I’ve always had a theory that one reason why teenage girls get pregnant in the face of financial insecurity and the impact on life prospects is in order to secure the unconditional love of another human being – presumably because it is so hard to come by in their lives.
Reading about the volume of internet sales and the subsequent demand for cardboard, delivery vans, warehouses and air freight, I had a similar thought about internet shoppers:
In the absence of love from our lives, and of people who may buy or send us gifts, do we compensate by sending presents to ourselves? No wonder household debt is now higher than it was immediately after the 2008 financial crash – giving a bit more love rather than spending it on junk might be way to ease the risk of another recession.
Is it surprising that what magazine editors and PR people like to call authenticity looks similar across the globe? From Williamsburg in New York to Fitzroy in Melbourne to Peckham in London there are an awful lot of people being authentically artisanal, local, independent and counter-cultural. There are even more people who can no longer afford to live in those places. So how can it be? Maybe authenticity is merely a set of tropes to increase prices and exclude the urban poor, hiding behind masks stolen from the urban working class. Maybe, just maybe, “authentic” doesn’t mean what people use it to mean.
These days we insist on authenticity. Politicians are told to be more like ordinary people: Donald Trump made his apparent outsider status a key part of his election campaign. We want to keep it real. Locally-sourced, “natural”, “traditional” food, drink, clothes and even cosmetics (because 18th century peasants genuinely cared about what they stank of); musicians, event organisers, hoteliers and bookshops all try hard to market themselves as the real deal: “independent” has become a magnet of discerning cash. The anachrony of all of this authenticity stares awkwardly beneath every advert, flyer and website.
Meanwhile, society simultaneously seeks out ever-diminishing returns on the cheapest rates for housing, transport, fuel bills, insurance, banking – all those invisible purchasing decisions we can keep hidden from view. These savings free up the cash to buy more authenticity, those purchases that display something of who we are: so we can pay £32 for a 750ml glass of imported beer (At the Draft House in W1, in case you don’t believe me) from a menu written in authentic calligraphy.
Authenticity costs because authenticity is a perverse form of capitalism. It’s the cost of inefficiency. Whilst hand-reared cows may be far more sensitive on the environment, may be far more humane, create more pleasant work environments and whatever other myriad benefits it may bring, if we care that much about those things to pay three, four or five times as much as an “inauthentic” equivalent, then why on earth do we carry on in the other 99% of our lives to destroy the environment through our homes and cars, support inhumane practices with the rest of our purchasing, fail to join trade unions and vote for governments that would try far more systematically to regulate for pleasant work environments etc?
The answer is in the same way that no-one actually reads poetry or blogs, no-one actually cares about what authenticity is meant to be authentic to. “Authentic” is simply a badge that whacks up prices for us to wear on our sleeves in order to display our assumed identities: or more specifically, our purchasing power, and therefore our wealth and status. It has nothing to do with being true to our sense of belonging, identity, personal history or roots. Our real selves are shit-scared, traumatised, insecure and miserable: but to admit that is to be weak, and to be weak makes us prey. So we create alternative assertive, positive selves through our social media profiles, with our tattoos, with our slogans on T-Shirts, with brands, with our commodities, commodities, commodities, to mask the stench of our real selves. £32 craft beer is the equivalent of powdered wigs from the 18th century.
To me, authentic should mean indigenous culture. Working class culture. Proletarian culture. As in the contemporary cultural expression of the majority, of the average – not as in authentic jellied eels or authentic folk music from the fields in the 1920s or bread baked in authentic ovens from the 1800s. Authenticity is not nostalgia, it’s what the kids are up to now.
Authenticity is honesty. We now – at least in this endless hangover from the 2008 financial crisis – still have access to unsustainable personal debt to mask poverty, decay and catastrophic insecurity. Car loans, mortgages, credit cards, store cards, student loans, personal loans, inter-generational loans (“the bank of mum & dad”) are all sky high because we can no longer afford the lifestyle we want and the world would experience catastrophic recession if we stopped buying stuff we don’t need. Debt is dishonesty. It masks capitalism’s increasing failure to provide education, healthcare, peace, security and clean air and water.
Ione Skye in Say Anything: “I’ve glimpsed our future, and all I can say is ‘go back'” (image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film)
Western societies have probably never been so well educated. Babies born in the 21st century seem to have every waking and even sleeping moment dedicated to “improving their educational attainment” by their parents, grandparents and benign business owners. The market in education toys is booming. Geek chic is a thing, apparently reflecting the huge interest in all things academic – with a concurrent boom in viewing figures for TED talks, anything with Professor Brian Cox in it and participation in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Apparently undergraduate students no longer do unspeakable things with traffic cones and actually study in the evenings. Free museum entry in the UK for almost two decades has led to vast numbers of us being treated to the edifying benefits art and culture. Even diets are policed in order to make us learn better by eating more “brain food”.
On paper, it would seem that all this attention on childhood development and ongoing education has paid off: undergraduate numbers have exploded in the last forty years. In the UK at least, GCSE and A-level grades went on improving relentlessly until measures were changed.
So how come it’s so easy for vested interests to take over mainstream media that this apparently hyper-educated populace swallows uncritically? If people “fucking love science”, then why are they so fucking stupid enough to vote for Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump in the USA, PiS in Poland, Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria, Fidesz in Hungary and One Nation in Australia?
How come it’s so easy for managers, politicians and other “leaders” to reassure us that the status quo is the way to go, in spite of their incompetence? Unprecedented transparency and access to data made available through technology to an ever-expanding audience with MAs, MBAs, PhDs and first class honours has changed absolutely nothing – inequality is still growing, species are still being lost, we continue to eat contimanated food, we continue to flush our excrement away with clean drinking water and we still object to building new homes while complaining about unaffordable housing. People’s trust in politics is at rock bottom. It’s almost as if we have forgotten that compromise is the bedrock of democracy – a vote for right-wing demogogues who claim to “get things done” is not a protest vote, it is an uncritical vote.
And why do 200m people brough up benefitting from the education benefits of the Teletubbies still watch the Eurovision song contest? I rest my case.
Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow exposed brutally how poor the human brain is at making decisions, and how we delude ourselves that the opposite is true. Modern life is incredibly complicated, and increasingly so. Faced with such a bewildering array of choices and information to appraise, our response has been to batten down the hatches and stick with heuristics such as “gut feelings” and “common sense”.
That societies who are the most educated they’ve ever been can remain convinced that gut feelings and common sense are nothing but bullshit fed by marketing and media lies, and fail to understand principles around reality and interpretation leads me to the conclusion that it isn’t education that is valued by anxious parents, politicians and snake oil salesmen, but simply the earning potential and the acquisition of gongs in order to beat our competitors in the desperate race for diminishing jobs, housing and quality of life. In other words, quality of life is sinking rapidly, we know it, and we’d rather chuck people over the edge rather than go down together. I remember looking around a flat I was interested in buying. It was rented by a slob – it stank of BO, it hadn’t been cleaned in years, there were archaeological strata of skid marks in the toilet, it was full of discarded clothes, dozens of shoes and unwashed dishes, and although the decor was all tastefully on-message, door hinges were broken and fixtures were cracked. There were no books or music on any shelves, no signs of “culture” on display and the walls were completely bare apart from the tenant’s framed degree certificate from Leicester University hanging askew by the front door. An educated pig in his sty.
Education for its own sake, finding joy in the application of knowledge to problems, learning and discussion as an enjoyable way to pass time with fellow human beings – these surely aren’t such insane things to do?
I’ve been decorating a crappy house I’ve bought recently. It’s made me think about the way we cover unsightly things to make them “nice”. Skirting boards, soffits, fascias, paint, wallpaper and polyfilla are added in layers which, when removed reveal an archaeology of taste over the lifetime of the house. But the strata expose not only previous taste but also the process of disguise – masking the stains of damp to trick gullible tenants or prospective buyers for instance. That itself is a useful allegory for a lot of 21st century capitalism – what I call “stick on culture”.
Owen Jones got it right in Chavs when he pointed out that the droves of wage slaves in offices doing ordinary jobs for ordinary wages are the new proletariat. And yet white collar work is meant to be a cut above common “working class”. I suggest that “nice” is what is used to perpetuate a meaningless distinction – such is the level of self-hatred of the British working class. Rather than feel compassion or solidarity for fellow workers – the reaction of the British proletariat is to jump ship and pretend to be nice.
One could point to the numbers to demonstrate the impossibility of everyone being well-off, but the British think they are above numbers. Michael Gove called it when he exposed the perverse Tory take on Stalinist tractor production targets by declaring the aspiration to make all school children above average, without any shred of irony. We do it with lottery tickets, and with our willingness to believe we are invincible by eating a diet of lard and sugar before reacting with surprise to a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease, and with our insistence that it’s not our car that contributes to heavy traffic. So it is with being common – by definition most people are common and it’s not pejorative. But oh no, not the British working class. We aspire to be nice.
The disastrous flaw in the logic, however, is affordability. We might think we’re nice, but our wages don’t. So capitalism responds as capitalism does best – it delivers nice on a plate. On nice, cheap, IKEA plates. Nice just has to look nice and be affordable. It doesn’t have to be good quality, as long as it costs slightly more than the cheap tat but not as much as the good stuff. ALDI and LIDL are prime examples of the way the nice goods have been delivered by the good ship Capitalism. Affordable luxury is taken seriously rather than as an oxymoron. And where capitalism can’t delivery quality at affordable prices, debt comes to our rescue. Private debt has ballooned to staggering levels through our addiction to car loans, mortgage debt, overdrafts, credit cards, store cards, HP and any other finance we can get our hands on. Consumer spending follows suit to prop up the economy and everyone’s happy.
But the problem with cheap tat that’s also nice is that it’s still cheap tat. It breaks. It gets superseded. We don’t actually value it and so we just chuck it over the fence. Or bury it in landfill sites. Or paint over it. Sometimes the lipstick comes off in the rain – have a listen to Classic FM and marvel at how much film music and instrumental versions of Queen songs masquerade as classical music. Which is where we get back to layering.
Nice has the sinister edge of exclusion. “It’s a nice area” means “there are no poor people here”. That’s also mixed up with race, but the primary driver is (self) hatred of the poor. Where we can’t afford it, we just pretend. We pretend by painting over the cracks. By dressing up. By decorating rather than reconstructing. By shutting the door, pulling the blinds or growing a leylandii 8hedge. By changing the name – doesn’t The Jewellery Quarter sound nicer than “Hockley”?
The social mobility of the post war years was funded by burning fossil fuels, exploiting colonies, exploiting the unpaid labour of women, by technological and financial innovation. Continuing those expectations is impossible without accepting that the faceless masses the economy is meant to provide for are exactly that – average, typical and ubiquitous. In other words, the opposite of nice with its intimations of luxury and exclusivity. Bullshit jobs in the “knowledge economy” chasing sales of bullshit that no-one needs don’t generate solidarity. But it’s OK – we get to wear nice office clothes…
I’m hoping that nice is a baby boomer hangover. Many young people, especially in London, recognise that they will never be able to afford to buy a house of their own and as a result prefer to blow their money on artisanal haircuts rather than turning into mortgage-owning wage slaves. The rental business model of Uber, Airbnb and Spotify may swing the achievement of status away from ownership to creative ways of expressing experiences. It’ll hurt when they’re too old to work and lack any form of security, but until then we’ll have good coffee at least.
Britain is dotted with examples of what may be broadly classed as socialist realist art. From frescoes at Birmingham University to Meet the Widwife, they are attempts at celebrating the lives of the real working class. They’re socialist because they are commissioned based not on customer demand but on moralizing or pedagogic intent.
Famously in 2003 a member of the real working class torched the impressive “Forward” statue in Centenary Square in Birmingham. Afterwards, no one really gave a toss that it was gone. He probably did people a favour. The kid made out that it was accidental, but who “accidentally” torches a huge, socialist realist edifice?
In the same way that people didn’t really give a toss about the expenses scandal in Britain because people’s trust in politicians was already rock bottom, I get the impression that most people know that these socialist realist celebrations are nothing of the sort. Real work is piecemeal, temporary, badly paid, ignored and inglorious. It’s not worth celebrating. Real workers don’t want to be celebrated: they want out. They don’t even want solidarity – Trade Unions are dead. The poor know that the odds of winning the Lottery are next to nothing. That’s beside the point: they are desperate and next to nothing is better than nothing.
People must also know that Capitalist Realism is equally fantastical (For a brilliant discussion, see Capitalist Realism by the late Mark Fisher). They know that the images of modern capitalism bear no relation to reality, and that suspension of disbelief (or anti-depressants and alcohol) is needed to mask the stench of bullshit and get to the point. There are the pedants who shout “but it wouldn’t happen like that!”, but those are minority voices. Most people aren’t so far along the autism spectrum.
So let’s call these socialist and capitalist unrealism, and instead leave socialist and capitalist realism to describe the “true” documents of life under those economic systems, away from the finance, the marketing, the tie-ins, the profit-seeking, the political negotiation, the pedagogy, the brownie points. I’m treading unfamiliar water here, but I think that one modern cultural exponent of life under capitalism in the 21st century is Grime. My research is entirely down to having to endure young dudes sodcasting on the number 11. But I do that a fair bit, so I’ve heard a fair bit of Grime.
