Living in the End Times?

The Daily Telegraph used to be a reassuring newspaper in its way. I once had a mind numbingly mechanical job on the night shift in a chocolate factory; and one of the ways to keep awake was to read the Telegraph every night to keep my blood pressure up from indignation.

Though the Peter Simple column – with its fabulously nostalgic stock cast of grim booted, iron chained Northern Aldermen, and disclaimers of annexationist demands on the letters page – is long gone; the letters page itself is still full of carefully crafted missives from retired Commodores living in Surrey with double barreled names and strong views  – not blustery as they were in the immediate fallout from Empire, but quietly, thoughtfully defensive of an order that is setting us up for a fall out that will prove far greater – if we don’t stop it.

Alongside these are increasingly shrill columnists painting that fall out as an inevitability, not a matter of choice. One – Sherelle Jacobs -writing about Brexit (of course) – argued recently that “as the world turns Medieval” we are facing “a new global dark age” in which the only way forward is a renewed nationalism. British of course, not Scottish, Irish or Welsh.

There are limits old chap.

She recognises that the crisis of the world economic order is a crisis of the dominance of the United States but – in the age of “America First” manages to recast an abject subordination of the UK to the falling American star – by leaving the EU and integrating ever more closely with the US economic model

  • as careless of the environment as it is of its workers
  • with its horrendous health care,
  • convoluted and gerrymandered politics and brutal racist prison system,
  • alongside even closer subordination of military and intelligence
  • and abandoning any pretence to an independent foreign policy

as a buccaneering piece of national self assertion. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are trying to pull the same stunt. We will see in the next couple of months how far – and how long – people can be fooled by this. And what the fall out is if they get away with it on October 31st and the roller coaster ride begins in earnest.

She also manages to ignore the genuine threat of a new dark age as a result of social breakdown resulting form the degradation of the climate conditions that make it possible for us to – among other things – grow food. The Syrian drought between 2006 and 2011 that drove 2 – 3 million people off land they could no longer live on into cities that could not cope with them leading straight into civil war and everything else that has followed is – among many other recent events – a stark warning.

One of the most disturbing pieces in This is not a Drill – the Extinction Rebellion Handbook* is Douglas Rushkoff’s account of being paid a huge sum (half his annual professor’s salary) to brief five super wealthy hedge fund bosses about “the future of technology”.

It turned out that what they were most concerned about was how to escape the impact of climate breakdown as individuals. They were not in denial about it. They know it is happening. They are not concerned about how to use their wealth to try to avert or mitigate it. They are like passengers in first class on the Titanic less concerned about avoiding the iceberg than looking for lifeboats just for them.

They wanted to know whether Alaska or New Zealand would be less affected by climate change, and which would provide a better bolt hole. One admitted that he had already nearly completed building an underground bunker complex to move into when society breaks down, and wanted to know “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?” Money, of course, would have no value.

  • How could they stop the armed guards just bumping them off and taking over?
  • How could they make sure they could control a supply of food – with locks to which only they knew the combination?
  • Could they make the guards wear control collars?
  • Could they use robot guards instead?
  • Could the technology could be developed in time?

The future as zombie apocalypse movie, with most of the rest of us as the zombies.

These people are not isolated individuals. Steve Bannon, who acts as a guru for the whole international alt right, commented while he was an adviser to Donald Trump – “Half the world is going to burn and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Actually there’s plenty we could do. We are already (globally) doing about a quarter of what we need to. We just need to step up the pace and work together to do it. But to do so we need to change the economic and political systems that give people like those hedge fund managers the power and wealth that they have. This is becoming a matter of life or death.

Bannon’s answer to this is to try to build walls around the world’s wealthier countries so the burning takes place elsewhere – as it has already began to do. A necessary part of this is the dehumanisation of anyone who lives in the “shithole countries” (D. Trump) that are going to burn; so the citizens of the US can watch them do so with equanimity. If that means describing desperate refugees fleeing social breakdown as criminals and terrorists, interning them indefinitely, separating children from parents, depriving them of the most basic care and amenities (bedding, toothpaste, soap) – or, in the European case – letting thousands of them drown in the Mediterranean, then so be it.

This was put in a more anodyne form by Wells Griffith, Trump’s energy and climate adviser, who said this at the Katowice summit in November 2018. “We strongly believe that no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability.” This extraordinary sentence recognises that the current engines of “economic prosperity” and “energy security” in the United States are not environmentally sustainable – and are undermining the conditions for human survival – but strongly believes that that this can be ignored until everything collapses.

This is in the context of the current challenge to the Pax Americana posed by the rise of China. Sherrelle Jacobs argues that China is a “stillborn superpower” due an economic collapse. People in the West have been saying that for twenty years, not grasping that a country dominated by state led investment does not operate on the same lines as those for which the imperatives of private sector dominance trump other considerations.

Whatever critique people may wish to make of China, the current trade war

  • in which the US is doubling down on fossil fuels while China is investing massively in renewable energy generation,
  • Donald Trump prohibits mention of Climate Change in US government publications and sabotages scientific research into it, while Xi Xinping is talking about building an “ecological society”,
  • the US is planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and stands against international co-operation, while the Chinese favour “win win” solutions and are set to achieve their 2030 targets between 5 and 9 years early

is a dramatic illustration that there is more than one engine of prosperity and energy security. The dominant western global elite are sticking with the wrong one because they can do no other – they would cease to be an elite if they were to embrace state led investment as a way forward. Even as they are staring at total panic and terrible consequences for the majority of humanity in the medium term.

The popularity of evangelical rapture Christianity among these people – in which we are living in the “end times” waiting for the second coming and sudden miraculous escape from all our problems to those who believe hard enough –  and the increasingly delirious and irrational mode of political debate has its roots in the same fears.

This is a cry of despair from a class that can no longer claim to represent humanity as a whole – in the way they have tried to do since 1789. Every day that passes produces more evidence like this that the people who rule us are unfit to do so.

Variations on this theme are fantasies of living “off world” in space stations or – even – Mars – though Antarctica is a more benign environment -with Elon Musk’s electric car in space as a symbolic gesture in this direction. If it weren’t for the resources required to get them there it would be tempting just to let them go – in an inverted version of Ursula Le Guin’s novel “The Dispossessed” – in which a political conflict was resolved by exiling all the anarchists to the nearest moon.

 

 

 

*Just published by Penguin. Essential reading, but don’t order it on Amazon; ask your local library to stock it instead.

Nigel Farage – Donald Trump’s useful idiot.

As the only person in my household to be white, male and over 65, I fit the demographic to get a personally addressed leaflet from the Brexit Party. This arrived at the same time as the postal vote. Good timing for them, as postal voters are mostly elderly people; Farage’s core vote.

These leaflets are designed to be scanned with as little conscious attention and thought as possible, so let’s examine it in detail and think about it.

On the first page is a logo in a soothing greeny blue (a colour considered psychologically positive and easeful, unlike the jarring rhubarb and custard of UKIP) – with a white arrow pointing symbolically from left to right, looking both like a road sign – and therefore an instruction for all careful drivers – and a house on its side – indicating both that the old order must be upended and remain in its traditional shape. The arrow points to a strap line that reads “changing politics for good” – implying better and forever -that sits neatly beneath the name and address of the voter; implying that voting for them is your chance to do just that.

Turn over and there is Farage’s head –  taking up a third of the page and trying to look like a man of destiny – no froggy gurning, no cigarette, no pint – a new dawn breaking behind him, the golden sunlight lighting up the back of his head with just a hint of halo, looking gravely from left to right like a man practicing for the day his head is on coins – and his eyes gazing ever onwards and upwards towards the promised land that he is at pains not to describe in the message to the right of his mug shot. This is probably just as well, given that his new convert, Anne Widdicombe, has described the sacrifices involved in a no deal Brexit as not as bad as World War 2. A selling point for any policy for a generation bitter and twisted enough about loss of status to actively embrace the idea of more blood sweat and tears to get it back.

Farage’s missive is light on specifics, with neither programme nor policies, no way forward at all; but big on emotive, tribal buzz words. He makes no attempt to win over anyone who does not already agree. He simply presses the buttons of those that do. People are angry. This party is a vehicle for that anger – and if it drives off a cliff – well – that’ll show ’em. That’s all that he needs for now. There are three basic claims.

  1. The 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU are “the people”and the embodiment of a democratic mandate. Those that did not are invisible. This is not an attempt to unite the nation as it is, just to impose the will of a minority fraction of it and remake it in their image. For nationalists, only other nationalists are a legitimate part of the nation.
  2. MPs – in not pressing straight ahead regardless of the consequences – are “betraying” “the people” and humiliating “our great nation”. This is playing on the sense of distrust at “politicians” that showed up in a recent poll in which 54% of respondents claimed to prefer “a strong leader” to politicians – because the latter find it difficult to come to simple conclusions that save “the people” from having to think that things might be a bit more complicated than they’d like. Rather than take the time or trouble to learn anything – the default position is to get angry and blame others. Why hasn’t this been “sorted”? Why can’t they “just get on with it”? The message here is – even if you don’t agree with us, vote for us to give these useless articles a kick. People who feel like that – and think they are being self righteously rebellious by voting for Farage – could be setting themselves up for a level of national humiliation that they can’t begin to imagine – when  an exit from the EU leaves the UK naked in the negotiating chamber for a trade deal with Trump’s America. As they used to say on Batman – “The worst is yet to come.”
  3. Farage’s party would be a new start for “British democracy” because its stands for “Trust, Honesty and Integrity.” Seriously? Just like UKIP did when Farage was leading it?  The business newspaper City AM notes that” Since 1999, two Ukip MEPs have been sent to prison. Ashley Mote was jailed for benefit fraud in 2007 and served nine months. The judge presiding over his trial described Mote as “a truly dishonest man”. Tom Wise, elected as a UKIP MEP in 2004, pleaded guilty to charges of expenses fraud and was sentenced to two years in prison.”  Farage himself – a man with all the gravitas of a barrow boy selling knocked off nylons from the back of a lorry – was done for expenses fraud after illegally channeling substantial European Parliamentary expenses towards running the Party. With trust, honesty and integrity like that, who could doubt the glorious renaissance that he has in mind?

