Shopping around

Sunset or dawn over Northern Ireland?

In the second of a double bill on the election, Tanya Jones argues we have to overcome an engrained consumer-culture and TV-ratings approach to politics if we are to rise to the challenges we face.

There is no single explanation for the Conservative’s electoral success in England and Wales last week.  The narrative of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘unelectibility’ presented, with indecent haste, by centrists both inside and outside the Labour Party, is almost certainly wrong, and equally likely to become the commonsense, canonical version.  Unlike Johnson’s Brexit deal, this takeaway really was oven-ready: bland, packed with preservatives, easily digestible and available to reheat at a moment’s notice.

The reality is much chewier and more interesting.  As interesting, in fact, as Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable[1] which I have been reading over the election week.  It isn’t about UK politics or elections or Brexit, but its thoughtful, wide-ranging and beautifully written analysis provides an oblique way to sidle up to what has been going on.

Ghosh’s book is divided into three parts: Stories, History and Politics.  In the first he writes that the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture ‘and thus of the imagination’.  He identifies the increasing self-reflexivity of art, and in particular the so-called ‘realist’ novel, which largely ignores the communal events of history, politics and nature, until the ‘very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. Such narratives are, with honourable exceptions, entirely incapable of equipping us with the imaginative resources which we need to face the climate crisis. 

Similarly, our contemporary culture gives us little or nothing with which to grasp or interrogate alternative futures.  Much has been written, rightly, about the effects of social media bubbles, of ‘fake news’ and the uncritical relaying of anonymously sourced claims.  But perhaps equally pernicious is the low-key, apparently non-political background of ‘reality’ TV, costume drama, documentary, advertisement and all their unaccountable hybrid forms.  When voting is something you do to keep the ratings-friendly narcissists in for the next episode, when aristocrats are eccentric but ultimately wise and superior, when environmental crisis can be overcome by avoiding plastic straws, is it any wonder that Johnson and Rees-Mogg are awarded another series?  When actual politics is absorbed into the flow, it is even worse: the most momentous achievement of the cosy ‘they’re all a joke’ satire of Have I Got News for You is perhaps the embedding of the comic Boris persona in the national psyche. 

I went to the cinema twice last week, escape to a darkened room feeling like a therapeutic option (Knives Out and The Biggest Little Farm, both hitting the precise spot) and the biggest adverts were for the supermarkets.  The Tesco epic pushed every national (English) button.  A company delivery driver finds himself travelling through time, treating Dickensian orphans (poverty + over a century = smugly picturesque), undermining wartime rationing with a hamper for the benevolent ‘Winston’ (as self-identified by Johnson) and – oops – almost interrupting the young Queen’s Christmas broadcast. If the Tory Central Office had put it out, it couldn’t have done better. Politics is a consumer choice as much as deciding where to buy the turkey, and warm fuzzy feelings are the most trustworthy indicators. 

The major argument of Ghosh’s History section is that empire and imperialism have been as important as capitalism in driving both fossil fuel exploitation and contemporary climate discourse.  Insofar as the newly purged Conservative Party is, as has been suggested, an English nationalist enterprise, it is an imperialist past from which it draws its emotive force.  England as a self-sufficient entity, without piracy, conquest, a subjugated empire or US charity has not been tried within the past millennium.  It is unlikely that our new government has any intention of attempting it, but for electoral purposes that hasn’t mattered.  Brexit looms so large as a supposedly (in Johnson’s narrative, malevolently) jammed door, the possibility that it might not be a portal to the glorious past can easily be dismissed. 

Another central insight of Ghosh’s is that not all fossil fuel development is the same.  

“The materiality of oil is very different from that of coal: its extraction does not require large numbers of workers, and since it can be piped over great distances, it does not need a vast workforce for its transportation and distribution.  This is probably why its effects, politically speaking, have been the opposite of those of coal.  That this might be the case was well understood by Winston Churchill and other leaders of the British and American political elites … indeed, fear of working-class militancy was one of the reasons why a large part of the Marshall Plan’s funds went toward effecting the switch from coal to oil”.

Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 7

Gas, is, of course, as fluid as oil, and as attractive to neoliberal governments in Westminster and Stormont in both production and supply.  I shall be surprised if the so-called fracking ban (in reality only a policy announcement) in England and Wales survives the new majority.  Meanwhile the favoured interviewees for vox pops on Friday were middle-aged and elderly ex-miners or their relatives confirming their ‘unprecedented’ Tory votes.  The fact that the ‘hard left’ policies which they now repudiated with horror were the centrist status quo of the 1970s did not occur either to them or their interviewers. 

In the final section of the book, Ghosh identifies contemporary politics as ‘for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery’, facilitated by the ‘Protestantism without a God [which] commits its votaries to believing in perfectibility, individual redemption, and a never-ending journey to a shining city on a hill – constructed, in this instance, not by a deity but by democracy’. If he is right, this has two effects: on politicians themselves and on voters.  Politicians fail, of course, to be perfect, but the extent of their shortfall gradually ceases to be measured.  There is no such thing as political disgrace, only a brief sojourn in the well-rewarded sin bin.  Meanwhile, for voters, the search for authenticity may take them down long and tortuous paths, into activism and personal sacrifice.  But the cities which shine the brightest are built not by democracy but by commerce.  The identity which is reflected back by every one of those gleaming surfaces, and especially in December, is that of the consumer.  Any other, such as that of the former miners, is, for present purposes, irrelevant. Given the choice between the jolly Ghost of Christmas Past, laden with mince pies and bonhomie, and the accusing spectres of Present and To Come, what sensible shopper would choose the latter? 

It isn’t, of course, the full story.  Millions of people resisted the narrative, especially the young, and others for whom identification as a consumer would be a hollow joke.  And the contexts in both Northern Ireland and Scotland were completely different, with correspondingly different results.  But the current House of Commons, UK-wide and therefore dominated by the largest country, with its first-past-the-post electoral system, gives huge influence to a small number of voters.  Those voters, ‘swing’, ‘floating’, whatever we call them, are those most susceptible to media messaging, both overt slogans like ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the quiet whispers of comfort and conformity.   What the next five years will do to that comfort, we don’t know.

Meanwhile, as Maurice has written, there is much that we can do, both within and outside party politics, making the case for a fairer and better functioning electoral system, supporting regional and local initiatives for a better future and campaigning for justice, compassion and effective action in the overlapping crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, exclusion and inequality.  And, as Ghosh and others have reminded us, we need to do all this not only on a political level, but by rooting deep and branching wide, including story, art, history and every other activity by which we define and celebrate our shared identity, not as mere consumers, but as human beings.

Tanya Jones

15 December 2019

[1] University of Chicago Press, 2016.