Mental health and inequality.

1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, according to Mind.   How we cope with those problems is changing: incidents of suicide and self harm are increasing.  Rates of violent crime are also increasing.

Of course how these are reported will skew the figures from one year to the next; and rising awareness will also raise the figures.  But all things being equal, let’s assume the trend is upwards.  What could be causing it?

Is it because of cuts to those agencies that would otherwise be policing external factors affecting our mental health?  I’m thinking of Local Authority noise pollution and environmental protection teams, social workers, support workers in schools and housing, community policing, even support offered by employers.

Or is it more to do with technology that creates more of those external factors?  Online banking is incredibly frustrating, but add to that the fickleness of broadband, the hassle of customer support, the built-in obsolescence and dependency that drives our use of technology.

Then consider how much of that technology also undermines our ability to cope: the endless distractions, the corner of your brain that’s permanently listening out for the pings from your smartphone, the other corner of your brain that’s scanning for great Instagram posts.  Our addiction to dopamine hits seems to be inhibiting our ability to deal with a lot of modern life.

Or is it because the gap between rich and poor is now so great that it’s more and more noticeable, and the risks of failure that much more serious?

Most probably it’s a combination of all of those, and other factors.  Austerity, growing inequality, less regulation, more technology, greater competition, more serious implications of poverty and greater visibility of the lifestyles of the rich and famous – they’re all making us ill, and we’re less able to cope.

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Choose Life. Choose unit sales.

Trainspotting is one of the few films that I’ve bothered to watch twice at the cinema because I enjoyed it so much.  It’s a great film.  So much so that everyone seems to forgive the surreal sequence tucked away in the middle that could be straight out of a “GREAT Britain” marketing campaign.  You may have forgotten it (or removed it from your memory).  It’s a series of short clips of people in Edinburgh, set to music.  It may only last 30 seconds or so.  It’s to set the context (as far as I can remember) for the scene in which Begbie mugs the American tourist after he stumbles into the wrong bar and opens his mouth in a loud sports jacket.  Perhaps it’s ironic – showing the difference between tourist Edinburgh and the grim toilet-bowl reality experienced by Renton and co.  But if it is, then there is no shred of irony whatsoever in the sequence: it really could be straight from an advert.

And 20 or so years later, Trainspotting has probably done its own fair share of contributing to Britain’s “image” – the reputation, the imagery, the modern mythology, the material for posters and the milieu that Lonely Planet writers and newspaper travel columnists get invited to feature.  That sounds like a more interesting irony – that the ironic “Visit Britain” sequence turns out to have been far more effective at attracting visitors than shit-stained toilets, dead babies and heroin addicts were at putting them off.

This “soft power” explains the rush for selfies in front of the Hollywood sign, and the clamour from politicians for new concert venues or to attract the cameras for the next Game of Thrones.  The steps before – the market research, the visioning, the planning for the infrastructure and attracting the finance, is called “boosterism” – bigging up London more than Paris to win the right to host the Olympic games, for example.  Boosterism is almost the opposite of market forces: investors and capitalists are meant to interpret signals to make predictions, from which they take risks and then reap the rewards of success.  But where there is no data, they’re vulnerable to boosterism – also known as bullshit.

Some of the biggest boosters were in Soviet Russia, or modern-day China.  It’s not simply a Capitalism con.  And the boosters appear everywhere: the BBC runs the New Generation Artists scheme, supporting talented young musicians from across the world.  One of those previous artists is the Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani – and I listened to a radio programme where he discusses the different musical traditions between Armenia (European-influenced) and Iran (not European-influenced), formed by the creation of a new border in 1828.

It made sense – Armenians looked towards Russia and possibly France for their cultural influences.   Or rather bourgeois Armenians with pretentions at government positions, university educations and emigration.   I’m sure there are bourgeois Iranians with the same pretentions but maybe not so many.  Or they were persecuted or fled.

Ostensibly the programme was a contrast between disparate musical styles between neighbouring countries.  So why did it feel as if Iran’s lukewarm interest in classical music was as a problem?

I blogged previously about the effect that the drive for unit sales atomises us into thinking our personal relationship to music is unique and special, when in reality it is entirely commonplace.  But if something is commonplace, why bother spending money on it?  Similarly, the need for selling tickets for big-name soloists or conductors, such as Esfahani, drives the format.  Form follows function, after all.

Music that takes a communal and improvisational form can’t be easily sold.  It’s music to dance to, to celebrate to, to pray to.  The “artist”, the auteur, the composer are all irrelevant: or rather, they’re simply the performers, who in turn are the audience.  Maybe that’s what the problem for Esfahani to solve was – exploring a new frontier for cultural imperialists to exploit.

Michael Sandel’s book What Money Can’t Buy expands this idea brilliantly: that money corrupts the way we consume things.  Money is such a powerfully simple idea –  translating the value of everything into currency that it’s one of the key steps of our social evolution, along with fire, story-telling, agriculture and industrialisation, as described by Yuval Noah Harari in the equally brilliant Sapiens.  But it has pernicious effects – it corrupts the motives of those other fundamental parts of the human condition: namely love, birth and death.

Soft power is everywhere.  It funds much of the art (through government subsidy) that apparent “progressives” and bourgeoisie love to enjoy (and to display their enjoyment loudly on social media) in their attempt to escape the gravitational pull of the proletariat.  In turn, our need to belong to tribes and movements fuels that the velocity.  Maybe being truly progressive means we admit our snobbery, and put down our wallets when professing our love of culture.

Music is over-rated

When I was in my early teens it seemed like only me and two similarly awkward friends liked The Cure.  Forever dismissed as “goths” and derided simply for the size of their hair and apparent miserablism of Robert Smith’s lyrics, we knew that they were far more than just a band.  In the early 90s, roundabout the time I saw a packed stadium concert for their Wish album, I realised their influence was becoming more and more apparent: not only musically and lyrically, but how expressing emotions like love, anger and fear in metres usually associated with hyperbole and cliché could be carried off reverentially and imaginatively.  Now the unique sound and imagery of Robert Smith’s (and Simon Gallup’s) oeuvre are widely recognised – NME, Brit Awards and the rest of them have given out their gongs of belated “lifetime achievement” approval.  What does this journey from freakshow to main attraction mean?

I used to think I alone experienced the rapture of the opening drones of Plainsong, or could hear the music between the layers of instrumentation in Lament; Simon Gallup’s pulsing basslines seemed to be singularly tailored to reverberate in my gut – and the relentless monotony of Boris Williams’s drums on Disintegration (and that’s a live recording – the man is a human drum machine!) seemed to make only my spine tingle.  I spoke to more and more people over the years: I discovered that other people could hear those ghost notes, interpreted Smith’s whispers and croaks the same way, and who had more than one tear in their eyes at the end of Faith.  Now, some 30 years later I realise that this ability of music to really move us – and to which we relate our most fundamental experiences – is universal.  It’s not me that has superhuman sensitivities, nor The Cure’s music that’s anything particularly unique.  We all seek emotional earthquakes: Christian suburbanites, graduates, teenage dirtbags and pin stripe suits together.

Which sets the scene for my thoughts about Sebastian Faulk’s book Another Life.  It’s one of five loosely connected chapters, about a folk musician in North America from the late 60s to late 90s.  Her talent is supposedly singular, her audience grows from tiny folk gigs to sell-out crowds after her discovery by the narrator and his co-producer.  The narrator’s engagement with her music is tied up of course in his attraction to her (and of course, she’s beautiful), and vice versa.  “We love you”, cry the audience at her farewell gig (much like the lovestruck cries of “ROBERRRRRRT” from the young women on every single live recording of The Cure).  But talent, and this entwining of soul and song, are not singular and rare, and neither should they be – we trick ourselves into thinking we alone are sufficiently sensitive to hear those hidden notes (spoiler: they don’t actually exist).  Music is universal; the solidarity we feel when singing our lungs out on football terraces is very real and powerful stuff.

Why this rarefication of what should be a universalising force for human solidarity?  Money changes everything, of course.  Unit sales, mainly: tickets, downloads, merch, followers and clicks.  But more than that: our drive for narrative with heroes rather than faceless armies (cf. Kahneman and Taleb, if you don’t believe me).  Smith and Gallup are certainly two of my heroes – but I’m sure even their egos acknowledge the effort of countless engineers, producers, marketers and roadies in their success.  Music going mainstream isn’t redeeming more souls: it’s making more money.

The power of ideas to take hold of collective consciousness rests in no small part upon their novelty, and the networks of their proponents, as well as their utility.  In art, what part does ability play?  Music conservatoires produce dozens of supremely gifted musicians each year, but which of them has the X Factor? There seems little correlation with ability.  Difference from what went before, and the creation of a narrative that can shift units seem to have a far more significant role.  Is there that much difference between the romanticism of, say, Lord Byron’s poetry, and The Figurehead?

I’m not saying talent doesn’t exist.  There’s a definite arc in The Cure’s output from 1978, dropping off sharply after 1991 when Smith and Gallup hit their mid 30s – the same can be said of athletes and mathematicians.  Creativity is exhausting, and those rare talents usually have stories that explain their early hunger: once success sates them, the creativity seems to dry up along with it.  Once we’ve been through the trauma of love and loss, who wants to go through all that again without taking out some form of insurance?  I’m not trying to explain why some artists make it to the bigtime.  I’m simply saying that music is over-rated.  We are not alone in our solitary prayers to the heroes of popular culture – how else are they popular?  Rather we should stop the hero reverence and give each other more credit in our ability to relate to each other, and to simple cultural pleasures – which is all music (and art, and drama, and stories) is.  The difference is that the need to sell tickets and books has reduced the universalities of culture to individual transactions.  Sing out loud, and sing together instead.

“Progressives” and totalitarians.

It’s quite unusual in the current atmosphere to find an article written by a woman which doesn’t put the boot in.

As a reward, I actually read this article by Rachel Cooke. She asks “are we going to outlaw love affairs now?”, in an article examining the increasingly totalitarian approach western society seems to be taking towards deviance, despite a concurrent fixation of corporate and mainstream culture to be “inclusive”.

This contradiction is possible because the people making these accusations of harassment and offence and blasphemy can’t be bothered to think too much.  Yes, the powerless are fighting back – but that doesn’t mean they’re automatically right.

Sensors and GPS coupled with block chain technology could mean that any minor misdemeanor is punished automatically by charging our bank accounts or alerting our insurance providers.  It sounds effective and fair and efficient – but do we really want to live in a world where no-one is capable of doing anything “wrong”, when “wrong” is subjective and political?

I also think that the drive towards “morality” – from the alt-right evangelists in the USA to anti-abortionists in Poland and Northern Ireland to drug-busting Duterte to emigrant-stopping Orban – is the same drive that sees righteous people calling themselves “progressives” call for the kind of moral censorship that Cooke writes about in her article.  Censorship is censorship, whether it comes from the right or the left.  Totalitarianism is totalitarianism, whether of the fascist or communist kind.

 

“Cause the world needs more lawyers”

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Image: Summit Entertainment 2016

Have you seen La La Land?  I found it profound.  It speaks about capitalism itself, and a thought experiment I’ve been trying out on friends:

Imagine an Ayn Rand-inspired world where there is no public subsidy or taxation to incentivize or disincentivize purchasing, and where employees keep 100% of their wages.  Would the resulting purchases be a complete reflection of what society valued most?  If we wanted something, we would buy it.  If we needed something, we would buy it.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t.

What would become of art?  Museums and galleries, concert halls, theatres and opera venues would close overnight.  Those institutions are usually heavily subsidized, even despite expensive ticket prices.  We don’t value the high production costs highly enough, despite our bourgeois pretentions of sophistication.

Yet the message of La La Land is “follow your dreams”.  In response to Mia’s protestation that she should have done something useful with the last six years of life rather than chase an acting career, Sebastian tells her sarcastically, “’cause the world needs more lawyers”.  Whatever the word is for irony that isn’t ironic – fact? – Sebastian is spot on.  Actually, the world does need more lawyers, and it needs fewer actors.  Why?  Because administration to manage the complexity of protecting capital has ballooned with the concentration of wealth.

The real irony is that the very ubiquity of art and the very glibness of messages such as “follow your dreams” has cheapened it so much that it has become commonplace.  Art is free: on Spotify, on Pinterest, on YouTube and everywhere: it has been reduced to background for our conspicuous consumption.  It’s clickbait, it’s ‘send us your email address with your competition entries’.  It provides context for our purchases – I’m a goth, so I must buy these clothes and wear my hair this way, not that way.   Art is dead other than the high-end kind, which is more about capital and tax efficiency than supporting aspiring art graduates.  Published writers make far less than the minimum wage on average – “follow your dreams” is a route to starvation, and freezing on the streets.

We seem determined to ignore the ugly realities of capitalism, or turn those ugly realities into beauty, because the alternative is acceptance that Things Can Certainly Not Get Better.  From the opening dance of drivers stuck in a traffic jam, La La Land shouts capitalist realism – if only we workers opened our eyes and saw traffic jams, unemployment and poverty for what they are: failures of our democracy and of our society, of an unsustainable increase in living standards for two generations paid for by fossil fuels, colonialism and exploitation that we pretend no longer to tolerate.  We understood that workers in the Soviet Union were fed lies and propaganda, so why is it so hard to accept that Hollywood is our equivalent?  La La Land hides this message in plain sight.

 

 

 

Fear of ghosts.

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I know posting this image is unfair: it is so ubiquitous that it is entirely unsurprising.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if the woman is listening to Fear of ghosts by The Cure:

and the further I get
from the things that I care about
the less I care about
how much further away I get…

I am lost again
with everything gone
and more alone
than I have ever been

We all do it.  I do it.  Endlessly scrolling through irrelevant content, somehow missing the fact that it makes no difference.  Again, as I’ve posted before, the content is not important. We do it to avoid other people because we are petrified of having to interact with each other.

In the 2000s I used to hear all the time about “Anti-Social Behaviour”.  Now, despite being more connected than we have ever been – whether measured through transport modes and nodes, whether through telecommunication types and interactions, whether measured through the number of people we claim to know – we are also more alone than we have ever been.

That is not a paradox because of vanity: we measure our success in how important we are, how popular we are, how busy we are.  The further we get from the things that we care about, the less we care about how much further away we get.

Modern pilgrims

I studied medieval history at sixth form college.  After starting the course, a book called The Medieval World appeared on my father’s bookshelf.  This was odd, I remember thinking at the time, because my father preferred more recent history.  It stayed there on the bookshelf, unread.

Only now, 24 years later, I realise that my father bought it for me – but never told me.  So now I’m reading it.

It features chapters about different sections of medieval society – monks, merchants, mothers, soliders.  I imagine there’ll be a chapter about pilgrims.

Pilgrims went on journeys to see relics, on the offchance that they’ll be on the receiving end of a miracle.  Despite arduous journeys full of lice, dyssentry, banditry and interrupted sleep on meagre rations with no employment, pilgrimages were a triumph of irrationality: none of that mattered.  What matters was that they had a shot, because there were no other chances.

Think about that: what matters was that they had a shot, because there were no other chances.

Apply the same logic to people who buy lottery tickets, or gamble, or pile up enormous debts on credit cards and consolidated loans.   In post-crisis UK, what matters is that we have a shot because there are no other chances.

Delivering love, unconditionally

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.

 

The inauthenticity of authenticity.

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The authenticity of failure; or, the inauthenticity of delicatessens in Birmingham.

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.

 

So much schooling, so little thinking

dianecourtspeechIone 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?