A Reverie for the Future
I used to write a lot about nostalgia. You probably preferred the earlier stuff. But now, as we look across at the unspooling shambles in Sharm el-Sheikh, our sense of disorientation, our inability to be either ‘in the moment’, cognisant of the past, or able to discern the outline of a liveable future is becoming a problem. As the Russian psychologist Anna Stetsenko wrote: “It is impossible to imagine a future unless we have located ourselves in the present and its history; however, the reverse is also true in that we cannot locate ourselves in the present and its history unless we imagine the future and commit to creating it.”
I don’t think it was always like this. Are you old enough to remember looking forward to the year 2000? I remember the Millenium Bug fever and the slightly manic excitement of a new century. I’m not sure the 21st century lived up to expectations but this feeling of looking forwards, to a significant moment, or to a future turning point seems noticeable by its absence. If the comic book 2000AD looked forwards to a future that was mostly dystopian it at least offered a futurism, with vast cities in the sky and spaceships launching into the high-stacked megalopolis. Mega City One was an idea conjured by Patrick Geddes then scribed by Grant Morrison, and this idea of cities of the future held a totemic status for most of the 20th century.
This futurism, a by-product of modernism has been replaced by an endless looking backwards. Anthony Barnett has pointed out that the most important words in the slogans “Take Back Control” and “Make America Great Again” are the words ‘Back’ and ‘Again’. Anglo-America is obsessed with the past — whether it’s the Trumpian pre-Roe v Wade, pre-sexual equality, pre-civil-rights era — or Brexit Britain’s yearning for an imagined past of Global Greatness with pink bits on the map.
Both America and England have the rare privilege of never having been invaded, which makes Suella Braverman’s language all the more disgusting. The well-worn idea that the 1950s American UFO phenomenon was a metaphor and a projection for the fear of communism, can be seen manifesting itself in a different way in post-Brexit Britain.
Unchained Britain is in a state of manufactured fear and heightened paranoia. What England yearns for is a war. It’s why it imagines an ‘invasion’ on its south coast and why it churns out messages and references to the Blitz and why it refers to the war in Ukraine as if it was a participant. Lots of countries venerate an imagined past, but Brexit England is full of a hysterical self-pity and focused on an era of war-triumph. In doing so it conjures (endlessly) Churchill and Thatcher and this is why it revels in an orgy of memorial and why the Poppy Police are out on patrol this weekend.
The problem with imagined past (s) is they conjure notions of purity. Like the (mis) remembering of childhood summer days the memory is highly selective. This is mostly harmless, but as Fintan O’Toole points out:
“Nostalgia is the sweetest of emotions. It is a gentle reverie, a daydream of an imagined past. But when it is injected into politics, it can turn sour and even curdle into toxicity. Much of the reactionary mood across the world over the past decade floats on this acrid stream. From Brexit in England to Trumpism in the United States, from the right-wing nationalisms of Poland and Hungary to the Hindu supremacist ideology that has become dominant in India, supposed strongmen promise to revive a past that never was and to protect a pure identity that never really existed.”
In England’s reverie that imagined past erases people of colour from our history, even our very recent history, to alienate and other them, and does this with the people of Eastern Europe, who we not only fought for and defended in very recent history, but who fought alongside us in huge numbers. The past is always pure, and to look into such an uncertain future it’s understandable that we should get caught-up with waves of nostalgia. But that wave is now in danger of drowning us. It’s drowning our ability for humanity and solidarity, it’s drowning our ability to show compassion and it’s drowning our ability to face the future with any real sense of humility or urgency.
Instead, ‘we’ are awash with a Sado-Populism that shows no sign of receding. The failure for Trump’s republicans to thrive in the midterms has been seized on as a victory, but it’s an empty one and the rise and rise of America’s demented far-right is ongoing.
As we stagger out of the pandemic experience towards some new version of social reality with new norms coined by various stages of denial and disinformation, a new political topography is emerging. Like an unfamiliar landscape exposed by long-drought this place has new features: old borders exposed and deleted; social class inequality radically amplified; identities claimed and denounced and fought over. It’s a land pockmarked by paranoia and denial.
This idea of ‘invasion’ by an imagined enemy (in this case often children) is a recurring theme in this strange new world. There’s an irony here about the nature of conspiracism. This phenomenon exists in a world where there are real enemies, real threats and real malign forces operating in secret. It’s darkly ironic as the rage descends on the Just Stop Oil protestors that the thing people are most angry about is folk trying to defend a credible future.