Below the fold we have three smaller mug shots.

The useful idiot Claire Fox – formerly of the Revolutionary Communist Party (a very 1980s organisation that elevated being a contrarian smartarse into the first principle of political discourse) states that “left wing democrats should vote to deliver the referendum result” – somehow not noticing that she is standing for an alt right party that is a danger both to democracy itself and the left.

June Mummery from the Fishing Industry – a third of which is controlled by just five wealthy families – https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2018/10/11/fishing-quota-uk-defra-michael-gove/ – talks of taking “our waters” back, so we can fish it to extinction free of catch quotas – and to “restore our coastal communities.” When Farage stood on the pier in Clacton to launch his campaign, gestured towards the North Sea and said that it “belongs to us” he perhaps didn’t reflect (or know?) that without the international co-operation needed to hold back climate change – large parts of Clacton and towns like it will be under water by the end of the century and sea levels will keep rising. So, in some sense, perhaps the relationship is reversed and Clacton belongs to the North Sea.

Joel Chilaka – a token black medical student – who doesn’t seem to have noticed that he is surrounded by people who would be uncomfortable in a room with him – wants to “keep our democracy intact for future generations” – as though anyone else doesn’t.

On the reverse there are three statistics

  •  that most Labour MPs favour a second referendum. This must be a bad thing, because it is contrary to democracy to let people vote more than once, especially if there’s a risk some of them might have changed their minds – or vote on a deal that is actually on offer rather than the cake an eat it deal they thought they could get.
  •  that 92% or Brexit voters feel “betrayed”. That the easy deal, the financial bonus and the renewed prestige that Farage and co promised have not fallen into our laps and that that is the fault of the people who didn’t promise these things.
  • and 498 MPs voted to “honour” the result. The word “honour” makes this a moral imperative that cuts through the practical difficulties of trying to work out what “the result” might actually mean in practice – given that trying to unravel a forty year long economic integration is  like the sort of operation that surgeons have to carry out to separate Siamese twins – an operation in which the weaker twin often dies. 

Then four even smaller heads in more ways than one.

A grumpy looking CEO of a property company – and therefore obviously a man of the people – arguing that “taking no deal off the table” is “bonkers”; as if a country representing 2% of the world economy is capable of successfully playing chicken with a bloc representing 20% – ten times bigger. The same will apply even more to trying to do a deal with the United States – 24% of the world economy and 12 times bigger than the UK. This would – indeed – be very quick and easy because the way the USA does trade deals with qualitatively weaker countries is to tell them what the deal is; and they either sign or don’t. National humiliation anyone? Farage (and Liam Fox) are already in the queue for that one.

A “Chairman/entrepreneur” – clearly another man of the people – calling for “better leadership”. Wonderfully unspecific. Could mean anything.

Annunziata Rees-Mogg – how could you not be “anti-elitist”  with a name like that? – making the pitch for disgruntled Tories and – slightly more alarmingly – a “decorated Royal Marine” who “fought for our country” and is not prepared “to see it humiliated” –  without specifying if he thinks he’ll need to fight again to stop it happening- nor who he thinks he will have to fight against. This is an echo of the presence of veterans in blazers and berets on the front rank of UKIP marches and the parachute regiment using pictures of Jeremy Corbyn for target practice.

The digested read is: You are Angry. We are Angry. Vote for an Angry Party led by Mr Angry.

The paradox of all this emotive patriotic reflex whacking is that if it were to end in a no deal Brexit, it would be to serve the UK trussed up on a plate to Donald Trump. The hedge funds that financed the leave campaign want nothing less. That means being signed up not only to wholesale deregulation domestically and handing the NHS over to US insurance companies; but also to Trump’s trade war with China; which involves doubling down on the outmoded fossil fuel economy that is leading the world to disaster.

The attempted denial of the UK’s sinking standing by blustering out the old tunes one more time- symbolised by farcical figures such as Farage and Boris Johnson – will end up confirming it even if they win. The pathetic self subordination to an outmoded American way will only be highlighted by attempts at compensatory cocksure British swagger – which would be taken as seriously as Farage’s Union Jack shoes – because the gleam on the back of Farage’s head is not a new dawn, it is a fading glow from the embers of Empire.

Despite Farage’s strong position in current polling, a hopeful sign is that younger people don’t dance to these tunes any more. Only 19% of young people have a favourable view of him, compared with 69% who have an unfavourable view. 43% of younger voters are reported as saying they will vote Labour. The task is to get that vote out on May 23 and mobilise it between now and then to change the framework of the debate.