Politics in the metaverse.
The real world is just too difficult.
On or about June 2016, the political, intellectual and media classes of the western world started to go noisily insane. It’s been getting worse ever since, to the point where today many of these people don’t live in what you and I see as the real world at all, but in a kind of collective hallucination, or, if you prefer, a political metaverse. How did they get there? How did we get there?
Now of course accusing your political opponent of “madness” or even “insanity” is an age-old tactic, and if I were just here to argue that this or that policy of this or that government was “mad," then frankly this article wouldn’t be worth reading. But my point is quite different: individually and collectively, increasing numbers of the western political, intellectual and media classes are showing signs of behaviour which psychiatrists would regard as abnormal and even disturbing. I’m not concerned with the detailed content of the arguments discussed below, still less who’s right and who’s wrong, but rather with the pathologies of groups and individuals who have floated away from the real world entirely, and who now live in a collective fantasy, akin to a multi-player role-playing game on the Internet.
In the 2010s, international neoliberal elites exuded a smugness that almost left traces in the air when they passed. The world was going their way. Countries all over the western world were converging on the same model of unrestrained economic and social liberalism. True there were some apparent holdouts in that World Outside whose hotels and airports we pass through, but even in places like China, Russia and India, there were increasing numbers of People Like Us. And it’s a curious fact that the hegemony of thought that everybody who’s heard of Gramsci knows about doesn’t have to extend to the whole of the population, or even to the major part of it, to be effective. It only has to extend to those who have power and influence. The population of the world that regularly reads the Guardian, Le Monde, the New York Times, the Economist, watches CNN or BBC World, probably doesn’t exceed a few million in total: an inconsiderable fragment of the world’s population, but many of them in positions of power, and most in positions of influence. There is thus an international Liberal Professional and Managerial Class discourse found all over the world, numerically unimportant, but politically powerful.
Moreover, beyond a certain point, control of patterns of thought becomes control of reality itself. If you are in a position to dictate what is considered and accepted as real, you are for practical purposes able to dictate what reality is. And this was indeed the case. So a necessarily imperfect and awkward world was re-arranged into configurations that seemed more pleasing. You’re uncomfortable with the complexity of relations between the sexes in the modern world? Fine, we’ll abolish the difference between men and women. Think you were born in the wrong body? Fine, we’ll let you choose which sex you are, That book offends you? Fine, we’ll ban it or rewrite it. You find that episode in history disturbing? Fine, we’ll change the past. It’s the Amazon.com attitude to existence: if you don’t like it, send it back, or exchange it for another. After all, hundreds of Californian gurus have been telling is for decades that Life Can Be Whatever You Want it to Be, and they can’t all be wrong.
Evidently, it was also a way of forcing your reality upon others. You think you’re unemployed? Nah, you’ve just been set free from the outdated Taylorian patterns of lifetime salaried labour. You think you’re economically insecure and isolated? Nah, you have just been promoted to CEO of your own life. You think you are deeply in debt with a useless degree and can’t find a job? Nah, it’s your responsibility to create a unique and compelling personal narrative which will get you the job of your dreams. After all, you can get an education from YouTube: who ever said the state should provide one, even if they have taken all your money already?
And finally, problems that ordinary people actually have can be made to disappear, simply by not letting them be discussed too openly. In much of the media, coverage of poverty, exclusion, the cost of living, education, immigration, crime and violence are discouraged, and thus these problems do not exist. Handily, anyone who argues that they do exist, can be dismissed as some kind of extremist and consequently banned from the airwaves.
Looking back, it’s now obvious to everyone, what was obvious to some of us at the time. Denial of reality can only go on for so long, and the firmer the denial and the deeper the delusion, the worse will be the reaction. Let’s look at a number of episodes.
The initial explosion was after the 2016 Brexit referendum, which went the wrong way. Now, my point here is not just that European liberal elites saw the referendum as an opportunity for a vote of confidence in their plans to create a grey, flat, monotone Europe, liberated from all history and culture. More importantly, they also saw it as a vote to allow such liberal elites to continue to dominate the debate, and make policy on everyone’s behalf. (Had their desired result been the opposite, of course, the shock of losing would have been just as great.) Yet, after the result, pragmatic arguments about how both Remainers and Leavers should respond, what to do now, how to negotiate, how to get the best deal and so forth, were brushed aside in a rush into two parallel fantasy worlds, one of which was for people who believed Brexit could still be stopped, because the people had made a mistake, the other of which was for people who believed that impossibly magical things could now happen as a result of the vote. Neither side was remotely interested in why and how the British people had voted as they did.
Anyone with five minutes of experience in practical politics would have known how to manage the resulting chaos: think about it, play it long, set up a Committee, open informal negotiations with Brussels. Instead, on one side, fear, stupidity, amateurism, and an obsession with the internal management of the Tory Party rolled over everything. By invoking the Withdrawal process without consultation, without any idea of negotiating objectives, or without any idea of what was in fact possible, the government resembled a negotiator who puts a gun to their head, and threatens to blow their brains out if they don’t get what they want. For the last part of the negotiations, the government was living in a fantasy world, telling the EU that there was a parliamentary majority for things that anyone who could count knew there wasn’t. In particular, the problem of Northern Ireland, which no-one had apparently foreseen, could only be solved by a customs border on the island or in the sea, each of which was unacceptable. So when Johnson became PM, to “get Brexit done," he simply lied, encouraging the Party to disappear further into a fantasy world, where in fact the problem didn’t exist, and there would therefore be no consequences. Most of the Tory Party were happy to be lied to. In fairness, there was almost as much delusion on the Remain side: the stubborn belief until the very end that liberal state mechanisms, especially the Courts, could somehow intervene and make the referendum result just go away, or that the people could be asked the same question repeatedly until they finally gave the right answer.
That episode set the pattern for the next few years: when challenged, decide that there is a fault with reality, and retreat into a fantasy world. If enough of you retreat into that world together, you can reinforce each others’ views. It’s hard to believe now, but five years ago there were apparently intelligent people, able to write in complete sentences, some of whom had attended university, who believed that the President of the United States had been recruited as a spy by Vladimir Putin, and was reporting to him at any summit they were both at. (Indeed, any meetings at political level with Russia were argued to be a form of treason by some.) It’s all being quietly forgotten now by the previously deluded, but it is explicable, once again, as a collective hallucination into which an entire class could retreat to escape the reality that their preferred champion lost the 2016 election, and once again, the people did not do what they were told.
At least in these two incidents, you could argue the damage was contained. Both did enormous damage to the political systems of the countries concerned, and held them up to ridicule all over the world. But the stress-related retreat into fantasy in each case was actually just an omen of much worse to come. It revealed a political class, together with its media and intellectual hand-servants, for whom reality as it had traditionally been conceived was now optional. If reality didn’t suit, then it could be changed by collective agreement, and there was a courtier class on hand to rationalise these changes and reflect them back again to the rulers.
By rights, Covid should have been the moment when the VR glasses were ripped off, the protective blanket was dragged away and the self-styled elites were obliged to confront reality. To a degree it was; at least at the beginning. Covid was a genuinely huge and frightening problem that needed massive and effective intervention by governments if it was to be resolved. Yet the very size of the problem reduced western governments to a kind of twitching catatonia, and evoked the kind of random, unpredictable, sometimes aggressive behaviour you can see in the mentally disturbed. Governments went from denial to overreaction, from telling people to live normally to locking them up. The simple fact that the virus spread around the world by the movement of people, and often by air travel, could not actually be true, because it would be “racist” and put unlimited free movement in doubt as a political objective. Even when the seriousness of the situation finally penetrated, western governments still chose to believe that the virus was spread largely by touch and by droplets. Recognising that it was spread according to an aerosol model would have been too frightening and demanding, and would have required all sorts of measures that governments weren’t prepared to take; as well, of course, as them admitting they had been wrong, and a lot of people had died needlessly.
In the end, it was all too difficult. Even if the capacity to really deal with the problem had existed, and in most governments it didn’t, the will was lacking. People were complaining, businesses were closing, airlines were losing money, you couldn’t go to a restaurant, what about my skiing holiday? So a decision was quietly taken, without any real debate, to just declare the problem over. Covid was last year’s thing. It was boring, now. Let’s take our masks off and celebrate. If we don’t talk about it, the disease will go away, and if we don’t publish any figures, then obviously nobody can be getting ill and dying. Let's get back to virtual reality, where we’re a lot happier. And there are elections to win, power and wealth to acquire and defend, and anyway, I’m healthy, why should I worry? So Covid is an example of a problem which the Liberal PMC ran away from because it was too difficult. The problem is, of course, precisely that some problems can’t be run away from.
And now the same Liberal PMC has run straight into Ukraine, coming in the other direction. If there was ever a crisis precision-engineered to strike the Liberal PMC where it most hurt, with the accuracy of a Kinzhal missile, well, this is it. Of course you can argue that no sensible political class would have found itself in this lunatic position to begin with. And it’s true that the question of how to manage relations with the new Russia after the end of the Cold War was recognised and discussed a lot thirty years ago, at a time when political culture as a whole was much less adolescent than it is now. But nothing was really done, because it was all too complicated, and no-one could agree. So things drifted on, there were little wars to fight, a world economy to deregulate, moral postures to be struck: life was full of things to do, and anyway Russia was so yesterday. Not now it’s not, and a crisis as grave as any since 1914 has just hit a political culture with an average mental age scarcely into double digits.
The answer (for want of a better word) has been to retreat, once more, into fantasy; to develop a collective hallucination in place of the actual war. After all, if we can control the narrative, does the truth actually matter? Does an artillery shell destroy anything if there are no videos of it? Well, in this case, I fear it does. But I wonder whether the western political, media and intellectual classes are actually going to be able to handle reality when it does hit them hard, and tears the VR googles off, finally.
Oh yes, and is that an onrushing climate crisis I see before me?