Friday, 26 February 2016

Lost in history

I am not going to write yet again about the EU Referendum today, or at least not directly, but rather about some reflections prompted by an article that appeared in The Guardian today by John Harris which was about the referendum but with a particular take. Harris, who is an invariably interesting journalist by the way, argues that many inclined to vote to leave the EU are reacting to having had huge and rapid social changes “imposed on them”. They should not, therefore, be patronizingly dismissed as “irrational, unhinged and gullible”.
Whether or not this is a valid reason for voting to leave the EU is an open question, and as I say not what I want to discuss here. Rather, it seems to me that the sentiment Harris is reporting is a variant of something I discuss and criticise at length in the book (especially pp. 88-92): the idea of a world in rapid, perhaps unprecedented, change which makes mandatory constant organizational change. It is one of the many ways in which organizations and politics are both connected and harmonic, something which is becoming a regular theme of this blog.
What strikes me most is how unchanging these claims are, and how they are both meaningful and meaningless. Harris is talking about the period since Britain joined the EU, so the forty or so years since 1973. But in 1973, which I can just about remember (I was 8), similar sentiments were expressed, and very vociferously too. The past, it seemed, was not just another country but, in the past, we had been another country. The memories of war, Empire, social cohesion and civility may have been refracted through the lens of nostalgia but they had their counterpart in more objective analyses of relative economic decline, shifting centres of geo-political power and changing social norms.
It was common then to hear adults talking about how ‘the country has gone to the dogs’, that ‘we won the war but we lost the peace’ and, though I can’t recall hearing these exact words, that ‘I just want my country back’. Some of this, as with the present EU debate, was about immigration but, also as with the present EU debate, it was part of a more inchoate sense of unchosen changes. Indeed it’s worth remembering that this kind of sentiment was a big part of what lay*, a few years later, behind electoral support for Margaret Thatcher, including her remarks at the 1979 election campaign about British people feeling ‘swamped’ by immigration. And yet people now are wont to say that immigration ‘used to be ok’, even though their predecessors did not say anything like that at all.
So that sense of unchosen change isn’t new and perhaps this means that it is actually itself rather patronizing to uncritically accept it as an authentic, respectworthy sentiment. If anything it is just an unremarkable truism: 2016 is different to 1973, just as 1976 was different to 1933 in all kinds of ways, most of which were not ‘chosen’ and could not reasonably have been ‘asked’ about. Why would anyone expect otherwise? The issue seems to lie more in a sense that this change is going somewhere frightening or, perhaps most frightening of all, that it is going nowhere. It’s this fearful sense of being lost in history that I want to explore.
Fear of redundancy, fear of being left behind, fear of being judged unequal to the demands of change. That this fear is largely orchestrated through an invocation of hordes of Asians and Slavs – or, in more politically acceptable language, the challenge from the emerging economies of China, India and Eastern Europe; or the anodyne ‘global economic race’ – serves to underscore the perhaps not racist but certainly racialised tang of contemporary stories about Britishness. We may have no clear idea of what the future holds, but we are continually told that failure to change will mean that the future will occur elsewhere, in a faraway country of which we know little. There is therefore an easy translation from the ubiquitous experience of change in the workplace to a fear of foreign competition, and an easy translation from that to fear of foreigners in general and immigration and European integration in particular.
It is indeed quite remarkable that the bullishness about change in the organizational sphere has been so comprehensively unmatched in other areas. The most charitable interpretation of British involvement in the Iraq war is that it was animated by a desire to maintain the ‘special relationship’ and to influence US policy – a desire which was a continuation of British foreign policy since 1945 and which persists to the present day. New Labour’s attitude to the EU, initially relatively conciliatory, later became rather similar to that towards Old Labour: one of hectoring calls for modernization and change in the face of global competition. The Coalition government after 2010 was relatively muted on the EU because of the presence of pro-EU Liberal Democrats but the Conservative administration since 2015 is defined by degrees of hostility to the EU relations. (Interestingly, these two foreign policy areas are in conflict, since the US relation to the UK is refracted through the UK’s membership of the EU, as President Obama is beginning to make clear).
Back on the home front, immigration and asylum policies have also been animated by fear. There is no doubt that New Labour were more relaxed about multi-culturalism than was Thatcherism. And Cameron’s ‘Notting Hill’ conservatism has largely followed them in this, which in part explains the rise of UKIP (which was not just fed by the EU issue but the sense that Cameron is not a ‘real Conservative’ e.g. in terms of gay marriage legislation). Nevertheless, across all recent governments policy in these areas has been draconian and it is noteworthy that the case for tolerance has mainly been made in purely economic terms – the economic need for immigration – so that it is in effect inseparable from the mantra of change as an adjunct to global competitiveness. There is no real suggestion that immigration is related to either our past responsibilities as a colonial power or to our future possibilities as a cosmopolitan society. It’s just an economic presence, bereft of past or future.
It would be unfair to ascribe this culture of fear solely to the polity. It is also the case that any capacity to be positive about the future is limited by the rabidity of a press where it is not just the tabloids which are filled with blood-curdling stories of new causes for alarm. On Europe, immigration, asylum, crime, terrorism, paedophilia as well as health, climate change and, notoriously, house prices the media tell of a world to which a cringing fearfulness is a quite reasonable response. Yet it is not a fear of anything in particular, even if it attaches at moments to something specific. A combination of rolling news and limited attention spans means that each fear is registered, instantaneously forgotten and superseded by a new terror. What endures is not any specific anxiety but a generalised neurotic dread. But whilst fed by the media this climate has been able to flourish at least in part because it fills the vacuum created by the political failure to articulate any compelling future vision of ‘the good life’.
There is clearly a symmetry between the febrile atmosphere engendered by the daily kaleidoscope of media-fuelled panics and the managerialized politics and political managerialism in which ‘the only constant is change’. If we want an image of contemporary Britain it would be of a person running in terror away from an unseen yet omnipresent enemy, but running on a treadmill rather than a road. Standing at the side is a sadistic personal trainer in the form of politician, manager or journalist cajoling and bullying the runner to go faster, to redouble the effort to go nowhere on pain of being engulfed by the invisible demons which lie in wait for those who fail to keep up. The ‘global race’ has no finishing line. It is a journey with no beginning, no end and no purpose or meaning beyond its own self-fulfilling imperative to keep moving at any cost.
This is not, as is conventionally supposed, because we** are too wedded to the past but rather because we have too little sense of ourselves as located within the past-present-future continuum which more truly constitutes history. If, when I was a child, the problem was the weight of the past then for the coming generation it is the weightlessness of the future. When I was growing up, British identity was, unhappily and ultimately unsustainably, that of an old person stuck in the past with memories of a great empire, a heroic war, of glories lost. That is still discernible, but it is now much more akin to someone with Alzheimer’s disease. Anyone who, as I have, has had the misfortune of witnessing this condition will know that what makes it so devastating is not simply that the sufferer recollects so little of the past and is often over-attached to those distant fragments which are flickeringly remembered. It is also that there is no conception of the future, and the present is just a fear-filled moment of transitory but ever recurring change. 

*Surprisingly from a present-day perspective it also in part lay behind the decision to join what was then the EEC in 1973. I can remember my highly Conservative – and conservative – primary school headmistress inventing a song about a ‘beautiful dream’ as part of a celebratory pageant of this event. I played – and I hope this will amuse anyone reading this who knows me – one of the ‘gnomes of Zurich’, then a slang term for Swiss bankers. Whether these gnomes were depicted positively or negatively in the pageant I unfortunately can’t recall.

**By ‘we’ I mean ‘we British’ but similar things may well be true in other countries. I think this is so in France, which I know quite well, and probably in the US and elsewhere. Indeed something like what I have said here seems to apply to US and is expressed by Donald Trump when, as in his now notorious ‘ban all Muslims’ speech he cried plaintively about the need to work out “what the hell is going on?”. Obnoxious as it was, it did express this sense of ‘historical lostness’ that I am trying to explore, and Trump’s popularity is surely a consequence of that sense.

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