There’s little celebration or things to celebrate in Grime. There’s a lot of stabbing, gun toting, reefer smoking, posturing, childish insults, sexism, racism, ageism – in short perfect descriptions of how shit modern life is. It says “I am powerless, you are powerless, we are scared and we have no future”. The only way for the powerless to gain respect, to beat the fear and to get power over those who already have it, is to outshock them, especially in public spaces. Tattoos. Piercings. T-shirts with outrageous slogans. Ripped clothes. Swearing loudly. Openly smoking cannabis. Racism. Spitting. Disregard of rules. “Don’t judge me” is a common theme in grime. “Despite my anti-social behaviour, I’m still a good person – we have to act like this to survive” is the subtext. It would be quite powerful if it wasn’t so petty and misdirected, in the way that most robbery takes place in poor areas – the poor robbing the poor, because most thieves are too lazy to travel far. The centre of power isn’t the Bull Ring Shopping Centre or the number 11 bus.
The mistake of Grime and the mistake of the cynics of capitalist realism is that the audience is still consuming the messages – the beautiful people, the nice house, the new car, the organic cotton baby clothes. No matter how cynical or ironic or resistant: the messages still get the airtime. And like the dickheads that we are, we still lap it up.
I wrote last time about the political implications of nostalgia. Watching graduates parading through the dross of Wolverhampton with their parents after graduation reminded me of a further, related thought I’d had before: dressing up is another version of this nostalgia, another form of self-hate and escapism.
There are many situations where we dress up, if we stretch the definition of dressing up: the existence of “office wear” illustrates my point. Ann Summers shops provide the uniform for an assumption of what adventurous lovers wear. Replica football strips fulfil the broken dreams of many football fans and erstwhile clan warriors. Smart casual shirts for men, cocktail dresses for women fulfil the dress code for “sophistication”. They each have socially acceptable and unacceptable times and places but in essence, they’re fancy dress.
There maybe a big difference between dressing up as a royalist musketeer in a reenactment of the Battle of Edge hill, wearing a graduation gown and mortar board through the drab and empty streets of failed industrial cities, and wearing a 19th century top coat and tails down the aisle of a 14th century church in 21st century England. But what they all have in common is anachronism: because contemporary times – where we value diversity, equality, tolerance and democracy, for example, just doesn’t have the right cut. We prefer to dress up and celebrate fashions of a time when slavery was legal and it was fine to beat children. This is the way of nostalgia: the arbitrary celebration of “the past” or “heritage” without critical judgement, whilst at the same time critically judging the present (by trying to mask or ignore it).
In a way it’s similar to the floating carrier bag scene in American Beauty. There is no beauty in a floating carrier bag, but it is a sign of desperation with the brutality of late modern capitalism that we have been reduced to finding beauty where there is none. I’m sure holocaust survivors managed to stay sane by doing the same thing.
There is little beauty in late modern capitalism. Instead we choose to pretend there is by dressing up.
I lazily assumed nostalgia was a yearning for the past, evoked during commemorations, re-enactments, restorations, conservation or just remembering. But it’s more sinister than that. In its worst form, it’s cultural colonialism – the privileging of a cultural moment that was racist, sexist or just different to now. It says “modern life is rubbish”. Whilst modern life may well be rubbish, it’s rubbish not because it’s modern. It’s the only life we have. This is important – the vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the potential election of Marine Le Pen seem to me to be expressions of the zeitgeist: modern life is rubbish, and what we need is to do things like we did in the 1950s when women were women, men were men, there was no homosexuality or immigration. Crucially it was also a time when jobs were jobs, and technology was driving economic growth and incomes.
Space has an opportunity cost. A building in one spot means something else can’t go in the same spot. Attention works the same way: despite our pretence that multi-tasking is efficient, our attention given to Downton Abbey can’t be given to something or someone else at the same time. This is what I mean by the privileging of a cultural moment.
Let’s take Listed Buildings. A building (or more often, actually just a facade) is listed. This prevents the redevelopment of the Listed aspects without the consent of the local planning authority. It attempts to fix a point in time in perpetuity. But what about what existed before the building? What about the possibility to build something even better in the future?
Landowners know too well the economic impossibility this puts them in. The world, meanwhile, has moved on. There are now regulations for any redevelopment to comply with. Thankfully, buildings are safer, more accessible, more energy-efficient. But often those are entirely incompatible with the listed building. So they pay someone to torch the building in the night.
The local community is outraged and demands justice. And yet it was the same community that demanded and benefitted from the same regulations that drove the owner to their desperate act in the first place. Which is more important to them? Money talks – we are all complicit.
