Reality is under threat. After the Conservative election victory, there's no telling when some floppy-haired junior minister might come along and cut away the services you depend on in order to shave a percentage point off the deficit. But there are other, deeper transformations we should also be worried about. Changes in the economy don't just wreck lives; they can alter the structure of how we see the world around us.
Before the start of the Thatcher era, economic activity was still broadly understood as something that resulted in the creation of an actual, tangible commodity. Many large industries and utilities were still nominally owned by the general public, and the idea that this should change would have seemed like political fantasy. Now, as big companies weightlessly bring value into being through a constant stream of annoying pop-up ads, an economy built on state-owned enterprises seems to belong to a lost era, as British and defunct as pith helmets, royal executions and the sabre-toothed tiger.
Before Tony Blair began his lubricated slide into power, the notion that politicians should be preening, media-friendly automatons, figures with the same number of catchphrases as a toy with a string in its back, was something dangerously American. But today, as the 21st century hits its difficult teenage years, it seems guaranteed that any British election will be won by the candidate who most closely resembles processed cheese. These things persist, whoever takes power afterwards. What was once a lurid caricature of evil is soon old-fashioned common sense. As Karl Marx noted, "history progresses by its bad side".
It's impossible to say exactly what ten years of Tory rule will do to the way we see the world. In the last five years, food banks have gone from being almost unheard of to something relied upon by nearly a million people, while new homes seem just as much for living in as they are dark, empty presences that only indicate some billionaire diversifying their portfolio. Maybe that short period when nobody had to worry about dying from cholera will soon seem like a brief, stupid daydream.
In any case, if things keep going the way they are, and you squint hard enough, we could end up with a Britain that looks something like this:
YOU WILL NO LONGER BE YOURSELF
In the first phase of neoliberalism, from the 1970s onwards, its main cultural focus was on atomisation. The goal was to create a new human being, the individual, scared and utterly alone, whose feeble and meaningless interactions with other individuals could only take place through some kind of market exchange. This was achieved primarily through the assault on the labour unions, but there were other avenues, too: the financialisation of football, the mass sell-off of council housing, the creation of a carefully commodified alternative culture and the use of police violence against working-class communities.
It's worked: online dating and social networks now have us selling ourselves like inert objects, and it doesn't even feel weird. We're all fringed by void. But it's not enough: the atomised individual still offers a slight capacity for resistance. So they're trying to break that up as well.
Once, job centres at least tried to pretend that they were helping people find stable work. Recently, they've started pushing the opposite – mandatory and pointless training sessions; demeaning short-term work, often unpaid. We've seen the consequent poverty force people into the temporary housing system, a system that can ping-pong people across the country, so desperate are they to have a roof over their heads. The effect is to break up any stable, rooted idea of self.– – –
Watch: Maisie, our film about what happens to a family when its 13-year-old daughter is sectioned.
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There are already electronic services to help this process along, such as Amazon's "Mechanical Turk", by which employers can contract out thousands of small tasks online without having to pay taxes, overtime, or the minimum wage. Not only do they get a constant stream of cheap, desperate labour, they can liquidate their existing workforce and then have them re-apply on a task-by-task basis. That this could become the norm seems like the next logical progression from the employment "boom" of the last few years, created largely through zero-hours contracts where you have a "job" without a guarantee of getting any work.
By 2020, it's likely that the idea of "having" a job will belong to the very rich and the distant past. There'll just be various chores to which we submit ourselves whenever our phones tell us to. The effect could be catastrophic for our senses of time and self. Each individual splintered into a wandering aviary of fractured, exhausted personalities; each individual a hardworking family in their own minds.
NUMBERS WILL BE MORE IMPORTANT THAN PEOPLE
When the new academic discipline of English literature was first taught in British universities, it was something radically egalitarian. A century ago the study of the humanities meant reading Classics, which existed to help young viscounts insult their servants in Latin. Suddenly, our shared culture became democratised. Now we're slipping back towards an aristocracy of letters: funding cuts are disproportionately hitting those academic departments that are concerned with anything other than manipulating numbers, and the humanities are once again becoming an indulgence only for those that can afford it.
In 2011, the Arts and Humanities Research Council was forced to spend much of its government funding on the study of Cameron's "Big Society" nonsense, a gust of dictatorial flatulence that puts many third-world dictatorships to shame. Slowly, the idea that there can be any way of understanding the world beyond the purely technical is being eradicated.
People have been ruled by numbers for a while now, but it's rarely been so overt. Despite the fact that most mainstream economists agree that austerity simply doesn't work, the Tories are holding up the growth in the economy as proof that their plans have yielded results. Never mind that this growth is mostly coming from the enrichment of the ruling classes, or that overall national productivity is flatlining, or that millions of people are still worse off than they were before.
An abstract figure – the economy – is swallowing up all the concrete hardships being faced by actual people. In the future, it's likely we'll stop even thinking of this as strange. When your first-born child is led off by masked priests to be ritually slaughtered to the number three, it'll just be another depressing fact of life.
TIME WILL STOP GOING FORWARD
During the last election, Ed Miliband tried to make a virtue out of his total lack of any new ideas. Labour would over-perform, he said, rather than over-promise. Anything they did actually promise was either a small, rearguard defence, such as their proposal to put a few limp sandbags around the NHS, or a total capitulation to the right that was also available in a handy mug form.
There's about as much dignity in attacking Miliband now as there is in desecrating a grave, but it does show the collapse of any sense that we're moving towards a future in which new and different things might happen. Even the regime of cuts, which has actually changed the social landscape (even if it's only for the worse), is for the most part just geared towards the preservation and entrenchment of existing conditions. The world is being torn down around us, but at the same time everything stays exactly the same.
Take, for instance, the proposed repeal of the Human Rights Act. From all the shocked mewling from outraged liberals you could be forgiven for thinking that this would actually do anything. In fact, all the Human Rights Act does is reproduce the European Convention on Human Rights – which we were already subject to – into British law, meaning that human rights cases can be heard here instead of at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Once the Tories repeal the Act, cases will have to go there again, actually increasing European control over the UK. (The ECHR is not part of the EU, and its decisions will be binding even in the case of a Brexit.) It's not even real regression, just the illusion of movement in a crumbling, static world.
We're running out of new ideas: all that's left is mimicry or destruction. Even the supposedly autonomous sphere of high art has exhausted itself. Will Self's latest two novels, Umbrella and Shark, are unabashed tributes to interwar Modernism, while gallery art tends to either be some limply meaningless words in neon lights, or a return to the pre-Duchamp dogmas of figurative representation. And this intellectual fatigue is percolating down directly into everyday life.
2020 might mark a tipping point. This decade has seen an inexplicable 1990s revival: "quirky" gifs from old TV shows, choker necklaces, and all the rest of the decade's detritus is washing up again like bodies from a long lost cruise ship. But when the inevitable 2000s revival comes along, it'll be an echo of an echo – the only original products of that era were the iPod and the 9/11 attacks; everything else in the culture was just a simulation of the 80s. Unless something changes very soon, we'll be trapped forever: doomed to repeat the last two decades of the 20th century, their shadows growing fainter with each cycle, until the earth is mercifully swallowed by the sun.
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