2007 - 2022

Shape-Shifting to the New Normal

Shape-shifting to the new normal means adapting to reality, not shedding your beliefs for political gain.

How malleable are you?

I don’t mean how much you’ve been keeping up with your online yoga in the lockdown, I mean how malleable are you to the sweeping changes that are ravaging our economy and changing our society? The ability to cope with change – like the supple tree that bends in the wind – is a sign of resilience, that idea that you can adjust to change but keep something of your original shape and purpose. The rigid and immovable are vulnerable to being broken if they can’t adjust. But alongside this is the idea that having no real roots, having no fixed purpose makes you open to anything, change at a whim makes you flighty and lightweight.

How much should we resist change and how much should we go with the (inevitable) flow, and how to choose?

‘Early adopters’ seem to relish and anticipate change, or maybe they just like the bling of new gadgetry. Not all change is good. It’s said that protestors and activists are divided into two camps; those resisting change and those demanding change, and thst some of this comes from personality type as much as ideology. Some of us are endlessly ‘starting new things’ while others are desperate to ‘stop new things starting’.

In Hong Kong mass protests first began when people rallied against a now-suspended legislative bill that they feared would have infringed on their civil rights, and which unleashed a wave of anger and longstanding grievances with the Beijing-backed government. “Be water” became a take on a famous Bruce Lee quote to be “formless, shapeless, like water” – and has been a rallying cry of the leaderless protest movement since demonstrations in Hong Kong began in June.

It sometimes looks chaotic but it’s been highly effective. Protestors use Telegram documenting police locations or protest groups needing backup and can flip tactics and suddenly shift and re-appear at a different location in the city. The tactics can be sen as the opposite of ‘Occupy’ or a peace-camp, when the idea is to maintain and control one fixed physical space and form some community out of this, or ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (TAZ) as Hakin Bey conceived of it.

A T.A.Z. is a liberated area “of land, time or imagination” where one can be for something, not just against, and where new ways of being human together can be explored and experimented with. Locating itself in the cracks and fault lines in the global grid of control and alienation, a T.A.Z. is an eruption of free culture where life is experienced at maximum intensity. It should feel like an exceptional party where for a brief moment our desires are made manifest and we all become the creators of the art of everyday life.

But when is the ability to be open to change and to admit to change in yourself a bad thing? I suppose when its based not on the reality of changing circumstances or admitting you were wrong but on brazen opportunism, Groucho Marx’s famous line: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well I have others.”

Boris Johnson – now lashed to the mast of the Brexit ship – famously had two newspaper articles ready to publish depending on what way the vote went.

In one Boris Johnson said Britain remaining in the European Union would be a “boon for the world and for Europe”. The Foreign Secretary wrote the unpublished Remain-backing article only two days before shocking David Cameron by revealing he would be campaigning for Brexit.

The columnist Joyce Macmillan skewers this tendency in the Prime Minister writing:

“It may, of course, strike some people as disobliging to refer to the present Prime Minister as a rat; particularly those who remain beguiled by his alleged Etonian charm. In truth, though, it has to be acknowledged that Johnson is a notorious rat, on many counts; a serial love-rat, and a political opportunist who ratted on his previous pro-European sentiments to lead the 2016 Leave campaign. His recent attempt to rat on his own EU Withdrawal Agreement by passing the now-notorious UK Internal Market Bill led last week to the biggest government defeat in the House of Lords for more than 20 years. And he is already well-known – not least to the former Obama staffer who called him “a shape-shifting creep” – as an inveterate political chameleon; at one moment the genial, liberal and freedom-loving mayor of London, at the next the ruthless right-wing operator cruising a tide of xenophobic sentiment to become the leader of a government that is still bizarrely congratulating itself on “ending freedom of movement” for 66 million Britons.”

It’s one thing being complex and multi-faceted, its another being brazenly without principle.

The former Obama staffer was one Tommy Vietor who is expected to gain a place in Biden’s team. Vietor was quoted saying: “If you think Joe hates him, you should hear Kamala.”

Biden’s enmity towards Johnson dates from comments made by the then Mayor of London during the Brexit referendum, when he wrote that Obama’s decision to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office was a “symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire”.

Former Obama press aide Tommy Vietor was quoted as saying: “We will never forget your racist comments about Obama and slavish devotion to Trump.”

A Democratic source told the British papers:  “Biden’s got a long memory and Boris is not in his good books. Biden and Obama are like family.”

“Many of the people around Biden have been talking about Boris Johnson. The Kenyan remark has never gone away. They see Boris and [Dominic] Cummings like Trump and Bannon.”

In a TV address on Friday, Biden stressed that tackling “systemic racism” as one of his top priorities – with the campaign reportedly “shocked” at the “dismissiveness of black rights” in Johnson’s inner circle. Particular ire was directed at Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, who called Black Lives Matters protestors taking the knee “a symbol of subjugation and subordination” and said he would kneel only before the Queen or when he was proposing to his wife.

While the positive short-term advantages for shape-shifting is obvious, it does have a tendency for longer-term reputational damage. Boris Johnson may have (somehow) got away with relentless racism here, but it may have serious consequences for his international standing, just at the very time when Brexit Britain is supposed to be reaching out across the Atlantic for a trade deal.

But we need to be open to change now more than ever. Change is constant but in our lifetimes it has accelerated out of all recognition. Some of the new changes that have merged out of lockdown and pandemic should be nurtured and (ironically) preserved. Some of the industries and sectors that have crumbled should be allowed to die (cruiseships and aviation for two).

Our unwillingness to move and shift will be our undoing.

Reports from the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, which questioned approximately 26,000 people in 25 countries  in July and August suggests that people are planning to drive more in future than they did before the coronavirus pandemic, even though the overwhelming majority accept human responsibility for the climate crisis. The Guardian reports:

“The apparent disconnect between beliefs and actions raises fears that without strong political intervention, these actions could undermine efforts to meet the targets set in the Paris agreement and hopes of a green recovery from the coronavirus crisis.”

Without leadership and vision our experience of lockdown – and our ‘release’ from it – may result in us catapulting back into the catastrophic economic systems and culture that is destroying our world. Yet the possibility of us ‘shape-shifting’ into a new economic world which puts ecology and life at the centre of everything is right there for the taking.





Comments (12)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    it is the eternal dilemma, and the basic reason civilisations collapse – something like 96% of a population have the disconnect, and are unable psychologically to give up their current standard of living, until it is enforced upon them. Because it then becomes enforced, the trauma causes more damage than the actual change of living standards. That trauma then reveals itself in internal family violence, racism, othering, mass migration, civil wars, outright wars and so on.

    The blog DamntheMatrix was discussing this only this morning:

    It will be the poorest in society, already self-taught in survival, that are morely to have the skills to survive the upcoming changes – it won’t be the educated and well-meaning better-off, nor their elite overlords. You might get an idea what will happen to the elites in this series of cartoon vignettes:

    Those with the most to lose will be the ones complaining of catastrophe, to the vast majority with no voice it will be merely a reset, just as in all previous collapses. After the Romans left it was only called the Dark Ages because the educated wrote the history – they had the most to lose, and suffered the most trauma, and hence to them it was a new dark age. For the peasant foodgrowers in the sticks, probably nothing much changed other than some anonymous onerous overlords disappeared for a while.

    It is quite clear that Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism is in full swing in the Johnson cabinet, costing us £12 billion already. This kind of economics is unsustainable, but neo-liberal economics is so embedded within our societal structures, it is very difficult to break that chain. Living off-grid in small communities which is the only answer to the future coming is soooooo difficult with our current land rules, tax laws, embedded elitism and racism, partisan press and lack of education.

    One of the lessons you learn from dwelling in the doomosphere (it is really a happy place, despite the disaraging comments from Michael Mann and the Guardian), is to learn to let go. That doesn’t mean going off to live in gruelling poverty, but to remove emotional attachment to things. I still consume, books mostly, but if it all gets washed away in a flood or burnt in a fire, well so be it. If it survives past the COGIC then I’ll not be bored in daylight, and will have emergency fire lighters if need be. It’s just stuff. I’ll still have the allotment and community gardens up the road. And if they go there’s other bits of land I can grow food on.

    Following on from that is learning to accept the vulnerability of your own mortality. I strongly think this is key. But not an easy path to go down, unless you’ve already had a near-death experience of some sort. Western culture is aimed at avoiding the talking of death, and aimed at keeping us alive as long as possible so that we continue to consume, even in sickness, so that the already rich get richer. Break that chain and you’ll have a chance of adopting to an other economic system that benefits all, until we abolish economic systems altogether.

  2. Tom Ultuous says:

    Johnson has got himself into such a deep hole he might consider the only option is to take the ship down with him. The only real support he has left is the far right and anything other than a no deal will see him hemorrhage them to Farage. Is this the beginning of the end for the Conservative party? Will they suffer a fate similar to Scottish Labour? Let’s hope so, eh?

  3. Daniel Raphael says:

    Brilliant. Sorry to be so predictably, tediously, enthusiastic, but thank you, yet again, for a timely & useful article.

  4. john burrows says:

    Needed a proof reader before going to print. I suggest a re edit. It was somewhat confusing to read but I get the gist.

    To build on your analogy, I’d suggest that even trees can’t bend sufficiently in a hurricane. We are currently engulfed by social and environmental catastrophe. This is not hyperbole. It is a simple statement of fact.

    Human society is, for all intents and purposes, at the point of ‘every man for himself.’ Geo politics merely reflects this reality. Scotland is no different in this respect.

    This is why I support independence for Scotland. The UK is, and tediously continues to be, at the forefront of the ‘order’ that brought all of this to pass. There is only one sure way to ‘reform’ this order – break it.

    Expecting the same ideologues who got us into this mess in the first place, to get us out of it, is just another tiresome addition to the literal definition of stupidity.

    Five and a half million Scots should be able work out living in peace with our neighbors, in our own corner of Mother Earth, without too much trouble. But only after we have finally rid ourselves of the delusional absurdity that is ‘Global Britain.’ A tailor made definition of an oxymoron, if there ever was one.

    Britain is a profoundly insular society. The resilience and loyalty of the Tory shires to the xenophoboc half wits they elect as leaders, is the only proof one needs of this contention.

    The only thing Global about Britain is its ruling establishments ambition to bring back Elizabethan Piracy, dressed up, in its modern form, as unregulated hedge funds and disaster capitalists.

    True to form, they dont give a toss for those who have to live with their catastrophic mismanagement. It is too easy for them to divide British society with their continuous and tedious culture wars, to deflect scrutiny of their woeful ‘leadership.’

    I for one am tired of being beaten until my morale improves. Sod the bastards. Let’s get out by any means possible.

    Let’s give our children the ambition of building a new nation. Let’s spare them the absurdity of scrambling for a future in a semi feudal society that should have been swept away two centuries ago.

    A society that entrenches privilege for the few, at the expense of all others. Even worse, it goes out of its way to celebrate this fact.

    I long for the day I can read a newspaper without dreading being confronted with yet another breathless report on the Royal Family. That alone would be sufficient reason to vote for independence.

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Great post John.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @john burrows, I suspect you have confused democratic deficit with a preference for anti-democratic politics across society. In fact, because of the democratic deficit in the UK, which you rightly identify as having feudalist characteristics, we cannot have an accurate picture of what kind of political system people express a preference for. The rare chance to vote in profoundly problematic elections for a very limited choice of parties cannot reasonably be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the current political system and social status quo. So many things are completely off the agenda (foreign policy and diplomatic practice almost entirely, constitutional matters and the choice of a republic ditto, meaningful pro-democratic reforms, anti-corruption measures and elimination of tax and inheritance abuses and so on).

      I share your antipathy to bombardment by royalist propaganda, but there are some important questions raised by the odd production, like Lucy Worsley’s latest series on Royal Fibs, and the recent Channel 5 documentary Lord Mountbatten: Hero or Villain?
      As we respond in our own ways to the Remembrance commemorations, we should perhaps take some time to consider how many lives were lost to the British imperial practice of royal and aristocratic appointments to high military and political office, a practice which continues to this day, with the Queen rewarding her cousin for a military career in crushing democracy with a post-service Field Marshall’s rank.

  5. John McLeod says:

    Boris Johnson, his Cabinet, and most members of the Tory party, may be shapeshifters, but behind that there are core values grounded in white superiority and entitlement. They need to be shapeshifters because these values would be repugnant to most voters (particularly in Scotland) if they were honestly acknowledged. Biden and Harris are capable of seeing through them.

    The type of change that you describe toward the end of your article – relating to the climate crisis – is a different kind of thing. It speaks of a more fundamental change, based on a willingness for sacrifice in the interests of future generations. Within the next few days the shapeshifter in Downing Street will announce more rigorous laws that bring foreard the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars in the UK. While this is welcome, it is not nearly enough, and it does not reflect an authentic change of heart. It is no more than a cosmetic shapeshift in order to garner favour with Biden ahead of the international climate conference next year.

  6. Robbie says:

    Sod the bastards” let’s get out of it by any means possible” Love it ,and so will millions of Scots I hope JohnBurrows.

  7. SleepingDog says:

    While I welcome the closing statement about the centrality of ecology and life, the quoted article snippet manages to malign both pro-social rats and blameless predator-avoiding chameleons by association with the anti-social and blameable British Prime Minister. Too often during this pandemic, animals have been targeted for blame, rather than fellow lifeforms we might learn from (who suffer from viral diseases and have resilient behaviours in their natural environments). I had no idea until the mink cull reports that Denmark had such a prominent role in a fur trade that I had ignorantly assumed had long been crippled by protest.

    I would not frame it so much in economic but political terms, the replacement of humanist ideologies of democracy with those of biocracy.

    1. Daniel Raphael says:

      Your concern for the fate of non-human animals is appreciated, a perspective held by a modest fraction of humanity and largely only in regard to humane treatment of traditionally favored species. We (humanity) haven’t yet grasped either the immediacy or the extremity of the situation we have created and presently occupy; this includes our grotesque–and, as is being increasingly made obvious, self-destructive–practice of animal sacrifice. The basic ecological insight is we all exist within an enclosed circle, none rising above or detached from it in some sort of protective cocoon; “what goes around comes around,” as is being demonstrated in every dimension of nature. That includes species vegetative and animal, and obviously includes major impacts to the underlying/framing expanses that hold us all in its frame.

      We really don’t see it, for the most part, and the combination of passivity coupled with small-minded preoccupation within a sphere of about three feet, does not augur well for any kind of future.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Daniel Raphael, perhaps the redemptive human act will be to transport life to barren worlds, although of course we may shortly have the capacity to destroy life on other worlds as well.

        The challenge is to build planetary-realistic representation of non-human life into human governance systems and social behaviours.

        On learning from animals, there was a short BBC radio programme on how ants (both altruistically and rationally) react to pathogenic infections:
        NatureBang: Ants and Social Distancing

        The programme ended with a discussion about the biology of disgust. A key to survival may be to increase the levels of disgust with the kinds of ‘grotesque’ and self-destructive behaviours and forms of excess you rightly inveigh against. The problem is that disgust has been perverted to serve elite agendas (I have encountered examples of your countryfolk quite happy to engineer the mass-murder of foreign populations, who reserve their greatest disgust for the utterance of rude or blasphemous words). And racisms may be learnt in a similar way, from children observing adult reactions. Hopefully unlearnt too.

    2. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

      Aye, the Danes like their furs.

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