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Madness of crowds: Will Self visits Las Vegas

It's gone family-friendly.

I was reading Jean Baudrillard’s meditation on Las Vegas – on an iPhone sitting in a sushi bar in the dead centre of the casino at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas. “It is in such a universe,” Baudrillard wrote of the contemporary mediatised world, “that what [Paul] Virilio calls the aesthetic of disappearance gathers strength, and that the following begin to appear: fractal objects, fractal forms, fault zones that follow saturation, and thus a process of massive rejection, of the abreaction or stupor of a society purely transparent to itself.
Like the signs in advertising, one is geared down, one becomes transparent or uncountable, one becomes diaphanous or rhizomic to escape the point of inertia – one is placed in orbit, one is plugged in, one is satellised, one is archived – paths cross: there is the sound track, the image track, just as in life there is the work track, the leisure track, the transport track, etc, all enveloped in the advertising track.”
My friend and colleague David Flusfeder has written eloquently for the NS on gambling in Vegas but my journey to the dark heart of the American dream possessed not even the impetus of the adrenalised: I was there because it was the obvious stopover on a family trip back from the wilds of Zion in Utah to our jetting-home point: Los Angeles.
Flusfeder observes that Las Vegas presents the best exemplar of the great democratic denomination of American culture: the dollar. Anyone can lose their shirt in Vegas – so long as they have a shirt to lose. He also points out the strange Manichaeism that invests American debauchery: everyone is entitled to go to Vegas, get drunk and stoned, have commercial sex and gamble – so long as the shit they do stays steaming in the desert, while when they return home they continue to say grace before dinner.
However, in recent years this dichotomisation has been undermined by the drive of the big casino hotels to broaden their market base. Hit hard by the recession, no longer do gamblers flow through the flashing mandibles of the gaming rooms like so many krill being sifted by an avaricious leviathan; and so the monsters of the deep have gone looking for smaller fish to fry. Strolling through the vast halls and Babylonian corridors of the Mandalay Bay, what struck me was not cod-opulence but the complexion of the crowds thronging them.
Men-in-black and ladies-in-couture conventioneers were massing for the evening’s moral turpitude, crepuscular gamblers were a-creeping and demi-prostitutes a-sidling but just as thick on the polished ground were family groups returning from the artificial beach (the vast pool had been closed due to proximate lightning strikes, not even Moe Greene would relish his punters being stir-fried in chlorine). In the teeth of recession a plush room that more than comfortably houses a family of four was going for $200 a night, all in – about £35 a head – so it was cheaper to enjoy all this largesse than it would be to put up at your local bypass-bound Travelodge. On our first trip down from the 15th floor the lift was full of little girls in swimsuits sitting cross-legged in pools of water – clearly they’d been playing in there. Elsewhere stolid Midwestern families sauntered past the blackjack tables as they might stroll past the enclosures in a petting zoo.
What this infusion of genuine – rather than feigned – juvenescence does for Vegas I’m not altogether qualified to assess, but my hunch is that it spells out T-H-E  E-N-D, as clearly as the final credits of a major sword-and-sandals motion picture. It wasn’t the public exhibitions of hyenas being induced to rape female slaves that did for the Roman empire – it was the presence of Patrician kiddies in the stands of the Colosseum. There’s something about the mass acknowledgement of transgression as a trans-generational phenomenon that does for a culture. In Vegas I was witnessing Baudrillard’s society that is transparent to itself – and therefore invisible: the point about the children trotting through the casino was that they couldn’t really see it, while the gamblers couldn’t really see them. Both moieties were childlike in their belief that by covering their own eyes they could somehow not be perceived by others.
Baudrillard, who didn’t live to see the final ­familiarisation of the Vegas mirage, would undoubtedly have appreciated it as the complete confirmation of his view that under conditions of late capitalism the very notion of “the social” becomes a product to be marketed exclusive of any real relations. But then, speaking as rhizome, what would I know: I just eat raw fish and extend my filaments through neon loam. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation