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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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear