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The end of a dream

Unreality is the defining feature of the fashionable ideas of the past decade. Perhaps only a more s

To look back on the ideas that shaped the past decade is to survey a scene of wreckage. Ten years ago, the best and the brightest were believers in the "Washington consensus" - the idea that the debt-fuelled free market that had existed in the US for little more than a decade was the only economic system consistent with the imperatives of modernity, and destined to spread universally.

It was not only the neocon right that believed this. Centre-left parties, whose historical role had been to set limits on free markets, bought in to this idea with enthusiasm. When Bill Clinton and Tony Blair embraced neoliberal economics, they did more than triangulate policies for the sake of electoral advantage. They endorsed the belief that a bubble engineered by Alan Greenspan at the end of the 1990s, when he lowered interest rates to artificial levels after the blow-up of a hedge fund, represented a new era in economic history. Both the triangulating politicians and many left-of-centre commentators became convinced that, for all practical purposes, neoliberal capitalism was indestructible.

For anyone with a sense of history, the idea that a post-cold-war bubble embodied a new world order was obviously absurd. The built-in instability of capitalism had not gone away - it had been accentuated, as the US and other western economies became ever more dependent on unsustainable debt. Far from being in­destructible, the neoliberal market order was highly fragile. But millennial fantasies regarding a short-lived variety of capitalism were far from being the only delusional beliefs that helped shape events during the decade.

Closely related was liberal interventionism - the policy, set out by Tony Blair in his 1999 Chicago speech on foreign policy, of using military force to spread liberal democracy. Here the delusions were multilayered, and first among them was a dream about America. Again, it was not only the right that bought in to a fantasy. For large sections of the left, the US in the first decade of the century had a role similar to that played in the progressive imagination by the USSR in earlier periods: for all its faults, the US was the world's emancipatory power, and the current embodiment of the best human hopes.

The delusive quality of this view lay not so much in the comical notion that universal freedom could be spearheaded by the witless figure of George W Bush, as in an unrealistic estimate of America's position in the world. US imperial overstretch had already been identified in 1987 by Paul Kennedy in his book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, but this weakness was forgotten in the triumphalism that surrounded the collapse of the Soviet Union. Not only did the US lack the skills needed to maintain its imperial role, but increasingly it was a role the US could not afford. Both these facts were brutally confirmed in the invasion of Iraq. Confident that liberal democracy would emerge of its own accord once tyranny had been overthrown, the Bush administration was unprepared for the sectarian warfare and near-anarchy that predictably erupted when Saddam Hussein's regime was destroyed. It was equally unprepared for the ruinous cost of the war, which was launched on the assumption that the price of oil would fall after regime change, setting off another global boom and making the entire exercise self-financing. The actual result was that the Americans racked up even more debt and the decline of US power accelerated.

Fashionable theories of globalisation had the effect of blocking the perception of American decline. From the late 1990s onwards, the idea that globalisation and Americanisation were one and the same became something like conventional wisdom, the New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman pushing the equation in his bestselling books The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World Is Flat (2005). The actual effect of globalisation is to transfer economic power to emerging countries with different models of capitalism, but for those who shared Friedman's dreamworld, globalisation was no more than the Anglo-American free market writ large. It was a notion that could persist only so long as the crisis was confined to powerless countries on the periphery of the system, such as Argentina and Thailand. It began to dissipate when the US financial system itself started to implode from mid-2007 onwards. Having run down and sold off much of its productive base, the US found itself the centre of a type of finance capitalism that was practically bankrupt.

It is not often that large-scale crises are due to intellectual error, but a single erroneous belief runs through all of the successive delusions of the past decade. With few exceptions, both left and right seem to think that history is a directional process whose end point - after many unfortunate detours - will be the worldwide duplication of people very like themselves. At the end of the decade, opinion-formers in Britain, the United States and continental Europe still imagine that the normal pattern of historical development leads eventually to an idealised version of western society, just as Francis Fukuyama forecast 20 years ago.

But whereas this confidence-boosting notion was still genuinely believed a decade ago, today it is a kind of comfort blanket against an unfamiliar world. The reality, which is that western power is in retreat nearly everywhere, is insistently denied. Yet the rise of China means more than the emergence of a new great power. Its deeper import is that the ideologies of the past century - neoliberalism just as much as communism - are obsolete. Belief systems in which the categories of western religion are reproduced in the guise of pseudo-science, they are redundant in a world where the most rapidly advancing nation state has never been monotheist. Western societies are well worth defending, but they are not a model for all of humankind. In future they will be only one of several versions of tolerable modernity.

For secular western intellectuals to accept this fact would rob their life of meaning. Huddled in the tattered blanket of historical teleology, which tells them they are the leading lights of humanity, they screen out any development that demonstrates their increasing irrelevance. Religion is resurgent in many parts of the world, not least emerging powers such as Brazil and China, but for the secular intelligentsia this is just an unfortunate lag, a temporary setback in humanity's slow march to join them on the sunlit uplands of reason. The hysterical stridency of evangelical atheism - one of the most characteristic phenomena of the Noughties - is symptomatic of a pervasive cognitive dissonance. Like everyone else, these intellectuals assert their beliefs all the more adamantly when the only reason for holding them is a well-founded suspicion that they are not true.

Unreality is the defining feature of the ideas that have been in vogue over the past decade. The grandiose delusions with which the new century began have not been abandoned. Instead, they have been shrunk to a size at which they can still be maintained. The small world of British politics provides many examples of this tendency. Rather than acknowledge that neoliberalism has failed, politicians in all three main parties are seizing on a succession of intellectual gimmicks for solutions to the problems that the ideology has created. Gladwell's blink, Sunstein and Thaler's nudge, the wisdom of crowds - these and other ephemera of the airport bookstore are being taken up, promoted and then forgotten in the floundering attempt to deal with a crisis that is only in its early stages.

The intellectual default of politicians cannot be remedied by returning to the ideologies of the past. It is shared by much of the public, and comes from a chronic inability to engage with reality. Perhaps only a more serious crisis will overturn the delusive fancies on which so many policies are based. A run on sterling in the event of a hung parliament after the next general election; the cataclysmic defeat that will follow Barack Obama's decision to reinforce inevitable failure in Afghanistan; a spiral in oil prices after a flare-up over Iran; the collapse of the dollar as the world finally loses patience with American solipsism - any one of these eventualities, together with others that cannot be foreseen, could be a catalyst for rethinking.

But the omens are not encouraging. The make-believe that surrounds climate change - epitomised in the empty statements of intent regarding unachievable goals that will be the only outcome of the Copenhagen meeting - shows that the biggest challenge for the future is being evaded. It looks as if we may be wandering in the ruins of the Noughties for some time.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. A new edition of his "False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism", which first appeared in 1998, was published by Granta Books in October (£8.99)

The ideas that shaped a decade

Neoliberalism: Three policies central to the neoliberal "Washington consensus" were low taxation, privatisation and the deregulation of financial services. Key thinkers: Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick.

Neoconservatism: The term was originally applied to disillusioned liberal critics of the welfare state. By the beginning of the 21st century, neoconservatism was associated principally with an aggressive US foreign policy. Key thinkers: Henry "Scoop" Jackson, Leo Strauss.

Political Islam: "Islamism", or political Islam, is dominated by two distinct and extreme strands of thought: the Salafist or Saudi Wahhabi tradition; and the work of Sayyid Qutb, who saw Islam as a political movement based on Quranic principles and from whom Osama Bin Laden derived the doctrine of violent jihad. Key thinkers: Sayyid Qutb, Mohammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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The Okay Place: the psychological value of mediocre TV

Why do we watch comedies that don’t make us laugh?

I’ve been watching Brooklyn 99 on the train. The comedy cop show makes me laugh roughly once an episode, but nonetheless I watch it compulsively. I watch it on my commute, and I watch it while cooking dinner. It’s in the background when I’m paying my bills. I consumed so many episodes last night, Netflix sent me its most notoriously judgemental pop-up: “Are you still watching?”

Yes, Netflix, I was still watching. The real question was: why?

Brooklyn 99 doesn’t really make me laugh, and it’s far from the most critically-acclaimed show available on the streaming service right now. It’s not technically mediocre – the sitcom has won two Golden Globes – but it is to me*. It provokes the same feelings in me as Netflix’s The Good Place, a kitsch sitcom set in the afterlife. I am compelled to watch at all costs, but on the whole unamused and occasionally frustrated by formulaic storylines. (Sometimes, The Good Place even makes me cringe.)

I enjoy both shows, sure, but I don’t love them. So why am I wasting my time?

(*Because this is the internet, it's a good time to specify that "mediocre" here means in the view of the person being quoted, not objectively.)

“To understand why people are drawn to certain shows, it’s helpful to look at the type of feelings the shows elicit,” says Elizabeth Cohen, a media psychologist and assistant professor at West Virginia University. Cohen says media often has a “mood management function”, in that we use it to make ourselves feel better.

