Tony Talks #15: The State of the Nation(s)

Everything is broken. You know it. I know it. People are talking more about it these days, but still… everything is not just broken, it’s *exhausting*.

I was originally going to just put together a tweet thread about this but I feel compelled right now to write more about the desperate current state, not just of our politics in the West, but our societies in general. In some sense, David Cameron’s vision of a ‘Big Society’ in the UK has come to pass for Western democracy, just not in the way he imagined. We are one big, collapsing macrocosm of democracy which is being crushed under rapidly evolving systems and processes. Our society cannot cope with these quiet revolutions and, consequently, the centre—literally—is not holding.

At this stage, I’d like to, and this may sound weird, invite you to stop reading. I’m aware followers of my blog no doubt come here for discourse on cinema, TV, podcasts etc… and I’m equally aware, for some, never the twain shall meet when it comes to entertainment and politics. While I’m determined not to let this piece descend into a “Trump and Boris are c*nts” (they are) rant, I fully understand if this is the point you get off the ride. In fact, I encourage it if entertainment bloggers and critics discussing personal political views annoys you, especially if you hold a different view.

Still here? Great. Because I have thoughts.

I’ve found myself falling down some unexpected rabbit holes lately, commenting more and more in the comments section on Facebook on The Guardian web links. One comment topped 1k likes. I’ve even got an FB badge saying ‘top fan’. I don’t see these things as badges of honour. In fact, they worry me.

We probably all remember a time when politics was a dusty and boring corner of our lives which never really changed. I came from a working class family in Britain, the Midlands, none of whom ever really showed much interest in politics, philosophy, the deeper questions. My Dad cares more about the Albion. I grew up hearing from my Mum that “they’re all the same” and that’s why she doesn’t vote (she still, to my amazement, maintains this view today). Apart from the odd sex scandal, tax fraud or occasional Middle Eastern bombing or war, politics didn’t seem to matter on a personal level. Taxes and interest rates went up and down. Prime Minister’s came and went. But nothing really changed. Our lives seemed so stable, politics felt barely worth engaging with. I perhaps grew up, primarily in the 1990’s, in the most politically centrist decade of British politics in the 20th Century – even when New Labour swept in and freshened everything up.

We all tend to mis-remember 2016 as the year this all started to change. Trump won the election. Leave won the referendum. More heroic legends in popular culture died prematurely than almost any other year. Yet 2016 to me just seems like the point of no return. The problems have been around for much much longer.

I’ve read a lot in the last few years about neoliberalism and much of what became of the West particularly in the 80’s when I was a child. On this, I still have much to learn. Figures such as Thatcher and Reagan existed more as echoes from my early childhood, faces from TV news more than understandable figures at that time, but the democratisation of the Internet has facilitated people like me to grasp, a little more, political theory and societal ideas that previously would have been the domain of universities and elite private schools. I now understand that particularly in the UK and US, and to some extent other federalised European nations, our world order primarily exists thanks to the architects of neoliberalism and their stringent belief in free market economics. While these ideas certainly helped the world in the last 40 years, they have also undermined it to what is now a critical level. I truly believe this. The rot set in four decades ago.

Don’t get me wrong, part of me likes capitalism. It’s increasingly a dirty word amongst ‘liberals’ (so named because we’re deeply tribal now), blamed often for the ills of the poor and the crooks in power, but in broad strokes it has helped keep the peace for the longest period in Western society ever in history. The market has given us public services, access to proper healthcare, facilitated democracy that protects our rights, allowed for incredible entertainment and crucially puts (for most of us) food on the table and a roof of our own under which we can sleep. These are all good things. Why, then, has it also fostered such deep unhappiness? Why has it helped create a consumer culture, guided by corporations and pernicious media barons, who use elected government as their tool to manipulate the population? Why has it made so many of us so *heartless* or plain dumb? Just look at the reaction recently to the first Australian man to buy an iPhone 11. Is this really a cause celebre? Is this *really* where we are?

I keep wondering, consequently, if the system is broken, or *we* are. Or, ultimately, if we *are* the broken system. I write this the day after two major political events in the US and UK that, in their own way, mirror one another: Trump’s impeachment and Johnson being forced to re-open Parliament. Both of these are examples of leaders acting with increasing disregard of democratic law, while doing so via a populist platform of being “for the people”, being held to account by the legislative arms and democratic systems that exist to protect society from demagogues and dictators. It is likely these protections will be unsuccessful. Trump and Johnson share very similar voter bases in two very different countries: a combination of a frustrated, ageing population determined to retain the privilege they feel they have earned, or are owed; and a desperate, often impoverished underclass who believe (rightly) that elites have undercut their own opportunities.

