Game of Thrones
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The world you live in is broken and bonkers. The sense of abandonment and collapse is palpable. The late R.D. Laing used to say that ‘breakdown is break-through but contemporary Britain doesn’t seem to ever reach that cathartic moment. Instead, it just seems to be stuck in perpetual crisis, spasms of ‘scandal’ and ‘revelation’ washing over us daily bleeding through our timelines like some horror show of excess and entitlement. It’s addictive and exhausting.
This week’s top stories about Prince Andrew’s legal difficulties, Boris Johnson’s party house, and Novak Djokovic’s visa problems are all unprecedented extraordinary human dramas that speak to the moment we’re living in. But they’re essentially the same story. They are the story of a strata of people – in this case extremely wealthy privileged white men – who believe themselves to be able to live entirely above the law, to live without consequence for any of their actions. At this moment, for very different reasons these men’s fate has collided with a change of fortune, and for the very first time in their gilded lives they face some form of authority saying “this isn’t happening anymore”. For Novak Djokovic this authority comes in the form of the Australian immigration minister, Alex Hawke, who has exercised a personal power to cancel his visa; for Private Citizen Andrew it comes from the Manhattan federal judge Lewis Kaplan who dismissed a motion by his lawyers on Wednesday to have the civil case against him thrown out; for our Prime Minister, the ‘authority’ is less clear. We’re told it is someone called Sue Gray, who is ultimately his employee.
These men believed that the rules that apply to the rest of us simply don’t apply to them. That’s the message we’ve been hearing all week, and why should they? If you’ve been living in the surreal world of the British royal family, a mixture of twenty-first-century feudalism and celebrity culture; or the Bullingdon Club; or the jet-set international tennis circuit you would come to believe you were living in a world apart, because you are.
At least you could argue that Novak Djokovic is actually good at something? But he has squandered an opportunity to be a role model and has undoubtedly contributed to Serbia having some of the lowest vaccination rates in Europe, with less than 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated, according to the Our World in Data project. To get a sense of the scale of excess Djokovic earned $12,609,673 in 2018, $11,517,228 in 2019, $6,435,158 in 2020 and $7,445,867 last year. His total career prize money is estimated to be $133,735,638. But Djokovic has a problem. The Australian visa ban may last up to three years, at 34 this ends his involvement in the tournament and other tournaments are likely to follow suit.
We’ve highlighted the staggering wealth of the British monarchy many times here and the Prime Minister’s excess and corruption have been published week in week out for the past two years. This form of extraordinary privilege is just part of the surround-sound of British life, it’s just become an acceptable part of our lives that we should be ruled by a section of society from a tiny tiny gene pool, literally one single-family and a handful of schools and two universities. Then we act all surprised when it turns out they are useless and the whole thing’s a dysfunctional shambles. Funny that eh?
The failure of elite power is a global phenomenon but this week showed its British dimension. What would it take to reach some conclusion, to actually break? It would take the ‘authority’ being imposed (maybe) on these three men to not be down to the decisions of three individuals: Alex Hawke, Lewis Kaplan and Sue Gray. It would take us to exert some mass public authority, I think in simpler days we used to call this a revolution.
This is not so much unfashionable as unthinkable I know and it’s difficult to move beyond the ‘phenomenon’ of watching these ‘scandals’ and these individuals but it’s important I think that we try and do that. Boris Johnson, Prince Andrew, and Novak Djokovic are just very different examples of the wider malaise, a system failure that erodes the social fabric normalises extreme inequality and hierarchy, and destroys the natural world.
The problem or at least one of the problems is how mesmerizing the whole spectacle is. Collapse is addictive to watch. Boris Johnson and Andrew’s personal travesties are particularly addictive because part of you is yearning for some justice to be served, some moment where these bastards face some consequence for their actions. It’s unlikely and rare for the rich and privileged to face the sort of brutal consequence that most of us have to contend with. So holding out for some moment of truth, some moment of justice where these powerful people might face a humiliating end is really tempting.
But the ‘end’ doesn’t come, there is no culmination. Instead, we stay moribund and mesmerised by the degeneration stuck in a sort-of Non-Stop Inertia a frenetic high-octane gaze from the sidelines. Even if Johnson is deposed (still unclear), if Prince Andrew is brought to justice (still unclear) and if Djokovic is deported (still also unclear as I write) none of these people will actually face consequences, they will be protected by the lawyers and the wealth that surround them. And if they do fade from the limelight they will be replaced by new actors on the stage, new characters in the newsfeed, new ‘leaders’ and ‘influencers’ on our timelines.
The point (I think) is to observe the story but not be mesmerised by it. The point (I think) is to look closely at what is going on and see it for what it is. If it feels like a degeneration maybe it is? If it feels like a dystopian shambles maybe it is? Is it possible to lean into the horror but not be defined by it? If it’s possible at all, we need to step away from the delirium of it all and nurture the values that are the very opposite of those who dominate our lives.
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