Did someone remember to bring a revolution?

23/09/2011 § Leave a comment

Sorry about the lack of posting. I’ve been working on another project. Today, however, I’m too tired to do anything creative; so it’s time to get another idea off my chest.

I’m hearing a lot about the death of capitalism. Or liberalism. Or of international cooperation; or possibly of all three, plus the two remaining Beatles. I think it’s a result of too much news – the crises in the Euro, the political deadlock in America, the riots in London. There’s a bit of a fin de siècle vibe here.

But there’s no such thing as an end without a beginning to follow it. What can replace liberal democracy? Does someone have another way of running the world economy? If you look back at either of the last two great slumps (thirties and seventies) there were some pretty meaty ideas that could unite your disaffected masses – international communism, fascism, anarcho-capitalism. All of those were banners you could rally at least a portion of society behind.

We don’t have a comparable vision. It’s been said in many other places, but it’s worth repeating. But if you put thousands of the worst-hit on the streets, what is it they’re meant to be shouting for? There needs to be a rallying cry. I admit I live among people unlikely to revolt, but what kinds of revolution do we have on the table just now?

There’s the organic vegetable dreamland, where everyone has their own wind farm. If you expect this to work, go to a council estate and see how many people have taken an Easyjet flight this past year. Then there’s the anarchists – who offer a bright future based on one man / one blood-soaked cricket bat. Neither vision appeals. The best we can come up with are the retro-Keynesians, who want to uninvent Margaret Thatcher and go back to some kind of kipper-tie utopia –about as revolutionary as the Daily Express calling for us to bring back National Service.

A vague sense of dissatisfaction, or a will to tinker, does not foreshadow the end of an era. Every major revolution or social upheaval (1789, 1917) has built on decades of intellectualising, organising and insufficiently-controlled dissent. On the morning of the revolution there was already an alternative model, pretty well developed, waiting to take over. Our generation has been badly impoverished in terms of ideals. Imagine a political uprising in today’s Britain. What would it be calling for? What would be its demands?  As we’ve seen, if you loose the terrible energy of those most ruined, most injured of a cruel and hostile society, these days they go and try and nick a telly.

We have been pacified. We do not rebel; we do not think of rebelling. The poor have no dreams of a better world, aside from one where they’ve got slightly fancier electronics. The middle are comfortable enough to be content, and have enough aspirations open to them that all their frustrations are personal. Our society is very good at peddling hope, and good enough at offering enough plausible answers that tearing the whole edifice to bits feels like an overreaction.

We have been trained to think of our recent history as a time of revolution. For a century and a half we’ve had uprisings, putsches, insurgencies, kulturkampfs, cold wars, hot wars, twilight struggles, fifth columns, social collapses and all the rest. But what’s to say that’s meant to continue? Remember that most of human history has been divided into neat periods of one dominant model, with the occasional wobble, until it’s proven to be utterly untenable. I wonder if global liberal capitalism is perhaps as strong and resilient a model as Imperial China or European feudalism. Something that will genuinely last a thousand years, in a shifting but familiar form, and which no one could conceive of living without. What if we’re not at the end of an era, but the start of a much longer one?



10/08/2011 § Leave a comment

Now that we’ve been safe for  a night, I start to hear people learning to excuse the rioters. Allow me to predict a couple of their lines.

First we’ll hear that the rioters were deprived. I would disagree. If you’re rioting out of hunger, you raid the supermarket. You don’t break into Halfords and steal a satnav.

Second, we’ll hear people saying it’s about politics. Probably about cuts. These rioters have flown no flag, they have made no statement of their political wishes. You’d know if it was a political riot because people would be chanting slogans.

Third, it’s only a matter of time before people say that it’s because of racism. No one is talking about race in these riots; which I think is doing a lot of communities a disservice. Bearing in mind the amount of shit that the Muslim community has had to put up with over the past decade, the fact that Tower Hamlets and Finsbury Park have been models of order should be on the front page of every damned paper in the country. If it was racism, it would kick off with the communities that really are persecuted – Afghans, Nigerians, Somalis, etc – and not native-born Londoners.

Fourth, police oppression. If you’re upset about the police, you attack the police. You don’t attack JJB Sports.

The rioters didn’t ask to be excused or explained. And yet we’re already starting. It’s an instinct – we always try to understand both sides of the picture, believing some kind of synthesis of the two is a solution for everyone. A situation where there was a right side and a wrong side simply doesn’t fit with this worldview.

However, these riots started when a law-agnostic underclass lost their fear of arrest. It focused on acquiring movable items with high resale values. It demanded no concessions, it simply grabbed with both hands. It is not a coincidence that the riots stopped when 16,000 police were deployed on the streets. This really is as simple, as petty and as unattractive as it sounds.

No justification needed.

The Chelsea Riots

10/08/2011 § Leave a comment

“We’re just getting some breaking news in from Chelsea – a neighbourhood that has so far been very quiet. We go now to Damian Day at the scene.”

<cut to field reporter>

“Thank you Henry. The riots in London have taken a sinister turn today as violence seems to be spreading beyond the disaffected underclass. Now it seems that the upper middle class residents of Chelsea have also started looting. I’m outside the shattered shopfront of Panton’s deli, and, as you can see, there are olives everywhere.

<cut to video footage>

Trouble started at lunchtime when a group of twenty masked men and women broke into Michelin-starred restaurant Amaya – without reservations – and demanded a full tasting menu. The sommelier is reportedly still missing, and I’ve heard rumours that they may not have left a tip.

<footage of man breaking into a shop front>

This management consultant was caught on film breaking into a travel agents. Here, you can see him making his escape with a two week eco-break in the Maldives.

<footage of more shops being ransacked>

Nearby, a group of therapists ransacked a local Apple Store in an attempt to find a sense of meaning in a world filled with what they described as ‘shallow consumerism’.

<cut to vox-pops – posh man>

“Word out to all the brothers out in Tottenham. We’re with you, and we share your shoe size.


“Oh, I didn’t loot anything; but I came away with some wonderful ideas for the kitchen.”

Where’s Safe?

09/08/2011 § Leave a comment

So we’ve got riots. Cheap, nasty riots. Speaking as a West Londoner, it’s disappointing to have your views of Norf, Saaf and Eest London reinforced, but there you have it.

Still, I have friends who seemed to prefer living in somewhere vibrant, so I’ve been watching to see where things have been kicking off. According to the news, the rioters are coordinating to spread chaos as widely as possible in the hope of to stretching the police thinner. Last night we’ve seen trouble in Hackney, Croydon, Lewisham, Woolwich, Clapham, Peckham and good ol’Camden – all of them at least a mile away from the original agro in Tottenham.

This riot is all about looting; so a part of me wonders why the looters are proving so parochial in their choices. After all, if I was wanting to steal high value products in a short space of time, I’d be off to Bond Street, or failing that the local UPS depot. There’s a lot more lootable stuff on Richmond High Street than there is in Peckham, but clearly the mob isn’t willing to go too far outside of its comfort zone.

All of which made me think of this sets of maps, originally produced by the Planning Department of Los Angeles back in the early seventies. (Click for a larger version)

They asked residents from different neighbourhoods to draw a map of the city, and superimposed the results. On the left, you’ve got the white, affluent inhabitants of Westwood. In the middle, less-affluent black residents of Avalon. In the third, poor Hispanics in Boyle Heights. All of the maps that people drew were on wildly different scales; but here the authors put them on a common scale.

The richer you are, the more extensive your knowledge of the city. In fact, the city of the very poorest is only a few streets wide, whereas the affluent suburbanite can see country rolling for miles. As a rich West Londoner, I still know about Hackney, Romford, West Croydon and Deptford. But the odds are that not all that many of them know about the place I live. When things kick off, I know where to stay out of; but they don’t know where to break into.

Panic on the streets of London; but open-air dining on the streets of Chiswick.


06/08/2011 § 2 Comments

Sometimes a year makes headlines. 2011 looks like it’s more likely to make academic subtitles – books like British journalism 1785 to 2011 or Arab democracy 2011 to 2054, or 2011 – when Greece burned. Already it looked like history students would be sick of 2011, which would be one of those recurring dates like 1789 or 1648. Then, late last night, we got another prospective title – Half Eagle: the fall of American economic power 1945 to 2011.

It’s going to be hard to pick out the worst piece of news this year, but last night’s announcement that America’s sovereign debt rating had dropped to AA+ might scoop the prize. Not because of real danger – given the circumstances in which the UK managed to keep a AAA rating in the forties, the risk of American default has been grossly exaggerated. But in terms of symbolism, downgrading America is as significant has the same sort of symbolism as Berliners climbing onto a wall with pickaxes.

Last week’s Economist downplayed the American debt ceiling farrago by saying that the problems in Europe were economic, while the problem in America was political. To me, such a serious, easily avoidable political crisis looks a lot more worrying than something based on actual problems. Great world powers can be brought to their knees by economic crises; but it’s usually political crises that finish them off. Take 18th century France – decades of analysis have gone into examining whether the causes of the Revolution were political (lousy government) or economic (lousy harvests). A good compromise is to say that there was an economic crisis, and one which the political system was unable to deal with.

I’m not predicting sans culottes on the streets of Washington; but what we’re seeing right now would be in keeping with this model of decline. The American system of government has been pretty ineffective from the get-go, mostly because it’s purposefully designed not to work. The Founding Fathers, based in an agricultural country that had never seen a steam train, a factory or a city with more than 40,000 people, decided that the most important thing to do with government was stop it from becoming a tyranny. The easiest way to do this was to make sure that government never did anything, other than things that were widely agreed on.

My brother says this is a very good idea – a government that does nothing is a government that doesn’t get in the way. A bit like letting the kids play in the cellar where they can’t cause a mess. But when US government debt is the foundation of the planet’s economic system, this nonchalance can’t be sustained indefinitely. American politicians have spend generations working on the assumption that everything is affordable (wars, tax cuts, healthcare) without the need to ever raise taxes to cover it. Someone has a magical money tree, and they pay the bills.