And by elites I now don’t mean just the rich, but rather common or garden working-middle class people—like myself—who were afforded a university education. I was only the second person ever in my family to go to university. Looking back, I doubt that ever would have happened if a Conservative government had been in power at the turn of the century when I went. New Labour lowered tuition fees and encouraged all working class families to get their children into university. Many of us didn’t become high flyers or change the world, but we were exposed to a culture and society—and ideas—that were closed off to our parents and their parents and so on. The circle has now closed to the point, under years of Tory austerity, many working class children never go to university. They never become exposed to these ideas. An underclass—which is precisely what these power brokers want—continues to exist and the reality of true equality for all, in society, moves further and further away. In that underclass exists fear, xenophobia, a deep mistrust of authority, intelligence or expertise, and a “fuck you” rebel mentality which causes many to exercise a vote that will ultimately go against their better interests, thanks to propaganda from our media machines which play on their lack of intelligence.

All of this probably makes me sound like a socialist. To some degree, I am. I don’t believe it’s some terrifying social concept that will lead to our economic doom and some kind of V for Vendetta totalitarian state. At the same time, I’m not a Corbynista. I’m a ‘champagne socialist’, if you like. I believe the centre-left, with progressive ideals about social and political equality, are the best way forward. I want the corporations taxed. I want the banks regulated and the bonuses stopped. I want the 32 hour working week. I want more money for public services. I want the NHS to be untouched, properly funded, and kept as the jewel it already is in our crown. I want schools given more freedom to teach young people about inclusivity and how the world functions. I want public services to remain public, state owned, nationalised, with limited private or business input. I believe in all of those things and I don’t believe for one minute, as millions do, that the money doesn’t exist to do it, or we’d just end up another Venezuela (another example of a country, like Soviet Russia, with revolutionary socialist ideals corrupted by dictators). That money is *right there*, in the laps of the 1%, who are desperately doing what they can to prevent the tides of history from sharing it equally among the rest of us.

And that, my friends, is what infuriates me day after day after day. That millions of people don’t seem to *see* this, or understand it. They can’t see how Trump is basically a New York gangster who has bought his way to political power and is now treating the States like his own organised crime outfit. They can’t see how Johnson’s government have been corrupted by a collection of media corporations and foreign interests who have demonised the European Union, and are now demonising the Members of Parliament or judges who dare to challenge this, in order to escape the EU and free themselves of regulation that prevents them corrupting British systems – all based on an advisory referendum called by a Prime Minister who thought he would win, and only did it to get the better hand over UKIP as they were gaining seats, which was won thanks to propaganda, manipulation of social media and outright lies… all of this. All of this thuggery and cheating and lying and the nerve of pretending this is democracy, the “will of the people” (when Brexit was basically a 3-2 victory won in extra time after a tense match), when in truth we are seeing a slow, inexorable decay of the democratic and political norms that have existed since World War 2.

All of this. Day in, day out. More lies. More manipulation. More division. More outrageous abuses of power. And so many SO MANY people don’t see it. They don’t believe it. They think this is acceptable.

Which brings me back to *us*, because I don’t think Trump or Johnson or Le Pen or Bolsonaro or Erdogan or Putin or Maduro or Salvini or Assad or Netanyahu or take your fucking pick of these absolute *bastards* in power or close to power across the planet are the real villains. I think they are a symptom of *us*. They are the result of what we are willing to tolerate or we consider acceptable. We call ourselves civilised or progressive and yet millions wear T-shirts proclaiming their love of Trump or attend his propaganda rallies, despite the fact he’s openly racist, misogynist, downright crooked, and happily mocks Greta Thunberg, easily one of the finest humans on the planet right now for the truth she’s speaking to power on the issue that puts all of this in the shade – the danger of climate change. We allow Johnson to cast off the appeals by an MP, who’s fellow MP was brutally murdered by a Brexiteer, to mind his incendiary language with a callous dismissal. We allow Bolsonaro to savagely cut down the rainforest and hasten climate catastrophe. We allow Putin to interfere in elections and referendums. Where does this end? When do we wake up? When do we start all seeing things as they *truly are* and come together to prevent our own rights, freedoms and futures being steadily eroded? Because right now we are being induced successfully to look the other way and take comfort in iPhones or Marvel movies or football matches. When is enough enough?

Every day I feel more like Peter Finch’s news anchor in Sidney Lumet’s majestic 70’s drama Network. I’ll leave you with his words, which feel ever more prophetic, accurate and relatable every day.

How much longer *are* we going to take this?

PS: some worthwhile further reading on these subjects: Post-Capitalism (Paul Mason), No Is Not Enough (Naomi Klein), If Only They Spoke English (Jon Sopel), Homo Deus & 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Yuval Noah Harari).

5 thoughts on “Tony Talks #15: The State of the Nation(s)”

  1. Really eloquently put Tony.
    I feel very similarly to you right now and you make an interesting point in questioning if it is us that deserves this present that we inhabit.
    It is HUGELY frustrating that such a large portion of the voting population cannot see the ways that power is being usurped from them, fro the gains of a few manipulative and mendacious individuals.
    But these things don’t happen overnight but are sowed into the minds over years and the sustained grumbling about the EU by the overseas-owed national newspapers has done this (successfully it seems) and done it with nobody really taking an opposite view, or at least trumpeting equally as loudly the benefits of integration into the EU.
    Unfortunately I cannot see a solution to the situation that the UK finds itself in right now. Things are broken. Seriously broken and I’m not sure what could possibly happen to fix these rifts that have been opened up. Entrenched views have become more and more commonplace, you either love it or hate it, there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for a middle ground any more and this only feeds into the rhetoric of those in the positions of power, especially relating to Brexit.
    Fully commend what you say about Greta Thunberg, she has stuck to her beliefs and made the climate crisis front page news and, again, I don’t understand why people wouldn’t be worried about the only planet that we have. If we fuck it up, that’s it. We’re all done for.

    1. Thanks Gavin, appreciate you reading. Agree totally with your thoughts. I’m not sure how this gets fixed either, or even if it can be. I feel like we’re edging toward two different Britain’s. Genuinely wouldn’t shock me if one day our country geographically splits into various different nations, if things continue the way they are. Our fundamental vision for our society is so different from each other, I don’t quite know how we all co-exist anymore, whether Brexit happens or not.

  2. I appreciated the read – thanks for sharing, Tony.
    My only substantial response (which builds on much of what you wrote) is that this lack of critical self-reflexivity (in a group identity sense, perhaps via a proxy leader as representative), is made even more terrifying when the bulk of those blind true believers (on the right, in the center, and to some degree in the left) have lacked any real empathy or understanding for those affected gravely by our collective ignorance. (Like you rightly note, with respect to the neglect of the poor in the west.) However, the extension is the ignorance of the real costs of that iPhone that received the standing ovation (whether labor, or environmental related terror). As you note (“Why has it made so many of us so *heartless* or plain dumb?”), there is a spectrum related to worshiping commerce as sad, as ignorant, but also as cruel detachment. There is a difference between using consumer electronics, which I’m doing right now and probably deserve a good share of guilt, and creating a cult that necessitates ignorance of the ills and extending wealth inequality. However, the main issue I wanted to raise is the neoliberal and neocon (in the US-sense) controlled rapid growth of military interventionism into something with unparalleled intangibility (impossible for most to track, understand, etc). Why is there almost no empathy in our mainstream culture for civilian deaths? (Let alone ‘combatant’ deaths, or ‘our troops’ even?) The relationship between the past and present colonial actions that lead us to the economic strife in the home countries, but destroys the lives of the people in the target countries (and how that affects immigration/emigration). There are leaders and some media figures raising these ideas, but culturally, it seems like a complete void: no empathy, no interest, no concern
    (There also seems to be no focus at even the most micro civic policy levels here in the US. Of course, the problem of mass incarceration, of the exploitation of immigrant labor, are talked about but rarely challenged… the more micro concepts that are more manageable… the effects of noise, of property crime, of poor nutrition, of poor schooling, of poverty in general on mental health (for example)… largely dismissed by communities and their leaders as feasible.)

    Thus, reiterating your question?
    Are people simply overwhelmed? Is it fatigue? Or, is it distraction?

    I wonder what your take might be on Adam Curtis’ work… regardless of agreement on the presentation/veracity of the presented events… I found HyperNormalisation to at least be a compelling exercise in demonstrating how unbelievably terrifying the complexity and (especially) the contradictory nature of our modern socio/political discourses and the widening self-reinforcing divides/camps they are creating, In that sense, related to your work on media, I’m a bit concerned about how (proportionally) little modern media serves as challenging exercises in perspective shift. (e.g., how few analogs are their to the topics even a ‘pop’ show like the x-files wrestled with…) Binge drama, emotional engineering and ‘prestige’ aesthetics have displaced (seemingly) any hope of much ethical and historical/socio-analytical nuance (not that mainstream TV or Film had much of those ever). Thus, does pop media (presenting the entertaining (at best) SIMULATION of ethics wresting, numb us, or distract us, or engineer us emotionally into the right ad camps (the pro-Brexit demographic loves the 2019 Puegot!)

    Regardless of my rambling… (Droning civilians is bad), kudos on the essay!

    1. Thanks for reading Russ, some fantastic thoughts there with a great deal to chew on.

      I think as regards media, we’re in an age where few properties are truly challenging modern attitudes. Studios and companies are not afraid to look back and tell period stories, and equally plenty of genre allegory gets through, but how many works these days truly confront a lot of the empathy and ethics problems we suffer from in the West? They’re seldom because there is a consistent fear of offending all kinds of interest groups.

      1. Thanks, Tony – well stated. Your last sentence hit something. There seems to be more fear of offending than fear of actual suffering. (Brand Safe FTW!)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: