FAUSTO SERAFINI
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The age of pain

People used to define themselves by their pleasures – by their sexual preferences and lifestyle choices. Today, we increasingly define ourselves by our suffering and our weaknesses.

In the early 1980s, the French sociologist Luc Boltanski conducted an unusual study involving 275 letters that had been sent to Le Monde. All the letters involved a claim of injustice of some kind. What interested Boltanski was not whether the claims were valid, but how the letters editors immediately split them into two categories, basing their decision purely on how the claim was expressed.

In the first category were those letters that counted as protests of some kind: for instance, claims that an economic policy was regressive or that a war was unjustified. These were more likely to be signed by representatives of institutions, such as non-governmental organisations or universities.

In the second category were those letters that were treated, in effect, as paranoid. These saw guilt where others saw innocence, or innocence where others saw guilt. In Britain, they have become referred to as “green ink” letters. Inferences of the writer’s psychological state are tacitly drawn.

The interesting question, for Boltanski, lay in the grey area between the two. At what point do we attribute denunciations to the state of the world, and at what point to the state of the individual making them? The question usually arises most starkly when a mass killing occurs, and often in racialised terms: white murderers are “lone wolves” with a mental illness or repressed sexual desires, while dark-skinned murderers are “terrorists”.

The significance of Boltanski’s study is to remind us that the line separating “public politics” from “private distress” is culturally constructed, and not always very clear, even as we seek to police it. That line has rarely seemed less clear than it does today.

Consider the political phenomenon that has made 2016 such a historic year: populism. Tony Blair admitted in February that he was “baffled” by the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn on the left. Policy professionals are exasperated by the “post-truth” politics espoused by Donald Trump and Brexit campaigners, and can’t understand why voters are so easily taken in.

This failure of understanding stems from an exaggerated deference to the norms of the public sphere, as if people engaged with public figures solely for public reasons. Hence pundits can only assume that Corbyn has unearthed several hundred thousand dormant Trotskyites in their sixties or Occupy participants in their twenties.

The reality may be more mundane. Thanks in part to Corbyn’s own uncharismatic persona, the Labour Party and Momentum offer vessels for feelings of frustration, distress and loneliness, from which political participation offers relief. Public arenas potentially help to alleviate personal troubles.

This is even clearer on the right. Support for Trump was known to be most concentrated in areas suffering growing levels of chronic physical and mental pain, as well as rising mortality rates. Recently the use of prescription painkillers has increased sharply in these areas, as have the overdoses that occur once users become addicts. The geographer Danny Dorling has similarly drawn connections between the Brexit vote and mortality rates in England and Wales.

Now consider another matter that has provoked exasperation among liberals of a certain age: the phenomenon of campus “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, which might suggest that some students see their personal feelings as more important than free speech. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that American students are “coddled” and that they are clinging to an infantile vulnerability. In April, Stephen Fry accused victims of sexual abuse who cite their experiences as a reason for avoiding certain arguments of showing signs of “self-pity” (he later apologised).

This is partly a generational phenomenon. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in a society that was obsessed with health, activity and ambition. Offered no language with which to articulate vulnerabilities and anxieties, many have reached for the language of mental illness and victimhood. How else to defend ordinary human passivity, in a culture organised around ideals of athleticism and entrepreneurship?

The question still stands whether it is ­acceptable for personal struggles and grievances to become muddled with public intellectual debate. The panic surrounding student-led censorship (which gets enthusiastically amplified in the tabloid press) is now well out of proportion. Yet something new has emerged. Can it be suppressed again? Should it be?

***

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. After the 1968 uprisings in America, there was a shared sense among many Democratic Party grandees that the student protesters lacked political realism, and were letting their hedonism and libidos get the better of them. The economic and social gains made by postwar liberalism were being taken for granted.

This view hardened over the course of the 1970s. Baby boomers and ’68ers became viewed as selfish and lacking in public decorum. Many prominent liberal intellectuals abandoned the left altogether and formed the splinter movement that became known as “neoconservatism”. Books such as The Fall of Public Man (1974) by Richard Sennett and The Culture of Narcissism (1979) by Christopher Lasch, both written from the perspective of the left, presented a view that private sentiment had overwhelmed proper public politics. All the while, the new Republican coalition of big business and the white working class gathered momentum.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that centre-left parties learned how to speak to this generation of so-called narcissists, by which point the work of Thatcher and Reagan was done. Yet one thing that became clear was that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s went far deeper than campus sit-ins or hippie free love. A revolution had occurred in capitalism – especially with the rise of consumer sovereignty – as much as in civil society.

There are obvious analogies here which pose a simple question: will “narcissism” have a similar effect on the left again today, or might political movements find a way of channelling the grievances that
now mobilise people? Would it necessarily be to Labour’s detriment if Corbyn appealed on a “private” level, or if people were joining the Labour Party partly to make themselves feel better?

In one respect, today’s emotional politics is the inverse of the 1960s. Back then, people were coming to define themselves by their pleasures: their sexual desires, consumer preferences, lifestyle choices. Today, many are coming to define themselves by their pains: past traumas, mental illnesses and chronic health conditions. With the breaking of taboos surrounding mental illness, people are increasingly likely to discuss their depression or anxiety, and possibly identify themselves accordingly.

The evidence of rising private distress accumulates weekly. An NHS study published in September showed that nearly a fifth of girls aged between 16 and 24 self-harm; 26 per cent reported some very recent mental-health condition. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder have tripled in less than a decade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that at any moment a fifth of the working-age population is suffering a mental illness. One culprit always stands out in public discussion of these trends: digital technology.

It is tempting to seek simple cause-and-effect relations between technology and psychology but never very helpful. Rather than ask what Facebook or smartphones are “doing to us”, it might make more sense to ask how patterns of social and cultural life are being redrawn along digital lines. Just as the effect of consumerism in the 1960s changed much more than just how people shopped, so the effect of social media cannot be explained adequately by looking at what takes place purely “online”.

Consider four properties of digital networks which are reshaping the fabric of social life today, each contributing to the new politics of distress. First, they follow us ­everywhere: to work, at home, on holiday and at school. We scarcely find refuge outside of these networks; it follows that people will construct safe communities of empathy within them instead. The alternative would be to spend one’s entire existence in some overwhelming hybrid of work, training and public debate.

Second, they obey a binary logic. One/zero. Follow/unfollow. Like/unlike. It is not that Twitter users are oversensitive or devoted to censoring “free speech”: it’s that “blocking” and “muting” are integral to the architecture of Twitter. The risk is that politics starts to become shaped by an equally binary mentality, reduced to simple friend/enemy distinctions that are the substance of populism.

Then consider the changing status of language. Words shared digitally don’t disappear, but produce a constantly accumulating archive that generates its own anxiety. It’s never clear exactly who might delve into that archive – a market researcher, a family member, a potential employer? The potential of institutions to evaluate our characters remotely is growing rapidly. As one data analytics developer has put it, “all data is credit data”. Idle words carry consequences; or, at the very least, it feels as if they might.

Finally, digital media can operate at any scale of interaction, from the most intimate to the most public. This is in sharp contrast to the newspapers and pamphlets on which the Enlightenment public sphere of the 18th century was built, and around which liberal norms of public debate emerged. Nowadays, one-to-one letters and mass broadcasts share a single medium, with endless intermediary tiers.

A new digital pattern of social life is emerging which extends beyond the reach of any particular digital technology. One consequence of this is a cluster of new strains and anxieties placed on the self. Another is that we can no longer cleanly distinguish between the spaces to which we turn in search of care and compassion (or emotional release) and those to which we turn in search of reasoned argument. This affects “offline” spaces (including campuses) where forums of mutual care and those of debate will simply have to coexist, often with leakage between the two.

The left can refuse the above analysis, just as parts of the left once refused identity politics and feminism. But how might it ­respond otherwise?

The first way is to accept that the repoliticisation of social troubles is welcome but messy. When people participate politically for the first time, they generally don’t turn up speaking like David Miliband but often arrive with a grievance rooted in their own suffering. Sometimes they appear self-pitying – but this can change. The most impressive anti-austerity campaigns have been fought by disability rights activists, demonstrating that day-to-day physical and mental needs can be politicised to considerable public effect.

The second response is to think deeply and widely about the forms of pain that are driving so much of our politics and forging political identities. The medicalisation of psychological distress cannot continue indefinitely: the NHS won’t be able to pick up the mounting bill for much longer, and medicalisation does not address the fundamental causes. The political question is how non-medical institutions (schools, workplaces) might be reformed or invented so as to treat people with greater care in the first place. Providing individuals with social and public routes out of their personal troubles will be critical, as the idea of “social prescribing” hints.

A large, possibly growing, section of the population today might appear as if it belongs in the second category of Boltanski’s letter writers: paranoid, emotional, post-fact. A crucial question is whether to leave them to dwell in their passivity, or whether they might be supported, not only to reduce their distress but to target some of it outwards, turning private pain into protest.

William Davies teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London and is the author of “The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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