I can’t help but feel that the heritage/traditional/nostalgia porn that we’re currently fed (locally-grown, artisanal, natural, hand-made) contributed in some way to the wave of faux-nationalism in the run up to the 2016 EU Referendum and beyond.
Faux-nationalism because in a global world where global corporations such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple provide so many of our services, financed through their global networks of data and intelligence, the nation state is largely irrelevant. The mere idea that “nationality” means anything is part of the façade that we remain stuck behind.
On any given weekend day in England, at any given National Trust property, the car park is full (weather-permitting) of cherubic families and obstinate retirees trying desperately to ignore the implications of this global network and hoping it will go away. Or at least waiting until someone else imagines an alternative reality where seas are not rising, where inequality is not increasing, where recession is not forever around the corner, and where education buys an income and pension secure enough to afford a stress-free life.
Marvel at the convertible sports cars in the car park – the parvenu Toads in their motor cars – rather than on the drive of their own manor house. Consider too the proliferation of hunting dogs: retrievers, spaniels and pointers pulling their wellied owners on short walks following coloured trail markers around a lake before the ironing, homework and shopping intrude on the charade. Even our ability to take exercise has become commoditised, organised and subject to class distinctions.
And yet, despite the National Trust’s (and the rest of the heritage industry’s) diligence in its quest for authenticity in materials or design, no-one questions the incongruity of the masses invading the car park of a small manor houses in extra urban England – how else could they raise the income?
The grim reality of life for the rural majority in the early modern period until industrialisation was itinerant, insecure and uncomfortable. We sympathise with the conditions of the urban poor in early industrial British cities without questioning what on earth these people were leaving behind. Why else would they tolerate damp and overcrowded housing to work for a pittance in dangerous jobs? Ah yes, because the lives they left behind in counties may have been even worse.
No-one wants to learn about that. Whilst there is a slow increase in interest in the lives of the dozens of servants needed to run the estates, the reason people visit these places is to have a “nice time” pretending that Britain is white, agricultural and wealthy, and that they too have comfortable lives not dissimilar to the landed gentry of the 18th and 19th centuries.
These people aren’t the super-rich. They’re suburban and dependent on their urban jobs. They’re educated. So why do their sympathies lie with the rural aristocracy rather than the urban proletariat?
There is no equivalent aesthetic that celebrates solidarity, mass production, industry and the urban. There’s an overlap with hipsterism, but artisans were always the splitters that wanted to protect their exclusivity through Guilds. Despite the ubiquity of beards and tattoos, hipsterism aspires to a faux individuality, to “be who you want to be”.
I went to a training event on “community activism” run by The Labour Party recently. The focus there was around how the left needs to build consensus through honest and in-depth conversations with people, rather than cursory engagements such as questionnaires or online surveys. The split of proletariat and capitalist, of working and middle class are so confused now that they’re meaningless: so the debate must become more detailed and fundamental. It must be about policies, ideology and facts, rather than identities (one reason why popular media is insistent Labour is about Corbyn, not tackling inequality or improving services or resolving economic chaos).
Whilst I’m sure there’s a lot of sense in that approach, there’s a long way to go to unpicking what the State currently does and how that relates to these new identities and allegiances based on expectations. The debt we use to fund our expectations is unsustainable: it’s already caused one massive financial crisis and will cause more before we even realise what’s happened. Despite people being largely aware of the causes of the 2008 crisis, next to nothing has changed and personal debt is even higher in 2018 than it was in 2007.
We remain frustrated with “housing”, with “the NHS”, with “education” – but stuck in the old paradigm of State provision funded by taxation of labour. This assumes that we have jobs, provided by capitalists.
This whole model is rapidly becoming undone, and yet as Mark Fisher wrote – it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine an alternative to capitalism. We work, we get paid, we consume: let’s try and work on alternatives where we don’t work, we don’t get paid but we don’t consume (half as much).