The blanket of malaise hanging over 2013. Can it be torn down in 2014?

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It’s been an hard truth to come to terms with, but refusing to discuss it for any longer will delay the thoughts of how it can be torn down. A blanket of malaise has swept over society during the past year and half, and I’m watching people get sicker and sicker. As well as the ‘cutification’ and ‘retrophilia’ becoming more deeply embedded in society, as the world picture becomes more ghastly, so many people seem far more fed up, and exhausted than I have ever known.

For most of the past year I had lost faith in writing things down; a sense that there was no longer anything I could say, or, at least, that I had found face to face dialogue far more feasible in an age where time has collapsed onto us, and there is an overarching compulsion for immediacy (“if it can’t be said in 150 characters via Twitter, then what’s the point?). But this too is a symptom of a wider malaise, of walking a road which has suddenly become steeper and steeper and even steeper on the horizon. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ folks!

There is so much evidence strewn all over, like a ripped up and shredded contract, to show that increased economic hardship is giving many a massive helping push towards their coping limits, with stories of increases in suicides, and suicidal thoughts rife amongst young adults, and rising cases of general psychological distress. Many of us have seen from day to day observations that this was already happening before the statistics at least gave the evidence to back it up. Only an artful dodger of the evidential, would try to argue that a ruthless economic agenda, fortified by a jingoist national agenda nudging towards outright authoritarianism, isn’t shooting many from both sides, with pessimism from one barrel and endemic fear from the other, right now. Yet, the artful dodgers often have the last word, as the majority who do have a sense that somethings gone wrong across the board can rarely articulate this feeling; they are too fractured by the sheer volume of seemingly unrelated shards of information, that rip holes in the mind, to see so clearly; and amnesia creeps into the scars left by this bombardment.

Many thus resort to the blame game, blaming migrants, benefit claimants, unable to focus for long enough on what should be unavoidably obvious: that it’s the monstrously unequal concentration of power in our world that is the cause of this seemingly unstoppable downward spiral we feel trapped within. (Social Geographer Doreen Massey often brings up the important of power; that it is the ability to get things done, and to choose what is to be done in any human collective, big or small. During the past 30 years power has been increasingly concentrated in such a small amount of hands, globally, that it’s created a dystopian situation for the rest of us. Migrants and benefit claimants have no power, so why do we blame them?).

But without focusing in on the current outcome from a specifically economic perspective, I wish to look at our entire cultural edifice/value system, as to why in 2013, at least in the UK, morale has been so low across the board, and already-existing psychological distress, and disorders, have moved many from having lives made problematic by them to having lives pushed to a crisis point by them.

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The cultural values ingrained into us from an day 1 of our lives are now seemingly pushing many of us to the point of nervous breakdown. Those of us in the UK under the age of 35 have been born into a culture bloated to sickness point with aspirationalism. And with this comes an even greater emphasis on social status. Social status has always been woefully present in British culture, but never before has status anxiety, and fear of failure been so present within it.  A politically-engineered violent individualism has attacked every one of us, isolating us from others, whilst making us more fearful of being socially invisible/a non-person to others due to our (lack of) achievements.

If Thatcherism planted the seeds of enforced aspiration (“self-entrepreneurship … a minimum requirement for mere survival [today]” – Steve Shaviro), Blairism, by denying the remaining existence of social classes in society, forced people to choose between enforced aspirationalism (a dictatorship of individualism) and being demoted to social ‘scum’; lazy, no good layabouts. Anyone who didn’t aspire ‘to better themselves’/to forge a career for themselves was an ‘undeserving “chav”‘,  seen as a scourge on society; the poor, the obese, the drug addicts were the people who should be excluded from the newly ‘regenerated’ city centres; new urban living, but only for the desirables, those who looked like what the computer-generated impressions of the ‘regenerated’ areas intended them to look like. All this at a time when opportunity for bettering yourself was becoming increasingly harder for anyone not already born into the right social class.

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Denying the existence of class, the differences in life chances between the classes, all the feelings of inferiority and anxieties that proliferate the further down the economic ladder you go, ingrains into an entire generation the belief that they can succeed just as much as their far more financially and hierarchically-privileged contemporaries. In the meantime whilst incubating a time-bomb growing off feelings of failure, inadequacy, unfulfilled aspirations -a feeling intensified more and more into the 2000’s, mushrooming due to the social networking phenomena – landing an entire generation (and large chunks off other generations) in a dangerously discontent place now these ingrained beliefs are being “crushed like bugs in the ground”.

So, in 2013, five years after the financial crash, and 3 years deep into these war-on-the-poor economic measures, taken with disgustingly sadistic pride (no doubt learned from Public school bullying sessions) by a Tory government in coalition-sheep’s clothing, all factors complicit in this generation-long social-status assault on people has reached a very grim and ugly point. During this year I have witnessed so many people become almost shells of themselves, wondering, as much as I wonder the very same about myself, how they can proceed: how can they move beyond this low point, when everything they have either been told they should be, or encouraged to be by omnipresent persuasions, is close to disintegrating? I suppose I am talking here of a section of this generation who have the safety net of their parents to rely on, and who, humiliatingly enough, increasingly have to rely on it.  Those below, whose lives are beaten and withered by threats of evictions, and reliance on food banks, have been having their aspirations smashed into the day in hand for years. But despite the differences in the immediacy and intensity of the suffering, the emphasis is here on loss of hope I see in peoples’ faces, their postures and their actions, whether they be zero-hour contract service industry workers being propped up by their parents, or those who really are on the breadline.

People’s Smiles are noticeably harder to hold. Many people are also noticeably upset whenever they see a photo of their past selves, or when they are reminded of past endeavours, because they feel something had been drained of life in them since then. It often feels like I’m living in a massive house of ghosts who are painfully daily reminded of the life they once lived. Despite the annoying focus on the completely irrelevant Mayan Domesday prediction for 2012, it did feel like something did end during this year. But if something died it was maybe the cultural belief system; that all remaining faith in it vanished. Yet the beliefs linger on in undead form, because our society remains ‘capitalist realist‘, where no alternative to the capitalist world seems imaginable to us. Neoliberalism, the dominant economic system that has dragged so much of the world into poverty to the benefit of an emergent plutocracy, was allowed to carry on unchallenged, even though it was a dead idea, precisely because of ‘capitalism realism’. But if cultural values are dead, yet we cling to them because we can’t imagine any other, then we are left trying to keep life going in a graveyard. 2013 was an undead year, we were like ghosts going through the motions.

It’s like the conceptual force field ‘capitalist realism’ has around us has fallen in on us, like a net falling around prey, making the endeavours we undertake increasingly more strenuous and less worthwhile, yet endeavours we still must undertake anyway. But it’s not just the death of such values, it is compounded by an inescapable awareness that the world seems to be looking a more frightening place by the day; that what we thought all too dystopian only a decade ago now seems to way of the world in 2013, from severe weather extremes every year, to fascist-like comments from mainstream politicians. “People are just fed up; they’ve had enough”, and amidst the bombardment of bake-off-based, feline-caption-picture-based, vintage-fashion-based, and crumbling-civilisation-based-Miley-Cyrus soundbites, these were words that often surfaced. The collection of examples used there are via Charlie Brooker’s 2013 round-up in the Guardian, but only because his round-up reflected my own experience.

The morale of the art world just below the relatively safe established art circles seems to have become very disheartened especially. Only 4/5 years back, before the coalition came to power, art was springing up in empty shop spaces and was, at least a large part of it, art that questioned/challenged. Fast forward to 2013, and you keep on hearing that everyone making art in the area feels a bit “meh” at the moment, that something has sapped the drive. The ‘keep Calm and Carry on’ Arts and Crafts brigade (who’s main motivation is an financially-anxious – but passed off as a relaxed, Alex James-style country-bumpkin – drive to make a business out their work) has emerged triumphant in the place of more challenging art.

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With total loss of hope surely comes two outcomes: total self-destruction, or destruction of the belief system and all that it privileges. Whilst ever the value system of a capitalist realist culture still holds on in its undead form, the former is the likely outcome. Returning to Charlie Brooker, in the Black Mirror episode he wrote called ’15 Million Credits’, it is clear that the episode’s protagonist is a cipher for Charlie Brooker himself. In ’15 Million Credits’ After the girl of his dreams has her soul destroyed in front of an X-factor-like-show panel (the crucible of the entire society – where the panelists begin to represent the judges in Stalinist-like showtrials) when they crush her hopes of being a singing and more or less force her into a choice between being a hardcore pornstar or having a miserable end to her days, the protagonist gets himself up in front of an entire population of a eerily-familiar dystopian society,  to tell the X-Fact0r-like judges, and the rest of society, that it is all fucked up, and they are all fucked up, and fuck you all, whilst holding a shard of glass to the main vein in his neck. The judges outcome being: “this is surely the most heartfelt performance I’ve seen on here since Hotshot began! [to which to crowd goes wild]” and the protagonist ends up having a weekly televised slot shouting about how everything is fucked up, whilst living quite comfortably. This is obviously how Charlie Brooker sees himself; that his despair, and abjection, tinted with great wit, over the state of society, is destined to be merely another form of entertainment. Black Mirror shows just how intelligent Brooker is.

The thing is, as much as I enjoy and value Charlie Brooker’s contribution to popular culture, there are a hell of a lot of people who feel exactly the same way about society (hence his popularity), who aren’t sitting as comfortably as him; I.e. he’s one of the few of us fortunate enough to make a decent living for himself out his feelings of hopelessness and despair. This isn’t a criticism of him, by any means, it’s just observing that this escape route isn’t an option for the rest of us, and in 2013 it’s increasingly evident on peoples’ faces that their options are running out full stop. As I said at the top, it’s a time-bomb. I can’t see how it can go on for much longer in the way it did in 2013, something surely has to tear through this decaying edifice. Most culture at the moment is playing into the hands of right wing conservative answers; be it the baking, cupcake, domesticity obsession that harks back to a pastiche of the 1940’s, or the obsession with everything British, where nearly every documentary seems to include the words ‘Great British’ in the title. But if this was 2013 culture, it was so far removed from daily experience that there’s no way that it can even slightly appease and satisfy for much longer. As I said above, we are at a crossroads now, where one way promises self-destruction, be it through drug intoxication, psychological surrender to bodies of authority/superstition, or self harm/suicide; the other way will be mean tearing away this dead culture, saying “fuck you, I won’t take this anymore”.

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The Place of Dead Ends (2013, 100X120cm)

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

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