The New Yorker reporter Mark Singer probably qualifies for the adjective “veteran” by now, having joined the magazine in 1974. He wrote a fine book, Funny Money, on the collapse of Penn State Oil in the 1980s. One effect of this long-service is that he’s written several profiles of Donald Trump along the way, which he’s drawn on for Trump & Me, a short book/long read based on the time he’s spent with The Donald. Here’s some notes and extracts:
[T]here is no “new” Trump, just as there was never a “new” Nixon. Rather, all along, there have been several Trumps: the hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit; the knowledgeable builder whose associates awe at his attention to detail; the narcissist whose self-absorption doesn’t account for his dead-on ability to exploit other people’s weaknesses; the perpetual seventeen-year-old who lives in a zero-sum world of winners and “total losers,” loyal friends and “complete scumbags”; the insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as “human garbage”; the chairman and largest stockholder of a billion-dollar public corporation who seems unable to resist heralding overly optimistic earnings projections, which then fail to materialize, thereby eroding the value of his investment.
Or, in one line,
both slippery and naive, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.
The theorist Mark Fisher, whose death was announced at the weekend, was one of our most original thinkers about how we experienced late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism. He also wrote honestly about his depression, and sometimes one felt that the two were related: that seeing so clearly the confines that late capitalism imposed on its subjects was too much weight for one person to stand. (Guy Debord suffered in a similar way.)
People have been queuing up today to pay tribute to Fisher and his work, and rightly so: Capitalist Realism is one of the essential texts of the last 10 years: so good, in fact, that I realised recently that I’d bought two copies. His style was also singular in its skill in combining the cultural and the political, a reminder that actually the two can never be separated out, as he demonstrated in his more recent book Ghosts of my Life, which I wrote about here.
In an obituary, the music writer Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s, described his writing like this:
The exciting thing about Mark’s writing – CCRU era, K-punk era, in magazines like FACT and The Wire, the books – was the feeling that he was on a journey: the ideas were going somewhere, a gigantic edifice of thought was in the process of construction. That Mark was thinking big, building a system, always aiming for the largest scale. And finally that this work, rigorous and deeply informed as it was, was not academic, in the sense of being done purely for its own sake: its urgency came from his faith that words really could change things. Reading Mark’s writing made everything feel more meaningful, supercharged with significance. It was a rush. An addiction.
This is the second of two posts pulling together the strands of what I think I understand about Trump’s win in the US Presidential Election. (The first post is here). The first four things I think I know are:
- Neo-liberalism just died
- The long-run theories are best
- Crises are invisible before they erupt
- Class matters
Here’s another six thoughts.
I’ve read too much on the American election and on Trump’s win, and I wanted to pull it together to make sense of it. Having read too much, I’ve now written too much, so my plan is to split this into a couple of posts on the blog and then put the whole thing together as one longer post on Medium. Trump’s win is the kind of surprise that will keep happening in a world where people are expected to be both enthusiastic consumers and low-paid but grateful workers. You can only fill that gap by loading people with debt, but that’s a one-time card that’s already been played.
I read a couple of things recently that are connected, but perhaps not in a way intended by all of the authors. The first is by Sally Goerner, on the rise of American oligarchy. The second is a paper from McKinsey on capitalism’s short-termism problem.
The Sally Goerner post takes a long view–around 250 years–and positions America’s current political crisis as the latest in a series of 70-90 year cycles in which oligarchy flares up. It follows a familiar pattern, says Goerner, like so:
- Economic “Royalists” infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites.
- Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate.
- The crisis reaches a breaking point; seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change.
- If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse.
- Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new.
I suspect we could map similar cycles in other countries.
The systemic model that sits behind it is this:
“Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. … In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends.”
The British Library has a brief pop-up exhibition running at the moment marking the 40th anniversary of the explosion of punk in the UK in 1976, and wandering around it made me realise how much punk was an expression of the political and economic crisis of the 1970s.
I was listening to the radio in 1975, and there was some expert blabbing on about how if things go on as they are there’ll be 800,000 people unemployed by 1979, while another guy was saying if that happened there’d be chaos, there’s be actual — anarchy in the streets. *That* was the root of punk.
In fact, unemployment reached a million by July 1977, at the height of the punk moment.
Obviously, there was something cultural going on as well. The Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm Maclaren, had been running his King’s Road clothers shop with Vivienne Westwood for several years before the oil shock. Popular music was becoming both bloated and sclerotic. The Ramones’ first record also upped the speed of the music, as Tony James of the proto-punk band London SS recalls in in an interview in the exhibition. But it’s hard to believe that the music would have broken through, or perhaps broken out, without the crisis.
I co-wrote a post with my Futures Company colleague Joe Ballantyne after the Brexit vote that was published on The Futures Company’s Medium site. In the article we argue that the referendum revealed a deep “fear of the future” among many Britons, and that this could have significant implications for brands. Referencing it here for completeness’ sake: here’s an extract.
“The values split
We’ve written before about the deep values split across Europe and north America between an emerging generation of “post-materialists” and the existing “traditionals” and “moderns.” The “post-materialists” are close to becoming a majority, which is always when conflict becomes most intense. The social markers of “post-materialists” are that they are younger, better educated, and more urban, but the values differences are more important. “Post-materialists” are more likely to value diversity; “traditionals” and “moderns” hierarchy. There’s a revealing chart in polling conducted by Lord Ashcroft on the day of the vote.
The values gap on the Brexit vote
Four times as many Leavers think Multiculturalism is a force for bad as do Remainers; three times as many Leavers think social liberalism is a force for bad. More than twice as many Leavers think globalisation is a force for bad, and a slightly higher proportion of Leavers think the internet is a force for bad. The gap on cultural differences around multiculturalism, feminism and the environment is wide, and these values differences speak to profound differences in worldview. These are not unique to the US and the UK. We can see the same differences, with different forms of political and party expression, right across Europe and the United States.
“The disappointing future
And these speak to a deep disappointment in an idea of the future, and of progress, which propelled post-war politics from the mid-1940s to the 1990s. In the UK, the 1997 election was the last in which the winning party had campaigned on an optimistic platform. “Things”, went the song, “can only get better.”
Since then, and even before, globalisation promised prosperity for everyone, but instead, while having profound effects on living standards in Asia, at home it has concentrated wealth even more sharply in the hands of the few. The internet was to be a tool of liberation, but our experience of it is as likely to be of intrusion, a loss of privacy, and a loss of control. The result is that people seek to pull up the drawbridges.
“Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.”
The notion of “solastalgia,” is relevant here, a word used by environmentalists for “the loss of a sense of belonging to a particular place and a sense of desolation about its disappearance,” even though the place is still physically there. In their enthusiasm for change, brands pursue the leading edge, but they need to be more alert to what it feels like on desolation row.
For the list of values in the Ashcroft research represents a direct challenge to the idea of innovation. Think of it for a moment: for most brands innovation is about novelty, about progress, often about technology. It is clear that the values represented by leavers aren’t those that welcome continual change in the name of improvement.
*The whole article is here.*
Since we are suddenly in the worst moment of racism in Britain since the 1970s, I thought it was worth a reminder that defending migrants is not new in British culture. Shakespeare lodged for several years in a house in Silver Street owned by a Huguenot, and was in London when the apprentices threatened to kill foreigners they saw on the streets.
Perhaps as a result of this, one of his contributions to the probably unperformed play Sir Thomas More is one of the great appeals to humanity.
You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in lyam
To slip him like a hound; alas, alas, say now the King,
As he is clement if th’offender mourn,
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you: whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, Spain or Portugal,
Nay, anywhere that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
The history: the original play, according to the British Library, was written by Anthony Munday in the last years of Elizabeth’s reign, but the censor, the Master of the Revels Edmund Tilney, refused permission for it to be staged. He may have been “worried that the play’s depiction of riots would provoke civil unrest on the streets of London.”
The left case for Brexit, or so called Lexit, has been well articulated during the referendum by Tariq Ali, John Hilary, and others. Paul Mason made it in one column, then rowed back again in another. A number of notable Greens have been leavers: Rupert Read, who changed his mind, and Jenny Jones, who made her case in the Guardian.
In the most recent edition of New Left Review, Susan Watkins summarised this case succinctly:
[A] vote to remain, whatever its motivation, will function in this context as a vote for a British establishment that has long channelled Washington’s demands into the Brussels negotiating chambers, scotching hopes for a ‘social Europe’ since the Single European Act of 1986… A Leave vote… would not bring about a new golden age of national sovereignty… But the knock-on effects of a leave vote could be largely positive: disarray, and probably a split, in the Conservative Party; preparations in Scotland for a new independence ballot.
And God knows, it’s hard to hold progressive views and not have one of Polly Toynbee’s famous clothes pegs over your nose as you approach the EU. [Update: Or to vote Remain through gritted teeth.] Peter Mair’s argument that the EU has the form of a democratic organisation but none of the substance is hard to argue with. The Lisbon Treaty, with all of the shenanigans involved, shifted the centre of gravity of the EU sharply towards neoliberalism and away from the social market; Germany’s imposition of ordoliberalism on the Eurozone and the brutal bullying of Greece was plain ugly.
The notion that the EU “needs to be taught a lesson”, put to me last week in a bar in France by a woman who said she’d vote Leave if she was British, has an obvious attraction.
But there’s something deeper going on, and that’s why I think that progressives have to vote Remain despite the EU’s evident problems.