From the Guardian: David Mitchell… on the age of rage

Zaphod thought you might be interested in this link from the Guardian: David Mitchell… on the age of rage

Six years ago, as the financial crisis hit, David Mitchell began writing a weekly column for the Observer. In this extract from his new book, an anthology of his best writing, he recalls how austerity left a permanent mark on the mood of the nation

David Mitchell

Sunday 2 November 2014

The Observer


When I started writing regularly for the Observer in 2008, a new world era began. It was a coincidence, I hasten to add. Despite patches of enthusiasm on Twitter and, on one occasion, a mention on Andrew Marr’s TV show, my weekly attempt at a public moan with jokes hasn’t quite ushered in a new age. It sometimes comes quite high up the “most viewed” list on Comment is Free (when people have hated it, that is – not so much when they haven’t), but in historical terms it’s no fall of Constantinople.

But, looking back now, with the tiny amount of hindsight that remaining alive for six more years generates, I’m pretty sure that 2008 marked the end of, and the beginning of, an era.

You’ve always got to have an era on the go, you see. Once one era ends, another begins automatically. In fact, the first one probably ends because the second one has begun and totally stolen its thunder. But it’s very much a “the King is dead – long live the King” kind of set-up. You’re absolutely not allowed a calm era-less interregnum of unremarkable pottering – a couple of years when the global situation is “between projects”, like an ageing celebrity who can pick and choose thanks to sky-high credibility and accumulated property equity.

With history, the moment the 20s stop roaring, the Depression starts slumping and then the Nazis start rising and then the world starts warring and then the instant, the very instant, the war ends, it’s postwar. Can you believe it? Not a millisecond that isn’t either the war or the postwar era. It’s fucking relentless (to paraphrase Herodotus) but it’s the only system we’ve got.

Of course, some era changeovers are harder to pinpoint than the end of a war. The one I’m talking about was like that. No new toothy smiling suit had been swept to office, no nationally beloved beauty had been chased to death by photographers, no building had been blown up or completed, no new technology suddenly launched or discredited, no disease gone pandemic or been cured. But, as when a Premier League football team runs on in front of an away crowd, and opposition fans reach vindictively for their 2ps, change was palpably in the air.

In fact, this change was all about money. Money may not bring you happiness but, if there’s one thing the credit crunch of 2008 showed, no money brings a hell of a lot of grief. And that’s what we were at risk of experiencing that autumn: no money. Anywhere. At all. The sudden absence of money – its collapse as a human construct.

Money isn’t really anything, after all. Humans don’t need money – we need food and shelter. Living the sophisticated life of the westerner, it appears that you need money in order to obtain food and shelter. But that’s not actually, fundamentally, true. Food and shelter come from farming and building. The fact that the products of those activities are swappable for money is just a convention. There’s nothing about the money itself that anyone actually requires.

Even when it was backed by gold or, before that, made of gold, it still didn’t have intrinsic value. No one needs gold (I know it’s in microchips but that’s a side issue – King Midas didn’t go all funny in the hope of reinvigorating the Lydian tech sector). It’s just shiny and it doesn’t rust, so it was convenient to develop the convention whereby little roundels of it were exchangeable for items of value. The subsequent convention that numbers on a computer screen were equally exchangeable for such items was even more convenient, but also even more dependent on everyone’s confidence in and adherence to the convention.

What started in the mists of early history as a useful aid to barter had become, by 2008, a vital element of the world as we knew it. So vital that many people who worked in the financial sector seemed to have completely forgotten that money, and credit, were just a convention – and had begun to believe that they were something solid: an actual, tangible, useful thing. Something invulnerable, something which undeniably exists.

Illustration by David Foldvari.Illustration by David Foldvari.

And so the piss-taking began.

And, by “piss-taking”, I mean casino banking: the buying and selling of the intrinsically worthless. The immoral exploitation of the market in denial of its fundamental purpose – which was supposed to be to facilitate trade, to bring resources to enterprise, not to pass round empty financial concepts before anyone realises that they have no actual value, just a transitory and astronomical price. A system of money-making which involves no real wealth-creation at all – nothing made, no useful service provided, nothing done which remotely conforms to the ancient and fundamental laws of “what you should get paid for”.

And by “began”, I mean “intensified”. I may be a pitifully naive financial analyst but I’m not quite a shit enough historian to think that any of this market immorality was unprecedented. Dishonest but somehow legal bucks have probably been made since a microsecond after the invention of the buck. I know none of this was new – but the scale of the activity certainly was. As was the terrifying computer-driven speed at which it was practised.

And I assume it’s obvious what I mean by “And so the”.

The result of all this, as we know, was the collapse of many financial institutions and, subsequently, economies, coupled with expensive efforts to prop others up using taxpayers’ – ie ordinary people’s – money. The climax of the crisis, for Britain at least, was a weekend in October 2008 when, had the Royal Bank of Scotland not been bailed out by the government, its cashpoints wouldn’t have been working on Monday morning. And not for the usual reasons of being smashed in and/or covered in sick because of all the stag dos we indulge in to sustain turnover in our hospitality sector. This time it would be because the bank had run out of money, and also of people to call to borrow money. That terrifying eventuality would have led to a run on other, healthier banks – and no bank in history, however prudent, has ever been able to return all of its investors’ money at once.

That was the moment when money nearly broke. It became clear that all the numbers on screens didn’t add up any more. Suddenly the value that these institutions were claiming to represent had to be found, and they didn’t have it. So we, the normal people, would have to – and I shudder at the injustice of the phrase – give it to them.

Never has the weirdness of what money really is – what a service economy is, how distant we’ve become from our basic survival needs, and yet how pervasive those needs remain – been more evident. “Why can’t we just pretend the money is still there?” we thought. “Send the number from the screen to the electricity people to increase the number on their screen and they’ll give us the power to keep the screen on, won’t they?”

Sadly, it turned out that’s what had already been happening for quite a while. The global fiscal Wile E Coyote had long since run off the edge of the cliff and had been scampering ineffectually in mid-air for some time. But now the period during which he has yet to start falling, because he still hasn’t noticed the absence of solid ground beneath him, was ending. We’d collectively looked down. We were caught in the beat of stillness, the panicked look to camera, that precedes the plummet.

Money didn’t collapse. Credit became terrifyingly scarce – institutions which a month earlier were betting billions on three-legged horses were suddenly withdrawing loans from solvent businesses – but the basic convention of currency just about held. That was probably for the best.

But the eye-watering injustice of the bailout – the disconnect between guilt and punishment – soured the national mood. We were angry. But we were also frightened. We were struck simultaneously by sudden and severe national poverty, after a decade of unthinking prosperity, and with something beyond poverty: a deep and deracinating sense that our previous wealth had been an illusion. The expensive frothy coffees of the early 2000s retrospectively turned to ashes in our mouths.

And, while the economic downturn brought on by the crisis was felt all over the world, it did not hurt everyone equally. Of course, that’s always the case, but the nature of that inequality had changed. Britain remained among the richest nations on Earth but, for the first time anyone could remember, countries like ours didn’t get off lightest. True, there were still plenty of people unimaginably less fortunate than ourselves. But now there was also the unsettling emergence of people who might be, or come to be, more fortunate.

The fast-growing economies of countries such as India, Brazil and, most unnerving of all, China, barely suffered a blip, while ours dropped off a cliff, still pointlessly clutching its Acme Giant Credit magnet. For the first time since the cold war, the west, the world’s dominant politico-economic force for 500 years, seemed fallible and fragile. The frailty of money and the financial services industry having been laid bare, we were forced to contemplate where real wealth comes from: making stuff and selling it. And, reality TV and artisanal cheese aside, more and more of that manufacturing was being done by the Chinese.

Illustration by David Foldvari.Illustration by David Foldvari.

The Blair-era dream of remaining rich and becoming richer, of driving our economy purely by providing services and dining out regularly, with maybe a bit of web design and party planning thrown in to keep us honest, was suddenly revealed as foolish. We felt at once deeply stupid and deeply resentful. We despised one another, and of course the government, for the mistakes that had been made, but were also nostalgic for the prosperous feeling we’d had while it was happening.

I realise the shine had been taken off New Labour long before 2008. That war in Iraq went down like a cup of cold piss, for a start. But I’m not sure that really upset Britain as much as we’re apt to think. The war made Britons shake their heads, but the credit crunch had us banging them against walls.

You only have to look at Blair and Brown’s relative electoral fortunes: Blair won a general election after getting the country involved in an unpopular and unsuccessful war, a war of which he remained unashamedly in favour; yet Brown lost one after a global economic downturn which he admittedly failed to avert, but for which he certainly wasn’t primarily responsible.

It turns out that it’s not the morality or otherwise of our foreign policy that predominantly affects the national mood, it’s money. We might not have thought we were money-obsessed, but then we probably don’t think we’re oxygen-obsessed. But you certainly get to thinking about it if someone takes it away.

The horrible shock of 2008, much more than any horrible shocks we allowed our military to impose abroad, changed our national personality. It’s as if Britain was a sprightly and twinkly pensioner who then, in the autumn of 2008, had a serious fall. It survived but has never been quite the same – it’s more timorous and judgmental, envious and angry. As a nation, we’ve lost confidence and creativity, and we’re readier to blame each other and slower to laugh at ourselves.

This is the glum conclusion I’ve come to from looking back over all the columns I’ve written. I didn’t think any of this when I started writing them six years ago. I was just glad things were going wrong because that makes it easier to write jokes – utopia is a living hell for satirical columnists. I probably fretted about what it would be like if there was a fiscal apocalypse and we were reduced to growing our own food – satirical columnists also have a rough ride in subsistence economies. But I only thought about it in economic terms: how bad and how long would the crisis be?

I thought about it a lot. Most people thought about it a lot. And thinking was what had precipitated the crisis in the first place. It wasn’t foolish and feverish speculative investments that caused the crash – it was thinking about those investments. It was realising they were foolish and ultimately valueless. As with Wile E, it was the realisation, not gravity, that made us plummet.

It had to happen at some point, I suppose. The realisation was inevitable, and so the plunge was too; it could have happened later and been worse. But it’s hard not to blame all that thinking, just as we blame, rather than thank, the surveyor who finds dry rot.

And having sparked the whole thing off with thinking, we couldn’t get out of the habit. “What does this crisis mean? How unfair is it? Where does this leave Britain now? Is anything certain any more?” We thought and thought and thought. We locked ourselves into the mindset of emergency. It became like Queen Victoria’s mourning: unhelpful, self-indulgent, but very difficult to argue against or snap out of.

“I hope you know there’s a lot of massive shit going down!” became the country’s perpetual Facebook status. Being cheerful or optimistic just allowed others to say you didn’t realise how bad things were – and to imply that therefore you, as one who’d got off lightly, were part of the problem, that you were on the wrong side of the casino-banker/thankless-nurse national divide.

As a result, this new era has been enormously and relentlessly recriminatory and angry. What started off as righteous fury at the investment banker community for their incompetence and amorality has spread to almost every aspect of public life. First, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s misjudged Radio 2 broadcast invoked a storm of rage, directed not just at them but against all broadcasters and celebrities. Then MPs were pilloried for fiddling their expenses in a way that didn’t just lead us to tweak how parliamentarians were financed, but to dispute the honesty of our entire political class. That group subsequently had its revenge on the pesky scrutinising newspapers when the illegal hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone provided the opportunity to question the whole basis of a free press. Newspapers, politicians, the BBC and celebrities have all regularly been put through the mill. It’s as if the whole culture is screaming: “Everything feels all wrong!”

Illustration by David Foldvari.Illustration by David Foldvari.

How much of this is justified by current circumstances? How much of it is justified by the unsatisfactory nature of the human condition? How much is self-perpetuating and self-indulgent? When the current coalition government took office, it did so stating explicitly that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats had come together in statesmanlike response to the emergency the country was facing. This is one of the few of that administration’s assertions to be left largely unquestioned. We miserably and crossly accepted the premise that everything was deeply and unprecedentedly screwed. By then, that feeling had already dominated our contemplations for the best part of two years.

I think this pervading fury and sense of crisis has reached crisis levels. Which is ironic, if you think about it (which I don’t recommend). I reckon there actually is a good reason to be angry and deeply concerned, and that’s the pervasiveness of anger and deep concern about everything else. I think it imperative that everyone calm down. I think a loud emergency “Chill out!” alarm should screech from every rooftop till everyone relaxes. I told you thinking didn’t help.

If we could just let our angrily folded arms drop to our sides for one minute, we’d feel so much better. Most of us, anyway – to some, it would feel like failure or defeat.

I was particularly savagely slated on the Guardian website and Twitter for a column I wrote in March 2012, in which I argued against trade unionist Len McCluskey’s assertion that “The idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable.” I reckoned that, despite the country’s problems, we weren’t undergoing a calamity sufficiently grave to call off the world’s premier sporting event, something that had previously been cancelled only during world wars. I wasn’t saying things were fine; I was saying they were less serious than in 1940.

I stand by that. However, many online commenters considered it a disgraceful underestimation of the problems facing the NHS/ retail sector/disabled/homeless/donkey sanctuaries – that any reference to our current problems in less than utterly superlative terms was a disgrace. That exemplified, for me, a pervading and angry loss of perspective.

Saying that things could be worse, and that they have been worse for the overwhelming majority of humans throughout the overwhelming majority of history, is not the same as being complacent. It is stating an undeniable fact. It is retaining a sane sense of proportion. It should be reassuring, but at the moment many people hate to hear it.

This wilful loss of perspective – this self-importance about our own times – means that we could do dangerous things. Our disdain for the bathwater is making the baby give us anxious looks. We’re thinking hard, casting around for solutions: a privatised NHS, an independent Scotland, pulling out of the EU, a mansion tax, getting rid of the licence fee, greater press regulation, more Tasers, a German water cannon. We’re not ruling anything out – except being careful we don’t destroy something precious, except resisting the urge to act hastily and in anger, except a period of tranquil reflection. We desperately need a break from this era. But you know the rules: as soon as it ends, another one will only start.

Thinking About It Only Makes it Worse by David Mitchell is available from Guardian Faber (£18.99). Click here to order it for £13.49. David Mitchell will appear at a Guardian Live Event, in conversation with the Observer’s editor, John Mulholland, on 12 November at the Royal Geographical Society, London SW7. Click here for information and tickets

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