How the command to have perpetual good times causes its opposite
During the time I have kept this blog I have found myself annually writing a pretty messy and uncontrollably pessimistic piece around this time of the year, usually titled Crash-Landing of One’s Life at The End of The Year. This year [yes!] “to save me from [fucking] tears, I’ll try pre-emptive action, by getting to the source of the tributary that leads to Lake Breakdown. I have struggled around this time of year for as long as my post-millennial-mind can remember, yet what always makes it doubly hard, is that doesn’t feel like it is allowed the voice it usually carves slowly but surely out of the late-capitalist landscape. I know I’m not the only one, maybe even within the many, yet the banishment remains in place. As my mind labours throughout the day on this, blowing hot and cold, the words “Sharing the Pain” are repeatedly reiterated in my head, as a means of articulating what I mean in the face of accusations more or less inciting I take a pleasure in pessimism. I get to the point whilst I’m walking from place to place where I’m internally screaming “yes, sharing the pain is what is crucially missing” in our contemporary situation.
In a BBC Radio 4 documentary from 2013 commenting on the 25th birthday of the “wonder-drug” Prozac, Will Self argued that we shouldn’t be trying to be happy all the time that “[M]aybe the world is a difficult and abrasive place and hard place, and we’d be better off as a society if we acknowledged it in some way rather than papering over the cracks [and we] shared the pain”. The title of the documentary was [a] Prozac Economy, and maybe Prozac is emblematic of the implicit dictum of late capitalist society to be happy and living life to the full, 24/7. After spending 3 quarters of my 20’s on another brand of anti-depressant, I became convinced that what was often mistaken as/and resorted to by patients/customers as a solution to a genuine inability to function in life was actually the ‘papering over the cracks’ of all the things that were inconvenient to the command to be fully active, well-rounded, happy subjects in the ‘game of life’. What is being referred to here, isn’t even the massive cause for ‘pleasure-depletion’ caused by the expanding trail of ‘externalities’ (poverty, pollution, violence) sweated, and spat out by capitalist growth; what is being referred to is the banishment of the bad-to-mundane parts of life from the social lexicon. Good times and success have come to mean the same thing and an implicit command to be living life to the full glares at us from the workplace, street, and living room, making for an unending sensation that our lives are somewhat lacking.
“Life tends to come and go. That’s OK as long as you know”, I Won’t Share You, The Smiths
The Smiths/Morissey’s lyric on their final song of their final album from the late 1980’s almost seem to be wise words of warning for the increasingly USA-like consumerist landscape that the UK would increasingly exist as in the two decades following on, that life isn’t always full and memorably-great. Yet we now live in a social landscape drunk on expectation that life should constantly flow and never ebb.
But without going much further just yet, in comes the emotional-stomach-pumping that is Xmas/New Year; a annual occurrence that is more of an unwritten consensus for a time of mental illness more than anything. Tears, relationship breakdowns, taxi-rank travesties – a general unhinging of minds. It’s like being sucked into a black hole; you have to make plans well in advance to ensure your coordinates are on course to steer you way past its gravitational pull. Most of us fail to do this, and just have to hold on in the best psychological state we can until we come out the other end in early January. It disorientates, messes any routines we have that give us scope for making (some) sense of things; giving us no means of coming to terms with the burning sensation “why aren’t I having a good time? I’m supposed to be. What the hell do I do now?”.
Many of us (usually referring to some unfortunate other – but often meaning ourselves) talk about how Xmas/New Year can be a ‘lonely time’. But I don’t think it is actually that much to do with being alone at this ‘special time’, but more a loneliness induced by this omnipresent command to be ‘living it up’. We feel more left out, missing out, with a need to be having good times-max for 2 solid weeks – no wonder we feel so exhausted by the end of it. This pressure to be constantly sociable, in the thick of good times, coincides with the increasing atomisation of human beings, due to an increasingly presence of market forces coming between al human interaction, so much so that George Monbiot wrote a recent column calling this “the age of loneliness”; both our real and imagined loneliness have increased.
My interpretation of the usual defence of Christmas [specifically, regarding the UK], as an ancient tradition of good will in the deep dead of winter, is that the difference lay not really in loss of belief in the Christian story (or tradition), but in the shift from it being a time of bringing good will, and an easing of pain, to a time where the language describing pain and general not-good times is banished from the existence. A burgeoning feeling of unease, makes us feel more distant from the (seemingly) joyous crowds. But my suspicion is that most of that crowd are actually only connected by their hidden loneliness.
Perhaps this shift can be placed at a point within the 20th century when a newly emerging stage of capitalism (a more completely market-saturated, market-dominated and deterritorialised society) snatched the mores (the demands/actions for the liberation of pleasures, freedoms to enjoy life) from the cultural revolutions of the 1960’s that fought to overthrow a previous style of capitalist domination. The counter-cultural liberation of the human soul in the mid-to-late 20th century turned out to be like rocket fuel to what could be called an emerging hypercapitalism, that re-appropriated and ventriloquised it so well, that tracks like the Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties becomes a slogan for this different style of domination.
Many theorists have worked hard to interpret this crucial shift, usually located in the 1970’s-80’s, but most notably Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze’s essay Postscript for Societies of Control, using Michel Foucault’s description of societies of Discipline and Punish (“operating in a time frame of a closed system”, based on containment and territorial in nature) to delineate the previous form of domination, talks of the beginnings of a new form of domination by “ultrarapid modes of free-floating control” where the “corporation has replaced [the older model] the factory, and the corporation is a spirit, gaseous”, it extends into all walks of life and “constantly presents the brashest forms of rivalry as an healthy form of emulation that opposes each individual against one another, and runs through each, dividing each within”. We are no longer citizens and workers, we are competitors and consumers; enforced individualism. (Digression slightly, but being as I am referring to many bands here, I will argue that the quintessential record for a discipline and punish society is Pink Floyd’s The Wall – released at that crucial point, 1979, when the transition was truly occurring, and that the quintessential record for control societies is Radiohead’s 1997 pre-cyberspatial-horror record OK Computer).
And, In a simplified way, it would seem that what the revolutionaries of the 1960’s were trying to overthrow was the discipline and punishment stage of capitalist domination, unfortunately oblivious to the more gaseous ‘control society’ stage of capital that was de-territorialising the sources of power, and re-appropriating the energies pitted against that older form, at the time. Unlike in a society based on discipline and punishment our pleasure drives aren’t something to be kept in check from a watchtower, but something left to the management of the individual, whilst advocated as a consumer rite of passage. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote in his essay The Riots – On Consumerism Coming Home To Roost, the 2011 UK rioters were ‘disqualified consumers’ who were (financially) unable to carry out their ingrained duty, and thus the rage of injustice was followed by the return of the repressed rite of passage to consume/enjoy – thus came the looting. Because control societies are always losing control, from the macro-economical right down to individual level.
What has all this got to do with Xmas/New year though? Well, all the factors that drive our contemporary reality, hit a huge power surge at this point every year; as Xmas/New Year now operates as some kind of social nervous breakdown, from which it rises back out in vain with redemptive plans for the new year. All the cities in the UK, by weekend, transform into landscapes of people desperate in pursuit of pleasure, in what is still seen as ‘leisure time’ – do they find their fun? Maybe eventually. Christmas however, is this on overdrive, when we truly do become lonely prisoners to the pleasure pursuit. ( The Black Friday escapades, that are condemned by those who foolishly think they are exempt from consumer subjectivity, are if anything a mirror image of the London Riots).
I don’t believe the pursuit of pleasure, and the unrealistic expectations we become condemned to place on such periods deliver their promise at all (In all honesty, the best nights out I have are ones that come out of nowhere, usually when you bump into a friend whilst out on a mundane town centre stroll). The failure to find pleasure on a singular weekend night out can be shrugged off far more easy, but the command to be fulfilled around Xmas/New Year can bring about series mental distress.
There is no way to go much further than this when the most crucial thing (on my part) is getting through the period with minimal damage as possible. It’s fair to say, I think we’re all swept along (or pulled under) in the tide of society at different degrees. At least I’m being honest in saying I’m far more seduced with the perfume of aspirational hyperbole than I’d ever wish on anyone else. It’s like a sealed pocket that releases its poison at certain points throughout the year.
I truly believe if ‘sharing the pain’ was a dominant paradigm, in the place of ‘everyone must enjoy themselves’, life would be truly more easy. It is impossible for a society to share the pain, and accepted the difficulties of life whilst there is a command to be a ‘player’. I also feel a society that acknowledged the difficulties of life would find it easier to adjust to adverse scenarios, rather than responding to it like the infantile consumers it currently moulds us into; to consume and suffer in silence.
I’d prefer not to have to state that this title is meant to have an irony to it, but I probably need to, as part of the reason I chose it is because if it was used for a similarly-composed landscape drawing made 50-70 years ago I believe the title could have been used without irony – and legitimately-so. Today, however, capitalist growth no longer has energies, which were usually oppositional, incorporated in it or pulled alongside it, that could fuse capitalism’s energies with progress, making for a better civilisation.
The opposite could be said to be true, since we moved firmly into this era of global financial capitalism, legitimised by neoliberal (market fundamentalist) theory. A relentless eroding-away of the social contract that was built up over the last two centuries in the first industrial states to protect individuals from the extremes of capitalism’s boom/bust cycles and market dynamics. Alongside this is an almost universal disintegration of a picture of a future worth inhabiting (something that wasn’t the case in capitalist societies 50-70 years ago), as the violence of profit-thirsty growth brings human life into conflict with itself, the environment, and internally, through the invisible mental illness epidemic.
The upwards-driven spiral in this drawing is two things at once. First of all it is an imaginary chronology of capitalism on planet earth, violently veering off a path made-steady by social and civic idealist demands and onto a hyper (‘feral’) capitalist path, severing its ties from reality, whilst dragging us all along with it. As, even though this is clearly a critique of what capitalism produces (and reduces things to), looking back at where this ‘break’ from what before occurred (at a series of points during the 1970’s and early 1980’s), I really do think that, despite the horrors its ‘invisible hand’ induced during the previous centuries, if we had transcended it at this stage, humanity could have taken stock of the then zenith of material plenty under capitalism, and said “we wouldn’t have what we have now without it, but now it is time to go beyond capitalism” (pretty much along the lines of what Karl Marx meant, that capitalism was the best thing and the worst thing to happen to humanity).
But at this very moment when I firmly believe profit-motivated dynamics were no longer needed, (at least here in the west) a progressive program should have been introduced to help us beyond capitalism (and according to Doreen Massey, what is forgotten by history is that there was plenty of ideas about how to do this). However, a trick was played on social evolution. And in hindsight we can see that although individuals were demanding more autonomy and individual freedom, we (to use a Will Self analogy) had “accepted a Trojan horse” gift; the ruling class had staged an ambush. This isn’t conspiracy theory: it’s about one class (the ruling class) working collectively to regain the ability to organise society in the way they thought it needed to organising. What we thus received was an even more ruthless, sociopathic capitalism, with diminishing social alternatives standing in its way, globally.
The second thing this upwards spiral shows is the social and environmental gradient, that gets harsher and more brutal towards the bottom, where so much is reduced to waste, both in economical and ecological meanings of the word. The protestant work-ethic has an increasingly religious grip over us (a violent dislike of the unemployed has emerged); it isn’t a coincidence that this is happening the same time as so many human beings are becoming surplus to needs of capitalism, no longer needed to exploit their labour, and are falling from all security nets towards an existence of utter destitution and state-sanctioned repression. As economist Guy Standing pointed out in his talk at the Leeds Tetley gallery, the UK Tory MP, Iain Duncan Smith (a figurehead for this extreme enforcement of the religion of work, work, work) has in speeches more or less repeated the same words that, written in German, were above the gates of one of western civilisation’s most extreme outcomes: “arbeit Macht Frei” (“work makes you free”), which was above the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp. But, without forgetting that the vulnerable/voiceless always get smashed first in such a system (the poor, the minorities, plant and animals life), let us not forget, that with total collapse of civilisation, which the dynamics currently driving will sometime no doubt lead to, no one is spared; all in this drawing are vulnerable, eventually, within this upwards spiral.
Up is also down in this drawing. The system, as much as it accelerates – faster and faster , also just accelerates entropy. It only reproduces itself as it drags everything crashing down to a primordial ‘dustland’. Capitalism works fine, whilst putting everything else into crisis, until there is nothing left to put into crisis. Indeed, the only buildings/objects visible in the ‘dustland’ within this drawing are icons from a time when civilisation could be said to be progressing – when our past believed in a future; space shuttles from a time when our frontier was space and not the inverted privatisation of our biology; symbols of times when an alternative world seemed on the horizon; towers and buildings for cities for citizens rather than cities for finance and elites.
The use of red pen colour always seems appropriate when depicting a landscape that shows a civilisation/a humanity/a planet running out of time. Perhaps it makes me think of the ‘red planet’ – Mars; earth’s next door neighbour in the Solar System. Mars is certainly a red barren ‘dustland’ and is also what the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, argues could be the fate of planet earth if we make it so that earth’s co-operating eco-systems are no longer able to enable that thing we we call ‘the living planet’.
In fact, keeping in tune with the talk of Space and the planets here, you could interpret progress… as capitalism (and the generations of humans at its mercy) embodied as a space shuttle; elevating itself on the planet’s stored-up energies; veering off track and dragging life (displaced and dismembered) with it, needing it as it bleeds it, like ripping a plant from the soil and then leaving it on the surface to starve of nutrients as ‘surplus to requirements’. And then add to this the powerful instrumental music piece evoking time speeding up, and then crashing, from Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon, which will forever be the music that reminds me of the conception of this drawing, and you’ll maybe know, more or less where I’m coming from.