The right and the far-right which has cultivated the new conspiracism in the petri-dish of post-truthism, Brexit-mania and the Sado-Populism of English exceptionalism want to know nothing about the reality of actual oppressive new powers when they can indulge in the fantasy of imagined ones. The talkshows and phone-ins and the anti-protest protests remain delirious with anger about the wokerati and any interruption of their daily routine. They would be incandescent I’m sure in the unlikely event that anybody at Sharm el-Sheikh actually did anything.
Infantilism and Climate Denial
If Brexit and the new Conspiracism are like conjoined twins, the tissue in between them is False Victim Status and the amniotic fluid they were reared in is surely selfishness; narcissism; hyper-individualism; the collapse of any idea of “society” (carefully and deliberately dismantled since 1979); as well as a (well-justified) hatred of the ‘political elite’. This infantilism has a long-tail. The rise of the “narcissist self” was identified by Christopher Lasch back in the 1970s.
That dislocation from any understanding of the past, and confusion about notions of “progress” (Yuri Gagarin has been replaced by Elon Musk) feeds this phenomena. As Lasch notes: “…modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs”. So we are faced with intractable and unprecedented problems like climate breakdown and pandemic and our response is either self-sedation or self-improvement.
This new topography also has new plots and characters.
Phantoms from a dead democracy haunt us. Like Hancock’s Half Hour in the jungle and Alister Jack, heading for ennoblement, characters rejected by the electorate (or ejected from the state) re-appear in our timelines like eidolon. Sack them and they pop up on your telly, outvote them and they pop up in Ermine boasting about meritocracy.
The new plots often prevent us finding solidarity. The system inoculates itself against real change absorbing and manufacturing dissidence and protest and channeling it back to us as indentitarianism which becomes a sort of relentless pseudo activity.
“Britain” has new Ley lines and borders. It’s ‘sunlit uplands’ look like empty shelves, ‘Global Britain’ is one re-upping its nuclear arsenal and sending the navy in to arrest desperate people trying to cross the English Channel. The supermarket shelves are not empty, as someone explained: “Those shelves are not empty. They’re just so full of sovereignty there was no room for food.”
In this strange new land borders between Europe and Britain have been erected while borders within Britain have been denied. Scotland exists but only as a place where the idea of ‘no future’ has been taken to extremes. In a place in which its difficult to imagine a future never mind the future “now is not the time” takes a darker tone to it. It’s a feature and an anomaly of modern Britain that it is both obsessed by sovereignty (for the imagined ‘British’) and yet relishes suppressing sovereignty for other parts of These Islands.
So much irony. I mean, isn’t it odd that the two geniuses of our time — the recently venerated Vladimir Putin — once held up as a strategic mastermind — and Elon Musk — the Space Capitalist and global entrepreneur — are failing in real time? Their reputations are collapsing publicly before our very eyes. If Musk’s career is like something from the pages of 2000AD, his pollution and sabotage of Twitter looks like a tale from classical antiquity.
What are we learning from any of this? What we’ll have to unlearn is our dependency on technology and particularly a technology that we have no control of.
As Arundhati Roy tells us reflecting on the Pegasus tech: ” … we are headed towards being governed by states that know everything there is to know about people, and about which people know less and less. That asymmetry can only lead in one direction. Malignancy. And the end of democracy.”
“We will have to migrate back to a world in which we are not controlled and dominated by our intimate enemy — our mobile phones. We have to try to rebuild our lives, struggles and social movements outside the asphyxiating realm of digital surveillance. We must dislodge the regimes that are deploying it against us. We must do everything we can to prise open their grip on the levers of power, everything we can to mend all that they have broken, and take back all they have stolen.”
The fact that that sounds like a really impossible task, makes it all the more important, doesn’t it? Roy’s point, that we are all migrants now, in one way or another is a good one.
We appear dislocated, suffering from institutional memory loss and unable to face the future. Maybe, just maybe, Musk’s colossal failure is a light in the darkness. Maybe the myth-shattering of the omnipotent billionaire is a godsend. Maybe the collapse of a social media platform is something to celebrate? Maybe it’s time to “imagine the future and commit to creating it”.