The Year's Midnight.
Kindness can be a revolutionary act.
’’Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day’s, Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks wrote John Donne, in A Nocturne upon Saint Lucy’s Day. That day—13 December by the calendar in Donne’s time, 21 December by today’s—is Midwinter’s Day, the shortest day of the year, the time of deepest cold and darkness, but historically also the time of the annual miracle when the days began to lengthen once more, and there was the faint promise of better days. (“Lucy” is Saint Lucia, named from the latin word for “light,” lux.)
So this day, when I’m finishing the post and you are perhaps reading it, has always had a double, liminal, significance. Most cultures have commemorated the pivot from the depth of darkness to the faint promise of light. For much of the West, the celebration of Christmas on 25 December (not just the cooptation of a pagan festival in fact: this seems to be a myth), together with the final convergence of the New Year on January 1, as well as Epiphany on 6 January, combined to create a whole Festive Season, a powerful and complex myth of rebirth and renewal extending over several weeks.
And so for centuries now, people have been wishing each other “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”, and no doubt the postal service and the internet are full of such heartwarming sentiments even now. But is that how most of us feel in 2022, on the Year’s Midnight? In Donne’s poem, the narrator, grieving his dead love, assumes a typically extravagant and paradoxical pose: “I am every dead thing” he writes:
I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.
The idea of being reborn not into the light of St Lucy, but of and into darkness, does seem horribly resonant just at the moment. Darkness in Europe and death in Ukraine, for example. What a way to start a new year.
And there are plenty of things which are not. Hope, for example. Looking around, and making occasional well-protected forays into the media, the main impression I get is not of anger, or even resignation, but of a kind of numb hopelessness. It’s not the same as pessimism or fear about the future, it’s the abandonment of even the possibility of hope. It’s not the fear that things will never get better, but rather the certainty that they will inevitably get worse. We know that Covid is not over, but we don’t think we can avoid getting it. So we obediently and fatalistically take our masks off. There will be diseases worse than Covid to come, but we can’t do anything about that. We expect to be cold and possibly even hungry this winter, but what can you do? We accept that life for our children will be harder than it was for us, and as for our grandchildren better not think about it. We take it for granted that public services and government capacity will continually decline, that health services, education, infrastructure and law and order will progressively collapse. Shame about that. But we do nothing, just as large numbers of people have been observed to freeze in life-threatening emergencies, rather than try to escape. We are too tired even to be openly angry; but we are angry nonetheless, and that anger is externalised onto other countries— Russia, China, India—who seem to be on a different path from us. Why is it that those countries make plans for the future, while we argue about the present and blame each other for the past? But more to the point, how did we get here anyway?
First, let’s be clear what this essay is not about. It’s not the anxiety of the Crisis of Modernity or whatever. It’s not alienation from the system of production. It’s not the Anomie that Durkheim wrote about. It’s not Weber’s Disenchantment of the World. It’s not fear of climate change (and incidentally running out of oil is not the same as running out of hope.) Or rather, yes, it’s all of these things in the background, but none of them are exactly new. The disintegration of public services and the breakdown of global transportation networks are not symbols of the Spenglerian Decline of the West, they have other and more recent origins. No, we are dealing with the immense and still poorly understood psychological and spiritual consequences of forty years of Liberal Nihilism. (Yes, that’s a concept I just invented, I think.) What I mean by that phrase, is that the uncontrolled growth, and universal application, of Liberal social and political ideas in the last forty-odd years have produced the expected result: we are degenerating into isolated, alienated individuals, with no relations except economic ones, no society, no common points of reference, no hope and no future.
This is the natural result of the thorough-going application of an ideology which has no moral compass except short-term financial efficiency and total personal autonomy, and so as a result, we have lost not only the ability to manage and plan at the level of the community and the state, but even the awareness that such a thing might be necessary. It is also the natural result of an ideology which is fundamentally negative, which is always fighting against things, and so cannot express the positive except as the destruction of a negative: as a consequence we have lost our ability to act collectively, since each of us is a suspicious, hostile, monad, seeing others as a threat; an island entire of itself, as John Donne put it. But now, of course, the bell tolls for all of us.
All of this was entirely predictable, and was predicted, from the tenets of a political ideology of selfishness, that puts individual needs and wants before collective ones, and where the more power and money you have, the more your private needs will be fulfilled. China builds railroads while we build electronic currency markets. Russia does real mining while we do Bitcoin mining. Nobody forced our leaders to banish manufacturing industry abroad, to eviscerate public services in the name of management efficiency or to turn all activities, even education, even social life itself, into machines for generating money for those who have too much already. And now all we do have is money, or the luckiest of us, anyway, who mostly have other peoples’. And its hard not to think of another poet, Philip Larkin, writing presciently about the future in the days when there still seemed to be the chance of one:
Our children will not know it's a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
And it turns out that, indeed, all we have left is money, but also that money can only buy things that actually exist and are for sale. You cannot buy warmth and light if there is no power for sale. Money cannot make food appear if there is none. Money cannot conjure into existence homes that do not exist, nor drugs that are no longer available. Money cannot even buy weapons if there are no factories to make them.
A better guide to what’s going on here, perhaps, is Franco Berardi’s concept of the End of the Future. In After the Future Berardi describes not the literal end of the Future, since time will continue to pass, but rather the end of the concept of the Future itself as something different from the present, to think about, and even anticipate. The late lamented Mark Fisher took up Berardi’s idea in several of his works. An early critic of IdiotPol culture, which in his view destroyed solidarity and promoted only guilt and fear, he drew on writers such as Althusser and Gramsci to argue that the basic condition of our age is one where change or development is actually believed to be impossible, and there is no alternative to a market-based economy and society which theoretically endless, but which in fact is bound eventually to eat itself. For that reason, Fisher argued, culture also is now reduced to consuming itself, even as we pine for a “future” that we were promised, but which never arrived. (Tragically, but perhaps fittingly, Fisher killed himself in 2016). It’s certainly true that popular culture continues to dumb itself down with endless recycling of the past. Guitar bands today sound like guitar bands of fifty years ago, just not so fresh: even technical components of popular music like key changes and time signatures are less complex than they used to be. Hollywood continues to function by cloning itself: no doubt audiences in 2045 will be thrilling to Top Gun 7.
Overall, then, our culture tells us that the future will be like the present, only worse. Not a boot stamping on a human face forever, perhaps, but not just One Damn Thing After Another, either. But it wasn’t always thus. As it happens, I’ve been reading over the last few days the second volume of the memoirs of the distinguished French historian Pierre Nora, who was also for many years an editor at the legendary French publishing house of Gallimard (Proust, Gide, Sartre, Camus, Aragon, Foucault …). Set mostly in the 60s and 70s, it describes a world in some ways more distant from our own than the Middle Ages. Can you imagine a world in which there were real philosophers and interesting new ideas, and where intellectual debates took place in periodicals and on television (!) rather than on Twitter? And where there was hope for a future which would be interesting and better?
The hope and optimism that I remember from my youth has often been misunderstood and misrepresented. It was not techno-fetishism or Baconian mastery of nature, really. Moon bases, starships and flying cars were essentially symbols: the mythology, I always say, of the technological era. Rather, the assumption was that technology would continue to be harnessed for the common good, as it had recently been, and that life would continue to become easier and more pleasant for the average person. For politicians like the British Fabians of the 50s and 60s, government was essentially about deciding how best to use the proceeds of economic growth for the benefit of all. How quaint that sounds, today.
There was nothing inevitable to the change which eventually led to Liberal Nihilism: it depended on a series of decisions made by particular individuals at particular times and under specific circumstances. For all that real issues (competition from Japan, oil-price driven inflation, the need to modernise the Trades Unions) were prayed in aid, the actual process was one of deliberate, if incoherent, attempts to impose abstruse, unworkable and even dangerous economic theories, which nonetheless were strongly supported by certain groups, notably the rich. This wasn’t a conspiracy though, much as some would be comforted to think it was. Nor were the pointy-headed economists behind it consciously evil : they were mostly just misguided and divorced from reality. And even the politicians who adopted these ideas do generally seem to have thought, in their confused and ignorant fashion, that they would be good for the economy, rather than injecting a potentially-lethal poison into it. Beyond a few nutcases, none of them would actually have wished to bring about the situation we have now. But then evil is always easier to deal with than incompetence.
To help us understand this, I want to invoke yet another French thinker, this time the very untypical Christian/Marxist/Anarchist sociologist Jacques Ellul. He wrote a lot, but he’s best known for his Theory of Technique: the word technique is often translated as “technology,” but Ellul was always clear that he included any system or process which was arrived at rationally, and was considered to be effective, whether or not it involved machines. His insight was that, whereas we think techniques exist to serve us, in the end we wind up serving them, almost as a substitute faith (he was also a theologian.) This is why the current situation is so dangerous and so apparently hopeless: elites have so internalised “technical” solutions which are “effective” by the most banal of criteria, that they are literally incapable of thinking any other way even as disaster approaches. Failure to them simply means that the ideology has not been tried hard enough, and they continue to self-inflict pain, as did the Xhosa tribes who famously killed all their cattle in the 1850s, after a prophecy that it would restore their former greatness as a nation.
The worship of “technique” of course, is the opposite of “vision,” even in the debased sense in which that word appears on company PowerPoint slides. Our current leaderships have been trained in technique to the exclusion of everything else, and are obsessed with “technical” solutions to problems, the more complex the better. Ask them what the actual purpose of politics is, and they stammer incoherently. Its hard to believe that the Sunaks and Macrons of the world, with their mere smattering of genuine education, have really thought deeply about the policies they are trying to thrust on their populations: they are as much intellectual prisoners as everyone else. That Macron could possibly believe, at a time like this, that forcing French people to work longer for smaller pensions should be the highest priority for his government, may seem to defy belief. But the fact is that, when all you know is how to build Lego models, every problem looks like a Lego model needing to be built.
And so we live in a kind of Hell where nothing changes, or ever can change, except for the worse. CS Lewis observed once that the only people in Hell are the ones who want to be there, by which he meant that they were incapable of understanding and learning, and incapable of changing their minds. Escape from our current problems is thus dependent on the only thing that is excluded in principle: a change of mind.
But even so, why don’t people revolt? Protests, mass mobilisation, even civil wars and revolutions, are not exactly unknown in history after all. The problem is, such movements need a framework of some kind, or they just peter out into aimless protests and violence. In the past, they were often conservative in nature, demanding the restoration of former privileges, or the removal of unpopular new laws and rulers and a return to models of the past. It was armies of ordinary people that battled the armies of the French Revolution in the Vendée in 1793, under the slogan “For God and King,” and as late as 1830, Charles X, driven to abdication after trying to restore absolute monarchy, still retained a great deal of support in the countryside from people who thought he was the rightful King, and that if you disagreed with that, you could take it up with God.
We are more used these days to revolts and revolutions that have an eye towards the future, but for this you have to believe that a different future is in fact possible, and at least some vague idea what it may look like. For a long time, religion supplied a possible conceptual framework, as it still does with some fringe movements in Islam, but in the West its place has been taken by the secular apocalyptic cult I described a few weeks ago, whose ideology is precisely the absolute triumph of Liberal Nihilism. With the abandonment of Marxism, and even of reformist Socialism, and their effective suppression from political discourse in the West, there are no shared alternative frameworks within which a different and better future could even be imagined. Nationalism, which is a natural and inevitable response to the impending triumph of the Liberal Death Cult, is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one, for a better future. By itself, a widespread return to “nationalism” as it is currently understood (ie policies that serve the collective national interest rather than some abstruse ideology) would do no more than return us the the political consensus of the 60s and 70s: it would not in itself be enough to provide a better future. Whilst it was condescending and a bit silly to ask the Gilets jaunes in 2018/19 what alternative political programme they had, it was nonetheless true they didn’t have one, and this in turn was why parts of the movement degenerated into just expressions of anger and smashing things.
Sometimes lack of hope and its consequences are more obvious when you see them from the outside. I remember being in Sierra Leone many years ago, just after the end of the Civil War, and finding a country flat on its back, having long ago lost all faith in itself, its institutions and even its future, after forty years of mismanagement, corruption and violence since independence. It was most obvious with ordinary people: amputees slumped in puddles in the rain waiting to die, youngsters pursuing me down the street crying “Master, master, buy this shirt, local make, only ten dollar.” And others offering different and more varied services. (I did buy a shirt from one of them in the end, after extracting a pointless promise that the vendor would never call a westerner “master” again. I hope it kept his family alive for a week.) But you found a variant of the same thing among those of the educated elites who had not fled the country. The first time I heard someone say “you should come back and recolonise us. At least things worked then, at least we had a railway system in those days,” I was surprised, but that surprise passed with repetition. In the end, the only people who seemed content with the situation were those feeding off the scraps of the country that remained, and those making money off the huge international presence there.
Hence, perhaps, the nihilistic violence of the Revolutionary United Front during the war, with its anger against the Freetown elites, and its reported slogan “No More Slaves, No More Masters. Power and Wealth to the People.” But it had no real ideology of any kind, and relied on violence, terror and the abduction of children to further its aims. Some of the children went on later to form the West Side Boys, under the influence of American gangsta rap and Rambo films. For all of them, destruction of the system was objective enough. And then the United Nations arrived, with its manuals and its procedures, its PowerPoint slides and its liberal state ideology, and its worship of technique, and it took over the effective running of the country. (Oh, since you ask, things don’t seem to have improved very much: all the UN really left them was money.)
So the risk is not really of a revolution, because, as the shade of Gramsci would probably argue if we asked him, the necessary intellectual preparation is simply not there. People cannot fight for something they cannot conceptualise, and no-one is around at the moment to do the conceptualising thing. All they can do is to fight against something they know, or they think they know, and seek to destroy it. That was the way the Gilets jaunes protests eventually went, degenerating into random acts of hostility and even aggression. That way, also, lies the mindless violence of the Black Blocs. And the problem with such behaviour is that it incites people to cling to the status quo, for fear that what replaces it will be even worse. And unlike Sierra Leone, there’s no obvious place to emigrate to.
It’s true that fighting against something, in the immediate sense, can be unifying and self-affirming. The Resistance movements of the Second World War could not have emerged from a greater state of despair and hopelessness. Those people I know who fought against the apartheid regime in South Africa spent much of their time in what everyone agreed was a hopeless, even pointless cause. But in such cases, these involved did actually have a positive set of principles to rely on as well, and some idea of what a society purged of the elements they were combating would actually look like.
It’s already clear, I think, that part of the backlash against Liberal Nihilism and its Death Cult risks being aggressive, if not actually violent: a product of despair and anger rather than any coherent plan. It has long been noticed that in the riots that have taken place in poor communities over the last few generations, a lot of the anger and hostility of the rioters was directed against their own communities, and even their own homes. This puzzled right-wing observers, but is entirely understandable if you actually hate your life, hate where you live, and want to destroy it. I fear we may be in for something similar now.
So where do we go after all this? It’s easy to say “don’t despair,” but it’s equally easy to insist that despair is a perfectly reasonable reaction in the circumstances. But there its another way of looking at the problem. Donne’s Nocturne ends with the poet taking solace only in the thought that he will one day join his love in death. Perhaps we can do better than that.
Let’s go back to Jacques Ellul for a minute. He’s the originator of the popular phrase “think globally, act locally.” Now (small quibble) globalement in French doesn’t primarily have a geographical sense: it means “as a whole,” or “overall.” What he was saying is that you need on the one hand an overarching concept, and on the other decentralised implementation. He was close to the tradition of anarcho-syndicalism, which believed in creating local autonomous structures, not just throwing bombs. If there is a solution, it’s likely to come from there. Electorates pay less and less attention to governments, and vote less often and less willingly than ever. In the poorer parts of France, often abandoned by the state, we see the rise of informal social self-help movements, trying to recreate the structures that Liberal Nihilism has spent so much time and effort trying to destroy. Free community lending libraries spring up to circulate books that no-one can afford to buy. Clothes are shared and recycled along families, goods are traded rather than sold. If you want some work done, someone who knows someone probably knows someone who will do it, in return for another favour.
We may be seeing the beginning of a Great Defection, as people turn their backs on a state system that does nothing for them, and on a Liberal Nihilist ideology that tries to get them to behave in ways that are fundamentally inhuman. People do not automatically behave in selfish and violent ways unless they are given incentives to do so, or have no other choice. Research into disasters also shows that, when confronted with life-threatening problems, people generally cooperate and work together, and natural leaders emerge. Paradoxically, the worse the situation gets, the more scope there is for these kinds of ad hoc solutions.
So if there is hope then, it lies outside the current political and economic system and its media, intellectual and NGO parasites, who are, indeed, the origin of much of the problem themselves. Ultimately, the ideology under which we suffer is an unnatural and artificial one, and does not correspond to our deepest instincts, which are for collective action and mutual aid. Once we accept that, and try as far as possible to behave differently in our own daily lives, then, even at the year’s midnight, there might be some hope.
These days a gesture of kindness is a revolutionary act.