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.
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.
[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.
A smartphone frames a fat grey London pigeon zig-zagging towards its camera. The afternoon sun casts shadows of branches above and the bird below across the paving stones. As the bird beats a path towards the lens, tacking right then left, the brown booted foot of the cameraman kicks out from below the frame. As the bird skitters away, we hear their reproach, laconic, direct, estuarine; ‘Two metres, Cunt.’
Welcome to a Very British Lockdown.
As the nation embraces panic-buying as a dynamic new format for a stolid old sport, a retail T20 set to revitalise traditional Test Match queuing, columnists poeticise the pleasures and sorrows of the ‘stay-at-home boozer’ (larger pours, fewer pulls) whilst weekend supplements cynically push recipes for homemade yogurts and sourdough-starters whilst Hackney is at its most vulnerable. Across the country, Wetherspoons branches are being vandalised as many take the opportunity to exact a long awaited vengeance on Tim Martin’s ‘Ryanair of Pubs’ and The Zoom Arms has become our Moon Under Water. My very own Hangout Tavern hosted its inaugural pub quiz last Friday, with competitors from places as far flung as Hong Kong, New Zealand and Cornwall. The winner – Team Corona Loner – walked away with a pack of Donald Trump toilet paper, delivered courtesy of our sponsors, Amazon Prime. But this is now in danger of turning into a parody of one of those very columns…
The experience so far of ‘Lockdown London’ contrasts sharply with that of Shenzhen, where until a few weeks ago I was based; like comparing Butlins to Belmarsh. In the Southern Chinese megacity, streets were ghostly empty and many friends had not left their homes for weeks. The only vehicles on the street were the ubiquitous Meituan electric delivery scooters, speeding silently across concrete overpasses like lost yellow ghosts in an oversize game of Pac-Man. After fear and repression turned Hubei province into a dumpster fire, the People’s Republic was using their most powerful tools to try and right that wrong; fear and repression. Red-arm-banded apparatchiks positioned at every apartment complex and building were taking the temperatures of anyone who did venture out, and were unsympathetic in removing the symptomatic. The indistinct but persistent threat of China’s social credit system, buzzing overhead like an unseen Reaper drone, ensured that few bothered; Xi’s digital panopticon at work. Ironically the coercion and compliance meant those that were out were relatively free to roam, leaving me starring in their very own post-apocalyptic short in the most future-imperfect of cities. But let me state now that this will not be an exercise in public health top-trumps, before Singapore, the Hitlerjugend Hermione Granger of international relations sticks up their hand to tell us the answer. No-one likes a swot, especially not one in jackboots.
By comparison, Britain has been relaxed. Too relaxed at first it seems. Restrictions have steadily ramped-up in proportion to ‘our defiant spirit’, as many initially saw staying at home as ‘letting the virus win’. The problem with war metaphors is that they assume malice on the part of a lipid-coated strand of replicating RNA. Haters gonna hate, viruses gonna replicate; it’s not personal. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, our era’s own children’s party Churchill (‘we will fight them on the bouncy castle, we shall fight them in the ball pits…’) is finally having his chance to shine by putting a ‘freedom loving people’ under an increasingly restrictive house-arrest, fulfilling two classic Tory wank-fantasies at the same time; a good old fashioned national emergency, and the chance to incarcerate the poorest in inhumane conditions. Calling Covd-19 indiscriminate is disingenuous; it follows the ley lines of our own structural prejudice and past political decisions. Targeting those with poor nutrition, those who are badly housed or those in fuel poverty with laser guided precision. The pre-existing conditions that are key comorbidities are as likely to follow economic predisposition as genetic. The virus may not be animate, but it is alive to our iniquities.
The problem with the idea that we are ‘all in it together’ is that there is no ‘we’. There is a woolly belief amongst some that this crisis will be some kind of catalyst for the healing of the country, a ‘bringing together’ of a fractured nation. There is perhaps some cause to hope. As this ‘war’ places the NHS at the heart rather than the military, it is much more universal. The health service touches almost everyone’s lives at some point and is staffed by individuals from across the geographical, racial and class spectrums. It is in truth, the last common touchpoint that Britain has left in an increasingly dissociated marketplace of culture and ideas. Yet, as this emergency goes on, inequalities are more sharply exposed. It is hard to maintain an idea that we all stand together when we are told to stand two metres apart and every cough brings the suspicion that someone is a carrier. We can stand on our doorsteps and bang pots until we have beaten them into cymbals, but even in that moment, each household stands alone and faced with their own unique uncertainties.
In the first part of his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, George Orwell praises the English as a ‘highly differentiated’ people with a ‘respect for constitutionalism and legality. Orwell’s own description of a country where ‘the liberty of the individual is still believed in…the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen from above’ is echoed in Boris “Poundland Churchill” Johnson’s ‘freedom loving people’ schtick, but the perverse logic of this virus is that we are having those leisures and amusements dictated, as well as our movement restricted. And after initial resistance, many have embraced this new reality. Faced with looming uncertainty, many have been quick to welcome the false security of a world of reduced choices. But just as the virus follows the paths which our own societal choices have laid out, so has our embrace of unfreedom been stratified by class. For every white collar professional showing off their shiny new ‘work-from-home’ set-up, there is a family with two-bedrooms too few and a few bills too many, where school was the most important meal of the day and a trip to the shops meant getting out from under the shadow of home. Even China, where many crimes committed within a marriage are not criminal, reported a three-fold increase in domestic violence during the lockdown in Hubei. And that is just what was reported.
In this light, the situation takes on a particularly nasty edge. The loss of freedom is not a particularly hard cross to bear for those that have enough room to be fine with confinement. Waitrose baskets take on a jolly agro-millenarian air as trolleys stacked with cracked bulgur wheat and pinot gris waft back to the Range Rover. Meanwhile the oh what a lovely war attitude continues for those ‘isolating’ in second homes (weren’t they already though?), and in leafy outer-city suburbs, two-acre gardeners berate walkers flouting the two-metre rule, conveniently overlooking that we’d all be only too glad to stay at home if our homes looked like theirs. “Lockdown shaming” has all the ingredients to be the perfect palette cleanser for middle class authoritarianism, an entree to ‘Totalitarianism-lite’ (Slogan: ‘I can’t believe it’s not constitutional…? Can you…?’). Combining sanctimonious compliance, with armchair epidemiology, and a righteous defence of the NHS, our ‘one true faith’; It might just be the fascism that Middle England has been waiting for.
Across parks and commons, passive-aggressive distancing markers are neatly chalked along pathways. Some boroughs have relegated joggers to ‘off-road’ to make room for the more genteel pastime of dog-walking. Those with cars are freer to move whilst non-essential use of public transport is now seen as hacking great globules of spittle in the face of our ICU nurses – Literally – proving, for those who have forgone the urban luxury of owning a car, that no good deed does ever go truly unpunished. This weekend, whilst out cycling, I came to a car stopped atop a humped zebra crossing, it’s driver deep in conversation with a friend on the opposite side of the road. Whilst passing, I quipped ‘nice parking’ and was met with a string of invective outlining why I should not be out, and ‘how dare I’, clearly peeved at having their catch-up interrupted by the flow of traffic. As I rode that afternoon, I passed a number of ‘socially distanced’ doorstep cups of tea and G and Ts. Nice if you have a front door and a doorstep to call your own. There seems to be a lot of ‘how dare they’ at the moment, especially from those who are best equipped to implement these kinds of work-arounds which highlights the flaws in the ‘all in it together’ rhetoric as sharply as David Geffen’s Instagram. It’s worth noting there is a 6 point difference between ABC1 and C2DE on the matter of whether this crisis has united the nation or pushed us further apart. Expect this to widen.
As tensions increase and high street queues becoming increasingly fractious, and judgements about the actions and reactions of others to these strange times become less and less implicit, I can’t help feeling that there is a certain section of Britain who has been waiting a long time for this; an entitled subset who expect that we will all comply but is happy to take this opportunity to have the builders come and re-tile the roof; who will embrace ID checks at the train stations while driving the dogs many miles to take them on their favourite long walk; people who expect conformity to restrictions which may not be restrictive to them at all, and have little empathy for those who stray while just trying to stay safe or sane. It reminds me of the self-proclaimed ‘Riot Wombles’ after the 2011 London disturbances, the distinctly middle-class groups (#OperationCupOfTea #MugsNotThugs) who took to the streets with brooms to voluntarily help clear up; silently disapproving of the disorder and wilfully ignorant of its underlying causes, let alone the part they played in them. Because they were just ‘getting on with things’, why couldn’t everyone else?
But blanket statements such as these are thrown over the existing topographies of inequality like a rug over a pachyderm. The same terms and conditions result in very different outcomes, leaving those who are most free the most enthusiastic to embrace unfreedom. But if we really are in this together we should be considering how we created this socio-economic landscape in the first place, not gleefully berating those who are stuck in its deepest fissures. We need to reflect on why the NHS need such careful handling to balance such limited capacity. We need to ask ourselves why there are so many precariat ‘freelancers’ who lack even the savings to weather a month without work, or why free school meals are such a vital lifeline for many families.
A crisis is often the pivot around which history turns.
The question is which way we will turn during this one.
Malaysia is a car culture.
Not a ‘driving’ culture, one where the act of movement itself is a sacred rite, but one where the motor industry and cars themselves have shaped the landscape and the place that in turn has shaped the society and the people.
Driving is more akin to breathing.
This is no more a driving culture than humanity is an ‘oxygen culture’
We are heading up country in a borrowed Honda, my partner and I, departing from her hometown of Rawang, a large, sprawling settlement in the state of Selangor, just north of Kuala Lumpur. Once a tin-pot tin mining town, whose output, like much of Selangor’s, was dwarfed by the larger lodes of ore excavated in neighbouring Perak, Rawang became more populous with successive waves of migration – first for the mines, then the plantations; first rubber, then palm oi.. More recently, as Malaysia has moved up the value chain (along the way, ceding it’s position as the world’s biggest rubber producer in return for birthing the world’s most fecund condom manufacturer) Rawang has diversified, with a large cement plant and several auto part makers, as well as a healthy trade in commuters, who brave the sluggish, stolid, slog of 23 kilometres, south to Kuala Lumpur. For those who know London, it’s a place is faintly reminiscent of a chaotic, post-colonial Croydon.
The Honda was one of those nondescript mid-sized saloons that are almost impossible to date now. Neither old nor new, it was built some time in the late noughties, destined to be driven some time soon into quiet obsolescence with little to mark it’s passing. For now though, it was comfortable in it’s late-middle age – stately, unhurried and reliable. We had stopped in the centre of town to find a cable to connect the car’s ‘Aux’ input – a headphone-jack-sized hole – to the C-type output on my phone which dated the car’s design to a time when people had already begun to carry their music with them, but before the expectation that they could beam it at will to any willing object nearby, a last bastion of the wired in this second age of wireless. The first arbitrary phone shop we found was able to oblige, and we were underway; the cable acting as a tether across time and space, documenting the quiet progress consumer electronics had made in the first decade of my fully-adult life.
That this cable would be so easy to find on the nearest street corner begins to illustrate the car’s pervasive presence in Malaysia. The peninsula itself is as well endowed as it’s prophylactics makers, ringed with scruffy-beautiful sand beaches and spined by a range of jungle-covered mountains, their highlands littered with the kind of idiosnycratic mock-tudor bungalows that a certain type of adventurous Briton wistfully littered across the world during the early 20th Century during occasionally-indulged moments of homesic whimsy, peppering half the globe with a connect-the-dots simulacrum of Surrey, stretching from Sri Lanka to Sarawak. Century-old shophouses, skyscrapers, and one of the worlds most eclectic cuisines are just some of the other rewards you get here. Just don’t expect to get here without driving.
The first car factory in the Straits was in fact not in what was to become Malaysia, but on the island of Singapore; a confident Art-Deco building in Bukit Timah built in 1941 that was shortly to become the site of the British surrender of Singapore in 1942 to the Japanese. Car production in Malaysia itself was really established post-independence in 1967 when the government approved construction of 6 factories – 3 in Shah Alam, some 40kms south of Rawang, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Port Klang. Initially assembling foreign cars, by the 1980s, the expertise and skills that these had acquired for the country helped launch the ‘National Car Project’, leading to the founding of Proton in 1983 and the launch of the bestselling Proton Saga by 1985. Annual sales of less than 100,000 units in 1985 had almost tripled by 1995 and were close to 700,000 by 2015.
But sales figures only tell half the story.
The intimate relationship was not just the car as a marker of progress, as is the case in many rapidly growing countries, but with the car industry as a symbol of national pride. By 2002, Malaysia had become only the 11th country in the world to be able to design, engineer and build a car from a blank page and the only one in the region. By 1999, Malaysia was hosting a Grand Prix and Petronas, Perdua and Proton were all part of a heady, high-octane cocktail fuelling modern Malaysian identity.
Since that early noughties high water mark for both Malaysia and the automotive industry worldwide – even US car sales peaked in 2000 – the wheel has turned. By the end of those intervening decades, the effect of having tied national pride so closely to the automotive has left the country lacking. This combination car-centric policy-making and the endemic underinvestment in other forms of locomotion that it precludes, spiced with a particularly piquant variety of local corruption has left Malaysia lacking. Few if any rail lines were opened between the 1930s and 1995’s opening of the first commuter line serving Kuala Lumpur – incidentally beginning as our journey did, in Rawang. In those intervening years, coinciding with Malaysia’s Asian Tiger’s leap, speculative property building followed road construction, slashing six-lane asphalt through the jungle, arteries bulbous with tumours of exurban growth that were heavy on driveways but light on pavements.
This fundamentally affects the Malaysian way of being and doing. When you ‘go’ somewhere, there is really only one way to ‘go’. Even in central KL, the public transport system is too sporadic, too syncopated to be truly helpful, and in truth, with so many organs of state and offices of commerce, transplanted to new as well as heavily redeveloped and car-centric townships ringing the city proper; Putrajaya, Cyberjaya, Petaling Jaya; it’s utility is moot. In this respect, KL feels like the cousin of LA, caught in a specific glorious moment, sometime in the late 20th century, when car was raja.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer much written about. Having engaged a little with his essays, I was lent Between the World and Me by a friend. I was unsurprised by who. Coates is very much the ‘correct’ writer of the left currently, and as a fit and proper member of the liberal left (as well as a Londoner of very mixed Afro-Caribbean-European descent) I felt I ought to engage.
First, the bit that has been done to death as a “correct preface and before launching into critque, the part that’s obvious; Coates is a candid, thoughtful and unique voice. A very good writer, a significant 21st Century American voice. It may be too early to say whether he will be canonical, but the signs are he will. I am not a literary critic, but I wanted to offer a personal response to his writing, or rather his literary preoccupations, to see if there is anything half-universal in my particular thoughts about his thinking.
Like the science fiction author who becomes obsessed with the intricacies and technicalities of the genre, Coates may always be ‘great’ within a subcategory, rather than using that prism to place his own particular within the universal, and that universal in his particular. His fixation on the lens through which he sees the world – blackness – rather than how he sees through that lens and what he looks at are the limiting factor. The feeling that Coates is a ‘Black Writer’ very explicitly in that order dogs me continually when I read his work. I feel as though I ought to feel more – as a liberal, as mixed-race man, but I was just left with the uncomfortable sense that many of the grandly extrapolative commentaries on his work are universalising a writer who is so particular to his time and place, and the history of the USA, as well as his own experience. What I find most difficult is that in Coates is that he accepts ‘Blackness’ completely and internalises it wholly before ever putting pen to paper. The irony here is that by never questioning that first assumption, he fosters the fatalism which constantly stalks his work
That Coates’ address blackness as a monolithic bloc is where I struggle most. Despite passages when he is at his most lyrical, describing the multi-shaded, multi-storied, multicultural mix of the ‘The Yard’ at Howard University, he so often slides back into a monochrome world view, where he fixates on ‘blackness’ and on ‘black’. He is able to acknowledge this visual heterogeneity, but fails to fully comprehend the consequences of that with respects to culture, history and society. In this singular and one-dimensional view of ‘black,’ he reflects America’s greatest failure. The precondition of all of his work is that he has accepted the external and artificial ‘othering’ of nonwhiteness; his acceptance of this imposed definition underpins all that he writes; it preoccupies his words and perhaps his dreams; haunted by the ghost of another’s treason.
The motif of ‘black bodies’ in Between the World and Me perfectly encapsulates this internalisation. Of course he is right in that government has alienated these bodies, that the state has challenged individuals’ rights to govern their own, that the threat of force hangs over all of them. Yet what is so tragic is the resigned acceptance of this. Rather than understand that it is a contested space, one that is being unevenly but inevitably – and rightly- won back, he despairs as if it is lost. The increasing awareness of the slights, the bias, the towering structural travesties that history has built to subjugate black bodies points towards the likelihood of their destruction. Arguably White Militancy reflects how successful and ultimately inexorable this victory is. Or perhaps not being American, I am naive. Ironic it was always America that so many pointed to as a beacon of opportunity and of optimism. Coates is indeed one of 21st Century America’s finest voices; he is also one of it’s saddest truths. Every artist is flawed, but when the hand wringing liberals, the latter-day descendants of Langston Hughes’ Park Avenue dinner party hosts, ‘correctly’ accept universality in his particularity they are in danger or reinforcing the othering they claim to fight.
All identities are constructed, but ‘blackness’ has a long and particularly dark history, which has been better explored by many many others. But fundamentally, it is the ‘othering’ by European’s of nonwhite peoples that went alongside colonial expansion and became a core part of the racist/racialist theory and thinking that came to dominate by the 19th Century. As a European invention, it was adopted and internalised to varying degrees by people upon whom it was forced. It is interesting drawing on my own experience, having been lucky enough to be paid to briefly unpick a number of different cultures in my past career, how this varies. As a commercial market researcher, I used to hop place to place working out how best to flog anything from face cream to football boots. I remember one project where we were working on a campaign for Guinness called ‘Made of Black’ that drew a not-too-subtle line between the brand’s long heritage of being brewed and consumed in (primarily West) Africa, and one of it’s more obvious visual attributes within the beer category. In Lagos, this ebullient, assertive campaign, riffing on contemporary culture across the African continent was incredibly well received. Yet the following week in Addis Ababa, in a country that was never truly colonised, there was criticism – they wanted to know why we were showing this to them, ‘what was this Black Black Black’ they said. ‘We are Ethiopians, we come in many shades, and we are all Ethiopians. Those West Africans that were colonised are Black’. I imagine the darker skinned, ‘black’ Emiratis I met the next week in the UAE (to find out how best to redesign air conditioning units) would have found it equally puzzling, and not just because they (ostensibly) don’t drink.
Black is a label invented by the labeller. Like Santa Claus it is imagined, a myth or a construct that has informed real behaviours, constructed entire social and economic systems. So why does Coates embrace it rather that shout that it isn’t real. One reason is that the myth has created realities, but to dispel the myth is to undermine the foundation of the edifice and perhaps create the chance to build a new one. The other is far more tragic. The American Black experience, devoid of an alternative, it’s own ‘Ethiopian-ness’ or Emirati-ness’ embraces this. So we get to ‘Black Culture’, ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black Panther,’ the ‘Black’ here simply meaning ‘nonwhite’,the black being an empty vessel created by someone else who didn’t even bother to fill it that many try to fill in a quest for meaning. This is the history of the most enduring crime of slavery. That is cut people off from themselves. From any notion of identity. Then institutionally barred them from being part of any new one. The history of ‘Black’ is the history of the greatest American Crime. Micheal Jackson’s transformation could have only happened in this America. Hip Hop, ‘Young Gifted and Black’, ‘Ebony and Ivory,’ could have only been created in this place. In fairness to Coates, he does not try to explicitly universalise, so the dangerous mistake is that of those reading. Perhaps this previous sentence is the most important so far. Perhaps this is best read as a response to Coates the Cultural Artefact rather than Coates the Author, brought about by the loan of a “correct” text from a “correct” friend.
Perhaps by this point someone reading will have already decided that I am ‘not black enough’. Divides are so often drawn along these lines. As if there is a ‘correct’ amount of blackness. These mimic and invert the very hierarchy of the plantation; once again they internalise the ‘othering’ – the lightskinned slaves in the house and the darkest bodies working the hardest toil on the field. Repackaged slave-owner logic used to ‘other’ an another from another mother.
The point of writing this, though was to reflect how little of my life I saw in Coates’ ‘black life’. ‘Black British’ is loosely defined and rarely used. Perhaps because it can mean so much it does mean so little. But whatever cohesion there is in that term comes with is variety, it’s multiplicity. I cannot identify with Coates because I have not been sat outside of history, nose pressed up against the glass looking in. Migration here came in suits and Sunday best, carrying cardboard suitcases and hopes. It came with by invitation, not with chains. It came with identities and cultures – those in themselves part-created, part agglomerated, part othered, but wholly owned. West Indian, Jamaican, the multiple religions and traditions of the Indian subcontinent. They came with stories. They came with these shields against a simple ‘othering’ which let people say “I am not the other, I am.”
My own mother, born in Jamaica and having come to the Mother Country on a boat as a child with my Grandmother, was puzzled when she moved to the US in her early 20s. The fixation with ‘Blackness’, The ‘Kunta Kinte Questing’ to look for identity and meaning, the notion that dating across ‘racial lines’ was somehow treacherous was alien. These invisible picket lines had been erected on both sides. Blackness was complicit in it’s own vilification.
