Trying to catch up like a mad man

As I struggle to keep up with the world, I'm forced to cast my suspicions on an unlikely culprit: lo

In past columns, I've lamented the modern obsession with "things to do before you die" lists, which oppress us all not just with the reminder that our time on earth is cruelly limited, but with the further bad news that we "must" watch a thousand films, visit a thousand beauty spots and so on, in order to have lived a full life. What with the continued pressures of a nationwide tour and a house-wide struggle to deal with an eight-month-old, it won't come as a surprise to hear that I've made little progress on the "before I die" lists this year. But in the past week I've at least come to terms with one source of cultural authority, by finally watching the first episode of Mad Men, the American ad-agency drama set in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which people seem to have been recommending to me pretty much since the 1950s.

I was disappointed: it's really good. The last thing I need is something else good vying for my attention. If it had been irritating and overrated, I could have stopped worrying about the menacingly large box set awaiting my attention. But I already care about the characters and that means I'm going to have to watch the next episode as soon as I can, and before you know it I'll be staring down the barrel of three of four "seasons" or however many of the damn things these intimidatingly prolific Americans have already made.

Then I'll have to succumb at last to The Wire. The next thing will be admitting that I only ever saw about half of The Sopranos, and there you go - my life will disappear into a black hole of handsome people in braces, almost-unintelligibly-fast dialogue and millions of moody shots of skylines. Damn you, American producers, with your inexhaustible knack for the addictive, film-quality drama. You're as bad as drug dealers, in my book. And you probably wear shades even more.

Loyal highness

“What are days for?" Philip Larkin once asked. I'd like to ask the opposite: where can I get some more days? Since I'm not much of a procrastinator, I've been trying to work out what keeps stealing my time. I admit I've got a family and a peripatetic career, but lots of people seem to manage this and are bang up-to-date with The Wire. After ruling everything else out, I'm forced to cast my suspicions on an unlikely culprit: loyalty cards.

It's now almost impossible to buy anything without being asked whether you have a loyalty card, whether you would like one, whether you would like a leaflet explaining the benefits of having one, whether you would like a customer service representative to sit down with you for ten minutes to talk you through some of those benefits in person, and whether, after all this, you would fancy going out for a coffee with the staff and ultimately making one of them the godparent of your firstborn.

Boots Advantage Cards, Costa Cards, Nectar Cards: if you signed up for all these things you'd end up with more plastic about your person than the late Michael Jackson, but that's not my main reservation about them. It's the sheer time all this takes. What was once a queue of ten people buying simple items in Boots is now a queue of ten people explaining, one at a time, that they're quite all right without a store card. So if you're reading this and you're ever likely to serve me in any establishment: no, thank you. I do not want one of your cards. I'll still come back, I promise. But let me go for now.


Mind you, we consumers often don't help ourselves. I was in a checkout queue the other day when it dawned on me that there were four or five of those quick checkout machines waiting in vain for custom. An employee was gesturing at the machines but the other shoppers all rolled their eyes as if sidestepping an obvious scam. "I don't trust those things," said one.

“I'd rather deal with a person," another observed. I went over to one of the neglected robots and was out of there long before the competition had even heard the first "bleep" of a scanned item.

It's heartening, in a way. We used to fear that the human workforce would be replaced by a mechanical one. What we didn't know was that the human workforce would be retained to persuade people to use the mechanical one. But from a time-saving perspective, refusing to use these machines makes no more sense than refusing to look up cinema times on a website because you'd "rather hear it from someone who owns a watch". And speaking of watches, I'm almost certainly late for something. Get out of my way, everyone. I've got to get back to Mad Men before I die.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times