Dealing with the dead — the year disaster capitalism came home
In 2018 it became impossible to pay any attention to the news in Britain and not hear warnings of something darker on the horizon. Alongside tedious yelps from the country’s most privileged, as they consume each other in a fit of self-regard, dark prophecies began to ring out in a different register.
As a process Brexit may be vacuous, but it encloses countless troubling home truths. Over the coming year what’s left of the British public’s already hugely diminished view of its rulers will fall still further: certain twists and turns will continue to debase constitutional norms, democracy will be done to death by deal making and irreconcilable mandates. Notional ties of trust and fair play will no longer mean what we thought they did. Outside of the stifling maze consisting of various equally impossible escape routes out of the crisis, there is the idea that an unnamable danger lurks at every turn.
With electoral politics in gridlock, the contract between government and many of the governed is frequently questioned. In escaping the continent it fears so much, Britain has found itself burdened by a new fear of its own extremist mobs, of troops on the streets once again. Ironically, Brexit has conjured up the kind of polarised politics that many dismissed as a continental condition.
The biggest threat, however, is not a return to street violence or the kind of political militancy that was, in reality, far more normalised in Britain throughout much of the twentieth century. The biggest threat is contained in the notion that Brexit itself can be treated in isolation. Britain’s own short and patchy collective memory is the truly reckless agent at play.
On both sides, those blighted with this acute lack of perspective feel that what happened in the spring of 2016 either needs boxing away, or rapidly concluded whatever the cost. But the crisis is deeper: the current manifestation of Britain’s inability to live with itself has been inevitable for some time.
Brexit and austerity can be linked in a number of ways. As a policy that has killed thousands, it has created a kind of trauma and desperation for change that rarely filters upwards to disturb the lives of the political classes. Austerity’s sharp twisting of already painful regional divides is a map of lived despair, Britain’s political geography is now defined by vast tracts of embedded division. It’s not just that different groups increasingly coalesce around different political identities. The old or the young, the haves and the have nots, have been placed into silos by a political system that thrives on their opposed interests. This is an island inhabited by people who do not want to live together.
Problematically, in response, the political and media establishment has come to understand what went wrong as a kind of aberration, an awkward spasm of outrage: an elderly (northern) moment of anarchistic excess.
Although it is so plain to see from the perspectives of millions on low incomes, with wages still below pre-crash levels, there is a far bigger problem that is generlaly missed in all these narratives. So obvious and potent it can’t be talked about.
Britain is divided between those who make decisions and those who must suffer the consequences. Between those who eke out a living knowing full well that the vast majority of their income will be used to enrich someone else, and those who sit back and count the takings. In the cities and the shires, there is no shared country any more. There is just a terrain torn between those who will never be poor, under any likely economic outcome, and those who know every day that to be poor in Britain is to suffer punishment, to shoulder the crippling burden of debt repayments, to live a faltering echo of someone else’s life.
Still things hang together, for just enough of the people, for just about enough of the time. But at what cost?
In November the UN’s condemnation of how the UK treats its poorest will have come as no surprise to anyone who has been unfortunate enough to come into contact with a social security system crippled by a decade of austerity. If nothing else, the report was a reminder that the experience of millions of citizens in the Britain is far more pressing and fraught than any notional abstract ideal of sovereignty, trading blocs and geopolitics can speak to. For many the grinding work of subsistence, living hand to mouth, leaves little time for such grand considerations.
To talk of serious change is too radical. In a country of such deep inequality any real change has to be too much for at least one sizeable group. It is easier instead to focus on a frequently conjured up set of characters with tacky policy labels – the just about managings, the left-behinds, the “somewheres,” rooted in places that upwardly mobile “anywheres” never speak of, let alone visit.
These labels are designed for nothing else other than to be easily digestible by the media. Reporters can be sent to suitably grim locales – to find grey people, little more than ghosts, wandering aimlessly past shuttered shops. Grabbed for a vox pop, they will deliver the authentic guttural complaint to be beamed back to the clean studio. Isn’t it grim? Is it really any wonder that we ended up here? Poor souls.
Both ends of the political spectrum are guilty of this tendency, John Harris of the Guardian has made a career out of it, a mirror, in its way, to Nigel Farage’s decades-long pub-crawl. Here I am in the real authentic world, let me translate it for you. Both are performing, not to the British public, but to chime with the preconceptions of a producer or editor’s idea of authenticity.
This misses vital areas that should be a dominating focus — the role of the rich in making Brexit possible, and the true nature of the cross-class coalition, stretching from the Home Counties, to Sunderland, that made it possible. However, it is infinitely more challenging for the British establishment to confront this reality. To do so would involve admitting its own culpability, whether through negligence or design. After all, that unique and improbable coalition of Brexit voters was knitted together by the media itself in Fleet Street and fed by those in power, who acted for decades in fear of its wrath.
This leaves us with a far more awful truth, as revealed by both the UN report and the ongoing grotesquerie of Brexit politics. We have become a society divided by those who can act without ever having to confront the consequences of their actions, and those who must live with them, and do what they can to clean up the mess.
How else can we explain the rise of ever more explicit charlatans? When Rees-Mogg, intent on toppling his own party’s leadership promised “cheap shoes and clothing” for the poor, his performance was lapped up. The more callous the speaker, the more stupid the position, the more obvious the entitlement, the greater public bandwidth can be expected. Slurring inanintiy is rewarded with the highest office – it’s all a grand joke, but one that many yearn to be on the inside of. Britain run by Punch caricatures of 19th century statesmen cannot be resonant in any literal sense. Yet these figures speak to that darkest desire of all — the desire to live as they do — and enjoy freedom of action, and power, without responsibility.
These people exist as actors in the now widespread fantasy, lived by swathes of better-off reactionary Britain, that their selfishness and isolation is virtuous. They exist to reassure those convinced that their habit of squatting over ever more unassailable piles of wealth can be divorced entirely from the collapse of social solidarity. This group has long been the insurgent class in Britain, created and fattended by Thatcher from the choicest cuts of the welfare state. A generation on from that massive transfer of wealth upwards, the stain of birth right is back in the form of the trust fund, the unpaid internship, and the new upwardly mobile rentier class.
Having long ago achieved ideological dominance in domestic politics, Brexit is a project to extend that individualistic ideal still further. The absolutist concept of imperial sovereignty that Brexiteers pretend still exists, if only we have the guts to pursue it, reflects the same deep need to create social isolation in Britain. Solidarity breeds weakness, competition breeds strength, at home and on the world stage.
Back in 1791 Thomas Paine wrote of a Europe blighted by the tyranny of the dead, hemmed in by ideas maintaining an undead existence through privilege and inheritance. “There is an unnatural unfitness in an aristocracy to be legislators for a nation,” he noted, “Their ideas of distributive justice are corrupted at the very source.”
Sharing power, wealth, or sovereignty is inherently alien to Boris Johnson, descended from both George II and Frederick William I of Prussia. The callous indifference of Cameron, who led us here, could only be the result of such uniquely antiquated forms of privilege and deference — the only strands of continuity that Britain has left.
What else does the ongoing farce at the apex of the Tory party say, other than that Britain is a place where ruthless individualism is believed to be inhrenelty virtuous? This same class of people, knowing they can add the worst of the damage to the bill, can do as they please. They were never taught to share anything. So why not intermittently tear the country apart, whilst assuring the rest of us that it really is for our own good?
In 2018 disaster capitalism, arguably Britain’s oldest export, came home to roost in the form of Brexit. Chaos is enacted upon the “low” life of the individual and upon the “high” workings of the state with the same determined frequency. There can be no rest, no consensus. This is our future as things stand.
The only comfort to be had going forward is that the true nature of Britain has never been more exposed, its cracked structures never so obvious, its unfitness never so palpable. Unless the whole sorry edifice is dismantled, and rebuilt from the ground up, its dead weight will crush us all.