I mean, really, what the fuck do we do now?
I called two election results early and correctly in 2016. By mid-May, despite Sadiq Khan beating the odiously racist campaign of Zac Goldsmith to be London Mayor earlier in the month, it was becoming increasingly apparent to me that Leave was going to triumph in the referendum. I hoped for a Remain vote, but the surprisingly range of people I encountered either considering or definitely voting for us to abscond from the European Union was suggesting disaster.
Secondly, although arguably in a midst of post-Brexit depression, I said as early as August that I thought Trump would take the American Presidency. A trip to the States in September didn’t yield much evidence to support that, but then we went to New York and Seattle, Democrat strongholds. It may have seemed madness, and different to the EU-referendum, but the populist message he was chanting was the same as that Farage, Johnson and Gove had sallied around the country blithely lying earlier in the year. Sure, it may be complete bullshit, but the best stories never turn out to be true anyway.
I wish to hell I had been wrong.
There was satisfaction in seeing Goldsmith also take a kicking in a by-election he assumed would be a waltz to victory, another defeat this time brought about by his own vanity and a justice of sorts for the racism and xenophobia he has displayed over the previous twelve months. However, that small triumph doesn’t anywhere near make up for the fact that we have, as a country, blundered towards the edge of the abyss and drunkenly stumbled into it. We have found ourselves transposed to a world where a politician with perfectly mainstream views like Jo Cox can be murdered in the streets of the sleepy town at the heart of her community. Even in the bitterly fought and stark divides of the eighties, that would have seemed a distant possibility. Something that, maybe, happened in other countries, but never here.
I have written many versions of this article. Immediately after the referendum. As Labour tore itself apart and failed to generate any sense of being a credible opposition even at the point where Tory civil war threatened to implode the whole notion of government. During a summer when UK politics felt like it was being written by a the same people who write adrenaline punctuated TV shows like 24 or Game of Thrones, locked in a sweaty, darkened room, with just cocaine and whisky for sustenance, each producing ever elaborate narrative swerves: “call that a twist? I’ll show you a twist.”
Unable to write fast enough, the world ran away from me, but in every single version I failed to answer the question, so what do we do about it?
Part of the difficulty is that it is not just us, not just the UK. A dangerous nationalist tide is sweeping the world and with it comes, almost inevitably history suggests, violence and tragedy. I first wrote about the threat Putin poses eight and half years ago and rather than learning from the escapades in Georgia that prompted that piece, the world seems to be scampering to fall over itself in admiration for the man. Trump, Brexit, Marine Le Pen looking like the candidate to beat in France, moderate reforms brushed aside in Italy, right wing governments in Hungary and Poland, a near run thing in Austria, trouble in Greece. These are no longer blips, anomalies; this is a full blown global political swing away from the centre left and social liberalism that dominated for a decade and a half from the mid-nineties and back towards the politics of the great powers of the nineteenth century.
‘Are you trying to cheer me up?‘ my wife asked me shortly after Trump’s victory when we were wondering how long until Armageddon.
‘Not really, no,’ just pontificating, but to extent, maybe, these things go in cycles and we are currently just on the outer edges of the political elastic band’s stretch. It’s a particularly nasty place, sure, but we’ll bounce back. Won’t we?
The problem is what happens while we’re here. It’s going to be a while. Trump is good until 2020. It’s unlikely that May will call an early election unless she ends up with a minority government due to defections and resignations so that gives her the same time frame. (Even if she did, the opposition are so fragmented at the moment who knows what the outcome would be.)
People across the social, political and creative spheres have been talking about the fight-back and how it starts now. While I agree that there is a need, an obligation even, to challenge and fight every erosion of liberty, of rights, every step backwards from the progressive, tolerant world we have spent fifty years trying to create, at the moment it can be little more than a valiant covering retreat. This is going to be the political re-enactment of Dunkirk, to steal a Brexiter’s favourite period of analogy. We’re out numbered, out gunned, don’t have a fucking clue how we’re not even going to win, but how we simply save what we can of society. All we know is that we can’t simply roll over and die or run away. Our defeats must be disguised as victories, somehow.
The reason this is the best we can hope for is that we’re still not getting to the root of the problem. The successful vote to leave the European Union and the shambles of an attempt to defend staying in shows that the twentieth century’s political battle lines of left and right are, effectively, dissolving. This rise of nationalism both here, in mainland Europe and across in the USA is a knee jerk reaction against globalisation. In Russia it is a tool to keep Putin in power, but it only works because of the cynicism of Russians and a, surprising, pining for the more straightforward world under Communism.
Rich, poor, old and young, people can see their national identity being eroded by immigration. The fact that this could be an evolution of identity, that what we had can become something better, as it has done throughout history, seems to pass many people by.
In barely a generation we have seen the fundamental pillars of industry and the economy change, and people are fearful of that. Many don’t understand the world we’re heading into, many can’t access its benefits. The fight against being marginalised in the face of global capitalism is not to make yourself a smaller unit, it is to join forces with those in similar situations, to be a part of the whole not an isolated island.
Oh well, too late now. Brexit means Brexit, even if no-one can quite explain what that actually means in itself.
Unfortunately those in the American mid-west, in Philadelphia, in South Wales, in Boston, Lincolnshire who believe they have voted to bring jobs and industry home have been hoodwinked. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum I saw a video of a man being interviewed in Hull who said he expected the factories to be reopening and the jobs to be appearing within the year, as though membership of the EU was somehow preventing those things from happening, as though some magic curse upon the land put in place by “bureaucrats” would be lifted. It’s bollocks, obviously. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump for God’s sake, these are not people who believe in work and industry as a cornerstone of the community. They’re not Joseph Rowntree. They believe in profit for themselves, in looking down on everyone else from the safety of their gilded parapet.
There’s an argument that we’re actually in the death-throes of capitalism. That these things continue to move and evolve, that we went from the ancient empires, to feudalism, to industrialisation and then to free market capitalism and from here to who knows what? Maybe the blessed holy market can’t keep growing indefinitely, maybe we will hit a peak when civil and social unrest overwhelms share-prices and the whole edifice comes tumbling down. The past seventy years have been a period of relative peace and prosperity, but maybe that’s coming to an end. The future is, as always unknown, and it probably won’t be quick. It is only with hindsight that historians are able to say that the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor in 476 and an Ostrogoth declaring himself King of Italy marked the end of the Empire. No-one at the time realised that, just as for the century before that from the death of Constantine no-one realised they were trapped in a period of terminal decline and fall. No-one recognised that the adaptation of Christianity as the Empire’s official religion was going to kick-start the transition to feudal states. Of course they didn’t, just as in three hundred years, or less, people may look at back at 2016 and decide it has significance of the sort we can’t comprehend stuck in the middle of the maelstrom as we are.
Of course all of this depends on the planet not giving out first. You can read all sorts of forecasts: that the icecaps are warmer than they have ever been, that water scarcity is coming, that changing weather patterns are going to thrash our communities on an annual basis, that there is barely a generation’s worth of arable soil left, all of which will make the monetary system we’re using seem inconsequential. The politics of now shouldn’t be about isolationism, about selfishness, about nations: it should be about technology, about societal change, about rescuing the world.
It isn’t though, and that’s the real problem.
I know I still haven’t answered my own question. So, what now?
Fight back is the obvious answer. In 2009 I started writing a novel set round about now, in a post-financial apocalypse society that had slumped towards dystopia. It was a bleak world, but the fundamental corners of what we understood about ourselves remained. I worry that they don’t anymore. That what comes next is much worse than I can imagine, will be inherently more complicated than fiction and so the fight back has to answer those complexities. It can’t be fiction. Fiction, it seems to my despair, has been co-opted by the alt-right. Post-truth means invented, so not only do we need to reclaim reality but the imaginary world too. It will take time to fully understand how we meet that challenge, so as much as it pains me, we must wait for the battle to be clearer.
In the meantime, the best I can come up with is: Fuck knows. I guess we try to be kind, try to do the right thing, shout, protest, argue and hope for the god-damn best, hope that things get bad enough for everyone to recognise the terrible mistakes that have been made and try to turn things around before a real dystopia is declared.
That’s not much hope, but it is probably all we’ve got.