“…some volcanic eruption deep down”

William Davies – This is Not Normal – The Collapse of Liberal Britain (Verso)

The times move too fast. Write it down and the paper is likely to be snatched from your hand, whipped away by turbulent historical forces.

At the start of 2020 ordinary, everyday globalism – of the sort many urban dwellers enjoyed – was suddenly halted. Airports closed and whole economies were put on hold.

It might be tempting to make some cute slogan out of this switch-around. That up to January 2020 freedom was global, but disaster was local. Then after January 2020, freedom was local and disaster was global. Many intellectuals, for instance Bauman and Beck, argued that a successful new middle class sailed the skies globally across the late 90s and early noughties, and that poverty was anchored to the earth.

But test these binaries, pull and push them and they will repeatedly turn inside-out. Bauman actually advised us a decade ago (2010) to see that the sailor’s tale, the exotic life in remote places and the peasant’s story, the annual, predictable, cyclical life had collapsed into one another.

It is less than comforting, but still anchoringly familiar, to know that other eras had times like these. Even if they were not anywhere near so dangerous. Robert Blake, in his biography of Benjamin Disraeli, explained how ‘the radicals’ of the early 1830s were not like Cobden and Bright:

‘On the contrary, they were an erratic, frivolous, colourful and picturesque collection of independent MPs with no coherent political philosophy and counting as adherents a large quota of cranks and eccentrics of every kind. The general election of 1832, like the elections of 1906 and 1945, was one of those great political upheavals, which resemble some volcanic eruption deep down below the bed of the sea and bring floating to the surface all manner of strange marine life seldom seen by the ordinary observer. If the Parliament of 1882-4 could contain such characters as [William] Molesworth who had fought a duel with his Cambridge tutor, John Gully, the prize-fighter and bookmaker, or a dandy like Bulwer [Edward Bulwer-Lytton], there seemed some chance that Disraeli might get in, for all his oddities.’

It was a very different thing, but after 2015 we had the popularity of Farage, a sick Janus of two sides: The public face of fags and pints and the private man of the hedge fund elites.

2016-2020 has been disconcerting. Particularly for someone who has taught Raymond Williams’ idea of culture as a whole way of life. When I was lecturing Cultural Studies at Hereford College of Arts – five years before the period this book covers – I could actually take students to the bus stop by the Cathedral where ‘Culture is Ordinary’, Williams’ classic 1958 essay, begins.

But I have often thought about the way the left sometimes takes up that essay. It can be far too sentimental: Culture is Ordinary doesn’t just mean the longer lineages of family and labour politics, or the year-zero thrust of the New Left and CND after World War 2. Culture is Ordinary means the hell of 2020, too.

I think Will Davies understands this. He also understands that we reach cliff edges of cultural time, over which we must all go. Some things make the jump, others don’t. Liberalism – in our time – is shattered by the fall. ‘Liberalism’, if it is anything at all, Davies explains, ‘exists now as an ethical persuasion or cultural identity’ and this runs parallel to the whole rejection of politics per se over ‘culture’.

For someone who has taught this stuff, the times are depressing. They are depressing because the right is using the idea of ‘culture’ in such a disingenuous way, but also because many of the neo-left of 2016-17 have rejected liberalism and the wider uptake of culture as a whole way of life too.

Davies is undertaking conjunctural analysis here, a Gramscian practice developed by Stuart Hall. Raymond Williams, then, a great friend of Hall’s, is an appropriate figure to return to. Those lecture notes, across which Williams mapped the relation of the state to industry, then to politics and to demographic swathes, to the monarchy… this was also conjunctural analysis.

Davies is doing the same thing in this book, working it out for himself in real time, across a series of essays (the book is a collection, but it is also much more than that).

In ‘Culture is Ordinary’ Williams mentions the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral. This is a medieval copy of an older Anglo-Roman map, showing the world as a strange but curiously recognisable series of slabs dotted with weird beasts. In 1958 when Williams wrote the essay, the Mappa would be stuffed in a corner of Hereford Cathedral, not yet in its slick visitor centre. Our old world is likely to look as confusing to those born in 2018 as the Mappa Mundi did in 1958 to its casual viewers, with little contextual information to guide them.

Davies book, then, is a kind of Mappa Mundi of the present. Big historical cliff edges loom up out of the ground. Raymond Williams re-thought the old Marxian infrastructure-superstructure relationship in his time, and Davies does this too (without leading us into a swamp of German philosophical terms). In Raymond Williams’ time the war had shaken the old empire to pieces, but new technologically-driven times were coming. Speed and mediation were, even in Williams’ day, on the agenda.

The agents of chaos in our historical period, Davies claims, are 1) credit derivatives and 2) digital platforms. This is a very insightful pairing. Credit derivatives monetise debt relations and they led to the 2008 crash.

Digital platforms have sped up and riven meaning itself apart. Crucially, these ‘platforms have achieved a public status that is closer to telecom companies than to publishers’, as they ‘hold minimal responsibility for how their technology is used’. The two things, digitally alienated social relations, and monetised relations – monetised within a culture for whom profit is the default logic – have led to the new spirit of the age.

Davies splits his analysis into phases: Phase 1; start of the referendum to the 2017 general election, and Phase 2; from there to March 2019 and then on into the general election, the unlawful prorogation and out into 2020 and ‘early COVID’.

What is being described here is a rapid shift to populism and populism is also a rapid shift to the right. It is in fact a popular right-wing coup which mirrors a larger far right shift globally. A book I thought a great deal about while reading this one is Stuart Hall’s on Thatcherism, which contains his crucial essay ‘The Great Moving Right Show’. Much of my writing on Manchester, for instance for Open Democracy, describes the city as a ‘radical right city’. What Davies is describing, under everything, is the emergence of a neo-radical right country in a neo-radical right world.

Davies writes of the invention of double ledger book keeping – the birth of ‘the fact’ – robust atoms of meaning which can of course become a different fabric altogether when recombined with other elements. He challenges the idea that the Leave campaign was shockingly ‘anti-truth’, but badly misaligned to facts. These details really mark Davies’ scholarship out as exceptional, as does the way his arguments are rooted in deeper historical and philosophical readings.

His understanding of the political shifts within and across one year, two years, are strong, never naive. We could look at this in decade chunks. 1998, the explosion of mass online life, then ten years and the banking collapse hits. Yet nobody has started to roll any of it back, or to really attempt to mitigate its disastrous effects. We have a longer view of industrialism now, so perhaps we should. But if we know anything about these longer curves, it is that they don’t just halt because we know they have pernicious effects. Davies understands this too and he warns against retrospective historicising.

He describes the Lehman Brothers crash as the putting out of a fire. In contrast to this, he describes the day after Brexit as a kind of phoney war. We waited. But surely COVID-19 has scattered the atoms of facts to the wind and ended the phoney culture war in one evil move. The culture war is now on, precisely because we have no double historical ledger of the future which can tell us what it could have been like if we stayed in the EU, any more than we can tell what it might have been like if SARS-CoV-2 had never mutated into a strain that can thrive in humans as well as bats.

But what marks Davies’ politics out is that he refuses to leave it there. Brexit was like buying a house that was known to be subsiding. The insurance underwriter won’t touch you, the emergency services have little sympathy, but you hated them anyway. What we need are political cairns, heaps of stones that can mark the way in the thick ideological fog of the present. This book is a solid map of them, so buy a copy. Not just because it is useful, but because nobody else is doing it this well and that work must be funded.

‘June 2016 might provide the full-stop at the end of a paragraph that began with September 2008’ Davies writes. This seems clear to many of us now, but to future generations it won’t. At the same time, this solid structure is overlaid with much more nuanced philosophical, historical and economic insight, explaining how all this terrible architecture was thrown up. Things do not begin, he explains, ‘in the same dramatic fashion with which they end.’

In November 2016 I wrote in Open Democracy that the new liberal consensus was over, ‘so let’s grasp and reshape the tradition before the centre right do.’ How far things have fallen since then. I seem to have wanted ‘a new liberal tradition that allows and engages with agonism, meaning that to speak is to fight, not just to reach agreement.’

In America, I wrote, ‘the older liberalism meant daring to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms’ but in England liberalism seemed always to tend towards the thinly conservative. ‘It easy to criticise without offering a new way forward’ I wrote:

‘One place we might start again is Robert Unger’s post-necessary philosophy. This must be a starting point only, but that project is appropriate for beginning again in a fractured centre. Unger definitely dares to discard traditional orthodoxy in order to try new democratic forms. Unger argues that “the best hope” for the radical project that “leftists share with liberals” must come through “a series of revolutionary reforms in the organisation of governments and economies and in the character of our personal relations.“‘

I never really followed that article up, now I don’t need to, this book does the job far better than I ever could have. The double spread of pages 44-45 skewers confused ideas to be found on both left and right. Loose notions regarding the relationship of capitalism to the state and technocracy. The Brexiteer febrile fantasy that a Victorian capitalism will work without slavery is left in tatters. The more naive leftist bluster about the EU, neoliberalism and nationalism are recalibrated. Davies holds a post in Political Economy and these pages alone show you why. The book explores the history of liberalism – Burke et al – and the ways in which the conditions for its current debunking came about.

The players of populism are still global, but are supported in the locally-rooted, Dudley North and Leigh, to use ‘red wall’ examples. A Gramscian education can help the locally limited to understand the wider context of their own lives and how those lives are produced, and they are produced. This book is a rung on a ladder to understanding how those lives might proceed in our time.

Will Davies has explained that what ‘Britain sorely needs is not self-love, or self-hatred, but self-knowledge.’ This is the kind of call for critical enlightenment reason which is entirely missing from most discourses, on both the left and right. At the same time, Davies states ‘the attempt to constrain how future generations allocate acclaim deserves to fail’ and it is to the younger generations I look for hope.

This said, I thought a great deal about the longer lineages of British leftwing thinkers while reading this book. Davies’ place in that line already seems secure to me. In particular, I remembered a passage of E.P. Thompson’s, thoughts about history in 1980, during a moment experiencing powercuts:

‘…it is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead. It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy. The instant daily energy of the contingent dazzles us with its brightness. What passes on the daily screen is so distracting, the presence of the status quo is so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists. But this instant energy must be reproduced every moment as it is consumed; it can never be held in store. Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars.’

In the same way – and Davies explicitly states the aim – this book presses pause on the dazzling contingent brightness of the present, and allows the reflections of the evening to gather and turn towards a new day.

Steve Hanson

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