Democratic Warming

Tom Nairn goes to the G8 Summit

‘The long walk to justice doesn’t end at Gleneagles,’ Noreena Hertz warned protesters just before the recent G8 summit. ‘It only begins there.’ The official parade was in fact to end with a scamper, rather than a flourish, bearing an artfully prepared set-up into oblivion. As for the great anti-globalist parade, white-band-wearers ended up marking time more or less where they began in the Meadows, in familiar frustration. Make Poverty History half joined hands with the global establishment, and couldn’t help half sharing the latter’s fate: abrupt down-staging by the old world of bombs and counter-terror. So many forms of display were crammed into a single week that general theatre criticism is difficult. One conclusion may be that the société du spectacle itself is in serious trouble. It has become infinitely less dependable than the assorted VIP impresarios believed back in June. After six months of star preview, G8 July was launched amid horizon-beckoning packages; by the seventh day of the month, it was Baghdad-style wreckage.

Best-laid schemes went much worse than agley. But why, and why so connectedly, as if history were repeating itself as something sinisterly unlike farce? Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the Situationists dreaded a world in thrall to the new means of production. These anarchist recalcitrants observed power-barons appropriating the modern media for their own ends – in East and West alike. All-powerful projectors and strobe-lights might end up controlling the collective consciousness – even the Unconscious – and permitting only token forms of opposition. Big Brother would take over from revolutions. Capitalism and communism of course ‘competed’ in that race, but after 1968 found a stronger interest in enforcing certain common rules. Détente was about far more than restraint with weapons of mass destruction. Its larger vision was of a world in which more contented plebs would stay in line, and stop upsetting things.

In 1975 this world became that of the G7, later the G8. It was an owners’ club aiming at recomposure, at the establishment of a minimal solidarity after so many shocks and threats: the 1962 missile crisis, the Prague Spring, the Paris événements, and disrespectful rumblings among the newly educated, as well as the never-had-it-so-good proles. Stability and continuity urgently needed reinforcement, on both sides of the fence. As Eric Hobsbawm argued in Age of Extremes (1994), in two decades of peaceful development the ‘shorter 20th century’ had managed to generate a new relatively advantaged class, which aspired to something a lot better. Civil society seemed to have got way ahead of itself, for socio-economic reasons, yet lacked any correspondingly new political forms: it was rebellious yet formless. The resultant disorientation gave the old world its chance to reassert normalcy.

The oil crisis of 1973-75 was the immediate pretext for the foundation of the club, and similar factors have remained central to G8 ideology. But these were only part of a much bigger shift – that is, the elevation of economics into a new popular faith. It passed from being the necessary condition of socio-cultural development into something approaching the sufficient condition of all human welfare and hope. As philosophy, the old left-wing formula of ‘historical materialism’ may have been better known. But the right now took this over, to outdo it with the vengeance of the formerly repressed. A counter-radicalism of marketolatry soon relegated the older versions to museums or sects. As Andrew Bacevich points out in The New American Militarism,[1] ‘radical’ came to mean Trotskyite mince reprocessed into neo-conservative sausages.

Situationist-style disreputables refused old and new rules alike, naturally; but such dissent served mainly to fortify the ‘realism’ of the mounting counter-revolution. Before long, ‘no alternative’ would be allowed to the latter’s common sense, which froze up political initiative (and hence democracy) in East and West alike. Thus the salience of economics was guaranteed – leading to 1989’s relatively quiet consecration of the Western gospel over its old competitors. The Internationale of market forces won out, bearing with it an ideology of ‘globalisation’, meaning not just one world, but the ball in the inevitable (and hence correct) hands. No other-worldly religion had ever enjoyed such fortune. So bourgeois historical materialism did more than buy out the Marxist competition. It underwent an apotheosis: the socio-economic ‘basis’ or structure became itself a commanding superstructure of ready-made ‘ideas’, far more intimidating than anything known in 1968 (let alone 1917, or in Mao Zedong’s takeover of 1949).

Situationists were right to fear that new technology played its part in this ascent. The powers of ‘mental production’ now extended the collective nervous system far beyond television, via the home computer and the internet, and an inescapable climate of advertising. Free-choice marketism prevailed; but so did new ways of forming and influencing choices, among candidates and policies as well as cornflakes. It became less inconceivable that imposed or infiltrated ‘spectacles’ could themselves create integral reality without propaganda, sermons or precepts from on high.

One prescient forerunner of such an all-absorbing spectacle-society was Mussolini. Two generations after his death, might not his vision be close to attainment? ‘It is faith which moves mountains,’ he said, ‘because it gives the illusion that mountains move. Illusion is, perhaps, the only reality in life.’ ‘Reality’, then, no longer counts: it is capable of being constantly remade to suit the presiding vision of things. In 1931 Mussolini told a gathering of doctors that ‘our way of eating, dressing, working and sleeping, the whole complex of our daily habits, must be reformed.’ Here was the ‘revolution of everyday life’, decades before it was due. At that period such remodelling remained fantasy, as Mussolini was to discover in 1944. But with the age of information technology, and the huge growth of public relations and publicity that accompanied it, doesn’t it have renewed plausibility, notably in the case of politicians who combine, as Tim Parks recently put it in the New York Review of Books, ‘a skilful use of rhetoric with a tendency to bully and then to seek approval for having bullied in a positive way’?

Buses ferried thousands of scribes up from Edinburgh and Glasgow to a tented media centre in fields some way from Gleneagles Hotel. We passed from bus to centre via a ‘Scottish village’. Fortunately perhaps, this proved to be almost wholly virtual: screens and brochures stood in for the land beyond the rain-soaked woods, save for one table at which samples of real Scotch were available.

When I arrived in the centre itself journalists were crowded around a big TV set, where news of London’s Olympic triumph was being broadcast. A resounding, prolonged cheer went up. ‘Never thought I’d see you at an event like this,’ an old Edinburgh acquaintance remarked. ‘It’s a complete artificial world of its own.’ I confessed my initial reaction had been to run like mad for the woods. But wouldn’t that lead to arrest for suspicious behaviour? Every second police-person in Britain was present to preserve the peace. ‘Hmmm,’ he replied, ‘at least it would give you something to write about.’ He meant something different from the pre-packaged fodder being dispensed in the various conference tents, for transmission via the Sun Systems keyboards and screens arranged round every tent pole.

My own modest dalliance with the facilities was an email to colleagues in Australia, letting them know I was at the heart of things global. But I couldn’t resist a feeble jibe about the free food and drink for backers of neo-liberalism and the African poor. Sun Systems crashed when ‘send’ was pressed, before warmly inviting me to try again. Suppressing old-fashioned lefty paranoia, I went on to the Geldof-Bono press conference instead. The stars were just looking in, on their way to the Live 8 concert in Murrayfield Stadium, Edinburgh, later the same day. Their idea was to keep up the emotional pressure, and shame the heads of state into greater generosity two days later. No one said much except Bono, who repeated his point about justice being more important than charity. The rain came on as they sped off to sing, and we saw Putin descending by helicopter, a mile away.

By the time the Murrayfield audience had recovered from their hangovers the next day, 7 July, the trance had been shattered. Journalists were bussing off faster than those arriving. While the show had to go on until the declarations of Friday evening, the sting of ascribed meaning had gone. The wish to believe (or half believe) diminished, after the months of build-up and the millions of tickets sold. In the press tent, Geldof especially had stressed this yearning to believe that at last some progress would be made, and he would subsequently find himself driven to even more exaggerated support for Blair and Brown.

Why was the mesmeric trance so crucial, and why did it have to be maintained at all costs? Well, there was a lot behind it: something of the way of the world, as well as the investment of billions in pre-publicity, policemen and stadiums. The threatened spectacle had deep sources, political as well as economic and musical.

Contrary to the scrolls of Scotland’s tourist industry, the heart of Edinburgh has little to do with the castle and Holyrood, and even less with the classicism of the New Town. It lies in a huge drained swamp extending from Causewayside to Tollcross, and from the university into the working and lower-middle-class suburbs of the south: the Meadows. Unfenced, intersected by tree-lined paths and cycleways, dotted with bowling-greens, playgrounds, football and cricket pitches, and even a mini-golf course, ringed by churches, pubs and schools, it opens out onto most of the city. Visitors tend to discover it by accident on their way somewhere else; but not surprisingly, the population loves it.

The city’s late, great poet Hamish Henderson spent the latter part of his life on the edge of the Meadows, which often figures in his writing. In ‘Floret silva undique’ (‘the forest flowers all about’) he depicts the politics of life itself washing constantly over the marvellous, untidy expanse:

Floret silva undique
We’ll hae a ball, though the Deil’s to pay.

Edina-Reekie-mon amour.
Dae’t, or I’ll skelp your arse, ye hoor . . .

On Saturday, 2 July there were more people in the Meadows than there had ever been, largely (and astonishingly) dressed in white. Two sound stages, bouncy castles, burger bars, stalls for every known creed, and hundreds of portaloos were interspersed by Make Poverty History banners, and brass and pipe bands tuning up. My own favourite slogan was ‘No More State-Puppetry’. The idea was for the people to encircle the city centre, symbolically exerting pressure, which would then be graciously acceded to. We shuffled around with mounting impatience, waiting for permission to march out via the fairly narrow exit at the top of Middle Meadow Walk. Finally, groups simply broke away and took their own routes via back streets and lanes, joining the procession where it suited them: typical of the protesting rabble, I suppose, always on about hospital closures, preserving insane local holidays, new bypasses and the cost of fish. The contingent I was with headed westwards and, via a crowded South African sandwich bar, rejoined the mainstream above Lothian Road. Later it all looked great on TV: historic fossils surrounded and throttled by an apparently unending white serpent. I felt very sorry that Henderson hadn’t lived to see Edina-Reekie-mon amour come into her own.

Gordon Brown, who himself once dwelt a few hundred yards above the Meadows, was shown on the same news programme, incorporating the event into the designs of those up in Perthshire. The popular spectacle had played its part in a larger global show, he implied – assenting not only to ending poverty but to those in charge of doing so. Such assent would naturally include approval of the Iraq war, embraced with fervour by Brown just before the 5 May election.

No show of hands along the great white snake would have exhibited such assent. But I doubt if anyone who had been touched by the event’s electric charge paid much attention anyway. Like the colossal anti-war demonstrations of 2003 onwards, this one was voicing other things too – a rising current which, however hard to define, reached beyond the happenings and slogans of a single day. In Hope in the Dark: The Untold History of People Power Rebecca Solnit talks of a ‘vast, inchoate, nameless movement – not a political movement but a global restlessness, a pervasive shift of imagination and desire, that has recently appeared in almost every part of the world’.[2] Singers and musicians feel this increase in voltage, of course, their lives depend on doing so. It is political vanity to think that the governments of a moment, even at the most self-important of summits, can channel or deploy such mutations of the collective soul.

On the way home, I found myself thinking of something said two years ago by Angelo Quattrocchi, an observer (and participant) at the more violent G8 spectacle in Genoa. He argued that the Battle of Genoa had been essentially a media spectacle, not ‘won’ or ‘lost’ by either side – it was, he wrote, ‘a war in which the Black Knight, power, was challenged by the White Knight’ of a popular movement determined to have its say. Though not irrelevant, the violence of the jousts was never the real point. What counted was that part of the public which through such events had ‘discovered its own existence’ and acquired the sense of possible alternatives. Berlusconi then, Blair’s New Labour now, have no patented rights to regulate the future of Africa, Iraq or the world, however formidable the spectacles they contrive. This is why what Quattrocchi calls ‘the cynic’s conclusion’ must be avoided: one can say ‘no’ and demand an alternative. In this space of refusal new tunes emerge, and (it’s now easier to see) win over millions, even billions, of hearts, and this will in the longer run be more decisive than any restoration, or preservation, of order.

Global warming was one of the two official themes of the Gleneagles meetings. The Financial Times suggested that the London bombers (i.e. not the discussions) ‘may have helped jolt leaders into concessions’. However, ‘commitments on aid and trade may be worth less than they appear’, since they do little but look forward (again) to forthcoming World Trade Organisation talks in December. Never mind mountains; this puts the possibility of moving molehills firmly into perspective. As for global warming, the editorialist thought things looked in comparison better. What he meant, however, was that there is now slightly more likelihood of the US ‘joining other G8 countries as well as China and India in talks about a possible successor regime after Kyoto expires in 2012’.

Is that what the masses were looking forward to, either in the Meadows, or listening to Annie Lennox at Murrayfield? First find your molehill, then place trust in the possibility of movement in seven or eight years’ time – assuming that by then Washington neo-conservatism, if not poverty, has become history? Or does it make more sense to heed the wimps, and the emergent tide of change? That is, what one might call by analogy ‘democratic warming’.

For the sources of this it may be useful to turn back again to Hobsbawm’s analysis in The Age of Extremes. The rise and fall of 1960s radicalism, he points out, ‘can best be understood as the triumph of the individual over society, or rather, the breaking of the threads which in the past had woven human beings into social textures’. The rupture produced a strained recomposition of societal forces under Reagan and Thatcher, and (after 1989) a capitalist social order that was in a historically novel sense ‘on its own’. All its earlier stages had been in crucial ways symbiotic in structure. Emergent market forces had defined themselves through negotiation with or struggle (often violent) against aristocracies, rural traditionalism, and later against working-class institutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. But by the 1990s most of these were extinct, or in rapid decomposition, so that ‘the banner of pure market sovereignty’ now dominated the human field.

However, a strange fatality proved inseparable from such dominance. Capitalism needs symbiosis. Or to put it in another way, it needs to breathe an air it can never itself manufacture or supply. Earlier success had occurred because ‘it was not just capitalist’, but defined via contrasts and oppositions, either against hunter-gatherers, peasants or anciens régimes, or (after 1917) against an imposed alternative of state industrialisation and community-from-above. Following the dénouement of 1989, these historical assets had largely disappeared: what historical materialism had castigated as ‘bourgeois society’ was not merely victorious, but alone – condemned to the preposterous life-raft of neo-liberal orthodoxy and unadulterated economism. The great historical irony was that ‘the market claimed to triumph, as its nakedness and inadequacy could no longer be concealed.’

It isn’t the fault of capitalism as such that human nature can’t stand it. The point is, rather, there is no such thing as capitalism ‘as such’ outside think-tanks and the novels of Ayn Rand. Its air has to come from somewhere else, and this cannot be pre-packaged, bought and sold. Whereas the socio-cultural revolution of the 1950s and 1960s had been ‘individualist’, the one now underway can’t help being communal or collective, because it has to define itself against the rules of the life-raft. ‘Democracy’ is no more than the title of this necessity. It no longer denotes two cheers’ worth of a good thing, or a band of saintly ancestors, or enshrinement in ‘Western’ and other cultures and legal systems. Neither does it inhere in any ideology of ‘anti-globalising’ belief, or depend on the reinvention of socialism in an apocalyptic or revelatory sense.

Like global warming, it has imposed itself by assorted and sometimes ill-understood symptoms, and shown itself to be a fact leaving no option but all-round implementation. Social-democratic warming happens to be what’s happening: restrainable, deformable, but not really dispensable. Market-force mechanisms can’t do without Third Ways, or cultural life-support systems of some alternative kind. Hence the drive for societies of the conformist spectacle – the configuration of inescapable shared meanings. Under globalisation, all powers-that-be desperately need popularity and acceptance, and political leaders are driven to over-invest in that direction. Making half the policemen in the world protect G8 summits is not enough. Some leaders of popular culture, responding in their own way to Solnit’s ‘pervasive shift of imagination’, have made an understandable pact with the Black Knight, hoping their own contribution will enrich the spectacle, at once influencing and humanising it.

The G8 itself is very poorly equipped for the task. As Colin Leys says in an essay in Arguments against G8, what it stands for has been variously called ‘pseudo-democracy’, ‘low-intensity democracy’ and ‘thin democracy’.[3] Confronted with the rising pressures from below, it has to resort to enhanced spectacle, and improbably grand gestures such as ending poverty in Africa.

But how dangerous the gamble is was shown on 7 July. An act of war brought the spectacle – the projected meaning-system – down in ruins. Another kind of theatre took over, one direly familiar since 2001. Among the observers in Scotland was the American journalist Tom Engelhardt, who provided a perceptive account:

On Thursday morning, with the London bombings monopolising the TV set, I watched our president take that long, outdoor, photo-op walk from the G8 summit meeting to the microphones to make a statement to reporters . . . It’s a walk that is now his well-practised signature move. For some people, a tone of voice or a facial expression can tell you everything you need to know; that’s how the president’s walk acts for him. And nothing puts spine in that walk the way the war on terror does. Each horror is like a shot of adrenalin . . . everything about him radiated a single word: resolve.

There’s no need for reminders of the similar reflexes Blair was displaying on the same occasion. As both men (and regimes) have shown since 2001, in the end no spectacle can outdo that of warfare. It was the force majeure of spectacle – meaning-creation – that sealed Saddam Hussein’s fate, not petroleum alone. Thin or pseudo-democracy had to be imposed on Mesopotamia in order to bolster its counterpart at home, to shoot some adrenalin into the slackening cohesion of increasingly restless, disaffected and multicultural societies. Individual acts of aggression, like the Twin Towers, Madrid and London, have impacted on regimes and leaderships already in deep trouble, searching for more breathable air and doctrines. However, the formation of such life-systems is a difficult, long-term process – and maybe even impossible in circumstances of neo-conservative zealotry and market mania. Only the past offers a way out: a flaming revival of great-nationalist justification, preferably in arms, and ideally against some inexhaustible source of evil.

This quandary has already engendered theories about a ‘new age of war’, which will be fuelled by July’s events. I wrote about one of them, Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, in a recent LRB (5 May). Although some members of the G8 have grave doubts about this course, they will on present showing tag along – all the more readily when China assumes its place in a G9 line-up. One may doubt such historical-materialist forecasts; but it has to be conceded that there will be hard times ahead for democratic warming – it favours ‘thick democracy’, of course, and (since democracy begins at home) intensive, difficult reform in the UK and the US, as well as in Beijing, Moscow and the Middle East. But I doubt the crowd in the Meadows will go on lending support to illusions like those it was dragged through last month.

[1] To be reviewed in a forthcoming issue.

[2] Canongate, 192 pp., £7.99, June, 1 84195 660 6.

[3] Pluto, 264 pp., £35 and £11.99, April, 0 7453 2420 7.