2015 – The End of the Eternal Present

4 Mar 2016 james
The moment of Syriza's election victory 25th January 2015
The moment of Syriza’s election victory 25th January 2015

Notes after a conversation with Doreen Massey, which took place ten days before the one-year anniversary of Syriza’s landslide victory of 25th January 2015. We were reflecting on the past year.

What an extraordinary set of events has unfolded in those twelve months – the Syriza election, The Green Surge of last Winter, the transformational landslide by the SNP in the May General Election, the remarkable victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership election, the retreat of Shell from the Alaskan Arctic, the US President’s ruling against the KXL Pipeline, the unstoppable rise of Podemos, and the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change. This list is a gathering of shorthand references to a particular selection of events, and of course another list could be made that would tell a different story – from war in Syria and Iraq to the movements of refugees across the Mediterranean and Europe and the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. But again and again, with either list, there is a sense of the utterly unexpected taking place, and the completely unpredicted arising. The events themselves, and possibly to a greater degree the shock experienced as they take place, seems to point to something happening at a deeper level.

In the 1990s there were a slew of writers who suggested that capitalism – or Neoliberalism as we might more readily refer to it now – promised an eternal present. Francis Fukuyama announced ‘the end of history’. Fredric Jameson and John Berger suggested that the power of capitalism was its ability to sever us from history. The world as it was then constituted seemed to stretch to the horizon – limitless. A time of constant novelty in which it seemed that nothing changed. An end of time. The roaring of the engines of globalisation and the fading ghosts of the Soviet Union made Thatcher’s pronouncement seem prophetic – There is No Alternative.

Looking back at the 1990s and 2000s from the vantage point of 2016, it seems unsurprising that many of those we knew who struggled against capitalism drew their strength from the Zapatistas and ideas of Temporary Autonomous Zones. When the realm of industrial capital seemed to stretch, invincible, around the world and far into the future, the best that could be hoped for was to create brief moments of rupture – like the battle over the M11 motorway – or to create holes that punctured the realm and to defend these holes with jubilant tenacity – like the Chiapas in Mexico.

The Truman Show - Truman comes upon a stage light that has fallen from a clear blue sky
The Truman Show – Truman comes upon a stage light that has fallen from a clear blue sky

In the 1998 film The Truman Show, actor Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank who as a baby had been legally adopted by a corporation and since childhood had lived inside a continously broadcast reality TV show. He’s unaware that his world is ‘fictional’ until one day a stage light falls out of a clear blue sky. This sparks an escalating sense of doubt about the nature of the ‘reality’ that he is living in. Eventually he sets out on a voyage of discovery and, sailing across a seemingly endless ocean, he bumps into the edge of the set and the bowsprit punctures the horizon. For a moment he breaks down, but then he escapes from the show into the ‘real’ world.

The Truman Show - Truman's sailing boat punctures the horizon
The Truman Show – Truman’s sailing boat punctures the horizon

The Collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was like a stage light falling out of the sky.

The Collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 was like a stage light falling out of the sky. And in the seven years since, the permanence of the world of Neoliberalism has been repeatedly cast into doubt. It has come to seem less eternal and less limitless than we had imagined. This sensation is exhilarating and but also uncomfortable. I seem to bump into friends of my generation who are filled with a fatalism, a sense that the events of 2015 are merely an aberration, that these extraordinary upsets (‘That Corbyn got elected and that he’s still there!’) will soon be righted and the world returned to ‘normal’. The mainstream media is bitterly critical of ideas such as those coming out of the Labour and Green parties, and this creates an undertow that drags us back into the Neoliberal world and makes us anxious about stepping out beyond it. Such friends say that I’m only excited by 2015 because I’m living in a ‘bubble’. But is it not the case that the ‘real world’ described by The Guardian, Radio 4 and the opinion polls is also a ‘bubble’?

Doreen was born in 1944 – she was 22 in 1966. The world of the Left seemed full of wild possibility – she lived in the heart of collective action against the Vietnam War and for the advance of Feminism. I was born in 1963 – I was 22 in 1985. The world of the Left seemed bleak – I lived in the shadow of Thatcher’s defeat of the Miners, the triumphalism of the Falklands War and the threat of nuclear attack. In contrast to Doreen perhaps I, and my generation, are habituated to defeat, our bodies ready for the blows, almost hungry for the punches?

The events of 2015 seem to confirm that a great new opening has arrived, that (to draw on the writing of Sarah Amsler) ‘a front of possibility’ has been opened up, that we find ourselves on a new terrain across which the Red and the Green are moving forwards. It feels as though history, once declared dead, has come back to life. (What would I feel like if I was 22 now?) Is it not now the moment to shake off, again and again, the burden of fatalism? To step out of the bubble of the Neoliberal ‘reality show’. To rise up on this energy and embrace the opportunities of 2016 at the appropriate scale and with the requisite audacity.

And then the question arises, how best to do this?

I have the line from a track by Benjamin Clementine running through my head:

“Give my condolence to fear”

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