Space Capitalism and Sado-Populism
As we stagger out of lockdown towards some new version of social reality with new norms coined by various stages of denial, disinformation and pragmatism, a new political topography is emerging. Like an unfamiliar landscape exposed by long-drought this place has new features: old borders exposed and deleted; new walls (Red and Blue) emergent; social class inequality radically amplified; identities claimed and denounced and fought over. This strange land is filled with competing movements of both new insurgent mania (this week ‘Trafalgar Square echoed to the adulation of a substantial crowd for oratory which compared NHS employees to the Nuremberg defendants’) – and those seduloulsy trying to cultivate a “just recovery” or even just a recovery.
While the outline and shape of the new conspiracist right with it’s grotesque but potent mix of paranoia, libertarianism, and fascism has to be confronted and exposed to rational thought, it won’t really work to smear or mock people, and within such movements there are the protagonists working for their own ends and the simply confused. There is both Right Said Fred and Kate Shemirani. I think also while the rise of QAnon-type movements here in the UK are at some level terrifying – they are also a bit of a minority spectacle. The reality is that through this awful experience the response of the great mass of people has been solidarity and a quiet resilience, supporting each other, looking out for each other and working away at surviving. It’s worth noting too that the state has acted appallingly, it does operate in a covert way and our civil liberties are under attack. The motivation behind some of the protests and skepticism is valid, even if its manifestation is dreadful.
The problem is that almost all of these problems, from Spycops to the Surveillance State, from police violence to the manipulation of the public sphere all pre-date and transcend any of the David Icke/5G stuff. The right and the far-right which has cultivated the new conspiracism in the petri-dish of post-truthism, Brexit-mania and the Sado-Populism of English exceptionalism want to know nothing about the reality of actual oppressive new powers when they can indulge in the fantasy of imagined ones. So the protests remain delirious with anger but also captured in their own silos of self-reinforcing paranoia. Much of this predicament will be familiar to many of you.
If Brexit and the new Conspiracism are like conjoined twins, the tissue inbetween them is False Victim Status and the amniotic fluid they were reared in is surely selfishness; narcissism; hyper-individualism; the collapse of any idea of “society” (carefully and deliberately dismantled since 1979); as well as a (well-justified) hatred of the ‘political elite’. This now has weird variants – the Nicola Sturgeon Book Trutherism from #StuAnon is some formidable-level of stupidity.
Wally Funk-Style Feminism and Space Capitalism
This infantilism has a long-tail. The rise of the “narcissist self” was identified by Christopher Lasch back in the 1970s (1):
“After the political turmoil of the sixties, Americans have retreated to purely personal preoccupations. Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or bellydancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure.” Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of authenticity and awareness, signify a retreat from politics and a repudiation of the recent past.”
That dislocation from any understanding of the past, and confusion about notions of “progress” (Yuri Gagarin has been replaced by Elon Musk) feeds this phenomena. As Lasch notes: “…modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs”. So we are faced with intractable and unprecedented problems like climate breakdown and pandemic and our response is either self-sedation or self-improvement.
The next spectacle is never far away – whether it’s Wally Funk or the Olympics nobody wanted – the strain of hyper-individualism is always present and the palpable failure of anyone to articulate a collective vision of public good, a globalism that gives and restores rather than takes and destroys is always apparent.
This new topography also has new plots and characters.
Phantoms from a dead democracy haunt us. Dominic Cummings and Ruth Davidson, characters rejected by the electorate (or ejected from the state) re-appear in our timelines like eidolon. Sack them and they pop up on your telly, outvote them and they pop up in Ermine boasting about meritocracy.
The new plots often prevent us finding solidarity. The system inoculates itself against real change absorbing and manufacturing dissidence and protest and channeling it back to us as indentitarianism which becomes a sort of relentless pseudo activity.
In Capitalism’s New Clothes (2) Colin Cremin writes: “There is a danger that we fetishise the micro-struggles and in doing so neglect the macro ones. There are plenty of examples of the former and few of the latter. There is plenty of salt, but no egg to put it on.”
Empty Shelves and Compulsory Freedom
“Britain” has new leylines and borders. It’s ‘sunlit uplands’ look like empty shelves, ‘Global Britain’ is one re-upping its nuclear arsenal and sending the navy in to arrest desperate people trying to cross the English Channel. The supermarket shelves are not empty, as someone explained “Those shelves are not empty. They’re just so full of sovereignty there was no room for food.” The Road Haulage Association (RHA) estimates that there is a shortfall of 100,000 lorry drivers in the UK.
In the blame-game that passes for public discourse it’s difficult to discern what is to blame. But in truth Corona and Brexit have long-ago fused into one giant weird inseparable phenomena. The supermarket emptiness is also the outcome of putting your entire food system into the hands of a handful of giant companies (the Big Four) and them running everything on ‘just in time’ delivery. There is no resilience in the system whatsoever and having shredded all opposition and local economies other than the pantomime boutique of “food markets” there is nothing else to fall back on.
Borders between Europe and Britain have been removed while borders within Britain have been denied.
While the Scottish government has struggled to defend or articulate it’s own borders, new territories like “Wales” and “Manchester” have emerged to define themselves. As the country drained of tourists – exposing a brutally one-dimensional economy – Scotland looked and sounded different this summer. But even the simplest idea of trying to articulate a different set of covid policies and guidelines was unacceptable. When Dunfermline and est Fife’s Douglas Chapman reminded visitors that in Scotland, masks must still be worn on public transport and in shops, as well as in pubs and restaurants when not seated – the response was hysterical.
Chapman had messaged: “No mask, no Scotland. If you’re visiting us this summer, wear a mask. Scotland isn’t England. Our laws are different.” He ended: “Thank you for your co-operation. #LoveU”.
It shouldn’t have been remarkable or newsworthy but the new “One Nation / Muscular Unionism” couldn’t cope with such simplicity. This was intolerable. “Freedom Day” was compulsory, Borders have been deleted (or in the case of Northern Ireland dissolved in fantasy).
The faithful Telegraph reported that: “‘Scotland isn’t England’ messaging makes English people uncomfortable”.
The consequences and background logic behind that discomfort remain unexplored.
Somatic Politics and Hi Viz Chain Gangs
As we become aware of an inchoate paranoia born out of the delirium emerging as wild conspiracism, remember we can respond to this contagion. We can ‘fight’ paranoia with trust-building and counter isolation with solidarity, we can begin to reclaim the collective the rational and the future. This might need to take new forms of resistance and imagination because people are suffering exhaustion, adrenal fatigue and complex social-mental health problems.
It’s a cliche but a reality to say “our bodies have become a new battleground”.
If this new landscape has new territories and new communities – resistance to it must take new forms. We know from the climate movement and from the experience of Brexit, that fighting stories with facts isn’t enough. That isn’t an argument for abandoning facts or reason, it’s an argument that facts and reason also need powerful stories to articulate them. If we’re talking about genuinely ‘unprecedented times’ – if we are acknowledging being genuinely ‘off the map’ then our old cartography, our old sat nav won’t work. We will need new ways to make sense, to orient and to navigate.
That probably means getting a wider view, a bigger picture, finding the macro, finding the egg to put the salt on.
It also means confronting the actual demons of British torture CSCs, the corporate capture of public assets and common space, and Johnson and Patel’s barely restrained new unmuzzled authoritarianism instead of the imagined demons of Kate Shemirani & Co.
But beyond this the fuzzy-heads of the coronavirus experience are only a fragment of institutional memory loss that we all experience. Instant-culture, doom-scrolling and the info-overload combined with the weird artificiality of the 24 Hour news culture and the demand for constant over-stimulation leave us “stunned”. While we face a form of structural-ignorance built into the DNA of contemporary existence, at the same time our corporate elites are farming for data.
As Arundhati Roy tells us reflecting on the Pegasus tech: ” … we are headed towards being governed by states that know everything there is to know about people, and about which people know less and less. That asymmetry can only lead in one direction. Malignancy. And the end of democracy.”
“We will have to migrate back to a world in which we are not controlled and dominated by our intimate enemy – our mobile phones. We have to try to rebuild our lives, struggles and social movements outside the asphyxiating realm of digital surveillance. We must dislodge the regimes that are deploying it against us. We must do everything we can to prise open their grip on the levers of power, everything we can to mend all that they have broken, and take back all they have stolen.”
If Johnson’s hi viz chain gangs are like a reverse Gilets Jaunes, it’s the perfect riposte to the damned French and a giant stride forward for Britannia Unchained.
(1) The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (W.W. Norton 1979)
(2) Colin Cremin, Capitalism’s New Clothes: Enterprise, Ethics and Enjoyment in Times of Crisis (Pluto 2011): https://www.counterfire.org/articles/book-reviews/15188-capitalisms-new-clothes