A Patina of Normality

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything on here. Partly due to a scepticism that anyone bothers reading blogposts anymore, partly due to a belief that anything much over 240 characters these days is tl;dr for most; partly because everyone seems to be shouting past one another now, with no one really listening to anything.

The summer’s been idyllic. It started with being too busy to do anything but work, leaving no time for reflection; work has continued throughout the summer, but at a manageable pace. I have been (and am still) writing about the work of Borko Lazeski; a wonderful monumental painter who lived his life in very different times; a man whose life was bookended by Eric Hobsbawm’s “short century”. Borko spent his adult life helping to build an art-world in Macedonia; completing a remarkable body of work in fresco, mosaic, oils and pencil; creating monumental public artworks with few equals in the Europe of the last century,  passing from this life in the early 1990s just as one world view was collapsing, and being replaced by another. His last years were spent just under a patina of the old normality, masking the profound changes metastasing underneath.

There’s been something of a similar patina in the sticky long evenings of this dry summer. It seems now that we are living through another collapse; not the shock capitalism witnessed in the former socialist countries from late 1989 onward; but more the kind of slow, controlled demolition of the certainties of my childhood; a final Fred Dibnah-job on the decaying bricks and mortar of decency and the welfare state. Newspapers are full of late 1940s chatter of rationing, stockpiling, and states of emergency. Reactions on the bafflement spectrum range from continual unhelpful liberal shrieking on one side, to pantomine Fascist demonstrations on another- with serious consequences for two London bookshops.

A recently resigned foreign secretary parrots hateful one liners straight from The Great Book of Golf Club Bores, having seemingly taken advice from an angry American blogger on how to position himself after leaving the cabinet. And the idea that Brexit will be an answer to anything is not even worth examining; it’s like a doctor solemnly advising a patient with torn knee ligaments to eat a tangerine, and then everything’ll be fine.

People cherish false ambitions in the hope of a second EU referendum, no matter how often this particular turkey is skewered by people who actually know what they are talking about.  Liberals whine and whine and whine, but all this noise won’t actually change the stark reality. There won’t be a second referendum on leaving the EU, most strikingly because there isn’t actually time now to legislate for one; a parliament more corrupt and venal than any since the eighteenth century shows no interest in legislating for it anyway; the Europeans won’t countenance it without radical change in domestic UK politics; and we seem to be headed for a no-deal Brexit through political inertia and paralysis as much as anything else. And the loudest parakeets in the Brexit cage are busy offshoring assets and securing EU passports for themselves before the self-drawn portcullis clangs down next March.

The collapse then is not some kind of restrictive economic one, although that will certainly come to the UK in the event of a hard Brexit, but more of a collapse in the idea of democracy itself; the privileging of feelings over reason. It’s the result of people being encouraged to leave politics to others for the last forty or so years; the hollowing out and destruction of local government; the centralising of power, and the normalising of that process through encouraging political action via what differentiates us, rather than what unites us.  It’s the long shift from a politics that encourages us to relate to one another, to the politics of the relatable. It’s been thirteen years since Trevor Phillips spoke of sleepwalking to segregation, and nearly quarter of a century since concerns from the left about the liberal practice of multiculturalism were first raised by the Independent Working Class Association, yet the process of encouraging minority groups not only to organise around a particular label (ethnic identities, sub-nationalisms, gender identities, sexuality) and compete for an ever tightening pot of money on that basis, has not only continued but accelerated.

This may just be the opening couple of punches in a numbing salvo to come in the years ahead. Yuvel Noah Harari was interviewed on radio yesterday, and he presented the jump-starting of the fascist and populist corpse as a gigantic distraction; that the unique problems facing the world in 2018 cannot hope to be solved at a national level; that internationally co-ordinated action and determination is needed to reverse the early symptoms of catastrophic climate change, and the coming social tsunami caused by the growth of AI and robotics. There is patchy and token political action on the first issue, and no debate at all (let alone any serious answers) on points two and three. There’s a fumbling towards the notion of a basic citizen’s income in one or two places, but the idea of breaking the link between income and work seems to run rather counter to the febrile spirit of the times.

This approach to politics on a consumerist basis accounts for one of the common reactions to Brexit from the electorate; “oh, they’ll sort it all out, it’ll be fine, just stop going on about it”.  Although a quieter response than the pearl-clutching of the #FBPE lot, and the smug suck it up, you lost, we’re leaving of the out-ers, it’s perhaps the most dangerous. The Leave campaign was a malign positioning of the power of destructive identity politics, and the use of it as a battering ram to force through deregulatory, undiluted Friedmanite economics. The dreams of some Brexiteers, to create a colder Singapore in the North Atlantic, rest on the success of their campaign in 2016, and by pushing home its shaky verdict ruthlessly, though a mixture of cynical Brit-exceptionalism and naked corporate greed. The idea that massive socio-political changes can be left to others to sort out…please.

There’s no solution to all this, of course, other than in trying to build something for which there is little constituency at present; a grassroots movement based on genuine criticality, direct democracy and solidarity; a using of the opportunity of the atrophying of the centre, and a unique set of socio-economic circumstances, to create a new social movement willing to take legislative action into its own hands and to work together towards a commonly agreed set of goals; where “taking back control” is not a moronic slogan on the side of a bus, but exactly what it means; a new, empowered localism, with decision making taken away from the discredited centre. Only this can really begin to fill out the hollow core of democracy again.

Cynics will say; come on, you might as well call for the reformation of Austria-Hungary. Those days aren’t coming back. How to Begin? And Where? With Whom? To What purpose? Liminal states are anxious states; especially when we are still keenly aware of what has been left behind, and very painfully unaware of what is to come. Now is exactly the time to rediscover a sense of commons, of listening, of compromise; of new beginnings. Long years of anxiety and uncertainty lie ahead. And, during those long years, only optimism, new organisation and time are our assets. It’s too early to give into despair, which, in our present circumstances, is a luxury none of us can afford.



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