2007 - 2021

To move beyond the culture wars we must end the loneliness of capitalism

Whatever stage of life it hit you at, the pandemic has accentuated the process of ageing.  Whether you’re seventeen or seventy-one, there is a sense that irretrievable time has been snatched. Blank pages have been inserted at an essentially random point in billions of biographies.

You’d think that sympathy towards the youngest, for whom time passes more slowly and novelty recurs daily, would be well established (at thirty-four, I think of the careless freedom of my own seventeenth year and it remains fundamental to all that I am). But there is also a virulent strain of thought that responds to any crisis by relentlessly othering the young – just at the moment when demographics has squeezed what little voice they might have had to the margins of public life.

Despair at youthful decadence might reach back to antiquity, but there is a strange variation on this tendency today. We are blessed with unprecedented life-spans and the great gift of more people living longer, but we have yet to seriously think about how we might adapt to the cultural implications of this trend.

Because the elderly today are also the first generation to experience mass popular culture, and the youth subcultures that arrived with it, this entirely unique moment in human history is doubly confusing.

The first cohort to embrace youth as a meaningful identity, rather than a fleeting phase, are now moving into their seventies and eighties. This means that they act as both patrician elders and the original radical non-conformists: careering around social media with largely fictional claims about storming the Normandy beaches and embracing free love in Haight-Ashbury.

This glut of popular memory will only grow in the coming decades. Already, ‘punk’ is a term deployed by crabbit auld gits around bar room tables. They still ponder their own generation’s battle cry: is it better to burn out than to fade away? They’ll never know now.

These attitudes remind us that the kids are often held to an impossibly high and contradictory set of standards – both too disobedient and too compliant, too square and too rebellious, too skittish and too rigid, snowflakes and social justice warriors.

This has profound consequences for politics. As David Runciman argues in How Democracy Ends, twentieth-century radicalism, particularly on the far right, emerged in societies that are far younger than our own, amongst generations that had lived through the trauma of total wars and demobilisations.

Therefore, even in a country like Greece – which has seen a recent decline in living standards comparable to that of the Great Depression (we could add parts of post-2008 America too) – violent overthrow of democratic governments has never been a serious proposition.

Some enthusiasts of fascist militancy may gather to cosplay rebellion from time to time, but they are essentially decrepit, unable to command mass appeal or topple democratic institutions. This is partly because older societies are less prone to political violence – there is a relative shortage in the global north of young male cannon fodder – the base ingredient of insurrection.

But the angry young men of yesteryear still flock to the frontlines of the culture wars. By some measures rates of violent crime have plummeted in recent decades. However, it often feels like the ambient hostility and aggression of political discourse, enabled by social media, is unprecedented. So much of life is now mediated that abuse too has often become immaterial. Unlike previous zealotries, the cost of entry is minimal and you don’t even have to look your opponent in the eye.

Some of our anxieties about division are ahistorical. For example, despite its new pervasiveness and intensity, polarisation in the contemporary United States can hardly be said to be any greater than when protestors raised the Vietcong flag in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention. In Britain, we could say the same of the bitterness of the Miners’ Strike.

But the culture war is more insidious because it is bound up with the way media now operate. Increasingly, legacy media, mindful of their ageing audiences, demonstrate a willingness to channel reactionary currents. Thus the mainstream press can publish op-eds decrying the rise of ‘cultural Marxism’ – a key concept within the manifesto published by the far-right terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, and fear no risk to their reputation.

Increasing sections of the press are dedicated to regurgitating tropes from the culture war genre. Nick Srnicek recently noted that were 2,983 mentions o the word ‘woke’ in the Daily Telegraph. The Herald ran a front-page story today on an apparent rash of ‘wokeism’ within the Scottish educational establishment.

The fog of the culture war often makes it difficult to distinguish whether such claims have any coherent point to make in good faith, or whether they are simply written to perpetuate the engagement and discussion that the genre often brings.

Like ‘political correctness,’ ‘woke’ is often simply a dog-whistle to console those who feel discomfort about the assimilation of minority identities into mainstream society. Remarkably, this has led some of the least oppressed groups of people on the planet to fantasise that they are excluded by society because language and etiquette has changed; but no one asked their permission.

What separates out this discomfort from a dislike of other changed social habits – such as say, wearing hats indoors – is its capacity to be weaponised within the attention economy.

This may reach a tipping point. Online culture wars about trans rights, for example, can cross over into real life, red in tooth and claw, because of the emotional pull of certain issues. Some topics have an innate capacity to polarise and are particularly well incubated in the closed systems that are now often used to consume and distribute content.

The knock-on effect – as recently shown by both the BBC and Ofcom – is to equivocate. The BBC remains true to form in its impossible attempts to achieve impartiality against a mendacious reactionary press, and ending up suggesting that issues related to fundamental human rights are up for debate.

This capacity of emotive content to thrive and expand within networks feeds off social isolation and loneliness – issues that can intensify with ageing and retirement. There is no form of loneliness more crippling than the variety defined by paranoia. Based on often legitimate reasons, a generation brought up to trust public institutions have been re-educated to trust no one; whilst many lack the skills to navigate a hazardous digital realm. In the race for attention, we risk creating a desolation devoid of the community of readers, viewers and listeners that could offer some form of continuity and comfort in the face of the confusion and chaos of modernity.

We therefore have a situation where lonely, vulnerable, people, who are often also gifted with wealth, time and knowledge, are increasingly drip-fed narratives that instill a kind of collective trauma about the future. There is nothing inevitable about their journey into the cesspools of online extremism – but they are undoubtedly sped along the way by a late-capitalism that sees in the lonely only another market, that deifies youthful beauty to the exclusion of all else, that turns our regrets and nostalgia into revenue streams.

In response to the vast and novel demographic changes we are living through, Runciman impishly suggests that children ought to be allowed to vote in order to re-balance the scales.

Another no less radical approach is to understand that the connective tissue of our complex societies – civic institutions like the press and places to grow genuine associational cultures  – need to be restored, expanded and revived. Perhaps the greatest thief of our time on this earth is not the pandemic, but the keyboard itself: we need a whole new set of cultural norms that frees us to step away from it and become more human again.

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Comments (7)

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  1. Time, the Deer says:

    This is really good, Christopher. I have felt more sorry for the young than anyone else through the pandemic. I’m middle-aged and have had more than my fair share of fun – I can’t imagine how grim it must have been to be say an 18-year-old on the verge of leaving home and experiencing freedom for the first time to have had all of that shattered almost overnight.

    Additionally I have recently witnessed a few middle-aged friends descend into Q-Anon territory via online forums – Twitter especially – and despaired. Your insights in this article have shed some much-needed light on that. I suppose in times of such uncertainty, the troubled cling to what (they think) they know with especially fierce tenacity, something that the isolation of late-capitalist society and social media algorithms conspire to exacerbate.

  2. Wullie says:

    A very nice bit of writing young yin

  3. Colin Robinson says:

    Culture ‘wars’ are good. A plural society is a manifold of contradictory and often conflicting truths and identities; it’s entirely normal and natural that these incommensurable cultures will collide, especially as cyberspace becomes more and more the everyday agora in which we meet.

    The problem is that our present political institutions (especially those relating to knowledge and education) evolved prior to the death of God, when values such as truth and justice were still singular, and are ill-fitted to accommodating our plurality. They simply aren’t conducive to enabling constructive interaction between the diverse, dissensual, and dissonant (colliding or ‘warring’) cultures that comprise postmodern societies like our own.

    It’s not so much a case of modern democracy ending, as Runciman suggests, than a case of it’s being outgrown.

  4. Jacob Bonnari says:

    I’m normally quite critical of Chris Silver’s meandering style (almost jazz like at times) but there’s a lot of very good thought in here, especially the last paragraph.

    My belief (perhaps verging into paranoia) is that financial capitalism wants to keep us a consumer units to be milked for profit almost like battery hens rather than as organic free ranging hens.

    In that way I have a nagging feeling that both camps of the culture wars are stoked by the same people to maintain the divisions and keep them in power.

    Atomising us into small groups means that we don’t have to listen to others we don’t agree with or who have beliefs our tribe considers beyond the Pale. The algorithm of “you might like” reduces our exposure to what is new or unusual or disagreeable. There’s no doubt that when we had 4 or 5 TV channels, a dozen national newspapers, a wealth of truly local radio stations & local newspapers that we had a better exposure to other views, without having to deliberately search them out.

    On the anger bit – I suspect that lots of anger has always been there but it was in the pub or club, the local newspaper or in the living room. The Internet allows it all to flocculate into clumps.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      To sustain the conceit, there’s money and votes to be made from the commodification of ‘warring’ identities, ‘arms’ to be traded.

  5. Niemand says:

    At first I though this article was a parody when we go to the ‘crabbit auld gits around bar room tables’. But no, turns out the writer means it: the the culture wars are basically bad, old men versus good young folk, though at the end we do get a patronising ‘answer’ to the sad old git’s nostalgia, regrets and keyboard addiction, things, apparently, the young are immune to.

    If you really cared about the so called culture wars and wanted to understand society’s troubles, especially generational ones, a whole different attitude is needed: binary thinking rarely solves anything.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      I’m ane o thae ‘crabbit auld gits’ mysel, ‘who feel discomfort about the assimilation of minority identities into mainstream society’.

      I’d much rather see the dissimilar integrated into a plural society than assimilated into a singular mainstream one.

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