‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today.’ That is the opening sentence of Tony Judt’s book Ill Fares The Land that I’m reading at the moment. There could be no more pertinent assessment of the present crisis. Yesterday, one commentator compared Europe’s current predicament to the phenomenon of approaching a black hole and reaching the event horizon – the point beyond which it is impossible to escape guaranteed annihilation. The fascinating thing, he said coolly, is you can cross this point of no return without realizing that your doom is certain.
This lunchtime, on The World at One, a commentator spoke of the ‘bond vigilantes’ who are now closing in on France, which is now suffering a full-blown run on its debt, with investors dumping French bonds to move their money to safer havens. So the second largest economy in the eurozone could lose its triple-A credit status very soon, purely a victim of speculators.
Mulling over all this I feel a bit like the character in Bono’s lyric, ‘The End of the World’:
Last time we met was a low-lit room
We were as close together as a bride and groom
We ate the food, we drank the wine
Everybody having a good time
Except you –
You were talking about the end of the world
Just possibly, there might be a positive aspect of the present situation. In an article in today’s Guardian, John Harris considers whether 2011 will go down in history as one of those years that redefined global politics – such as 1968 or1989. Certainly there has been a mood of mass resistance sweeping around the globe – from the uprisings across the Arab world to the Occupy movement that has become global in short order. The mood is best summed up in the words of flyers that Harris found pasted to every available surface in the streets in Berkeley, California, where an Occupy camp has sprung up outside a branch of Bank of America:
Are you pissed [off] yet? You should be!
No taxation of the rich. Endless war.
Bankers not held responsible. Corrupt politicians.
Destruction of the planet due to politicians’ and corporations’ greed.
Can it get any worse than this?
As Harris notes, some elements in the Occupy movement are inspired by the legacy of 1969. The editor of the Canada-based countercultural magazine Adbusters recently put it like this:
We are not just inspired by what happened in the Arab spring recently. We are students of the situationist movement. Those are the people who gave birth to what many people think was the first global revolution back in 1968 when some uprisings in Paris suddenly inspired uprisings all over the world.
Back in August, Harris notes, in an article for the Financial Times, 2011: The Year of Global Indignation, Gideon Rachman wrote:
Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption. … The creation of a global mood is a mysterious thing. In 1968, before the word ‘globalisation’ or the internet were even invented, there were student rebellions around the world. The year 1989 saw not just the fall of the Berlin Wall but the Tiananmen Square revolt in China. Perhaps 2011 will come to rank alongside 1968 and 1989 as a year of global revolt?
Back in August, Rachman observed that America was the one striking exception to this pattern, despite exhibiting many of the social and economic trends that had got people out on the streets in other countries: rising inequality, a threat to middle-class living standards, anger against the political and business elite. That’s not the case now, with Occupy camps established in every major city and many smaller towns.
Is there anything that connects these events in the USA, Europe and the Arab world? In answer to this question, John Harris argues that something BBC Newsnight’s Paul Mason wrote on his blog last February titled Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, remains among the most incisive analyses of this year’s events. Mason wrote:
At the heart of it all are young people, obviously: students; westernised; secularised … a new sociological type – the graduate with no future … With access to social media, they can express themselves in a variety of situations ranging from parliamentary democracy to tyranny … They are not prone to traditional and endemic ideologies … They all seem to know each other … I was astonished to find people I had interviewed inside the UCL occupation blogging from Tahrir Square … The common theme is the dissolution of centralised power and the demand for ‘autonomy’ and personal freedom.
Harris asked Mason to expand on this thought (he’s writing a book to be published in January). Mason’s feels the tumultuous events of 2011 are tangled up with newish means of communication, and a new sense of what it is to be politically organised. Once you’re networked via social media, he says, you’re open to profound changes in ‘who you are and what your personal space is’. The idea of any seemingly arbitrary authority standing in the way of all that can easily become an affront – and at the same time, your means of communication offers you a method of opposition and resistance: online, in the real world, or both. As support for his case, he quotes the example of the hundreds of thousands of people who responded to the 2010 death of the young Egyptian Khaled Said by joining the massively influential We are all Khaled Said Facebook group, or this summer’s Direct Democracy Now! protests in Athens, organised almost entirely through social media.
For Mason, all this is epitomised in the year’s most iconic symbol: the tent communities springing up in the financial heart of the world’s major cities, home to ‘the flickering blue light of laptops and the incessant hubbub of intense conversation’. Mason says:
One thing that there has been in common between the Arab spring and the European and American events is this drive – which is almost pathological – to secure space, and live in it. In one sense, it’s a meme … and I think it does satisfy a desire … [for a] spontaneous, communal, utopian sort of existence
Interestingly, Paul Mason opts for an entirely different historical parallel: ‘a much more distant year, when abortive revolts spread across Europe at speed, and two fired-up German radicals wrote The Communist Manifesto‘:
I think it’s going to be seen more in terms of 1848. 1968 was a cultural thing: it only came to street-fighting in Czechoslovakia, the black ghettoes of the US and Paris. In 1989, apart from Romania, there was as much coming from above, through diplomacy, as there was from below. Only in 1848 have we had an explosion that goes from one country to another as fast the mode of communication of the time, and then doesn’t stop, and feeds off a zeitgeist that is about freedom, which crosses borders, and involves people identifying with each other from very different cultures.
The revolutions of 1848 were crushed, but left a longer-term legacy of political aspirations and ideas, as did 1968 which also looked in the short term as if it had been crushed by reaction. The organisational methods and symbolic actions of 2011 are new, but is there a programme here that will challenge the economic might and political power of the ‘1%’ in the long term? With that in mind, I’ll carry on hopefully reading Tony Judt’s book.
- Protests around the world (Guardian image gallery)
- Occupy movement’s ‘day of action’ (Guardian image gallery, 18.11.2011)
One thought on “Something is profoundly wrong…”
Tiananmen Square – I feel so sorry for the Chinese people, they were unable to break free from their rulers and were brutally put down.
So what’s gone wrong with western society? Nothing that wasn’t already wrong with it almost 300 years ago when the South Sea Bubble burst. We just lurch on from boom to bust because nobody has a practical alternative – our philosophers gave up and walked away just like LaoTse in the 5th century BCE.
In spite of this we need philosophy, we need philosophers, where are they?
Western civilisation is based on the myth of material progress, and this myth rests on the equally mythical premise of linear time. People obsessed with linear time are probably not reflective because to reflect admits to the past which does not race ahead into the progressive future. So linear thought does not learn from past mistakes and ironically constructs its own circular pathos like a ring from Dante’s Inferno, in this case ‘boom & bust’. The concept of cyclic time at least affords the notion that what is happening today may have happened yesterday, and that we can learn from our mistakes. But the idea of cyclic time is basically alien to the western mind.
The global economy may fail, or it might not. Civilisations have failed in the past. They seem to have failed because they were too successful, became too large and by so doing were unsustainable. Then they crashed, entailing unimaginable suffering. This may be our lot, I hope not, but you cannot keep on growing if your growth outpaces your environment, your habitat, because it is impossible.
Humans dream of conquering space, of colonising distant worlds, rather like a spoilt child trashes one room then rather than tidy it, moves into the next room and turns that into a pig sty as well. I very much doubt that our linear time forward progressive spaceships will ever make it to other habitable worlds, even if they exist, and then what – boom & bust part 2? There has to be a better way.