Anxiety seems to be very much in vogue this season. Shocks to the systems of liberal western democracies — Brexit, Trumpism, Euro-Fascism — all seem to have overturned too many certainties to allow the inhabitants of the world’s wealthiest nations to feel at ease.
Newsfeeds have gone all apocalyptic — the irretrievable falcons, out of control gyres and slouching beasts of �?The Second Coming’ by WB Yeats are trotted out in response to every atrocity or incremental turn for the worse.
Suddenly and (perhaps unsurprisingly) these discursive spaces, shaped to a large degree by liberal commentators and their legions of followers, seem exhausted in the face of the end of the end of history.
But this �?Comment is Free’ flavoured soup is missing one crucial ingredient — perspective. It smacks of a kind of apocalyptic voyeurism born of laziness.
’The Second Coming’ was written in the aftermath of the First World War in a year when the Spanish flu, one of the deadliest pandemics in human history, was preying upon many of those who had just survived the slaughter.
This was not a generation bemused by bad political choices or spooked by terrorists, it was a generation desperately engaged in a hellish existential search for some form of meaning. In an era of mass trauma, it made as much sense to consider that surely, some revelation was at hand. The urge to say that the cycle of collapse and death must lead to something being born, was visceral, inescapable.
Our dilemma is not of this order. Instead, ours is a time of post-crash foreboding, of politics slumped in a post-modern consumerist stupor struggling to wake up again. As this happens the muscles of real politics — the capacity to critique, organise and find agency — feel non-existent, but only through lack of use.
As the parameters of what is considered acceptable public discourse on both the left and the right become stretched, a system which claimed we had moved beyond the need for alternatives reacts with doomsaying. Surely this must be the end, because taxes may have to rise. Surely this must be the end because borders may have to be closed. Surely this must be the end because death cults now have Youtube channels…
But there are two lines in �?The Second Coming’ that I think we can appropriate without revealing too much of our privileged fetish for collapse — ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.’
Here Yeats is voicing a sentiment that has become deeply inseparable from the experience of modernity. Our idols are no longer fixed in sepulchral glory or sacred texts. Instead their fallibility is obvious as we witness them in intimate terms, alive and in a fluid state of realisation.
So perhaps the best always were a bit disappointing, tongue-tied and conflicted. Certainly our ability to create a seamless digital archive means that we no longer have the opportunity to ascribe them a Charlton Heston style zeal.
Despite this transparent fallibility at the top, this is still the age of the narcissist. We are passionately disposed to demand the gaze of others, over all other claims.
The societal pressure to be seen— not just in visual terms, but in deeply personal and moralistic ways too — demands a constant performance. Performances are dull if too introverted.
This is at the heart of our current predicament. We know that — from the dribbling internet troll, to the grimacing presidential contender — everyone is wearing a mask. As a result the only political currency that has immutable value is authenticity. Everyone is a performer, strutting their true common sense righteousness like exotic court dress. We must pretend that being true to the deeper self is our rare achievement, that we are the true possessor of that one seamless narrative. Knowing, all the while, the absurdity of demanding the truth at the circus.
On a more mundane level our anxiety is simply the result of media saturation. Bad news is always more visceral than good news. Media technologies amp up fears because this means higher ratings, clicks and retweets. Sadly, good news is notoriously slow burning — the news of a conflict itself will inevitably receive far greater attention than the long, hard (but equally significant) work of post-war reconstruction.
The realties that we create are therefore both more passive and more performed than ever before. Our sense of history and events is broader and deeper — taking in world events and a whole new concept of time. We forget all too easily that our concept of history as a non-cyclical forward march of mechanically clocked events is a very recent development.
The trade off for this greater consciousness, like any deal with gods, is that it comes with a hefty psychological burden. Saddled with this privilege our first task is not to to appropriate the raw emotion of tragedy or to ask to be looked at in our self-awareness of it. The second is to transcend that moment of self-indulgence and remember that no freedom has ever been won or protected without an attempt to transcend the individual and the personal.
Isn’t that crowd that you might have to lose yourself in terrifying (but also thrilling)? The concern to protect our precious self-identity from the mob may well be the real fear at the root of liberal anxiety
Society is less easy to govern, less predictable and less homogenous because it ceased to be acceptable to exclude a multitude of voices from the public realm. The nostalgia that many feel for simpler times free from political correctness is a nostalgia for a time when only homogenous chauvinist identity was valid.
This is the why the liberal apocalypse-voyeur is more fixated on Weimar Germany than the Nazis — many on both the left and right assume that decadence must presage a downfall.
The liberal centre’s fear of division is part of this attitude too — it’s a failure of belief in the multitude. Torn between the awful conclusions of late-capitalist orthodoxies and the freedoms they helped establish — they forget that gender, sexuality, race are deeply divisive categories. But they baulk at the idea of another culture war even as its debris comes crashing through their windows.
Our society is messy. It is decadent. Much of the anxiety and fear around fragmentation is actually premised on the reappearance of an old battle that cosmopolitan liberals thought they had won. They thought that the culture wars, like the class wars, had been conclusively decided. Perhaps they were only just getting started.