I look at the US and wonder if it ever could have brought forth Ali G, the character that mocks the suburban white adoption of (predominantly black) Urban culture’; who asks “Is it cos I is black?” which in six simple syllables captures the complex interplay between Britain and the Caribbean diaspora that have helped shape it’s contemporary culture. A comedic rhetorical question imbued with Aldwyn ‘Lord Kitchener’ Roberts, The Specials and Madness’; filled with Two-Tone, Skinhead and Ska; seasoned with the syntax of Dizzee Rascal and Trevor McDonald. Perhaps the intricacies of the British class system helped blur ‘race’, helped (‘white’) band The Clash warn about ‘The Guns of Brixton’ years before the riots and empowered MC Smiley Culture to give us a ‘Cockney Translation’ only three years before NWA said ‘Fuck the Police’.
The closest I ever saw to what I thought of as an American internalisation of ‘Blackness’ was whilst at university. In the alienating environment of Oxford, where (almost) everyone, save those from the most elite public schools felt cut adrift, there were undertones of it in the ‘Oxford Caribbean and African Society” aka “BlackSoc”. The combination of these two amorphous cultural buckets was curious to me. Growing up in London, I remember some friction between the two diasporas. They both have so many diverse and different stories that to cram them together, with only their nonwhiteness in common, looked like a self-othering, in reaction to being a visible outsider in a place where everyone felt like an imposter. Maybe it was easier in BlackSoc, like the passively religious who arrive at university and become passionate Evangelicals. I don’t know, but it always struck me as non sequitous unless seen through the lens of the Coatesian worldview. Perhaps their existence itself is a warning against my own naive, instinctive smugness. After all, just as ‘not all Trump voters are racist, but all racists are Trump voters’, the same could be said about Brexit. And the recent Austrian elections Geert Wilders demonstrates how misplaced European complacency is.
Coates himself hints at a less monolithic perspective when he narrates his move to NY, yet ultimately squeezes the Latinos and Puerto Ricans into his catholic outlook. People are one or the other. Yet the failure is not his, the failure is America’s. If you feel that I believe race does not matter that the damage of institutionalised, othered, monolithic ‘blackness’ is irrelevant then I have expressed myself poorly. It matters. A lot. But it must be contested and to do so it must be fought. That is not the author’s job. It is all of ours. And perhaps that is easier anywhere else where there was life before the labelling. How do you think beyond if there is nothing before, If everything else has been erased?
I understand the Coatesian view in the abstract, placed in is socio-historical context. But it is a contested space, and because of this, I consciously choose not to share it.
I worry if I am ‘Black enough’ to share this article without reproach. Yet it is that instinctive worry that tells me I must share it.
I recently read ‘The Lies that Bind’ by Anthony Kwame Appiah. I thought it was fantastic book and left me with many thoughts and responses. I wrote him a letter, but he didn’t reply, so I shall share it here… Hopefully some of them make sense for those that haven’t read the book, and for anyone who has, would be fascinated to hear.
Dear Professor Appiah
Firstly, apologies for this unsolicited note, and the second rate undergrad-level thoughts it contains.
After finishing ‘The Lies that Bind’, I really wanted to put down some thoughts – I hope you don’t thing its too weird that I have then sent them to you….
I have been thinking a lot about the ideas that you explore about identity within your book. Identity – and in particular nationality and it’s composite bits – is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently and a little bit for a long time, particularly as mixed-race Afro-caribbean Brit living in an British Asian former colony (Singapore) for the last four years. (I could write multiple emails just picking apart my observations on identity here in response to some of your writing – one of my neighbours told me the story of how, as a young boy, he went to bed waving one flag and woke up waving another 53 years ago)
On a personal level I really connected with the elements you wove in of your own story and how your unique viewpoint allows you to describe the absurdity of reductive and singular notions of identity that essentialists and ethnocentrists cling to. Having in my own small way straddled multiple worlds during my own experience; most obviously of race, but also of class and of culture, I have always had a sense that ‘obvious’ category divides and definitions aren’t particularly natural or clear or obvious, but I also feel that is the gift of a privileged viewpoint. I smiled when you referred to yourself as ‘English’ as I remember one particularly revealing late night debate with a very good friend (he still is now) from my college who vehemently denied me use of the title because I “don’t have the blood”.
The thing that really struck me as I read your work was the outsized role that Country or the Nation plays in tying together the contemporary versions of the four other sorts of identity that you explore. It seems that (to borrow one of your most lovely turns of phrase in the book) Nation, or the Nationalism born of the industrial nation state is the ‘Medusa Gaze’ that fixes and reduces the other facets identities. Between the French Revolution, the 19th Century romantic liberal-national movements and the technological and economic shifts of the Industrial Revolution, the overlapping, multilayered versions of identity that still lingered at the time of Ettore’s birth were hammered flat, collapsed and co-opted by modern Nationalism. Ironic that what at the start of the 19th Century was the great ideal of the liberal (I remember studying why ‘Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles’ was a message initially to inspire citizens of a patchwork of grand-duchies and principalities to ‘feel’ German above ‘Protestant’ or ‘Hanseatic’ or ‘Prussian’) became the refuge and strength of the authoritarian. Perhaps natural too, as once the liberal-national dream to ‘create’ has been fulfilled, the logical next step is to ‘conserve’?
Then of course this was exported to the rest of the world, through amongst other things the ‘Census, Map, Museum’ as Benedict Anderson puts it, and as you recognise when you talk about the invention of the Hindu (the same is true of the definition ‘Malay’ in Singapore – there has been some fantastic work done on how this authoritarian island utopia is a post colonial government deploying unreconstituted colonial structures and powers.
By lashing together states-wide tribalism for mass mobilisation – for war and for industry, using the vines and tentacles of creed and colour and culture, Country became Nation and it fixed these ideas, creating a mass cultural product that was compellingly simple and dangerously compelling. The lies we tell ourselves aren’t a problem in themselves – as you highlight in so many of your pre-industrial examples, until they are denied the elasticity and vibrancy to continue to flex and grow. Some of the examples you use from religion and evolving consensus on values highlight this beautifully, and in part I wanted to write to you to see what your response would be to the thought which struck me – namely, that it was this industrial homogenisation of these other elements by the Nation-State (to which I would add language, at least as a historical category to this) which caused so many of the problems we see now in ‘identity politics’; that identity politics as we see it, is a product of this process. Religious fundamentalism, racial essentialism and cultural ossification are all modern industrial products, and like Nationalism, are profoundly unsuited to the reality of the contemporary world – it’s no coincidence that it primarily is supranational bodies like the EU that are suited to – and have at least had some limited success being – a counterpoint to transnational corporations.
When you then went on to argue the opposite when it came to class, that we do not pay enough attention to it’s continuity and the myth of meritocracy (our 20th Century version of Mayer’s ‘Persistence of the Old Regime’) I was even more excited. Perhaps here I push my reading of you work too far into my limited (and rusty) intellectual realm as a historian by training, a democratic socialist by inclination and someone working in the ‘commercial application of social sciences’ (I say grandiosely – I am but a humble market researcher…) but could in some ways this be the counterpoint to Nation? Maybe I have been listening to Paul Robeson sing ‘Joe Hill’ too often recently, but it struck me that if the two work in opposite directions and by making class as you describe it more visible, class could provide a counterpoint to the problems of Nation? Or at least as a lever to prise back apart some richness and layers?
Lastly, as a liberal, the thing that you touch upon which touched me most is in your section on Cultural appropriation. When other ‘liberals’ throw it round cheaply, I shudder. That is truly (to use another of your phrases – and I have been using these a lot talking to people recently, so it’s not just here to flatter you in this email) a source code fallacy. By engaging on those terms, they truly are reinforcing exactly the essentialism that you rail against, and having had this argument with so many people recently, and ‘tarnishing’ my ‘correct’ cosmopolitan/liberal credentials it was relief to read someone far more eloquent and intelligent and me articulate the sentiment. he yardstick of ‘respect’ is a useful heuristic for making the phrase redundant. There are a few copies of the book along with specific pages called out already on their way to some people. You express the idea far better than I have ever managed!
Anyway, I hope you have time to read this, and certainly don’t expect a reply, but I really just wanted to say thank you for writing something so thought provoking and refreshing – definitely one of my books of the year so far,
P.S I do also really wonder if you have read any, and what you think of the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but I feel like that must be an irritating question you get asked all the time, and the FT was wise enough to avoid it in their recent interview with you, so I shall do the same. His work does remind me of a bad joke someone told me – Why is race like Santa Claus? They are both not real, but have both caused so much genuine sorrow and suffering…