Is change more than a cliché? More than simply a word uttered to capture unnamed aspirations?
As the US election primaries are showing once again, change has a miraculous appeal. In spite of the weathered cynicism that flows after every lofty hope falls, large numbers of people always seem ready to believe again in something, anything, and – in the case of Barack Obama – almost everything. There is nothing certain in this world but that nothing is certain, as the old saying has it, yet this shallow maxim has the appearance of wisdom only because constant change defies the grasp of the present. It says nothing about the pace of change we are living through, nor where change leads. Yet although Obama momentarily captured the mantle of change in American politics, time will show that he is less the putative agent of change, than its product.
captured the mantle of change in American politics, time will show that he is less the putative agent of change, than its product
captured the mantle of
change in American politics,
time will show
that he is less the
putative agent of change,
than its product
To say that there is always change is to disregard it, instead to place a lonely faith in human nature as a timeless challenge to the vicissitudes of providence and fortune. To speak seriously of change we need to look beyond individual examples, and look instead at change as a process – one with its own dynamics. Change does not simply describe the differences between one state of affairs and another, but is the means by which settled relationships are undermined and replaced by new configurations. Instead of seeing how change is an ever-present feature of our past, and therefore our future, we can look at the pace of change itself and see that change – technological, political and social – is perpetually accelerating. And this acceleration has effects all of its own, independent of the actual changes described.
Simply put, it makes change the normal state of affairs, against which we search for stability, or at least for stable narratives. But as the process of change accelerates, the future becomes less certain, and we turn our attention towards common moments and common threats.
With the end of the Cold War, the future looked momentarily like a long slow procession to wealth and liberal happiness. The 1990s didn’t quite follow the script, but the future became condensed around the forthcoming Millennium celebrations when, around the world, most of the population jointly held their breath and watched a dawn of new possibilities wash away the sins of history. The end of that same year, the narrowest election in US history revealed an unanticipated indecision over what should come next, and in September 2001 a new threat emerged to hold the world’s gaze. Now, a few years and a couple of wars later, the ‘War on Terror’ hasn’t gone away, but it has to some extent been normalised into a question of police cooperation and political containment. The firebomb attacks on Piccadilly and Glasgow airport were revealed to be amateurish, and although there is no discounting new dangers, there is also the need to move on and imagine a world beyond the suffocating presumptions of security policy. Yet there is no Millennium ahead of us, nor any date that would unite the world in a moment of common reflection. Nor is there any agreed template of future progress, just an ever-tightening cycle of technological and social change, the principal effect of which is a stultifying ennui, a retreat from seriousness and a descent into consumerist accumulation. There are the apocalyptic warnings of climate change, but these are accompanied by the sense that it would at least provide spectacle to an ever more dreary world of prohibitions and material satisfaction. At the same time as we are afraid of the effects of climate change, we are seduced by the possible excitement.
The Christmas and New Year Television schedules in Britain were characteristically drenched in impressions of the past. Cranford, Sense and Sensibility and Oliver Twist, offered up merely the latest instalments in our continuing obsession with the 18th and 19th Centuries. This unending cycle of dramatic adaptations may stem from a profound alienation with our present place in the world, a yearning for the certainties of class and social hierarchy, or an abject fear of the future, or indeed an element of all three. It is tempting to think that the past is easy and that the watching public feel comfortable there, that edgy contemporary drama is too difficult for a general audience. But when contemporary British drama involves placing Tony Blair on trial and assassinating President Bush, then perhaps that serves as its own explanation. And now that we have an unelected Prime Minister and an eviscerated political discourse it is no wonder that America looms ever larger in our political and cultural imagination.
Cold War, the future looked momentarily like a long slow procession to wealth and liberal happiness.
Cold War, the future
like a long slow procession
to wealth and liberal happiness.
Another part of the appeal of period drama is the portrayal of societies in flux. Oliver Twist was after all a polemical exposition on the perils of poverty in a fast industrialising London. Cranford was a clever portrait of a fading age, the railway bringing more than commerce to the genteel habits of a rural Georgian village. The 19th Century was a period of dramatic social upheaval and technological innovation. This was matched in the world of ideas as Darwin exiled man from the Garden of Eden, Marx awakened new social forces, Empire brought the world fully into view and steam power made it closer. The end of the 19th Century was a time of unbridled optimism in Europe brought to a shattering halt in 1914. But we shouldn’t let this cloud the undercurrents of change throughout this period. War simply drove them onwards ever faster.
By the end of the First World War, war itself had changed, as had our revulsion of it. The next twenty years saw extravagant advances in science and technology; the rise of radio, television, antibiotics and new synthetic materials opened up whole new horizons of human possibility, along with authors like HG Wells and Aldous Huxley determined to embrace them. This coupled with new and threatening forms of political organisation, all focussed on grasping the future, produced another deadly conflict that bequeathed nuclear technology, jet engines, rockets and the computer. Therefore, although the world looked very different in 1900 than it had in 1800, the next hundred years would see exponentially greater change again. Nor should our consideration end there. The end of the Cold War unveiled technologies that were almost inconceivable just a few years before. The Gulf War in 1991 seemed less an attempt to establish a new world order than a showcase for it, as information systems and precision weapons turned a powerful, multidimensional, million-man army into target practice. And it did not stop there. The last fifteen years have witnessed the most intense period of technological change in history. Computer hardware doubles in speed and durability in shorter and shorter periods of time; software is limited only by human imagination. New methods of energy generation point the way toward the end of our dependence on fossil fuels, and genetic technology already raises more questions than we know how to ask, let alone answer. All this, and with new developments in nano-technology, we are stretching our capacity to imagine the future and testing the limits of language to describe it comprehensibly.
The evolution of the social arena has been no less dramatic. The old-fashioned idea that identity comes through the learning and mastering of the habits and customs of a region, class or profession have rapidly dissipated; to be replaced by a refutation of externally applied categories. The public and private domains have been reversed, and individuals demand to be understood as such. No longer are people judged according to the choices they make, but according to the feelings they reveal. Life now is a voyage of discovery, where every achievement or failure reveals innate characteristics and brings one closer to one’s ‘true self’. The Internet has accelerated this process exponentially as like-minds form distant communities of mutual appreciation, and shared obsession. The meaning of friendship has been destabilised, such that one can have thousands of friends, and none. Mobile phones have made communication potentially instantaneous, while facebook makes interaction passive and ad hoc. Information flows have multiplied and accelerated to such an extent that people are subsumed within it, and ‘identity theft’ becomes a matter of knowing someone’s birthday and their mother’s maiden name. It is now almost possible to know everything and nothing about a person, simultaneously.
Politically this translates as the abandonment of party loyalty, and the rise of single-issue campaigns. There is no use attempting to unite people behind a shared program of social transformation, as social transformation accelerates every day. Better to capture those fleeting moments when everyone agrees about one thing. Political parties used to be respectable associations of common loyalty to a way of life or general social disposition; now they are merely the receptacles of strident and fissiparous individual ambition. When this ambition is realised, then governing becomes the management – or mismanagement – of the everyday. Long-term investment decisions get overtaken by events; minor clerical errors cause ministerial resignations. Governments can no longer even win wars because the reasons for waging them are continually crowded out by the life story of the latest casualty. They are no longer concerned with the future for the simple reason that – due to the permutations and combinations of proliferating technological and social change – we know less about the future now than at any time in history.
With all this change comes an intensification of the present. Change is not simply upon us, it overwhelms us daily. It generates fear and alienation. As the world changes, so we feel less at home in it. We fear being left behind, so we master new technologies and novel social codes, or we retreat and reach for old certainties. As the past becomes more distant, we venerate it all the more. We dig it up carefully on live TV, we recreate it meticulously as a tribute to an imagined stability and coherence. We hang on inexplicably to a simulation of traditional monarchy for the disguise it permits our tawdry voyeurism over their pointless, infantile lives. Most of all we adopt the latest fashionable opinion, and strive endlessly to seem familiar – even if disdainful – with the new. But of course, we do it ‘ironically’. We laugh at ourselves as we slavishly join facebook, we ‘do our bit’ for the environment, as long as it doesn’t mean any genuine sacrifice. We wear armbands and go to concerts to save the environment, laughing all the time at Ricky Gervais – laughing at us, laughing at him, laughing at us, etc. Life has become so ironic that irony itself is now meaningless. This crisis of meaning is revealed not simply by our obsession with the past, but also by strange direction comedy has taken. Ricky Gervais offers moments of original and deeply powerful social critique but is perhaps exceptional for that. Little Britain on the other hand is surely amusing, but nobody can explain why without just repeating the catchphrases and laughing. Not everyone likes Little Britain, but everyone knows about it, and it wins awards. To call it a freakshow serves no longer to condemn it as the rootless turmoil of our post-millennial life looks a little bit like a freakshow, doesn’t it? Where once we could draw on narratives of progress and national purpose for some consensus upon which to base our criticism and satire, now we are simply wheeling about looking for something odd to laugh at, and Big Brother offers us not just the vision, but the reality of a society that simply sits around, watching itself, laughing.
This vortex of technological and social change that sucks away the meaning in our lives by destabilising all certainties produces a generalised psychological distemper which meets the future with an exhausted shrug; a post-millennial condition which reduces to a kind of nervous, reflective cynicism, an arch contempt for purposeful risk and endeavour, and a soulless post-ironic reductionism that disdains seriousness in favour of wit and unapologetic self-obsession. To hold an opinion, or to believe something, is not the result of thoughtful consideration, but a kind of social performance. To believe is to value being perceived as believing.
Nevertheless, the world demands interpretation. Life still requires meaning. And even if the increasing pace of change elevates insouciant dilettantism up the social hierarchy, the need for interpretation renders public opinion both volatile and powerful. Influence becomes a case of playing the Pied Piper of Hamelin, seducing rats and children with irresistible mood-music. Given that change is a remorseless dynamo, we vest inordinate faith in those who claim to be its master, those who claim to know the way ahead. It is not necessary to say exactly what change is necessary, merely to pull at the bridle and look serene. Nor is this entirely negative. For a population to be sold an idea is not to interrupt change, nor to control it, but it may create fleeting commonalities of perception, and thus restore a semblance of joint purpose to the whole, distilling from the chaos and anomie a precious moment of parallel reflection.
so visible in the current US elections, is not what it seems.
so visible in the current US elections,
is not what it seems.
And people clearly want to believe in the future. When everything is so uncertain, it’s no surprise that we grasp at any trace of meaning, any attempt to chart a path to progress. It is impossible to see the renewed enthusiasm among the US electorate and come to any other conclusion. Indeed, even if it is assumed that Obama’s message is short on specifics, that in itself is indicative of the lack of conditions his supporters place on the content of his message. They are simply seduced by the idea of hope after 7 years dominated by fear. But this article has been less about the specifics of Obama’s appeal, and more about the post-Millennial mindset, which acts as the context of conceptual instability in which grand appeals to the future can prove so attractive, not because of their specificity, but in spite of it.
A desire for change, so visible in the current US elections, is not what it seems. It is indicative of a yearning for predictable points in the future; moments to hang on to, things to be sure about. It is a perfect encapsulation of the post-millennial condition, where increasing uncertainty about the future raises the stakes of every private wager with aspiration. And when these desires coalesce around a political figure, it provides a moment of intense relief. To believe that a new face, one promising change, will deliver at least a point of common agreement momentarily sweeps aside the cloying retinue of meritless curiosities that occupy our degraded public life, and reminds us what politics is for. If we have abandoned grand narratives of political and social transformation, we cannot abandon the effects of change on our lives. We cannot simply sit back and show contempt for it all like monks in a weird form of public retreat, or pick at it like diners in a vast buffet. If change is perpetually accelerating and making our grasp of the future less certain everyday, then commitment to an idea of political community becomes more important, not less. And it is this sweeping undercurrent of social transformation that makes us reach out for the idea of unity. Living in the modern world can be a rollercoaster, but rollercoasters are no fun riding solo. As the idea of the future becomes more distant and opaque, we must become accustomed to change as the norm, to see it as much more than a cliché or an empty aspiration, but as the only thing we have left.
[October 22nd, 2008]
Douglas Bulloch was born in Canada, grew up in the UK and lives in Shanghai. He spent many years working on the financial reporting side of the oil business before returning to academia to write a political-theory heavy PhD in International Relations. His two young children leave him little time to think, but give him many reasons to