Fantasy Worlds

We are stockpiling essential medicines in Britain in anticipation of a No Deal exit from the European Union.

Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

He has hired a former journalist who used to torment politicians dressed as a chicken as his Director of Communications. Lee Cain, who was pictured on several occasions taunting  people while dressed as poultry, has now been installed as part of Johnson’s team.

The Trade Secretary Lizz Truss is traveling to Beijing to ‘open up new markets’ in pig sperm.

Brexitland Britain is a very strange place but it’s emerged from a stranger world. This isn’t just a world of fake news but of fake everything, where we consume the strange spectacle through a torrent-stream of information and data.

A series of fragments and ‘highlights’ standout in scrambled recollection.

Do you remember watching people falling from the World Trade Centre in 2001?

Do you remember Lynndie England with her thumbs up in Abu Ghraib?

Do you remember watching Saddam Hussein being hanged in 2006?

Do you remember watching Gaddafi being executed in 2011?

Do you remember the photograph of the Syrian boy Alan Kurdi?

Deep Denial

Yesterday Twitter suspended a conspiracy-peddling account amplified by President Donald Trump. Before the suspension, the account enthusiastically pushed Qanon conspiracy memes and bizarre theories about prominent Democrats murdering children to harvest their pineal glands.

One such meme targeted Bill and Hillary Clinton, claiming they “torture and sacrifice children” to get at “a drug that can only be found inside the human skull.”

So, it seems that it’s NOT TRUE that Democrats are harvesting kids’ pineal glands.

But the extent to which we are awash in a world of make-believe, self-created myths that we cling to is extraordinary.

We have the leader of the western world as Fantasist in Chief.

In a  speech this week to guarantee health rights for firemen involved in 9/11 President Trump himself claimed to be a 9/11 first responders: “I was down there also, but I’m not considering myself a first responder. But I was down there. I spent a lot of time down there with you.”

Part of this is just about denial of unpleasant truths, and we’re all in the middle of one giant collective one. As James Melville notes: “Brexit is a bit like the crew members of the Titanic deciding, by a vote of 52%-48%, that the iceberg doesn’t exist.”
As reported in The National Rangers football club face a financial shock from a legal case with Sports Direct (SDI) that’s just been ruled on:

“Rangers entered into a three-year, £10m deal with kit manufacturers Hummel/Elite without informing SDI. Judge Lionel Persey this week found in SDI’s favour this week, announcing that they must be recompensed by Rangers for lost revenue in 2018/19 as well as the current campaign and that Rangers cannot work with Hummel/Elite in 2020/21 without first offering SDI the opportunity to match their terms. That, in turn, could leave the club open to being sued by Hummel/Elite. The verdict, which Rangers will appeal, has the potential to cost them around £10m in legal fees and compensation. Failure to overturn that decision (and Judge Persey’s ruling was comprehensive) would see them lose more than a quarter of their turnover.”

Rangers football club wrote to tell a fans group: “It is the club’s position that the judgement is not as reported.”Denial or lying to ourselves about truths we find uncomfortable is not a new thing, nor is political propaganda or myth-making. But at some point reality ‘lands’.

Whether it be sweltering climate science denialist, or the pro-Brexit farmer who can’t understand why he can’t get the farm workers any more, or the people who didn’t like it when Dubya Bush was President so watched the West Wing instead – or adults who read Harry Potter – reality has a nasty habit of coming home to roost.

Our immunity from unpleasant truth stems from three conditions: the loss of collective experience, the decline in quality of life and the inability to think for ourselves. all of this is fueled and boosted by the petri-dish of social media.

As quality of life deteriorates the myth of progress is faltering and this feeds a blame culture. The loss of a public realm, now reduced to the cutesy ‘water-cooler moment’ is far more significant than we realise. Whether it be the privatisation of utilities and services or the break up of media into tiny targeted slivers, the collapse of shared moments and a sense of collective have eroded any togetherness.

In this culture – as we face a daily torrent of information – we huddle together in silos of people who think the seem as us about a world we can’t understand. Isn’t it a paradox that we simultaneously have access to all the information we could possibly need and yet know nothing?

Blame Culture and Binary Culture

In this predicament blame culture and binary culture feed off each other. Instead of acknowledging complexity we want to retreat into the comfort of simple ‘truths’.

Britain is riven with such tribalism, Scotland is too.

We live in mutual incomprehension.

Blame culture has driven the Brexit fiasco from start to finish: blame the immigrants, the East Europeans, the bureaucrats, blame ‘Brussels’, blame the Irish, blame the Metropolitan elite.

There are wider deeper problems at play that Brexit will only make far far worse, and the solution isn’t Jo Swinson.

Liberal capitalism, with its promise to enrich all of society through continual economic growth, is malfunctioning.

Inequality is spiraling and living standards are falling.

Our political class don’t know what to do because the institutions they inhabit and the systems they operate in are dysfunctional.

The problems aren’t confined to crazy Brexitland. As Douglad Hine has written ‘On the Election of Donald Trump’:

“When the values of social liberalism got hitched to the mercilessness of neoliberalism, it kindled a resentment towards the former among the latter’s losers. The deal was summed up in Alan Wolfe’s formulation: ‘The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war and the centre won the political war.’ He said that in 1999. It was under Bill Clinton’s presidency that the ‘centrist’ settlement between progressive cultural values and There Is No Alternative economics was consummated. Two decades on, that made Hilary Clinton the dream opponent for a candidate running on the fuel of resentment.

Here’s a stony truth to stomach: today, across the western countries, the culture war to defend the real social achievements of the past half century is grimly entangled with a class war against the losers of neoliberalism. If we now lose many of the unfinished achievements of the struggles against racism, sexism and homophobia, the Clinton generation of politicians will share the responsibility.”

As system-failure kicks in and collapsonomics emerges these phenomenon of blame and binary culture are likely to accelerate and solidify.

Hypernormalisation and the State of Exception

Two distinct but linked trends have manifested themselves which we should notice. The first is the ‘mission creep’ of law and political power as pervasive crisis beds-in. The phenomenon is what the Italian writer Giorgio Agamben has called ‘the State of Exception’. The other is the idea that as paradoxes and system failure becomes very apparent we cope with this by colluding with each other to pretend that it’s not happening. This is called ‘hypernormalisation’.

To look at the state of exception first:

“Giorgio Agamben argues here that the state of exception, which was meant to be a provisional measure, became in the course of the twentieth century a normal paradigm of government.”

In this book, Giorgio Agamben traces the concept of ‘state of exception‘ (Ausnahmezustand) used by the political philosopher Carl Schmitt.

Agamben’s State of Exception investigates the increase of power by governments which they employ in supposed times of crisis. Within a state of emergency, Agamben refers to the states of exception, where constitutional rights can be diminished, superseded and rejected in the process of claiming this extension of power.

“Times of crisis” can be real, self-inflicted or entirely manufactured. It doesn’t matter. He gives many examples throughout the 20th Century.

Here’s one:

“World War One coincided with a permanent state of exception in the majority of the warring countries. On August 2, 1914, President Poincaré issued a decree that put the entire country in a state of siege, and this decree was converted into law by parliament two days later. The state of siege remained in force until October 12, 1919. Although the activity of parliament, which was suspended during the first six months of the war, recommenced in January 1915, many of the laws passed were, in truth, pure and simple delegations of legislative power to the executive, such as the law of February 10, 1918, which granted the government an all but absolute power to regulate by decree the production and trade of foodstuffs. As Tingsten has observed, in this way the executive power was transformed into a legislative organ in the material sense of the term. In any case, it was during this period that exceptional legislation by executive [governativo] decree (which is now perfectly familiar to us) became a regular practice in the European democracies.

Predictably, the expansion of the executive’s powers into the legislative sphere continued after the end of hostilities, and it is significant that military emergency now ceded its place to economic emergency (with an implicit assimilation between war and economics). In January 1924, at a time of serious crisis that threatened the stability of the franc, the Poincaré government asked for full powers over financial matters. After a bitter debate, in which the opposition pointed out that this was tantamount to parliament renouncing its own constitutional powers, the law was passed on March 22, with a four-month limit on the government’s special powers. Analogous measures were brought to a vote in 1935 by the Laval government, which issued more than five hundred decrees “having force of law” in order to avoid the devaluation of the franc. The opposition from the left, led by Léon Blum, strongly opposed this “fascist” practice, but it is significant that once the Left took power with the Popular Front, it asked parliament in June 1937 for full powers in order to devalue the franc, establish exchange control, and impose new taxes.” (Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception  ,2005)

Agamben’s State of Exception investigates how the suspension of laws within a state of emergency or crisis can become a prolonged state of being.

More specifically, Agamben addresses how this prolonged state of exception operates to deprive individuals of their citizenship. When speaking about the military order issued by President George W. Bush on 13 November 2001, Agamben writes:

“What is new about President Bush’s order is that it radically erases any legal status of the individual, thus producing a legally unnameable and unclassifiable being. Not only do the Taliban captured in Afghanistan not enjoy the status of POW’s (prisoner of war) as defined by the Geneva Convention, they do not even have the status of people charged with a crime according to American laws” (Agamben, pg 3). Many of the individuals captured in Afghanistan were taken to be held at Guantánamo Bay without trial. These individuals were termed as “enemy combatants.” Until 7 July 2006, these individuals had been treated outside the Geneva Conventions by the United States administration.

Examples are everywhere. Proruguing parliament or the Spycops scandal or ‘armed police’ and ’emergency status updates’ or extraordinary rendition are just some.

The problem is that this level of system failure (or is it system success?) is happening in a world where we conspire to sustain the illusion that “everything is fine”.

This has been called hypernormalisation, a term coined by a Russian anthropologist and popularised by the British film-maker Adam Curtis. It’s defined as:

“The word hypernormalisation was coined by Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology who was born in Leningrad and later went to teach in the United States. He introduced the word in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006), which describes paradoxes of life in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. He says that everyone in the Soviet Union knew the system was failing, but no one could imagine an alternative to the status quo, and politicians and citizens alike were resigned to maintaining the pretense of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the fakeness was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed hypernormalisation.”

Is the world becoming weirder?

Are governments expanding their power?

Are we in denial about what we are experiencing?

No Deal will be an opportunity for new states of exception and we are in deep denial about the process we are in.

 

 

Comments (12)

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  1. Graeme Purves says:

    I reckon it’s time to go on one of those booze cruises ‘The Scotsman’ has been telling us about. ‘Regular departures from a Scottish port near you!

  2. Willie says:

    We may all live in silos as you say Mike.

    But out of silos very often come missiles and in the Brexiteer Brit’s treatment of Northern Ireland this might come to be very true. Folks voted for the GFA in huge measure and they voted to stay in Europe too.

    The GFA, the decommissioning of weapons, the EU vote may no longer stand out as fragments or highlights of important events to those of us who live on the UK mainland, but they are important events in Ireland.

    Boris and his ilk trample them underfoot at their peril. Democracy is hard fought and sometimes folks need to fight for that democracy. Ireland has the potential to cause these circumstances to re-run. Not that Boris and his coterie care, and one only need remember the cabinet minister who recently declared how he wanted the UK to project lethal force.

    These are the people we are trying to deal with and it doesn’t come across as democracy. And yes, like NI the U.K. state would and indeed already has used force as the 77th Brigade and the establishment combine to extensive surveillance and the undermining of the independence movement.

    The time I’m afraid is coming when the politico’s will all need to be accompanied by armed guards. But can they be protected all of the time from the people they trample underfoot. I think not and it is a depressing future to have to contemplate. Consensual politics at the point of a gun., a knife, or whatever.

    So go for it Boris, re-establish a border in NI, undermine the Scottish Parliament, disregard the Good Friday Agreement, make a minority party MP the Scottish Governor General, prorogue Parliament, take the war to Europe, roll back UK social protections , do a deal with a Trump, privatise the NHS – its a surefire recipe for success, and of course you have the mandate for it, not!

  3. Justin Kenrick says:

    Great analysis, but not sure about the first half of this:

    “Our political class don’t know what to do because the institutions they inhabit and the systems they operate in are dysfunctional.”

    I’m remembering Warren Buffet (2006?) saying something like “There is a class war. Its waged by my class, the rich class, against the rest. And we’re winning”

    The state of (utterly mistaken) exceptionalism sums up the situation, from thinking of humans as exceptions to nature to this malfunctioning PM (from the 99%’s point of view) having always though the rules don’t apply to him. They do, but unless we are clear we refuse to sail on his Titanic then we’ll be felled by those same rules too.

  4. Derek Thomson says:

    A very interesting Article, but why you had to bring Rangers into it is utterly beyond me. Or maybe not.

    1. It was a clear example of people denying reality. One of many.

      1. Wul says:

        It’s a bad example.
        Many people, myself included, know absolutely nothing of football. It’s various machinations seem extremely trivial, tribal and irrelevant when viewed from the outside. Better to pick a topic most people know about and agree is important.

        However, good article and a timely warning about the “exceptional” circumstances we are about to enter, together with all the draconian powers that will be needed to cope with the “emergency” ( including the dismantling of devolution?).

  5. w.b. robertson says:

    so every civil court litigation is an example of one side or the other denying reality? I think not.

    1. Richard Easson says:

      The GERS figures have always been a mystery to me.

  6. John S Warren says:

    I do not wish to quibble about sources, or which source is most illuminating of our times; nevertheless I consider the most strikingly relevant work for our own time, and predicament is one that seems to have been half-forgotten until very recently, but is forgotten only at our feckless peril:

    Hannah Arendt ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, first published in 1951, but now tellingly re-published in 2017 by Penguin Modern Classics. There is even a Kindle edition now.

    Everyone; everyone should read it.

    1. Thanks John – Arendt is very good – couldn’t agree more

      1. Wul says:

        See also Naomi Kline’s “The Shock Doctrine”.

        Demonstrates how crises and chaos are used to dismantle democracy, privatise public wealth and concentrate power.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    The stuff of a gritty graphic novel. It’s a medium that can artfully capture the impact of false narratives, like Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabrina_(comics)

    It was certainly alarming to find out during Brexit how much of the power structures introduced by Henry VIII remain. I guess the British “constitution” could teach the Byzantine Empire and Franz Kafka a thing or two about labyrinthian political systems.

    With no common hope of the future, or shared story of the past, it is increasingly difficult to pitch as modernists or traditionalists. Much of the mainstream media seems to often look no further than Brexit, a shrunken, wavering and blurry horizon.

    But if adults don’t read Harry Potter, they risk a loss of collective experience with children, won’t they? The over-segregation of cultural material into age-group categories is not going to help inter-generational communication. And we also need people to translate some of the more tortuous academic social and political analyses into more accessible forms. I’ll wait until State of Exception – The Videogame, I think.

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