when they lost.
In return, we saw quantitative easing dump petrol onto a dumpster fire, which while raising the flames of GDP did little to improve real lives. Underemployment, the gig economy and permanent departure from the labour force, alongside first Oxycontin then eventually Carfentanyl masked the pain in the US while Southern Europeans elected comedians and fascists to name just one sort of new politician that crawled from the wreckage.
Productivity stuttered and those leaving education came to find themselves stuck in service economy jobs which were never part of the deal when they elected to take on thousands in student debt.
Once again we were chasing the financialised dream of mass affluence rather than mass happiness. Where some time ago, money was a tool, an input to get to a goal, it was again the output itself.
Once again the runaway train came down the track, the whistle wide and the throttle back…
La Cage aux Fou
At the same time as the financial tragedy of the noughties was being rebuilt as farce, the internet began to metastasise into something altogether very different.
What was once a niche divergence, an amusement with an off switch increasingly came to swallow up everyday life, first through broadband and then through three, four and now five G mobile networks. And in the process of turning experiments in college popularity contests into viable businesses we gave birth to the attention economy.
From early banner ads served up via Microsoft in 2006, over time Facebook developed into the subtlest knife for keeping people engaged so that they can serve them more adverts. The problem is that keeping people engaged to sell ads is not the same as “making the world more open and connected” as they claim their mission is. In fact it’s the opposite. Keeping hold of eyeballs to sell ads means giving people whatever they need to keep coming back. Content becomes an all-you-can eat breakfast buffet where no-one will stop you coming down for bourbon and ice cream every morning. But keep doing that and eventually you get sick.
But this wasn’t even the Buffet. We got to eat like no-one was watching.
The need to harvest attention turned the internet from a tool for mass connection to one for mass abstraction. We all inhabited our own internet. Served a version of whatever the data science models deemed most likely to keep us engaged. The algorithms created wealth, but they began to erode reality.
This is my truth, tell me yours.
Schism and Ism
And then the internet decided to get into politics.
The internet combined with democracies and evolved towards ochlocracy. The problem being that as Paul Collier’s seminal work on failing states that voting is the least important part of democracy. Truth is the most. Without transparency, truth, fact checkers, all the things that might put a dampener on your scrolling we got a highly mobile vulgus.
The distraction had become the main event.
From the Monks of Myanmar taking to Facebook to whip up violence and hatred to Orban, Trump or Le Pen(s), the internet allowed politics to become detached from reality, while at the same time years of doomscrolling had left us primed only to believe what we liked rather than what was true.
In many respects, Isis was the greatest achievement so far of the internet ‘doing politics’. A transnational online community whipped into a frenzy and physically mobilised to found a state. Huge earned media through smart targeting and a great engaging content strategy, this was high-stakes LARP-ing for the age of unreality.
Xi’s frequently Kind and Suddenly Cruel
As the Caliphate’s experiment in Jihadi self-determination was fizzling out, we entered the era of America falling asleep at the wheel of the international order.
Centrifugal forces were already spinning the world in multiple directions, with affluence no predictor of freedom and repression proving to rarely be met with dissent let alone revolt, the post-Crash political order was rapidly moving towards Gangster Geopolitics. Increasing nationalism in response to – or perhaps directly precipitated by a fragmenting and increasingly transnational world brought a (re)surgence of strongmen such a Putin and summit for North Korea’s own Little Rocket Man.
Suddenly everyone was playing by their own rules, no one more so than Xi Jinping.
Xi represents the ultimate manifestation of this rejection of ‘the way things are done’; the proverbial game of chess against the pigeon who knocks down the pieces, shits everywhere and declares victory. Except now it’s looking like the West is the Pigeon and China is the Grandmaster.
China’s luxury automated authoritarianism is a technologically advanced, thoroughly modern and highly bounded form of freedom. Which is fine as long as you never venture beyond the bounds. With a fully surveilled – and fully controlled – internet, the only untruths are shared and close monitoring at scale creates a digital panopticon where it is increasingly futile to think dissenting thoughts if there are no spaces left to express dissenting views.
This is not to say there is nothing going for it; crossing from Shenzhen, the CCP’s showpiece of what this future could be, to Hong Kong, the place that represents what the future once was, is like stepping back into something dirtier, poorer and more tawdry. Which is their point. As the national security law is brought to bear on more and more elements of life in the old British Colony, it will increasingly become just a suburb of it’s brighter, brutal neighbour.
Of course, it won’t just be China’s future that China decides; it’s marketing the model and the tools of control to capitals from Brasilia to Brazzaville. And the action they decide to take on the climate crisis will be a choice that affects us all. The only silver lining is that on the last of these they seem to be paying attention, even as they continue to operate half of the world’s coal-fired power plants.
Dance into the fire
Late in 2019, I was living in Shenzhen, the poster child for undemocratic utopia. A vision of the potential of capitalism unencumbered by democracy to save us all from ourselves. Social Credit Scores and facial recognition could make us fitter, happier, more productive. The digital panopticon that is contemporary China is the first truly compelling alternative version of modernity since the industrial revolution. But even this would be exposed as lacking by one particularly truculent strand of RNA. By the start of the year, my WeChat feed was full of still shots, quotes and ‘reviews’ of popular HBO show Chernobyl, a miniseries recounting the eponymous 1986 disaster depicting a climate of fear where no-one dares speak truth to power. With collaborative tech giants, heavy censorship and a vast enforcement infrastructure this is as deep as dissent gets in China.
Whilst crises have smouldered all around us for the last few decades, we entered into a collective misdirection since the the start of the 21st Century that ‘This is Fine’; But ‘Sars-CoV-2: Judgement Day’ has acted as a refiners fire, burning away the impurities of our self-deception. We are in a fragile world that we are currently urging on towards ecological implosion whilst our societies become more unequal, more imbalanced and more uncertain. As transnational capital supersedes the nation state, nativism has become a refuge for the threatened evoking the rhetoric and too often violence that is as explainable as it remains inexcusable.
Yet months of confinement and millions of excess deaths so far continue to whip up a great variety of morbid symptoms. Art that doesn’t exist is bought for millions by Crypto-Bros rewarded for ‘HODL-ing’ for their Beeples and the Vox Populi takes collective action to make itself rich on penny stocks. We desperately need solutions to fix the planet yet the Billionaires who have mined us and it for their wealth are obsessed with leaving it.
The pandemic has forced a decision on us that we have put off for too long.
Looking Beyond the Wired Favela
Some time late in the first decade of this century, I watched a speech by Bruce Sterling. As I now possess the collective knowledge of the world at my fingertips through the computer I am writing on (there is an ‘evil twin’ essay to this which essentially outlines why this whole analysis is itself noise and everything actually is fine…), I can tell you it was from June 2009, given at Reboot, a conference exploring technology and public policy. In it, he outlines the cultural temperament of the Era:
What is the cultural temperament of this era? Well, I think it’s got a good two-word summary: “Dark Euphoria.” Dark Euphoria is what the twenty-teens feel like. Things are just falling apart, you can’t believe the possibilities, it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward earth at nine hundred kilometres an hour and then you realize there’s no earth there…
… It comes in two flavours. Top end and low end. Everybody in this room is sort of schismed between top end and low end. Because that’s the nature of your particular demographic. The top end we can describe as “Gothic High-Tech”. Let me explain to you what Gothic High-Tech is like. In Gothic High-Tech, you’re Steve Jobs. You’ve built an iPhone which is a brilliant technical innovation, but you also had to sneak off to Tennessee to get a liver transplant because you’re dying of something secret and horrible. And you’re a captain of American industry. You’re not some General Motors kinda guy. On the contrary, you’re a guy who’s got both hands on the steering wheel of a functional car. But you’re still Gothic High-Tech because death is waiting. And not a kindly death either, but a sinister, creeping, tainted wells of Silicon Valley kind of Superfund thing that steals upon you month by month, and that you have to hide from the public and from the bloggers and from the shareholders…
…What is the downside, what’s the other side of this? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech? The flip-side of Gothic High-Tech is downmarket, and it’s called “Favela Chic.” Favela Chic. What is Favela Chic? Favela Chic is when you have lost everything material, everything you built and everything you had, but you’re still wired to the gills! And really big on Facebook. That’s Favela Chic. You lost everything, you have no money, you have no career, you have no health insurance, you’re not even sure where you live, you don’t have children, and you have no steady relationship or any set of dependable friends. And it’s hot. It’s a really cool place to be.
Myspace is a favela. You’ve ever been to a Brazilian favela? It basically, politically, represents the structure of Myspace. You’ve got this remote, distant, old-school Brazilian tyrant. Anti-democratic, wicked mogul, pays no attention to you, supposedly owns the whole show, but the whole shebang is going south in a hurry.
It’s been out-competed by some other economy, there’s nothing happening there. You have no civil rights in Myspace. You can’t go anywhere in Myspace, you can’t organize in Myspace, you can’t make money in Myspace. You can have a hut in Myspace. And you live in the hut until they pull the plug. That’s a favela.
MySpace references aside, it’s disturbing to read this Science Fiction writer play back our ‘fact’ back in 2009. His analysis is what happens if we continue to project this present forward into the future a ‘Futurism’ rather than a ‘Utopia’ as discriminated between by American Ecologist Murray Bookchin that points us towards a ‘Ready Player One’ future.
But what more is there? Automation and Machine Learning promise leisure and infinite resources. But projected along our current vector, they continue Sterling’s bifurcated world. Rather than undermining inequality with a lack of scarcity, they offer infinite capture by an infinitesimally small group. Smug top ten-percenters or one-percenters, too late to speak up get pushed below the line. Or are we headed for the techno-gnosticism of the singularity, where we may end up mined by machines? Perhaps the Matrix was a documentary sent back in time to soften the hammer blow of our future?
The point is that the long interregnum is coming to an end and we must decide what future will be born.
The recent £295million purchase of Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge by online fashion retailer ASOS has been seen as another example of software eating the world. This narrative ignores the greed and rapacious mismanagement that characterised Sir Philip and Lady Tina’s rule and undermined the long term viability of these companies through underinvestment and extractive short-sightedness. It also focuses on what is lost without realizing what there is to be won.
The decline of Britain’s high streets has been a subject of hand wringing and wailing since the demise of one-penny-chew and one-pound-tin whistle merchant, Woolworths in 2008. The failure of many legacy retailers to adapt to digitisation and increasingly blended shopping habits, the financial crash and elevated consumer expectations of retail experiences left a number of casualties in its wake. Along with Woolworth’s you can count tea shop Whittards and furniture chain Walmsley, to name just three of the ‘W’s. Many of the famous names that sunk without a trace represent the hollowing out of the mediocre middle; not cheap enough to justify elbowing others out the way to get to the tills to get a bargain that doesn’t exist online – or that you wouldn’t risk without trying on (hence Primark thrives, Gap dies…) or experiential enough to be worth a visit (Cath Kidson collapses one month into Lockdown one, Channel endures…) But I want to analyse the other side of this equation; what is left behind. The pandemic, as it has in so many other areas, has been a catalyst, not the turning point, for the High Street. And the hollowing out that it has sped up, has, like Pandora’s box, left us with empty boxes filled with hope.
What was the High Street
My first assertion; the high street was a bit crap. Even Oxford Street, the sine qua non of UK high streets was crap – in fact it was very crap, on a very grand scale. But we put up with it because good enough had to be good enough. Sure a few retailers did better; the original Nike Town and (ironically) the flagship Topshop at Oxford Circus when it opened, and some of the independents in and around Carnaby and Newport Streets before they got priced out by chains; but retailers were generally lazy in the service and experience they offered shoppers. What was true ‘up town’ was true of small towns up and down the country… and the more prime a store’s position was, the less it tried. I even remember a time when the Piccadilly Waterstones in the old Simpson’s department store was good before it became 4 floors of Dan Brown and the Grufalo, a cafe and a kitsch stationary department. But once the internet dematerialised geography, you can’t use ‘place’ to bully people into buying. In fact they don’t need to buy from the bullies at all.
Secondly, many of the jobs were crap jobs. Let me be clear. I do not mean that retail jobs are crap jobs, I mean that the retail jobs that many of these high street heavyweights provided were crap. Employees were not empowered to take proper decisions on the floor and smart young people who could have elevated what these companies did were disenchanted by cynical managers who pushed them to instead opt for the predictable monotony of the call centre than the capricious whims of whoever was running that day’s shift. Add in zero hours contracts and wages that failed to keep pace with the cost of living and you are unlikely to have the kind of team working the floor that wants to go above and beyond to create the kind of place I’d rather be, instead of buying trainers in my tracksuit from my sofa.
The identikit chain store high streets that devolved during the back end of the 20th century ignored a fundamental truth about shopping and ‘commerce’; it was never just about monetary exchange. They are places for human connection as well as consumption. By ignoring the former, the internet was always going to win on the latter terms, leaving in it’s wake nothing but Poundlands, pay-day loans and Paddy Power. Retail jobs were never just about pay; at their best they were about identity, esteem and belonging. The butcher, the baker and candlestick maker all had their own masteries, autonomies and fluencies; the things that make a job well done worth doing. The hollowing out of the High Street as it was provides an opportunity for this once more. But I am not talking about some kind of retro-futurist communitarian wank fantasy, but a modern revitalisation, that doesn’t seek to turn back the clock, but works with the realities of the third decade of the 21st century and provides what cannot be dematerialised. If you want a powerful indicator of what this might be, step inside your local vape shop when they reopen and see the community created around those businesses.
The dematerialisation of work
The pandemic has accelerated changes that have been a long time coming, thrusting ‘work at home’ on to many white collar workers. Though only the most naive would still claim that we will never return to an office, we have proven that a blended approach is more than possible. The implications for office jobs moving to only a partially office-based norm are huge. City centres can become more mixed as fewer total desks are needed. People who ‘had’ to be in London and other major cities, can now ‘choose’ where they want to live. If you only need to commute twice a week, 2 hours on a train where fewer commuters guarantee a seat doesn’t seem so bad. Less pressure on big cities to cater for these middle class workers means more spaces in between for the artists, students and dreamers that made these cities attractive in the first place. Those who are naturally rural or suburban by temperament can make space for those driven out by economics.
I suspect the great unanticipated beneficiary of this will be the towns where they move to. But this needs to be encouraged to happen more broadly than the usual suspects within the commuter belt. The companies that have found that they do not need to gather their whole workforce in one expensive flagship HQ should go further; they should be incentivised to open smaller offices for different teams and functions in towns and cities across the UK, encouraging the spread of these jobs and the high value service economies that grow around them to disperse. Smaller businesses that work with functions of these larger firms, whether NatWest or Netflix would grow up around different decentralised departments, creating hubs of excellence for marketing or design or coding or CNC machining. There are already clusters like this for automotive manufacturing in places like Coventry biotech around Oxford or a garment trade ripe for radical upskilling in Leicester that can be used as springboards, but what would a Stockport marketing cluster or Truro Financial Services hub look like?
The need for the real
As we have proven with this past year of Zoom quizzes and ‘nice walks’, we are social animals for whom an all-virtual life is a poor replacement. Dispersed workers will still want places to come together, hub offices and workspaces that get people out of their homes and collaborating, or simply co-existing. The idea that remote technology and the comfort of home baked sourdough will somehow make us turn our back on our own hard-wired herd instincts is absurd. Furthermore, those who are starting their career benefit from cross-pollination from peers and learning from seniors need these exchanges to grow professionally, and companies need the social capital those exchanges create to prosper. Anyone joining a new job or a new team in the last 12 months will be able to attest to how much the lack of real time together slows that progress. We have all been mortgaging the social capital we have built in reserve for some time now.
The empty units of high street provide the opportunity for this; as many of the economic functions are lost, as chain stores become cloud-stored IP we should focus on what we gain. If the dispersal of workplaces takes pressure off the cost of living, then the removal of these shops creates places for doing. Deflationary pressure on commercial rents and the simple fact that some revenue is better than none will lead shop fronts to become community spaces, not-for-profit co-working cafes, youth training centres, church halls even. Landlords should be incentivised by councils to see beyond shopping and open up sites to broader uses, things that cannot be virtualized.
Turning vacancy into possibility
The key will be to ensure that this dispersion of work and opportunity creates jobs and injects skills into a community; existing commuter towns transformed from dormitories to vibrant places in their own right. Older high streets transformed into new nexuses for exchange. The opportunity afforded by the great disruption is one where massive shifts in work, consumption and living can be used to create vibrant places with strong identities, regional roles and national links.
The end of Arcadia could offer an opportunity for genuine creative destruction.
We must act quickly to seize the chance it offers.
I am sitting looking over London from the 9th floor of a co-working space on Southbank; floor to ceiling windows framing a view of the eastern fringe of the North Downs around Sevenoaks, where my mother lived when she first came back to Britain from America, a single parent, returning home with a 6 month old Fire Tiger in her arms. It’s the first day of Lunar New Year today, the year of the Ox, and I can’t help thinking how lucky I am to sit here, in the depths of a pandemic looking south to the town where for a while I was briefly raised, while a pandemic blazes on below, foregrounded by the roofs of the Waterloo Station Sheds.
It’s been over five months since I last wrote. Finding the space to gather thoughts, to reap and winnow is difficult. With nothing to do, time isn’t hard to come by, but space, emotionally and physically, is at a premium. I asked a colleague recently what they got up to on the weekend, more by reflex than out of any real interest and he said ‘another fucking lovely walk’. Another fucking lovely walk. I intend to try and make some more space to write and to reflect, because that process of winnowing and milling and proofing thoughts into ideas is important. Just as we are all looking to maintain some kind of physical stimulation during our enforced sedentarism, the mind needs to be stimulated too, and London’s mental gyms, the museums, the galleries, the theatres, the pubs, are all shut.
Here I offer a few thoughts on a year of lockdowns and distancing.
Time is both long and short
I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 where a physicist and a psychologist were talking about time and they managed to describe the current temporal paradox we are all living in beautifully. We perceive time both ‘in the moment’ and retrospectively, and the way that we assess time in the present and in the past are inversely correlated.
In the moment, when very little is happening, it goes by, as The Righteous Brothers told us ‘so slowly’. It’s why bad films and school detentions take an age. Conversely, when we are busy, present perceived time flies, whether you are having fun or just stuck in back to back meetings.
However, we navigate the past using events as markers and waypoints, meaning when we look back, the opposite is true. If nothing much has happened, then we experience a kind of psychological parallax error, leaving us wondering where did the year go.
This goes some way to explaining why it feels like today is March 327th 2020 rather than February 12th 2021. It’s why the last year has been both a slow time and, with hindsight, a short time.
Everything will eat software, not the other way round
I take a historian’s view of technology and am naturally sceptical of the ‘THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING’ narrative touted by technophile naifs. It’s what they said about the wheel, penicillin, nuclear power and ambient cheese in an aerosol can.
And in many respects they are right. These did change things. But the hard truth nestled inside ‘this changes everything’ like the final doll of a matryoshka is that it doesn’t. Technology doesn’t change human nature. Human nature shapes technology – or at least it’s uses and abuses – and that is innovation, which is far more important. People socialised before ‘media’ and bullied before ‘cyber’. And if you are worried about Fake News now, think of the tumult caused in the 16th and 17th century by the printing press and the army of pamphleteers it unleashed.
To skip forward to the present, the last year has seen the widespread adoption by laggards and the late majority of numerous innovation-enabled behaviours that are now no longer technology but just ‘stuff’. Amazon prime for those beyond their Prime, Zoom n Zimmers. In many respects Arthur C. Clark may have got it wrong; Any sufficiently advanced innovation is indistinguishable from the mundane.
It’s an awful time to be young
When you look purely at the economic equation, life for a 20-something grad in a big city is a bad deal; Sky high rents, long commutes, expensive pubs. I think of my own graduate years, religiously cycle commuting 9 miles from Norbury to Farringdon, whatever the weather, so I could spend the travelcard savings on Somerfield own-label claret. With hindsight, I was as pretentious then as I am now.
But being 23 in London or New York or Paris was never about getting rich. If you were lucky, that’s what 33 was for, and of course all of us who have been in our 20s in one of the world’s great cities had half an eye on that. But it was also about all the non-monetary benefits. Drinking, Fucking and Friendship. The chance to be anonymous in a crowd, to invent and reinvent who we are. The shared house in Hackney was both a price to be paid and a rite of passage, part of the broader ritual of the London (or Lahore or Los Angeles) lifestyle.
With that mode snatched away, what are you left with? Remote working back at your parents house, saving for a second bite if you are lucky… but more likely you are one of those spotted through the zone two late Victorian bay window, three to a living-room-as-makeshift-office, ironing board as desk, praying the broadband holds.
Sure, professionals in their 30s are still trying to play ‘oh what a lovely lockdown’ as their endurance wears thin, but spare a thought for younger colleagues. This was not what they signed up for.
And as for university students…
Experts restored, Authority eroded
Whitty, Fauci, Tegnell. Tedros. Over the last year, we’ve not been able to get enough of ‘experts’. During a year when we have been living in an acutely VUCA world, science initially offered us the seemingly simple allure of answers to all the ambiguity and complexity. As the pandemic has charted its course, we have seen that science is a process that asks as many questions as it answers; but we have also watched that process in action, increasing our shared understanding of the importance of expertise in public life.
At the same time, many western governments, refusing to learn the lessons learnt in other parts of the world, have lurched from disaster to disaster. Ignoring the complexity of the science, many leaders, particularly in the UK and Europe have promised simple answers to complex problems. And the issue is that each time they have over-promised and under-delivered, they have further eroded public trust. In a liberal democracy, people will only really comply with laws they would willingly accept, and the shifts in levels of compliance and growing ‘flexible approaches’ to lockdown restrictions indicates a restive population creating their own version of the rules. The growth of ‘interpretive lawbreaking’ among the general population can only create more headaches in the future.
The next time governments and civil servants need to mobilise our collective compliance, it will be harder to come by than it was last March.
We are all in the same storm, but not the same boat
While the commentariat may be having a good lockdown, spare a thought for those who haven’t been sheltered from the storm by a garden office, a case of Wine Society Beaujolais-Villages and a new seventeen minute Bob Dylan single. There is a pandemic experience gap between the young and the old, but also between the comfortable middle class professionals working office jobs at home and those who have either lost their jobs or are still going to work in compromised or risky environments.
While the ‘Blissfully Quarantined’ are considering which preschool to pre-register their almost-one year old Sourdough starter for (“she’s very mature for her age”) the ‘Gotta Works’ are leaving the house daily to enter a threatening outside world. This is not just the clapped-for key workers, but the vast armies of warehouse operatives, delivery drivers, construction workers, cleaners and cooks that make the lives of the Blissfully Quarantined possible.
Braced for the worst impact or already hit by the full force of the economic consequences of the pandemic are the ‘nowhere to gos’; either already let go or furloughed on zombie jobs, these are those in service industry jobs and the lowest paid sectors that have been the worst hit.
These three tribes have not been created by the pandemic, but brought into sharper focus as the virus has exposed the existing ley lines of inequality that have been the reality of our economy for the past decades whose divergence was catalysed by the crisis of 2008.
Cities in the 20s will roar back, and so will towns
I predict the flight to the countryside that estate agents have been talking up to try and froth anaemic rural property markets in unfashionable ridings is a reflex reaction, akin to the brief fashion for matte-black supercars amongst the hyper rich after the Financial Crash. Cities have endured far worse and still thrived. Fire, pestilence and plague have not stopped people seeking friendship, fucking and fun in the worlds great conurbations. There are some things that you can’t easily virtualise. Expect many who run to the hills to return to a more variegated city, where the reduced spacial pressure from ‘9 to 6 x 5’ office hours leaves more room for culture, creativity and serendipity.
Many will stay away, exercising a preference for space, whilst looking for more interaction than an isolated farmhouse can offer. The dematerialisation of geography for professional work means that this need for interaction can increasingly be served by towns rather than cities. There is an opportunity to revitalise towns centres and high streets up and down the country, where the bonfire of the chain stores leaves spaces for micro-offices, council funded business hubs and co-working cafes. Thoughtful and intentional local policy could lead to a new renaissance for towns, propagating healthier and more diverse local economies and helping truly level up the regions
Sociologists will have more to write about than the scientists or politicians
Once the dying is over, there will be a postmortem of how the pandemic has been handled around the world. It’s unlikely that any nation won’t be criticised for some element of it’s handling, perhaps with the possibility of New Zealand who do have the advantage of being a small country located at the very end of the Earth.
I believe though that after the initial recriminations, it will be the sociologists that have the most to write about. Behaviours, particularly in free societies have more to do with culture than politics. Britain’s own late lockdown was based on the, not unreasonable, presumption that ‘freedom loving’ Britons would be unlikely to comply before people had started to die.
Don’t be surprised if the patterns we see in any analyses of whether a country has had a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ pandemic map more closely to Hofstede’s work on Cultural dimensions than government policy or ideology.
(credits to Ed Cox for the amazing image of London docks pre redevelopment)
One of the most written about shifts supposedly catalysed by the pandemic is the looming urban flight of the professional classes. Mastheads from Politico to The Guardian and The Telegraph have recently run variants on the theme of the escape to nature with a particular focus, as is often the case, on London. There are a number of reasons why this is overly-simplistic and is unlikely to be the case. The partial uncoupling of ‘city–as-economic-unit’ from ‘city-as-physical-social-network’ will make London a more vibrant, more textured and perhaps less unequal place.
For many, London is a necessary evil. The lure of work, particularly ‘middle class’ professional jobs means that many people cram in for the economic opportunity that would rather be in towns or villages. I have known many people, grudging residents of London – not Londoners – who while away unhappy years never taking much advantage of world-class clubbing, or free ballet performances, 10-quid West-End show tickets or just a walk along the Thames. Now this ‘white collar proletariat’ has a chance to unshackle itself from those chains.
Of course, there is more to the city than it’s professional classes. But their departure will accelerate geographical diffusion of the skilled service sectors – the baristas, barmen and brewers that keep London sane. We can already see vegan Deli’s in outer London suburbs; expect some of these London emigres to take their taprooms with them; urban tastes will mix with the de-hipsterfication of ‘nice things’ – no one wants bad coffee – finally ending the perceived urban monopoly on 11 pound pints and beard oil (anyone ever notice how self-consciously male so much of this stuff is?). This is nothing new; this was Brighton in the 90s, and more latterly places like Margate. Don’t be surprised if towns with great train links for 2 days a week in the office, great city centre housing stock and good quality schools such as Bedford or Basingstoke or smaller spots in the stockbroker belt like Oxted start to attract a younger, pre-family demographic in their late 20s, and with them, their cafes and sourdough bakeries, sitting comfortably alongside existing traditional (non-ironic) butchers and hardware ‘levelling up’ the locavore scene in these places. Less genteel (‘edgy’) spots such as Gravesend or other Medway towns could provide alternative options for early-career workers, looking to make the most of first-job wages as they plan their next move.
Don’t however, expect this exodus to be one-way. As pressure is lifted from the city with the departure of the ‘have to be heres’ and their financial muscle, there is more scope for the ‘want to be heres’ to come. With reduction of office space and the pruning of the white collar work, there is a chance, with the right incentives to make the city more diverse. Artists, musicians and all those who benefit from cultural agglomeration effects of the city will have more scope to return; the kind of people that in the past acted as an accidental ‘thin edge of the wedge’ for scavenging property developers and ended up displaced by the cultural capital created by their own success.
As someone raised a Londoner, clutching an old paper travel card, who remembers 50p bus fares and the opening of the Tate, taking myself on the train to school (in South London, real London, there was and is no Tube) I am hopeful. I am looking forward to a more passionate and engaged London, where those who previously priced the willing out, buy themselves an exit instead. What I am hopeful for is a city with fewer residents who resent being here and more space to breath, financially, culturally and socially for those of us who choose to make it home.
Society often struggles to name an era until after it has passed. And so it’s the same with social change; it doesn’t register until it has passed. The global Coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief shifts that have been a long time coming. It is too easy top reduce the effect of this virus to a simple cause-and-effect when the reality is it’s more like a forest fire clearing out the deadwood so that we can see the new growth that was already there.
The acceleration of working from home is of course the most obvious of these shifts. The only people who have tried to predict the complete death of the office with a straight face are writers and freelancers who have been sitting in their converted attics for the best part of the last decade or two, but since the mid 00s a number of factors have led to the point now where it is a viable option. Faster internet connections and better video conferencing software are one element, but the shift for many to freelancing and “flexible” work in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 forced upon many their first taste of life beyond the office. Though the vast majority of those pushed out of work were very happy to regain the stability of permanent roles, few wanted the same rigidity. Whilst the world’s biggest tech companies continue to invest in HQs and showpiece campuses, that bring people together to work on the collaborative elements of their job that no video call will ever really replace, there is a consensus across sectors that a greater level of flexibility will be the norm. The pandemic is simply the final acceptance of this amongst the professional classes.
In the UK, the crisis in the hospitality industry has been covered widely, but for many of the pubs and venues that go to the wall, Covid-19 is the last in a long line of abuses. In the ten years to 2018, more than ¼ pubs closed. Britons had already decided staying in was the new going out long before going out became the new staying in; cheap supermarket booze, increased interest in weed and other ‘beyond alcohol’ choices, an ever broader range of leisure and social pursuits that we could pursue from our sofas (Netflix only began streaming in 2007 the same year that iPlayer launched and WhatsApp’s first release was 2009) as well as the growth of health and wellness as both a marker of status and a hobby pursuit. Add in increasingly restrictive clauses reguarding noise and ‘nuance’ for live music venues in gentrifying inner city neighbourhoods (…if you don’t like noise, get the fuck out the city) has meant that the industry was already poorly placed to weather this storm. After our initial excitement that the pubs have reopened, with many people claiming to crave a ‘proper pint’ that they hadn’t actually had in years, how many will stay in a plexiglass pub booth rather than go back to a perfectly mixed martini at home for less than the price of a short?
The ‘cashless’ society is another ‘no-shit’ shift. It was close to being a done deal before the pandemic, but the ‘rona has been the final nail in cash’s coffin. For years, decades even now, the convenience of cards had been superseding cash. Despite many small retailers’ resistance, under the false assumption that the card service charges were losing them money, without factoring in the time and inconvenience of cash – bank runs, cashing up, keeping your revenue on premise. For a while now the 50p fee or the minimum transaction has been looking retrograde amongst the few small vendors that clung to it, and there have been a number innovations that have sped this up. Challenger banks have made banking easier for businesses… but more difficult for cash when there is no branch. Payments services like Square make taking cards far more straightforward than legacy systems and also force long standing incumbents to level up. Add to this a generational cohort that has always had plastic in their pockets who are, on the whole, even more frightened of this virus than their parents, then the transition becomes irreversable.
Thinking beyond the glib marketing speak of disruption and innovation, the pandemic will be remembered as the moment when the Black Lives movement in the USA broke not just into the America popular consciousness, but into the global lexicon. This in itself led to some strange dissonant moments – Singaporean acquaintances, posting black squares on their feeds, right next to posts blaming their own virus outbreak on migrant workers lack of hygiene rather than the unspeakable dormitory conditions in which they are made to live… and not seeing the contracition. Racism is a global problem, and every country has their own version of ‘black lives’ but Black Lives Matter does not easily fit into each country’s own problems. Without critical appraisal of the meaning of that particular movement and how it’s demands recontecxtualise within different socio-cultural contexts, it is in danger of losing the momentumn of its initial global impact. But we live in a reductive and globalised world, and that is a nuanced argument. However just because this movement ‘blew up’ in 2020 does not mean that it has not been years in the making. It can trace its lineage to Dr. King’s unanswered calls for economic redress, to the Republican Southern Strategy, or less obliquely to a cohort who began to examine systemic racism in the wake of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Even following this direct path, it’s 8 years in the making if not 400. The virus meant a critical mass of unemployed and underemployed young people, college students home from class and ‘WFH’ liberal 30- somethings were primed and able to act when George Floyed was brutally murdered. It’s painful to think that the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ first rose to some kind of prominence with Eric Garner (2014) but took 6 years to become part of the popular consciousness.
I am a historian, or at least my degree alleges I am, and the further I have strayed from that starting point, the more I find myself coming back to the past as a way to understand the present. Which I guess is the point, else I’m just another antiquarian. Change is a slow process, punctuated by events that provide waypoints and landmarks that help us realise how far we have come. The pandemic is as much a marker as it is an event in itself. But more than that, it is a catalyst. Ideas and changes that have been long-gestating are birthed into the world by inducement of this crisis.
[This is the first in a series of three ‘Covid Reflections’ from Resident Human]
I wanted to take some time to put together some thoughts that have been coalescing since early on in the crisis, but like so many things, have felt trapped in some kind of infinite loop, despite a wealth of time, mentality I have found a paucity of space in which to think things. The slightly dream-like quality of the whole situation, particularly for those lucky enough to be cushioned against the worst of it by jobs that let us continue from home and houses lucky enough to have room for a desk had the distinct feel of some kind of house arrest without any of the searing resentment with the world that locked us up that might have made for a more creative incarceration.
Only now as I’m emerging from that, becoming more busy rather than less, does it feel like I can actually finish thinking the thoughts I started sometime in April. One friend I caught up with during the height of the UK’s first act of the Coronavirus (there will certainly be more, if not a full Shakespearean quintet, but they’ll almost certainly be a second) described the feeling as the 83rd of March; time had both moved on but had not progressed.
I am not complaining, those of us whose lives took on this formlessness were the lucky ones, this featureless desert was an oasis compared to crowded vistas that so many people had to deal with, littered with dark monuments; underemployment, unemployment, illness, death. But at the same time, the quality of stasis, feeling like a bullet fired upwards hanging indefinitely at its highest point, or a cartoon character, having run off the cliff, but yet to look down, hasn’t been conducive to productivity. Though maybe that is a good thing. As I slowly reanimate at the close of this first act, one of the many things I am questioning is how productive ‘being productive’ is.
- The rebirth of the future
There are many reasons to hate Elon Musk. From his rejection of the sacred urban social contract that is public transport embodies to his ridiculous online grandstanding to his fuelling of tired conspiracy theories about aliens building the pyramids of Egypt. Or maybe you detest him as a cipher for everything that is wrong with late-stage global capitalism; his parlaying of one lucky break at PayPal into a stream of much-lauded, high profile cash-incineration enterprises. You could be one of those who prefer the minority/feminist critique; if Elon was Elaine, or black for that matter, you think he would still raise money or have his job, leading a publicly listed company after the 420 tweet or smoking weed with Joe Rogan? Or calling a cave rescue diver a paedophile? Or you may just be annoyed by his mediocre, mid-level tech-bro wannabes, the Reddit squad that praise everything he does and see him as some kind of messanic genius (despite Brexity-tax dodger, and newly minted Singaporean, Sir James Dyson holding 124x more patents that Musk; 2732 to Elon’s 22.)
I don’t hate Elon Musk for those things though I do dislike them; I despise him because he represents a world devoid of a future. Musk’s great innovations are part of a version of progress that does little to reimagine what the world could be, but simply projects forward what it is now. It is the same defeatism that made the film Interstellar so disappointing; ‘the Earth is fucked, let’s find a new one’. Writer and theorist Murray Bookchin (h/t Alex Holland) describes this perfectly in a speech from 1978 (!) where he draws an important distinction between ‘Utopia’ and ‘Futurism’. I would recommend you read the piece as it is searingly relevant now and far more electric than my precis.