Today I saw a performance of a piece of music called The Way of a Monarch by Ivor McGregor. The concert notes by the composer that describe the piece is inspired by “the extraordinary story of this unusual monarch” (Charles II). It then mentions “Cromwell’s puritan interregnum” that had shut down many of the performing arts. Another privileging of a moment: what had driven thousands of men to revolt against Charles’s father in the first place? Setting aside the ambivalence the British have to their revolution, this seemingly neutral position is deeply reactionary. Cromwell may well have been a despot, but so was Charles I, James I, James II and the whole lot of them. In an exercise in change management, Cromwell had it pretty tough and failed – that doesn’t mean that the solution is to simply celebrate the status quo and all of its own injustices.
Humans crave narrative, plot and characters. The heritage industry has a raw deal trying to interpret social history in stately homes that were built by particular families in particular circumstances and the wealth of extant unique artefacts connected to them. In contrast the lives of the servants were mundane, everday and typical. I hear very few people who proudly boast of descendants who were domestic servants or labourers. There are many reasons why this is (most probably because our descendants weren’t defined by a single “career” – which is a more modern and bourgeois invention. Pre-industrial work was piecemeal, itinerant and casual), but it demonstrates our inability to accept plurality and complexity.
Let’s try and overcome this inability by recognising that Downton Abbey, Meet the Midwife, any other costume drama, every conserved or restored facade, every blue plaque and every fashion revival displaces something else – and that this displacement is a political one. It says that one is more important that all the others that could exist in its place either in the past, present or future.
“I thought about getting you a really expensive present whilst I was shopping on Oxford Street last week. But then I realised it’s the thought that counts, so I didn’t bother.”
I would have loved to have had the guts to get away with that.
When I see dog turds tied up in little plastic bags in trees, it’s as if someone has done exactly that. “It’s the thought that counts – you take this home, shitpicker!”
This is what they think whilst they carefully tie the bag of turd to the nearest tree to the crime scene:
“I have my mock Tudor-fronted pseudo manor on a cul-de-sac with a mortgage I can’t really afford, with my fortified leylandii hedge and my carriage – and so I have my hounds.
I exercise my hounds around my extensive estate, which, if I shut my eyes whenever any shitpickers walk past, I can pretend is all mine. But I am an ethical employer, so I don’t want any servants.
Considering that I have a Bachelors of Arts (hons), and am a Professional, it really is inefficient for a person of my social standing to carry the stools of my hound. There are people that I pay for through my taxes to do that. Council people. I provide them gainful employment as shitpickers. Maybe if they work hard picking up my dog’s turds, they can end up like me one day. Besides, it’s really not a good look to be seen carrying bags of shit. Someone else can do that.
I know that dog excrement is foul and that it is such a pain to tread in it. So I have picked it up and put it in a bag and I tie it to this tree so that one day the Council people will pick it up. It’s the thought that counts.”
Cities are the concentration of capital around dense networks of trade. In very simple terms, the more frequent the transactions, the taller the buildings. All transactions take place in physical space: digital trade will involve a customer, a supplier and many interactions in between, all with a physical presence somewhere. “Cyberspace” is less ether, more a warehouse on motorway junction. So alien is the concept to human minds and so rapidly has the digital economy swamped our capacity to understand it, we would rather imagine Keanu Reaves hopping across grids of blue light.
Urban density is a visible manifestation of capital. It diminishes until it becomes peri-urban greenbelt, dog kennels, horse riding schools and sports clubs before the profits from agriculture are sufficient to justify its retention as farmland.
Capital in the 21st century loves shiny buildings, its medieval hilltop fortresses or monasteries. Outside the edges, are the modern equivalent of the hovels of those eking out a living from the scraps – remember the monastery in the 1986 film of The Name of the Rose. It is a concrete, glass and steel pyramid of the debt that has given us the illusion of rising living standards: capitalists in the penthouses, owning the debt of the desperate edge dwellers eager to get inside the gates far below.
This is a typical sight in a typical city: the fortress where capital is concentrated and its edge, beyond which lies dereliction: holes left fallow waiting until the potential rewards are great enough and secure enough to de-risk investment and redevelop it. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of these edge spaces politely wait and suffer the social consequences, unaware of the parasitic nature of the debt that created the hole, and welcome its redevelopment with yet more exclusionary uses that feed their misery: more consumption and regressive sales taxes using borrowed money, the promotion of luxury and individualism, the slave-ships of offices for “knowledge workers”.