The Portsmouth Sinfonia. Photo: Columbia
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Our mob mentality is like a bad orchestra: we saw away at the same tunes and ignore the racket

At the Heart of Darkness is an unthinking trust in institutions. How else do you explain the Portsmouth Sinfonia?

In his story “An Outpost of Progress” – a prototype for the novella Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad writes of his colonialist protagonists that they were “two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organisation of civilised crowds”. This perspective on the crowd is alien to us; we are perfectly prepared to believe that the crowd “dehumanises”; that when we find ourselves in a stampeding herd of crazed people, we ourselves may lose our reason and thereby our very individuality. What we find it harder to accept is that we may be who we are at all solely by virtue of the crowd. Conrad continues: “Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.”

So safe are those surroundings – for the average New Statesman reader, at least – that we forget all about the way our being is shaped socially, and start bellyaching about our fellows; as if it is they who constitute “the crowd”, with its weird panics, fads and delusions, while we mysteriously arrogate to ourselves the most exalted freedom of the will. I am always on the lookout for evidence of swarming behaviour in Homo sapiens, and I find it most tellingly in the epiphenomena which result from collective behaviours it is quite impossible for us to change.

Take the BlueMotion Volkswagen Golf. I drive one of these from time to time because the car club I belong to uses them. They’re perfectly sound examples of German engineering, but for some daft reason every time you come to a halt – at a traffic light, say – and disengage the clutch, the engine cuts out. Then when amber glows and you re-engage, the engine snorts back to life. Madness! Yes, yes, I know the thinking that informs such technologies (we’re going to use them to avert global warming); but even a few seconds pondering the matter leads to the conclusion: this can’t possibly work. Humanity burgeoned precisely because of its interaction with technology, but progress – inasmuch as it’s occurred at all – has never been a function of central planning, but rather a piecemeal series of fixes.

Illustration by Jackson Rees.

And that’s what BlueMotion is: a way of making vaguely “environmental” types with large chunks of disposable cash feel better about themselves – because any reduction in CO2 emissions the technology affords will be cancelled out many times over if they take a single plane flight. The melioristic view about global warming, advanced in the Stern report and now given a new lease of life by Naomi Klein (World’s Most Earnest Person), is that we can fix it by being better, kinder, more co-operative and cleverer people. Easy-peasy, eh? Yet if we listen to Conrad, who we are is solely a function of who everyone else is: “The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and every insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd . . .”

Note well: “every great and every insignificant thought”. So, even if we all have the thought: “Wouldn’t it be great if we all worked together to lessen inequality, curtail consumption, and so at least palliate the fervid atmosphere,” as night follows day this is obviated by the insignificant thought: “Wouldn’t it be great to fly to Faliraki”, or, “I bet a 56-inch ultra-high-definition TV would look great in that corner.” We like to envision society as an orchestra; individual players may fluff the occasional note or phrase but the overall coherence of the band mitigates this, and so the piece being played still sounds harmonious. However, Conrad was perfectly clear about the nature of our crowd mentality: “[It] believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of the police and of  its opinion.”

This isn’t a subtle, supple, self-aware and self-correcting orchestra at all – rather, it reminds me of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an experimental musical group set up by the composer Gavin Bryars in the 1970s. The only requirement for joining the Sinfonia was that you couldn’t play your instrument. The results were great chuntering and yawping versions of popular classics; nevertheless, from the squalls of sound the alert listener would still piece together the traduced melody of Thus Spake Zarathustra, or “The Blue Danube”. The Sinfonia were so successful that their single “Classical Muddly” reached the Top 40 in 1981. How can we account for this lunacy if not by evoking the blind faith in institutions of which Conrad wrote?

We believe so blindly that when a group of people in evening dress sit down in a concert hall and begin to play they will produce music, that we are prepared to ignore the racket; and, by the same token, we believe so blindly in our own ineffable individuality that we neglect to notice how beautifully articulated our stereotypies are: we saw away at the same old tunes – reason, progress, the good, the beautiful and the true – quite convinced that it’s our arm willing the bowing. Yet if we allowed ourselves even an infinitesimal fermata, we would be assailed by the cacophonous crowd of automata surrounding us. This is the “high organisation” that renders our very existence possible – not the music of the spheres, but a caterwauling classical muddly.

Next week: On Location

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.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder