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The end of a dream

Unreality is the defining feature of the fashionable ideas of the past decade. Perhaps only a more s

To look back on the ideas that shaped the past decade is to survey a scene of wreckage. Ten years ago, the best and the brightest were believers in the "Washington consensus" - the idea that the debt-fuelled free market that had existed in the US for little more than a decade was the only economic system consistent with the imperatives of modernity, and destined to spread universally.

It was not only the neocon right that believed this. Centre-left parties, whose historical role had been to set limits on free markets, bought in to this idea with enthusiasm. When Bill Clinton and Tony Blair embraced neoliberal economics, they did more than triangulate policies for the sake of electoral advantage. They endorsed the belief that a bubble engineered by Alan Greenspan at the end of the 1990s, when he lowered interest rates to artificial levels after the blow-up of a hedge fund, represented a new era in economic history. Both the triangulating politicians and many left-of-centre commentators became convinced that, for all practical purposes, neoliberal capitalism was indestructible.

For anyone with a sense of history, the idea that a post-cold-war bubble embodied a new world order was obviously absurd. The built-in instability of capitalism had not gone away - it had been accentuated, as the US and other western economies became ever more dependent on unsustainable debt. Far from being in­destructible, the neoliberal market order was highly fragile. But millennial fantasies regarding a short-lived variety of capitalism were far from being the only delusional beliefs that helped shape events during the decade.

Closely related was liberal interventionism - the policy, set out by Tony Blair in his 1999 Chicago speech on foreign policy, of using military force to spread liberal democracy. Here the delusions were multilayered, and first among them was a dream about America. Again, it was not only the right that bought in to a fantasy. For large sections of the left, the US in the first decade of the century had a role similar to that played in the progressive imagination by the USSR in earlier periods: for all its faults, the US was the world's emancipatory power, and the current embodiment of the best human hopes.

The delusive quality of this view lay not so much in the comical notion that universal freedom could be spearheaded by the witless figure of George W Bush, as in an unrealistic estimate of America's position in the world. US imperial overstretch had already been identified in 1987 by Paul Kennedy in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, but this weakness was forgotten in the triumphalism that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only did the US lack the skills needed to maintain its imperial role, but increasingly it was a role the US could not afford. Both these facts were brutally confirmed in the invasion of Iraq. Confident that liberal democracy would emerge of its own accord once tyranny had been overthrown, the Bush administration was unprepared for the sectarian warfare and near-anarchy that predictably erupted when Saddam Hussein's regime was destroyed. It was equally unprepared for the ruinous cost of the war, which was launched on the assumption that the price of oil would fall after regime change, setting off another global boom and making the entire exercise self-financing. The actual result was that the Americans racked up even more debt and the decline of US power accelerated.

Fashionable theories of globalisation had the effect of blocking the perception of American decline. From the late 1990s onwards, the idea that globalisation and Americanisation were one and the same became something like conventional wisdom, the New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman pushing the equation in his bestselling books The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World Is Flat (2005). The actual effect of globalisation is to transfer economic power to emerging countries with different models of capitalism, but for those who shared Friedman's dreamworld, globalisation was no more than the Anglo-American free market writ large. It was a notion that could persist only so long as the crisis was confined to powerless countries on the periphery of the system, such as Argentina and Thailand. It began to dissipate when the US financial system itself started to implode from mid-2007 onwards. Having run down and sold off much of its productive base, the US found itself the centre of a type of finance capitalism that was practically bankrupt.

It is not often that large-scale crises are due to intellectual error, but a single erroneous belief runs through all of the successive delusions of the past decade. With few exceptions, both left and right seem to think that history is a directional process whose end point - after many unfortunate detours - will be the worldwide duplication of people very like themselves. At the end of the decade, opinion-formers in Britain, the United States and continental Europe still imagine that the normal pattern of historical development leads eventually to an idealised version of western society, just as Francis Fukuyama forecast 20 years ago.

But whereas this confidence-boosting notion was still genuinely believed a decade ago, today it is a kind of comfort blanket against an unfamiliar world. The reality, which is that western power is in retreat nearly everywhere, is insistently denied. Yet the rise of China means more than the emergence of a new great power. Its deeper import is that the ideologies of the past century - neoliberalism just as much as communism - are obsolete. Belief systems in which the categories of western religion are reproduced in the guise of pseudo-science, they are redundant in a world where the most rapidly advancing nation state has never been monotheist. Western societies are well worth defending, but they are not a model for all of humankind. In future they will be only one of several versions of tolerable modernity.

For secular western intellectuals to accept this fact would rob their life of meaning. Huddled in the tattered blanket of historical teleology, which tells them they are the leading lights of humanity, they screen out any development that demonstrates their increasing irrelevance. Religion is resurgent in many parts of the world, not least emerging powers such as Brazil and China, but for the secular intelligentsia this is just an unfortunate lag, a temporary setback in humanity's slow march to join them on the sunlit uplands of reason. The hysterical stridency of evangelical atheism - one of the most characteristic phenomena of the Noughties - is symptomatic of a pervasive cognitive dissonance. Like everyone else, these intellectuals assert their beliefs all the more adamantly when the only reason for holding them is a well-founded suspicion that they are not true.

Unreality is the defining feature of the ideas that have been in vogue over the past decade. The grandiose delusions with which the new century began have not been abandoned. Instead, they have been shrunk to a size at which they can still be maintained. The small world of British politics provides many examples of this tendency. Rather than acknowledge that neoliberalism has failed, politicians in all three main parties are seizing on a succession of intellectual gimmicks for solutions to the problems that the ideology has created. Gladwell's blink, Sunstein and Thaler's nudge, the wisdom of crowds - these and other ephemera of the airport bookstore are being taken up, promoted and then forgotten in the floundering attempt to deal with a crisis that is only in its early stages.

The intellectual default of politicians cannot be remedied by returning to the ideologies of the past. It is shared by much of the public, and comes from a chronic inability to engage with reality. Perhaps only a more serious crisis will overturn the delusive fancies on which so many policies are based. A run on sterling in the event of a hung parliament after the next general election; the cataclysmic defeat that will follow Barack Obama's decision to reinforce inevitable failure in Afghanistan; a spiral in oil prices after a flare-up over Iran; the collapse of the dollar as the world finally loses patience with American solipsism - any one of these eventualities, together with others that cannot be foreseen, could be a catalyst for rethinking.

But the omens are not encouraging. The make-believe that surrounds climate change - epitomised in the empty statements of intent regarding unachievable goals that will be the only outcome of the Copenhagen meeting - shows that the biggest challenge for the future is being evaded. It looks as if we may be wandering in the ruins of the Noughties for some time.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. A new edition of his "False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism", which first appeared in 1998, was published by Granta Books in October (£8.99)

The ideas that shaped a decade

Neoliberalism: Three policies central to the neoliberal "Washington consensus" were low taxation, privatisation and the deregulation of financial services. Key thinkers: Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick.

Neoconservatism: The term was originally applied to disillusioned liberal critics of the welfare state. By the beginning of the 21st century, neoconservatism was associated principally with an aggressive US foreign policy. Key thinkers: Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Leo Strauss.

Political Islam: "Islamism", or political Islam, is dominated by two distinct and extreme strands of thought: the Salafist or Saudi Wahhabi tradition; and the work of Sayyid Qutb, who saw Islam as a political movement based on Quranic principles and from whom Osama Bin Laden derived the doctrine of violent jihad. Key thinkers: Sayyid Qutb, Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain