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?


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