Rockets to Mars, flying cars and cheeseburgers delivered by drone are all what Bookchin terms “Futurism, [which] is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now”. What instead he calls for is Utopia; radically altering our present in order to chart a new course for tomorrow. Without wanting to sound like the ‘mysterious wizard’ archetype in a moralising cartoon, his core thesis is that the path humanity will take is not preordained. But so far, the last few decades have demonstrated that a global elite dominated by tinkering technocrats and tech disruptors simply playing around the edges, selling a bland incrementalism as disruption; more interested in D than R, rearranging deckchairs while the ship is holed deep below the waterline, sinking fast.
I trained as a historian, so I am reluctant to throw around ‘unprecedented’ casually, but crises are a powerful tool to break deadlocks. The ‘all bets are off’ disturbance of the discourse that this global pandemic has brought about is opening up the possibility of other ways of doing, of being. It takes a seismic event to break up our (in)exorable march and make us stop and wonder; what are we marching towards. The pandemic is indeed a crisis, but as an interruption to our normal programming, it also presents an opportunity. As people talk about the ‘new normal’, there is also a chance to set ‘new norms’ – governments across Europe took vast swathes of their workforce onto the state’s payroll, cities were briefly more liveable than ever before as people took to their bikes, whilst songbirds took to the sky. It was – it is – a time of huge anxiety, uncertainty and for those who have lost family, sadness – I am not trying to pretend that isn’t the case – but it was also a time for hope. We were allowed a glimpse of what kind of tomorrow an alternative today could gift us, seductively hinting at something very different to Elon’s world. As the world returns to the new normal, Futurism still looks like the most likely outcome, but with this ‘rebirth of the future’ precipitated by this crisis, there is now the possibility of another way.
The problem with a ‘semi-professional’ blog – ie. one partially related to my work, not one that earns anything – that aspires to cultural critique is that it’s easy in times like this to sound all too, well, critical. But amongst all the tension and anxiety and uncertainty there are moments of such incredibly profound humanity that it felt worth reflecting on those and what they could mean. So often it’s the small gestures, the quiet voice in the raging storm that speaks to some truth. Bear with me though, as if you’ve read any of the rest of my blog, you’ll know that ‘earnest’ is not a well-practised register for me.
Though locking people out of their places of business and depriving people of delineation between home and work – and for those without the luxury of extra space, a kitchen table – is by no means a gift, the current ‘Work at Home’ measures in spite of, or perhaps because of, the life-logistical problems they pose have injected a much greater tolerance into the ‘workplace’. Manager, Clients, Juniors, Directors all become ‘people’ first. Despite any number of ironic wallpapers available, the vast majority of calls I have been on have shown people’s homes in their actuality, complete with family members or housemates walking in and out and children occasionally chipping in. Messy rooms undercut the stern perception of the office pedants and the once-ritualistic ‘how are yous’ seem more genuine, more real. Despite many columnists – the reclusive writers opining from oven-ready home offices – continuing to churn out paeans praising work from home as the ‘new normal’, many of the rest of us look forward to getting out of our flats and our slippers and into the workplace. But this experience will mean that that office is a more flexible and more human one after we have all aired our dirty laundry, quite literally, during this experience.
I have been very vocal in my objections to the rhetoric of the ‘indiscriminate’ virus; it does not affect us all equally. However, what is worth remembering is that it does affect us all. And after a recent ramble around the common in one of London’s more uncommonly affluent corners, even the ‘gardened-classes’ are starting to struggle. A few knots of middle-aged loiterers with pre-canned G&Ts and swarms of unleashed dogs reflect an increasingly less performative common sense approach to keeping the pandemic under some kind of control. More eye-contact, less judgement, more tolerance, fewer tuts. It seems that as the self-righteous start to sin, so we all gain a little more room to breathe.
The uncertainty is also proving to be a boom for trust, not just in each other – as seen through neighbourhood support groups and jigsaw exchanges – but also in experts. It is a small consolation that after a time of such rampant division and partisanship, in Britain we can at least agree that science still exists and that the BBC offers some kind of approximation of a truth that we can all agree on. At least no-one here is gathering in groups to protest measures designed to stop them dying. Is there a ‘class-action’ equivalent of a Darwin Award?
At the same time cultural institutions are showcasing their talent and their people. From the National Theatre to Ken Loach, the humour and humanity of art act as beacons to light us through dark times.
I want to make it clear; this is not ‘the blitz spirit’ or a nation unified. This is something more subtle, more unique and more fragile. People and policies will be needed to bolster whatever it’s to become if it is to become something, but at least there might be something there after the worst has passed.
I once started an undergraduate essay on the linguistic turn with a pop-cultural epigraph; ‘It’s only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away’. My tutor, a soft-spoken son of the Sixties whose low, melodic cadences were a cross between a late night jazz radio announcer and Dylan, the stoner rabbit from the Magic Roundabout, told me it was “wonderful polemic, but a poor contribution to academe”. I confess that this was probably the highest praise I receive during my time at university, and I am convinced to this day that the low 2.2 which the essay garnered, was, in the main, down to the misattribution of the above quote to Boyzone rather than the brothers Gibb; the folly of youth. But the thought that words, however imperfect they are, are all we have, is an important one; particularly during the time of Covid. The virus is a fact, but how it is communicated, the words we choose to use, frame it and give it meaning.
1. Never having happened or existing in the past
2. Having happened or existed in the past but been studiously ignored
A fatal disease, passed to humans by bats you say?
Stand up Ebola 2014-2016. Luckily for the rich world, West Africans don’t travel as much as we do to China or East Asia does to the rest of the planet. Partly because of the nature of Ebola (tl;dr: it kills too fast to travel easily) and the ease with which we could erect a cordon sanitaire around Guinea, Sierra Leone and the other states at the centre of the outbreak without needing to apply the breaks to the global economy, we have conveniently forgotten about this one. And please don’t quote the official death toll; estimates say up to 70% of cases went unreported…and this is a disease with a 40% kill-ratio.
If this is a little too exotic, then we have the 1889-1890 Flu outbreak; est. 1 million deaths worldwide, The 1918-1920 Spanish (H1N1) Flu’s 17-100million, 1957’s global H2N2 with 1+ million, 1968’s H3N2 picking off between 1-4million, 2001’s swine flu outbreak which was around 500,000. Even the winter 2017-18 US flu season merits a special mention, a particularly bad year with 80,000+ deaths in the States. A current outbreak of measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo is currently estimated to be around 250 thousand cases with 6000 deaths and counting, but y’know Africa, so no big deal? And Aids. 32million dead. And counting. I haven’t even bothered adding SARS. So this is by no means unprecedented (link).
And nor was it unforeseen. The WHO, civil servants and public health experts have been waiting for this for a while, a so-called Disease X that could rip through our interconnected world. According to Bill Clinton’s former Public Health advisor, they had even played out this scenario during this administration in the 90s. Apparently there is a playbook based on their learnings. Maybe someone could tweet it to Donald.
1. An armed fighting between two or more countries or groups
2. A metaphor deployed by politicians to suppress dissent
See also ‘battle’, ‘fight’, and ‘beat’.
Make no mistake, this virus is not out to get you. It is not personal. SARS-Cov-2 did not wake up one day and say ‘Fuck this bat, lets go mess with those fleshy skin bags carrying those weird little mirrors all the time’. This is not a war. But it helps to remember the politics of waging war when leaders decide to clothe a crisis in it’s rhetoric. Wars have time and again been framed as moral enterprises. Battles against good and evil. World War II and the Cold War loom particularly large for a generation of leaders who are old enough to romanticise, but not old enough to remember; particularly for conservatives, the second world war looms just out of reach, a fog of ‘better days’ constantly clutched at that seems to vanish at their touch. For them Covid is a chance to have their own ‘finest hour’ and rally the nation round the status quo. No questions please, when we are battling to fulfil our manifest destiny!
But this is not a War. We cannot ‘beat’ Covid-19. We are staying at home to manage it, or rather to manage our health service and collective resources. Until there is a cure, that is all we can do. Likewise, for the individual, expecting them to ‘fight’ this is absurd. You can’t wish yourself well no more than you can think yourself 5 kilos lighter or dream yourself rich. Emily Maitliss skewers this brilliantly on her recent Newsnight opening which is possibly the best piece of journalism of this pandemic so far; “You do not survive the illness through fortitude and strength of character, whatever the prime minister’s colleagues will tell us”
But, a little rhetorical advice to the politicians out there; if you must use a war metaphor, do so advisidely; it may be your fault there are no guns and steel to fight these germs.
‘Social Distancing’ (n.)
1. The act of maintaining a safe distance from others in order to slow the spread of infectious disease
2. A misdirectionary phrase employed, intentionally or otherwise, to further create division and atomisation in society at large
See also ‘self-isolating’ and the creeping authoritarianism of ‘lockdown’
The strategist in me hates this phrase. Do you say your parents are socially distanced when you move to another town? Are you ‘socially close’ to the person next to you in the Tesco queue under normal circumstances? Have you felt less in love (or lust) with a partner (or lover) who was separated by mountains or oceans? No? Good. In which case we are ‘Physically Distancing’ to manage this disease. It’s an inversion of the nasty little sleight-of-hand that is ‘credit card’ (It’s not as easy to begin that death-spiral of high interest loans that starts with Visa and ends with Wonga or the Pawn shop when you’re charging that widescreen telly to your ‘Debt Card’…)
Please, to go and prove that we are not socially distanced at all, pick up the phone and tell someone that you love them.
‘All in it together’(idiom)
1. A group are drawn to each other to share a burden because of a common cause
2. A way to spread blame thinly so that it cannot be easily apportioned
Wait, I remember this one. Osbourne and Cameron. Tory Conference. 2012. Austerity.
Yes, that was the same ‘all in it together’ that decimated the NHS, cut local authority budgets, disproportionately affected the poor, leaving them more vulnerable to, for example, a pandemic that disproportionately affects the poor. ‘All in it together’ is the velvet glove that is meant to make sure that no-one questions the political decision made to throttle certain parts of society in order to service the national debt. Just to make it very clear. Economic policy is a political decision. The economy serves the polis, not the other way round.
Redeployed a second time in tragedy, it seeks to depoliticise policy and leave us all holding some kind of collective can for the fallout of this disease. It inevitably steamrollers over the differing outcomes that emergency policies precipitate based on where you live, what sector you work in, the life that you were able to build in this society before Covid-19. The kind of society that we shaped; through the ballot box, the press, public sentiment and social media.
There is no question that currently, in the UK and around the world, we need to pull together to ‘Get Covid Done’ but once we have got through the worst of this, we need to ensure that clever rhetoric now doesn’t stop us asking the smart questions later.
‘Key Workers’ (n. pl.)
1. Members of the job force that are vital to a country’s economy and or society
2. Members of the job force that previously no-one realised were vital to a country’s economy and daily life
Maitliss lands this as the second blow of her opening one-two punch on Newsnight. Those who cannot or cannot be allowed to work from home are the ones who keep the jigsaw puzzles arriving from Amazon, the Trebiano from Ocado, the rubbish from blocking the view of the heath or mopping up Great Aunt Ermintrude’s piss. A lot of them are foreign or brown or poor, or all of the above. Until this kicked off, barely a thought was spared for those Dickensian jobs that keep our modern world running. Who still knows the name of their post-person? Anyone, anyone?
Until anyone close to us got ill, even the NHS was more of an abstract concept than a tangible thing, to be celebrated in surreal and nightmarish Danny Boyle set-pieces and Call the Midwife. Now suddenly comes the realisation that it isn’t some abstract performance piece, but a living breathing multi-personed organism that we were slowly killing with neglect while lyricsing its ideal. And it’s also full of diligent, hardworking and often highly skilled, foreign workers who previously felt like they were getting chased out of the country.
So clap if you must. Clap as a moment of unity. Clap so that you don’t feel so alone. Clap because otherwise the neighbours will notice. But remember who you were meant to be so grateful for when you can go back to the pub to complain about immigrants.
Words matter. Especially now.