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.

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[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.