This isn’t just Obama’s fault – the Bush administration spent like a sailor on shore leave, with trillion dollar tax cuts, unnecessary foreign wars and massive medical benefits for pensioners, all of it without even attempting to find revenues to cover it. But to extend that analogy from earlier, we’re starting to realise that the cellar is packed with dynamite, and that the kids spent all of the morning fooling round with matches.

America’s weakness to a political crisis is threefold:

  • Most countries run their politics through a system of ministerial patronage – if you are loyal, you might get rewarded with high office. In America, the rigorous separation of powers rules that out. Instead, the usual way to get a member of Congress to vote for a measure is to provide some sort of bribe. Of course, the more difficult you are, the bigger the bribe you can command; so politicians on both sides are awkward by default. And if you’re trying to cut the deficit, it’s a bit hard to offer bribes to everyone.
  • Nowhere other country in the world holds its own constitution in such high regard – it’s practically a sacred text. Elsewhere in the world, if the political system is broken then you build a better one. Most Americans simply couldn’t conceive of the idea of changing the system of government – it would be like chiselling extra commandments on the bottom of the ark of the covenant.
  • The whole system is designed to prevent strong leadership – America could never produce a Thatcher or a de Gaulle. Instead, it specialises in large blocks of undisciplined non-entities, all of whom are mostly out to get their share of the gravy train. So the only real way for change to happen is if the status quo becomes utterly unbearable – a good approach to string from crisis to crisis, rather than provide global leadership.

When you look at the rise and fall of various great powers, you can find something I call the ‘arrogance overlap’. It goes like this: At the start, you have the good times. That’s when everything is going right, so clearly people wouldn’t want to change the way the country works. Then, at the peak, people look at their institutions with pride – at how far they’ve carried the nation until it is the envy of all others. It’s only by the time that decline has seriously set in that people start to ask whether those wonderful institutions actually had a positive effect in the first place. Usually, people don’t look to reform until it’s much too late.

In Soviet Russia, rocket flies you

22/07/2011 § Leave a comment

Everyone knows that the Russians were first in space. But in terms of cinema, I was surprised to learn that there are actually very few Soviet sci-fi films. There are a couple of famous cases – Aelita, Solaris, Stalker – but there’s no real equivalent to the American B-Movie, a vast corpus of hokey-but-inventive films playing to the universal nerd. In fact, it wasn’t until three years after the launch of Sputnik that anyone in the USSR thought to make a single science fiction film

That film was The Call of the Heavens, and it’s something of a period piece. Our vision of space is dominated by beautiful people daring their way through existential perils. Soviet space is different. For one thing, this film was the first time I’d ever seen a space station made out of what appeared to be concrete.

Not only that, but every space ship, space station or ground control seems to be run by one of a closely-related family of heavy-jowled apparatchiks, all of whom look like W C Fields in need of a drink. The preferred uniform for space seems to be a khaki jacket with a smart space emblem on the breast pocket. No trip to Mars would be complete without a full wardrobe of these, plus space suits, plus some light-cas. Oh, and two spare radar stations, in case they should come in handy.

Actually, I’m coming round to the Russian way of visiting space. This was the first space station I’ve ever seen that was able to provide its crew with a full set of crystalware for its dinners; and the Rodina is the first spacecraft I’ve seen set out with a full complement of table napkins. Any female readers might also be swayed by the fact the chief engineer looks exactly like Dominic West out of The Wire.

You can watch 15 very slow minutes of the film at http://russianfilm.blogspot.com/2008/09/heavens-call-1959.html. I recommend jumping forward to about 14:30, just in time to see the cadaverous Americans arrive for a simple space meal.

Words, words, words

14/07/2011 § Leave a comment

On the walk home today, I reflected on the word ‘paparazzi’. When you stop to think about it, it’s thoroughly implausible; the lexical equivalent of a rainforest butterfly.

This is a word that only turned 50 last year. It comes from the name of a character in Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, where Paparazzo serves is a young photographer who spends his time energetically chasing after celebrities. There’s nothing strange about naming a character after their line of work; it’s rather more unusual to name the line of work after the character. A curious inversion of the restoration comedy trope that gives you characters like Lord Brute or Sir Tunbelly Clumsey.

Not only is it strange to name the job for the man, but to do so for a black and white Italian arthouse film? A deservedly famous one, true, with the beauty and philosophy of a renaissance masterwork; but still a film that fewer than one in a hundred modern citizens will have seen. Even at the time of its release, how many people do you think sat through three hours of Italian uncertainty?

And yet… Here we are. Paparazzi pressing at the window and stalking the stars. Magazines given flesh through paparazzi snaps. Teenagers with mobile phones taking ‘paps’ of one another. A subject so naturally shabby and Anglo-Saxon; and yet, in the canopy of our language, a flash of brilliant colour.

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