“Sometimes we are looking to be emotionally stimulated, so we might choose to watch something that we think will thrill us,” she says. “But other times we might decide to forego the dark cerebral drama on our DVR and opt for a safe sitcom instead. That could be because we need something that will help us wind down, relax, and boost our mood.”

Photo: Netflix

A desire to unwind is one of the reasons Oliver Savory, a 30-year-old grad student from London, watches The Big Bang Theory, a comedy that has inspired much ire.

“It fills a niche of something to watch while eating, when you can’t focus fully, or you’ve just got in and want to unwind without thinking too hard,” he explains. Oliver says “average” TV comforts him more than “good” TV because he doesn’t have to worry about keeping up to date. “Good TV you have to make time for, average TV can fit around your own schedule without imposing itself.”

Cohen says this is referred to as “comfort food TV”, the entertainment equivalent of eating boxed mac and cheese even if you have the recipe for mum’s spaghetti. “These are shows that people watch not because they are exceptional in quality, but because they are simple, predictable, or nostalgic.”

Sometimes, we watch “okay” shows because we feel they have the potential to be great. Karen Dill-Shackleford is a media psychologist who explains this was her experience with The Good Place.

“I love The Good Place, but there was a stretch when I thought it was poor,” she says. “I kept waiting for it to right itself because I thought it had real potential.”

The potential many of us see in the show is its fresh premise, and its engagement with moral philosophy. As Dill-Shackleford puts it: “[the show] is a palatable way to ponder life’s biggest questions. So, even if the jokes are lame, the potential for real value is still there.”

Charlotte Mullin, a 23-year-old illustrator, says she doesn't laugh at the jokes either. “But what keeps me watching is the premise, and the characters. I’m a sucker for good character development, and The Good Place has it in spades,” she says. (Cohen tells me she does laugh at The Good Place, once again illustrating that mediocrity is in the eye of the beholder.)

Photo: Netflix

Ross McCafferty is a 27-year-old journalist from Glasgow who couldn’t tell you anything about NBC’s Parks and Recreation, even though he’s seen every episode. During a difficult time at work, he consumed the entire show.

“It’s actually quite a derivative, even mediocre show,” he says. “But I still ate it up, because at the time it was oddly comforting to me, self-contained and uncomplicated and unobtrusive, like so little in my life at that time.”

The reasons McCafferty liked the show, he says, is because it was “nice”, “brightly lit”, “nonthreatening” and “so sweet it was cloying”.

Bright lights and pretty colours certainly feel like one of the reasons I keep going back to mediocre sitcoms, but I also find comfort in certain characters: Chidi in The Good Place and Boyle in Brooklyn 99 are comfortingly familiar – I almost switch on to keep up to date with them, as if they were friends.

George Clarke is a 25-year-old management consultant who finds similar comfort in Seinfeld characters, even though the show doesn’t make him laugh much. “Some days I might fancy Netflix’s latest psychological thriller, but most of the time I’d just prefer to sit and watch Kramer doing something ridiculous or George stuff it up with the girl of his dreams for the fourth time that season,” he says.

But couldn’t Clarke and I find our televisual buds in prestige dramas?

“I find the idea of watching prestige shows non-stop to be exhausting,”  says David Renshaw, a 30-year-old news editor, who jokes it can feel like you “need a map” to keep up with Game of Thrones. When he finishes watching something acclaimed, such as Breaking Bad, he “cleanses the palette” with shows like Masterchef or Gogglebox. “They are much lower maintenance… especially if you’re switching between TV and phone as often as I do.”

Photo: Netflix

The comfort of the mediocre is so powerful that it can often override other emotions, such as the cringing I experience during some of The Good Place’s more strained jokes. Lizzie Roberts is a 25-year-old masters student who enjoys Gilmore Girls even though she dislikes the character Lorelai’s “painfully unfunny monologues”.

“It’s my way of letting my brain reset,” she says of the show, as well as reality TV such as Towie and I’m A Celeb. “It’s not taxing, it’s tolerable.”

“Not taxing and tolerable” are perhaps the words that best sum up the complex psychological reasons we continue to watch mediocre TV during the Golden Age of Television. Streaming services like Netflix are also designed to keep us watching, with episodes auto-playing one after the other (plus it's easier to find a show you've essentially already paid for on the Netflix homepage than go out and hunt for something more prestigious).

Although watching mediocre TV can feel like a waste of time, it does seem to have a psychological purpose. When we're stressed, busy, or tired, it can be exactly the entertainment we need. Nothing is more stressful, busy, or tiring than a commute – so I'll be watching Brooklyn 99 on the train home.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus