Living under the Umbrella of Wonkiness: entangled life, complex world

And so it begins. This is clearly the preamble, but to what? A short series on the world we currently inhabit with a view to how the practising life might engage it. Can we think away from the enticing polarised landscape we are often pulled into by social media, the media and the politics of the moment? It’s not enough to remain aloof, or indifferent, so what do we do? Not, what should we do, that’s not up to me, but how could we relate, openly, with curiosity, with presence, with care, with intellectual honesty, with a refusal to kowtow to the unthinking games of politics on display. They sound like worthwhile endeavours. Engage politically, but avoid the allure of merging with the crowd to the point of losing your capacity to think, and critique, and feel differently, and the cheap payoffs promised; or dive deeply into a tribe and swim in their idealogical formations and performance; both can be worth a try if you can hold your shit together. Heaven forbid I should advise you to do otherwise.

What I will do though is explore out-loud, and possibly fail. Either way, I’m willing to have a go.

This is not only a paper bound, screen bound written affair. If you’d prefer to listen, there’s an audio version of this text, with a twist. Here it is if you want to head off in that direction, if not, read on.

The Preamble: context 01

The truth is that writing about these themes in today’s world is not easy. This is not personally because of the call-out or cancel culture, which doesn’t really effect folks like me who are on the margins of niche culture. It is not to do with allegiance to an identity group: identity politics in its American and British manifestations is pretty much non-existent here in Italy. Rather, it is because of the contentious relationship we Europeans, and especially Brits, have with the United States and the leakage of its culture and norms into our world: We are simultaneously part of the great American experiment, and apart from it; partly able to respond to it, partly able to step outside its influence and catch a much needed breathe; one that is unfortunately often unavailable to those deep within its quagmire. Presumably this is the condition of being under the umbrella of a super power, and truth be told, it is probably a better experience than having been under any of the world’s previous superpowers. Though I might be wrong about that.

Responding to the cultural and political leakage is often a must even if we are not Americans ourselves or would like to stop caring about what happens in the States: superpowers loom large and are near impossible to avoid. Having relatives and friends in the States, as I do, is actually less important from this perspective. I used to visit regularly but stopped after 9/11 when the rules to enter the country became so absurd, and have remained a proper outsider since. What ties me to the country most is actually the odd, ‘special’ relationship that has long existed between the UK and the US: A kinship that goes beyond just a shared language.

To bring this to today, I started to wonder if Europe was going to have to start to look to itself more going forwards, especially in response to the Trump era. Trump is a symbol of many things of course, almost all of them deeply negative, but his call to turn America’s attention inwards has meant a reconfiguration of its role as world leader. You may hear such a political move as mere rhetoric, but many parts of the world have already been directly impacted by this retreat and Trump’s undermining of relationships with key allies has not sat well with European leaders. The typical reaction that follows is to look immediately to China as the next big thing, all the while feeling dread over its threat to liberal democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Locally, however, meaning in countries outside these two behemoths, Trump’s actions mean a loss of reliance on a dominant figure that guaranteed certain norms and reference points, politically and culturally, for a good deal of the last century and much of this.

The loss of American dominance and its projection of its own status onto the world of leader unhooks the European continent from the reliance it had on a constant stream of culture, aspiration, and sense making apparatus emanating from the US: Even when the quality of that cultural export has been awful (cue endless reruns of bland, insipid US cop dramas on certain Italian TV channels), it has provided a stable reference point against which European cultural products could react. Banality also means reliability and the familiar after all. The untethering of Europe from the US may be a blessing in this regard, or it may not. Chinese culture is so alien, and so restricted by its authoritarian constraints that it is unlikely to ever replace the American cultural stream. Mandarin and the antipathy towards China amongst other Asian countries also means that culture minus language plus immense constraints means that even if China becomes the most dominant super power this century that its cultural influence will likely remain limited: It will have to find over means to convince the world to follow in its footsteps. One can only imagine how dark such steps may end up being in a worse case scenario.  

Either way, no one aspires to be Chinese, or truly desires to be part of the Chinese experiment. America sold a dream that we could all imagine being part of. China represents a necessary relationship in a politics of pragmatism, or a dangerous, dystopian nightmare.

A further point is that the politics of America have seeped into Europe in great part through the doorway of the UK, often weakening to varying degrees as it spread across the continent. Sometimes its specific cultural-political exports fizzle out before reaching the further corners of the continent, or get waylaid in certain countries, mutate and then arrive in markedly different forms months and years later. Sometimes, and thankfully so, it never arrives at all. This scenario leaves us, as I described at the start, simultaneously part of the American experiment whilst apart from it.

My text initially emerged as a response to recent events. It has mutated into a response to what is taking place in America, and in the UK, and to a far smaller degree in pockets of mainland Europe. It is a meditation on the complexity we are currently living through and out incapacity to be honest about how little we know. As everything is so manic these days, with speed defining cultural products, it is a response to where we are this year more broadly. Like the times we live in, it involves complexity and simultaneous events and layers of meaning and concern. I could repeat that as a mantra for it is at the heart of what is much of our collective incapacity to respond effectively, or at least honestly and openly, to the multiple fronts we are challenged on.  

It could have been shorter, but writing and speaking to such a diverse audience as I do, it has been essential to establish context, or the complexity will make no sense, and the conclusions will be lost in the usual reactive habits of meaning assertion that characterise our unthinking times.

You will make it to the end if what I share resonates or even irritates. You will find something better to do with your time if it doesn’t.

I will add one more thing before diving into the meat of the essay/article below so that we are clear.

America has been accumulating unpaid cultural and political bills since its inception. The last century has seen us witness failure after failure to address profound dysfunction at its heart even when the opportunity to do so has arisen: the latest example being Bernie’s failure to win the democratic candidacy. The opportunities to address imbalances in its society have gone repeatedly unchecked, ignored, and even scorned at, and democracies survive in a carefully tuned balancing act and thrive when that balance is honed.

I was pretty much born into the Reagan era and grew up witnessing the tandem neo-liberal era that bonded the US and UK together as a tag team with Thatcher at the helm in the UK. I yearned for rebellion, revolution, and change as a consequence. I took part in it on occasion. Then there was the emerging awareness of the ecological disaster we were facing back in the 80s and then 90s as I entered my teen years, the war in Iraq destroyed mainstream political capital for a generation, including that which we had in the UK for the Left. I desired a massive, collective uprising to destroy the excesses of Capitalism, the injustice of war, the corrupt expression of warped, disfigured democracy; we protested Bush, we shouted down Blair, we sought a new world. Those dreams were destroyed through failure, and the inability of the political class to adequately respond. Blair’s betrayal ran very, very deep and was a core driving for what would become the short-lived Corbyn era. Unsurprisingly, Labour has now shifted towards the centre once more and by doing so it may actually win an election down the road.

But after Blair’s dishonourable exit, things died down for a bit. People got distracted. Younger folk looked to hedonism for escape. People grew up and had kids. The next generation came along.

Today, at 43, I find myself in conflict. No doubt many of you do too. I have probably been in conflict for over a decade. The rise of the new protest movements online and now in the streets is a mixed bag. Like all protest movements, it has good and bad elements, good and bad desires, good and bad visions of the world. Because we are more knowledgeable than we have ever been, the good and the bad are more visible than they have ever been too. We see what happens when ideas and ideologies are enacted online and in the streets in real-time. We all bear witness to cop killings, the cancel culture at its worst, the ‘internal’ disputes at the NY Times, the Tulsa rally, the pro-Trump supporters carrying guns, the Occupy Wall Street protests, the failings of the Clinton aristocracy, and today’s kakistocracy under Trump. We see the London riots, the football hooligan, Britain first thugs, we see it all and shot live and in 4HD. Live commentary comes from all corners; a selection of options and insights on offer, immediately: many telling and retelling interpretative myths according to ideological leanings – non-partisan news is harder than ever to find. We live in an odd world and still struggle to conceive of what that oddness is and what it might mean, especially long-term, for we live in an age that lacks vision, long-term plans. And we certainly don’t have the luxury of time to digest it all and begin to make sense of it.

My instinct is to avoid the excesses of reactivity that typically push us into unquestioning allegiance or antagonism that are being made worse by the speed of everything. This position is easier to maintain at a distance. My actual political activity takes place where I live, in my adoptive home of Italy and more importantly in the region and city where I live. Real world politics is participatory at its best and I am great believer that healthy democracies demand active and ongoing citizen participation and that it is easiest to do that locally.

The resignation to poor leadership that gripped the UK and US towards the end of the last century and the first years of this one was in many regards anti-democratic. It took an Italian intellectual to remind me of a very simple truth in the early noughties, “la democrazia è faticoso” – Democracy requires hard work, and it took serious decline more recently to wake the younger generation up to the need to accept the graft necessary to act politically. We are seeing the consequences of that now. The triggers that keep coming and firing up further levels of rage and disgust at the imperfect world we live in is timely. This is both an amazing and needed response, but also an often confused and poorly directed affair. Despite claims from anarchists, radical democrats, and utopian dreamers, leadership is essential in any movement. Occupy Wall-street fizzled out without it, the disdain and antagonism towards leadership that is so common the further left you go has meant decades of infighting amongst smaller political groups on the left; infighting that we saw with Corbyn’s contested rise to party leadership and predictable failure at the polls – an imperfect leader if ever there were one, he was still someone I would have voted for. It is no surprise that Tony Blair was the only left-wing politician to win an election in the UK for decades and that none have since, or that Corbyn lost, or that my fellow Lefties still don’t really grasp why. It may be one the reasons why the destruction of existing systems can be so attractive. But as the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critique Slavoj Zizek, in an oddly sensible mode, keeps reminding us; “What comes after the revolution?”  

As a person who is far more sympathetic to left-wing political causes and has always voted and acted politically within a broad sphere of what constitutes ‘the Left’, I am nonetheless a person that criticises what operates within that realm. This angers people. It annoys and irritates. In polarised times, it’s seen symbolically as personal, as evidence of betrayal, or for the most delusional, as sign that you are secretly a part of the enemy. There would be much to be said on these themes too and bits of this emerge in the text below, but only morsels. Needless to say, the Left deals in critique, aiming it outwards in ways that can be understood as one of its greatest contributions to our collective knowledge, but it is very bad at receiving it, even when it is designed to help, to highlight contradictions, hypocrisy, mistakes, confusion and ideological capture that verges on mass hysteria or pure ignorance.

I am, in many ways, responding to this inability, made worse by the personalisation of politics, the politicisation of everything, the rise of identity politics, and the other facets that make up the political landscape today. Consequences are not controlled by whatever narrative you push. This is a hard truth that is doggedly resisted by those feeling most emboldened by the excesses of these waves of contemporary politics.

Despite the conflict I might feel about today’s political eruption, I am also cognisant of the fact that change is never going to take place in the US without massive upheaval and that these characteristics of modern politics are a reaction or response to what came before. Race is clearly a central part of the long-term problems that the US faces. It clearly operates as an existential core in the American psyche. If it must be the trigger for a revolt against the highly dysfunctional status quo of American decline, a decline for the masses, and the preservation of wealth, influence and opportunity for the ever shrinking few, then so be it.

Part of what I have written below is a response to how we might respond to a world in which live, hyperreal, multiple manifestations of human desire are taking place. It critiques the excesses of left-wing culture to some degree but only because this is part of the incredible fervour that we are all currently caught by, and it is far too often a mere distraction. It ultimately aims to highlight a way out of ideological capture; not to some pristine, post-ideological realm of meditative bliss or freedom, but to a more mixed and varied cultural realm of human struggle, becoming and searching, beyond polarisation and the anti-intellectualism that continues to operate at the heart of much of American activist culture, even while it appears to be informed by high culture. It looks at the performative nature of knowledge in a world where our ignorance is ever more clearly on display. It asks the question of what would happen if we were all a little more honest about how little we actually know.

As for the rest, I wish the protestors a reasonably peaceful revolution, the downfall of Trump, the rise of a sane political class capable of shifting the State towards a saner direction that serves the many and not the few.

There is a very, very long road ahead. May you all make it a good part of the way.

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