Ben Whishaw in Against. Photo: Johan Persson.
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Christopher Shinn: How should playwrights respond to the Trump era?

From drone strikes to punching Nazis, is how we think about violence too conditioned by whether it's our "side" perpetrating it?

In early November 2016, I was in London to rehearse the first-ever reading of my new play Against. As the play was about violence in America, naturally the conversation turned to Donald Trump. Did I think he could win the election in a few days?

I did not. If Trump did win, I said, it would be the “last gasp” of white resentment in a country whose changing demographics meant doom for the Republican party.   

In response, one of the actors linked this resentment to Brexit and right-wing nationalism in Europe. “Maybe there is a similarity,” I thought, “but America is just so different from Europe.” I could not see what was happening in parts of Europe taking root in a country that had elected Barack Obama twice.   

Eighteen months earlier, when I began writing Against, I thought of Donald Trump as a pest – a pop culture figure whose fringe political opinions were annoying but nothing to worry about. What I was worried about at that point was America’s violence, especially our violence abroad.

I’d first started thinking seriously about this during the 2012 election, where we had very little debate about our country’s drone policy. Both major parties agreed that it was good, and in Obama’s second term it continued to be an area of non-debate.

At the same time, on the domestic front, mass shootings and gun deaths continued with numbing frequency. I started to wonder if the silence around our country’s violence abroad was in some way related to our inability to talk meaningfully about our violence at home. While we certainly had noisy debates about gun control, on the cultural level there was very little dialogue about what might be causing this ceaseless violence in the first place.

I knew that violence was hardly a uniquely American problem, but I thought that our many wars, shooting incidents, and astonishing incarceration rate justified a national focus. As I began to imagine a play with this theme, I decided to move away from politics and towards the everyday – the psychological and the spiritual conditions underlying violence of all kinds. If a work like this was going to have any original value, it would be in getting audiences to think about violence in a new way, one that pundits and politicians didn’t seem capable of. I’d explore material conditions too, but the soul would be my organising principle. 

I devised a story in which a Silicon Valley figure with power and fame travels to different parts of America to try to establish new ways of engaging with the violence all around us. The implicit question of the play was: how can we acknowledge, talk about, and respond to our violence in ways that impact how our culture and political system address it?   

It was not long after I began working on the play in earnest that Trump emerged as a serious candidate for the presidency, deploying a violent rhetoric I had never heard a major candidate use before. And a more aggressive public discourse wasn’t limited to him – on campuses across the country, university students, teachers, and administrators were clashing over ideas with an intensity that felt closer to war than debate. This was mirrored on social media, where vicious accusations were flung unthinkingly and relentlessly in all directions.

As I continued to write, I tried to imagine how these extremes might work their way into the play more. Soon after the reading in November – and Trump’s election victory –  Against was scheduled for production in August. That meant I had a few more months to make some final decisions about the basic shape of the play and how it would or wouldn’t reflect these cultural developments.

I found this challenging. How could I emphasise this escalation of violence in our discourse without disturbing the play’s wide scope, its insistence that we look beyond attention-grabbing manifestations of violence to obscure but crucial pathologies that link them to one another? An obsessive focus on single issues allows people to avoid contradictions in their thought – for example, disgust at Bush’s militarism and apathy towards Obama’s, or outrage at the violence of groups one is politically at odds with, at the same time as feeling glee over the assault of Nazis. How many people who agitate for gun control ignore or celebrate violence elsewhere? It was crucial to me to try to make these connections.

In the final draft of the play before rehearsals began, I decided to note the intensification of violent rhetoric by representing white resentment more directly – without, I hoped, disturbing the overall shape of the play. I added two white male characters who, in separate scenes, felt like their suffering was being ignored as the culture’s attention focused on people of colour and immigrants. I thought this gave voice to white resentment’s new prominence, but didn’t compromise the play’s broad canvas. And as we rehearsed the play over the summer, this balanced approach felt like the right move.

Then, just as we went into previews, Charlottesville happened.

While white supremacists and neo-Nazis had been alarmingly present around Trump’s campaign, we hadn’t seen anything like this – organised, angry white men wielding torches marching en masse chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Then Heather Heyer was murdered while peacefully protesting, and it felt undeniable that a “new” form of American violence had emerged and penetrated the national consciousness.

Did I need to change the play to reflect this horrifying event? Would a broad exploration of violence suddenly seem like it was in denial about white nationalist violence? Each day during previews, my thinking was complicated by the latest news. For instance, Trump’s chilling off-the-cuff comment that there was violence on “many sides” perversely echoed the play’s argument that we need to look at all kinds of violence.

As press night neared, I began to work out what I felt. It seemed to me that a work of art exploring violence had to be careful not to succumb to the temptation to narrow its focus in the way that our mass media encourages. During this same period, there was continued gun violence across America, and the president would soon announce, as Obama had before him, a surge in Afghanistan – to give just two examples. Since my initial impulse for Against had to do with highlighting types of violence that we ignore or quickly forget about, I would be undercutting my play if I gave too much emphasis to one area.   

That kind of intense yet ephemeral focus has resulted in a dysfunctional political system, an addiction to outrage, and a cultural debate that is more atomised and aggressive than ever. Even in a moment in which maintaining distance risked seeming detached or decadent, it felt to me like it was the only way the play’s deeper purpose could be realised.  

So I decided to leave the play unchanged. As I walked to the theatre on press night, I wondered if I had made the right call, and thought about how challenging it is to think about violence in a culture so suffused with it.

It occurred to me that this was what the play itself was about. As I sat down to watch with everyone else, I readied myself to see if what was onstage would provide even the smallest opening to a new way of thinking.  

Against by Christopher Shinn is at the Almeida theatre, London, until 30 September.


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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist